The hottest famous people from history

If history has taught us anything, it's that there are more ways to get famous than there are grains of sand on a beach. There's the standard "being great" route, taken by people like Napoleon and George Washington. There's the route of "being in the right place at the right time," like Ulysses S. Grant, who was destined to be an obscure drunk until everyone realized he was also capable of winning battles. And then there's the road less traveled. The much-maligned, yet seriously envied road marked "being so freakin' hot no-one can forget you." Guess which one we're talking about today.

Of course, beauty isn't consistent across cultures (via BBC), so one person's historical hottie might be another person's olde timey troll. But go searching across history, and there are names that crop up, time and time again. These are the people whose looks, personality, or style were so magnetic to their contemporaries, that the entire world basically spent decades trying to get in their pants.

Empress Sisi was super beautiful and super troubled

In 1853, Austrian Emperor Franz Josef traveled to Bad Ischl to meet Duchess Helene. The emperor's mother had picked Helene out to be his future wife, and the meeting was just meant to be a formal acknowledgement. But that's not what happened. Rather, Franz Josef took one look at Helene's younger sister Elisabeth (known as Sisi), and immediately proposed to her instead. That right there? That's how beautiful Sisi was.

As Empress of Austria, Sisi's swoon-inducing looks were famous. She had wavy brown hair down to her ankles, a face that could launch more ships than a full-blown navy, and an athletic frame that was rare for women of her era. She owned one of history's earliest examples of a recreational gym, and spent hours each day working out and building her muscle tone. Her waist was a jaw-dropping 19.5 inches, equivalent to "holy crap, that's nothing" in centimeters (via National Geographic). Perhaps its no wonder Franz Josef fell for her.

But while Sisi's life may sound like a fairy tale, it was anything but. Know what a 19.5 inch waist signifies? Anorexia. Although the diagnosis didn't exist in the mid-19th Century, Sisi's punishing diet, and documented battles with deep depression have led many to believe she suffered from the illness. So, yeah, it's not just our age that forces unrealistic ideas of beauty onto women.

Lord Byron was overweight and irresistable

Samuel Coleridge once wrote that Lord Byron had a face "so beautiful, a countenance I scarcely ever saw" (via the British Library). Lady Caroline Lamb called him "mad, bad, and dangerous to know." Portraits of the poet looking early-19th Century sexy still carry a frisson, like just looking at them is enough to conjure images of the original heartthrob sweeping you off your feet.

But while Byron's name may still be shorthand for "hottie," the real Lord Byron may have been less conventionally attractive than you'd think. According to a BBC documentary (quoted here via the Guardian), Byron had a terrible weight problem, clocking in at 194 lbs. while standing only 5'8". As the program makers so kindly put it, that would have made him "borderline obese."

He also had a club foot, walked with a limp, and had some seriously icky appetites, including probably seducing his half-sister, and lusting after 15-year-old Greek boys. So why do we remember Byron the hottie, and not Byron the flabby horndog? According to the BBC, it's because Byron was a master at PR. Any image of himself that he didn't like, he had destroyed. The paintings we have of Byron are basically the historical equivalent of a carefully curated Instagram page.

Virginie Amélie Gautreau: gorgeous and anonymous

If you know Virginie Amélie Gautreau, you likely know her as Madame X. That's the title John Singer Sargent gave to his portrait of her, a painting still famous today for its ghostly beauty, and raw, female sexuality. But rather than represent the zenith of Gautreau's career as a socialite and sitter, Portrait of Madame X actually captures her lowest moment. It was this image, more than anything, that led the 19th Century beauty to ruin.

The BBC has the story. Gautreau was a white Creole expat living in Paris in La Belle Époque when she met John Singer Sargent. Although she hadn't yet conquered the society pages, she was already noted for her looks. Her skin was so pale as to be almost colorless. She was said to put people in mind of a deer; striking yet delicate. Sargent's portrait was supposed to take all that to the next level, to make Gautreau the great beauty of the age. Instead, it destroyed her.

When Sargent unveiled his portrait, it caused a scandal. Gautreau's sexuality was just too open, too acknowledged for 19th Century audiences to be comfortable with. Both Sargent and Gautreau became targets for public mockery. While Sargent escaped to London, it was the start of Gautreau's decline. After the portrait was revealed, her fortunes sank. She died in anonymity in 1915. When Sargent put her painting back on display, he renamed her Madame X.

John Wilkes Booth was called the most handsome man in America

To say John Wilkes Booth was famous for his looks is like saying Stalin was famous for his poetry. Both certainly were noted in that area, but it kinda misses the point. But before Booth decided to go down in history as America's second most infamous assassin, he was known as an actor who exuded sex appeal. He had dark hair, piercing eyes, and an agile frame. As the Sydney Morning Herald notes, "he was said at one time to be the most handsome man in America." He had so many female fans you say Boothmania was the original Beatlemania.

What's rarely noted about Booth is that his adult life revolved around an intense rivalry with his brother. As Boston Globe explains, Edwin Booth was the best actor of his day, a guy who took Shakespeare from "boring play you gotta read for class" and turned it into something electrifying. Edwin was classically handsome, in opposition to Booth's wild charms, and also a staunch supporter of the Union. In a textbook bit of sibling rivalry, Booth supported the South.

Although there's zero evidence for it, it's fun to speculate sibling rivalry may have even factored into Booth's assassination of Abraham Lincoln. Lincoln was killed just as Edwin was in the middle of a hyper-successful run as Hamlet. It's probably fair to stay that John Wilkes Booth's showstopper upstaged his brother's performance.

Lillie Langtry turned the king of England's head

Do you want to know how good looking Lillie Langtry was? She was so good looking that even the dourly serious Encyclopedia Britannica makes space to tell its readers just how hot she was. A British society woman, Langtry initially made waves by appearing on the London stage in 1881, kind of a major deal at a time when acting was a job far beneath a well-bred woman. But while Langtry's acting may have ensured she got into the headlines, it wasn't what kept her there. Nah, that'd be her looks, and what her looks led to. Langtry was considered so desirable that the future King Edward VII put all his effort into seducing her (via the National Portrait Gallery).

But, hey, looks fade, kings have to settle down, and even the most attractive people wind up invisible to anyone below the age of 40. Luckily, Langtry future proofed herself against this when she was still in her twenties. In 1901, she opened her own theatre, allowing her to stay in the world she loved even once she stopped acting herself. She also set up her own stable for racing horses, thereby simultaneously conquering the two worlds posh Londoners cared most about.

JFK was so handsome everyone thought his looks won the presidency

In a presidential game of screw, marry, kill, there are only three acceptable answers to "screw": Obama (tall and good looking), Lincoln (tall, plus bragging rights), and JFK. John Kennedy was likely the hottest man to occupy the Oval Office. Even now, we all know the story of how Kennedy won his 1960 TV debates with Nixon because he was so smokin'. At least, we think we do.

Slate explains. You've probably heard how Kennedy and Nixon went face to face, and that radio listeners thought Nixon won, while TV viewers — enthralled by JFK's appearance — plumped for Kennedy. It's certainly true JFK rocked a dapper look, while Nixon did his best impression of a reanimated corpse that'd been dug up, hosed down, and shoved out onstage. But the idea it was JFK's looks that carried the debate doesn't hold up. There's almost no data to back up the myth that radio listeners thought Nixon won.

So if JFK's killer looks didn't win him the presidency, why is that anecdote featuring in an article about historical hotties? Because it's a great example of a self-fulfilling interpretation. We believe JFK's appearance won him the debate, because he really was that good looking. Even in a world where Nixon went on to be president in 1961, no-one would be saying "Nixon won because HOT."

Marie Antoinette: stunning and doomed

By age thirteen, Marie Antoinette was already regarded as a great beauty. Smithsonian Magazine describes her as "blessed with thick, ash-blond hair, large, grayish blue eyes and a radiant complexion." When she was married off to Louis XVI of France just one year later, she was so charming, so attractive, so extroverted, that she immediately won a kiss from her fiancee's father, Louis XV. In another age, Marie Antoinette's beauty might have seen her become like Sisi: a queen beloved by her nation.

Sadly, she didn't live in another time. She lived in France in the late 18th Century. And late 18th Century France was a place on the verge of detonating like a gigantic, angry bomb. The masses were stifled by the insanely unfair laws of the Ancien Regime, beset by famine, crippled by unfair taxes, and trapped in a shattered economy. Into this came a beautiful, vivacious girl who thought nothing of spending the equivalent of over $6 million in today's money on a pretend peasant village to play in in her palace gardens. There was really only one way this could end.

On October 16, 1793, Marie Antoinette was guillotined in front of a Parisian mob, baying for her blood. She was only 37.

Casanova would hate being remembered as a playboy

Take a look at that picture of Casanova above. Like, really look at it. Everyone can probably agree that that is not the face of a man you'd call hot. Or even "lukewarm."

Yet Giacomo Casanova is known today primarily for being eye candy so exquisite that women were powerless before him. When he crops up in pop culture, he's played by guys like Heath Ledger and David Tennant, exactly the sort of men you want to imagine swinging in your bedroom window, sweeping you off your feet, and seducing you with style. Yet, according to Smithsonian Magazine, Casanova would've hated this reputation. He saw his life's work not as seduction, but as literature and the arts.

While what we remember of Casanova's life tends to be his affairs with over 120 women (which is a lot, but still on the low side given he's literally Casanova), about two-thirds of his famous autobiography has nothing to do with sex. Elsewhere, Casanova wrote mathematical treatises, a proto-science fiction novel, a translation of the Iliad, and even a pamphlet that could be considered feminist. Ending his life working as a librarian, he likely hoped to be remembered, if he was remembered for anything at all, as an intellectual. Now here he is, slumming it on a list of hotties. History ain't fair.

Catherine the Great was so charming everyone fell for her

By the standards of her day, Catherine the Great was pretty average looking. Not unattractive, but not the sort of person you'd drool over like Homer Simpson staring at a donut. But that's the funny thing about attraction, there are no hard and fast rules. While Catherine wasn't considered a looker either then or now, she did have one quality that made everyone she met go loopy for her: she was one of the most charming women to have ever lived.

The History Chicks podcast details just how far Catherine's charms got her. By all accounts, she was witty, erudite, knowledgeable, and had a fantastic knack for actually listening to what other people were saying, rather than simply waiting for a gap in the conversation. Even as a child, she had these qualities. When she met fellow holder of the title "The Great," Frederick of Prussia, aged just four, she made such an impression that the German remembered her for the rest of his life.

The upshot of this is that Catherine was never short of lovers. Britannica notes at least three major men she took to her bedroom while her husband was still alive, and that's not including the procession of boytoys she indulged in toward the end of her life. And while you're asking, yes: that story about the horse is as fake as it sounds (via History).

Barbara Villiers' beauty supposedly made her the ruin of England

In the wake of the Interregnum, which saw puritanical Oliver Cromwell running England and all fun things banned, Britain went through a backlash of parties, hedonism, and oodles of lovemaking. It was during this era that the notorious poet John Wilmot chronicled the libertine ways of Restoration England, in poems that are still scandalous. It was also during this era that Barbara Villiers rose higher than she would've ever dreamed possible.

A "woman of great beauty," according to the Bishop of Salisbury, Villiers was hot, horny, and hedonistic. The mistress of Charles II, she knew she was attractive, and dressed in a way that flaunted her beauty. Her affairs were legendary, including with John Churchill, the Duke of Marlborough and ancestor of Winston Churchill. According to Historic UK, Villiers sat for so many portraits that she became one of the most recognizable women in Britain. It's probably fair to say that her face was that of the entire Restoration era.

Unfortunately, this made her a major target for public abuse. She was called "the curse of the nation," and the king's devotion to her helped make the crown extremely unpopular for a time. But although Villiers ended her life in poverty, she managed to outlive nearly all her critics, dying in 1709 aged 68. In this case, beauty had the last laugh.

Helen of Troy's looks earned her history's undying resentment

In 2018, History Today made a list of all the things Helen of Troy had been called over the millennia. It ranged from Shakespeare calling her a "strumpet," to Chaucer indirectly labeling her a "harlot," to others calling her a "tart," a "flurt," and, of course, a "whore" (plus other, NSFW stuff). The woman whose face launched a thousand ships, Helen has often been held up as the Western ideal of beauty. But she's also a good poster child for how societies have often reacted to beautiful, sexually active women. Spoiler alert: they've not been super keen on them.

Of course, it's debatable if Helen should count as a historic figure. She's mostly known from Homer's Iliad and Greek myth. But while this is true, it kinda brushes aside the little historical knowledge we have of ancient Troy and it's fall. According to the BBC, we've uncovered historical evidence of ancient noble women sparking wars with their affairs, not to mention women with styles and habits often attributed to Helen. So, yeah, Helen as a person might be myth, but it's also likely she's a blend of many real ancient women.

That's somewhat sucky from a historical perspective, because it demonstrates just how judgmental societies can often be of attractive women, with Helen being slandered for millennia. Damn, humanity, you're a class act.

Willem Mons turned the Queen and lost his head

One of the "best-made and most handsome men I have ever seen." That's how Willem (sometimes rendered as William) Mons was described by an observer during the early 18th Century. A German nobody, Willem managed to worm his way into the Russian court of Peter the Great (pictured above) after the tsar fell for his sister, Anna (via Russia Beyond). Once there, he used his easy looks to net himself patrons and make his mark on Russian society. It's likely that he could've gone all the way to the top, had he not made the fatal mistake of taking the empress as his lover (via Atlas Obscura).

At least, that's the story. In reality, it's not quite clear whether Mons actually smarmed his way into Catherine's corset or if that was just a rumor. But in this case, it doesn't matter. What does matter is that Peter the Great thought it was real. And if there was one guy in 1720s Russia you didn't want to cuckold, it was the tsar himself.

On a chilly November evening in 1724, guards abruptly arrested Mons in his apartment. He was dragged off and, barely a week later, decapitated in a city square. But this was only the beginning. Peter had Mons' head pickled and placed in jar, which legend says he then gave to Catherine to keep by her bedside.