Good & Evil: The 10 Most Powerful People in History
Power can manifest itself in numerous forms. Men and women can wield great power and influence as a means for good or evil—as a means for changing the world for the better or plunging it into despair and chaos. As we’ll see in the following ten portraits of some of history’s most powerful people, power should never be taken lightly.
Adolf Hitler, perhaps one of the most notoriously evil characters in history, once offered some advice: “Demoralize the enemy from within by surprise, terror, sabotage, assassination. This is the war of the future.” Hitler clearly took his own advice to heart between 1933 and 1945, during which time he presided over Germany as both Chancellor and leader of the Nazi Party. During this period, Hitler was almost single-handedly responsible for a series of illegal invasions (most notably the invasion of Poland, which officially sparked the beginning of World War II), military buildups, and the Holocaust, which focused primarily on the complete and total extermination of Europe’s Jewish population.
Although Hitler’s rage and thirst for war was driven by numerous factors, it was his blind hatred of Jews that fueled his actions the most. Hitler blamed the Jewish population on practically all of Germany’s social and economic problems, as well as Germany’s defeat in World War I. He therefore gained power by convincing the German people that the Jews were at fault for Germany’s woes, and then used his newfound power to bring the world to the brink of disaster.
ALEXANDER THE GREAT
King of the mighty Macedon kingdom at the humble age of 20, Alexander the Great was one of the most influential and powerful military leaders of all time. He created and ruled one of the largest empires in history, with boundaries stretching all the way from Egypt and Greece in the west to India in the east. Due to his incredible skills as a military leader, it was not uncommon for his enemies to simply surrender on the spot without putting up a fight—knowing that resistance to Alexander and his mighty army was futile.
Although Alexander was indeed ruthless, he was known to use his power for good. He is widely credited with implementing a series of changes that led to widespread cultural diffusion (most notably the spread of Hellenistic culture throughout his domain), and with founding roughly twenty cities that were hotbeds of innovation.
It therefore comes as no surprise, given Alexander’s brilliance and lasting influence, that he was tutored by the famed philosopher Aristotle—one of the few other figures in history who can claim rank among Alexander the Great.
Reigning as Holy Roman Emperor from 1765 to 1790, Joseph II was both incredibly powerful and wildly ahead of his time. Although technically a despot, he was the epitome of the enlightened despot, and used his power to fight vigorously for what were at the time radically progressive social and political reforms. He worked hard to abolish slavery, extend basic legal rights to serfs, and pushed for freedom of speech everywhere in his domain.
Knowing the importance of education and its relation to personal freedom and liberty, Joseph II made elementary education mandatory, and even provided scholarships for poor children, while establishing schools for religious and persecuted minorities.
Although Joseph II is perhaps most known for using his power to enact social change, he also was an unstoppable and enthusiastic patron of the arts. He pushed feverishly to commission new works of theatre, and was known by many as the “Musical King” due to his passion for German music—commissioning works from both Mozart and Beethoven, among others.
Unfortunately for Joseph II, his radical views proved too controversial for many under his rule, and he ruffled the feathers of the nobility who wished for nothing more than to return to their status quo of oppression. Subsequently, Joseph II’s later rule was plagued by a series of rebellions that made it difficult to implement some of his most ambitious reforms.
QIN SHI HUANG
Sometimes absolute rule and ruthless dominance can lead to positive change, as was the case for Qin Shi Huang, when he successfully conquered the numerous warring states that were vying for power in China—successfully unifying the entire region in 221 BC. After the unification, Qin Shi Huang used his power to implement a series of reforms that eased animosity between the once-warring factions.
Forgoing the standard title of “King”, Qin Shi Huang appointed himself “Emperor”—a title he felt would further aid in his quest to form a coherent and unified China, and one that would apply to Chinese rulers for the next two thousand years.
Perhaps the greatest and most recognizable symbol of Qin Shi Huang’s rule was the construction of the Great Wall, which was ordered under his command and accompanied a massive new system of roads, which connected numerous cities and helped cultural diffusion take place throughout the newly minted empire.
Much of Qin Shi Huang’s power was born from necessity. At a time when China was constantly plagued by both domestic infighting and foreign invasions, it was imperative for a leader to rule with an iron fist.
“If you must break the law, do it to seize power: in all other cases observe it,” Julius Caesar is known to have said. A man true to his own words, Caesar is believed to be one of the most powerful, ruthless, and innovative leaders in history. Aware of the potentially detrimental effects of claiming to be “king”, he insisted on being named “First Citizen”, to create at least the illusion of standing with the common people of the Roman Empire, which was officially created upon his ascent to power and effectively ended the Roman Republic.
As a military general, Caesar was responsible for a massive expansion of Roman territory—bringing the borders of the Empire north all the way to the English Channel and the Rhine River. This expansion gave Caesar unprecedented military power and eventually led to his famed crossing of the Rubicon, which in turn led to a brutal civil war that he quickly crushed with commanding strength. This decisive suppression of the last of his military rivals consolidated his power and led to his immediate control of the Roman government.
Although Caesar used populism to appeal to the masses, he was doubtlessly a dictator in all senses of the word, whose firm grasp on practically all elements of life in the Roman Empire made it possible for him to enact a wide variety of reforms, such as the creation of the Julian calendar, the taking of a Empire-wide census, and the restriction of luxurious purchases by citizens. He also established the first major police force in Rome and applied term limits to governors.
Due to the sweeping nature of Caesar’s power, it’s no wonder why future despots such as Napoleon and Mussolini have credited him as an inspiration.
As one of the most famous and inspiring proponents of peace in history, Mahatma Gandhi wielded and exercised his power in a fashion very much at odds with most of the other characters on this list.
As leader of the Indian Independence movement during a time when India was under strict British economic and political control, Gandhi used his now-famed method of nonviolent civil disobedience to pressure the British into lifting their power-hold, which served as inspiration for future defenders of civil rights such as Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., and gave him the unofficial title of “Father of the Nation”.
One of his most famous shows of power came from leading his fellow Indians in protest against a British salt tax, which was viewed as being highly unfair given the lack of native Indian participation in government. Gandhi’s primary philosophy regarding this protest—and indeed surrounding his entire life—was that without the cooperation of the Indian people when it came to these despotic British policies, such policies would ultimately fail—giving the people of India a surprising amount of power and leverage over their oppressors.
Gandhi’s actions, although non-violent, led to him being ridiculed, imprisoned, and eventually assassinated. However, Gandhi’s massive influence on both India and the world shows just how powerful humans can be, even if they choose peace over the sword.
PETER THE GREAT
Russia’s history is riddled with despotic, cruel, and shameful rulers; many of whom were known as “Tsars” (a title birthed from the fourth man on this list: Julius Caesar). Peter the Great, although technically a despot, was the first Russian Tsar to implement a wide series of social and political changes that made him far more enlightened and forward thinking than his predecessors.
Peter the Great’s primary goal was to modernize Russia—to force the isolated and oftentimes “backwards” empire to follow more in the footsteps of western Europe, which was clearly beginning to reap the economic and social advantages of modernity.
Russian Tsars were cloaked with immense power, and Peter took advantage of this. He used his influence to reduce the power of the “Boyars”—Russia’s nobility, who were heavily opposed to modern, European influence—by taxing them heavily, including implementing a tax on beards (which drove many beard-loving Boyars mad with rage). He borrowed from the Swedish system of giving individual provinces more autonomy, which he hoped would lead to more innovation, and forced many skeptical members of his court to educate themselves on modern medical techniques.
QUEEN ELIZABETH I
Known as the “Virgin Queen,” because of her self-reliance and unprecedented ability to rule independently without the help of a king, Queen Elizabeth of Ireland and England set a new standard for female rulers throughout Europe, and re-shaped the way women were perceived not only in positions of power, but in society as well.
Although Elizabeth was born into immense power as the daughter of Henry VIII, and went on to hold the most powerful position in England as Queen, she wielded her power with great poise and grace—relying heavily on the advice of experienced and thoughtful counselors before making important decisions, which is something that cannot be said for most of the rulers during this time.
Although Elizabeth had a reputation for being short-tempered, she was famously more tolerant of religious and social minorities than her predecessors, and made a point of being relatively lenient towards those who challenged her authority. She stood up to, and successfully defeated the Spanish Armada, and put down multiple uprisings in Ireland, which in part led to Pope Sixtus V’s famed observation that “She is only a woman, only mistress of half an island, and yet she makes herself feared by Spain, by France, by the Empire, by all.”
Napoleon is best known for his almost obsessive quest for the unchecked dominance of Europe, and rightly so. As a French military leader who came to power from the rubble of the French Revolution as Emperor of France in 1804, his military campaigns were swift, decisive, and ruthless—making Napoleon one of the most respected and feared military leaders and rulers of all time. He also, however, falls under the category of an “enlightened despot,” in the sense that he was in many ways extraordinarily tolerant of the social and religious institutions of those he conquered.
One of the greatest examples of Napoleon’s far-reaching power and enlightened despotism was his famed Napoleonic Code, which he established almost immediately after seizing power, and which did away with birthright privileges that for so long had made societal advancement nearly impossible for the lower classes. Inspired by the ideals of the French Revolution, this code allowed for freedom of religion, and advocated for meritocracies as opposed oligarchy and aristocracy. The themes expressed in this document even spread to countries outside of Napoleon’s rule, most notably in the Middle East.
As the President of the United States and leader of the Union Army during the American Civil War, Abraham Lincoln is widely viewed as being one of the greatest Presidents in American history. His superb leadership and execution of power and strength during America’s most turbulent time has made him a figure of inspiration and awe long after his death.
Although Lincoln’s top priority was the preservation of the Union, he was personally opposed to the institution of slavery, and saw it as one of life’s most abhorrent evils. This, among other more practical matters, led Lincoln to issue the famed Emancipation Proclamation, which undermined the South’s position by legally freeing all slaves on January 1st, 1863. Even though this document had an enormous impact on the war, Lincoln knew as well as anyone that it was merely a war measure—an executive order issued by a Commander in Chief—and therefore Lincoln skillfully used his power in another way: to push for the passage of the Thirteenth Amendment, which officially and permanently put an end to slavery in the United States.
Whether through Hitler’s dark obsession with world domination and the extermination of an entire race, or through Gandhi’s devotion to peaceful protest, it is clear that history is filled with men and women who have almost single-handedly changed the course of human events by utilizing their vast power. It is up to us to ensure that those who hold great amounts of power in the future use this ability in ways that lead to positive change, and not crippling destruction.