Big Bastards: 10 of History's Most Influential Illegitimate Children
Big Bastards: 10 of History’s Most Influential Illegitimate Children

Big Bastards: 10 of History’s Most Influential Illegitimate Children

Khalid Elhassan - February 8, 2018

Big Bastards: 10 of History’s Most Influential Illegitimate Children
Ptolemy I Soter. Flickr

The Founder of the Hellenistic World’s Greatest Dynasty

Ptolemy I Soter, Greek for “Ptolemy the Savior” (367 – 282 BC), was a Macedonian general and close companion of Alexander the Great. After Alexander’s death, Ptolemy was one of the three Diadochi, or successors, who carved up Alexander’s empire, taking Egypt as his share. He founded the Ptolemaic Dynasty, which ruled Egypt for three centuries, before ending with Queen Cleopatra’s suicide and the annexation of Egypt to the Roman Empire in 30 BC.

Ptolemy was born out of wedlock to a concubine presented by a nobleman to King Phillip II of Macedon, the father of Alexander the Great. Ptolemy’s father is unknown, and some ancient sources claim that his mother was already pregnant when she was gifted to Phillip II. Others assert that it was Phillip who impregnated her – which would make Ptolemy the biological half-brother of Alexander the Great.

Whatever his parentage, Ptolemy was born in Phillip’s household, and was educated as a royal page in the Macedonian court. There, he befriended the crown prince, Alexander, and the duo remained close companions until the latter’s death. When Alexander took the crown, Ptolemy became one of his seven somatophylakes – trusted Macedonian nobles who served as the king’s bodyguards, and also as generals holding command positions.

Ptolemy served Alexander well during his conquests. Among his notable achievements were the capture of the assassins of the defeated Persian king Darius III, meritorious service in the subjugation of Persia, and command of the Macedonian fleet in the Indian campaign. Ptolemy was held in high esteem by Alexander, who praised, rewarded, and decorated him on various occasions.

When Alexander died in 323 BC, Ptolemy realized that nobody could control the vast empire the conqueror had left behind. So he convinced Alexander’s generals to divide it amongst themselves and ended up with Egypt and the surrounding Libyan and Arabian regions. A capable and shrewd ruler, Ptolemy adopted policies that won over the native Egyptian population. After consolidating his power at home, he methodically seized Cyprus, Syria, and parts of Asia Minor, and transformed his domain into a powerful Hellenistic kingdom.

Ptolemy also intercepted and hijacked the corpse of Alexander the Great while it was being transported for burial in Macedonia, and took it to Alexandria. There, he enhanced his capital’s prestige by building a magnificent mausoleum in the center of the Alexandria, in which the preserved corpse of the great conqueror was put on display for visitors.

Alexander’s generals eventually fell out amongst themselves and went to war against each other. The Nile Valley’s isolation was advantageous to Ptolemy during those turbulent decades. From his relatively secure power base in Egypt, Ptolemy alternated between war and diplomacy to expand or protect his domain. However, he suffered a major naval defeat in 306 BC, that forced him to give up on expansion. For the final decades of his life, he relied on diplomacy and marriage alliances to secure what he already had. At his death in 282 BC, he left behind the most secure and stable of the newly created Hellenistic powers, and the Ptolemaic Dynasty established by him outlasted all of its Hellenistic peers.

Big Bastards: 10 of History’s Most Influential Illegitimate Children
T. E. Lawrence. Imperial War Museum

Lawrence of Arabia

Thomas Edward Lawrence (1888 – 1935) was the fifth illegitimate son of Sir Thomas Chapman, a married baronet who left his family for his daughters’ governance, Lawrence’s mother. Assuming the mother’s surname, the couple lived together and raised a family as “Mr. and Mrs. Lawrence”, without marrying. They eventually settled in Oxford, where Thomas Edward, who preferred going by his initials T.E., attended college.

Lawrence was a history buff from early on, with a particular fondness for Medieval and military architecture. He also loved traveling, so he combined his two interests by spending much of his youth exploring old churches and castles. He traveled to France to study Medieval fortifications, and to Syria and Palestine to study Crusader castles. He submitted a thesis on the subject that earned him a history degree with honors from Oxford, in 1910.

He then secured a traveling fellowship and joined an archaeological expedition that excavated Hittite settlements on the Euphrates, from 1911 to 1914. In his free time, he traveled around the Middle East, getting to know the region and its people. The lands in which he worked and traveled was part of the Ottoman Empire, of whose leanings in case of a general European war the British were unsure. So Lawrence, under the guise of scholarly pursuits, also undertook map-making reconnaissance missions in Ottoman territories, whose results proved extremely valuable in WWI.

When that conflict began in 1914, T.E. Lawrence joined the British War Office as a civilian employee, tasked with preparing militarily useful maps of the Middle East. Sent to Cairo, his knowledge of the region and fluency in Arabic proved valuable to the war effort. He interviewed Turkish POWs and agents operating behind enemy lines, and gained considerable knowledge of Turkish military positions and strengths.

In 1916, he was sent to Arabia, where Hussein ibn Ali, the ruler of Mecca and the surrounding region, had raised an Arab revolt against his Turkish overlords. Lawrence urged his superiors to back the Arabs, and make use of their aspirations for independence to further the British war effort. His advice was heeded, and Lawrence joined the Arab Revolt as a political and liaison officer. That was when his legend took off, and he was transformed from T.E. Lawrence to Lawrence of Arabia.

Lawrence helped organize the Arab tribesmen into an effective guerrilla force that operated behind Turkish lines in hit and run attacks that blew up vital rail lines, destroyed bridges, and raided enemy supplies. Lawrence, the historian, archaeologist, and scholar, discovered a knack for guerrilla warfare. Between setting an example with his own courage when the tribesmen’s spirits flagged, and bribing their cynical leaders with gold when they lost heart, he kept the rebellion going.

In November of 1917, he was captured by the Turks while spying out one of their positions in Arab garb. His captors flogged, tortured, and sodomized him before he managed to escape. The experience left physical scars, as well as psychic wounds that never healed. It did not stop him from returning to the revolt, however. With his assistance, the Arab forces discomfited the Turks, tied down a significant part of their military strength behind the lines in security operations, and helped bring about final Turkish defeat.

After the war, the Allies betrayed the Arabs, and reneged on their promises of independence, carving up most of the Middle East amongst themselves instead. Disillusioned, Lawrence returned to Britain, where he lobbied in vain for Arab independence. He also wrote his memoirs, The Seven Pillars of Wisdom, which flew off the bookshelves, becoming an international best seller and transforming Lawrence, already famous, into a bona fide legend. He sought to escape the public glare by enlisting under an assumed name as an ordinary airman in the RAF, and then as a private soldier in the British Army, from 1922 to 1935. He left the service in 1935, planning an early retirement to his dream home, only to die soon thereafter in a motorcycle accident.

Big Bastards: 10 of History’s Most Influential Illegitimate Children
Alexander Hamilton. Business Insider

The Secretary of Treasury Who Played an Outsized Role in Shaping America

Alexander Hamilton (1757 – 1804) was once described in the day’s scurrilous and often vicious press as a “Bastard, Orphan, Son of a Whore“. Born in the West Indies, he was the second of two illegitimate children fathered upon an already-married woman by a Scottish drifting merchant, who abandoned his mistress and offspring in 1765.

Hamilton grew up in penury, and at age 11, went to work as a clerk in a counting-house. He demonstrated exceptional talent, and by age 15 had advanced from clerk to manager. The following year, he was sent to study in New York’s King’s College (today’s Columbia University). He shone academically, but his studies were interrupted by the brewing revolt that ultimately erupted into the American Revolution. Ever precocious, by age 17 he was writing and publishing widely read pamphlets supporting the Patriot cause.

When fighting began, Hamilton secured a commission in 1776 as a captain of artillery, and organized his own company. He attracted George Washington’s attention at the Battle of Trenton when he displayed conspicuous bravery in preventing the British from crossing a river. Soon thereafter, he was invited to join Washington’s staff as an aide-de-camp. Hamilton performed valuable service for Washington, who sent him on numerous special missions. His fluency in French also fitted him well for the role of liaison officer between Washington and his French allies. In the war’s decisive battle, at Yorktown in 1781, Hamilton led a battalion in capturing a vital fortification, rendering the position of the besieged British untenable, and forcing their surrender.

After the war, Hamilton went into politics, and played the leading role in authoring a series of influential articles, eventually collected as the Federalist Papers, that laid the groundwork for ratifying the US Constitution. President George Washington picked Hamilton as America’s first Secretary of the Treasury, and he pushed through a program that put the new nation on a sound financial footing, after years of economic chaos.

Hamilton also convinced Congress to charter a Bank of the United States, as a means to solidify a partnership between the federal government and the business classes. He was challenged that the bank was unconstitutional because it was mentioned nowhere in the document. In reply, he advanced the argument that the Constitution was the source not only of enumerated powers, but also implied powers necessary to carry out the enumerated powers. Hamilton’s doctrine of implied powers exists to this day, as the basis for interpreting and expanding the Constitution.

Along the way, Hamilton made many enemies, of whom Aaron Burr turned out to be the deadliest. Although both belonged to the Federalist Party, Hamilton opposed Burr’s 1804 candidacy to New York’s governorship and urged the election of his Republican opponent. After losing the election, Burr challenged Hamilton to a duel over offending remarks made at a dinner party. Hamilton accepted the challenge, and on July 11th, 1804, the duo met in New Jersey, where Burr shot Hamilton dead.

Also Read: Alexander Wasn’t the Only Hamilton to Fall in a Duel.

Big Bastards: 10 of History’s Most Influential Illegitimate Children
Eva Peron (centre), wife of the President of Argentina, surrounded by priests as she leaves the Notre Dame Cathedral, Paris, July 24th 1947. Getty Images

Eva Peron

Eva Peron, usually referred to as Evita (1919 – 1952), was the wife of Argentine president Juan Peron, and First Lady of Argentina from 1946 until her death. An illegitimate child, born and raised in grinding poverty in rural Argentina, Evita remembered her origins, and did not turn her back on the poor and disadvantaged after rising to power. She became a popular political leader, revered by the lower classes.

Evita’s mother was the mistress of a wealthy and married rancher, who fathered five illegitimate offspring upon her, and maintained her and their children as a second family. Evita was the last of them, but shortly after her birth, her father abandoned his mistress and illegitimate brood, and returned to his legal family. As a result, Evita grew up in abject poverty, and from an early age was put to work as a serving girl in nearby ranches.

While toiling, she dreamt of becoming a famous actress, and at age 15, she ran away with a musician to Buenos Aires to pursue her dreams. The Argentine Capital was known as the “Paris of South America”, with a vibrant cultural scene featuring theaters, cafes, and cinemas. It also featured unemployment, poverty, and hunger, and many new arrivals such as Evita were forced to live in crowded slums and shantytowns referred to as villas miserias (“misery villages”).

Evita eventually broke into the acting world, and landed gigs on the stage, in radio productions, and finally made it to the silver screen. She attracted the attention of a rising political star, Colonel Juan Peron, and the two married in 1945. The following year, he ran for president, and Evita played a prominent role in the campaign. Unlike other political wives, who were nearly all drawn from Argentina’s bourgeoisie and wealthy elites, Evita knew and connected with the lower classes, having been born and raised as one of them. As a result, she became wildly popular with the masses, particularly the poor and working-class, often referred to as descamisados, or “shirtless ones”.

After her husband was elected president in 1946, Evita ran the Argentine Ministries of Health and Labor. She spoke up for labor rights and built a power base within Argentina’s trade union movement. She also advocated for women’s rights and women’s suffrage and founded Argentina’s first female political party. Her instincts and politics were with the underdog, which made her immensely popular with wide swathes of the Argentine public.

In 1951, Evita announced her candidacy for Argentina’s vice presidency and seemed a shoo in because of her widespread popularity with the Peronist base. However, she was diagnosed with cancer, and between that and vehement opposition from Argentina’s upper classes and the military, she withdrew her candidacy. The following year, shortly before cancer claimed her life at age 33, Argentina’s Congress bestowed upon Eva Peron the title “Spiritual Leader of the Nation”.

Big Bastards: 10 of History’s Most Influential Illegitimate Children
Leonardo da Vinci. The Daily Express

History’s Greatest Artist

Leonardo da Vinci (1452 – 1519) was the epitome of a “Renaissance Man”. While best known as the painter of sublime works such as the Mona Lisa, the Last Supper, and Vitruvian Man, he excelled in numerous other fields. Indeed, he combined in a single person not only one of history’s greatest painters, but also an outstanding sculptor, architect, inventor, anatomist, paleontologist, draftsman, musician, mathematician, and military engineer.

He was born out of wedlock to a wealthy Florentine legal notary, and a peasant girl whom contemporaries described as possessing “easy virtue”. Other than getting together one day and conceiving Leonardo, the future artist’s parents do not seem to have had much of a relationship. Leonardo spent the first five years of his life in his mother’s hamlet, after which he went to live in his father’s household in the town of Vinci.

Leonardo’s parents did provide him with seventeen half brothers and sisters, who were not too fond of their illegitimate half brother. Indeed, they seem to have been embarrassed by him as a stain on the family honor. Particularly so with his paternal half-siblings, who conspired to deprive Leonardo of a share of their father’s estate after the latter’s death in 1503.

By then, however, Leonardo was the age’s greatest artist and a considerably wealthy man in his own right. Thus, getting screwed out of his father’s inheritance mattered little financially, although it must have stung emotionally. He did get back some measure of satisfaction after a wealthy uncle died a few years later, and left his entire estate to Leonardo, while disinheriting all his other nephews and nieces.

Big Bastards: 10 of History’s Most Influential Illegitimate Children
Francesco Sforza. Wikimedia

The Renaissance’s Greatest Mercenary

Renaissance Italy’s most successful condottiero, or soldier of fortune, was Francesco Sforza (1401 – 1466), who led a fascinating life full of twists and turns, and capped it by rising to the heights of power. Sforza rose through the ranks to become a mercenary general, turning on his employers whenever opportune, and switched sides multiple times. In the end, he made himself duke of Milan, and founded the Sforza Dynasty which ruled that city and influenced Italian politics for a century.

Sforza was the illegitimate son of a mercenary commander, and he began accompanying his father on military campaigns at age 17. He quickly developed a reputation for toughness and strength, and became famous for his ability to bend metal bars with his bare hands. After his father drowned during a battle against a rival in 1424, Sforza took command of his father’s mercenaries. He proved himself a brilliant tactician and battlefield commander, and went on to win the battle, killing his father’s rival in the process.

Sforza then signed on to fight for multiple Italian rulers, including the Pope, the Neapolitans, and duke Visconti of Milan, whom Sforza fought alternately for and against during the next two decades. In 1433, during one of the intervals when Sforza got along well with the Duke of Milan, he got engaged to Visconti’s illegitimate daughter and only child.

The following year, however, Sforza switched sides and left the duke of Milan’s employ for that of his rival, Cosimo de Medici of Florence. In 1438, Sforza fought for Florence against his prospective father in law, and inflicted crushing defeats on Milan. In 1441, he patched things up with Milan’s duke, and finally married his daughter, but two years later, in 1443, he again switched sides and fought against his now-father-in-law.

When the duke of Milan died in 1447 without a male heir, the Milanese rebelled and proclaimed a republic, and hired Sforza as their military commander. A three-sided struggle then ensued between the Milanese republic, the rival city of Venice, and Sforza. When the Milanese signed peace with Venice in 1449 against Sforza’s wishes, he turned on his employers and switched sides, this time backing himself. He besieged Milan, starved it into submission, and entered the city in 1450 as its new duke.

Francesco Sforza’s shrewdness, opportunism, and successful deviousness made him the exemplar and model of Machiavelli’s Prince. He won his state by dint of his exceptional ability and skill rather than through luck or inheriting it by winning the lottery of birth. He then went on to consolidate his gains and secure them sufficiently to found a dynasty.

Big Bastards: 10 of History’s Most Influential Illegitimate Children
A seal impression showing Cambyses II capturing Egyptian Pharaoh Psamtik III. Fact Republic

Ancient History’s Most Influential Turncoat Mercenary

One of history’s earliest influential bastards was Phanes of Halicarnassus (flourished 6th century BC), a Greek mercenary general of great renown, who served Egyptian Pharaoh Amasis II (570 – 524 BC). Phanes turned on his employers, and during a war between Egypt and Persia, he switched sides. Abandoning the Egyptians, Phanes joined the army of king Cambyses II of Persia, and played an instrumental role in helping the Persians defeat the Greek mercenary’s former employers and paymasters.

The conflict between Egypt and the rising Persian Empire supposedly started because of the intrigues of a disgruntled Egyptian physician in the Persian court. The physician was angry at Pharaoh Amasis for selecting him, out of all of Egypt’s physicians, to get dragged away from his family and sent to Persia when Cambyses wrote Amasis asking for an eye doctor. So the physician got his payback by advising the Persian king to ask for Amasis’ favorite daughter. He knew that the request would put Amasis in a bind: accept and grow wretched at the loss of his daughter, or refuse, and offend Cambyses.

Amasis did not want to send his beloved daughter to Persia, particularly because he knew that Cambyses intended her for a mere concubine. However, he was also intimidated by Persia’s power. So he fudged, and sent the daughter of a former Pharaoh, claiming that she was Amasis’ own. That backfired, because soon as she reached Persia, the former princess told Cambyses that Amasis had tried to fob him off with somebody else’s daughter. That greatly upset Cambyses – who was itching for an excuse to conquer Egypt, anyhow – so he declared war and prepared to invade Amasis’ kingdom.

As Amasis gathered his forces and prepared Egypt’s defenses, he managed to offend Phanes, and the disgruntled Greek general switched sides and set out to join the Persians and their king. Amasis sent assassins to kill or capture Phanes before he reached Cambyses, but after harrowing adventures, including an escape from captivity by getting his guards drunk, Phanes managed to reach the Persians.

Cambyses was trying to figure out the best invasion route into Egypt, and Phanes recommended a route through Arab tribal lands. He advised the Persian king to seek safe passage from their rulers, and to sweeten the request with generous gifts. Cambyses heeded Phanes’ advice, and the Arabs gladly granted him and his armies safe conduct through their territory.

By then, Amasis had died, and he was succeeded as pharaoh by his son, Psamtik III. Enraged at Phanes, Psamtik tricked the Greek general’s sons into meeting with him, took them captive, and had them executed. Then, as an object lesson to would-be traitors, he had their blood drained and mixed with wine, which he quaffed down and made his subordinates drink as well.

Phanes got his revenge by leading the Persian army into Egypt, acting as Cambyses’ guide and military advisor. With the Greek general’s assistance, the Persians defeated Psamtik’s forces, and forced him to retreat to his capital, where they besieged and eventually captured him. Phanes then engineered the execution of his sons’ murderer by uncovering and informing Cambyses of a plot by the captive pharaoh to stir up a revolt.

Big Bastards: 10 of History’s Most Influential Illegitimate Children
Blackbeard. ThoughtCo

History’s Most Famous Pirate

Edward Thatch, better known as Blackbeard (circa 1680 – 1718), is probably the best-known pirate of all time. His early life is shrouded in mystery, but he started his seafaring career as a privateer – private citizens issued letters of marque by their sovereigns, authorizing them to prey on enemy shipping. In 1716, he joined the crew of the pirate Benjamin Hornigold, who mentored Blackbeard and taught him the ropes of piracy. Blackbeard showed himself capable, and rose rapidly to become Hornigold’s first mate. Soon, he rose even further and became second in command, entrusted with his own sloop to operate in conjunction with Hornigold’s main ship.

Blackbeard went out of his way to ensure that his appearance was both noticeable and terrifying to his opponents. His greatest defining feature, and the source of the name by which he became famous or infamous, was a thick and long black beard. Blackbeard was in the habit of plaiting his beard into braids, and decorating each braid with colorful ribbons.

His already ferocious appearance was further enhanced by slinging six pistols across his chest, thrusting a variety of knives and daggers into his belt and boots, and carrying a wicked-looking cutlass. To top it off, he attached slow-burning matches to his beard, which sputtered and sent forth clouds of thick smoke, which made him appear even more demonic. It was a psychologically effective display, and many ships surrendered as soon as they caught sight of the ferocious, crazy-looking, and smoke-spewing pirate.

After his mentor Hornigold retired from piracy in 1717, Blackbeard continued his piratical career, now acting independently on his own hook. Soon thereafter, he seized a French ship, which he remodeled and equipped with 40 cannons, renamed her the Queen Anne’s Revenge, and made her his flagship. Blackbeard then formed a pirate alliance and used it to commit his most notorious act: a successful blockade of Charleston, South Carolina. He held the city hostage, wreaking havoc on the seaborne trade and commerce upon which its economy depended until he was paid a ransom.

Blackbeard accepted a royal pardon in 1718, but earning an honest living did not agree with him, so he changed his mind soon thereafter, reneged on the pardon, and went back to piracy. Virginia’s governor then ordered an expedition to hunt him down, led by Lieutenant Robert Maynard of the Royal Navy. Maynard tracked Blackbeard with two sloops, and found him on November 22nd, 1718, at anchor on the inner side of Ocracoke Island, off North Carolina. Most of Blackbeard’s men were ashore at the time, so he found himself severely outnumbered when Lieutenant Maynard’s expedition hove into view. Nonetheless, the notorious pirate refused to surrender and put up a ferocious fight before he finally went down on the deck of his ship, after taking five bullets and over twenty sword cuts.

Read More: Female Pirates Who Were Every Bit as Fearsome as Blackbeard.

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Sources & Further Reading

Annotated Prince – Francisco Sforza: War Lord Prince of Milan

Chernow, Ron – Washington, a Life (2010)

Encyclopedia Britannica – Ptolemy I Soter

Hamilton, Alexander – Federalist Papers

Herodutus – The Histories, Book 3

History – Leonardo da Vinci – Facts and Summary

Lind, Michael – Hamilton’s Legacy

Mental Floss – 13 Things You Might Not Know About Eva Peron

PBS – Lawrence of Arabia

Queen Anne’s Revenge Project – Blackbeard: History of the Dreaded Pirate

Sepulveda, Alfredo – ­Bernardo O’Higgins: The Rebel Son of a Viceroy

Wikipedia – William the Conqueror

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