10 Influential Families Who Shaped World History

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Some families will stop at nothing to achieve their goals. In the background of history’s most devastating wars and economical crises stand the ambitions and thirst for power of influential families that called the shots. People, governments and even countries were pawns that they played to mold human civilization as we know it.

10. Nehru-Gandhi Dynasty

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The Nehru-Gandhi clan is remembered as the family that shaped modern India. They share the same name as Mahatma Gandhi and both fought for India’s independence, but that’s as far as the relationship goes. He was a spiritual leader, while the Nehru-Gandhis are a political dynasty that’s dominated the Indian National Congress ever since India claimed its independence.

Jawaharlal Nehru, opposed British occupation in India and led numerous civil disobedience campaigns, which put him behind bars. After being released in 1945, he played an important role in the negotiations that would create the independent states of India and Pakistan. He was appointed Prime Minster of the Republic of India in 1947, a position he held until his death in 1964.

A chip off the old block, Nehru’s daughter Indira Gandhi spent a year in prison for opposing British occupation. She was Prime Minister between 1966 and 1977 and again from 1980 through 1984, ruling like a dictator. She was assassinated by a Sikh member of her personal bodyguards. Her son, Rajiv Ghandi, shared the same tragic fate, killed during the 1991 elections by a young Tamil girl who tied a bomb to her body in protest of India’s political actions in Sri Lanka. Nevertheless, the family’s political ambitions couldn’t be quenched. Rajiv’s son, Rahul Ghandi, followed in his father’s footsteps and entered politics in 2004, aged 34.

9. The House of Plantagenet

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The descendants of the Anjou counts of France, who offered 14 English kings, are remembered as the House of Plantagenet. The family’s name is believed to derive from the Latin planta genista, meaning sorghum. Geoffrey, count of Anjou, often wore a sorghum twig on his bonnet. It was his son, crowned King Henry II of England in 1154, who founded the dynasty. His bloodline continued until 1399 when Richard II was deposed by Henry of Bolingbroke, crowned Henry IV, who founded the Lancastrian cadet branch of the Plantagenets.

The kingdom flourished under their rule. They introduced the Gothic style, which inspired the time’s greatest architectural masterpieces, like Westminster Abbey and York Minister. They adopted the common and constitutional laws that shaped England as we know it, and it was under their rule that the controversial Magna Carta was drafted. Even the Parliament of England has its roots in Plantagenet rule, just like the prestigious universities of Oxford and Cambridge. The House of Plantagenet came to an end with Richard III’s death in battle in 1485. He was defeated by Henry Tudor, who brought his family to the helm of the country.

8. The Julio-Claudian Dynasty

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In Ancient Rome, two powerful families merged into one even greater dynasty that would write the history of the Empire. The Julio-Claudian dynasty refers to five of Rome’s greatest emperors: Augustus, Tiberius, Caligula, Claudius and Nero, all related by marriage and adoption, who ruled between 14 BC and 68 AD. Julius Caesar is often credited as the founder of the dynasty, but Caesar was never an emperor, nor did he have any blood ties with the Claudians.

It all began with the first Emperor, Augustus Caesar, the great-nephew and adoptive son of Julius Caesar and founder of an imperial system that changed the face of Europe. He was a revolutionary dictator and a visionary statesman who lay the groundwork for Western Europe’s Romanization.

All five emperors followed a similar pattern. They came to the helm of the empire through family ties, added new territories to the Empire, launched gigantic building projects, were loved by the people, and were rejected by their senators. Caligula is remembered as a despotic ruler who named his horse, Incitatus, his consul. He was assassinated by a member of the Praetorian guard. Claudius invaded Britain and Mauritania, adding them to the empire. He is thought to have been poisoned by his fourth wife, Agripina, to rush her son Nero’s ascension to the throne. The Julio-Claudian dynasty came to an end with Nero’s suicide.

7. The Ptolemaic Dynasty

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Alexander the Great is remembered as the king who claimed some of the farthest known corners of the world. Ptolemy was one of Alexander’s seven personal guards. His loyal servants were made generals and then deputies to the ambitious conqueror. After Alexander death in 323 BC, each of his generals became satrap of a region within the vast empire. Ptolemy received Egypt. In 305 BC, he proclaimed himself King Ptolemy I. The Egyptians accepted him as the successors of the pharaohs, and for three centuries the Ptolemy dynasty ruled the land.

Ptolemy I conquered new territories, including Cyprus, Palestine and numerous Greek islands. During his reign, the majestic Library of Alexandria was built, turning the city into a center of study and the arts, and Egypt into a political and economical hub of the ancient world. Throughout Ptolemaic reign the empire was scarred by wars with the Seleucids, a dynasty founded by another of Alexander the Great’s generals.

The dynasty’s most resonant name remains Cleopatra VII, who sparked conflict between Rome and Egypt. Cleopatra rebelled against her brother and husband, Ptolemy XII, deposing him with Julius Caesar’s help. In 31 AD, Augustus Caesar defeated Cleopatra and Marcus Antonius, bringing the Ptolemaic dynasty to its knees and Egypt under Roman rule. Cleopatra’s suicide put an end to a dynasty that, for three long centuries, influenced the fate of the entire Mediterranean basin.

6. The Ming Dynasty

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After successfully removing the Mongolian Yuan dynasty from the helm of the Chinese Empire, the first Ming Emperor ascended to the throne in 1368. Crowned Hongwu, Zhu Yuanzhang was a former Buddhist monk who was inspired to name his newly founded dynasty Ming, meaning “brilliant.” He would soon become known as a cruel and powerful ruler. He led his armies in invasions of Mongolia, and by the time of his death in 1398 he had united most of central China under his rule and forced Korea to pay tribute.

Protection against Mongol and Japanese invasions was a priority. Starting in 1387, the cornerstones of the Great Wall of China were laid. The Ming sovereigns, the last authentic Han emperors and the last dynasty of Chinese-born leaders, led China to the heights of material prosperity and social stability. Under their rule, China’s population reached a record 200 million inhabitants. The Chinese army counted over one million soldiers. Ming Emperors launched ambitious projects: a powerful fleet used by Emperor Zhenghe to sail to Africa, the restoration of the Great Canal, and the consolidation of the Great Wall of China. In the 15th century, the capital was moved to Beijing.

Ming emperors successfully opposed Japanese invasion, but it cost them the stability of their country. In 1644, the dynasty’s power began to fade away when the increasingly populous country, exhausting its agricultural resources, joined the rebellion led by general Li Zicheng. The last Ming emperor, Chongzhen, hanged himself.

5. The House of Habsburg

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A resonant name in European history, the House of Hapsburg occupied the throne of the Holy Roman Empire between 1438 and 1740. The last of the royal bloodline was Charles II, whose genetic inheritance was just as bad as if he had been born from an incestuous relationship.

Founded by Rudolf I, king of Germany between 1273 and 1291, the dynasty owes its name to Habichtsburg Castle (Hawk’s Castle) in the Swiss hamlet of Aargau. They’re widely remembered for having taken arranged marriages to a whole new level, fully exploiting unions between European royal families with the aim of forming new alliances and earning new territories. Their motto was simple and straightforward: “Let others wage wars, but you, happy Austria, shall marry.” Maximilian I’s marriage politics brought the Netherlands, Luxembourg and Burgundy to his feet, and Empress Maria Theresa of Hapsburg is often referred to as the Grandmother of Western Europe.

The Habsburgs offered kings to England, Portugal and Spain, and played a dominating role in Europe from the 15th to 20th century. They reached the peak of their power in the 16th century, their glory began to wobble after the Thirty Years’ War, and the empire crumbled during World War I. The last monarch of the Hapsburg dynasty, Charles I of Austria, renounced the throne in 1918.

4. The House of Medici

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Infamous and glamorous, the history of the Medici family is a story of envy, intrigue, ascension to the highest peaks of power and moral decay. The Medicis ruled the citadel-city of Florence, bringing it to the highest peaks of economic, political and artistic progress. They started as a middle-class family of bankers, and made a fortune trading textiles. Thanks to their connections with Florence’s political world, they founded a modern banking system that would soon dominate society. They landed contracts with the Vatican itself, and ensured their continuous ascension to the position of the most powerful and influential family in Florence from the 13th to 17th century. The Medici Bank became the most powerful institution of its kind in Europe.

The Medicis were patrons of the arts, propelling Italian art and literature to new levels. Under their rule, Florence bloomed. Lorenzo the Magnificent sponsored numerous Renaissance masterpieces, and was Michelangelo’s first patron. The Medicis provided three popes, Leo X, Clement VII and Leo XI, as well as numerous members of British and French royal houses and a queen that would change the fate of France. Catherine de’ Medici, Queen of France between 1547 and 1559, supported the Roman-Catholics against the Huguenots and allied with the Guise Catholic faction, a decision that triggered St. Batholomew’s Day Massacre, the brutal slaughter of hundreds of protestants.

3. The Clan of the Great Khan

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Genghis Khan, founder of the vast Mongol Empire, was a visionary warrior and leader. Temujin rose to power after successfully uniting all nomad tribes in Northeast Asia and dominating the green steppes of Mongolia. In 1206, the daring horseman proclaimed the Mongol Empire and called himself Genghis Khan, the “universal ruler.” His next move was to attack China.

The Great Khan died in 1227 and was buried in a secret place in the Mongolian steppe. According to traditional tales, he fell from a horse and died from his injuries. Other sources mention malaria and even an arrow wound. The exact cause of death remains a mystery. Throughout his rule as Khan, he conquered 12 million square miles of territory. He reached lands in the distant corners of today’s Iran, Iraq and Turkey.

Before he died, Genghis Khan ordered his sons to split the empire in multiple khanates that would continue to push the boundaries of the Mongol Empire. At the peak of its glory it occupied most of Eurasia, spreading from Austria to Korea and from south Siberia to the Himalayas. The Great Khan’s descendants conquered nearly everything of interest, turning the Mongol Empire into the largest territory in history. Genghis Khan’s grandson, Kubilai Khan, founded the Yuan dynasty in 1271, which ruled China until 1368.

2. The Capetian Dynasty

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The origins of the world’s largest and oldest royal dynasty can be traced back to Hugh Capet of France, founder of the House of Capet in 987. The first Capetian kings were weak rulers. Under Louis VI the dynasty finally began its territorial expansion, but it was Philip II who truly deserves to be called the first great Capetian king thanks to his efforts in regaining control of French territories that had fallen into the hands of the British. In 1328, Charles IV put an end to the male Capetian bloodline, but the family found a quick fix to their problem. The throne was passed to the House of Valois and later to the Bourbons, both claiming to be direct descendants of the Capetians.

By the High Middle Ages, the Capetians were already the largest royal family in Europe. The dynasty offered 38 French kings, 9 kings of Portugal, 11 kings and queens of Naples, 12 kings of Navarre, 10 kings and queens of Spain, plus endless princes, dukes and counts who dominated Western Europe’s aristocratic families, from England to Naples and from Holland to Poland. The Capetians are also credited for most of France’s laws and institutions that would survive until the French Revolution. Less glamorously, they’re remembered as one of history’s most incestuous families, as members were often forced to marry their siblings to secure their position. Nowadays, the Capetian bloodline includes Juan Carlos of Spain, King Albert II of Belgium, and Grand Duke Henry of Luxembourg.

1. The House of Rothschild

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Mayer Amschel Rothschild was an 18th century money lender from Frankfurt whose exemplary strategies for success propelled his family to the highest peaks of financial and economic power. His main goal was to grow and control the family business. To that end, he created a set of rules passed on to future generations through his will: only men can do business, the eldest son of the eldest son is the head of the family, there should be absolute discretion regarding their fortune and descendants are strongly encouraged to marry members of the same clan in order to keep the money in the family.

His son, Nathan Mayer Rothschild, moved the family’s business headquarters to London, and hit the jackpot in 1814 when he began to issue bonds for government loans, which he used to exponentially grow his business. The family raised funds to support both Britain and Napoleon’s armies in the Napoleonic Wars. In 1815, they financed Britain’s colonial wars, and in 1818 they granted a loan to the Prussian government. By the 1820s, the Rothschilds were so financially potent they were able to support the Bank of England’s coinage to help it elude a financial crisis.

Despite their humble beginnings, the German-Jewish family soon ran businesses all over the world and was even ennobled by the British and Austrian governments. In the mid 19th century the Rothschilds reached the pinnacle of their money-lending business after opening banks in most European countries, exercising their influence in Austria, France, Germany, and Switzerland, and building Europe’s first railroads. In 1875, Nathan’s son, Lionel, lent four million pounds to the British government to buy stocks for the Suez Canal. By then, the family possessed the greatest fortune in the world.

There's more than one kind of dynasty.

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