The Great and the Terrible

The World's Most Glorious and Notorious Rulers and How They Got Their Names


By Joanne O’Sullivan

Illustrated by Udayana Lugo

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This fun, quirky, and engaging fully illustrated history anthology features twenty-five amazing and terrifying rulers for middle grade readers to discover.

We’ve heard of Alexander the Great. We’ve heard of Ivan the Terrible. But what was so Great about Alexander? What was so Terrible about Ivan? Spanning centuries of history in a culturally diverse framework-from ancient India to nineteenth-century Hawaii, and with a balanced focus on notorious women rulers as well as male, The Great and the Terrible takes a humorous look at some of the most glorious and notorious figures in history through the lens of the nicknames they’re remembered by.

While some of the characters mentioned here are more prominent in world history (Cyrus the Great introduced the world’s first human rights charter), others are well known only within their own cultures. The Great and the Terrible gives middle-grade readers an opportunity to dip into the breadth of world history, sampling its cultural diversity and its stranger-than-fiction historical exploits, with a mix of the sensational and the serious. It helps to correct the imbalance in many history books that currently only focus on Western Civilization, shining the spotlight on achievements (and foibles) in many different cultures.



If you had to describe yourself in one word, what would it be? What sums up the very most important thing people should know about you? How would you like to be remembered? Choose thoughtfully. It may be a word that ends up being joined to your name forever.

In this book, you’ll meet some of the most memorable people in history. Good, great, magnificent, and beloved people. Terrible, cruel, and bloodthirsty people. They were all leaders who made an impression that has lasted (some for thousands of years!).

First, consider the greats in the following pages. Each leader here is great in his or her own way. Some have fascinating legends attached to their births or to their lives. (Can the stars really predict when a great person will be born? You’ll have to read to find out.) These leaders come from different places around the world at different periods in history. But there are some things they all have in common: They respected others; often they were big-picture thinkers; they were willing to listen to those they served; they learned from their mistakes; they thought about their actions in the long term, not just about what was beneficial at the moment. Sometimes the change they wanted wouldn’t be achieved in their lifetimes, but they laid the groundwork so that things would be better for those who came after them. When times were tough, these great people rose to the challenges before them.

When you look at the so-called terribles in this book, you’ll find that they also have some things in common. They usually put themselves first. They didn’t have respect for anyone. Instead of learning and changing with the times or the circumstances, they were closed off to new ideas. Some of them would do anything to get what they wanted.

Remember, though, that humans are complicated. Some of the greats you’ll find here did terrible things, too. Some of the terribles weren’t all that bad. Sometimes a person is considered great by one group but terrible by another. There’s a very well-known expression that you’ll want to consider when you read about each of these greats and terribles: “History is written by the victor.” That means that the story we remember about a person or an event may not be the whole story, just one side of it.

As you read this book, be sure to ask yourself: What qualities do you think make a leader great? Who are the greatest heroes in history (or even today), in your opinion? Would you rather have a leader who is powerful or one who is wise? Is it better to break with tradition, to follow it, or to adapt it to suit your circumstances?

And finally, ask yourself: How do you want people to remember you?


Joanne the Curious



REIGN: 1479–1458 BCE

FATHER: Pharaoh Thutmose I / MOTHER: Queen Ahmose


OTHER NAMES: God’s Wife, Lady of the Land to Its Limits, the Great One, the Foremost of Noble Ladies


Hatshepsut (pronounced hat-SHEP-soot) wasn’t the only female leader that Egypt ever had—several women before and after her served as regent for boys who were too young to rule. She also wasn’t the only one with the title “Great Royal Wife.” This was given to the chief wife of each pharaoh (pharaohs typically had many wives). But historians think Hatshepsut was the first Egyptian woman to declare herself pharaoh, the title used for those considered the supreme ruler of Egypt and descendant of the gods. That took some great courage! But it’s also why she was nearly forgotten for thousands of years: archeologists who found carvings of her thought she was actually a man!


Hatshepsut was the daughter of Pharaoh Thutmose I, and it’s said that she was his favorite child. She married her half-brother Thutmose II to keep the royal bloodline going. When he died, though, the throne should have passed to Thutmose III, his son by a lesser wife. But since the boy was too young, Hatshepsut—his stepmother—became regent. It seems that Hatshepsut enjoyed ruling so much that, seven years later, she decided to promote herself to pharaoh.


Most queens wear gowns and fancy jewelry to special court events. But not Hatshepsut. She wore a fake beard. Made from braided goat hair, the beard was positioned on the center of her chin and held in place by a cord that wrapped around her ears. It wasn’t her personal fashion statement by any means. All the pharaohs wore them to symbolize their connection to the bearded Osiris, one of the most important Egyptian gods. In wearing the beard, Hatshepsut was saying, “Forget that I’m a woman. I’m just like every other pharaoh.”

When she was regent, statues and carvings depicted Hatshepsut as a woman. But after she became pharaoh, she was usually depicted in men’s clothing. She even had statues made of her daughter Nefurure wearing male clothing, probably because she hoped that she, too, would one day be pharaoh.

Hatshepsut wasn’t the only woman leader in history who dressed as a man to earn her people’s respect. Women throughout the centuries have led armies into battle while dressed as men. Joan of Arc is the most famous example, but there are many others. Hangaku, the twelfth-century daughter of a Japanese samurai, dressed as a man to help defend Takadachi Castle from attackers. Some women rulers dressed as men for other reasons. Cristina of Sweden—who was often called the “Girl King” or “The King of Sweden”—said men’s clothes were just more comfortable to wear!


In Hatshepsut’s time, nothing said “I’m powerful” like a bunch of building projects. You couldn’t walk a block without finding something under construction during her reign: temples, shrines, or monuments. But pyramids were already so last millennium. Hatshepsut wanted something unique—the biggest, most amazing mortuary temple the world had ever seen. Hatshepsut’s Deir el-Bahri—the first temple in what was later to become the Valley of the Kings—is still considered to be one of the finest ancient buildings in existence. It was built into the side of a giant cliff, commanding attention for miles around. The design features three stories of colonnades and terraces accessed by two long ramps. (In Hatshepsut’s day, there were also elaborate gardens on each terrace. On the bottom floor, there were papyrus pools and frankincense trees from foreign lands.) Outside of the temple, she built matching obelisks, the tallest in the world at the time. In fact, the one that remains standing is still the tallest ancient obelisk in the world.


Hatshepsut wasn’t exactly a humble ruler. For example, she told everyone that her father was actually the god Amun and that he wanted her to be pharaoh. “To look upon her was more beautiful than anything; her splendor and her form were divine,” reads an inscription inside Deir el-Bahri. Historians think Hatshepsut dictated it herself. Also inside the temple are wall carvings telling of her amazing birth, as well as countless statues of her—Hatshepsut as a sphinx; Hatshepsut as a pharaoh; Hatshepsut as the child of a goddess. So many statues were made in her time that there’s hardly a major museum in the world today that doesn’t have a Hatshepsut statue in its collection. There’s even a whole Hatshepsut Room at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City.


Some think that Hatshepsut was the famous Queen of Sheba, who, legend says, won the heart of King Solomon.

The Mystery of the Mummy’s Tooth

There was nothing very special about KV60, an out-of-the-way, dusty tomb in Hatshepsut’s temple. When he opened it in 2006, Dr. Zahi Hawass—one of the world’s foremost Egyptologists—found two female mummies inside: one in a coffin, one lying on the floor. There was no fancy sarcophagus like King Tut’s, no worldly goods left to take into the underworld. Hawass had been looking everywhere for Hatshepsut’s mummy, but it couldn’t be one of these two. Surely the Great Royal Wife had received a better burial than this!

But Hawass also guessed that Hatshepsut’s mummy might have been hidden to protect it from grave robbers, so he checked out the two abandoned mummies anyway. In the mouth of the one on the floor, he found a space for a missing tooth. This reminded him of something: a box with Hatshepsut’s name on it, found in another tomb. The box contained a tooth that fit perfectly in the space in the mummy’s mouth. Using DNA testing that took more than a year to complete, Hawass finally confirmed that the mummy was indeed Hatshepsut. She can now be seen at the Royal Mummy Rooms at the Egyptian Museum in Cairo, looking not as divine as she claimed while she was living, but looking pretty great for someone who’s several thousand years old!

But after Hatshepsut died, someone (possibly her stepson) decided to try to wipe out any trace of her reign as pharaoh. Inscriptions about her and pictures of her were chiseled out of walls. Obelisks and statues from her time were smashed. So much was destroyed that Egyptologists didn’t really know much about her until the nineteenth century. And even though the giant temple of Deir el-Bahri was dedicated to her, archeologists didn’t find her mummy until 2007 (see here).

Hatshepsut’s Legacy

Hatshepsut’s greatest legacy is not her incredible temple, which still stands in Egypt today, but rather her belief that a woman could be just as good a leader as a man.


the chariot was the vehicle of choice in the civilized world

the legendary King Solomon was on the throne in nearby Judea

people in Shang dynasty China were making vessels (such as bowls) out of bronze

a volcano erupted on the Greek island of Santorini. Some say it caused the mythical city of Atlantis to disappear



REIGN: circa 559–529 BCE

FATHER: Cambyses I / MOTHER: Mandane of Media SUCCESSOR: Cambyses II


Cyrus introduced a new idea to the world: that people didn’t have to give up their own culture or beliefs in order to be part of a bigger empire. They could, instead, live harmoniously together under a single ruler. This was the first time in history that had ever happened.


There’s a legend that Cyrus’s grandfather believed he would be dethroned by his grandson, so he wanted to have him killed when he was a baby (see here). But Cyrus grew up to be a great military leader, raising armies and conquering kingdoms. If you look at today’s map, his kingdom would take up all of the Middle East and parts of what’s now Afghanistan. It was the custom that the conquering army took the spoils of those they defeated, such as jewelry, horses, statues, and, of course, land. The leaders of the losing kingdom were usually executed and the people were forced to adopt the religion of the conqueror.

But Cyrus did things differently. After he conquered a kingdom, he let the leader he’d defeated live and then gave him a job, such as governor or advisor. Cyrus directed his armies to give back the spoils that they’d taken. He let the conquered people continue to worship their own gods at their own temples. Cyrus even embraced parts of the cultures he ruled over. It’s said he started wearing clothes like the people in some of his new kingdoms (in earlier days, they would have had to start dressing like him).


Think about the huge distances from one end of Cyrus’s empire and the other. Even today, it would take the better part of a day to cross it in a jet plane. In Cyrus’s day, it would take months. If there was an important message or news that had to get out to all of the empire, there wasn’t a good way to make it happen. So Cyrus started connecting different roads in the empire into one called the Great Royal Road. It was about 1,500 miles long and wasn’t completed until after Cyrus’s death—in the time of a later Persian emperor, Darius the Great. During his rule, though, Cyrus developed what’s considered to be the world’s first postal system. Government messages would be sent out by horse riders and wagons. At post houses positioned along the route, riders waited with fresh horses. They would take the message to the next post house. There were around eighty post houses along the road. The horsemen were said to be very fast, and, like today’s postal service, they delivered the mail no matter the weather.

Cyrus’s biggest conquest was Babylon, which had until then been the world’s most powerful kingdom. The Babylonians had conquered the Jews and were holding them captive. Once Cyrus took charge of Babylon, though, he let the Jews go free so they could return to their homeland. This story was so important to the Jewish people that it even appears in the Old Testament of the Bible.


In 1879, while British archeologists were uncovering the ruins of Babylon, they found a small baked clay object that was less than a foot long. It had tiny cuneiform writing all over it.

When they began to translate the message, they found that it was a declaration from Cyrus, who had conquered the city. It became known as the Cyrus Cylinder.

In the message, Cyrus declared that he was now king, but having conquered this kingdom, he wanted peace. He said that the people of the kingdom were free to choose their own religion and didn’t have to worship his gods. His government wouldn’t look down on the Babylonians or insult them for their beliefs. He also said that he had let captive people go back to their own homelands and restore their temples there. He returned the spoils of war that were taken from the people by his army. He promised his government wouldn’t take land without compensating the owner. He wouldn’t allow any oppression to take place on his watch. If his administrators did oppress people, they would lose their jobs. Finally, he stated there would be no unpaid labor in his kingdom.

Some have called the Cyrus Cylinder the first declaration of human rights. It symbolizes tolerance, diversity, and freedom of religion. Today, the cylinder is on display at the British Museum in London, but there’s also a replica of it at the United Nations in New York City.

Not everyone agrees about the significance of the Cyrus Cylinder. Some say its historical significance has been exaggerated. Others think the cylinder was just propaganda used during Cyrus’s reign. They claim that Cyrus actually was just as bad as other conquerors. Long after he was gone, though, we know from written accounts in several cultures that even his enemies remembered Cyrus as a fair and merciful leader.


A powerful leader inspires awe. Can this person really be human? Or is he or she superhuman? Part god? In many ancient legends, great leaders have amazing origin stories, just as you’d find in a modern-day comic book or movie. Cyrus has a story like that, too.

The story goes that Cyrus’s grandfather, who was a king, had a series of disturbing dreams. When he asked the magi (the wise men at his court) what the dreams could mean, they said that his daughter would have a son who would one day overthrow him.

After Cyrus was born, his grandfather called for a nobleman and ordered him to kill the baby. But, of course, the man couldn’t do it. Some stories say that baby Cyrus was raised by someone else. One version says he was raised by a pack of dogs (think Mowgli in The Jungle Book or Romulus and Remus, the twins who were cofounders of Rome). There’s even a version of the story in which Cyrus is raised by an eagle that found him in the forest.

These stories come from the famed historian Herodotus, who was known to mix mythology into his historical accounts. The idea that a very special person’s life must have had an unusual start is popular in cultures around the world.

Historians say Cyrus understood that he could never impose one culture, language, or belief system on an empire as large as his. His multicultural empire endured for around two hundred years until Alexander the Great (see here) eventually invaded and broke it up.

Cyrus’s Legacy

Today, Cyrus is admired for showing that a king doesn’t have to be brutal and intolerant to be great.


Buddhism developed in India

the first major river dam was built in China

Chinese philosopher Confucius, by then an old man, died

the Spartans continued to dominate the Olympic Games in Greece



REIGN: 336–323 BCE

FATHER: King Philip II of Macedonia / MOTHER: Queen Olympia

SUCCESSOR: The Diadochi (a team of four generals)

OTHER NAMES: Alexander the Accursed, Alexander the Wicked


Few leaders are as legendary as Alexander. Within a span of just thirteen years, he built one of the biggest empires ever to exist, stretching two million square miles across three continents. Because his presence was felt in so many cultures, he pops up in legends and stories from around the world going back thousands of years.


Before he was born, the famous oracle at Delphi, Greece, told Alexander’s parents that he would grow up to be an invincible general. Some say a bright star appeared in the sky at his birth, foretelling his successes. These prophecies gave Alexander confidence that he was destined for greatness.

Growing up, Alexander learned from the best: he was tutored by the Greek philosopher Aristotle. He learned to play the lyre and he read a lot of books, committing the contents of works such as The Iliad


  • "Broad of scope and chock full of juicy role models and anti-models."—Kirkus Reviews
  • "Young people intrigued by the lives of historical figures will devour this."—Booklist
  • "This amusing, colorful anthology provides an overview of some of history's most beloved and most notorious rulers.... A strong addition to middle school libraries and nonfiction collections for youth."—School Library Journal

On Sale
Sep 15, 2020
Page Count
176 pages
Running Press Kids

Joanne O’Sullivan

About the Author

Joanne O’Sullivan lives in North Carolina with her husband and two children. Her debut novel, Between Two Skies (Candlewick, 2017) has been, among other accolades, a Southern Book Prize finalist, a Texas Lone Star pick, an ABA Best Book for Young Readers 2018, a NYPL recommended read, a Bank Street College of Education Best Children’s Book of the Year 2018, a JLG selection, and earned a triple crown of starred reviews from Booklist, Kirkus, and Shelf Awareness. She has experience as a nonfiction writer for the children’s market also, as she was previously writer-for-hire on a trio of books produced by Charlesbridge: 101 Places You Gotta See Before You’re 12, 101 Things You Gotta Do Before You’re 12 and 101 Ways You Can Help Save the Planet Before You’re 12.

History is Joanne’s passion, and she was excited to bring a new way of looking at the great figures of the past to young readers today, particularly in terms of seeing a truly global past, with World history as opposed to Western history, and giving credit to the astonishing breadth of great (and terrible!) men and women from many cultures who’ve left their imprints on our world today.

Udayana Lugo was born in Russia, but grew up in Mexico City. She can’t remember a time when she was not drawing. She studied product design in Mexico, and did her masters in Italy. Life took her back to Mexico, then to the UK, and finally to Vancouver, Canada, where she currently resides with her husband and two kids.

Learn more about this author