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The Great Person Theory Definition

Everything in this world has a history. How is history formed is a topic long debated by historians. Historians believe in different theories behind the formation of history. These theories have led to controversies like the dependability versus unreliability of their reasoning. A few historians, including ancient and modern, believe that the history of this world was formed as a result of the thoughts and actions of certain great people in the past, who influenced the events of their times. This theory is called the ‘Great Person Theory.’ Modern historians like Plutarch and Suetonius, and modern historians like Thomas Carlyle support this theory. They believe that if these great people were absent or their actions were changed due to some reason, world history would have undergone drastic changes. Carlyle says that the biographies of such people form history.

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A few other historians argue that the history of the world is not merely the stories of the lives of great persons in the past. There are powers much more important and stronger than ordinary human beings which created history as it is now. This theory can be called the ‘Great Movement theory’ or ‘Influential-times theory.’ According to them, various other factors like religious, political, and social ones, led to it and these factors are above the power of ordinary men. What they argue is that the great people of the past had no direct relation in influencing world history. Human beings are only a part of it. Even if a great hero was absent in the events, these factors would have been responsible for replacing the role with someone else. The replaced character would have acted the same way, thus molding the same history. Some contemporary historians also take a diplomatic stand by supporting both the theories, to avoid conflicts and controversies. There are many more theories relating to the formation of the history of the world, like the ‘Conflict theory’ and the ‘Social Evolution theory.’ This paper analyses and discusses the Great Person theory.

Despite the arguments supporting the other theories, the Great Person theory seems to provide better examples from history proving that individuals indeed influenced the events of the past. These individuals need not necessarily be heroes or good people. Any person who was important in his time is responsible for the formation. Their actions result in certain events on which depends the rest of the incident. There are ample examples of this in Greek and Roman philosophy, written by Plutarch and Suetonius. Their works include biographies of great historical characters who either due to their thoughtful action or courage shaped history in such a way as it is known now. These men are so important in the events of their times, that it is doubtful if things would have happened the same way if they were not present in those events.

The first example will be shown in the life of Themistocles who saved Greece from the invasion of the mighty Persian Empire. Plutarch, in his work about Themistocles’ biography, writes about the qualities in Themistocles, which helped Athens win the war over the Greeks. The war is mentioned only to explain his highly ambitious character and intelligence. Themistocles of Athens was the man who suggested the Athenians use their income from the silver mines to focus on building a strong naval army. He knew that fighting inland would just bring immediate defeat to Athens since the Persians totally outnumbered the Athenians. Besides his ability to sense danger, he had another virtue which was ambition. Plutarch stated, “There is no one is more ambitious than Themistocles.” (Plutarch). According to Plutarch, Themistocles would never back down before he completed his objectives. In fact, when he noticed that it was almost impossible to persuade the Athenians to abandon their city, Themistocles then used a trick that was related to religious signs in order to make them stick with his plan. He would also send his spies to tell lies to the enemy. Finally, his brilliance was seen at the highest, during the battle of Salamis. Thousands of Persian fleets were destroyed by the Athenians who had fewer but better ships. This was the moment when Themistocles became the champion of all Greece.

Though none of the wars are explained in detail, mere narrations about the role of Themistocles complete the events in the wars. He played an inevitable role in it. In his book, Plutarch says, “This is why Themistocles is held to be responsible, more than anyone else, for the preservation of Greece, and to have played a particularly important part in bringing about the general recognition of the Athenians’ superiority to their enemies in courage and to their allies in diplomacy.” (Waterfield, 1998, 79). If Themistocles didn’t come up with the idea and the Persians defeated the Athenians in the last battle of Salamis, Western civilization would have gone in a totally different direction. Had he not been so highly ambitious, he would have accepted defeat very soon. Because of Themistocles, the Athenians became the first people in the history of western civilization who had very high confidence in themselves. They believed that they were at the center of the world while the outsiders were sought as “barbarians.” This confidence later became the foundation of further western expansions to the rest of the world. Had he not been so highly ambitious, he would have accepted defeat very soon.

Plutarch provides another example for this theory in his work about the life of Alexander the Great. At the beginning of his work, he writes that it is the only biography and not writing of history. His collection of nine Greek lives creates history as such, though. He arranges his biographies in chronological order, thereby which the book reads like a work about history. It is his brilliance that results in such books, which indirectly emphasize and support the Great Person theory. Alexander, who was taught by Aristotle, makes his first success when Macedonians rebelled against him. He defeated them and created a mixed population in the place. He renamed it Alexandroupolis. The ‘Alexander’s Oak’ still is of historical importance, because it was against it that he built his tent during the battle against the Greeks. Soon, Alexander carried out many wars, in which he captured more lands. He too was as ambitious and courageous as Themistocles. Before his expedition to the East, he went to the Delphi to know if his decision is right, and when he pesters her, the Delphi says, “’You are invincible, my son.’ On hearing this, Alexander declared that this was the only prophecy he needed—that she had given him the response he wanted.” (Waterfield). When Alexander fought against Darius, his tactics marked Darius’s defeat at the hands of Alexander. Alexander showed great confidence in every battle that he fought even when outnumbered by his opponents.

Plutarch again uses the technique of just mentioning the battles which he fought during his life. However, his qualities and character are given importance when writing his biography. His qualities, like, self-restraint and confidence are explained in detail. Describing his character gives the correct accounts of all his battles, victories, and defeats. The Mediterranean history and parts of Asia’s (which he conquered) history are developed through his biography. After his first victory, the place that he defeated was renamed Alexandroupolis. Had he not attempted to repress the rebellion, the name, and history of the place would have been different. A ruler with another name would not have renamed it Alexandroupolis. Alexander’s Oak would not have become famous if he had not pitched his tent there. It would have had no relevance at all. Delphi’s comment was as important in his life as it is in using it as evidence to support the Great Person theory.

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A third example is provided by Suetonius in his biography of Julius Caesar. Caesar was removed from his sacerdotal office and sent off from Rome by Sylla because he refused to divorce his wife. Sylla, at a later stage, tells his saviors that, “Your suit is granted, and you may take him among you, but know,” he added, “that this man, for whose safety you are so extremely anxious, will, someday or other, be the ruin of the party of the nobles, in defense of which you are leagued with me; for in this one Caesar, you will find many a Marius.” (Suetonius). Caesar was a highly ambitious person, and therefore had many defects in his character. For example, women were his addiction. Suspicion falls on him for conspiring with Marcus Crassus, immediately after he enters aedileship.

He was opposed by the nobles when he made efforts to annex Egypt to his province. He faced many allegations and oppositions at various points of his life. He was adamant in all his decisions. Pompey was defeated by him in Pharsalia, in a battle. In spite of occasional troubles, he was called the ‘Father of his country,’ probably because he always stood for justice. However, people were not completely satisfied with his rule, which was the reason for conspiring against him. He received warnings about his death, but he ignored all of them. Caesar was confident about his friends and believed they would not stab him from behind. Brutus and his companions soon after assassinated him and declared that he was killed because he was ambitious and that would have bad effects on Rome. His heir was decided as Pompey.

Caesar’s life is inevitable in Roman history because his biography forms a part of it. A new period was given rise to in Rome when Caesar and Pompey ended the civil war. If Caesar had not been so very ambitious, he would not commit so many mistakes, which won him the displeasure of his own people. They would surely not have planned to kill him, only if he had been a bit more popular. Moreover, if he had taken the warnings seriously, his assassination would not have happened, and Roman history would have taken a different direction. If he had continued his rule, the people would have been ruined because of his ambitious acts.

When discussing the role of Julius Caesar, it is necessary to mention Mark Antony, who with a single speech took the Roman people to his side. The people who were against Caesar were moved by his speech about how cruel it was to have murdered their ruler by his companions. There are many other characters, without whom the history of the world would not be complete. Their actions led to some other action, which marked the crux of world history. A complete collection of their biographies will definitely form the whole history of the world. Had these men been not present, history would have been different.

Keeping aside specific examples, great men of the past took decisions about battles or reformations in their provinces and civilizations. Their courageous and confident actions resulted in drastic changes in these civilizations. Their actions and their consequences led to the formation of continuous common world history, rather than separate histories for each community. If history was based on religious or political factors alone, each community, state or country would have had separate histories, which has no connection with each other. The men who are the sole reasons for conquering foreign places and thus creating a common story for those places made the world history as it is now. Taking the case of Adam and Eve, who were the first man and women on the earth. Had they not eaten the forbidden fruit, human history would perhaps not even have existed. It was one of their acts that created this history.

Unlike the Great Person theory, the Great Movement theory states that history is not anything about particular a person or his actions, instead it occurs from more powerful factors which are not limited to a nation alone. The causes are wider forces like religious, political, and social. Each part of society reacts differently to these forces. There occur problems in society, and each individual is required to respond to them in his own way. It is impossible that any individual alone gets more importance in it and others are all mere supporters. Here is an example of it. The Spartans wanted to gain more land as their own and for this, they planned to attack her neighbors who were Greeks. What happened was Spartans had to battle a lot many times in order to gain control over these lands, for which they had to supplement their military troup with more people. This was done by introducing certain outdated social institutions into the Spartan society. In this case, the whole society and its people were factors in shaping their history.

A problem of the population was handled in Athens by making political and economic changes in the society. Athens began to produce agricultural export products, manufactured them, and gave political power to classes that were not earlier given it. Political institutions and economic changes at that time became reasons for the political and economic revolution in Athens. Thus, all the people in Athens gained through this. Society worked together to bring about the necessary changes and not a single individual alone.

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Thus, the supporters of this theory claim that history is not formed as a result of individual work, but as a result of collective work, which happens in societies. Every individual in a society does his part in creating history by reacting in their own personal way to the problems. Religious, economic, social, and political factors which are beyond the powers of an ordinary man, however courageous and confident he is, are the real causes of history. It is not limited to a single nation but is universal. World history as we study it today has been the result of a number of revolutions and wars in which millions of people took part. Their contributions cannot be ignored in the development of world history.

This theory can be questioned based on the examples provided by the supporters as proof. Whose decision was it to wage war against the Greeks? Who took the initiative in Sparta and Athens to introduce new social and political institutions respectively? The leader who was responsible for the deaths of hundreds of innocent Spartans is the one who shaped its history. The leader who was intelligent enough to bring changes in the Athenian society is the one who saved Athena from its problem of population. Historians supporting the Great Person theory reason with clearer claims. Though there are many more other theories about the causes of history, none give as much evidence as to the Great Person theory. The examples of Themistocles, Alexander, and Julius Caesar support this theory strongly enough. To conclude, it can be said that as the Great Person theory seems more logical, the causes of the now existing world history are probably the results of the courageous, confident, and intelligent decisions and acts of great people of the past.


Plutarch. Themistocles, “The Rise and Fall of Athens: Nine Greek Lives.” (Provided by the Customer).

Suetonius. “The Lives of Twelve Caesars.”

Waterfield, Robin. (1998). Greek Lives: A Selection of Nine Greek Lives. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 79.

Waterfield, Robin. Alexander, “Greek Lives: A Selection of Nine Greek Lives.” Plutarch.

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