I’m in the secluded western corner of London’s Highgate cemetery, looking at a large marble tomb. It’s long and box-like, with a life-sized sculpture of a dog slumped at its foot. The stone is mottled and tendrils of strangling ivy are creeping up its base. An inscription reads “Erected to the memory of Thomas Sayers”.
Our guide asks the group if anyone has heard of this man. We shake our heads blankly.
At the time of his death the situation was very different. It was the winter of 1865 and Sayers, who began his career as an illiterate bricklayer, had risen to become the most celebrated sportsman of the Victorian age.
This was England’s first bare-knuckle fighting champion. His final match, which he fought largely one-handed in a Hampshire field, was watched by thousands. Special trains were chartered to transport the spectators, who included fellow Victorian superstars like the novelists Charles Dickens and William Thackeray. Even the Prime Minister of the day, Lord Palmerston attended; Parliament shortened its hours especially and Queen Victoria asked to be informed of the result.
When he died a few years later, the funeral procession stretched for two miles and included some 100,000 people. The cemetery descended into chaos as people climbed trees and trampled tombstones, hoping for a better view.
One hundred and fifty two years on, his reputation has turned to dust. He’s still well known to history buffs and boxing obsessives – but to the rest of us, he needs an introduction.
The steady march of time has left many other similar casualties in its wake – people who have risen to dizzying heights of fame only to be largely forgotten. There’s the Greek poet Sappho, whose steamy verses titillated audiences for much of antiquity. The verses were so enchanting, one Athenian lawmaker said he felt that once he’d heard them, he could die.
Or how about the celebrity gladiator Spiculus, who roamed the amphitheatres of ancient Rome. The emperor Nero was particularly enamoured with him; when he sensed that his own murder was imminent, he requested that Spiculus do the honours instead.
Why are some people almost instantly forgotten when they have gone, while others cling on, embedding themselves so deeply into our culture that we’re still studying them, psychoanalysing them, writing about their life, death and achievements, even depicting them in films, millennia after they’re gone?
Hopeful contenders for everlasting fame must run the gauntlet of numerous challenges, including the jealousy of rivals and possible extinction of their own civilisation and language. But there are some clues hidden in the life stories of those who succeeded and those who were lost along the way.
Manage your image, but not too much
A fitting place to begin the search is Ancient Greece, where achieving everlasting glory was a national obsession. “They were very, very focused on fame,” says Thomas Harrison, professor of Ancient History at the University of St Andrews. “In a funny way, it wasn’t embarrassing to say that you wanted deathless fame of different sorts, so people talked about it rather more explicitly.”
At the centre of it all was the concept of kleos, which roughly translates as “what others hear about you”. It was popularised by the poetry of Homer – which has itself endured for thousands of years – and earned by taking great risks and making great sacrifices, especially in battle. Homer’s hero Achilles, who died after being shot in the heel, is the archetypal example.
At one point military leaders were undertaking wars with the specific purpose of getting glory – Lynette Mitchell
“At one point military leaders were undertaking wars with the specific purpose of getting glory,” says Lynette Mitchell, an expert in Ancient Greek History and Politics at the University of Exeter.
As you might expect, some big names were more than a little preoccupied with the idea. Alexander the Great ruled the kingdom of Macedon from 336-323 BC, expanding it from mainland Greece and a scattering of Mediterranean islands to a global power that stretched all the way to northwest India.
Like Julius Caesar, he was a master of self-promotion, whose advanced propaganda machine included – among other things – a troupe of historians who accompanied him on campaigns. “They were kind of writing the history of his campaign as it was happening,” says Harrison. He reportedly only authorised one sculptor to carve his portrait and carefully planned the details of any likenesses that appeared on coins.
This strategy has continued well into the modern age, where it’s used by presidents and pop stars alike. But those hoping to be remembered should tread carefully. “Today celebrities like Bono are undergoing a degree of re-assessment,” says Chris Rojek, a sociologist at City, University of London. “The fact that marketing is much more involved in creating these figures means that the social criticism that surrounds them is far more entrenched than it used to be.”
Choose your career wisely
Those not lucky enough to be born into power still have a decent chance of being remembered, especially if they focus on changing the world through their ideas. Take philosophers. Back in antiquity, they weren’t particularly well known by the general public. They occupied a rarefied world and those deemed to be atheists were seen as suspect and weird. Yet thousands of years later, their work still guides modern thinking and they are so widely known they can be considered to be household names.
“They changed the way people thought and that’s why they have remained important,” says Lynette Mitchell. However, ancient philosophers had the added advantage of fewer competitors – since most people of their time were illiterate – and being first. Finding fame gets harder to achieve without original ideas, but it is still possible to come up with revolutionary thought experiments. Back in 2013 a team of scientists went on the hunt for the world’s most influential academic. They scoured the internet for those who were mentioned the most frequently and performed a complex analysis. The winner? Karl Marx.
Indeed, as Da Vinci, Galileo and Isaac Newton inch towards a millennium of fame, with Darwin and Einstein clocking up centuries of renown, it might be tempting to opt for a life in the laboratory. But alas, nowadays even a Nobel prize probably won’t do the trick. “Science used to be seen as a heroic individual discovery, which was never quite true, but it was more true that it is now,” says Harrison.
Not only is science now much more collaborative, but as with philosophy, the low hanging fruit have already been plucked. “One of the difficulties facing scientists today is it’s difficult to understand what on earth their discoveries mean,” he says. As people struggle to grasp black holes and string theory, even modern-day geniuses such as Stephen Hawking may be lost – though his life makes for a good story.
Other professions to avoid include sport and music. “Sporting heroes impact a generation, but once they start to go out of living memory they decline.” says Ruth Penfold-Mounce, a sociologist at the University of York. “David Beckham will disappear, I’m afraid.”
Songwriting is particularly risky, for one big reason: music tends to date
Songwriting is particularly risky, for one big reason: music tends to date. Of the entire output of the last thousand years, very little has endured for more than a century, apart from classical music. It’s hard to imagine our descendants listening to The Beatles in their flying cars and spaceships, with genres evolving at such a pace. After all, few people are aware of the melodies of St Godric of Finchale, an English hermit and popular medieval saint, who wrote some of the oldest surviving songs in English at around the start of the 12th Century.
To stand the best chance of being remembered, it is perhaps best to choose a career in politics – but don’t try to copy your heroes from antiquity. From Caesar to Boudica, back then the best remembered rulers were renowned for their skill as warriors or military strategists. Those from more recent history – such as Nelson Mandela, Abraham Lincoln and Gandhi – are known for leading revolutions or advancing human rights. Drop your weapons and focus on a good cause.
Finally, you might want to try your hand at literature. Like ideas, great stories simply never die. That is, so long as you make copies. “For ancient writers, it’s all a matter of the chance survival of texts,” says Harrison. “There are some cases where there’s only one surviving copy, and Latin literature would look very different if that had perished.” He gives the example of Virgil, the Roman poet who – after 11 years working on one text – ordered that it be destroyed on his deathbed. It wasn’t quite finished, and he was mortally embarrassed lest anyone see it. Luckily his executors kept it anyway and it’s considered one of the great epics of his time.
Don’t be royal
At first glance, being royal seems like a guarantee of immortality. But Rojek isn’t convinced. “Will people remember the Queen in 1,000 years? I don’t think so,” he says. “Royal familes are much more generational – after they die someone else comes along. I don’t think Princess Diana will be remembered even in 100 years. Henry VIII is famous but he destroyed a religion, he got rid of the Catholic Church [in the UK].”
When Tutankhamun took his last, feverish breath in 1323BC, probably in the city of Thebes after contracting malaria, he was just a boy king of 18. He’s not known to have achieved anything particularly remarkable. If you were placing bets, you probably wouldn’t bank on this pharaoh becoming a household name several thousand years later. Then something extraordinary happened.
Constructing a pharaoh’s tomb was a massive undertaking, which required decades of work by plasterers, painters and rock carvers over the course of their reign. But Tutankhamun died suddenly and they ran out of time. Instead he was hastily interred in a small tomb in a relatively obscure part of the Valley of the Kings. It was sealed before the paint even had a chance to dry. Over years it became buried in rubble and was eventually lost altogether.
When it was discovered by archaeologist Howard Carter and his patron Lord Carnarvon in 1922, it was full of fabulous riches beyond their wildest imaginations. Its location and size had kept them safely hidden away, while all the tombs around it were being plundered by looters.
The memory of Tutankhamun has been ensured by the large number of physical artefacts he left behind.
The memory of Tutankhamun has been ensured by the large number of physical artefacts he left behind. His mummy alone has been intensively studied as experts unravel the mystery of his short life and how he died. His fame increases with every headline and documentary. When we think of ancient Egypt, we think Tutankhamun. It doesn’t matter that it was all a fluke.
Leave stuff behind
In fact, leaving any kind of physical legacy is extremely helpful. This could come in the form of the many, many descendants of the 13th-Century Mongol warrior Genghis Khan, whose prolific loins sired one in 200 men alive today, or the numerous monuments and coins on which Alexander the Great stamped his image. In China, the emperor Qin Shi Huang secured his lasting memory with the Great Wall of China and the vast Terracotta Army he was buried with – not to mention that he founded an entire country. Go on, give people something to marvel over.
Die a famous death
Throughout much of history, dying young or dramatically – think Cleopatra clutching an asp to her breast – was a crucial tenet of being remembered. Of all the most famous people through antiquity, very few of them made it to their 40th birthday.
Obviously, this strategy isn’t to be recommended and there’s no guarantee your name will last. But under the right conditions, a great tragedy need not get in the way of great fame. With modern technology it’s easier than ever to keep up your image. “There’s that fabulous perfume advert where you’ve got Charlize Theron alongside Marilyn Monroe, Grace Kelly and Marlene Dietrich,” says Penfold-Mounce. Speaking of Marilyn Monroe, she notes “she’s still very active, considering how dead she is.”
Be a villain
Another route to enduring fame that should not be encouraged is to seek notoriety. From Jack the Ripper and Captain Blackbeard, to Hitler and Ivan the Terrible, many of the best-known characters in history are infamous. “There is a fantasy of the tyrant,” says Lynette Mitchell. “It’s one of those images which is really enduring.”
Mark David Chapman, who shot John Lennon, said ‘in order to be the most famous person in the world, I have to kill the most famous person in the world’
The most charismatic have been remembered, with a shudder, for generations. According to Rojek, this has led some to pursue fame the nasty way. “When Mark David Chapman, who shot John Lennon, was being charged for murder, he said ‘in order to be the most famous person in the world, I have to kill the most famous person in the world’.”
It’s worked out for some, but it’s a deplorable and unreliable strategy. That’s because one response has been to intentionally wipe villains from history – erasing all traces of their name from the public record, including tearing down everything they’ve built.
“Even [the Greek historian] Herodotus occasionally says ‘he did something so terrible, I’m not going to mention his name’ – there was this idea that you shouldn’t talk about bad deeds,” says Harrison. “There was the sense that they have a power over you, in terms of whether they name you or don’t name you.”
Found a religion
There’s mountains of evidence that Jesus Christ, Siddhartha Gautama (known as the Buddha), and many more religious leaders were real people, though they died many millennia ago. The author L Ron Hubbard proved that founding a religion is still possible back in the 50s, when he formed the Church of Scientology. As a result of his teachings, today he’s widely recognised as one of the most influential Americans of all time – and the most published and translated author in the world to boot. Those looking for lasting fame could do worse.
Be mind-bogglingly wealthy
Finally, those hoping to be remembered should attempt to become mind-bogglingly rich. The saying “they’re rich as Croesus”, meaning they’re very wealthy, comes from a real person who lived more than two-and-a-half thousand years ago in modern day Turkey.
King Croesus (pronounced Kree-sas) ruled the kingdom of Lydia for 14 years and is famed for his lavish gifts to the oracles at Delphi, which included a life-sized woman made entirely of gold, among many other ornate treasures. Among historians, he’s known for issuing the first pure gold and silver coins, which revolutionised the ease with which goods were exchanged.
But will any well-known figures from recent times be remembered in 1,000 years?
Lynette Mitchell is placing her bets on Alan Turing, who invented the computer. “He has only just come back into memory in the last few years because good stories have been told about him,” she says.
For Penfold-Mounce, it’s Donald Trump. “I think the individuals that will last from the 21st Century are going to be some of the big politicians and world leaders. If it’s going to be a toss-up between someone like Theresa May and Donald Trump, I would think that Trump would be remembered for a long time.”
Harrison agrees. “I don’t think public intellectuals are likely to be remembered,” he says. “In a funny way, in academia you can be sure that you will be remembered within a very small group. I regularly pull books off the shelves that are 100 years old. But more widely I think it will be quite similar to the ancient world… it’s not going to be the wrestlers and pop stars who are remembered. It will be the huge political figures, like Trump and Putin.”
Rojek is placing his bets on Nelson Mandela. “I think everlasting figures catch the spirit of the time and somehow express it and act as the public face of it. So we don’t have to think too hard about what the time is. They sum it up immediately.”
Join 800,000+ Future fans by liking us on Facebook, or follow us on Twitter.
If you liked this story, sign up for the weekly bbc.com features newsletter, called “If You Only Read 6 Things This Week”. A handpicked selection of stories from BBC Future, Earth, Culture, Capital, and Travel, delivered to your inbox every Friday.