Many of history’s famous world leaders were great men and women who inspired and helped others. But that’s not always the case. Any list of famous world leaders includes some controversial and even infamous figures. Still, these are people kids need to learn more about to understand history and our modern world. This list is by no means complete but covers a wide range of well-known world leaders from around the globe. We’ve also included links to kid-friendly websites where they can learn more.
Babylonia, c. 1810-1750 B.C.E.
The sixth king of the First Babylonian dynasty issued a set of laws known as the Code of Hammurabi. These comprehensive laws include one of the earliest examples of an accused person being considered innocent until proven guilty.
Egypt, c. 1507-1458 B.C.E.
Hatshepsut was the second female Pharoah and was known as a prolific builder. She commissioned hundreds of buildings, statues, and monuments. She also re-established important trade routes and increased the dynasty’s wealth.
Egypt, c.1303-1213 B.C.E.
Historians consider Ramses II the greatest and most powerful leader of Ancient Egypt’s New Kingdom period. He lived to be at least 90 and ruled for more than 65 years.
Persia, 600-560 B.C.E.
Cyrus founded the first Persian Empire, the largest yet seen in the world. He ruled lands from the Balkans to India and generally respected the cultures and religions of the lands he conquered.
Greece, 495-429 B.C.E.
Under the leadership of Pericles, Athens became a powerful center of arts, culture, and education. He ushered in the age of Athenian democracy, in which even poor citizens could hold positions in the government.
Macedonia, 356-323 B.C.E.
Alexander III of Macedon expanded his empire to become one of the largest in history. He was undefeated in battle and considered one of history’s greatest military leaders. Military academies today still teach his tactics.
China, 259-210 B.C.E.
As the first emperor of a unified China, Shihuangdi (as he was also known) was a ruthless, tyrannical ruler. Nevertheless, he’s remembered today for uniting the Chinese states and establishing a common currency and a standardized writing style. He also started construction on the Great Wall of China.
Rome, 100-44 B.C.E.
Julius Caesar helped build Rome into a mighty empire, bringing all of Gaul (France) under Roman rule. He made himself dictator of Rome, initiating land reform and granting citizenship to residents of far off regions of the empire. Members of the ruling elite didn’t trust Julius Caesar, so they ultimately plotted to assassinate him on the Ides of March.
Egypt, 69-30 B.C.E.
Cleopatra was the final ruler of the Ptolemaic Empire of Egypt. She had a close relationship with Julius Caesar, bearing him a son. After Caesar’s death, she allied with Mark Antony. When his bid to take over the Roman Empire failed, he killed himself by falling on his own sword. Cleopatra took her own life soon after, and Egypt became a Roman province.
Rome, 63 B.C.E. – 14 A.D.
Augustus was the first Roman emperor. His reign started an era of peace (Pax Romana) that lasted more than two hundred years. He formed the Roman Empire, establishing a network of roads and a standing army.
Roman Empire, 272-337
Constantine is known for allowing Christianity to flourish in the Roman Empire. He built up the city of Byzantium and renamed it Constantinople (today known as Istanbul), making it the new capital of the Empire.
Empress Wu was the only legitimate female sovereign of China, who ruled for 40 years. Under her rule, corruption in China declined while the culture and economy grew. China became one of the great powers of the world.
Carolingian Empire, 747-814
Charlemagne united the majority of Western and Central Europe during the Middle Ages. People call him the “Father of Europe,” and the Pope made him the first Holy Roman Emperor. He was strongly in favor of education, though himself illiterate, and set up many schools across Europe. He’s one of the most famous world leaders of the Middle Ages.
England, c. 1028-1087
In 1066, William invaded England, leading the Normans to victory and becoming king. He ruthlessly put down revolts in Northern England, destroying much of the countryside. William I built many castles throughout the country and also ordered a massive survey report known as the Domesday Book.
Mongol Empire, 1162-1227
Genghis Khan united the nomadic people of Northeast Asia into the Mongol Empire. He was a brutal conqueror, slaughtering entire cities that resisted him. Millions died in battle, famine, or mass extermination under his rule. Despite his fearsome reputation, many respected him for his willingness to share his wealth and other contributions to Mongol society.
Mongol Empire, 1215-1294
Grandson of Genghis Khan, Kublai Khan ruled over the Mongol Empire at its largest. It stretched from the Pacific Ocean to the Black Sea, Siberia to modern-day Afghanistan. He founded the Yuan dynasty of China and also built the palace of Xanadu, which Marco Polo visited on his voyages.
France, c. 1412-1430
Jeanne d’Arc was a French heroine who led an army to victory against the English during the Hundred Years War. The English later captured her and accused her of witchcraft, in part because she preferred to dress as a man. She was burned at the stake at just 19 years old.
Henry VIII might be best known for having six wives (and beheading two of them). He was determined that one of his wives give him a male heir. His insistence on divorcing his first wife led to a split with the Catholic Church. Henry VIII then became the first leader of the Protestant Church of England.
Ottoman Empire, 1494-1566
The longest reigning Sultan of the Ottoman Empire, Suleiman dreamed of taking over Europe. His ambitious siege of Vienna ultimately failed and started a rivalry between the Ottomans and the Hapsburgs that lasted for centuries. Suleiman expanded the empire in the Middle East and North Africa, though. He led a golden age, reforming the legal system and becoming a great patron of the arts.
Elizabeth I, Henry VIII’s daughter, took the throne after a tumultuous time in English politics. Her half-sister Mary ruled before her and attempted to return the country to Catholicism so forcefully she was known as Bloody Mary. When Elizabeth I was crowned, she vowed to make England Protestant again, but she was relatively tolerant. Her 44-year reign was a time of stability. She never married and was known as the Virgin Queen.
Russian Empire, 1729-1796
The longest ruling Empress of Russia, Catherine II helped expand Russia and led it as it became one of the greatest European powers. She was a progressive leader, establishing a national system of free schools, including the first school for girls. Catherine loved literature and the arts and built a collection of more than 38,000 books.
United States, 1732-1799
The first president of the United States is definitely one of the most famous world leaders of all time. After leading the colonies to victory in the Revolutionary War, Washington was unanimously elected to be the new country’s first leader. Despite his fierce fight for U.S. independence, Washington himself had hundreds of Black slaves throughout his life. He ordered many of them freed upon his death and the death of his wife.
United States, 1743-1826
The third president of the United States also wrote the Declaration of Independence at the age of 33. As president, he completed the Louisiana Purchase, which doubled the size of the country. Like Washington, Jefferson was also a slave holder. He fathered multiple children with the enslaved Sally Hemmings.
Shawnee, c. 1768-1813
Tecumseh was a powerful Shawnee chief who formed a Native American Confederacy to resist U.S. expansion onto native lands. He was a gifted speaker and traveled widely to promote his cause. Tecumseh joined with the British in the War of 1812, ultimately dying in battle.
Napoleon was a brilliant French military commander who became the Emperor of France after taking over much of continental Europe. After a disastrous foray into Russia, Napoleon was eventually captured and exiled to the island of Elba. He escaped and retook control of France, only to be defeated by an alliance of his enemies at the famous Battle of Waterloo.
San Martín was an Argentinian general who helped lead Argentina, Chile, and Peru to independence from Spain. After a successful military career in Europe, he then returned to his homeland to join local revolutionary movements. He has become a national hero in the countries he fought to free.
Bolívar is one of the most well-known and respected leaders in South America. He led Venezuela, Ecuador, Panama, Peru, Colombia, and Bolivia to independence from the Spanish Empire. Bolívar hoped these countries would become allies in a nation known as Gran Columbia, but they began to fight among themselves. Deeply disappointed, Bolívar stepped down as president in despair in 1830. Today, Bolívar is widely revered as El Libertador, a great national hero throughout South America.
United States, 1809-1865
The 16th president of the United States is best known as the man who freed the American slaves with the Emancipation Proclamation of 1863. He led the nation throughout the Civil War and was tragically assassinated just days after it ended. He was shot at Ford’s Theatre by Confederate sympathizer John Wilkes Booth.
United Kingdom, 1819-1901
Victoria’s reign lasted over 63 years, longer than any British monarch until Queen Elizabeth II’s reign. She became queen at 18 and oversaw a massive expansion of the British Empire. The Victorian era was a time of great industrial, scientific, and political change. Queen Victoria married Prince Albert and had nine children; despite eight assassination attempts, she was generally beloved by her citizens.
Lakota Sioux, c. 1831-1890
As Supreme Chief of the Lakota Sioux nation, Sitting Bull led his people to a stunning victory over U.S. troops at the Battle of Little Bighorn. In response, the U.S. sent many more troops, eventually forcing the surrender of many of the Lakota Sioux. Sitting Bull himself surrendered in 1881, then performed in Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show for a time. When he returned to Standing Rock Agency in South Dakota, local Indian Service agents feared his influence. They ordered his arrest, and Sitting Bull was killed in the ensuing struggle. He is remembered today as a symbol of Native American resistance movements.
Russian Empire, 1868-1918
Tsar Nicholas II was the last tsar of the Russian Empire. He resisted efforts to give more power to the new Russian parliament (Duma) and lost the support of his people. In 1917, he abdicated the throne and was exiled to Siberia. In 1918, he and his family were executed, and shortly after, Russia became the Soviet Union.
Gandhi was a civil rights leader who led the successful campaign for India’s independence from British rule. His methods of nonviolent protest inspired other leaders like Martin Luther King, Jr. in their own freedom fights. In 1948, a Hindu Nationalist assassinated Gandhi as he was on his way to a prayer meeting. Today, people around the world still revere Gandhi for his peaceful but powerful impacts.
Soviet Union, 1870-1924
Lenin led the Bolshevik Revolution in Russia, overseeing the transformation of the country into the Soviet Union. His government instituted Communist reforms throughout the country, redistributing land among poor peasants and nationalizing industry and the banks. Lenin is a highly divisive figure. Some consider him a champion of socialism and the poor. Others feel he instituted a totalitarian dictatorship that led to political oppression. Either way, he was a highly influential leader.
United Kingdom, 1874-1965
As Prime Minister, Winston Churchill led the United Kingdom throughout World War II. He was an inspiring speaker who kept his people’s spirits up as the war took its toll on the country. Churchill had a long political career, serving as Prime Minister twice. He was also an accomplished author and painter and an ardent animal lover.
Soviet Union, 1878-1953
When Lenin died in 1924, Stalin took over as leader of the Soviet Union. Stalin was a brutal leader and killed millions of his own citizens who disagreed with him. Though he allied with the United Kingdom and United States during World War II, his differing policies led to the start of the Cold War in the years after WWII ended. Despite his remorseless reputation, he remains a popular historical figure in Russia today.
United States, 1882-1945
Often known just as “FDR,” Roosevelt served longer than any other U.S. president. His social and economic programs helped the country recover from the Great Depression. He gave charismatic radio talks called Fireside Chats, which made him very popular with most Americans. FDR led the country through World War II and won a record fourth term in 1944. (After this, Congress changed the law to limit all presidents to two terms.) Roosevelt had polio as a young man and spent most of his adult life in a wheelchair, though he hid this from the public. His wife Eleanor was a strong leader herself and helped him throughout his presidency.
Mussolini started the Fascist political party, which became popular in Italy despite their ruthless treatment of those who opposed them. By 1925, his party had taken power and made Mussolini “Il Duce.” Mussolini ruled as a dictator and joined his country with Hitler’s Germany in World War II. Italy was unprepared for such a large war and ultimately fell to the Allies. Mussolini was captured and executed.
Hitler is undoubtedly one of the most famous world leaders of all time, but he’s also infamous. He started World War II by ruthless takeovers of much of Europe. He sent more than six million Jewish people to die in concentration camps in The Holocaust. Ultimately, his hubris led to defeat, and Hitler took his own life while hiding from Allied troops.
Mao was a Chinese Communist revolutionary who founded the People’s Republic of China. He oversaw extreme reforms like the Great Leap Forward when he sent people to work on huge farm communes. This was so unsuccessful that it caused a great famine and many deaths, but Mao refused to believe he was at fault. He later led a “Cultural Revolution” that destroyed many historical buildings and artifacts. Despite his brutal and controversial regime, Mao transformed China to a world power, and many there still admire him.
South Africa, 1918-2013
Nelson Mandela was a civil rights leader and the first Black president of South Africa. Fearing his influence, the Apartheid government imprisoned him for 27 years. Even in prison, Mandela remained an inspiration, and people and governments around the world began to call for his freedom. He was released in 1990 and elected president in the free elections of 1994. He received the Nobel Peace Prize in 1993.