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Key Leaders in European History


For better or worse, it is usually the leaders and rulers – be they democratically elected prime ministers or autocratic monarchs – who headline the history of their region or area. Europe has seen many different types of leaders, each with their own quirks and level of success. These, in chronological order, are key figures.

Alexander the Great 356 – 323 BCE

Already an acclaimed warrior before succeeding to the throne of Macedonia in 336 BCE, Alexander carved out both a massive empire which reached from Greece into India and a reputation as one of history’s greatest generals. He founded many cities and exported Greek language, culture and thought across the Empire, beginning the Hellenistic era. He was also interested in science and his expeditions stimulated discoveries. He did all this in just twelve years of rule, dying at age 33.

Julius Caesar c.100 – 44 BCE

A great general and statesman, Caesar would probably still be highly revered even if he hadn’t written histories of his own great conquests. A highlight reel of a career saw him conquer Gaul, win a civil war against Roman rivals and be appointed dictator for life of the Roman republic. He is often mistakenly called the first Roman Emperor, but he set in motion the process of transformation which led to empire. However, he didn’t defeat all his enemies, as he was assassinated in 44 BCE by a group of senators who thought he had become too powerful.

Augustus (Octavian Caesar) 63 BCE – 14 CE

The grand-nephew of Julius Caesar and his main heir, Octavian proved himself a superb politician and strategist from a young age, steering himself through wars and rivalries to become the single dominant man in, and first emperor of, the new Roman Empire. He was also an administrator of genius, transforming and stimulating almost every aspect of the empire. He avoided the excesses of later emperors, and accounts suggest he avoided indulging in personal luxury.

Constantine the Great (Constantine I) c. 272 – 337 CE

The son of an army officer who was raised to the position of Caesar, Constantine went on to reunite the Roman Empire under the rule of one man: himself. He founded a new imperial capital in the east, Constantinople (home of the Byzantine Empire), and enjoyed military victories, but it is one key decision that has made him such an important figure: he was the first emperor of Rome to adopt Christianity, contributing greatly to its spread across Europe.

Clovis c. 466 – 511

As king of the Salian Franks, Clovis conquered the other Frankish groups to create one kingdom with much of its land in modern France; in doing so he established the Merovingian dynasty which ruled until the seventh century. He is also remembered for changing to Catholic Christianity, possibly after dabbling with Arianism. In France he is considered by many to be the founder of the nation, while some in Germany also claim him as a key figure.

Charlemagne 747 - 814

Inheriting part of the Frankish kingdom in 768, Charlemagne was soon ruler of the whole lot, a dominion which he expanded to include much of western and central Europe: he is often named as Charles I in lists of the rulers of France, Germany and the Holy Roman Empire. Indeed, he was crowned by the Pope as a Roman Emperor on Christmas Day 800. A later exemplar of good leadership, he prompted religious, cultural and political developments.

Ferdinand and Isabella of Spain 1452 – 1516 / 1451 - 1504

The marriage of Ferdinand II of Aragon and Isabella I of Castile united two of the leading kingdoms of Spain; by the time both had died in 1516 they had ruled much of the peninsular and established the kingdom of Spain itself. Their influence was global, as they supported the voyages of Christopher Columbus and laid the foundation for the Spanish Empire.

Henry VIII of England 1491 - 1547

Henry is probably the most famous monarch of all in the English speaking world, largely thanks to an ongoing interest into his six wives (two of which were executed for adultery) and a stream of media adaptations. He also both caused and oversaw the English Reformation, producing a mixture of Protestant and Catholic, engaged in wars, built up the navy and promoted the position of monarch as the head of the nation. He has been called a monster and one of the nation’s best kings.

Charles V of the Holy Roman Empire 1500 – 1558

Inheriting not just the Holy Roman Empire but the kingdom of Spain and a role as Archduke of Austria, Charles ruled the greatest concentration of European lands since Charlemagne. He fought hard to hold these lands together and keep them Catholic, resisting pressure from Protestants, as well as political and military pressure from France and Turks. Eventually it became too much and he abdicated, retiring to a monastery.

Elizabeth I of England 1533 - 1603

Barrie / Library of Congress
Barrie / Library of Congress
The third child of Henry VIII to take to the throne, Elizabeth lasted the longest and oversaw a period which has been called a Golden Age for England, as the nation’s stature in culture and power grew. Elizabeth had to forge a new impression of the monarchy to counter fears that she was a woman; her control of her portrayal was so successful she established an image which in many ways lasts to this day.
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