Name Checking: Who are the most famous people in history?

A few weeks ago on Deadspin (on Left Handers Day, of all things), writer Clover Hope asked, “Who Is The Most Famous Person Ever?”  To me, that’s a fairly nebulous question that requires some definition.

  • Are they known for their actions, works, or influences?
  • Were they famous in history and will remain in the future?
  • Is famous among living people important?
  • Are they known worldwide, even if their actions were not?
  • Do they have celebrity, or notoriety?

Working backwards, the last three are the easiest to answer.

To my mind, notoriety matters.  World famous opera singers and ballet dancers of the 19th century are long forgotten.  The only celebrities of the past who are still widely known are those whose works continue to influence others: composers and artists (e.g. Mozart, Picasso).  Today’s musicians and athletes are passing fancies.

They need to transcend society.  I don’t care how famous pop singers are or were (e.g. Michael Jackson), they only affect those who know them.  Even actors in movies that rake in a billion dollars have a limited shelf life – and none at all if the media ceases to exist.

Fame among the living also isn’t that important.  Aesop was reportedly a real person, and the life of Homer is questioned.  But both were unlikely to be famous in their time.  It was only as centuries passed and their stories handed down that people heard of their names.

The second question is where I question things because a person’s notoriety can change over time.  In his time, Martin Luther was infamous, the catholics wanted his head while the protestants celebrated him.  Five hundred years on, he’s a historical footnote.  If practical use of things like string theory, quantum mechanics or any other hard-to-grasp science becomes possible, the scientists who worked on them could become far more well known than they are.

Which bring me to the first, the only one that really makes a difference because actions, works and influences are what change the world and what people remember.  For better or worse, for good or bad, it’s those who are remembered for how they affect the world that are the most famous. Alexander Parkes and Leo Baekeland may not be household names to most, but if the world dies choking on plastic, people will be cursing their names.

I have two “most famous” lists, the “good or less than awful”:

  • Pythagoras of Samos
  • Socrates, Aristotle, and Plato
  • Cleopatra VII Philopator
  • Claudius Ptolemy
  • Charlemagne aka Charles I
  • Leonardo da Vinci
  • Nostradamus (*)
  • Nicolaus Copernicus
  • William Shakespeare
  • Isaac Newton
  • Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart
  • Ludwig van Beethoven
  • Albert Einstein

(* Michel de Nostredame is more noteworthy for his Black Plague cures and changing attitudes toward hygiene.)

And then there’s the reprehensible:

  • Alexander the warmonger (nothing “great” about that)
  • Julius Caesar
  • Genghis Khan
  • Lucrezia Borgia
  • Queen Victoria of England
  • Adolf Hitler

These lists are far from complete, primarily because of my limited knowledge, personal and cultural biases (too Euro-centric), and because of how women have been written out of history.  Any suggestions?


  1. cartomancer says

    Actually, Alexander was never called “the Great” in his lifetime. Or by any Greek. That was just a Roman epithet he was given by Latin writers much, much later on.

    But yes, the list is a bit Eurocentric (perhaps even Anglocentric, I’d say – why Newton, not Kepler? Why Shakespeare not Vergil? Why Victoria not Frederick Barbarossa? Why Mozart and Beethoven, not Bach and Wagner?). The first huge great glaring omission is Muhammad – the Islam one. He’s incredibly well known across huge swathes of the Middle East, and known almost everywhere else. I’d say nobody except perhaps Alexander is known more widely, in more cultures. Jesus too, perhaps, though his historicity is much more doubtful. Qin Shi Huang, the founder of China, as well as Confucius and Lao Tzu, are very well known across the far East. And there are the big Egyptian Pharaohs – Ramesses II perhaps most prominent among them.

  2. nomenexrecto says

    Marcus Aurelius?
    I think he could rank with some named here before.
    I admire much of his stoic philosophy, but when it comes it to his actions in real life he fails at something important: he chose his less than well-suited son to succeed him – something that was not done by his predecessors who famously adopted their heirs, though that was generally due to a lack of sons, if I remember correctly…)

  3. consciousness razor says

    I wouldn’t have put a lot of those near the top of my list. They’re all famous, but not really ultra-famous, worldwide, almost permanently, etc. And like you said, how big of an effect they’ve really had is not the same thing as what people (here/now) consider famous.

    Euclid is also a big-time mathematician, easily up there with Pythagoras. I’m actually inclined to put Euclid in the lead. The basic story for thousands of years is that you learned his version of geometry, his way, by reading his book (or a translation). The common assumption was that there couldn’t be another, or if you’re like Kant it’s an even stronger statement which I won’t try to articulate here. Fairly recently, we started putting the term “Euclidean” in front of what used to be known simply as “geometry,” because a relative handful of experts now worry about other geometries, which ordinary people still never think about. Again, I’m simplifying things a lot, but the point is that this is really big, as these things go.
    In contrast, most just know one theorem from Pythagoras, and maybe a few weird stories about his cult. That’s not so much. One story also goes that he got the ball rolling for “us” (white people, basically) on theories of harmony, although most never learn this, and it isn’t clear what Pythagoras himself actually did (other than “use math” which isn’t saying much). So his degree of influence in that respect is questionable.
    Out of your three other Greek philosophers, I guess Aristotle (AKA “the philosopher” who need not be named) has probably made the biggest real impact historically and worldwide, although of course they all have tons of name-recognition. Maybe he gets his own line in the list, while Plato/Socrates have to share one? And seriously, they do all have some awful. I’m not too comfortable with the idea that Plato (especially) is treated like one of the good “famous” guys, rather than one of the more “infamous” ones.
    Cleopatra, Ptolemy, Charlemagne, Nostradamus? Nope. Maybe if you’re a big fan of those bits of history, but otherwise, no … not really. Many others, especially religious figures like Jesus, Muhammad, Confucius, Laozi, Buddha, etc., should get spots near the top instead, at least as long as they’re considered “historical” enough, and I would not hesitate to drop somebody like Cleopatra.
    I don’t think you’ll hear Copernicus mentioned by many people, when asked for a famous scientist, or even more specifically one who’s important in classical physics or astronomy. I bet nearly all of those answers would be Galileo or Newton, first and foremost. And those are very fine-grained questions which prompt you about a specific class of famous person, in a given field, in a particular time period, etc. That’s not something very broad like “name the 10-20 most famous/influential people ever.” I bet almost nobody will say Copernicus in that case, although that would have been so for a larger number of people closer to his own place/time. (And those who are physicists or astronomers, for example. I guess atheists/skeptics may be a bit more interested too, but we’re definitely not a representative sample.)

    Why Mozart and Beethoven, not Bach and Wagner?

    I feel like those are pretty good choices, if any “classical” musicians should make the cut.
    And of course, your choices are obviously still Eurocentric and very much concentrated in relatively recent history. How about an earlier figure like Monteverdi, for example? Seriously huge influence, although he’s not widely known now. It’s kind of hard to overstate it. We might still be in the Renaissance, or I don’t know what…. For all I know, we might have gone back to living in caves by now, howling and banging rocks together. Okay, that is definitely overstating it. But he did make a big difference.
    Mozart? He’s no big deal, although you do know his name. He was a child prodigy and a fad. So, yes, he’s famous, at least in some times and places … but I strongly doubt historians (much less audiences) a few centuries from now will give him credit for having done anything very significant.
    Anyway, if you asked ordinary people in North America now (less sure about the UK or Europe), I think Mozart and Beethoven are the first “classical” composers they’d probably name. Most don’t actually listen to much (or any) of their work. So, their effect on later musicians is still there (whoever regular people are actually listening to), but that is of course more indirect. If you had asked either of them, they both would’ve told you about J.S. Bach, along with many others. I’d say Bach is probably in a very solid third place, if we’re playing basically by Family Feud rules and giving the most common answers (no matter how “right” we think they are).
    Wagner’s head was probably too far up his own ass for you to understand his responses, but he might have said something similar, even though he claimed to be making “music of the future” and so forth. Maybe I’m wrong, but it does seem like Wagner’s more popular in Europe than he is North America. At best, most only know the bridal chorus from Lohengrin, although they have no idea of its origins. After that comes the Tristan overture (and only that first part), if they “really know” their Wagner. If they are a particularly troubled individual, who should seek immediate help and be kept away from children and other small animals, they may even know large chunks of the Ring cycle or *nearly faints* make regular pilgrimages to Bayreuth.
    Anyway, a lot depends on who you ask.

  4. Rob Grigjanis says

    Do you really mean “most famous”, or “most noteworthy (for good or ill) in my opinion”?

    If we’re taking “most famous” seriously, and giving just one example, Pelé should be on any list, regardless of your opinion of soccer.

  5. brucegee1962 says

    Yay, arguing about lists like this among history buffs is always fun.

    I’m going to have to defend Queen Vickie on your infamous list. She came along long after British monarchs had become figureheads, and she didn’t do much personally to either encourage or discourage the racist imperial expansion that happened during her reign; also, I doubt she could have prevented it if she had tried. You might as well blame the chair she sat in or the ornament on her head. If you want someone on your list to act as a stand-in for racist imperialism, I’d say King Leopold of Belgium is a far better candidate — he affected fewer people than she did, but his own personal effect was far more malicious.

    Let’s see — George Will famously made a case for Thomas Jefferson, for whatever that’s worth. If you want someone responsible for the wave of independence and democratic movements in the 19th and 20th centuries, I suppose he’s as good a choice as anyone — with all the slavery baggage as part of the package, I suppose.

    Speaking of Jefferson, if you look at Jesus the way he did — a Greek-influenced philosopher who said a lot of pretty great stuff, but whose teachings then got distorted after his death by zealous followers — actually, there’s quite a lot of really good stuff attributed to him in the gospels. After all, part of the main reason Christianity spread so fast was that it was the first religion to come along that professed to care at all about the little guy. Sure lots of horrible stuff ended up being done in his name, but I’m not sure that’s his fault.

    For the music section of the debate — would peoples’ everyday lives really be all that different if music had evolved differently than it did? Let’s say Europe had never invented instrumental music at all, but just copied Chinese instrumental music when they came in contact — would anything else have changed? That’s a question for philosophers, I suppose. But also, in the long chain of influence, why privilege the folks farther up the chain, rather than the ones who invented the stuff we actually listen to? Why Mozart and Beethoven rather than, say, Robert Johnson or Charlie Parker or Chuck Barry or, heck, Elvis?

  6. consciousness razor says

    Let’s say Europe had never invented instrumental music at all, but just copied Chinese instrumental music when they came in contact — would anything else have changed?


    But also, in the long chain of influence, why privilege the folks farther up the chain, rather than the ones who invented the stuff we actually listen to? Why Mozart and Beethoven rather than, say, Robert Johnson or Charlie Parker or Chuck Barry or, heck, Elvis?

    It’s like saying Ford (or GM, Chrysler, etc.) invented the wheel. They should get credit for making things you use, but not for that, because that’s simply false. A person living in 2019 BC used wheels too, and they should count just as much as you do.
    That said, as I wrote above, I don’t think Mozart specifically should get credit for much. He just happens to be famous, with at least his name being familiar to many non-musicians around the world. That’s not the same as being innovative or whatever, because people merely recognizing your name is no guarantee of anything like that.
    We can say the same about people like Elvis, to use one of your examples. Some are still alive who knew Elvis personally, and many more are familiar with the music he performed (not composed). So I know his name and you do, and (I assume) we’ve both heard some of that music. That’s obviously very biased toward people who happen to be alive now (or were alive not long ago), and it tells you more than anything else about people like us, the ones who are making this judgment (more or less right now). It doesn’t say much about the big picture, or about what Elvis actually did.
    Did he make important or innovative contributions to music, which will continue to be so for a long time to come, no matter who you ask? No, he clearly did not. Yet he is still sort of famous according to some people right now — much less among younger generations I’m sure, as well as non-Anglophones.
    In contrast, Parker did play a more pivotal role in the development of 20th century music, although he’s not as well known currently, in part because the white population in the US is a majority. (I’m white, but I’m also a musician who studied/wrote/performed jazz and other forms of 20th century music, so I realize my perspective isn’t even remotely typical.) Anyway, that’s only reflecting the moment right now. In the long run, Parker will remain relevant, and Elvis won’t.

  7. says

    One thing about historical figures is that many of them wouldn’t seem believable if they didn’t do what they did. You’d expect the son of a king to do something notable. But an Austrian born, Bavarian army corporal and would be artist, who was killed in 1918? No way would he have become German dictator, and launch the second worldwide conflict in 25 years.

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