42 Influential Facts About Powerful Families in History

Janet Mowat

It’s remarkable enough when an individual can claw their way to the top of the social or political ladder. But what does it take for whole families to accomplish this feat: a great chain of relatives, all making their way to prominence and glory? Is it smarts? Ruthlessness? Luck? It’s difficult to say, but this list of fascinating facts about some of history’s most important families might give you some ideas. Watch out, though: there’s an awful lot of inbreeding.

Powerful families Facts

42. One Heck of a Tree

The oldest verified family tree in the world traces its origins to the Chinese philosopher Confucius (551–479 BC). Their lineage spans 80 generations, encompasses over 2 million family members, and has endured for 2,500 years.

41. I Put a Spell on You

One of the most prominent families in Ancient Greece were the Alcmaeonids, who claimed descent from the mythical hero Alcmaeon. They were thought to be cursed for killing a man while under a truce.

40. Of the People, By the People, For the People

Despite the family curse, an Alcmaeonids managed to create the world’s first democracy in Athens. The politician Cleisthenes was of the clan, and is called the father of Athenian democracy.

39. A New Age

Pericles was a distant relative of Cleisthenes, and a great Athenian statesman. He even has his own age named after him, the “Age of Pericles,” from 461-429 BC.

38. Cunning

The Athenian general Alcibiades, a rumored lover of the philosopher Socrates, was one of the last—and most exciting—Alcmaeonids. He switched sides during the Peloponnesian War, and became synonymous with cunning and betrayal.

37. Greek Pharaohs

The last of the Egyptian pharaohs, the Ptolemaic Dynasty were actually Greeks. They were descended from one of Alexander the Great’s generals, Ptolemy I.

36. Not a Bad Inheritance

The Rothschilds of Germany are likely the richest family in the world. Though they keep a low profile, they have spent the past 300 years developing a massive banking empire, and are now worth between $350 billion and $2 trillion.

35. Bad Genes

The Ptolemies adopted the Egyptian custom of marrying within the family, and occasionally took the name “Philadelphus“: sibling-lover. This likely led to physical deformities in their children from inbreeding.

34. Black Gold

Possibly the most powerful family in the world today is the House of Saud. Not only are they the rulers of Saudi Arabia, with an astonishing 15,000 family members, but they also dominate the world’s oil industry. Controlling this major resource gives the House of Saud power and influence that are unrivaled in the Middle East.

33. All Roads Lead To…

Cleopatra VII (the famous one) was the lover of two prominent Romans, Julius Caesar and Mark Antony. When she and Antony were defeated in battle by the future Emperor Augustus, they committed suicide and Egypt fell to the Roman Empire.

32. Disinherited

The Roman Emperor Augustus himself formed a long-lasting imperial dynasty, the Julio-Claudians. The Julio-Claudian dynasty did not practice primo-geniture, meaning rulers often did not pass on their powers to their sons.

31. And the Horse You Rode in on

Several Julio-Claudian emperors are considered “bad,” but perhaps none are as maligned as Caligula, great-grandson of Augustus. Though it’s impossible to know how much to believe about him, he’s been accused of extreme cruelty, incest with his sisters, and trying to make his horse a government official, among other sins.

30. Mommy Issues

Another famous “bad” emperor was Nero, the last of the Julio-Claudians. One of the many stories about him is that he plotted to have his own mother killed for opposing him. First he tried to drown her on a collapsible boat, and when she escaped that, he simply sent his guards to stab her.

29. A Long Line

The oldest continuous hereditary monarchy still in existence is Japan’s Yamato Dynasty. Their imperial lineage goes back to 660 BC!

28. Spread the Love

Until 1924, the Yamato emperors would keep numerous concubines, who could all potentially bear an heir to the throne. They held a place of honor in society, and families would earn prestige if their daughter was chosen as a royal concubine.

27. Friends in High Places

The Keita Dynasty of Mali emperors in West Africa traced their origin to Bilal ibn Rabah, a companion of the Prophet Mohammed.

26. The Original Lion King

Sundiata Keita, the founder of the Mali Empire, overcame disability and unjust exile to liberate the Mali people from conquerors. Though he was called the Lion King, Disney claims they took no inspiration from him for their movie of the same name.

25. Stinking Rich

Emperor Musa I, a relative of Sundiata Keita, was one of the richest people in history. On a famous pilgrimage to Mecca, he brought tons of gold to give to the poor on the way—so much so that gold became devalued in the area for years afterward.

24. The Common Ancestor

About 0.5% of the world’s male population—one man in 200—are descended from Genghis Khan, founder of the Mongol Empire.

23. Bad Omens

John F. Kennedy was killed at a tragically young age, but strangely, he had already received last rites three times. He fell gravely ill multiple times in the years before his presidency, even entering into a coma at one point.

22. Carrying On the Family Business

The last descendant of Genghis Khan to rule as a monarch was Emir Alim Khan of the Emirate of Bukhara. He was deposed in 1920.

21. Let Others Make War

Between the 15th and 19th centuries, the Austrian House of Habsburg was among the most successful families in Europe, with branches ruling Austria, the Holy Roman Empire, Spain, and others. This was largely due to a policy of forging favorable marriage alliances with royalty and nobility across the continent, which inspired this poetic line: “Let others make war; you, happy Austria, marry.”

20. Family Resemblance

Portraits of the Habsburgs tend to show a similar distinctive characteristic: a large lower lip with a pronounced underbite. This trait, often called the Habsburg Jaw, is a sign of the profound inbreeding practiced by the family. In fact, the negative effects of inbreeding were so prominent that the Habsburgs were thought to be cursed.

Powerful Families Facts

19. Keeping It in the Family

One Habsburg to suffer the effects of inbreeding was Charles II of Spain. The product of a marriage between an uncle and niece, Charles was the only male heir to survive, and he had significant mental and physical disabilities. There was so much inbreeding in his ancestry that one relative appears 14 times in his family tree.

18. Unlikely Start

The founder of China’s great Ming Dynasty had an unlikely beginning. Zhu Yuanzhang was an impoverished orphan when he joined a Buddhist monastery as a young man. The monastery was burned down in a clash with rebels opposed to the nation’s rulers, and Zhu joined and eventually led the rebel group.

17. Be Nice to Eunuchs

After Zhu Yuanzhang became emperor of China, he chose his grandson, Zhu Yunwen, as his heir instead of his sons. However, Yunwen unwisely mistreated the huge number of eunuchs employed in the court. As a result, the eunuchs helped Yuanzhang’s son, Di, to depose his own nephew, claim the throne, and take the name Yongle Emperor.

16. Golden Years

Yongle Emperor is seen as one of the greatest Ming Dynasty rulers. He built Beijing’s Forbidden City, and the Great Wall of China took on the form we recognize today under his rule. Art and culture flourished, and exploration expeditions traveled as far as Africa. Perhaps Yongle’s father should have made him heir after all…

15. High Born

The House of Medici, the famous leading family of Renaissance Florence, might have believed there was greatness in their blood; they claimed to be descended from Averardo, one of Charlemagne’s knights.

14. Renaissance Man

One of the most influential Medici was Lorenzo the Magnificent. Though he was also a great diplomat, he’s best known for helping to usher in the Renaissance. He was a patron of Botticelli, Leonardo da Vinci, and Michelangelo, and was himself a poet.

13. Papa Don’t Preach

The Medici weren’t only involved in the arts: they also dabbled in religion and politics. Three members of the family became Pope: Leo X, Clement VII, and Leo XI. Two members became Queen of France: Catherine de’Medici and Marie de’Medici.

12. A Royal Brood

England’s Queen Victoria and her husband Prince Albert were notoriously passionate lovers who had nine children in only 17 years. Victoria didn’t much like motherhood, however, and often employed a wet nurse.

11. Imagine the Family Reunions

Victoria and Albert arranged for most of their children to marry royals and aristocrats from all over Europe. Their descendants would include Kaiser Wilhelm II of Germany, Alexandra the Tsarina of Russia, future Queens of Spain and Greece, and of course all subsequent British monarchs. Queen Elizabeth II and her husband Prince Philip are both descended from Victoria and Albert.

10. Stages of Grief

Queen Victoria adored her husband, and was devastated when Albert died of typhoid before his time. She mourned him for 40 years, retreating from public life, sleeping next to his image at night, and even having his clothes laid out for him every morning.

9. Don’t Mention the War

Victoria and Albert were both of German descent, she from the House of Hanover and he from the House of Saxe-Coburg-Gotha. As WWI approached and anti-German sentiment swelled in Britain, King George V changed the family name to Windsor. This of course did not change the fact that he was heading to war against his own first cousin, Kaiser Wilhelm II.

8. A Touch of Class

Patrick Brontë, father of the authors Charlotte, Anne, and Emily Brontë, came from a poor, near-illiterate Irish family. He changed the spelling of his name (from Brunty), possibly to appear more respectable. His daughters would go on to create some of the greatest English literature ever written.

7. Fantasy Worlds

Charlotte, Anne, and Emily Brontë, along with their brother Branwell, created elaborate fantasy stories as children. They were likely using their imaginations to escape a tragic childhood, as they suffered the loss of their mother.

6. The King of Self-Deprecation

The famous portrait of the three Brontë sisters was painted by their brother, Branwell. He originally included himself in the picture, but for some reason painted over himself. Branwell was somewhat less accomplished than his brilliant sisters: he was an alcoholic and opium addict, and was once fired from a tutoring job for sleeping with the lady of the house.

5. In the Good Books

The Kennedy family, one of the most important families in American politics, is made up of the descendants of Joseph and Rose Kennedy, devout Irish Catholics from Massachusetts. Rose was so devoted to the church that the Pope named her a Countess, only the sixth American woman to receive the honor.

4. Staking a Claim

When Alexander the Great died young and his empire broke apart, Ptolemy I decided to take Egypt for himself. He legitimized his claim to the throne by absconding to Egypt with Alexander’s corpse and putting it on public display.

3. A Troubled Childhood

Genghis Khan’s early life was not easy. His father was poisoned by an enemy clan, and their own clan abandoned his mother and her seven children. Genghis may have even killed his half-brother as a teen.

2. Poor Rosemary

One of the Kennedy siblings was deliberately kept from the public eye. Rosemary suffered brain damage when a nurse prevented her mother from giving birth to her for several hours. As an adolescent, she was sent to a convent where she acted out, and her parents, embarrassed, arranged a lobotomy. The operation was a failure, and she was left incapacitated for the rest of her life.

1. Talk Like an Egyptian

Cleopatra VII—again, the famous one—was the last pharaoh of Egypt. She was also reportedly one of the first members of her family to bother learning the Egyptian language.

Sources: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10, 11, 12, 13, 14, 15, 16, 17, 18, 19, 20, 21, 22, 23, 24, 25, 26, 27, 28, 29, 30, 31, 32, 33, 34, 35, 36, 37, 38, 39, 40, 41, 42, 43

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