What’s in a Name?
April 17, 2022 – February 12, 2023
A Spotlight Exhibit of Historical Figures by George Stuart
Ah, nicknames. The word comes from Old English, ‘an ekename,’ meaning ‘additional name.’ Nicknames are by-and-large unavoidable, developed by action or inaction, by sheer will or against one’s control, developed over time or after one momentous (or calamitous) event. As a rule, you can’t give yourself a nickname, which is probably for the best. They are just as often embarrassing as they are terms of endearment, created by friends and bullies, alike. Importantly, nicknames can outlive us, and the legendary few who acquire grand epithets are often remembered forever. Over the course of his career, George Stuart has depicted several of these famously and infamously nicknamed figures. He delights in capturing the essence of these larger-than-life personalities who shaped history, one way or another, and earned themselves a memorable immortal moniker.
Alexander the Great
356 BCE – 323 BCE
What’s his real name? Alexander III of Macedon
How did he earn his nickname? Alexander earned the epithet "the Great" due to his unparalleled success as a military commander: he was undefeated in battle, despite being often outnumbered, and military academies throughout the world continue to teach his tactics to this day. Considered among humanity’s most influential people, as King of Macedonia and Persia he established the largest empire the ancient world had ever seen, stretching from Greece to northwestern India. He was considered a demigod: after defeating the Persians in Egypt, the Egyptian priests declared he was a pharaoh, a divine king descended from their supreme god, Amun. Subsequently, Alexander was worshipped by the ruling cult of the Ptolemaic Dynasty of Egypt for three hundred years. The lands which Alexander the Great conquered remained so deeply influenced by Greek culture that it came to be recognized as a new epoch in human history: the Hellenistic Period.
Alfred the Great
849 CE – 899 CE
What’s his real name? Alfred I, also spelled Ælfred
How did he earn his nickname? Alfred the Great was king of the southern Anglo-Saxon kingdom of Wessex. He is recognized as the only English king to effectively defend his kingdom from the Danes, otherwise known as the Great Heathen Army of Vikings, which had been ceaselessly plundering the kingdoms of England for generations. After fending off the Vikings for years and knowing he could never drive the Danes out of England entirely, Alfred successfully brokered a truce, which not only enlarged his kingdom and ensured the relative safety of his realm but allowed the Danes to settle large regions of northern and eastern England. He even managed to convert the Danish King Guthrum to Christianity, with himself as godfather. Aside from battle, Alfred’s greatness was apparent in his genuine desire to improve the lives of his people. Regarded as wise, merciful, and benevolent, he removed corrupt judges and established a code of laws to ensure the protection of the weak. He insisted primary education be conducted in Old English rather than Latin, even learning Latin himself to translate important works into Old English for the benefit of his subjects. He acquired the epithet ‘the Great’ in the 16th century and remains the only English king or queen given this moniker.
Erik the Red
950 CE – 1004 CE
What’s his real name? Erik Thorvaldsson, Old Norse Eirik Rauð, Icelandic Eiríkur Rauði
How did he earn his nickname? According to the Icelandic sagas, he had a fiery red temper that matched his fiery red beard. Born in Norway, he moved with his family to Iceland when he was a young boy after his father was exiled for murder. Although he became a wealthy farmer, thanks to his fiery temper he inevitably followed in his father’s footsteps: the legends tell us that Erik’s thralls (enslaved serfs) accidentally caused a landslide, which consequently destroyed Erik’s neighbor’s house. Those neighbors killed Erik’s thralls, and then Erik killed his neighbors. Like his father, he was banished, and moved to a new settlement. Unfortunately, in keeping with is fiery nickname, he got into a deadly feud with his new neighbors, too, and ended up banished yet again, for three years. Not one to take defeat lightly, he decided to search for a new land, entirely. He set sail with a small band of adventurous men, eventually reaching an uninhabited land which he named Greenland – a name guaranteed to entice more settlers to come. It worked: Erik the Red established a community of Norse Vikings in Greenland that flourished for several hundred years.
William the Conqueror
1028 CE – 1087 CE
What’s his real name? William I
How did he earn his nickname? William was well-known to his contemporaries by a different nickname: William the Bastard. He was the illegitimate son of a Duke, who nevertheless succeeded his father’s station. He became a knight at age 15 and very quickly established himself as a cunning and vicious military commander – his ability to squash rebellions within Normandy earned him a fearsome reputation. He also happened to be a cousin of the childless King of England, Edward the Confessor, and although Edward named someone else as king on his deathbed, William nevertheless set out to claim the throne for himself. He gathered an enormous fleet and killed his rival in the Battle of Hastings, becoming the first Norman monarch of England. There were constant uprisings from the Anglo-Saxons during his reign. They despised their foreign king, not to mention contending with the never-ending threat of Danish Viking invasions. He was even at war with his own son, who sided with his Norman enemies. Despite being an unpopular king, William the Conqueror changed the course of England forever, ushering in cultural changes that altered the aristocracy and the Church, causing ripple effects still seen today.
Ivan the Terrible
1530 CE – 1584 CE
What’s his real name? Ivan Vasilyevich, also known as Ivan IV
How did he earn his nickname? Ivan the Terrible was the Grand Prince of Moscow and established himself as Russia’s first Tsar. Although he did create a more centralized Russian empire, he did so at the expense of thousands of lives, primarily through waging numerous unsuccessful wars, including the infamous Livonian War, which lasted 25 years and decimated the Russian economy. He created the oprichniki, his own private bodyguard army of 1,000–6,000 men, who mercilessly killed anyone whom Ivan deemed a threat, noble and commoner alike. Ivan’s oprichniki brutally tortured their victims with impunity, even massacring an entire city, Novgorod, horrifically executing even women and children, simply because Ivan was suspicious of the city’s wealthy nobles. Ivan also murdered his own son during an argument, kicked his pregnant daughter-in-law in the stomach to cause her to miscarry, and preferred killing his enemies by roasting, impaling, and boiling them alive. Like all monarchs of his time, Ivan believed he had divine right and unquestionable and unlimited power – he viewed his ruthless acts against his adversaries as divine punishment in the eyes of God.