Although not everybody wants to be famous, it is still a natural human desire to receive some recognition for one’s talents and contribution. For the more ambitious, those who aim for everlasting fame must deal with numerous challenges from jealousy of rivals to possible extinction of their own civilisation and language.
What ultimately claims everyone is simply the steady march of time. Most people who have risen to dizzying heights of fame seems to be largely forgotten. The steamy verses of the Greek poet Sappho titillated audiences for much of antiquity. They were so enchanting, one Athenian lawmaker said he felt that once he’d heard them he could die a contented man. The celebrity gladiator Spiculus was so admired by the emperor Nero that, when he sensed that his own murder was imminent, Nero requested that Spiculus would be the one to kill him instead. Sappho and Spiculus are now largely forgotten except by historians and people who actually have to study them. But, in their day, they were hot stuff. So how is it that some people are almost instantly forgotten when they have gone, while others cling on, embedding themselves so deeply into our culture that we’re still studying them, writing about them and even depicting them in films millennia after they’re gone?
1. Be Hungry for It
A fitting place to begin the search is Ancient Greece, where achieving everlasting glory was a national obsession. In Homer’s Iliad, Achilles says that he was given the option between living a long but undistinguished life or a brief life that would give him a chance to achieve immortal glory. Achilles chose the second option – preferring to be a subject of song for all eternity. However, a more subdued Achilles later reappeared in Book 11 of Homer’s Odyssey where Odysseus sails to the underworld and converses with the shades. One of these shades is Achilles who, when greeted as “blessed in life, blessed in death”, responds bitterly that he would rather be a slave to the worst of masters than be king of all the dead.
Another hero, Ajax, is said to have been driven mad when he lost to Odysseus in a contest over who is the best fighter in the Greek army. Believing that he is avenging himself upon the judges of the contest, Ajax goes on to slaughter a herd of cattle. Once he returns to his senses, the humiliated hero commits suicide by falling on his spear.
2. Hire Your Own Publicist
Master of self-promotion Alexander the Great ruled the kingdom of Macedon from 336-323 BC, expanding it from mainland Greece and a scattering of Mediterranean islands to a global power that stretched all the way to northwest India. His advanced propaganda machine included a troop of historians who accompanied him on campaigns. These historians write the history of his campaign as it was happening. He also authorised only one sculptor to carve his portrait and carefully planned the details of any likenesses that appeared on coins.
Nicias (c. 470 BC – 413 BC), an Athenian Politician and General in the Peloponnesian War, engaged the services of a publicity manager named Hieron to help him cultivate the image of a hard-working and self-sacrificing public servant. It was Hieron who helped Nicias to act out this part by investing him with an air of solemnity and self-importance.
3. Have the Right Career
Those not lucky enough to be born into power still have a decent chance of being remembered if they focus on changing the world through their ideas. Back in antiquity, philosophers weren’t particularly well known by the general public. But thousands of years later, their work still guides modern thinking and they are so widely known they can be considered to be household names. However, ancient philosophers had the added advantage of fewer competitors since most people of their time were illiterate. Finding fame gets harder to achieve without original ideas, but it is still possible to come up with revolutionary thought experiments.
Later, as Da Vinci, Galileo, Einstein and Isaac Newton inch towards a millennium of fame, it might be tempting to opt for a life in the laboratory. Unfortunately, nowadays even a Nobel prize probably won’t do the trick as science is now much more collaborative and you’ll more likely to be noted as just one name in a group of clever people.
In ancient Rome, Gladiators were mainly drawn from the ranks of convicted murderers and slaves. Most of them would only appear in the Colosseum once as they would be killed in the match. However, the best of them achieved great fame. Such was the attention that they received that others, including freeborn women, senators, even the Emperor Commodus (161 – 192 CE), offered their own services as gladiators. Unfortunately, sporting heroes impact a generation, but once they start to go out of living memory they decline.
4. Sleep with Someone Famous
Incidentally, gladiators were thought to be exceptionally potent, and women sleeping with them could achieve fame for themselves. The poet Juvenal scorned a woman named Eppia, the wife of a senator, who eloped to Egypt with a gladiator called Sergius – thus elevating and immortalizing her through his writing. “What was the attraction? The fellow was a physical wreck”’ Juvenal demands. “Ah, but he was a gladiator.” Eppia replied.
A certain degree of self-validation through sleeping with someone famous also emerged in Euripides’ play, The Bacchae, when Dionysus became angered after his aunt Agave claimed that his mother Semele had never slept with Zeus and slept with a mortal man instead – thus denying Dionysus’ divinity and the high profile he would have gotten by being the son of Zeus.
5. Be Outrageous
The man who brought down ancient Rome’s political system was a wealthy nobleman named Publius Clodius Pulcher (c. 93 BC – 52 BC). Well-known in Rome even before his foray into politics, Clodius had already shocked and amused the Roman public by his eccentricities and unpredictable ways.
Clodius entered politics to secure the acceptance and respect of the ruling class who quickly dismissed him as a buffoon. After the elite rebuffed him, Clodius positioned himself as the leader of the angry Roman working classes. This surprised Rome’s ruling classes who continued to despise Clodius. Rome was so divided during Clodius’ campaign for the praetorship that the elections had to be postponed twice due to fighting in the streets between his followers and the faction of his opponent, Annius Milo.
When Clodius happened to meet Milo along the Appian Way, a fight broke out between their guards and Clodius was gravely wounded until Milo ordered his men to finish him off with a consideration that a popular dead opponent was less harmful than an alive and angry one.
6. Look Pretty
Helen of Troy, with her “face that launched a thousand ships” is one example of being famous for one’s beauty as men came to see her all the way from distant lands. Penelope, wife of Odysseus, is another example as she was forced to devise various strategies to delay marrying one of her 108 suitors while she spend twenty years waiting for the final return of her husband.
The fourth century BC Greek courtesan Phryne had clients visited her from all over the Greek world and showered her with gifts. After she became rich, Phryne offered to use her wealth to rebuild the walls around the city of Thebes which had been destroyed by Alexander the Great with a condition that the walls should bear an inscription recording, or rather promoting, her and her generosity.
Her efforts of self-promotion were not in vain as rhetorician Athenaeus of Naucratis provides many anecdotes praising her beauty and generosity. Praxiteles, a sculptor who became her lover, was also said to have used her as the model for the statue of the Aphrodite of Knidos – the first nude statue of a woman from ancient Greece.
7. Be Really, Really Lucky
When Tutankhamun took his last, feverish breath in 1323 BC, he was just a boy king of 18. He’s not known to have achieved anything particularly remarkable – understandable, given his age. Then something extraordinary happened. His tomb was discovered in 1922. Its location and size had kept them safely hidden away, while all the tombs around it were being plundered by looters.
The memory of Tutankhamun has been ensured by the large number of physical artefacts he left behind. His mummy alone has been intensively studied as experts unravel the mystery of his short life and how he died. His fame increases with every headline and documentary. When we think of ancient Egypt, we think Tutankhamun. It doesn’t matter that it was all a fluke.
8. Leave Stuff Behind
Leaving any kind of physical legacy is extremely helpful. This could come in the form of the many, many descendants of the 13th-Century Mongol warrior Genghis Khan, whose prolific loins sired one in 200 men alive today, or the numerous monuments and coins on which Alexander the Great stamped his image. In China, the emperor Qin Shi Huang secured his lasting memory with the Great Wall of China and the vast Terracotta Warriors buried with him – not to mention that he founded an entire country.
9. Be a Villain
Another route to enduring fame that should not be encouraged is to seek notoriety. From Jack the Ripper and Captain Blackbeard, to Hitler and Ivan the Terrible, many of the best-known characters in history are infamous. The most charismatic have been remembered, with a shudder, for generations. This has led some to pursue fame the nasty way. When Mark David Chapman was being charged for murder for shooting John Lennon, he said ‘in order to be the most famous person in the world, I have to kill the most famous person in the world.”
Thousands of years ago, an arsonist called Herostratus set fire to one of the seven wonders of the ancient world, the great temple of Artemis at Ephesus in Turkey in 348 BC. Herostratus later confessed under torture that his crime was driven by his wish to be a celebrity. Hearing this, the Ephesians decided to execute Herostratus and ban all mention of his name – dubbing him instead as “That Who Is Not Lawful To Mention”. However, the ancient historian Theopompus mentions the name of Herostratus in his his book Hellenics and the name appears again later in the works of Strabo. Unfortunately this banning tactic was a failure as Herostratus is remembered to this day. The term “Herostratic fame” refers to Herostratus and means “fame [sought] at any cost”.