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The Great Person Theory: Is it a Valid Interpretation of History? Term Paper

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Updated: Jan 13th, 2020

Introduction

The great person theory explains how great people shaped the history of the world. The noble abilities of the great persons had decisive impact on the course of the history. On this theory, Thomas Carlyle asserts that, “the history of the world is but the bibliography of great men.”1 The great persons in the history contributed to the current course of the history because without them, there would be no decisive historical impacts on the current society.

Thomas Carlyle studied historical heroes and he realized that their heroic activities influenced greatly the course of the history, so he believes that by exploring their lives and activities will help the current society to shape its own future. The modern society regards and rewards the great heroes because their heroism not only affects their lives, but also the society, thus shaping the history. This supports the great person theory that the course of history is due to the influence of great persons.

The great Roman and Greek heroes had significance influence on course of the history for they shaped various aspects of life such as political, scientific, religious, and economic aspects amongst others. Thomas Carlyle argues that, “…all things that we see standing accomplished in the world are properly the outer material result, the practical realization and embodiment of thoughts, that dwelt in the great man sent into this world.”2

He emphasizes that every outstanding accomplishment in the current society originated from the thoughts of the great persons and he refers to these great persons as leaders, modelers, and even creators of the history and the future. This paper explores how the great Roman and Greek heroes: Themistocles, Caesar, Pericles, and Nero shaped the course of history in their respective empires in validation the great person theory.

Themistocles

In validation of the great person theory, Themistocles was a great man who shaped the history of Greece. His birth was controversial because many thought he was an illegitimate child. In his childhood, he had great influence because “he persuaded several of the young men of high birth to accompany him to anoint and exercise themselves together at Cynosarges, an ingenious device for destroying distinction between the noble and the base-born.”3

Since Themistocles was a base-born, he wanted to make his birth legitimate by anointing and exercising at the Cynosarges. His friends admired the heroic abilities he had already demonstrated in his childhood because he was strong, inspiring, and very ambitious in shaping the history of Greece. The potential and abilities of a great man appeared in his childhood, a harbinger of a hero who will shape the course of the history.

Aristides, who was a great rival of Themistocles, harbored a lot of hatred when he saw “him stirring up the people to all kinds of enterprises, and introducing various innovations.”4 He had unique abilities for he spent most of his time alone because he did not want interferences from his companions. In the course of his life to shape the history of Greece, he studied natural philosophy and entered into politics.

Themistocles plunged into the political affairs of Greece making tremendous reformation that had marked political shift. As he pursued his dream, his father and mother disowned him because he joined politics; nevertheless, this did not deter his passion to become a politician.

“It is evident that his mind was early imbued with the keenest interest in the public affairs, and the most passionate ambition for distinction.”5 His passion to attain the highest political position stirred a lot of criticism and hatred from the powerful political figures in the city of Athens yet he continued to increase in popularity and influence.

His great political actions and innovations surprised his political opponents particularly the Aristides. “Gradually growing to be great, and winning the favor of the people, he at last gained the day with his faction over that of Aristides, and procured his banishment by ostracism.”6 The great hero was now in decisive stage to determine the history of Greece as powers was upon his hands to exercise them to the fullest.

Since the trophy of Miltiades disturbed him so much when he was young, his determination was to ensure that the Greece win the imminent battles.

Many of his friends thought that, the battle of Marathon would not last, but on contrary, he “thought that it was but the beginning for far greater conflicts, and for these, to the benefit of all Greece, he kept to himself in continual readiness, and his city also in proper training, foreseeing from far what would happen.”7 In his first political influence, he managed to persuade the Athenians to stop sharing revenue but use them in building war ships.

Themistocles wanted to use the war ships in repelling hostile neighbors like Persians who have dominated the sea and enhance the power of Greece in commanding the sea. The impending war between the Greece and the Persians prompted him to use his political powers in influencing military logistics. Themistocles becomes a political hero for he managed to influence political history of Greece.

The greatest achievement of Themistocles is the military legacy he left for Greece. When the Persia threatened Greece to submit to her power, “the Athenians were in consultation of who should be general, and many withdrew themselves of their own accord, being terrified with the greatness of the danger.”8

Due to the threatening circumstance, Themistocles did not trust the command of Epicydes for the imminent danger required a general with courage who would fight tactfully and tirelessly. With his heroic ability, he took over as a commander of Athenian forces when he killed Persian interpreter and “he immediately endeavored to persuade the citizens to leave the city, and to embark upon their galleys, and meet with the Persians at a great distance from Greece.”9

The Athenian citizens and forces followed Themistocles’ commands and gathered themselves at the sea in preparation for the war. He commanded the Athenian forces proving that “he was the chief means of the deliverance of Greece, and gained the Athenians the glory of alike surpassing their enemies in valor, and their confederates in wisdom.”10 By commanding the Athenian forces to achieve victory against the Persia, he shaped the military history of the Greece.

Themistocles was distressed when he saw the Persian armies growing stronger. “He proposed a decree that those who were banished for a time might return again, to give assistance by word and deed to the cause of Greece with the rest of their fellow-citizens.”11 He did this when he realized that ostracized Aristides played an important role in the Athenian military. Knowing the threats and the interests of king Xerxes, he decided to use tactics in directing the Persian armies to the strategic fighting ground, Salamis.

He sent a Persian captive, Sucinnus to tell king Xerxes that, “the Greeks were ready to make their escape, and that he counseled him to hinder their flight, to set upon them while they were in this confusion and at a distance from their land army.”12 Themistocles won the battle of Salamis by using psychological tactics to deceive king Xerxes. Therefore, Themistocles left political and military legacy to the country of Greece thus shaping the history as a great man.

Caesar

The bibliography of Caesar depicts the history of Rome for her was a great hero who shaped the history of Rome. He grew up under the dictatorship of Sylla who was the master of Rome. He was among the prisoners who were ready for execution, but he fortunately survived when Sylla overlooked because “so many were to be put to death, and there was so much to do.”13 Even in the face of death, he did not keep quiet for he actively campaigned to become a priest.

During his youth, he displayed the courage of a great man who would shape the history of Rome. After his release, he went into exile where he learned military skills. “The first proof he had of the people’s good will to him was when he received by their suffrages a tribune-ship in the army, and came out on the list with a higher place than Caius Popilius.”14 When Caesar came back from exile, he revived Marius faction in order to fight Sylla faction, which was in the government.

In fighting the government, Caesar displayed a lot of courage given that his life was in the hands of Sylla. To do this, “he ordered images of Marius and figures of Victory, with trophies in their hands, to be carried privately in the night and placed in the capitol.”15 His courage to attack Sylla openly attracted many people and increased tension between Sylla and Marius factions making him achieve his objective. His followers were very happy demonstrating in the streets extolling him as a great man.

From then Caesar dared to face Sylla and began his campaign for their Marius’s party. Caesar demonstrated his greatness when he campaigned to become a priest because his opponents were men of great influence in the senate while he was just an ordinary man. With determination, he predicted his priesthood when he told his mother, “to-day you will see me either high priest or an exile.”16 Caesar became a hero and made history when he attained priesthood amidst intense opposition.

Caesar went to Spain and discovered that he had great potential in military and drew his political strategies of becoming the first man in Rome. He depicted his determination by saying that, “I have not just cause to weep, when I consider that Alexander at my age had conquered so many nations, and I have all this time done nothing that is memorable.”17

He was a great man who wanted to shape the history Rome. With the help of his two friends, Pompey and Crassus, Caesar managed to attain consulship, the highest office in Rome. In his consulship office, he formulated bills concerning division of land and plantation of colonies in order to assist the poor. In consulship, he left the legacy of enacting laws to assist the poor hence shaping the Roman society.

When his term of consulship expired, Caesar was still strong and determined to shape the history of Rome. This time he vied for a position of a governor of Gaul with military intention of subduing neighboring states. “His first war in Gaul was against the Helvetians and Tigurini, who having burnt their own towns, twelve in number, and four hundred villages, would have marched forward through that part of Gaul.”18

He obtained the military skills from Spain and in Rhodes in exile. Caesar wanted the armies to ensure that he enlarged Gaul territory and he fought passionately saying that, “when I have won the battle, I will use my horse for the chase, but at present let us go against the enemy.”19 He portrayed his heroic passion for war by invading neighboring states in a bid to expand his territory.

Caesar continued to expand his territory, skillfully protecting it from the threat of invasion by any nation. The prophecies of the Germans annoyed Caesar as they were waiting for the new moon to appear so that they can attack the Romans. “Caesar having had intimation of this, and seeing the Germans lie still, thought it expedient to attack them whilst they were under these apprehensions, rather than sit still and wait their time.”20

Then, he launched his second conquest and destroyed the German armies slaying thousands of them along the Rhine. Caesar military prowess had marked historical influence and shaped subsequent military systems of Rome.

The Nervii who were the most powerful tribe of Celtic Belgae threatened to attack Roman armies. Caesar did not hesitate, “he led his army against the Nervii, the fiercest and most warlike people of all in those parts.”21 Despite their preparedness, the Roman armies attacked and conquered them. “Pompey never observed how Caesar was using the arms of Rome in effecting his conquests, and gaining over and securing to himself the favor of the Romans with the wealth which those conquests obtained him.”22

Pompey criticized Caesar for misusing the Roman military forces in pursuing his selfish interests and demanded that he disband his private armies for his term as the governor of Gaul was ending. Pompey and Caesar interests in the military resulted into civil war where their armies fought but eventually, Caesar exiled Pompey and destroyed his armies. Caesar became the great military commander who shaped the military history of Rome.

Caesar left both political and military legacy to the Roman society. His greatest achievements revolve mostly around military conquests for he commanded his armies in conquering numerous battles. The military conquests of Germans, Pompey, Nervii, and the battle of Alesia shaped the military history and the future of the Roman society.

Caesar is a hero who fought many battle and won as many, because he was courageous and full of potential. Basing on his historical achievements in shaping the course of the Rome military and political progress, Romans owe him a lot. The experiences of the Caesar support the great person theory that the history of Rome is just but a bibliography of one great person viz. Caesar.

Pericles

In support of the great person theory, Pericles made significant contribution to the course of Greek history. He was a Greek hero who had a noble birth since he was born in the family, which had a lot of influence in Athens.

He became a noble man with a noble character. The Athenians poets praised and “furnished him most especially with a weight and grandeur of sense, superior to all arts of popularity, and in general gave him his elevation and sublimity of purpose and of character.”23 Many of his contemporaries admired him as he had extraordinary esteem and unique character.

Pericles was a powerful orator who appealed to many people as they described his abilities in language as “composure of countenance, and a serenity and calmness in all his movements, which no occurrence whilst he was speaking could disturb a sustained and even tone of voice, which produced the greatest effect on his hearers.”24

His oratory skills earned him great fame in the Athenian society hence had more influence as compared to his opponents. With his fame, he entered into political realm where he met great heroes like Themistocles and Cimon for he also wanted to shape the history of Athens.

New and young to be in the political realm, Pericles was determined to be another great hero like Themistocles and Cimon. In the city of Athens, there were two political factions, Thucydides and Pericles. Pericles and his faction struggled to gain supremacy and eventually, “Thucydides was overpowered, and the whole affairs of the state and government came into the hands of Pericles.”25 Then, Pericles gained a foothold to wield his political influence against Cimon.

His ascension into power elicited mixed reactions among the citizens, as they perceived him as a tyrant due his facial appearance and background influence of great people. Taking an advantage of the death of Aristides and absence of Cimon due to foreign expeditions, “Pericles, seeing things in this posture, now advanced and took his side, not with the rich and few, but with the many and poor, contrary to his natural bent, which was far from democracy.”26 Pericles utilized this opportunity to launch his political strategies against Cimon.

Pericles unleashed his deadly attack to Cimon by breaking down the council of Areopagus, which was the strong hold of Cimon. Therefore, “Pericles, having secured his power in interest with the populace, directed the exertions of his party against this council with such success.”27 He managed to weaken Cimon and banish him together with his friends after accusing them as traitors for he perceived they had conspired against him with the enemies.

By banishing Cimon for ten years, he received criticisms that his rule was “an aristocratically government, that went by the name of a democracy, but was, indeed, the supremacy of a single great man, while many others say, on the contrar.”28 The death of Ephialtes increased the freedom of Pericles to exercise his power in shaping the history of Athens until his death, even though they accused him of dictatorship that deteriorated Athenian democracy.

Pericles did not only influence the political realm, but also influenced the military history of Athens. Pericles was annoyed and threatened his enemies saying that, “Greece cannot but resent it as an insufferable affront, and consider her to be tyrannized over openly, when she sees the treasure, which was contributed by her upon a necessity for the war.”29

Pericles prepared to wage war with the barbarians and he “informed the people, that they were in no way obliged to give any account of those moneys to their allies, so long as they maintained their defense, and kept off the barbarians from attacking them.”30 He employed defensive strategy to exhaust and weaken barbarians’ military strength and resources so that he can successfully defeat them.

Pericles enhanced the Athenian military power when he issued a decree summoning Greeks from various parts of the world to, “send their deputies to Athens to a general assembly, or convention, there to consult and advice concerning the Greek temples which the barbarians had burnt down.”31 The general assembly discussed issues concerning the security and military capacity of the Athens to protect her citizens, safety navigation of the sea and security of her trade.

After the deliberations of the national assembly, Pericles “turned his forces against the revolters and passing over into the island of Euboea with fifty sail of ships and five thousand men in arms, he reduced their cities, and drove out the citizens of the Chalcidians.”32 In the war, he displayed the mighty armies of Athens under his heroic command.

The greatest military achievement of Pericles happened when he fought the battle of Peloponnesian. Here he used his defensive tactics; for instance, during the war he “was not at all moved by any attacks, but took all patiently, and submitted in silence to the disgrace they threw upon him and the ill-will they bore him; and, sending out a fleet of a hundred galleys to Peloponnesus.”33

He participated in this war and become a hero as he “stayed behind, that he might watch at home and keep the city under his own control, till the Peloponnesians broke up their camp and were gone.”34 Therefore, Pericles became a military hero who ruled and commanded Athenian armies in shaping the history of Athens.

Nero

Nero validates the great person theory since he shaped the course of the Roman Empire history. He was a Roman emperor who ruled the expansive Roman Empire with great influence. His genealogy shows that he was born in a family with good reputation and influence, but he “degenerated from the good qualities of his ancestors, he yet reproduced the vices of each of them, as if transmitted to him by natural inheritance.”35 Nero is famous due to his negative influence in the course of Roman Empire history.

He grew up and became exceedingly rich because “he did not only recover his father’s property, but he also enriched himself by an inheritance from his stepfather, Passienus Crispus.”36 With his richness, he joined into politics of the Roman Empire since he had a background of royal family.

The death of his uncle, Emperor Claudius heralded his ascension into powers at the age of seventeen years. “Hailed emperor on the steps of the Palace, he was carried in a litter to the Praetorian camp, and after a brief address to the soldiers was taken from there to the Curia.”37 Nero became hero for he achieved to be an emperor of the Roman Empire at the age of seventeen, making history because he become the youngest emperor ever to have ruled an empire.

“To make his good intentions still more evident, he declared that he would rule according to the principles of Augustus, and he let slip no opportunity for acts of generosity and mercy, or even for displaying his affability.”38 He ruled four consulships and delegated administrative responsibilities to the senate according to his orders, which shaped the Roman Empire administration policy.

In his administration he did not allow his advisers to influence his decision through discussion, so he “had each of them give his opinion in written form; these he read silently and in private and then gave a verdict according to his own inclination, as if it were the view of the majority.”39

Julius Vindex, the governor of Gaul revolted against the leadership of Nero and refused to pay taxes. “At last he was driven by numerous insulting edicts of Vindex, to urge the Senate in a letter to avenge him and the state, alleging a throat trouble as his excuse for not appearing in person.”40

Britain and Armenia formed allies against Nero and when he realized that there were impending misfortunes, he planned “to depose and assassinate the commanders of the armies and the governors of the provinces, on the ground that they were all united in a conspiracy against him.”41 Nero was a cruel and horrific leader who did not even trust his allies.

Nero lost sight in his leadership and resorted to the desperate measures of assassinating his allies making a history of a bad commander. He also lost his morals because he killed his uncle, Emperor Claudius in order to attain power, killed his mother because of his immorality, and even married his stepsister. Therefore, the negative and dark history of the Roman Empire is a bibliography of Nero.

Conclusion

The great person theory is a valid interpretation of history since history is the cumulative achievements of great people who made exceptional contribution to the world. The great persons used their talents, knowledge, abilities, and wisdom to shape the course of history of their states, nations, empires and even the whole world. The achievements of the great persons shaped the course of history during their time because their actions had direct influence in the society. Now the course of history depends on their achievements as models and lessons for generations to come.

The great men and heroes of the history who shaped the Greek and Roman Empires proved the great persons theory that, history is indeed the bibliography of great men. The bibliography of the great men of the Greek empire, Themistocles and Pericles define the course of ancient Greek Empire history.

Their achievements portray economic, military, cultural, and political profile of their empires. On the other hand, the bibliography of the Roman Empire heroes, Nero and Caesar, define the course of history of the empire. Their great achievements did shape their course of history and the current society by extension, obtains invaluable lessons applicable to current crisis. Since the great achievements of great persons are shaping the course and destiny of the modernity, the contemporary society owes them a lot.

Footnotes

1Thomas Carlyle. On Heroes, Hero-Worship and the Heroic in History. New York: Harvard University, 1841.

2Thomas Carlyle. On Heroes, Hero-Worship and the Heroic in History.

3John Dryden. “Themistocles.” The Internet Classic Archive. 2009. Web.

4John Dryden.”Themistocles”

5John Dryden. ”Themistocles”

6John Dryden. ”Themistocles”

7John Dryden. ”Themistocles”

8John Dryden.”Themistocles”

9John Dryden. ”Themistocles”

10 John Dryden. ”Themistocles”

11John Dryden. ”Themistocles”

12John Dryden.”Themistocles”

13 John Dryden. “Caesar” The Internet Classic Archive. 2009. Web.

14 John Dryden. “Caesar”

15 John Dryden. “Caesar”

16 John Dryden. “Caesar”

17 John Dryden. “Caesar”

18 John Dryden. “Caesar”

19 John Dryden. “Caesar”

20 John Dryden. “Caesar”

21 John Dryden. “Caesar”

22 John Dryden. “Caesar”

23 John Dryden. “Pericles” The Internet Classic Archive.2009. Web.

24 John Dryden. “Pericles”

25 John Dryden. “Pericles”

26 John Dryden. “Pericles”

27 John Dryden. “Pericles”

28 John Dryden. “Pericles”

29 John Dryden. “Pericles”

30 John Dryden. “Pericles”

31 John Dryden. “Pericles”

32 John Dryden. “Pericles”

33 John Dryden. “Pericles”

34 John Dryden. “Pericles”

35 Paul Halsall. “Suetonius: De Vita Caesarum – Nero.” Internet Ancient History Sourcebook, 2000. Web.

36 Paul Halsall. “Suetonius: De Vita Caesarum – Nero.”

37 Paul Halsall. “Suetonius: De Vita Caesarum – Nero.”

38 Paul Halsall. “Suetonius: De Vita Caesarum – Nero.”

39 Paul Halsall. “Suetonius: De Vita Caesarum – Nero.”

40 Paul Halsall. “Suetonius: De Vita Caesarum – Nero.”

41 Paul Halsall. “Suetonius: De Vita Caesarum – Nero.”

Works Cited

Carlyle, Thomas. On Heroes, Hero-Worship and the Heroic in History. New York: Harvard University, 1841.

Dryden, John. “The Internet Classic Archive, 2009. Web.

Dryden, John. “The Internet Classic Archive, 2009. Web.

Dryden, John. “The Internet Classic Archive, 2009. Web.

Halsall, Paul. “Internet Ancient History Sourcebook, 2000. Web.

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"The Great Person Theory: Is it a Valid Interpretation of History?" IvyPanda, 13 Jan. 2020, ivypanda.com/essays/the-great-person-theory-is-it-a-valid-interpretation-of-history/.

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IvyPanda. 2020. "The Great Person Theory: Is it a Valid Interpretation of History?" January 13, 2020. https://ivypanda.com/essays/the-great-person-theory-is-it-a-valid-interpretation-of-history/.

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