Historical Figures You Assumed Were Alive At The Same Time, But Learned Otherwise

Ever thought two people at any point in history were contemporaries in the sense that they lived at the same time, but later learned that was not the case?

When I was a child I thought Leonardo da Vinci and William Shakespeare were alive at the same time, but this is not true. Da Vinci died in 1519, a good 45 years before Shakespeare was even born. Michelangelo who lived at the same time, and is often compared to Da Vinci, did die the same year that Shakespeare was born.

Up until recently I assumed that Johann Sebastian Bach was alive at the same time as Ludwig van Beethoven. Not so- Bach lived from 1685-1750, whereas Beethoven did so from 1770-1827. Throw in Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart in there, but this time I was 50% right. Mozart and Beethoven did live at the same time, Mozart being born in 1756, was 14 years older than Beethoven. Mozart ALMOST lived at the same time as Bach, but Bach died just six years before Mozart’s birh. On a side note Mozart’s life was much shorter than the other two.

As a kid I thought figures such as Cleopatra, Julius Caesar and all lived around the time of Jesus, but they lived in B.C, before Christ.

Anyone else have this happen, and which figures?

You could actually have some fun with this by looking at some historical figures birth + death dates and see some weird overlaps.

Kirk Douglas + anyone

Picasso + Wil Wheaton

Lincoln + Darwin + Napoleon

Marx + Revere

Neil Armstrong + Orville Wright

Charlie Chaplin + Ryan Reynolds

So many more

Sort of the opposite. I’m a big fan of both James Madison (1751-1836) and Alexis de Tocqueville (1805-1859), but never really thought of them as contemporaries. As it turns out, when Tocqueville visited America in 1831, he actually planned to meet with Madison. But a riverboat he was traveling on got stuck, and by the time it was freed it was too late to meet with Madison and still make his ship back to France. It drives me nuts to think that transportation problems prevented the meeting of these two great minds.

Another favorite of mine, Daniel Boone (1734-1820), was also a contemporary of both Madison and Tocqueville. It’s strange to think that they could have all been in a room together, although Boone died before Tocqueville visited America.

It took me a long time to realize that my hero Helen Keller (1880-1968) overlapped my own life.

Pres’s Lincoln and Washington

I was quite young and most all of those presidents back then were all alive at the same time!

We tend to think of the founding fathers as contemporaries. But Franklin was at least a generation older than most of his peers.

Here are their ages in 1776:

Benjamin Franklin - 70
Samuel Adams - 54
George Washington - 44
John Dickinson - 44
Robert Morris - 42
John Adams - 41
Patrick Henry - 40
John Hancock - 39
Thomas Paine - 39
James Wilson - 34
Thomas Jefferson - 33
John Jay - 32
James Madison - 25
Alexander Hamilton - 21

I recall a science fiction story in which a character proposed that the fact that the death years of some historical figures coincided with the birth years of others showed that they were aliens sent to guide mankind who were periodically reincarnated to avoid suspicion.

I Knew about Mozart and Beethoven being contemporaries – Pete Schaffer mentioned it in his play Amadeus – (although it’s not in the film)
Daniel Boone and Davy Crockett overlapped, but they were different generations (which I didn’t know until I checked).

I hadn’t realized that some philosophical bigwigs were contemporaries until I read Gore Vidal’s Creation. His 6th-5th century BCE fictional hero meets Zoroaster, Socrates, Gautama Siddhartha, Mahavira (Jainism), Lao Tse, and Confucius.

There’s wiggle in there – they now think Zoroaster lived earlier than when Vidal wrote. Lao Tse arguably didn’t exist at all, and you can argue about the dating of Siddhartha and Mahavira. But it’s surprising that so many were around at the same time.

By coincidence, I just read a post at Wait But Why that is relevant.

Thanks for posting, good read!!

Just look at certain US Civil Rights landmarks and Barack Obama.

Obama Date of birth is 4th August 1961.

He was born just slightly after the Woolworths sit in. During the time the Freedom Rides were happening.

He was two when the “I have a dream speech” happened.

Actually, this one is correct. Caesar is probably the biggest stretch of that general group, but he lived until 44 BC. Cleopatra died in 30 BC, which is most definitely “around” the time of Christ.

Cool. The gray-box annotations on the big time-chart are fun to read. Fibonacci and Genghis Khan – who knew?

The amazing thing to me about that list is how tightly bunched in age the bulk of that list is. Other than Franklin and Sam Adams at one end, and Madison and Hamilton on the other, everyone else was born within a 12 year span.

I feel that personal ambition was an overlooked factor in the American Revolution. The founding fathers were a group of successful young men who were at the stage in their lives where they were looking to take the next step up. If they had been born in Britain, they would have been entering politics. But having been born in America, they were locked out from their own country’s political system, because all significant power was held by Parliament in London.

Except for Paine, who was probably the only genuine revolutionary in the crowd.

James Otis, too, arguably:


That’s basically the theme of this book, at least regarding Washington. According to this historian, he was a land surveyor and speculator at heart, and was roused to anger when the British got in the way of his land deals.

Captain Caveman was frozen long before Fred Flintstone was born.

Agreed. They were very, very close to being contemporaries. One thing that blows my mind is that people often think Cleopatra = Ancient Egypt, and the first thing that comes to mind is pyramids and sarcophagi and all that stuff. Yet the Great Pyramids were built in 2500 BC, which means Cleopatra is chronologically closer to us than she is to the Pyramids.

I always assumed all the Renaissance masters were contemporaries. They all get sort of lumped together in my head in “The Renaissance” as though it all happened over a period of like 30 years. I always pictured Leonardo, Donatello, Michelangelo, and Raphael just hanging out together eating pizza [del]and fighting robot ninjas.[/del]

Yeah, the great pyramids thing throws a lot of people off - they are waaay older than most people assume.

Another startling fact about Cleopatra that surprises people is that, of course, she was not ethnically Egyptian in the slightest - rather, the product of generations of Macedonian inbreeding. In fact, she was the first monarch of her dynasty to routinely speak Egyptian! (the others, of course, preferred Greek - then a higher status language, being the language of Alexander).

She’s usually depicted in popular culture as the typical Egyptian queen, in pharonic finery - but on surviving busts and coins, as a typical Greek lady, with her hair in ringlets and a headband of office:

Edit: interestingly, she was known for her brains as well as her allure: Plutarch writes that she could speak at least nine languages and rarely had need of an interpreter.

Relevant link from Wait But Why? titled Horizontal History.

He researched dates and made a buttload of charts to show contemporaries in history. Having timelines laid out like that is pretty darn handy for visualizing who was around when other people in history were around.