Sargon the Great (ca. 2360 –2279 BCE)
In his autobiography (recorded as The Legend of Sargon), Sargon admits, “My father I knew not.” And while we don’t know his genealogy, we do know the guy was “Great.” Supposedly the son of royalty (at least that’s what he told people), Sargon was actually abandoned in a basket on the Euphrates river and found by a gardener. Somehow, the clever kid worked his way up to cupbearer (sort of a prime minister) to the king of the Sumerian city of Kish, but his ambition didn’t stop there.
Eventually, Sargon founded his own kingdom among the Semitic peoples of Akkad. Of course, anyone who laughed at his supposed illegitimacy probably lived to regret it; in the span of a few decades Sargon conquered Sumeria and built one of the first true empires in world history, stretching from the mountains of southern Anatolia to the Syrian coast and the Persian Gulf. His Akkadian name, Sharru-kin, means “The King is Legitimate.” We think . . . .
Confucius (ca. 551-479 BCE)
The early life of K’ung-Fu-tzu, better known in the West as Confucius, is largely a mystery. Born in the feudal kingdom of Lu, Confucius served as an advisor on political matters and court etiquette to several Chinese leaders during the mid- to late 500s BCE.
The circumstances of Confucius’s own birth, however, are hardly up to any Emily Post standards. According to the first complete biography of Confucius, the Shiji, his dad, a warlord named Shu Liang He, and his mom, a member of the Yan clan, “came roughly together,” indicating either a rape, concubinage, or some other sort of extramarital shenanigan.
His low birth, however, didn’t stop him from attracting plenty of highborn followers, many of whom protected him when his outspoken manner offended his various employers.
William I of England (1028-1087)
Billy the conqueror, as he liked to be called, was the son of Duke Robert of Normandy and a tanner’s daughter named Arletta, who had a thing for guys in armor. By his early 20s, Billy had defeated his rivals for the throne, conquered the rich province of Maine, and became one of the most powerful men in France.
But even after being crowned king of England, “William the Bastard” didn’t stop his conquests – he died in Vexin during an attempt to seize control of the French province.
Interestingly enough, though, little Billy wasn’t the only great king of England to be a bastard; Athelstan (ruled 924-939), maybe the greatest of the Anglo-Saxon monarchs, was also the product of a somewhat less than legitimate union.
Juchi (ca. 1180-1227)
It almost sounds like a fairy tale: the bride of a young Mongol herdsman named Temudjin was kidnapped by an enemy tribe, but rather than abandon her to her fate (the custom at the time – Temudjin’s own mother had been kidnapped by his father), Temudjin gathered an army and risked his life to get her back.
When she came back, though, she was pregnant. Amazingly, Temudjin accepted the child as his own, but named him Juchi, “the Guest,” just to make sure everyone knew that he didn’t regard the kid’s paternity as totally kosher.
Temudjin soon became known to the world as Genghis Khan, and his son Juchi began the conquest of Russia, possibly to get away from his brothers, who, according to Mongol sources, taunted him and called him a bastard.
The kingdom he carved out was ultimately known as the Golden Horde, the longest lived of the Mongol successor states.
Leonardo da Vinci (1452-1519)
Everyone knows of Leonardo da Vinci, the Homo universalis who could be a painter, a naturalist, an engineer, a metallurgist, or philosopher with equal ease. It’s considerably less well known that his personification of the Renaissance was actually the son of a notary, Ser Piero, and a peasant girl of somewhat “easy virtue.”
In fact, the two simply took a tumble in the hay together before going their separate ways and providing Leonardo, from their marriages to other people, with 17 half brothers and sisters.
Needless to say, these assorted half siblings were none too fond of their renowned relation, whose birth was something of an embarrassment, and on his father’s death in 1503 they conspired to deprive him of his share of the estate. Leonardo had the last laugh, however, when the death of an uncle led to a similar inheritance squabble, leaving him with sole custody of the uncle’s lands and property.
Thomas Paine (1737-1809) and Alexander Hamilton (1755-1804)
two of the best-known fathers of the American republic, Thomas Paine and Alexander Hamilton, were the results of extramarital bedroom high jinks. Paine, whose Common Sense helped bring widespread support to the American Revolution, and whose other writings, like the anti-Bible tract The Age of Reason, scandalized all and sundry, had to flee England a step ahead of treason charges. In the end, however, he died penniless in the United States.
Hamilton, on the other hand, was the illegitimate son of West Indian colonials, and made a name for himself as a brilliant orator and writer. He eventually became one of the leaders of the American Federalist Party, but had the misfortune to be challenged to a duel by Aaron Burr. He also had the even greater misfortune of accepting, bringing his career to a dramatic close one fine New Jersey morning.
Thomas Edward Lawrence (1888-1935)
The illegitimate son of a knight and his children’s nanny, T.E. Lawrence became the model for generations of British diplomats blindly idolizing all things Arabian. One of the organizers of the much-touted (but in reality fought more on paper than on the battlefield) Arab revolt against the Turks during World War I, Lawrence later became embittered with Britain’s imperial policy and spent the last few years of his life sulking and tinkering with motorcycles (he died in a motorcycle accident). Though he lartgely tried to keep a low profile, his much-exaggerated accomplishments led to him being dubbed “Lawrence of Arabia.”
Eva Peron (1919-1952)
“Saint Evita” was the daughter of an adulterous relationship between two villagers in an impoverished part of Argentina. She made a name for herself as an actress before marrying Juan Peron in 1944, but, being illegitimate (and a peasant), she was never really accepted in the social circles in which he routinely traveled.
As a rising military officer, Peron quickly found himself dictator of Argentina, and “Evita” was by his side. In fact, she was there to do more than just wave at crowds and manage the mansion. Evita actually ran several government ministries and almost became vice president in 1951 (the military bullied Peron into making her drop out of the campaign).
And though she’s best known to many from the musical and movie that bear her name, you really shouldn’t feel obligated to cry for her. While the flick plays up the glamour and romance of her career, it largely ignores her corruption, oppression of political rivals, cozying up to Nazi war criminals, and other questionable doings.