10 Absurdly Famous People You Probably Don’t Know Enough About

The memory is from 14 years ago, but it stings like it was yesterday.

“I think he’s a famous old actor,” I said, during a game I play with friends where you have to get your team to say a name you’re reading on a slip of paper that they can’t see.

“Humphrey Bogart!” one person yelled out.

“Charlie Chaplin. Marlon Brando!” another hollered.

My heart sank as I looked at the words “Henry Kissinger” written on the paper I was holding. I was in a “I somehow don’t know who this incredibly famous person is and I’m about to be horribly exposed for it” situation. There’s no feeling quite like it.

But wipe that fucking grin off your face, because here’s the thing about famous historical people—there are a lot of them. And you learn about these people in a variety of ways—school, parents, books, articles, movies, etc.—but the system isn’t airtight. Throughout your life, you fill in more and more of the gaps, but no matter who you are, you have some embarrassing gaps somewhere. I can sum it up like this:

Danger Zone

There are some names in everyone’s Danger Zone. Beware the Danger Zone. To break it down further, here’s where you can fall when it comes to a famous name:


Zone 1 is by far the most dangerous, and as you get older, there are fewer and fewer big names there (I was 18 during the Kissinger Catastrophe—18-year-olds tend to have a lot of big names in Zone 1). But most people reach full adulthood with a still-crowded Zone 2, and names that are referenced all the time should ideally not be in Zone 2.

Today, we’re going to focus on a 10 absurdly famous, almost mythic people (much more famous than Kissinger) who are yet in a lot of people’s Zone 2 (and maybe even a few in Zone 1)—when you finish the post, they should all be in your (and my) Zone 3, and you’ll be safe. I got to this list by surveying friends and readers about which huge names they were ashamed to know very little about, and these are some names that came up again and again.

As you read, you’ll come across some that are already in your Zone 3 or 4, and you’ll be surprised they’re even on the list. But remember, everyone’s different life experience leaves them with their own unique set of gaps—where you have gaps is typically a random crapshoot—and some of the names you know very little about will seem totally obvious to someone else. Let’s get going—

Alexander the Great

Alexander the Great

Lived: 356 – 323 BC

In 11 words: Strapping man’s man world conqueror who greatly expanded Greek civilization

His main thing: When Alexander was 20, his father, King Philip II of the ancient kingdom of Macedon, was assassinated by one of his bodyguards. Philip II had had military ambitions to expand his kingdom into Persia, and Alexander inherited an army ready for battle. But no one had any idea what this kid’s deal was—turns out power had just been handed to one of the most prolific conquerors in history. For the next 12 years, Alexander would accomplish his father’s ambitions and go far beyond—into Egypt and as far East as present-day Pakistan. The crazy thing is he was just getting started—his stated expansion goal was “the ends of the world and the Great Outer Sea”, and he was well on his way (he made a push towards India, and his next plans were to take the Arabian Peninsula) when he died of some sickness (or possible assassination) at the age of 32.

What’s especially cool about Alexander the Great is that he did it all in his 20s. He was just a dude in his 20s and in his brief 12-year stint, he did this:

Alexander map

Modified from source.

This was the largest empire in Ancient Greek history, and though things declined soon after his death, his conquests allowed Greek culture to spread far and wide and launched the Hellenistic Period of Ancient Greek Civilization, whose influence carried as far as the Byzantine Empire almost 2,000 years later.

Other things:

  • His primary tutor between the ages of 13 and 16 was none other than Aristotle. Very weird that those two hung out a lot in a room alone together. I desperately want to know what they talked about and what their private jokes were and what kind of life advice Aristotle gave Alexander. Also fun picturing Aristotle coming to a session and being annoyed that Alexander the Great hadn’t done his homework.
  • This relationship turned nasty later on, as Alexander became paranoid toward the end of his life and sent Aristotle threatening letters. Some theories even suggest Aristotle may have played a part in Alexander’s death.
  • His reign began in Game of Thrones style. His father, the king, had had a new wife at the time of his death, and as Alexander was assuming power, Alexander’s mom (and the king’s ex) had the new wife and her daughter burned alive. Alexander had several other potential political rivals executed, and then when a series of neighboring Greek states rebelled against his rule, Alexander razed their cities, defeating them one by one until he had consolidated power over all of Greece. He then launched into foreign expansion.
  • His mother was quite the person. On top of her habit of burning rival women alive, she was the ultimate hyper-ambitious tiger mom, putting annoying pressure on Alexander to conquer the world and convincing him (and others) that she was impregnated by Zeus before her marriage and that Alexander was the son of Zeus.
  • Alexander was undefeated in battle in his life, despite often being outnumbered.
  • Though ruthless in conquest and in politics, he was unusually gracious to the families of those who died in battle, granting them immunity from taxation and public service.
  • Alexander founded over 20 cities and named them after himself, including Alexandria in Egypt.
  • Some historians believe Alexander was bisexual and was in a relationship with his best friend, Hephaestion. He also had a harem of women at his access, but rarely “used it.”
  • He is said to have had one brown eye and one blue eye.
  • What Hitler tried to do is essentially the same thing Alexander tried to do (though with more genocide), but it was so long ago that the tragic element of it carries no emotion today. If Hitler had done his thing 2,400 years ago, we might know him as Hitler the Great today.

2014 equivalent: Mark Zuckerberg

Marco Polo

Marco Polo

Lived: 1254 – 1324

In 11 words: First European to document travels to Asia after 24-year voyage

His main thing: Marco Polo was 15 when he first met his father and uncle, who were traveling merchants returning to Venice from a long voyage. They wasted no time planning their next one, this time taking 17-year-old Marco with them. The voyage lasted an epic 24 years, and went like this:

Marco Polo Journey

The thing that makes Marco Polo so famous isn’t that he was the first European to explore Asia—he wasn’t—it’s that he was the first one to document it, in his book The Travels of Marco Polo. He returned to Venice from his 24-year voyage in his early 40s and lived the rest of his life there as a wealthy merchant.

Other things:

  • He returned from his voyage to find Venice in battle with rival city-state Genoa. He joined the fight and was soon imprisoned. It was in prison that he wrote his famous book—except he didn’t write it. He dictated it to his cellmate, who happened to be a romance writer.
  • In China, the Polos befriended Mongol leader (and Genghis Khan grandson) Kublai Khan, and Marco worked for a few years as his envoy. Kublai became attached and refused to let the Polos leave, but when a Mongol princess needed to be escorted to Persia to marry the king, the Polos got the gig. The long sea voyage (see map) was unpleasant—only 18 of the hundreds of passengers survived, but all three Polos made it.
  • Polo’s mind was blown upon seeing elephants, crocodiles, monkeys, and rhinoceroses for the first time and mistook them for mythical creatures (he thought rhinos were unicorns). This is totally fair—imagine how weird those animals would seem if you had never seen them before.
  • The whole thing about Polo bringing pasta or pizza to Italy is a tall tale, but he did bring back stories of paper money, an unknown concept in Europe at the time.
  • Christopher Columbus got FOMO about Polo’s travels, and this was one of the major reasons he became an explorer. He always carried a copy of Polo’s book with him.

2014 equivalent: Curiosity Rover

Che Guevara

Che Guevara

Lived: 1928 – 1967

In 11 words: Charismatic, polarizing, ruthless Marxist revolutionary, enduring symbol of rebellion and counterculture

His main thing: I can’t be the only one who has spent my life confused as to why the guy on the t-shirts is such a big thing. The Maryland Institute College of Art called the above photograph (taken of him at a memorial service) “the most famous photograph in the world,” and today, the image is a ubiquitous logo that symbolizes rebellion against authority, capitalism, and imperialism. But who was he?

Che grew up as an Argentinian math-loving, chess-playing intellectual who got his medical degree and became a doctor before deciding he’d rather be a rad dude. He took those ambitions to Mexico, where he met the Castro brothers, and they hit it off because both parties hated the US and blamed capitalist imperialism for most of the world’s suffering. He went back to Cuba with the Castros and helped overthrow the government, and he was a key member of Fidel Castro’s new regime, both as a brutal executioner of political enemies and as the Finance Minister, shifting Cuban trade relations away from the US and toward the Soviet Union. He was an energetic dude and spent a lot of time in foreign countries trying to incite revolution, until he botched it and was captured by the CIA-assisted Bolivian military and executed at the age of 39.

Other things:

  • He’s a polarizing figure today, both loved by some as an inspirational symbol of counterculture and loathed by others as an insufferable symbol of counterculture.
  • People aren’t quite clear that in addition to being a valiant revolutionary, he was a ruthless murderer, executing hundreds of people without trial in Cuba.
  • Right before he died, he managed to bully his timid executioner, screaming “Shoot me, you coward! You are only going to kill a man!”
  • He was notoriously smelly, proudly changing his shirt once a week.
  • His honeymoon apparently sucked.[1]Somehow, my progress when I typed everything up to this point hadn’t been saving and when I accidentally left the page, I lost everything I wrote about Alexander, Polo, and Che. This bullet marks the moment when I’m back to where I was hours ago. It’ll be at least a month before I’m able speak about this.

2014 equivalent: Some mixture of Occupy Wall Street and al-Qaeda

Mother Teresa

Mother Teresa

Lived: 1910 – 1997

In 11 words: Nice, possibly dickish nun who dedicated herself to helping the poor

Her main thing: Mother Teresa decided to obnoxiously spend her life making the rest of us look bad by dedicating everything she had to “serving the poorest of the poor.” She is ethnically Albanian, grew up in the Ottoman Empire (in present-day Macedonia), and moved to India at the age of 18 to be a nun. And for the next 17 years, that’s what she was—a nun and a teacher, and she seemed content with this until Jesus, she says, told her to stop being a dud and do something to help all of the ridiculously poor people around her. So she changed her path and founded the Missionaries of Charity, which, among other things, ran hospices for poor, sick people so those “who lived like animals could die like angels.” She proved to be quite the entrepreneur, leveraging her growing celebrity and taking her work abroad, eventually scaling her charity to 133 countries with the help of 4,500 involved sisters. She won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1979, and tends to be a symbol of all things good today.

Other things:

  • Though she lived her life on humble means, she was actually born into a wealthy family.
  • She was highly chaste. What a waste of a bullet point.
  • Some controversy swirls around her legacy, despite her overall shining reputation, centered around her vocal campaigns against contraception (some even believe she exaggerated how bad it was in India to get more attention) and her refusal to adopt Western medical standards in favor of poorer facilities because she believed that “suffering” brings people closer to Christ.

2014 equivalent: Some NGO you’ve never heard of because people like Mother Teresa are usually not famous

Julius Caesar

Julius Caesar

Lived: 100 – 44 BC

In 11 words: Roman general/dictator who laid the ground for the Roman Empire

His main thing: He came up from modest means and actually got a pretty late start. When he visited Spain at the age of 32, he saw a statue of Alexander the Great and it put him in a bad mood because he felt that he had accomplished very little (typical GYPSY). And he was just getting started as a priest before a war of rivals in his hometown ended the wrong way and forced him out of that title—so he turned toward the military instead. He rose steadily, both in military rank and political influence, until he eventually overpowered the weak senate, overthrew the Roman Republic, and was declared dictator.

He was a good leader, beloved by most of the people and made sweeping changes to the constitution, laws, and government structure that laid the groundwork for the Roman Empire, which would flourish for almost 500 years after his assassination.

Other things:

  • Caesar was a cool dude. When he was captured by pirates and held prisoner once earlier in his life, they demanded twenty talents of silver for him as ransom. He interrupted and insisted they ask for fifty instead, which they then received. After they freed him, he got his fleet together, chased the pirates down, took back the money, and crucified them—something he told them he was going to do when he was in their captivity and they had laughed at him.
  • Caesar had a full relationship with Cleopatra, which took place both in Egypt and in Caesar’s villa near Rome, which she would visit. This is like Aristotle tutoring Alexander the Great, where I’m just flabbergasted that two people who are that legendary hung out and slept together and cuddled. It’s just weird.[2]The closest modern example of this phenomenon is JFK and Marilyn Monroe More on this in the Cleopatra section on the next page.
  • He was assassinated by a bunch of the old guard he had overthrown, but they were unable to take power themselves because the masses had loved Caesar and they didn’t have support. Instead, Caesar’s adopted heir Octavian (Caesar’s great nephew since he had no sons) took power as the first Roman Emperor (under the name Augustus).
  • Things can get confusing between Shakespeare’s play and the real story, and some people I spoke with even asked if Caesar was real or fictional. The answer is that he was certainly real and the Shakespeare plot isn’t too far off from reality. Mark Antony was really his second in command, Caesar really was stabbed a ton of times (23) by a lot of different men (~60), and Brutus was really someone Caesar trusted and one of the people who stabbed him. However, “Et tu, Brute?” is fiction.
  • One lasting change Caesar made was to the calendar. At the time, they used the moon, which made the months and years irregular. He replaced that with a calendar based on the sun, setting the year at 365.25 days (adding the leap year to capture the .25s), and added three months onto 46 BC to align things with the seasons, starting 45 BC on January 1. We’re still living with these changes today.

2014 equivalent: Steve Jobs

Page 2 (Billy the Kid, Galileo, Confucius, Cleopatra, Gandhi) →

  • 1st (and also an Aussie)

    Ok, great post,but how in the hell do you not know about Alexander the Great of Macedonia?
    I know its understandable to have heard of the bloke, everyone has, but to not know more than the basics is unacceptable! 🙁
    Other than that keep up the good work mate!
    Greetings from down under

    • Ameya

      oh good someone said it before me. im sorry to quibble but since the post IS about getting him into zone 3, the fact that it was a macedonian empire is kinda important

      • Naryn

        I’m embarrassed to say I knew almost nothing about Alexander the Great, when he lived, or what he’s so famous for. Got it down now. Dodged a bullet there!

      • Ozzie

        Thank you Ameya!
        Before the flame war begins with the Macedonians and the Greeks about Alexander, I should also mention that Mother Teresa was born to Albanian parents in Skopje, Macedonia. Mr Author (Tim) do you have an obsession with these fine people?

      • Alex

        Greek empire*
        The fact that people from FYROM just use the last part of their Country’s name doesn’t mean that this is actually THE Macedonia that Alexander came from.
        Just to make it clear, Macedonia is the state/area in the northern part of Greece, where Alexander the Great came from.

        • Michael

          Glad to see you agree that Alexander The Great was Macedonian as he was from Macedonia!
          If Greece was such a strong empire, how can Bulgaria, Serbia, Croatia and Macedonia speak Slovak languages that are totally different from Greek?

          • messy1a

            The Slavs took over the area during the 6th century CE. Alexander wasn’t Greek, he was Albanian.

  • wobster109

    I’m holding you accountable for part 2! If part 2 vanishes into Latter Presidents’ Hole then the entire Internets will be sad with you!

  • YouDeserveMe

    Caesar and Cleopatra had a son, but outside marriage

  • Alek Felstiner

    “He helped end the war in Vietnam. He won the Nobel Peace Prize.” Yeah…putting these two sentences together in this way is a little less than “perfect” in terms of knowing who Kissinger is.

    • Aaron

      Why? Isn’t the point that with so many people to know about, knowing 4 or 5 key facts is a good baseline? Are those facts not correct or something?

      • Craig

        Saying that Kissinger helped end the war in Vietnam is like saying the 9-11 Hijackers helped land a few flights.

        • Soprano

          The day Kissinger won the Nobel peace Prize was the day that satire died.

          • mattlove1

            There have been many inexplicable winners of the Nobel Peace prize, both before Kissinger and after, culminating in the selection of Obama

        • messy1a

          No he did. There were two years of peace and all our POWs came home.

  • Gabriel

    It is uncertain, but there are official accounts that Che Guevara’s last words were, actually,

    “Don’t shoot, I am Che Guevara and I am worth more to you alive than dead.”

    Not that rad.

    • Jason Ra

      Nope, he said the “don’t shoot” line when he was first captured and the “shoot me you coward” line a few days later, right before he got shot. Radness restored.

  • Rkeezy

    Still sad about no presidents.

    • Wait But Why

      Haha nothing has gotten me in more trouble with readers than the presidents situation. I wish I had been clearer about it in the post—my plan all along was to spread the three parts out with a few months in between each. I WILL get to parts 2 and 3, I promise. But I didn’t want to take up 3 straight weeks on one topic.

      • Oleg

        Hey, WBW, you should definitely include Leo Tolstoy into your list. I'm sure he will amaze you a lot. Some interesting facts about him: 1. He was the one who inspirated Gandhi with non-violence 2. He learned Hebrew and translated New Testament 3. He gave up all his posessions 4. He left the longest diary

        • Mathieu

          This is very unlikely, since the New Testament was written in Greek.

        • ?


        • messy1a

          …and his wife’s She sued him over that little fact.

      • Hayley

        I was thinking the same thing. Where the hell are the new president posts?! Hahaha. I will try and be patient 🙂

  • yrh

    learnt a lot.. thanks

    • anon

      Learned. 🙂

  • Kenny

    Che Guevara was rad? I appreciate you telling us more we should know, but the people that idolize that man have practically zero understanding of him. Your one line of deprecation about his murderous ways hardly does his maniacal nature justice.

    • Cam

      Totally came here to say this. El Che was a coward, a sociopath, a brutal murderer, and certainly nothing like what I would call “rad”.

    • Matt Faherty

      And despite being a symbol of counter-culture in the West, he was brutally anti-counter culture in Cuba by way of censorship, book-burning, and ideological controls.

    • mattlove1

      So many people eager to point out the downside to Che, what about the millions of people murdered by anybody who gets the title of “great president” in the US? He goes pretty easy on the ghoul of calcutta, nobody cares about that. It’s almost like people here have a political agenda or something.

    • mattlove1

      So many people eager to point out the downside to Che, what about the millions of people murdered by anybody who gets the title of “great president” in the US? He goes pretty easy on the ghoul of calcutta, nobody cares about that. It’s almost like people here have a political agenda or something.

    • messy1a

      The PHOTO of Che was rad. Not the terrorists who helped destroy Cuba.

  • Brad

    Every word of the Cleopatra section was the best thing I’ve ever read.

  • Bob

    I know its all for fun…..but Che Guevara was an evil Marxist and murderer. Joking about him is about like making light of Hitler.

    • Hyman

      So…are all the thousands of people who wear Che shirts doing the equivalent of wearing a swaztika on their shirt??

      Seems a gross exaggeration.

      • Sergio

        Why an exaggeration? Because the Nazis were grossly more successful at implementing their anti-human ideas when compared to Guevara’s success at implementing his anti-human ideas?

        You’re quibbling over degrees, not principles.

        Would it matter to you if someone sporting a swastika on their t-shirt had no notion of hits modern historical context? Probably not.

    • mattlove1

      Making light of the incredible ruthless criminality of Henry Kissinger was the real offense here.

  • Jimmer

    Elon Musk isn’t qualified to clean the behind of Galileo

    • Dan

      You’ll rue those words in 10 years.

  • Matt Faherty

    You hinted at Christopher Hitchen’s criticisms of Mother Theresa, but made no mention of his attacks on Gandhi. Essentially, Gandhi was a luddite and Hindu nationalist, whose refusal to deal with the massive Muslim minority in India lead to the break offs of Pakistan and Bangladesh. While there is no reason these two countries shouldn’t be independent, the process of fracturing lead to the deaths of tens of thousands of Hindus and Muslims during the big population exchange. And to this day, India and Pakistan are at each other’s throats and even risk nuclear war.

    • messy1a

      ….millions. Gandhi’s policies led to the death of almost two million. Also, his demands postponed Indian independence for at least a decade.

      • D

        That’s….not true at all…Gandhi didn’t want partition…whatever else you accuse him of you can’t accuse him of that.

        • messy1a

          He may not have “wanted” partition, but Jinnah did, and he supported Jinnah to get the British out. Therefore he supported it.

  • Jake Badlands

    Yeah, Gandhi was amazing, but he was also a wacky dude. His advice to the Jews in WWII was to *commit mass suicide.*

    Also, really obsessed with bowel movements.

  • neoliberalite

    That’s funny, Che was a “ruthless muderer” but Alexander the Great and Julius Caesar weren’t? Colonial rhetoric at its best! And “counter-culture” and “anti-capitalist” are not synonymous.

    • ridiculousknits

      Amen to both points.

    • Joanna

      They compared Alexander the Great to Hitler!

      • messy1a

        Which is a decent one.

  • L Magic

    from Time’s Top 10 Nobel Prize Controversies: “Once called “the most controversial to date,” the decision to award the Nobel Peace Prize to Henry Kissinger in 1973 was fraught with debate. Critics said Kissinger’s alleged involvement as Secretary of State in Operation Condor and the U.S. bombing campaigns in Cambodia made a mockery of the prize and led Tom Lehrer to quip that the award “made political satire obsolete.” Further incensing the situation, North Vietnam’s Le Duc Tho, who was jointly awarded the prize, declined his half of the spoils on the grounds that he didn’t want to share the award with the realpolitik ringmaster. To date, his detractors continue to dispute the accolade, arguing that the prize was for efforts to conclude the Vietnam War — something that didn’t actually happen until 1975.”

  • History Expert

    You son of a bitch. You said a word about Che Guevara and sentence about Henry Kissinger that I don’t agree with. Put more than 1 weeks effort into next week’s blog post.

  • Tom K

    Love! You have a way of writing about history that makes it fascinating, and I usually am bored out of my mind by history. Looking forward to future volumes!

    • Ali

      Amen. Never thought I’d be sad that a 4,000 word blog post about history was over, but here I am.

  • Jeffs

    If you want to know some fascinating stuff about the aftermath of Alexander the Great’s death (including Ptolemy cleverly grabbing Egypt) read Ghost on the Throne.

  • Anonymous

    Dude, there are A LOT of misconceptions or things that are just plain wrong in this post (specially in the Galileo text). I guess the problem is that what you call ‘zone 3’ is still nothing but popular culture. But there was this one phrase that for me was the worst, here it goes: “It should be noted that Galileo’s church difficulties occurred in the heart of the Renaissance. You can only imagine what it was like to be a scientist in the far more repressive Middle Ages (and how much potential scientific advancement was stifled).”

    It surprised me because I thought that this vision of the ‘middle age’ as some kind of oppressive, anti-scientific, superstitious ‘dark age’ (in contrast to a much more liberal and scientific (sic) renaissance) was already done with, even in the manualistic culture (do you have this expression in english, ‘manualistic culture’?).

    (If you are interested but don’t wanna get into very academic, specific literature, then take a look at Regine Pernoud’s books. They’re short, well written, popular and overall very competent books. I’m almost sure they were translated to english.And I’ll stop here cause I’m not a ‘guy-who-argues-on-the-internet”. Take care!)

  • The Curse of Tecumseh

    Interesting post. If you do more of these I have a few suggestions for future people.
    1) Genghis Khan, who has a very interesting story, kinda a mix of Caesar and Alexander the Great. He got started late in life but showed his tactical brilliance. Most people think of him as a Vicious Warlord, but he showed far more concern for his people than Caesar or Alexander did for theirs.
    2) Pocahontas, if you base what you know on her on the Disney movie, you’re doing it wrong.

    I would also point out that for the sake of brevity, you did mess up the Galileo piece. There’s a bit of scientific complexity to it that you aren’t doing justice to, for state of science at the time (and for 100 years after Galileo) the geocentric theory was actually able to predict celestial movement better than the Heliocentric theory could. Because of the rotation of the Earth and its orbit around the sun, the other planets have a slight “jitter” in their motions, the geocentric theory compensated for this by theorizing that each celestial body rotated on a transparent crystal sphere, but also rotated on a second smaller sphere attached to the first one. With this idea, geocentrists could predict with relative accuracy the motion of the planets, while heliocentrists could not. Later work refined the Heliocentric Theory into what it is now and they turned out to be correct, but that was more 100 years later. As with all theories, sometimes the old and well developed theory can be wrong but still present a better case than a newer and ultimately correct theory. We are looking at the Catholic Church with hindsight of 20/20, we know things they didn’t, but for them, they took the information they had available and did the best they could with it, and for the information they had, they were right to hold to geocentrism. As for what they did to Galileo, well, hindsight is still 20/20.

    • Damian G.

      Right on, Curse of Tecumseh! I would add that much of the Church’s criticism of Galileo dealt with his theological transgressions, not scientific ones. In addition, the Church *was* open to heliocentrism, and had been ever since Copernicus, also a devout Catholic, published “On the Revolutions of the Celestial Spheres”, which was dedicated to… the Pope! The issue was that the technology of the time did not prove the stellar parallax, and telescopes would not be advanced enough to do so until the nineteenth century, which would explain, “It wasn’t until 200 years later in 1835 that the Church finally stopped its prohibition of books advocating heliocentrism…”

      • Adam

        “Prohibiting” is the key word here. The church was a horrible REPRESSER of scientific advancement, not an open-minded institution simply in disagreement with a theory. To paint the church in such a positive light is just apologist.

    • Thomas

      That’s right! I would like to reinforce that: the reasons that led the church to oppose Galileo’s theories were strictly scientific. At that time they also couldn’t see stellar parallaxes, which should have been observable to support heliocentrism.

      On the other hand, from a symbolic point of view, the heliocentric model made more sense for the members of the church. The sun, in traditional and in catholic symbolism, has always represented God, and the earth represented man. So in Galileo’s theory it was man that revolved around God, and this symbolic aspect alone led many priests to support him.

    • Adam

      The church didn’t “oppose” Galileo’s theories…they strictly prohibited him from writing or talking about them, threatened to torture him, and then gave him a lifelong prison sentence (which was reduced to lifelong house arrest) because he was suggesting the heliocentric model.

      It’s laughable to suggest the church simply disagreed with him for scientific reasons or that they “held” to geocentrism. If so, they’d argue with him and that’s it. They REPRESSED him, threatened him, and stole his freedom. That’s what you do if you’re TERRIFIED of a theory getting out there to the public, not if you disagree with it.

  • DD

    I think the author of this article is very passionate about what he/she is writing, but too politically occupied to pose any legitimacy behind what he/she is trying to get across. A lot of good information but then is thrown away when personal beliefs are thrown in. Entertaining to say the least.

  • Justen

    Wow, WBW, getting some criticism here. I love everything you write, and the way you write it.
    If you were as serious about everything as the previous commenters think you should be, well, there’s wikipedia for that. And I knew almost nothing about Mr. Alexander the Great and I’m pretty fuckin smart.

  • WBW Christian

    Okay, please please PLEASE have more educational posts like these man. This, along with posts like “why is my laptop on” or the one about the stars…I really like reading things that I’ll actually learn shit from. You’re teaching me things that my elementary school either failed to teach me OR did and I just wasn’t paying any attention. Keep it up Tim!!!

  • Liam Carter

    To learn More about these people and many others check out http://histolines.com

  • Elizabeth

    I need to stop reading the comments after I read your posts. They just piss me off. While I don’t suggest that everything you write about should be taken as gospel or that your opinion should not inspire dialogue, the personal attacks are unnecessary. The self-righteous, know-it-all attitude of some of your readers makes me want to scream. If we were all relegated to “write what we really know about,” in the truest, purest sense, the only thing anyone of us would every be truly qualified to write about are our own private bowel movements. And who the fuck wants to read about that?

    • Abe Froman

      Ha agreed. People seem to offer their criticism, not to give an honest correction, but to prove how learned they are. Well congrats; The internet marvels at how pedantic you all are.

      • Paul

        It’s hysterical. I read a lot of blogs, and the binding theme for a post with a bunch of information in it (like this one) is commenters who happen to know a lot about a particular part of it writing something like, “Good post, but man did you miss a lot in ___ section” (the one section they’re well-read in). Happens every time.

        And in the case of this post, it misses the point entirely. The stated goal was to get people from Zone 2 (“Shit I really don’t know enough about this”) to Zone 3 (“Cool now I know the basics”). Not to get anyone to Zone 4 (“I have a thorough understanding of all sides of every controversy surrounding this person”). So the commenters who do have a Zone 4 understanding can’t stand to see a Zone 3 explanation without jumping on it with all of their Zone 4 knowledge.

    • mattlove1

      There is always the exotic notion of researching before writing a bunch of nonsense that makes the writer look like an ignorant fool. But that would be work.

  • wobster109

    I’m afraid I’m a bit disappointed in you. Outs of the 10 people you chose, you only wrote about 2 women. Women have been ignored and written out of history by men all too much already. You could have written about Rosa Parks, Joan of Arc, Queen Elizabeth, Harriet Tubman, or Helen Keller. Instead, you chose to write about Billy the Kid. If you want to be like Gandhi, you can start by elevating women as he tried to do.

    • Anonymous

      People know what there is to know about Rosa Parks, Harriet Tubman, Helen Keller…

    • messy1a

      ….that’s because due to cultural bias, men made far more history than women. Like it or don’t. There you are.

  • What?

    I hope this post is targeted to the American mass – because the rest of the world knows a bit more history and about famous people.

  • Exquestation

    This totally helps with my time travel aspirations… as long as I can get the procrastubation monkey off my back – can’t wait to go back in time! Cheers Tim 🙂

  • Bryan

    “It was Christmas for creepy 52-year-old Caesar when Cleopatra, 21, emerged from the rug and seduced him, ”

    So this age difference thingy is creepy, but two @$$ pirates getting married is normal.
    Later dude.

  • Jenny

    What a fun read. Amazing job.

  • daChipster

    First, a brag: I knew most of this about most of these folks, except for Che and Confucius.

    Now, a kewl addendum to the Gandhi piece: he was once a stretcher bearer at the battle of Spion Kop in the second Boer War in South Africa ’round about 1900. At the same battle, Winston Churchill was the original embed as a war correspondent AND a cavalry lieutenant, acting as a courier. Kind of neat to think that before they were THE Gandhi and THE Churchill, they were on the same side decades before they butted heads on the global stage.

    Finally, a defense: lighten up people! Each and every one of the people on this list present an admixture of the amazing and the pedestrian the good and the bad, the valiant and the cowardly…all in the same person! There’s a “Yeah, but…” for each of them. So Caesar shot Liberty Valance… print the legend!

    • messy1a

      Big deal. Hitler and Stalin used to hang out at the same bar in Vienna around 1905.

  • Sara

    You are brilliant and I love how you think. I look forward to your work every week. I hope you turn these into a book one day. It would make a great coffee table book or a coffee house book. I’d buy it!

  • Anonymous

    Such a wonderful article! I would only like to note that it was Aristarchus from Samos who first introduced the sun-oriented system, and Copernicus derived this idea from his works.

    • messy1a

      Copernicus never heard of Aristarchus, and thus couldn’t derive his ideas from him.

  • Jen

    What I find supremely ironic is that this site – the one that taught me the great concept of the Dark Playground as it relates to procrastination – is my Procrastination Monkey’s go-to place to take me when I am IN the Dark Playground. Chilling, no?

    • Horbert

      Yes No.

    • Tree House

      But it's informative, so not a total waste of time. 😉

  • SB

    As an avid and enthusiastic reader of your usually excellent posts I’d also strongly recommend you to give the assessment of Henry Kissinger a little bit more thought (particularly with view to the very self-righteous and subjective judgement of Che Guevara and starting to label people as murderers in which category Kissinger – out of everybody in the list – undoubtedly falls). As a starting point “The Trial of Henry Kissinger” by Christopher Hitchens should be mandatory reading before listing him as your introductory example [http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Trial_of_Henry_Kissinger]

  • Peter dos Santos

    Mm although I enjoyed this article along with most of your previous post , your knowledge about Nelson Mandela was not very impressive (Zone 2 at best) – i know you only briefly mentioned him but still……

    Although he is unquestionably a great man (!!!!!), comparing him to Ghandi in relation to nonviolent resistance shows a lack of understanding of his life and actions (especially his life pre 1990).

    He co-founded Umkhonto we Sizwe (Military wing of the ANC -) in 1961 and received military training in Algeria and Ethiopia shortly after that – he was never able to put his training into use because he was arrested in 1962, but MK went on to commit some very questionable acts.

    He was also asked to renounce the violence that had broken out in the South African townships in 1985, in return for his freedom, but refused. I am not saying he was not justified in his actions (countering violence with violence is a whole other moral debate) but comparing him to Ghandi, Martin Luther King or the Dalai Lama when discussing nonviolent resistance is a stretch.

  • Itshothere

    WOW. I really enjoyed the post!! Thank you so much, Tim!
    I learned very interesting things about these people (astonished about Billy the kid!) and I enjoyed a lot reading your thoughts about some interesting things I already knew about these guys (as everybody did, I guess). A shame some people expect you write your posts as if you were an expert in EVERYTHING. They should use their time writting their own, instead of criticizing so badly about it.
    I like to read the comments looking for extra pieces of info or different points of view on things, but some guys just go so far and they seem to take it personal or something.

    Cleopatra was my favorite, BTW. That “coin” blew my mind, AGAIN! Shit!! …Now that I had completely forgotten about that!

    She had to have the more stunning body of Human History… hahaha 😉

    Does anybody know what happened with the guy that made the design?” Bet ‘Cleo’ was not so happy with how it turned out…
    – “Here you have him, my pharaoh”.
    – “Nice. More wood for the pyre”.
    I guess “coin faces” are for monarchs and country leaders like the photographs of IDs are for common people nowadays. Nobody ends up well-looking. ( “Cleo was hot. Cleo was hot. Cleo was hot…”)

  • Kach

    Interesting. Couple of people I didn’t know much about (I had no idea about the Billy the Kid story either), but on the other hand, you screwed up one of the ones I did know — the Galileo story — quite a bit (as “The Curse of Tecumseh” detailed above). So hopefully that was the only mistake I guess? Alexander, Caesar, Cleopatra were all pretty good, so I’ll assume it was just Galileo that was wrong.

  • Guille

    I think that the final quote from Che Guevara is wrong. The right one is “Look me into the eye, you are going to kill a man.”

    • Libra

      Nope WBW is 100 percent right on this. John Lee Anderson translated the exact words the same as this article.

  • Paheli

    Thanks so much for mentioning that the current Gandhis in the Indian political scene are in no way related to the Mahatma. They changed their last name to gain political benefit. A little known, and never publicized, fact.

    • messy1a

      Not a fact at all. Indira Nehru married a guy named Feroze Gandhi, whom her father, the first prime minister of India, hated.

      • Kart

        He was born as Feroze Ghandy and Indira just adopted the name Gandhi (not sure if you’re allowed to do that).. Now that, is a fact.. Indira Ghandy wouldn’t have got the same popularity..

        • So was the Mahatma. The spellings changed over time.

        • Mike Ringland

          Well, it was her husband, so she’s allowed to do that. Also, her popularity was due to the fact that her father and grandfather were instrumental in India becoming independent. Indira herself was involved in the Quit India campaign at a very young age.

          Oh, and while she was in no way related to Ghandi, he was a constant figure in her life and very close to the Nehru clan. There are several photos of the two together and letters sent between the two that proves this close relationship.

          On top of all that, Ghandi really isn’t an uncommon name in India. I believe it has it’s origins in Gujurat, north of Mumbai.

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  • Acs

    I love most of your stuff here…it’s exciting and educational and funny and all….but i’m sorry to say this post is rather disappointing. it is good…but it is impossible for someone with such a high level of general knowledge to not be at least zone 3 about all of these people. unacceptable! i’m sorry.
    anyway…keep up the good work…i am impressed by many other posts.

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  • Jenn

    I didn’t have a crush on you until you called Mother Teresa dickish. Now I’m yours.

    • Sally


  • Nick the Greek

    FYRoM is not Macedonia and the peoples there are Slavic in all the ways that determine Slavs from non-Slavs.

    Alexander the Great was the Greek King of Macedon…not the Yugoslavic King of Macedon.

    Those who see FYRoM like Republic of Macedonia, see Paeonia like Macedonia, see Yugoslavs like Macedonians…have big issues with geography demography and history.

    • messy1a

      Alexander III wasn’t Greek he was Albanian.

  • Anonymous

    this has a lot of reading that i got bored and fell asleep

  • stephenie martinez

    i am so smart that i read all this in a minute. my friend read it in a hour

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  • Sally

    People I’m sure I don’t want to know more about? The know it all and foul mouthed critics of Tim’s blog. Get a life and learn to recognize humor when you see it. He isn’t writing a History textbook. He is writing a fresh and clever blog on an interesting topic. This is laugh out loud stuff and interesting at the same time. Think you can do better? Doubtful.

  • Hydra

    Brutus and Crassus were actually the good guys. While Caesar brought Rome into an era of dictatorship, the two wanted to restore the republic.

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  • Mike Ringland

    For your next one can you include Mao Zedong? He’s a piece of crap, but he is nonetheless huge in 20th century history. Most westerners don’t know anything about him and most Chinese are hopelessly misled about him.

  • MicroMatrixx

    Why the hell is Tesla not on this list!!!

  • ericsp23

    Galileo’s father, Vincenzo Galilei, is actually of minor historical significance on his own. He was a composer who was one of a group of Italian composers who were instrumental in the development of opera as an art form. He also was a music theorist and studied the acoustics of vibrating strings. It has been suggested that Galileo was inspired to become a scientist by his father’s acoustical studies.

  • Nora .

    Cleopatra’s story was my favourite I applaud to you. I laughed so hard and I have to say that this was my favourite educational thing I’ve almost ever read.

  • Tipsy

    I think Hitchens more than slayed the ‘friend of the poor’ ‘mother’ Teresa myth you’ve endorsed here.

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  • Katie Duval

    I loved this article so much! Sadly, none of these people previously made it to my zone 3 while most were stuck in zone 1 -but now I feel like I know stuff! After reading the article I scrolled through the name to see how much information I had actually retained and I now know how to not embarrass myself should I ever need to talk minimally about any of these people. Do more! Do more!

  • jay

    it should be noted that a moroccan guy named ibn battuta actually traveled further than marco polo

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  • Carl

    Holy cats, how could anyone write a summary of Che Guevara’s life without including his book, one of the coolest ever written?? https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Motorcycle_Diaries_(book)

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