The truth about Catherine the Great's death

Human beings need heroes. Someone who rose above the pedestrian limits of the workaday world to be someone special, unique, celebrated — brave, selfless, generous, kind. Every culture has them, with variations on the theme, depending on which character traits are particularly valued by the culture in question. It can mean exaggeration of what might be considered the strict historical record (for dramatic effect, of course; despite a lifetime of integrity and whatever you heard about cherry trees, George Washington probably told a fib or two) but still, it remains: Human beings need heroes.

And in the next breath, they love to see that self-same hero reduced to rubble. Whether from jealousy, or rivals who got the last word (as we know, history is written by the winners), or a desire to build up someone else by tearing someone down, historical figures are celebrated one day and demolished the next. It's true now, and it was true in 18th Century Russia, when ruled Catherine II, later known as The Great, Biography tells us. She started out married to Emperor Peter III, as Time tells us, who was less than competent. Catherine led a successful bloodless coup and put herself on the throne in his stead. So far, she's the woman who's ruled Russia the longest — 34 years on the throne. And if you can't find enough dirt to your satisfaction, make stuff up.

Catherine's reputation was assaulted by rumors

It wasn't long before whispers related that Catherine was a nymphomaniac. The record is clear that she took lovers, including during the years of her marriage, but her romantic partnerships weren't that many — she's referred to as a "serial monogamist," with perhaps 12 intimate relationships over the course of her life. They seem to have always ended pleasantly enough, and she was famously generous to them — lands, titles, that sort of thing, according to History. And it wasn't as if Catherine were unique — remember that Anne Boleyn was accused of sexual infidelity, including incest; Marie Antoinette, Cleopatra, and other women of power and influence have fallen victim to accusations against their character. No wonder England's Elizabeth I — again, from History — wanted everyone to think of her as The Virgin Queen.

The final straw tossed on Catherine's reputation had to do with the circumstances of her death. She was barely cold when her political adversaries started circulating the rumor that she'd been crushed to death while trying to couple with a stallion. It wasn't true, of course, but the rumor stuck for years. Another, less popular and less scandalous, was that she died while on the toilet. But as Snopes reports, the quiet fact of the matter is that Catherine, age 67, died of a stroke after doing some writing.