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Old 10th October 2017, 06:11 PM   #1
Meadmaker
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Who decides who gets to be called The Great?

Katharine the Great. Peter the Great. Charlemagne/Karl der Gross. Pope Gregory the Great. Caesar Augustus.

There are some kings and historical figures that are called "The Great". Is that some sort of official title? Who gets to decide who is "the Great"?

I remember after Pope John Paul II died, there were people campaigning to have him declared "the Great", which I assumed would be done by royal i.e. papal proclamation, but I don't know if there is some sort of formal process, or if the reigning pope just says, "He's grreaaate!" (like Tony the Tiger).

There are no "great" English kings or queens. There is one "the terrible", but I assume that's more of a nickname than anything else.

I'm pretty sure Octavian called himself Caesar Augustus, but maybe there was a senate proclamation as well? After that, though, how did this sort of thing happen?
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Old 10th October 2017, 06:21 PM   #2
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Well, with Peter he was apparently above two meters "great".
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Old 10th October 2017, 06:59 PM   #3
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And there was a Suleiman the Magnificent. I'm guessing that was kind of a self proclamation thing as well.
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Old 10th October 2017, 07:45 PM   #4
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Originally Posted by Meadmaker View Post
There are no "great" English kings or queens.
You don't count Alfred?
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Old 10th October 2017, 07:52 PM   #5
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Originally Posted by Ray Brady View Post
You don't count Alfred?
Indeed.

Who was the "terrible" English one? ( I mean, officially rather than just objectively).

As for the Romans, isn't pompaeius Magnus (Pompey the great) or Fabius Maximus a nearer translation of great than Augustus?
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Old 10th October 2017, 08:12 PM   #6
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Originally Posted by Giz View Post
Indeed.

Who was the "terrible" English one? ( I mean, officially rather than just objectively).

As for the Romans, isn't pompaeius Magnus (Pompey the great) or Fabius Maximus a nearer translation of great than Augustus?
Sorry. Bad grammar. There was one sovereign known as "the terrible", but I included that in a sentence that included a reference to English sovereigns.



Or.......wait......better answer...The English sovereign who was "the terrible" was Charles III. I'm just getting a bit ahead of myself.

Yes. Alfred. Definitely English. Who decided he was great?
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Old 10th October 2017, 09:30 PM   #7
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Actually, Ivan was called more like "the terrifying", if we translate it to modern vernacular. They didn't say he was a terrible ruler, as in bad at it, but that he was scary as hell. Which, if you read some of the stuff he did to his enemies, well, it sounds like an accurate nickname.

That said, who decides... well, often it's the ruler himself or his chronicler or such. I can't remember the name right now, but there was a monarch who called himself "the great", except after losing a couple of wars, the joke among the population was that their king is like a hole: the more land he loses, the greater he gets
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Old 11th October 2017, 12:09 AM   #8
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I am fairly sure that most such nicknames were not the result of any official proclamation but memes that procreated posthumously. Nicknames like Charles the Bald or Philip the Fair on the other hand...
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Old 11th October 2017, 12:32 AM   #9
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Originally Posted by Meadmaker View Post
Who gets to decide who is "the Great"?
History.
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Old 11th October 2017, 02:11 AM   #10
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I believe the correct answer is in fact: Tragic Monkey. He is the sole arbiter of greatness and I'm both shocked and appalled that no one else on the forum seems to know this.
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Old 11th October 2017, 01:34 PM   #11
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My moniker for an English king is Ethelred the Unready.
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Old 11th October 2017, 01:53 PM   #12
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Originally Posted by CORed View Post
My moniker for an English king is Ethelred the Unready.
Æthelred's nickname, "the Unready" renders Old English unræd "bad counsel, folly", more accurately (but more rarely) rendered "the Rede-less".
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Old 11th October 2017, 01:56 PM   #13
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Originally Posted by Ray Brady View Post
You don't count Alfred?
Technically only King of Wessex, Cnut the Great on the other hand...


Its all about tradition I guess.

Edit, kind of unfortunate that none of the Swede or Norwegian Magnii were called Magnus the Great isn't it?

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Old 11th October 2017, 06:18 PM   #14
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The epithet “the Great” is acquired in many ways. In some cases a leader chooses the title for himself, or has his officers grant it to him. This is often done by including “Great” as part of the leader’s official (often lengthy) title. Or his officers may bestow it on him for one reason or another. In some cases it is the leader’s subjects to begin using the epithet. It may be for conquering a large amount of land or some other great accomplishment. Or because the person is very tall. Or simple to distinguish between two leaders with the same name. It may be used for a while, and then dropped later. It may be granted while the leader is alive, or at the time of his death, or years later. A successor may attribute the epithet to an ancestor to improve the perception of his lineage and own reputation. Or people may use it to bolster national pride. Or historians may use it many years later for various reasons.

Alfred had to wait centuries to become “the Great.” Alfred died in 899. He was first called “Great” in the 12th century. But then not again until the mid 16th century. Even then, most 15-16th century texts don’t call him “the Great.” It wasn’t until John Spelman's “The Life of King Alfred the Great” in 1709 that the epithet really stuck.

Alfred was a good king--even great. He unified much of England and defeated the Vikings among other accomplishments. That established him as somewhat of the founder and defender of modern England. He had a cult following even in his day. He was also big on books—especially in English. He translated works from Latin to English. He sponsored the Chronicles that recorded history. He commissioned his own biography. That got his story out to the people. The story grew in the telling. He became a heroic scholar-king. Descendant of gods and kings. Companion of saints. Speaker of proverbs. This snowballed into all kinds of accomplishments being attributed to Alfred: unification of all England, creation of shires, origination of constitutional government, creation of the Royal Navy, the founding of Oxford. The issue with Oxford caused contention with Cambridge over which school was older, which kept the name “Alfred” on the tongues of scholars.

By the time of Spelman's biography in 1709, Alfred was the model hero-warrior-scholar-king who had created almost everything and could do no wrong. A source of national pride, especially in comparison to Charlemagne (Charles le Magne = Charles the Great). This culminated with the Victorian’s interest in a nationalistic ancestral hero and a fascination with the Germanic roots of the Anglo-Saxons. That included scholars. By the end of the Victorian era, scholars had begun to separate myths from facts. Alfred lost many of his colorful stories and many of his accomplishments, but he did not lose his epithet as “the Great.”
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Old 11th October 2017, 06:43 PM   #15
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Originally Posted by DevilsAdvocate View Post
The epithet “the Great” is acquired in many ways. In some cases a leader chooses the title for himself, or has his officers grant it to him. This is often done by including “Great” as part of the leader’s official (often lengthy) title. Or his officers may bestow it on him for one reason or another. In some cases it is the leader’s subjects to begin using the epithet. It may be for conquering a large amount of land or some other great accomplishment. Or because the person is very tall. Or simple to distinguish between two leaders with the same name. It may be used for a while, and then dropped later. It may be granted while the leader is alive, or at the time of his death, or years later. A successor may attribute the epithet to an ancestor to improve the perception of his lineage and own reputation. Or people may use it to bolster national pride. Or historians may use it many years later for various reasons.

Alfred had to wait centuries to become “the Great.” Alfred died in 899. He was first called “Great” in the 12th century. But then not again until the mid 16th century. Even then, most 15-16th century texts don’t call him “the Great.” It wasn’t until John Spelman's “The Life of King Alfred the Great” in 1709 that the epithet really stuck.

Alfred was a good king--even great. He unified much of England and defeated the Vikings among other accomplishments. That established him as somewhat of the founder and defender of modern England. He had a cult following even in his day. He was also big on books—especially in English. He translated works from Latin to English. He sponsored the Chronicles that recorded history. He commissioned his own biography. That got his story out to the people. The story grew in the telling. He became a heroic scholar-king. Descendant of gods and kings. Companion of saints. Speaker of proverbs. This snowballed into all kinds of accomplishments being attributed to Alfred: unification of all England, creation of shires, origination of constitutional government, creation of the Royal Navy, the founding of Oxford. The issue with Oxford caused contention with Cambridge over which school was older, which kept the name “Alfred” on the tongues of scholars.

By the time of Spelman's biography in 1709, Alfred was the model hero-warrior-scholar-king who had created almost everything and could do no wrong. A source of national pride, especially in comparison to Charlemagne (Charles le Magne = Charles the Great). This culminated with the Victorian’s interest in a nationalistic ancestral hero and a fascination with the Germanic roots of the Anglo-Saxons. That included scholars. By the end of the Victorian era, scholars had begun to separate myths from facts. Alfred lost many of his colorful stories and many of his accomplishments, but he did not lose his epithet as “the Great.”
Cool history. Thanks.
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Old 11th October 2017, 06:52 PM   #16
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Hugo, The Great Zacchini. Holder of the Guinness record for being the subject of the most awful puns in my 1970's edition of The Guinness Book of Records. And for being the greatest human cannonball.

He was pictured in the frontispiece, which in the caption mentioned that on retirement he was expected to be replaced by a daughter-in-law; a performer of a similar caliber. In the body of the book he was quoted as saying, when asked what would happen if he missed the net, "Squash. The great Zacchini becomes The Great Zucchini."

Caveat: I may have the wrong Zacchini. There seem to have been quite a few of them.
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Old 11th October 2017, 07:24 PM   #17
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Alexander was known in ancient times as "King Alexander", and still is in many languages (e.g. Turkish - Iskender Bey, from where the national hero of Albania, Gjergj "Skanderbeg" Kastrioti, gets his nickname). Sometimes, more fully, he was called Μεγας Βασιλευς Αλεξανδρος, "Great King Alexander". One way to translate this into Latin is "ALEXANDER MAGNVS REX". This can also be read as "King Alexander the Great", particularly as MAGNVS occured as a (rare) cognomen, a honorific/nickname. This is probably the origin of the title as a royal epithet in Western tradition, via Carolus Magnus Rex - Charlemagne.

But how did Alexander get that title? That's a bit more interesting. We should remember that Alexander did probably not see himself as the destroyer of the Achaemenid empire, but its restorer. And while the Achaemenids did borrow "King of Kings" from the Semites (Melak Melakan in Assyrian, Shahanshah in modern and middle Persian, Khshayathiya Khshayathiyanam in Achaemenid Persian) the more important title going by their royal inscriptions was Khshaya Vazraka, which the Greeks translated "Megas Basileus". The Greek title was used by Alexander, the Seleucids and also the Parthians. This title might have been used to imply divinity among the Persians - many inscriptions begin "Baga vazraka Ahuramazda..." - "the great god Ahuramazda, who created the heavens and earth etc ... and made Xerxes (say) king". They then go on "Khshayarsha Khshaya Vazraka..." - :Great King Xerxes...". The parallelism between Ahuramazda and the king is obvious.

Anyway, the translation and misinterpretation of this title, Khshaya Vazraka/Megas Basileus, would explain why we have all of Cyrus, Darius and Xerxes the Great, these being the most famous Persian kings, and most significant to the Greeks.


As for Ivan Grozny, the more popular translation these days is "Ivan the Formidable".
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Old 11th October 2017, 07:28 PM   #18
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Originally Posted by Meadmaker View Post
I'm pretty sure Octavian called himself Caesar Augustus, but maybe there was a senate proclamation as well? After that, though, how did this sort of thing happen?
Yes, there was a senate proclamation. According to the man himself he offered to rescind his powers. But the senate instead chose to increase them, and gave him the cognomen Augustus, meaning literally The Venerable, but figuratively "the divime", as it was normally applied to minor deities.

Another concrete example - Gustavus Adolphus was officially proclaimed Gustavus Adolphus Magnus by the parliament after his death.
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Old 11th October 2017, 07:46 PM   #19
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Originally Posted by TubbaBlubba View Post
Anyway, the translation and misinterpretation of this title, Khshaya Vazraka/Megas Basileus, would explain why we have all of Cyrus, Darius and Xerxes the Great, these being the most famous Persian kings, and most significant to the Greeks.
So where can we attribute the origination of the practice of "the Great"? At least in Western tradition. I'm guessing Cyrus is maybe the oldest currently known (Ramses is out of the tradition). But was it really with Alexander that the tradition began?
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Old 12th October 2017, 12:34 AM   #20
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Originally Posted by DevilsAdvocate View Post
So where can we attribute the origination of the practice of "the Great"? At least in Western tradition. I'm guessing Cyrus is maybe the oldest currently known (Ramses is out of the tradition). But was it really with Alexander that the tradition began?
You misunderstand. The original epithet is Great King as in "Archduke" or "Grand Prince". "The Great" as a modifier to the name is a misunderpretation probably of the latinized forms of the title.
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Old 12th October 2017, 04:07 AM   #21
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Originally Posted by DevilsAdvocate View Post
(Ramses is out of the tradition).
As for "Rammesses the Great", apparently later pharaohs referred to him as "The Great Ancestor", which is probably how he got the later epithet. Another possibility is, which I was reminded of when looking at ancient Greek sources, is that he used the title "King of Kings" (Basileus Basileon or such in Greek). The association of this title with the Persians by Greek speakers may have lead to him being referred to as a "Megas Basileus" as well at some point or other, though I cannot find any attestation of it at the moment.
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Old 12th October 2017, 04:18 AM   #22
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Originally Posted by Meadmaker View Post
Who decides who gets to be called The Great?
It's me. I get to decide. Sorry about the delay, Meadmaker the Great.
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Old 12th October 2017, 04:24 AM   #23
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Originally Posted by Argumemnon View Post
It's me. I get to decide. Sorry about the delay, Meadmaker the Great.
Thx for clearing this up, Argumemnon the Late!
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Old 12th October 2017, 04:49 AM   #24
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Old 12th October 2017, 05:03 AM   #25
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Thanks TB, very interesting stuff.
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Old 12th October 2017, 05:40 AM   #26
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Originally Posted by TubbaBlubba View Post
You misunderstand. The original epithet is Great King as in "Archduke" or "Grand Prince". "The Great" as a modifier to the name is a misunderpretation probably of the latinized forms of the title.
Then it's fortunate that none of the High Kings of Ireland got the epithet the High by mistake...
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Old 12th October 2017, 10:44 AM   #27
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Originally Posted by Porpoise of Life View Post
Then it's fortunate that none of the High Kings of Ireland got the epithet the High by mistake...
Hm, I wonder if there are any Irish kings known as "the Petty"?
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Old 12th October 2017, 10:46 AM   #28
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Originally Posted by TubbaBlubba View Post
Hm, I wonder if there are any Irish kings known as "the Petty"?
Tom of the Heartbreakers?
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Old 12th October 2017, 11:28 AM   #29
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Originally Posted by ahhell View Post
Technically only King of Wessex, Cnut the Great on the other hand...


Its all about tradition I guess.

Edit, kind of unfortunate that none of the Swede or Norwegian Magnii were called Magnus the Great isn't it?
Alfred did call himself "King of the Anglo-Saxons," however.
Originally Posted by DevilsAdvocate View Post
The epithet “the Great” is acquired in many ways. In some cases a leader chooses the title for himself, or has his officers grant it to him. This is often done by including “Great” as part of the leader’s official (often lengthy) title. Or his officers may bestow it on him for one reason or another. In some cases it is the leader’s subjects to begin using the epithet. It may be for conquering a large amount of land or some other great accomplishment. Or because the person is very tall. Or simple to distinguish between two leaders with the same name. It may be used for a while, and then dropped later. It may be granted while the leader is alive, or at the time of his death, or years later. A successor may attribute the epithet to an ancestor to improve the perception of his lineage and own reputation. Or people may use it to bolster national pride. Or historians may use it many years later for various reasons.

Alfred had to wait centuries to become “the Great.” Alfred died in 899. He was first called “Great” in the 12th century. But then not again until the mid 16th century. Even then, most 15-16th century texts don’t call him “the Great.” It wasn’t until John Spelman's “The Life of King Alfred the Great” in 1709 that the epithet really stuck.

Alfred was a good king--even great. He unified much of England and defeated the Vikings among other accomplishments. That established him as somewhat of the founder and defender of modern England. He had a cult following even in his day. He was also big on books—especially in English. He translated works from Latin to English. He sponsored the Chronicles that recorded history. He commissioned his own biography. That got his story out to the people. The story grew in the telling. He became a heroic scholar-king. Descendant of gods and kings. Companion of saints. Speaker of proverbs. This snowballed into all kinds of accomplishments being attributed to Alfred: unification of all England, creation of shires, origination of constitutional government, creation of the Royal Navy, the founding of Oxford. The issue with Oxford caused contention with Cambridge over which school was older, which kept the name “Alfred” on the tongues of scholars.

By the time of Spelman's biography in 1709, Alfred was the model hero-warrior-scholar-king who had created almost everything and could do no wrong. A source of national pride, especially in comparison to Charlemagne (Charles le Magne = Charles the Great). This culminated with the Victorian’s interest in a nationalistic ancestral hero and a fascination with the Germanic roots of the Anglo-Saxons. That included scholars. By the end of the Victorian era, scholars had begun to separate myths from facts. Alfred lost many of his colorful stories and many of his accomplishments, but he did not lose his epithet as “the Great.”
It's questionable how many works Alfred himself translated, probably few if any.
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Old 12th October 2017, 11:37 AM   #30
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Originally Posted by Argumemnon View Post
It's me. I get to decide. Sorry about the delay, Meadmaker the Great.
I was all set to give the privilege to Tragic Monkey, but on second thought, I think you are doing a fine job.
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Old 12th October 2017, 01:11 PM   #31
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Originally Posted by Captain_Swoop View Post
Æthelred's nickname, "the Unready" renders Old English unræd "bad counsel, folly", more accurately (but more rarely) rendered "the Rede-less".
And all this time I thought it was because of a medical condition now commonly treated with blue pills.
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Old 12th October 2017, 01:53 PM   #32
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Originally Posted by CORed View Post
And all this time I thought it was because of a medical condition now commonly treated with blue pills.
That was premature.
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Old 12th October 2017, 02:07 PM   #33
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Old 12th October 2017, 02:09 PM   #34
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Originally Posted by Meadmaker View Post
I was all set to give the privilege to Tragic Monkey, but on second thought, I think you are doing a fine job.

Of course you do, you're Great! It's a life of mead, banquets and heroic sagas for you. The rest of us suffer the oppression of the complete disregard of history. Oven Oystein gets remembered, albeit for their incredibe rudeness. That's something at least.
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Last edited by Octavo; 12th October 2017 at 02:10 PM. Reason: Missing quote
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Old 12th October 2017, 02:43 PM   #35
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Originally Posted by Octavo View Post
Of course you do, you're Great! It's a life of mead, banquets and heroic sagas for you. The rest of us suffer the oppression of the complete disregard of history. Oven Oystein gets remembered, albeit for their incredibe rudeness. That's something at least.
I have the best rudity, believe me!
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Old 13th October 2017, 05:45 AM   #36
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Originally Posted by TubbaBlubba View Post
Alexander was known in ancient times as "King Alexander", and still is in many languages (e.g. Turkish - Iskender Bey, from where the national hero of Albania, Gjergj "Skanderbeg" Kastrioti, gets his nickname). Sometimes, more fully, he was called Μεγας Βασιλευς Αλεξανδρος, "Great King Alexander". One way to translate this into Latin is "ALEXANDER MAGNVS REX". This can also be read as "King Alexander the Great", particularly as MAGNVS occured as a (rare) cognomen, a honorific/nickname. This is probably the origin of the title as a royal epithet in Western tradition, via Carolus Magnus Rex - Charlemagne.

But how did Alexander get that title? That's a bit more interesting. We should remember that Alexander did probably not see himself as the destroyer of the Achaemenid empire, but its restorer. And while the Achaemenids did borrow "King of Kings" from the Semites (Melak Melakan in Assyrian, Shahanshah in modern and middle Persian, Khshayathiya Khshayathiyanam in Achaemenid Persian) the more important title going by their royal inscriptions was Khshaya Vazraka, which the Greeks translated "Megas Basileus". The Greek title was used by Alexander, the Seleucids and also the Parthians. This title might have been used to imply divinity among the Persians - many inscriptions begin "Baga vazraka Ahuramazda..." - "the great god Ahuramazda, who created the heavens and earth etc ... and made Xerxes (say) king". They then go on "Khshayarsha Khshaya Vazraka..." - :Great King Xerxes...". The parallelism between Ahuramazda and the king is obvious.

Anyway, the translation and misinterpretation of this title, Khshaya Vazraka/Megas Basileus, would explain why we have all of Cyrus, Darius and Xerxes the Great, these being the most famous Persian kings, and most significant to the Greeks.


As for Ivan Grozny, the more popular translation these days is "Ivan the Formidable".

That's a great post, TubbaBlubba. This, and your follow-on post #20, answer that question in ways that I'd never have guessed -- and nor would anyone else here, apparently, going by the other posts here. (And nice question, Meadmaker! It would never occur to me to even ask that question!) It is discussions like these that draw one to this forum.

Nominated.
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Old 13th October 2017, 05:46 AM   #37
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Originally Posted by Oystein View Post
I have the best rudity, believe me!
What'd I miss?
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Old 13th October 2017, 05:55 AM   #38
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I assume you gave Oystein his title in honor of his general rudity rather than for any specific act of rudity.
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Old 13th October 2017, 05:56 AM   #39
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Originally Posted by Porpoise of Life View Post
Then it's fortunate that none of the High Kings of Ireland got the epithet the High by mistake...
Poor Karl der Gross (as Meadmaker calls him in the OP -- I haven't seen that usage before) wasn't so lucky, apparently. Still his other (and better known) name gives no hint of his schoolboy nickname.
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Old 13th October 2017, 05:57 AM   #40
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Originally Posted by DevilsAdvocate View Post
Alfred was a good king--even great.
Yeah, but he was a terrible cook.
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