So here’s my list of my Top 5 Underknown Historical Figures, people I think are awesome, but most people don’t know about. They’re certainly not the most obscure people in the world, but I’d be greatly surprised if your average person had heard of them.
- Agathocles I first found out about Agathocles thanks to The Prince, and he ended up being the basis of my class’s term paper, before moving on to being the focus on my master’s thesis. He was born the son of a potter, and died a king. He became a military leader, and made a deal with the Carthaginians, enemies of Syracuse, to get himself into the city after being exiled. Once established inside, he killed off the entire senate and took control as tyrant, cancelling debts and distributing land to the people. When Carthage besieged Syracuse, he took an army across the sea to Carthage and attacked them at home, forcing them to call off the siege and saving the city. He has the brutally pragmatic logic that I love, once sending his own son to a commander with a weakness for handsome boys in order to distract him long enough to betray him. He also just wiped out the city’s aristocracy and favored the people, and judging from the rest of his life, he just really hated leaders who weren’t himself. He took care of his citizens, risking his own army and life in order to protect their crops, even. If I ever write historical fiction, it’ll probably be based on Agathocles.
- Agesilaus One of the great kings of Sparta. Decades before Alexander the Great, he invaded the Persian Empire, winning victory after victory, but had to be recalled due to dissension in Greece. Had it not been for that, it’s possible that the Persian Empire would have fallen much earlier to Hellenic armies, although it’s hard to imagine what the long-term results would have been, such Spartan imperial governors were less than competent, usually, and the enterprise most likely would have collapsed quickly. Unfortunately, he’s perhaps best remembered for making war on Thebes so often that they learnt how to defeat the Spartans, and the hegemony of Greece passed from Sparta to Thebes, where it rested briefly before passing once again to Macedonia. Also, like most Spartans, he was one hilariously sarcastic bastard. I love reading Plutarch’s Sayings of Spartans. I think my favorite one by Agesilaus is this:
At another time the Thasians, because of a feeling that they had been greatly befriended by him, honored him with temples and deifications, and also sent an embassy to inform him of their action. When he had read the honours which the ambassadors proffered to him, he asked if their country had the power to deify men; and when they answered in the affirmative, he said, “Go to; make gods of yourselves first, and if you can accomplish this, then will I believe that you will be able to make a god of me also.
- Cyrus the Great You might know him from the Bible, where he destroys the Median Empire and allows the Jews to return to Israel. He’s also the founder of the Persian Empire, whose imperial memes spread to the Greeks and Romans, and from there, to pretty much every other Western imperial power. He was a brilliant commander, although a tad too overeager, and he lost his life in battle while over-extending himself. When he had to attack Babylon, the walls were impenetrable, so he withdrew, and diverted the river leading into the city until the water level had lowered enough that his men could walk under the walls. The city’s inhabitants, believing the Persians had abandoned their attempt, were celebrating, and caught unaware. He used trickery often against his foes, using camels to frighten superior enemy cavalry, and attacking in the off season to catch his foe off his guard. The empire he began was the largest in the Ancient World. He was eventually killed in battle against Tomyris, queen of the Massagetae, who had his severed head placed in a wine-skin of blood, to mock his blood-lust that had led to the death of her son. One of my favorite parts of Cyrus’s story, although probably untrue, is that after he defeated Croesus, he kept him around as an advisor until after he died. (There’s more to the story than that, but I might make that its own post later, because it’s interesting.)
- Roger Williams Finally, somebody not from classical history. I’ve talked about him before, of course, but he deserves an entry here anyway. If you want to learn more about him, just click that link above. Roger Williams founded Rhode Island after being kicked out of Massachusetts for questioning their theocracy. Fun fact: the Pilgrims and Puritans did not come to America for religious freedom for anyone but themselves. Roger Williams actually did found a colony with freedom of religion and separation of church and state, and was hated by the rest of New England for it. He learnt the Native Americans’ language and refused to try to convert them. He served as a negotiator and hostage between the English and Native Americans. Even near the end of his life, he rowed from Providence to Newport to have a debate against the Quakers, whom he strongly disliked. He’s my absolute favorite person in history.
- Pyrrhus of Epirus Yeah, back to the classics. Pyrrhus was Alexander the Great’s cousin, and was rated by Hannibal himself as history’s second greatest commander. He was also unlucky, as the fact that the expression “pyrrhic victory” comes from him might indicate. He had an unmatched ability to watch his conquests melt away like butter under a blowtorch. He spent his life fighting to gain an empire he could win but never keep, while his advisor Cineas tried to persuade him to simply be happy with what he had. His life is a pretty excellent tragedy, and it ended with him being killed by an old woman throwing a roofing tile onto his skull.