A cartogram makes it easy to compare regional and national GDPs at a glance.
- On these maps, each hexagon represents one-thousandth of the world's economy.
- That makes it easy to compare the GDP of regions and nations across the globe.
- There are versions for nominal GDP and GDP adjusted for purchasing power.
Shanghai's skyline at night. According to the GDP (PPP) map, China is the world's largest economy. But that oft-cited statistic says more about the problems of PPP as a yardstick than about the economic prominence of China per se.Credit: Adi Constantin, CC0 1.0
If you want to rank the regions and countries of the world, area and population are but crude predictors of their importance. A better yardstick is GDP, or gross domestic product, defined as the economic value produced in a given region or country over a year.
Who's hot and who's not
And these two maps are possibly the best instruments to show who's hot and who's not, economically speaking. They are in fact cartograms, meaning they abandon geographic accuracy in order to represent the values of another dataset, in this case GDP: the larger a region or country is shown relative to its actual size, the greater its GDP, and vice versa.
So far, so familiar. What's unique about these maps is how this is done. Both are composed of hexagons, exactly 1,000 each. And each of those hexagons represents 0.1 percent of global GDP. That makes it fascinatingly easy to assess and compare the economic weight of various regions and countries throughout the world.
Did we say easy? Scratch that. GDP comes in two main flavors: nominal and PPP-adjusted, with each map showing one.
Nominal GDP does not take into account differences in standard of living. It simply converts local GDP values into U.S. dollars based on foreign exchange rates. GDP adjusted for purchasing power parity (PPP) takes into account living standards. $100 buys more stuff in poor countries than it does in rich countries. If you get more bang for your buck in country A, its PPP-adjusted GDP will be relatively higher than in country B.
Nominal GDP is a good way of comparing the crude economic size of various countries and regions, while GDP (PPP) is an attempt to measure the relative living standards between countries and regions. But this is also just an approximation, since it does not measure the distribution of personal income. For that, we have the Gini index, which measures the relative (in)equality of income distribution.
In other words, PPP factors in the high cost of living in mature markets as an economic disadvantage, while giving slightly more room to low-cost economies elsewhere. Think of it as the Peters projection of GDP models.
Who's number one: the U.S. or China?
The economy of the world, divided into a thousand hexagons.Credit: BerryBlue_BlueBerry, reproduced with kind permission
The difference is important, though, since the versions produce significantly different outcomes. The most salient one: on the nominal GDP map, the United States remains the world's largest economy. But on the PPP-adjusted GDP map, China takes the top spot. However, it is wrong to assume on this basis that China is the world's biggest economy.
As this article explains in some detail, PPP-adjusted GDP is not a good yardstick for comparing the size of economies – nominal GPD is the obvious measure for that. GDP (PPP) is an attempt to compare living standards; but even in that respect, it has its limitations. For example, $100 might buy you more in country B, but you might not be able to buy the stuff you can get in country A.
Both maps, shown below, are based on data from the IMF published in the first quarter of 2021. For the sake of brevity, we will have a closer look at the nominal GDP map and leave comparisons with the PPP map to you.
For the nominal map, global GDP is just over U.S. $93.86 trillion. That means each of the hexagons represents about U.S. $93.86 billion.
The worldwide overview clearly shows which three regions are the world's economic powerhouses. Despite the rise of East Asia (265 hexagons), North America (282) is still number one, with Europe (250) placing a close third. Added up, that's just three hexagons shy of 80 percent of the world's GDP. The remaining one-fifth of the world's economy is spread — rather thinly, by necessity — across Southeast Asia & Oceania (56), South Asia (41), the Middle East (38), South America (32), Africa (27), and North & Central Asia (9).
California über alles
California's economy is bigger than that of all of South America or Africa.Credit: BerryBlue_BlueBerry, reproduced with kind permission
Thanks to the hexagons, the maps get more interesting the closer you zoom in on them.
In North America, the United States (242) overshadows Canada (20) and Mexico (13); and within the U.S., California (37) outperforms not just all other states, but also most other countries — and a few continents — worldwide. To be fair, Texas (21), New York (20), Florida (13), and Illinois (10) also do better than many individual nations.
Interestingly, states that look the same on a "regular" map are way out of each others' leagues on this one. Missouri is four hexagons but Nebraska only one. Alabama has three but Mississippi only one.
The granularity of the map goes beyond the state level, showing (in red) the economic heft of certain Metropolitan Statistical Areas (MSAs), within or across state lines. The New York City-Newark-Jersey City one is 20 hexagons, that is, 2 percent of the world's GDP. The Greater Toronto Area is five hexagons, a quarter of all of Canada. And Greater Mexico City is three hexagons. That's the same as the entire state of Oregon.
By comparison, South America (32) and Africa (27) are small fry on the GDP world map. But each little pond has its own big fish. In the former, it's Brazil (16), in particular, the state of São Paulo (5), which on its own is bigger than any other country in South America. In Africa, there is one regional leader each in the north, center, and south: Egypt (4), Nigeria (5), and South Africa (3), respectively.
Economically, Italy is bigger than Russia
Europe's "Big Five" represent three-fifths of the continent's GDP. The Asian part of the former Soviet Union is an economic afterthought.Credit: BerryBlue_BlueBerry, reproduced with kind permission
Europe is bewilderingly diverse, so it helps to focus on the "Big Five" economies: Germany (46), UK (33), France (31), Italy (22), and Spain (16). They comprise three-fifths of Europe's GDP.
Each of these five has one or more regional economic engines. In Germany, it's the state of North Rhine-Westphalia, and in France, it's Île de France (both 10). In the UK, it's obviously London (8), in Italy Lombardy (5), and in Spain, it's a photo-finish between Madrid and Catalonia (both 3).
Interesting about Europe's economies are the small countries that punch well above their geographic and/or demographic weight, such as the Netherlands (11) and Switzerland (9).
Slide across to Eastern Europe and things get pretty mono-hexagonal. Poland (7) stands out positively and Russia (18) negatively. The former superpower, spread out over two continents, has an economy smaller than Italy's. Three individual German states have a GDP larger than that of the Moscow Metropolitan Area (5), the seat and bulk of Russia's economic power.
China, the biggest fish in a big pond
Australia and South Korea's GDPs are about equal, and each is about a third of Japan's. But even put together, these three add up to barely half of China's economic weight.Credit: BerryBlue_BlueBerry, reproduced with kind permission
In the 1980s, the United States was wary of Japan's rise to global prominence. But as this map shows, that fear was misguided — or rather, slightly misdirected. It's China (177) that now dominates the region economically, putting even the land of the Rising Sun (57) in the shade. South Korea (19) and Taiwan (8) look a lot larger than on a "regular" map, but it's clear who rules the roost here.
Interestingly, China's hubs are mainly but not exclusively coastal. Yes, there's Guangdong (19), Jiangsu (18), and Shandong (13), plus a few other provinces with access to the sea. But the inland provinces of Henan (10), Sichuan (9), and Hubei (8) are economically as important as any mid-sized European country. Tibet (1) and Xinjiang (2), huge on the "regular" map, are almost invisible here.
In the ASEAN countries (36), Thailand (6), Singapore (4), and the Indonesian island of Java (7) stand out. Economically, Oceania is virtually synonymous with Australia (17) — sorry, New Zealand (3).
As for South Asia and the Middle East, India (32) is clearly the dominant player, outperforming near neighbors Bangladesh (4) and Pakistan (3), as well as more distant ones like Saudi Arabia (9), Turkey (8), and Iran (7). But that's cold comfort for a country that sees itself as a challenger to China's dominance.
The PPP-adjusted GDP world map looks slightly different from the nominal GDP one. China is the #1 country and East Asia the #1 region.Credit: BerryBlue_BlueBerry, reproduced with kind permission
Strange Maps #1089
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Map shows Europe's imminent Great Leap Forward in battery cell production
- China produces 80 percent of electric vehicle batteries.
- To achieve battery independence, Europe is ramping up production.
- And the U.S.? Action is needed, and quick.
This is a map of the future — the future of battery cell production in Europe. If and when all projects on this map are up and running, Europe will have a battery cell production capacity of around 700 gigawatt hours (GWh). That's crucial for two reasons: (1) those battery cells will power the electric vehicles (EVs) that will soon replace our fossil-fuel cars; and (2) a production capacity of that magnitude would break China's current near-monopoly.
Say what you will about state-run economies, but they're great at concentrating effort on a particular target. About a decade ago, Beijing directed huge resources towards its photovoltaic industry. Today, nine of the world's 10 largest solar panel manufacturers are at least partly Chinese. China is similarly resolved to become the global leader in EVs, including EV battery production.
And so far, it's working. At present, about 80% of the world's lithium-ion battery cells are made in China. Lithium-ion batteries are the ones used in EVs. In sufficient numbers, lithium-ion batteries can also be used for large-scale energy storage, which would help even out power supply fluctuations from sources like solar and wind.
China's dominance in this area is making many outside China nervous. In previous decades, OPEC had a similar stranglehold on producing the oil that makes cars run and factories hum. Then the organization had a political point to make and turned off the tap. During the oil crisis of the 1970s, oil prices skyrocketed and economies crashed.
Avoiding a 21st-century version of that scenario requires a strategy for EV battery self-sufficiency, and Europe has one. In 2018, the EU launched its Battery Action Plan, a concerted effort to increase its battery production capacity. Realizing they couldn't beat China on price, the Europeans resolved that their batteries would be greener and more efficient.
Easier said than done. Setting up battery production is complex, expensive, and slow. And as the EU's woefully slow vaccine rollout demonstrates, the organization's strength-in-numbers argument doesn't always work in its favor. Indeed, by 2020, only four of the dots on this map were up and running:
- a facility by Envision AESC in Sunderland (UK - now ex EU)
- a Samsung factory in Göd (Hungary)
- an LG Energy Solution plant in Wroclaw (Poland)
- a factory by Leclanché in Willstätt (Germany)
But in this case, slow and steady may win the race. At least two dozen battery plants are in the works across Europe (i.e. EU and its near abroad), and four of those should come online in 2021 alone, including Tesla's plant near Berlin. Tesla, incidentally, coined the term "gigafactory" for its facility in Sparks, Nevada. As the title of this map suggests, it's becoming the generic description for any large battery cell production facility.
By the end of the decade, Europe will have around 30 gigafactories.Credit: CIC energiGUNE
Despite the fact that Tesla's Nevada plant is on its way to becoming the world's largest building, battery production capacity is growing fastest in Europe. Predictions vary, but all observers agree that Europe is on the verge of a Great Leap Forward. Here's why:
- Europe's current production capacity is about 30 GWh.
- One forecast puts that figure at 300 GWh by 2029, another even at 400 GWh by 2025.
- Adding up the maximum capacity of all facilities on this map comes close to 700 GWh by 2028.
- In terms of global capacity, BloombergNEF predicts Europe's share could increase from 7% now to 31% in 2030.
- According to Eurobat — disappointingly, not the Gauloises-smoking, Nietzsche-quoting counterpart to Batman — the value of the battery industry will increase from €15 ($18) billion in Europe and €75 ($90) billion worldwide in 2019 to €35 ($42) billion in Europe and €130 ($156) billion worldwide by 2030.
So, who will be Europe's answer to CATL (short for Contemporary Amperex Technology Co. Ltd.), China's main battery manufacturer? There are several pretenders to the crown. Here are some:
- Britishvolt, set to go online with Britain's first and largest gigafactory in Northumberland (UK) in 2023, with a maximum capacity of 35 GWh per annum.
- Northvolt, led by former Tesla execs, supported by the Swedish government and the European Investment Bank. Also funded by Volkswagen and Goldman Sachs. Aims to be green and big. One plant coming online in Sweden this year, another in Germany in 2024. Combined maximum capacity is 64 GWh.
- Tesla. Not content with its one gigafactory (40 GWh) opening this year, the company has already announced that it will build a second plant in Europe.
That second plant is not yet on the map. Also missing are the half dozen gigafactories that Volkswagen aims to open in the coming years. If Europe is to become self-sufficient in EV batteries, even more will be needed.
Europe's path to battery supremacy
In 2020, 1.3 million EVs were sold in Europe, edging past China to become the world's largest EV market. In 2021, Europe looks set to maintain that lead. By 2025 at the latest, EVs will have achieved price parity with fossil-fuel vehicles, not just in terms of total cost of operation but also in upfront cost.
Add to that the increasingly hostile environment — namely, higher taxes and stricter regulations — to fossil-fuel cars in Europe, and the pace of electrification will increase dramatically by mid-decade. Going by EU requirements for CO2 emissions alone, the EV share of the total vehicle market would need to be between 60% and 70% pretty soon.
While that may seem an impossibly high target today, things could start looking different very soon. Volkswagen aims to have full-electric cars make up more than 70 percent of its European sales by 2030. Volvo and Ford even aim to present entirely electric lineups by 2030 at the latest. And that year is also when the UK government intends to ban the sale of new fossil-fuel cars.
All of which could translate into base demand for EV batteries in Europe as high as 1,200 GWh by 2040. Even with all planned factories on the map running at maximum capacity, that still leaves a production capacity gap of about 40%.
To avoid batteries becoming a bottleneck for electrification, the EU likely will pour even more money into the industry via the European Green Deal and Europe's post-COVID recovery plan. Battery production is not just strategically sound; it also boosts employment.
A study by Fraunhofer ISI says for each GWh added in battery production capacity, count on 40 jobs added directly and 200 in upstream industries. The study forecasts battery manufacturing could generate up to 155,000 jobs across Europe by 2033 (although it doesn't mention how many would be lost due to reduced production of fossil-fuel cars).
Coming to America
And how fares America? Electrification is coming to the U.S. as well. By one estimate, EVs will have a market penetration of about 15% by 2025. Deloitte predicts EVs will take up 27% of new car sales in the US by 2030. The Biden administration is keen to make up for past inaction in terms of switching to post-fossil energy. But it has its work cut out.
Apart from Tesla's Gigafactory, the U.S. has only two other battery production facilities. If current trends continue, there would be just ten by 2030. At that time, China will have 140 battery factories and Europe, according to this map, close to 30. If U.S. production can't keep up with demand, electrification will suffer from the dreaded battery bottleneck. Unless America is content to import its batteries from Europe or China.
Strange Maps #1080
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First drawn in 1935, Hu Line illustrates persistent demographic split – how Beijing deals with it will determine the country's future.
- In 1935, demographer Hu Huanyong drew a line across a map of China.
- The 'Hu Line' illustrated a remarkable divide in China's population distribution.
- That divide remains relevant, not just for China's present but also for its future.
A bather in Blagoveshchensk, on the Russian bank of the Amur. Across the river: the Chinese city of Heihe.
Credit: Dimitar Dilkoff/AFP via Getty Images
The Hu Line is arguably the most consequential feature of China's geography, with demographic, economic, cultural, and political implications for the country's past, present, and future. Yet you won't find it on any official map of China, nor on the actual terrain of the People's Republic itself.
There are no monuments at its endpoints: not in Heihe in the north, just an icy swim across the Amur from Blagoveshchensk, in Russia's Far East; nor in Tengchong, the subtropical southern city set among the hills rolling into Myanmar. Nor indeed anywhere on the 2,330-mile (3,750-km) diagonal that connects both dots. The Hu Line is as invisible as it is imaginary.
Yet the point that the Hu Line makes is as relevant as when it was first imagined. Back in 1935, a Chinese demographer called Hu Huanyong used a hand-drawn map of the line to illustrate his article on 'The Distribution of China's Population' in the Chinese Journal of Geography.
The point of the article, and of the map: China's population is distributed unevenly, and not just a little, but a lot. Like, a lot.
- The area to the west of the line comprised 64 percent of China's territory but contained only 4 percent of the country's population.
- Inversely, 96 percent of the Chinese lived east of the 'geo-demographic demarcation line', as Hu called it, on just 36 percent of the land.
Much has changed in China in the intervening near-century. The weak post-imperial republic is now a highly centralized world power. Its population has nearly tripled, from around 500 million to almost 1.4 billion. But the fundamentals of the imbalance have remained virtually the same.
Even if China's territory has not: in 1946, China recognized the independence of Mongolia, shrinking the area west of the Hu Line. Still, in 2015, the distribution was as follows:
- West of the line, 6 percent of the population on 57 percent of the territory (average population density: 39.6 inhabitants per square mile (15.3/km2).
- East of the line, 94 percent of the population on 43 percent of the territory (average population density: 815.3 inhabitants per square mile (314.8/km2).
Hu Huanyong's original hand-drawn map of China, showing population density and the now-famous line (enhanced for visibility).
Credit: Chinese Journal of Geography (1935) – public domain.
Why is this demographic dichotomy so persistent? In two words: climate and terrain. East of the line, the land is flatter and wetter, meaning it's easier to farm, hence easier to produce enough food for an ever-larger population. West of the line: deserts, mountains, and plateaus. Much harsher terrain with a drier climate to boot, making it much harder to sustain large amounts of people.
And where the people are, all the rest follows. East of the line is virtually all of China's infrastructure and economy. At night, satellites see the area to the east twinkle with lantern-like strings of light, while the west is a blanket of near total darkness, only occasionally pierced by signs of life. In China's 'Wild West', per-capita GDP is 15 percent lower on average than in the industrious east.
An additional factor typifies China's population divide: while the country overall is ethnically very homogenous – 92 percent are Han Chinese – most of the 8 percent that make up China's ethnic minorities live west of the line. This is notably the case in Tibet and Xinjiang, two nominally autonomous regions with non-Han ethnic majorities.
This combination of economic and ethnic imbalances means the Hu Line is not just a persistent quirk, but a potential problem – at least from Beijing's perspective. Culturally and geographically distant from the country's east, Tibetans and Uyghurs have registered strong opposition to China's centralizing tendencies, often resulting in heavy-handed repression.
Street view in Tengchong, on China's border with Myanmar.
Credit: China Photos/Getty Images
But repression is not the central government's long-term strategy. Its plan is to pacify by progress. China's 'Manifest Destiny' has a name. In 1999, Jiang Zemin, then Secretary-General of the Chinese Communist Party, launched the 'Develop the West' campaign. The idea behind the slogan retains its political currency. In the last decade, Chinese Premier Li Keqiang has repeatedly urged the country to "break through" the Hu Line, in order to modernize China's western half.
The development strategy has an economic angle – adding industry and infrastructure to raise the region's per-capita GDP to the nation's average. But the locals fear that progress will bring population change: an influx of enough internal migrants from the east to tip the local ethnic balance to their disadvantage.
China's ethnic minorities are officially recognized and enjoy certain rights; however, if they become minorities in their own regions, those will mean little more than the right to perform folklore songs and dances. The Soviets were past masters in this technique.
Will China follow the same path? That question will be answered if and when the Hu Line fades from relevance, by how much of the west's ethnic diversity will have been sacrificed for economic progress.
Strange Maps #1071
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From Ramses II to Alexander the Great, these leaders helped shaped the world we know today.
- We often dismiss ancient history and the people in it as too long past to be noteworthy.
- Some early rulers were so iconic that their names and works passed into legend and influenced others for centuries.
- Every person on this list contributed to the world you live in today.
A lot of people can be rather dismissive of ancient history, even using the term to refer to past events so remote as to be irrelevant. Nothing could be further from the truth, as the events and decisions made in antiquity continue to influence us to this day. To explore this, we'll look at ten of the most legendary rulers of ancient history, what they did, and why their decisions still matter.
For our purposes, "legendary" means "awesome" rather than "potentially not real." A few kings and queens of old who may not have been real people, such as Gilgamesh, The Yellow Emperor, and the Queen of Sheba, are not included. Additionally, what passes for "ancient" varies based on what area you're talking about, so while all of the people on our list are long dead, a few of them were on the scene much more recently than others.
Hammurabi (1810– c. 1750 BCE)
Hammurabi (left) meets the God of Justice on the pillar laying out his laws.
Hammurabi was the king of Babylon who conquered all who opposed him and ruled with a code of laws assuring uniformity in justice. While his laws are not the oldest surviving ones and are not particularly good, they are among the earliest examples of a constitution known to man with an influence that is difficult to overstate.
After spending the early part of his reign strengthening Babylon's walls and expanding the temples, Hammurabi took advantage of regional political intrigue and shifting alliances to conquer all of southern Mesopotamia—which came to be known as Babylonia—and forced the other power in the area, Assyria, to pay tribute.
He is most famous for his code of laws. The code, famously preserved on a monolith shaped like an index finger, shows Hammurabi receiving the law from the God of Justice. It goes on to describe 282 situations and prescribes legal action for each. It includes clauses for the presumption of innocence, the opportunity for both parties in a case to present evidence, and is the first known example of the eternally famous dictum: "an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth."
Despite the attempts of the code to ensure equality, the harsh punishments are scaled based on who harms whom. A property-owning man would be punished less harshly than a slave, for example.
Despite the disintegration of his empire after his death, his laws largely remained enforced at the local level and went on to influence the Romans, who wouldn't barrow the idea of making the law publicly available until much later.
Hatshepsut (1507–1458 BCE)
Credit: Postdlf, CC BY-SA 3.0,
The second woman confirmed to rule as pharaoh and by far the most consequential, Hatshepsut had to overcome laws and traditions technically barring women from the role.
The wife, daughter, and sister of a king, Hatshepsut was also technically the wife of a God. Upon the death of her brother-husband, the pharaoh Thutmose II, Hatshepsut used her political cunning, regal background, and religious power to assume the title of pharaoh alongside her young son Thutmose III.
Like any good pharaoh, she embarked on a vast building campaign to legitimize her rule. No previous ruler (and perhaps only a few after) oversaw such an extensive series of building projects. Their vast scale suggests the country was particularly prosperous at this time.
Among these projects was her tomb, the extremely impressive Djeser-Djeseru.
Trade routes that had been disrupted prior to her reign were reestablished. This process included an expedition to the mysterious and wealthy Land of Punt. She also found the time to send military expositions to neighboring states. These ventures assured the prosperity which would define the 18th dynasty.
As with many pharaohs, there were attempts to erase any trace of Hatshepsut from the historical record. While these failed, they did cause some trouble for archaeologists a few thousand years later, who struggled to determine why some hieroglyphs referred to a queen.
Ramses II (1303 BCE – 1213 BCE)
The man himself- mummified, of course.
Known to the Greeks, lovers of romantic poetry, and Alan Moore fans as Ozymandias, Ramses was one of the greatest rulers of Egypt, a country with enough great rulers to make that quite the achievement.
Like other great Egyptian rulers, Ramses' reign featured monumental construction projects. Unlike most of his predecessors, his projects were on a scale not seen since the building of the Pyramids.
He built the new capital of Pi-Ramesses, a dazzling city and military base with which he kept an eye on his holdings in Canaan. Several massive temple structures, including the famous Abu Simbel temples, were dedicated at this time and featured colossal images, often of himself. He also ordered his artists to carve words and images deeper into stone than had been done previously to make them easier to see and harder to remove.
On the whole, his reign is considered by many art historians to be the high point of Ancient Egyptian culture.
Known as a great military leader, Ramses personally led his armies in Libya, Nubia, and Canaan. While his war with the Hittites didn't go quite as well as his propaganda claimed, it did lead to the first peace treaty in human history.
During the Bronze Age Collapse, a period when most Mediterranean civilizations fell, Ramses was able to make Egypt one of two major civilizations to avoid failure and destruction at the hands of the mysterious "Sea Peoples" by defeating them in battle and securing the Egyptian borders. Without his leadership, Egypt may have suffered the same dark age as its neighbors and the world the poorer for it.
His reign was so long—he lived to be 96—that many Egyptians feared the end of the world at the time of his death. Nine later pharaohs would take his name in tribute to his legacy.
In addition to his impact in popular culture hinted at above, he is also frequently used as the pharaoh in film adaptions of the Exodus story, though there is no archaeological or historical evidence confirming such an event or that he was in charge when it happened.
The Duke of Zhou (11th Century BCE)
The Grand Old Duke of Zhou
One of the lower-ranking officials on our list is famous less for what he did and more for how he did it. The Duke of Zhou (pronounced "Joe") was Confucius' hero and laid the foundations for the first ruling dynasty in Northern China. As a result of Qin Shi Huang burning the imperial records, we don't actually know much about the Duke, but his influence on Chinese history is significant.
The brother of the first king of the Zhou dynasty which ruled much of central China, the Duke became the regent for his young nephew after his brother's death. Unlike most royal uncles in such a position, the Duke is famous for having not acted improperly. When his nephew came of age, the Duke gave up his power and went home.
During his regency, he put down a number of rebellions, expanded eastwards, codified Feudalism, established the holy city of Chengzhou, and legitimized Zhou rule with the idea of the Mandate of Heaven.
The mandate is an idea suggesting that rulers should be virtuous. When they are, heaven favors them and grants the nation prosperity. When they are not, natural disasters and other catastrophes will plague the nation. These disasters are a sign that heaven has abandoned a particular set of rulers and that they can, and should, be swept away by new ones who will do a better job. The Duke suggested that the Zhou, a new dynasty, had come to power this way and enjoyed heaven's favor.
Confucius, the most influential thinker in Chinese history, later praised the Duke and claimed that his entire political philosophy was based on his life. The Mandate of Heaven, which would be refined by other philosophers, remained an important element in Chinese history and is still occasionally invoked to this day.
Pericles (495 – 429 BCE)
The only member on this list to not rule as a king, Pericles was a general and the first citizen of Athens. While his command of the Assembly was firm enough that some commentators declared Athens "in name a democracy but, in fact, governed by its first citizen."
While he was only ever elected as a general, Pericles was the leading member of the democratic faction of Athens for much of his life and dominated the political scene. After taking the reins of power, he oversaw the expansion of democratic rights, the issuing of salaries to those serving in government offices, the giving of land to the poor, and the creation of pensions for war widows.
This time span, known as the Age of Pericles, is considered the golden age of Athenian culture, when many playwrights, artists, sculptors, and philosophers were in Athens doing their finest work. It is this era that made Athens the leading city of ancient Greece.
His most famous act was technically one of embezzlement. He convinced the Athenians to use the treasury of the Delian League, a group of Greek city-states united for defense under Athenian guidance, to build a massive temple complex to replace an older temple for Athena. That complex, the Parthenon, remains a symbol of Ancient Greece and its golden era.
With his considerable oratorical skill, Pericles was able to maintain majorities in the Assembly even in the face of organized opposition. His famous "Funeral Oration" remains a landmark speech in the history of democratic leadership.
Alexander the Great (356 – 323 BCE)
No discussion of great rulers of the ancient world is complete without a reference to Alexander. The son of the king of Macedonia, a Greek-speaking kingdom just north of what the Greeks considered the civilized world, Alexander took control of his father's kingdom and leadership of the Greek world after the old king was conveniently assassinated.
After becoming king and assuring the cooperation of the other Greek states, Alexander set out to conquer Persia, the neighboring empire which stretched from Egypt to India. After ten years of campaigning, in which he never lost a battle, Alexander conquered Persia, attempted to invade India, and laid out plans for a cosmopolitan empire blending eastern and western cultures together.
He died at age 33 of a mysterious illness before he could do so. His empire was then split up among his generals.
His conquests ushered in the Hellenistic period and made Athenian Greek the Lingua Franca of the eastern Mediterranean world. Greek ideas on art, culture, city planning, and education spread into new areas and fused with local ideas. This all but assured the primacy of Greek culture over all others in that part of the world and would guarantee its endurance even long after Rome conquered most of the Hellenistic kingdoms that sprung up after Alexander's death.
Qin Shi Huang (259 – 210 BC)
The first emperor to unite China and the initiator of several ideas later rulers would emulate, Qin Shi Huang technically ended what is thought of as ancient Chinese history and ushered in the imperial era.
After becoming king of one of the seven warring kingdoms during the aptly named "warring states period," he united the seven under his rule through a brutal military conquest. Assuming the title of Emperor of China, he abolished feudalism, redrew the administrative maps, and replaced hereditary officials with ones selected for their merits.
He then began an extensive public works campaign, which included building the first iteration of the Great Wall and a canal linking the Yangtze and Pearl Rivers. His government also found the time to build extensive roadways, reform the coinage, and redistribute land to the peasants.
Qin Shi Huang also had a dark side. He famously burned the imperial library and all of its texts, which made him, or the legalistic philosophy his government followed, look bad. The flourishing of ideas that defined warring states era philosophy ended during his rule, though the ideas he sought to suppress, including Confucianism, merely went underground.
Toward the end of his life, the emperor began a search for immortality elixirs. It is believed that some of these elixirs contained mercury, which may have hastened his death. His tomb is the home of the famous terracotta army in Xian.
Boudica (died in 60 or 61 CE)
Boudica's statue in London, the city she burned.
Credit: Paul Walter - Boudica statue, Westminster, CC BY 2.0,
Boudica was the queen of the Celtic Iceni tribe, famed for leading her people in revolt against the Romans. While she was defeated, her victories still inspire those fighting for freedom two thousand years later.
Her late husband had willed his petty kingdom to both Rome and his daughters in hopes that this arrangement would assure some form of independence. The Romans instead moved in and brutally suppressed the population. Appealed by this betrayal, Boudica led the Iceni and their neighbors in rebellion.
Their first stop was Colchester, which they systematically demolished. When the 9th legion was sent to put down her rebellion, she led her troops in battle against them. The 9th was almost completely annihilated, with only a few officers and horsemen escaping.
Her army advanced, burning Roman settlements in their wake. Roman officials fled as the city of Londinium, now known as London, was wiped off the map.
It was shortly after this that the Romans counterattacked with a large force somewhere outside of modern London. Boudica, having expressed her desire to win or die as a freewoman, led the rebels from her chariot and perished alongside them.
She is unique among the members of this list for being better known as a symbol of the fight against oppression than for the constructive elements of her reign. Her image returned to prominence during the English renaissance when England, led by Elizabeth I, faced invasion. The following centuries only added to her fame.
Today, statues of Boudica can be found in several prominent locations in London.
Trajan (53-117 CE)
Credit: Marco Almbauer - Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0,
The second of the "Five Good Emperors," Trajan expanded Roman territory to its greatest extent, stretching from Scotland to Kuwait. Between his military successes and domestic policies, the Roman Senate found it proper to declare Trajan Optimus Princeps- the greatest ruler.
Adopted by a childless emperor as an adult, Trajan was the first Roman emperor to not be born in Italy. Coming to power during an era of relative prosperity, Trajan spent much of his time on public works projects and warfare.
On the domestic front, he rebuilt the road system which Rome is so famous for, gave the city of Rome—now home to a million people—a new forum and lovely column, financed vast infrastructure projects, and granted pardons to those persecuted under the reign of Domitian a few years prior.
On the battlefield, he led the legions in three large wars. These ended in the conquest of modern Romania, Armenia, Iraq, and Kuwait. In celebration of the Romanian conquest, he put on a festival featuring 10,000 gladiators.
Pacal the Great (603 – 683 CE)
The jade death mask of Pacal.
A Mayan king whose 68-year rule is the fifth-longest reign in history, Pacal turned a minor city-state into a powerhouse and built some of the great Mayan temples. Known as K'inich Janabb' Pakal in his own language, his rule was one of the high points of the Mayan civilization.
Coming to power at age 12 after a period of regency under a mother who would later serve as his chief advisor, Pacal legitimized his rule with a series of massive building projects. These included the great Temple of the Inscriptions in his capital of Palenque, which would later serve as his tomb. He also forged alliances with other Mayan rulers that would bring Palenque to prominence.
His capital city, while a smaller Mayan urban center, features some of the finest artwork that civilization is known to have produced. The majority of the city has not been fully discovered, and what archaeological wonders lie waiting in the jungle is anyone's guess.
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