When fate hasn’t dealt you the best hand in life, it’s easier to complain than to work change it. But throughout history, there have been people who just grab the whole deck for themselves, rising from those humble beginnings to seize more power than anyone could have ever thought possible. As we’re about to tell you, sometimes even the lowliest peasants can rise to the highest stations.
10. Catherine I – Russia
Catherine was born in 1684 to a peasant family, and orphaned just three years later when both parents died from the plague. She was raised by a pastor in Latvia until she was 17, when the Russians invaded and took her captive. Catherine proved to be one of the more valuable acquisitions of the conquest, and thanks to her good looks was passed around as a favor in the court, eventually being given to Peter the Great in 1705.
Somewhat unexpectedly, Peter and Catherine fell in love, and she even managed to save his empire in from the Turks in 1711, offering her jewels as a bribe and allowing the Russians to retreat rather than face annihilation. Their relationship was marred towards the end by Catherine’s alleged affair with William Mons, but Peter had him executed and they were able to reconcile just before Peter’s death. Catherine was his successor and, despite not really having any political ambition, became the first female emperor of Russia.
9. Justin I – Byzantium
Justin was born in 453 AD and began life as a simple swineherd, enduring poverty and barbarian raids at an early age. At 20 years old he set off on a journey to Constantinople to seek his fortune. He joined the corps of 300, and quickly rose to a position of command. With military power came political power, and he was given the title of Count.
Emperor Anastasius was childless, and when it came to naming his successor he chose to put his faith in God, saying that whoever came into his room next would become emperor. Rather than a member of his own family, however, it was Justin who entered his chambers and became the new emperor when Anastasius died. It was a position he never really wanted, and he made that clear to the Pope by writing to inform him he had been made emperor against his will. An unwilling, unprepared, and uneducated emperor, he ruled for nine years and proved that some men are born great, and others fall into power ass backwards.
8. Diocletian – Rome
Diocletian was the son of a former slave, and was born around 245 AD. He embarked on a career in the army, and through a combination of military skill, ambition, and having the good fortune to be favored by the emperor Carus, Diocletian was able to rise to the rank of commander of the cavalry arm of the imperial bodyguard. When Carus was killed by a bolt of lightning, his sons Numerian and Carinus assumed control of the East and West empires respectively, but it wasn’t long before Numerian died.
Diocletian won support by killing Aper, the man suspected of having a hand in Numerian’s death, in front of all the troops, and was rewarded with the title of Emperor of the East. Carinus was none too pleased with his brother being succeeded by a bodyguard, and moved to meet Diocletian in battle. Unfortunately for Carinus, his unpopularity led to his own men killing him, and put Diocletian to assume control of the entire Roman empire.
7. Theodora – Byzantium
Born in 500 AD, Theodora was the daughter of a bear trainer and grew up in the hippodrome, where her actress mother started to teach her the tricks of the trade. By 15 she had become a child star in the arts of comedy, mime, and, well, prostitution. Her exploits were legendary, rough housing, flashing, and performing acts with geese we’d rather not imagine. Supposedly, she’d frequently take on 10 men at a time, and when they tired, she’d take on all of their servants. She had a lot of stamina, is what we’re trying to say.
After finding religion at 18, the emperor Justinian I was struck with her beauty, so much so that he changed the law just so that he could marry her. She began taking on several of the emperor’s duties, including passing laws and consulting with foreign rulers. She also tried to end the sex slave trade and issued anti-rape legislation, becoming one of the earliest champions of women’s rights.
6. Maximinus Thrax – Rome
Maximinus Thorax was was a shepherd and reportedly a giant, said to have been more than eight feet tall. Being thought a giant with superhuman strength, it was no surprise when he began working his way up through the Roman military. In 235 AD, when in command of a force of recruits in Germany, the soldiers decided they would prefer Maximinus to be their ruler, killing Alexander and putting the giant into a position of ultimate power.
With war being all he knew, he extorted and confiscated lands from the property owning class, finally heading to Italy to suppress his challengers to the throne. He never made it to Rome though, as his troops killed him in 238 AD after apparently realizing size isn’t everything, and he was a pretty terrible leader. He carries the distinction of being a Roman emperor who never actually visited Rome. Well, except for his severed head, which his mutinous soldiers brought to the city after removing it from his neck.
5. Liu Bang – China
Born in 256 BC to a peasant family, Liu was a troublemaker and a truant as a child. It was only when he saw the emperor riding in a magnificent carriage that he thought he wanted the high life for himself and began to work toward achieving his goals of wealth and power. After spending time working his way up the administration ladder, he saw an easier path to become emperor and became a rebel leader.
It took Liu just two years to beat his arch rival Xiang Yu in capturing the capital, but was forced to spend the next four years keeping his rival at bay. Once he had finally beaten his enemy’s larger rebel army, he became known as Emperor Gaozu of Han, and began the Han dynasty that lasted for 400 years. He never did lose his childish ways, though, once urinating into a scholar’s hat to show his disdain for education.
4. Toyotomi Hideyoshi – Japan
A peasant born in 16th century Japan, Toyotomi was fatherless at the age of seven, a peasant, and pretty famously ugly. So in other words, he got a pretty crappy start in life. With nothing else going for him, he went looking for adventure and joined the Oda clan, where he proved himself brilliant in battle and rose through the ranks. He earned the trust of a man named Oda Nobunaga (commonly referred to as the Demon King), who gave Toyotomi control of his own troops to lay siege to castles, capture cities, and force generals into committing suicide. As luck would have it, those were some of Toyotomi’s favorite hobbies.
When Oda Nobunaga was killed, Hideyoshi brought his killer’s head to his grave as vengeance, because flowers just won’t do. He continued taking over Japan, eventually ending the warring states period that had lasted 150 years. As the new regent of Japan he launched two invasions of Korea, put an end to social mobility since he didn’t think a peasant should be a ruler. Presumably because there wasn’t a Japanese word for “irony.”
3. Basil I – Byzantium
Basil was not only born into a peasant family, but was also kidnapped by Khan Krum – a man who won virtually every “evil name” contest he ever entered – when he was just an infant. He managed to escape in his early 20s and headed to Constantinople to make his fortune. He was minding his own business at a wrestling match when he found himself challenged by the champion, and like Peter Parker against Bonesaw McGraw, somehow managed to pull out a victory. His victory did not go unnoticed and he was made head bodyguard to the emperor.
Realizing that his new position basically consisted of beating people up, he took it a step further by killing the emperor’s uncle to further his own power. Not stopping there, he then murdered the emperor and took the position for himself, in a move that most HR reps would probably frown upon. He ruled for 19 years before his untimely death. Hilariously, he wasn’t killed by an assassin, but by a deer, getting impaled on the stag’s antler and dragged 16 miles.
2. Ivaylo the Cabbage – Bulgaria
Ivaylo, who was so poor people actually referred to him as cabbage, was a late 13th century swineherd in Bulgaria, which just so happened to be a time and place frequented by the rampaging hordes of the Tartars. With Tsar Constantine being of no help, Ivaylo led a group of peasants to stop the desecration of his land and people. After defeating the Tartars he marched to the capital to show his dissatisfaction at having to do the Tsar’s job for him, but rather than change his policy towards peasant protection, the Tsar lead his army to slaughter them. Things didn’t go as planned, and the peasant army won when Ivaylo personally killed the Tsar in battle.
In a move that forever solidified the fact that cabbages apparently come equipped with enormous balls, he then married Constantine’s widow to become the new Tsar. Despite only ruling for a year he won victories against the Byzantine Empire and the Tartars before the nobles overthrew and exiled him, as they weren’t too happy with a peasant being on the throne.
1. Zhu Yuanzhang – China
Zhu was born in 14th century China into a family so poor that they literally had to give away most of his siblings. As if that level of poverty wasn’t enough, his family was then wiped out by floods and plague, leaving him no choice but to become a wandering beggar. Eventually settling in a monastery after years of roaming around China, his bad luck continued when the Mongolian Yuan dynasty destroyed his shelter. Reaching his breaking point, he joined the rebel army and quickly worked his way up to become their leader and captured the city of Nanjing.
Hell bent on trying to stop any more disasters in his life, he managed to end the Mongol rule of China and completed unification of the provinces by 1383. With his enemies vanquished, he started the Ming Dynasty, the longest ruling dynasty in China’s history. Basically, China entered its most famous era all because Mother Nature, bad luck, and the Yuan Dynasty couldn’t combine to finish off a tramp.