Heroes of History

Is it fair that some of my hero’s/heroines may not be entirely historical? I have written before about my attraction to individuals who made impacts coming from an isolated existence.

Temujin is a perfect example, his tribe nearly wiped out, living alone outside of the community, with only his mother able to help him. Eventually he challenged the leader of a small clan. He won, then he used those men to challenge a larger clan, he won. This repeated over and over, like a winning streak at a roulette table, Temujin became a man of importance and the tribes renamed him Genghis Khan.

My personal favorite is Harald Hardrada. His life story sounds like an action movie. Wounded at age fifteen when there was a battle for the Norwegian crown, and the victor tried to kill all the remaining contenders. Harald escaped to Kiev, ended up in Constanople, fighting for the Emperor, grew rich. Harald then used his wealth to return to Norway to take back the crown. At the age of fifty he set his eyes on the crown of England, and died trying to take it. His defeat ended the Viking Age. He also managed to kill 2/3rds of the English army, which made it much better for William the Bastard, to become William the Conqueror at Hastings two weeks later. The world changed because of the life and death of Harald Hardrada.

There was a time that was called the Dark Ages, only because there wasn’t much written that survived, plus this was before great strides were made in all forms of human effort. A driving force at the turn of the millennia was Hildegard von Bingen, 1098-1179. Many scholars believe that her intelligence, and grasp of new possibilities far exceeded anyone on earth, even to include Einstein and Hawking. She was given to the Church at a young age, but it did not hide her talents.

She wrote music that is still played, she wrote and illustrated a botanical encyclopedia, she was a healer, an adviser to kings and emperors, she was the first woman to begin and run an abbey. She was also a pioneer in math, and was one of the first to popularize the Arabic numeral system. Imagine trying to do trigonometry with Roman numerals. The world was different because of Hildegard.

I can think of dozens of individuals that just made one difference, but we don’t know where, or what their name might have been. The first person who made fire, and was able to teach others. The first person to tie reeds together to make a craft for the water. The first person to attach a keel to their round bottomed boats, for better directional stability. The first person that harnessed the wind with woven material acting as a sail. The first person that made standardized marks that became a written language, the first person that turned a chant of grunts into music and found instruments to accompany the song.

The list of first is truly endless if you think about it. We also look to individuals that took on leadership responsibilities, to protect the people and begin to create culture and civilization. This is a hard category became with power comes so many abuses. I do have my favorites however.

I’m very fond of two Romans who had absolute power, and when they were done, they retired and went back to their farms. Cincinnatus, or Lucius Quinctius Cincinnatus, was a Roman statesman, 517-430 BC, who accepted the role of Dictator offered by the Senate in a time of crisis. He solved the problem, then resigned. Another problem occurred and he did the same thing, he did not profit from ultimate power.

The other Roman was Lucius Cornelius Sulla Felix, or commonly known as Sulla. He was not a better person than Cincinnatus, but he was offered the Dictatorship. The difference was that he decided later to seize it on his own. It was the first time that a general used his army to seize ultimate power. He was brutal in enforcing his reforms. Yet, he fulfilled his promise and gave up power to retire to his villa. Roman historians were not kind in retelling how he spent his retirement. Later historians said that Sulla provided the model for future military takeovers.

His rival, Gnaeus Papirius Carbo, described Sulla as having the cunning of a fox and the courage of a lion – but that it was the former attribute that was by far the most dangerous. This mixture was later referred to by Machiavelli in his description of the ideal characteristics of a ruler.

He wrote his own epitaph carved on his tomb, “No friend ever served me, and no enemy ever wronged me, whom I have not repaid in full.” This was also his personal motto, “no better friend, no worse enemy.” Maybe I like him because he might be a relative.

By far, my personal favorite king/leader is Chandragupta Maurya, the founder of the Mauryan Dynasty in India, 321–297 BC. Alexander the Great was taught by the philosopher Aristotle, he conquered much of the world until he invaded India. He found the Nanda Empire too strong, his men rebelled, and Alexander turned around, leaving a few satraps in charge.

Chandragupta was also trained by a philosopher named Chanakya, he conquered the Nanda Empire and beat the Macedonian Satraps that Alexander had left behind. His rule was amazing and changed the Indian sub-continent forever. He truly was in same category as Alexander, and Charlemagne, yet most people in the West barely know of him. What I find fascinating is that at the end of his reign, he gave it all up, and became a monk. He also repented of all the violence that occurred while he was building the Empire, and eventually became an ascetic, stopped eating, and died.

The man is worth studying.

About johndiestler

Retired community college professor of graphic design, multimedia and photography, and chair of the fine arts and media department.
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