Influential Leaders in European History

For better or worse, it is usually the leaders and rulers – be they democratically elected prime ministers or autocratic monarchs – who headline the history of their region or area. Europe has seen many different types of leaders, each with their own quirks and level of success. These, in chronological order, are some of the most influential figures.

Alexander the Great 356 – 323 BCE

Painting of Alexander Entering Babylon by Le Brun, Charles.

Heritage Images / Getty Images / Getty Images

Already an acclaimed warrior before succeeding to the throne of Macedonia in 336 BCE, Alexander carved out both a massive empire, which reached from Greece into India and a reputation as one of history’s greatest generals. He founded many cities and exported Greek language, culture and thought across the Empire, beginning the Hellenistic era. He was also interested in science and his expeditions stimulated discoveries. He did all this in just twelve years of rule, dying at age 33.

Julius Caesar c.100 – 44 BCE

Bronze bust of Julius Caesar
George Rose / Getty Images

A great general and statesman, Caesar would probably still be highly revered even if he hadn’t written histories of his own great conquests. A highlight reel of a career saw him conquer Gaul, win a civil war against Roman rivals and be appointed dictator for life of the Roman republic. He is often mistakenly called the first Roman Emperor, but he set in motion the process of transformation which led to an empire. However, he didn’t defeat all his enemies, as he was assassinated in 44 BCE by a group of senators who thought he had become too powerful.

Augustus (Octavian Caesar) 63 BCE – 14 CE

The painting 'Maecenas presenting the Arts to Augustus' by Giovanni Battista Tiepolo

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The grand-nephew of Julius Caesar and his main heir, Octavian proved himself a superb politician and strategist from a young age, steering himself through wars and rivalries to become the single dominant man in, and the first emperor of, the new Roman Empire. He was also an administrator of genius, transforming and stimulating almost every aspect of the empire. He avoided the excesses of later emperors, and accounts suggest he avoided indulging in personal luxury.

Constantine the Great (Constantine I) c. 272 – 337 CE

Statue Of Emperor Constantine Outside Cathedral
Dan Stanek / EyeEm / Getty Images

The son of an army officer who was raised to the position of Caesar, Constantine went on to reunite the Roman Empire under the rule of one man: himself. He founded a new imperial capital in the east, Constantinople (home of the Byzantine Empire), and enjoyed military victories, but it is one key decision that has made him such an important figure: he was the first emperor of Rome to adopt Christianity, contributing greatly to its spread across Europe.

Clovis c. 466 – 511m

Painting of Clovis et Clotilde in court dressing.

Antoine-Jean Gros / Public domain / Wikimedia Commons

As king of the Salian Franks, Clovis conquered the other Frankish groups to create one kingdom with much of its land in modern France; in doing so he established the Merovingian dynasty which ruled until the seventh century. He is also remembered for changing to Catholic Christianity, possibly after dabbling with Arianism. In France, he is considered by many to be the founder of the nation, while some in Germany also claim him as a key figure.

Charlemagne 747 - 814

Charlemagne statue, Aachen Rathaus
Elizabeth Beard / Getty Images

Inheriting part of the Frankish kingdom in 768, Charlemagne was soon ruler of the whole lot, a dominion which he expanded to include much of western and central Europe: he is often named as Charles I in lists of the rulers of France, Germany and the Holy Roman Empire. Indeed, he was crowned by the Pope as a Roman Emperor on Christmas Day 800. A later exemplar of good leadership, he prompted religious, cultural and political developments.

Ferdinand and Isabella of Spain 1452 – 1516 / 1451 - 1504

Ferdinand and Isabella amongst their people.
MPI / Getty Images

The marriage of Ferdinand II of Aragon and Isabella I of Castile united two of the leading kingdoms of Spain; by the time both had died in 1516, they had ruled much of the peninsula and established the kingdom of Spain itself. Their influence was global, as they supported the voyages of Christopher Columbus and laid the foundation for the Spanish Empire.

Henry VIII of England 1491 - 1547

Oil on oak painting of King Henry VIII.
Hans Holbein the Younger / Getty Images

Henry is probably the most famous monarch of all in the English-speaking world, largely thanks to an ongoing interest into his six wives (two of which were executed for adultery) and a stream of media adaptations. He also both caused and oversaw the English Reformation, producing a mixture of Protestant and Catholic, engaged in wars, built up the navy and promoted the position of the monarch to the head of the nation. He has been called a monster and one of the nation’s best kings.

Charles V of the Holy Roman Empire 1500 – 1558

Cropped painting of Charles V

Antonio Arias Fernández / Public domain / Wikimedia Commons

Inheriting not just the Holy Roman Empire but the kingdom of Spain and a role as Archduke of Austria, Charles ruled the greatest concentration of European lands since Charlemagne. He fought hard to hold these lands together and keep them Catholic, resisting pressure from Protestants, as well as political and military pressure from France and Turks. Eventually, it became too much and he abdicated, retiring to a monastery.

Elizabeth I of England 1533 - 1603

Oil painting of Elizabeth I, Armada Portrait, c.1588
George Gower / Getty Images

The third child of Henry VIII to take to the throne, Elizabeth lasted the longest and oversaw a period which has been called a Golden Age for England, as the nation’s stature in culture and power grew. Elizabeth had to forge a new impression of the monarchy to counter fears that she was a woman; the control of her portrayal was so successful she established an image which in many ways lasts to this day.

Louis XIV of France 1638 - 1715

Marble bust of Louis XIV, by Gian Lorenzo Bernini.

Known as “The Sun King” or “the Great”, Louis is remembered as the apogee of the absolute monarch, a style of rule whereby the king (or queen) has total power invested in them. He led France through an age of great cultural achievement in which he was a key patron, as well as winning military victories, expanding the borders of France and securing the Spanish succession for his grandson in the war of the same name. The aristocracy of Europe began to mimic that of France. However, he has been criticized for leaving France vulnerable to rule from someone less able.

Peter the Great of Russia (Peter I) 1672 – 1725

The Bronze Horseman statue of Peter the Great

Nadia Isakova / LOOP IMAGES / Getty Images

Sidelined by a regent as a youth, Peter grew up to become one of Russia’s great emperors. Determined to modernize his country, he went incognito on a fact-finding expedition to the West, where he worked as a carpenter in a shipyard, before returning to both push the borders of Russia to the Baltic and Caspian seas through conquest and reform the nation internally. He founded St. Petersburg (known as Leningrad during World War II), a city built from scratch and created a new army along modern lines. He died leaving Russia as a great power.

Frederick the Great of Prussia (Frederick II) 1712 - 1786

Equestrian statue of Frederick the Great in Berlin, Germany
Karl Johaentges / LOOK-foto / Getty Images

Under his leadership, Prussia expanded its territory and rose to become one of the leading military and political powers in Europe. This was made possible because Frederick was a commander of probable genius, who reformed the army in a manner later imitated by many other European powers. He was interested in enlightenment ideas, for instance banning the use of torture in the judicial process.

Napoleon Bonaparte 1769 - 1821

Painted portrait of Napoleon Bonaparte by baron Francois Gerard
Marc Dozier / Getty Images

Taking full advantage of both the opportunities offered by the French Revolution, when the officer class was greatly convulsed and his own considerable military ability, Napoleon became First Consul of France after a coup before crowning himself Emperor. He fought wars across Europe, establishing a reputation as one of the great generals and reformed the French legal system, but wasn’t free of mistakes, leading a disastrous expedition into Russia in 1812. Defeated in 1814 and exiled, defeated again in 1815 at Waterloo by an alliance of European nations, he was again exiled, this time to St. Helena where he died.

Otto von Bismarck 1815 - 1898

Painting of Bismarck with dogs by Otto-Leopold.
Corbis via Getty Images / Getty Images

As Prime Minister of Prussia, Bismarck was the key figure in the creation of a united German empire, for which he served as Chancellor. Having led Prussia through a series of successful wars in creating the empire, Bismarck worked hard to maintain the European status quo and avoid major conflict so the German Empire could grow and become commonly accepted. He resigned in 1890 with a sense of having failed to stop the development of social democracy in Germany.

Vladimir Ilich Lenin 1870 - 1924

Vladimir Ilyich Lenin holding a hat in front of a large crowd.
Keystone / Getty Images

Founder of the Bolshevik party and one of Russia’s leading revolutionaries, Lenin might have had little impact if Germany hadn’t used a special train to deliver him into Russia as the 1917 revolution unfolded. But they did, and he arrived in time to inspire the Bolshevik revolution of October 1917. He went on to head the communist government, overseeing the Russian Empire's transformation into the USSR. He has been labeled as history’s greatest revolutionary.

Winston Churchill 1874 – 1965

Churchill making peace sign in military outfit, in Croydon
Central Press / Getty Images

A mixed political reputation earnt before 1939 was completely rewritten by Churchill’s actions during World War II​ when Britain turned to his leadership. He repaid the trust easily, his oratory and ability as Prime Minister driving the nation forward to eventual victory over Germany. Along with Hitler and Stalin, he was the third key European leader of that conflict. However, he lost the 1945 election and had to wait until 1951 to become peacetime leader. A sufferer of depression, he also wrote history.

Stalin 1879 – 1953

Dawing of Stalin at a desk in Moscow
Laski Diffusion / Getty Images

Stalin rose through the ranks of Bolshevik revolutionaries until he controlled all of the USSR, a position he secured by ruthless purges and the imprisonment of millions in work camps called Gulags. He oversaw a program of forced industrialization and guided Russian forces to victory in World War II, before establishing a communist-dominated eastern European empire. His actions, both during and after WW2, helped create the Cold War, causing him to be labeled as perhaps the most important twentieth-century leader of all.

Adolf Hitler 1889 – 1945

Adolf Hitler holding up a fist while speaking.
Bettmann Archive / Getty Images

A dictator who came to power in 1933, German leader Hitler will be remembered for two things: a program of conquests which started World War II, and the racist and anti-Semitic policies which saw him attempt to exterminate several peoples of Europe, as well as the mentally and terminally ill. As the war turned against him he grew increasingly insular and paranoid, before committing suicide as Russian forces entered Berlin.

Mikhail Gorbachev 1931 –

Mikhail Gorbachev pointing upwards in Iceland
Bryn Colton / Getty Images

As "General Secretary of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union", and thus the leader of the USSR in the mid-1980s, Gorbachev recognized that his nation was falling economically behind the rest of the world and could no longer afford to compete in the Cold War. He introduced policies designed to decentralize the Russian economy and open up the state, called ​perestroika and glasnost, and ended the Cold War. His reforms led to the collapse of the USSR in 1991; this was not something he had planned.

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Wilde, Robert. "Influential Leaders in European History." ThoughtCo, Apr. 5, 2023, Wilde, Robert. (2023, April 5). Influential Leaders in European History. Retrieved from Wilde, Robert. "Influential Leaders in European History." ThoughtCo. (accessed May 29, 2023).