Skip

What Happened To the Descendants of Famous Historical Figures?
August 3, 2010 4:32 PM   Subscribe

Are there any published works that attempt to trace the descendants of famous historical figures, especially those we read about in ancient history? For example, Cleopatra had children by Julius Ceasar and Marc Antony. One of her daughters was married off to Jubal, king of Numidia and Mauretania. What became of their children? Looked at another way, who among those alive today can trace their lineage to the most distant dates? Royal families would seem to have the advantage here, but not necessarily.
posted by justcorbly to Society & Culture (31 answers total) 17 users marked this as a favorite
 
I would think that most people alive today are related to the relatively wealthy families of antiquity because those who accrued power over time tended to reproduce the most successfully. At least, that's what my intuition suggests: the wealthier members of society had more children survive to adulthood because they had more food, more access to medicine (such as it was in antiquity, etc.)

I would say that it's only relatively recently that the majority of children born to most women across most social classes survive to adulthood. (This comment may not hold for certain impoverished nations.)

Hopefully someone can provide a link to support or refute this.
posted by dfriedman at 4:35 PM on August 3, 2010


Lost in the sands of time. Unless your kids did something remarkable, like Phillip's son Alex, there's not a whole lot of reason to keep track of them over time. And male lines die out over time. Plenty of european aristo seats that have fallen into abeyance, and pretty quickly too.

Going back to antiquity, the problem is that records tended not to survive, and fake genealogies were cobbled up in the middle ages and later to make people look tonier than they were. (I vaguely think the Colonna family put on such airs.) There are Greeks today who claim descent from noble Byzantine families (google "Paleologi family Mani" e.g.). The practice goes back to antiquity. Julius Caesar claimed descent from Venus but there is reason to doubt the truth of it.

You might want to root around here for inspiration, see what you can find

But for the real thing - not so easy. Report back if you find anything
posted by IndigoJones at 4:58 PM on August 3, 2010 [1 favorite]


If I recall correctly, there are people alive today who can trace their ancestry to Confucius.
posted by madcaptenor at 5:00 PM on August 3, 2010


Wikipedia has an article on descent from antiquity that you might find interesting.
posted by Johnny Assay at 5:01 PM on August 3, 2010


During the whole Da Vinci Code craze, I remember reading a piece talking about how it was pointless to try to find a modern descendant of anyone living that far in the past -- basically, everyone who is alive today is a descendant, more or less, of anyone living 2,000 years ago who managed to have a child or two.

Here's some more about that bloodline theory, which is (theoretically; we're obviously more certain about the fact that Caesar was real than that Jesus was) about as far in the past as Cleopatra lived:

"Ultimately, the notion that a person living millennia ago has a small number of descendants living today is statistically improbable.[40] Steve Olson, author of Mapping Human History: Genes, Race, and Our Common Origins, published an article in Nature demonstrating that, as a matter of statistical probability:

If anyone living today is descended from Jesus, so are most of us on the planet.[41]

Historian Ken Mondschein ridiculed the notion that the bloodline of Jesus and Mary Magdalene could have been preserved:

Infant mortality in pre-modern times was ridiculously high, and you'd only need one childhood accident or disease in 2,000 years to wipe out the bloodline … keep the children of Christ marrying each other, on the other hand, and eventually they'd be so inbred that the sons of God would have flippers for feet.[42]"

Famous people living closer to us in time than Caesar and Cleopatra, of course, have identifiable descendants. At one point a few of the living relatives of Thomas Jefferson met up with some of the living relatives of Sally Hemings; it was on TV, IIRC. But after a couple hundred years, there would just be so many descendants (assuming there were any surviving the first couple of generations out) that probably only a few of the genealogy buffs in the family would be keeping tabs on who there ancestors were.
posted by frobozz at 5:03 PM on August 3, 2010 [2 favorites]


*their ancestors
posted by frobozz at 5:04 PM on August 3, 2010


Okay, so it's not antiquity, but it's pretty interesting: in 1951, Life Magazine did a feature on who would be the current King of America if George Washington had agreed to become King instead of President. A carpenter in West Virginia was Life's answer. There have been a couple other articles that look into the GW question as well.
posted by katopotato at 5:20 PM on August 3, 2010 [2 favorites]




As of 2009, John Tyler (born 1790; President of the United States from 1841-1845) had two living grandchildren.
posted by alms at 5:47 PM on August 3, 2010 [3 favorites]


Not directly answering your question, but what the heck.

There is a point in human history where you can divide the human race into two groups: those who are ancestors of every living person and those who are ancestors of no living person. This is the "identical ancestors" point and it was around 10,000 years ago ("around" meaning "plus or minus a few thousand years").

Then you have the most recent common ancestor - the most recent person who is a descendent of everyone alive today. That person has changed dramatically in the last few centuries, as we've colonized more parts of the world and bred with the locals, and a single isolated population could push the number way back, but 2-3 thouand years seems like a good guess and if we just require that he/she be the ancestor of 99% of humanity then it will be more recent than that.

For someone as far back as Cleopatra I'd assume she either has hundreds of thousands, perhaps millions, of ancestors or none at all (and I'd bet on the latter).
posted by It's Never Lurgi at 6:05 PM on August 3, 2010 [1 favorite]


Geneticists have estimated that something like 8% of the population of Ireland is descended from Niall of the Nine Hostages.

The good folks at the Stuff You Missed In History Class podcast often comment on what happened to the children of their subjects. They've devoted an entire podcast to the subject of Cleopatra's children and have followed up with other famous offspring in several ongoing series (they did a whole arc on the Tudors, another on the Medicis, and have devoted a podcast each to Byron and his daughter, Ada Lovelace).
posted by Sara C. at 6:08 PM on August 3, 2010 [2 favorites]


Okay, so it's not antiquity, but it's pretty interesting

Eh… I can personally trace my ancestors back to the 1600s—but this isn't terribly difficult or special, however, because record-keeping starts getting "respectable" during this century. Anyone descended from British ancestry (i.e., not an immigrant mutt*) should be able to do this.

* I also have immigrant mutt in me, lest anyone think I'm being snooty.
posted by Civil_Disobedient at 6:44 PM on August 3, 2010


Royal families do seem to have an extreme advantage. I have a few lines in my family that go back to royal/titled people. These lines can be traced to 1100 a.d. I guess people kept pretty good track of their ancestors if they were some fancy pants family.
My weathly lines of family I can trace pretty easily back to 1400s. They had wills, etc. But the wives names start to disappear.
When my relatives had less assets they are harder to track. When they don't own property it's more difficult to trace them/be sure you have the right folks.

(This is my British American line. Record keeping is different in different cultures. The French for some reason kept amazing records.)
posted by beccaj at 7:15 PM on August 3, 2010


I see Johnny Assay beat me to the Wikipedia entry for "Descent from Antiquity," which has some good links and bibliographic references. As someone else above said, Confucius (Kung Fu-Tzu) has descendants in the male line today, such as Kung Tsui-Chang.

Claiming (rightly or otherwise) descent from Muhammad is common in the Muslim world. His ancestors can be traced for several generations. Most European royals (and by extension, many Europeans) can claim descent from Mohammad because children of the rulers of Muslim Spain married into the Christian nobility.

Of course, these pedigrees, as well any that are not completely matrineal, need to be taken with a grain of salt: as they say, it's a wise man who knows his own father. Indeed, as the rumor of the "baby in the warming pan" (probably concocted by English Protestants) shows, it might also be a wise man who knows his own mother...
posted by dhens at 7:41 PM on August 3, 2010


Yes, there are plenty of published works that do this However, they're typically published on a very small scale and limited to genealogical research libraries. You're not likely to find much along these lines at Barnes & Noble, since it would consist largely of pages and pages of names and dates. Not terribly riveting reading.

This book which has been reproduced (although not well) online (it appears to only be available in print in Australia) has a good description of the difficulties involved in tracing ancestry back to ancient times, although it does claim to go as far early as the 6th century BCE. The bibliography lists a number of other published sources for this kind of information.

There are also lots of internet sites devoted to tracing the descendants of historical figures, with varying levels of reliability. The pages listed here are probably pretty good from a genealogical viewpoint, although some of the links may be out of date or broken. On the other end of the reliability spectrum, there's this page which connects Cleopatra to the George Bush family, as well as to "the extraterrestrial-human hybrids who ruled Sumer, Babylon, Greece, and Troy, and which, today, rule the world."
posted by Dojie at 7:50 PM on August 3, 2010


I do find it fascinating that the division between antiquity and the middle ages is not artificial: we can trace ancestries within antiquity, and we can trace ancestries from the middle ages to the modern day, but we can't cross ancestries over that boundary.

There are some kingdoms whose royal families did straddle that boundary, like Georgia, which is why they're considered good investigatory candidates to fibd any plausible descents from antiquity.

An interesting question is when this knowledge got lost: it's not like people woke up one day in the mid-6th century and suddenly forgot everything. Rather, over time, a succession of medieval upheavals (goths, arabs, mongols) basically uprooted a lot of families and destroyed a lot of knowledge, and those connections with antiquity became lost, even in places, like the middle east, that retained a lot of cultural and political ties with antiquity.

But the shorter answer as mention by others above is that all Europeans are descdended from Charlamagne, and everyone in Europe and the Middle East is descended from Cleopatra. Give us another 1000 years, and we will all be descended from Ghinghis Khan. And unless there is some kind of worldwide upheaval, records about that will be a lot better.
posted by deanc at 8:01 PM on August 3, 2010


One interesting example of a family that does claim to be traceable (though not descendant-by-descendant) from antiquity is the Vlasto family, which has references dating back to the 4th century BC, including a reference in the Book of Acts. But you can't prove descent: just instances of a family re-appearing in historical records and inscriptions every couple of centuries from antiquity to the present day.
posted by deanc at 8:17 PM on August 3, 2010 [1 favorite]


Might I add that even though people can trace their lineage back hundreds of years, without DNA proof who's to say that they were *really* related to the father that was put on their baptismal/birth certificate?
posted by MsKim at 8:21 PM on August 3, 2010 [2 favorites]


deanc - it also probably has a little to do with the fact that the same period in Western Europe was one of massive religious change, as well as the introduction of written language. For instance a lot of ancient Western European cultures have long royal lines that, somewhere between antiquity and the arrival of Christianity/literacy, fade to legend.

When you're dealing with oral history and folklore, within an indigenous religious tradition, and suddenly some monk comes to town and wants to write it all down, it gets pretty hard to know if someone like Niall was actually a real person who really lived and fathered a shit-ton of literal sons whose names we really know, or whether it's all just a story that conveniently lines up with the population genetics in a particular corner of the world.
posted by Sara C. at 8:24 PM on August 3, 2010


Correction, I should have written "Armenia", instead of "Georgia" when referring to royal families that straddled antiquity and the middle ages, which anyone who read the DFA link on wikipedia would have realized.
posted by deanc at 8:34 PM on August 3, 2010


Mark Humphrys, a scientist and genealogist, has an interesting take on this. His view is that we are all connected, and that the most recent common ancestor of all humans is more recent than we think. In his view, it's highly likely, for example, that almost everyone in the West is descended by one or more lines to Charlemagne. (On the other hand, he has backed off a hypothesis that almost everyone in the West was descended from Muhammad, through link between Spanish and Moorish royal houses.)

In any event, I dispute assertions such as dfriedman's opener that "those who accrued power over time tended to reproduce the most successfully". It isn't really the case. Many of those lines died out just as non-powerful ones did. Look at the succession to the British throne to see how complex it is -- and that is one legally "capped" from 1781 onward. Humphrys points out that

Some people think these kind of descents are contrived, in that, say, Elizabeth II is the "real" descendant of William the Conqueror, and all these are rather artificial descents. This betrays a lack of understanding of history. The House of Windsor is an arbitrary subset of the millions of proven, legitimate, direct descendants of William the Conqueror. The Royal line is the product of a long series of political decisions over the years, rather than the result of following any unvarying rule. (And there's nothing wrong with that. After all, it makes it more democratic.)

The major advantage that royal descents have is a) they tend to be much better documented, e.g. through Acts of Parliament, vs. crumbly birth registers in a crypt; and b) they are much more desirable to document for the descendants. But then b) is a double-edged sword and we have to assume that some of these are wishful thinking. For instance, I have Penns in my family tree and we can trace them back to Maryland living right next to known relatives of William Penn, but we've never actually connected them. (And incidentally, Penn has no direct descendants named Penn, as he only had girl stepchildren.) So it had always been a family story that we were "those" Penns, it simply isn't known for sure. And he isn't even royal. But clearly there is no real importance to this sort of genealogy.

Anyway, I think the rule that Humphrys suggests is close enough to mathematically valid: if Cleopatra has just one provable living descendant in the West, then probably almost anyone in the West is also a descendant. I think you're right that her daughter Cleopatra Selene, who married Juba of Numidia, is the best -- possibly only -- route for any descendancy, but the only line that may have survived was her great-granddaughter Drusilla, who became queen of Emesa. From this point onward, the best records may be apocryphal.
posted by dhartung at 8:57 PM on August 3, 2010


basically, everyone who is alive today is a descendant, more or less, of anyone living 2,000 years ago who managed to have a child or two.

Hmm? Maybe I'm misinterpreting, but it seems you're saying that the average Japanese person is likely to be descended from any random Pictish parent from the year 0.
posted by threeants at 9:11 PM on August 3, 2010


The King of Jordan is, according to his website, a direct descendant of the Prophet Mohammed.
posted by AmbroseChapel at 9:55 PM on August 3, 2010


I was surprised to see that no one mentioned the prophet Muhammad until AmbroseCh. I think he is the sole example of someone with a reasonably reliable historical record of descendants.
posted by buka at 7:38 AM on August 4, 2010


Tracing ancestry back is one approach, and the other is to record a family's history throughout the generations. This requires a consistency of purpose, and a degree of luck, that are hard to maintain.

I think arguments that we are all related to some Person X -- Charlemagne, for example -- are uninteresting. Carried to its logical conclusion, it simply means we are all related to each other, which seems to me to be a truism if we accept that the human species did not exist at one point in history and then did exist at a subsequent point. Very strong genetic arguments indicate we are all descended, i.e., share genetic material with, a single African woman who lived about 70,000 years ago.

So, while I may share genetic material with Charlemagne, I'm much more interested in knowing how far out we can trace the old guy's direct lineage. I.e, his direct paternal and maternal lines, not how many of us are his 338th cousins, twice removed.

On that same point, I can trace my paternal ancestry for several generations, to the early 18th century in Virginia. Some of those early ancestors had very large families, so lots of people living today are no doubt related to me, but that doesn't interest me.

As to the point about losing records, especially in the Middle Ages. First, those records must exist. We shouldn't assume people in ancient or medieval times had as much incentive to record and document births as we do today. Modern concepts of citizenship, education, taxes, etc., are strong incentives for documentation.

When records did exist, they could be destoryed in war and other violence. I know from my own forays in chasing ancestors that many records housed in colonial American courthouses were lost when those buildings burned during colonial wars and the Revolution. Likewise, many were lost during the Civil War. We can imagine the European records lost in the wars of the 20th century.
posted by justcorbly at 9:36 AM on August 4, 2010


As to the point about losing records, especially in the Middle Ages. First, those records must exist. We shouldn't assume people in ancient or medieval times had as much incentive to record and document births as we do today. Modern concepts of citizenship, education, taxes, etc., are strong incentives for documentation.

By losing records, I don't mean that in the traditional "birth certificate" sense... recordkeeping in my grandfather's home village was always very spotty, but my grandfather's cousin actually had a pretty good grasp of what the various generations of our family had been up to and what towns they were from going back about 200 years or so.

The descendants of Mohammed are a good example of families that kept track of such things (however dubious their claims). By 600 AD, you had the Byzantine Emperor still using Latin and an active Roman Senate in Constantinople, and no doubt those Senatorial families and families of provincial governors could all tell you what their connections to other prominent families we know from antiquity were. But 50 years later, you had dual invasions of Persians and Arabs, and no doubt those families had died, were bankrupted, exiled, or simply shunted aside in favor of others who rose to prominence out of nowhere in the ethnic and political realignments that occurred.

What you do raise is an interesting question: how long can a "clan" persist with any sort of continuity, to the point where they can keep track of their descendants? Recognizable ones like the Bourbons date back to the 1500s. The Hapsburgs to the 1200s. The descendants of the Comneni from the 1100s (I have a background in Byzantine history, if you can tell) are traceable to the present day not because they are still a recognizable family, but rather because in the middle ages, some of the daughters married in to western royal families which themselves have well-documented lineages.

So the best documentation we have tends to be from "famous" families which, before they faded or as they were fading away, married into the famous families of that era, where their contemporaries would have taken an interest in tracing that other family's descendants, and so on.
posted by deanc at 11:07 AM on August 4, 2010


And incidentally, Penn has no direct descendants named Penn, as he only had girl stepchildren.

My last name is Penn, and I was always told growing up that we were "direct descendants." My partner was a reference librarian at a major library that was popular with geneologists, and there was a book that traced Penn's descendants; according to this book, all of his descendants died out in the 19th century, so there is no one alive descended from him directly or indirectly. My family refuses to believe this and gets really angry if I bring it up, so I have stopped bringing it up.
posted by not that girl at 8:39 AM on August 5, 2010 [1 favorite]


Charlemagne traces his line back to Clovis, floruit 420.

You can find this and more in the book Pedigrees of Some of the Emperor Charlemagne's Descendants
posted by IndigoJones at 3:09 PM on August 5, 2010


By 600 AD, you had the Byzantine Emperor still using Latin and an active Roman Senate in Constantinople, and no doubt those Senatorial families and families of provincial governors could all tell you what their connections to other prominent families we know from antiquity were. But 50 years later, you had dual invasions of Persians and Arabs, and no doubt those families had died, were bankrupted, exiled, or simply shunted aside in favor of others who rose to prominence out of nowhere in the ethnic and political realignments that occurred.


Not quite that fast. I mean to say, the last Byzantine emperor died in 1502. Plenty of Christian fight in the empire in the years between 650 and then. Crusades and all that, never mind the in-fighting in Islam. And it was the Ottomans, not the Arabs or Persians, who claimed Constantinople for Islam, in 1453.
posted by IndigoJones at 4:40 PM on August 5, 2010


Not quite that fast. I mean to say, the last Byzantine emperor died in 1502. Plenty of Christian fight in the empire in the years between 650 and then. Crusades and all that, never mind the in-fighting in Islam. And it was the Ottomans, not the Arabs or Persians, who claimed Constantinople for Islam, in 1453.

Yes, that's all true, but what I was trying to get across was that even in a long-lived empire which straddled anquity and the middle ages (and into the renaissance), massive economic and military upheavals overturned the established power structure quite regularly. So much so that even though the political and cultural connections to antiquity remained, you had a completely new generation of people, families, and power structures that were going to separate people that much more than the antiquity they felt connected to and remembered just a few centuries before. So of course you're going to lose track of the descendants of famous historical figures, if only because those families are no longer particularly famous and get displaced by formerly obscure ones.

At 600 AD, you have a Latin speaking emperor who married into Justinian's family and was managing the system of Roman provinces. 100 years later, you have Greek-speaking emperors from Asian Minor who were working with a completely different administrative system with different sources of power. While there's apparent continuity, what happens is that instead of our sense of history and lines of descent and family legacies evolving gradually, you have moments where everything gets overturned and destroyed/recreated in an instant. The immediate descendants of famous people might be prominent figures in one era but then the next generation gets lost to obscurity in the realignment of the moment. So what justcorbly is asking for is almost an impossibility in the absence of a unbiased party who just keeps track of everyone's birth and death records, which didn't happen on a consistent scale until the last 400 years or so in western europe.
posted by deanc at 8:43 PM on August 5, 2010


This topic is exactly what I was searching for! If I may restate the Asker's question: Are there records stating who today is descended from the (american) Founding Fathers? Or other early presidents? Or, famous scientists? Philosophers?

As far as a reply, I found this link, and it's pretty interesting. It has descendants posing as pictures of Charles II, Cromwell, Napoleon, and Clive of India.
posted by rebent at 2:17 PM on December 30, 2010


« Older I think I screwed up a phone i...   |  I have a constant, low-grade h... Newer »
This thread is closed to new comments.


Post