A Brief History
On May 27, 1703, Czar Peter the Great founded St. Petersburg, Russia. At 6 feet 8 inches his height alone made him “great,” but of course there were other reasons. Over the years a variety of people have been called “The Great,” “The Greatest,” or “The Great One,” and here we list 10 of them that really are great. (Note: The Great Gatsby is not a real person, just a character from a book. Jackie Gleason, comedian, composer, television pioneer was known as “The Great One.”)
10. Muhammad “The Greatest” Ali.
This former Olympic and professional boxing champion is the one that named himself “The Greatest” which kind of diminishes the title. Plus, it is debatable if the claim is true. Joe Louis was champ longer, Rocky Marciano retired undefeated, and the Klitschko brothers are so incredibly competent (currently both hold all the heavyweight champion titles between them) a case could be made that they would beat Ali when he and they were in their prime. Still, Ali was good enough to make this list.
9. Wayne “The Great One” Gretzky.
Simply the best hockey player of all time with no real challenger for the title. Among athletes only Jim Brown, Babe Ruth, and Wilt Chamberlain had the kind of dominance displayed by Gretzky. The amazing thing about Gretzky is that he was not particularly big and strong or especially fast, just exceptionally good at scoring goals and feeding the puck to teammates.
8. Catherine “The Great” of Russia.
The most famous and longest reigning of Russia’s female leaders (Empress or Czarina), Catherine’s reign was called “The Golden Age of Russia.” Born in Prussia as Sophie Friederike Auguste von Anhalt-Zerbst-Dornburg, she came to power by having her husband, Czar Peter III, assassinated. Under her leadership, Russia prospered and became more powerful than ever before, conquering more land and building new cities all over her country. She was also somewhat of a member of the Enlightenment, and corresponded with the philosopher Voltaire. (Note: So did Frederick the Great.) Ruling from 1762 until her death in 1796 of a stroke, Catherine was probably the greatest Russian leader after Peter the Great. Cracked fact: The American naval hero, John Paul Jones, served under Catherine in 1788 against the Turks.
7. Charlemagne “Charles The Great” France and HRE.
Charles I of France, King of the Franks, King of Italy, and Emperor of the Holy Roman Empire, Charles founded what is known as the Carolingian Empire. Son of Pepin The Short, Charles was also called The Father of Europe (Pater Europae), as his conquests united large parts of Europe for the first time. A Christian, Charles converted large areas to Christianity and invaded Muslim Spain. He died in his capital city of Aachen in 814 of pleurisy, having been emperor since 800 (although he was already king since 768). Charles was canonized a saint by the Antipope in 1166 and was later confirmed by Pope Benedict XIV. His feast day is January 28.
6. Cyrus “The Great” of Persia.
Cyrus founded the Persian Empire between 559 and 530 BCE, which at the time was the largest empire in the world. Like Alexander after him, Cyrus respected the traditions of conquered people and incorporated them into his empire rather than just enslaving them. He is also the first major king of ancient times known to have cared about human rights.
5. Frederick II “The Great” of Prussia.
Frederick ruled Prussia from 1740 to 1786, a long enough reign to make a serious impact on the history of Prussia (Germany). Renowned for his military abilities, under his leadership Prussia defeated Poland, and came out on top of the 7 Years War. (Prussia and England allied against France, Austria, Russia, Sweden and parts of Germany.) Frederick oversaw the emergence of Prussia as a European power and he made some progressive reforms, such as allowing commoners the chance to serve in roles formerly only staffed by nobility (such as judges and government bureaucrats). Considered by many to be a tactical genius, Frederick was also personally quite brave, leading troops from the front as evidenced by having 6 horses shot out from under him in battle. No less an authority than Napoleon Bonaparte considered him the premier military mind in history. Frederick was rumored in his time to have been homosexual and historical evidence would lead one to that conclusion. The other side of his sexuality is presented by his physician who claimed Frederick’s genitalia were mutilated by surgery for a venereal disease and the homosexual rumors were a cover story to explain his avoidance of female company.
4. Genghis Khan “Great Khan” of Mongolia.
If you are in charge when you capture the largest empire in human history, you deserve to be called “great.” How great was Genghis? John Wayne, greatest leading man actor of all time played him in the 1956 movie The Conqueror. (Omar Sharif played him in the 1965 film, Genghis Khan.) One amazing aspect of Genghis Khan’s reign is that it only lasted 21 years, from 1206 to 1227. His empire stretched from China to central Europe to the middle east. Because of his great conquering skills, Mongol blood flows today in a large part of the world’s population. Cracked fact: No one knows today what Genghis Khan died of, with rumors ranging from illness, hunting accident, war wounds, and falling from his horse.
3. Ramesses II “The Great” of Egypt.
Also known as Ramses II, he reigned from 1279-1213 BCE. Acknowledged as the greatest of the pharaohs, Ramesses II was referred to by his descendants as their “Great Ancestor.” His reign was marked by building of cities and temples and successful wars on land and sea. Ramesses lived to about the age of 90, extraordinary for that time, believed to have been suffering from dental problems and arthritis toward the end.
2. Czar Peter “The Great” of Russia.
Ruling Czarist Russia from 1682 to 1725 Peter greatly increased Russia’s territory and power. Going abroad to study shipbuilding and architecture, Peter used this knowledge to build up and modernize Russia’s navy and to design and build his new city, St. Petersburg. In spite of having to jockey for position and power with his own brother, mother, and half-sister, Peter managed to guide Russia to some modern reforms and prosperity. Along the way, his own son was jailed for plotting to seize the throne and died in jail.
1. Alexander III “The Great“ of Macedonia.
Frequently referred to as the greatest military leader of all time, Alexander never lost a major battle on his way to conquering North Africa and the Persian Empire. Authorities such as Hannibal, Julius Caesar, and Napoleon Bonaparte considered Alexander the greatest general and drew their inspiration from him. He was played by Richard Burton (1956) and Colin Farrell (2004) in major movies about him.
Question for students (and subscribers): As always, feel free to tell us who you would add to this list in the comments section below this article.
Your readership is much appreciated!
For more information, please see…
Hughes, Lindsey. Peter the Great: A Biography. Yale University Press, 2004.
Massie, Robert K. Peter the Great: His Life and World. Random House Trade Paperbacks, 1981.