History to Historical Figures: A PPFA Top Five

(Do you like history? Then you’ll love my book! Maybe. I can’t make any promises. Anyway, the book ranks the 30 most influential figures in the history of Western civilization. Interesting, right? Buy it today!)

I’ve long been fascinated by a certain historical calculation: how have certain historical figures viewed the distance between themselves and even older historical figures? In other words, how old would some historical events and people look to later people of history? And what would be the equivalent today? Would we be surprised by how recent something or someone was, or might we be impressed with how ancient that something or someone appeared to our chosen historical figure?

As an example, let’s pick someone random in history, like the 28th most influential figure in Western history, Nicolas Copernicus (1473-1543). On the one hand, he would view, say, the First Crusade (late 1090s) as something very old — four hundred years before he was a teenager. That’s kind of how we place an event that happened around 1620, like the Plymouth Pilgrims eating at their first Thanksgiving. So, consider: do the Crusades feel surprisingly recent or surprisingly old compared to Copernicus?

That’s only half the fun. The other half is to find surprising contemporaries of these historical figures. Would it blow your mind if I told you Copernicus was 19 when Columbus first sailed across the Atlantic? He would have heard and surely reacted to that news that we normally never associate with the famed astronomer.

Get it? I hope so, because I’m plowing ahead with five of the most interesting examples I can think of.

5. Joan of Arc (1412-1431) — The 27th most influential figure in Western history, Joan of Arc did not live long, nor did she receive an education. If she had, perhaps she would have read about another famous and slightly more influential French(ish) figure of the Middle Ages: Charlemagne. These medieval names should trigger in our minds the historical setting of castles and knights, kings and lords. And yet, to Joan of Arc, Charlemagne (742-814) had already been dead for six hundred years. What an offensive pairing they would think that is. To us, that would be like people in the future lumping us in with something from six centuries earlier — you know, like Joan of Arc.

Ah, but what of a surprising contemporary? In the same decade of Joan of Arc’s death, Johannes Gutenberg (1400-1468) developed the West’s first printing press. In my mind, I consider Joan a medieval figure and Gutenberg a modern one, but perhaps the West’s first printer monitored Joan’s exploits in the Hundred Years’ War.

4. Jesus of Nazareth (c. 4 BC – c. AD 30) — An even more influential figure (whose specific ranking has yet to be revealed), Jesus was a devout Jew of the early Roman Empire, but he also taught a worldview that became the model for Christianity. Many of his ideas were not new; indeed, they frequently aligned with the inspirations for most eastern philosophies: Confucius and the Buddha. They made their mark around five centuries earlier (or 500 years Before Christ, as it were). How old was that to Jesus? As old as the Protestant Reformation is to us. Yeah — pretty old.

As for the prophets his religion revered? Lest anyone think all the big names of the Bible were contemporaries, we should remind ourselves that Moses, though his historicity is questioned, lived 1500 years earlier than Christianity’s lord and savior — as early to Jesus as the fall of Rome is to us. Abraham has been theorized to have lived about five centuries before that — as early to Jesus as Jesus is to us. That’s a surprising amount of time, isn’t it?

As for the contemporary part of it, when Jesus was born, Augustus Caesar reigned as Rome’s first emperor. When Jesus was a moody teenager, he would have heard the news of Augustus’s death. The date was the 19th of August, a month named after the Emperor, in the 14th Year of a Lord he never heard of.

3. Cleopatra — Jesus was born a generation after Cleopatra‘s death (69 BC – 30 BC). When we think of Cleopatra, we picture ancient Egypt. When we picture ancient Egypt, we imagine pharaohs, the Nile, and pyramid construction. We know this is all very old.

Would you be surprised to know that most pyramids were built during Egypt’s Old Kingdom, which lasted from about 2700 BC to 2200 BC? The most famous pyramid — the Great Pyramid of Giza, built for Pharaoh Khufu — dates to the early 2500s BC. At Cleopatra’s birth, the Great Pyramid had been around for over 2400 years. Khufu and his pyramid were more ancient to Cleopatra than Cleopatra is to us.

History, man. History.

2. Any of America’s founding fathers — Perhaps greater than the American colonists’ complaint of Britain’s “taxation without representation” was that, more broadly, the colonists were not afforded the rights of British citizens. They very much felt part of the British Empire and were loyal to the Crown, yet in the years leading up to the revolution they were frequently barred from standard English rights, like juries of their peers, economic freedom, not being expected to board soldiers, and, yes, representation in Parliament. Just how old were these English rights that they considered as permanent and guaranteed as the air they breathed? The answers help explain why these British citizens were so attached to their rights and so apoplectic that anyone would take them away.

The English Bill of Rights, for example, codified freedom of speech, petitioning the government, and protection from cruel and unusual punishment. It was written in 1689, 86 years before the Continental Congress signed 1776’s famous Declaration of Independence. The most senior signer of the Declaration, Benjamin Franklin, was 70 years old at its signing. Therefore, all the founding fathers lived their entire existence as citizens who grew up expecting these rights.

Sixty years before the English Bill of Rights was the Petition of Right presented to King Charles I. Among the rights it guaranteed the king’s subjects were representation before taxation, not being forced to house soldiers, and the right of habeas corpus. That document was 150 years old to America’s founders, which is one and a half times older than woman’s suffrage is to us today. Imagine trying to roll back women’s suffrage now?

Older still is the cherished Magna Carta of 1215. Its rights for various Englishmen were practically short-lived but permanently enshrined in the minds of British citizens who sought protection from King John’s unfair governance. To the Americans at Philadelphia in the Summer of 1776, that document’s ideals were over five-and-a-half centuries old, as old to them as the Eastern Roman Empire‘s fall to the Ottoman Turks is to us.

These founding fathers also had their fair share of cool contemporaries. Alexander Hamilton (b. 1755?), though only 21 years old and not a part of the Declaration, was born one year before a fellow genius across the Atlantic: Mozart. George Washington (b. 1732) was born a month before another Austrian composer, Joseph Haydn. Franklin was friends and pen pals with Voltaire (the 22nd most influential figure in Western history), who in turn was friends and pen pals with Frederick the Great, King of Prussia. Those are three men few would think to place at the same time, to say nothing of in a friendly relationship.

1. You and your ancestors — Okay, time to hold up a mirror. The following works best for those who, like me, are 35 years old or close to it. (Still, all of the following can be adjusted based on your age, and it assumes a U.S. lineage on at least one side of your family with an average of 30 years per generation. That can also be adjusted.)

Imagine your grandparents at 35. (I know — impossible.) If we assume your parents had you at 30 and their parents had them at 30, that gives us the year 1958 for when your grandparents were 35. To them, World War II ended only 13 years earlier. Man had not yet been to space. JFK was still just a Senator, Ronald Reagan just an actor.

Now imagine their grandparents (your great-great-grandparents). With the same calculations, their grandparents were your age in 1898. They didn’t know an airplane was possible. They were 22 when Doc and Marty arrived in the Old West. They were 13 at the country’s centennial celebration. Their fathers may have fought in the Civil War. If lucky, they might have seen Edison‘s light bulb or an automobile during a trip to the city. Perhaps they’ve heard a radio transmit sound. They can clearly remember Ulysses S. Grant. And that’s just your grandparent’s grandparents! Your grandparents might have had a relationship with this person whose father fought in the Civil War.

Now imagine their grandparents. These people that your grandparents remember talking to had grandparents who were 35 in 1838. They were in their 20s during President Jackson’s administration. They were 21 when John Adams and Thomas Jefferson died on the 50th anniversary of the Declaration of Independence. In fact, they were born in the year President Jefferson (the 24th most influential figure in Western history) agreed to purchase Louisiana. Their parents remember the American Revolutionary War.

And their grandparents? Thirty-five in 1778, they remember when America was just a bunch of colonies and may well have participated in the war. They also may have participated in the selection of the Continental Congress that became our founding fathers who insisted on rights for your grandparent’s grandparent’s grandparent’s grandparents.

Sometimes, history isn’t as old as you think.

If you like lists like this one, here’s a list of lists:


4 thoughts on “History to Historical Figures: A PPFA Top Five”

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