Greatest Ancient Military Commanders
The ancient military commanders that we are about to explore led thousands of men into the heat of battles, allowing them to secure victories upon victories. Some of them were so brave and tactically astute that it was said that their military exploits caused the demise of some civilizations. Take the example of Alexander the Great, the young and brilliant military ruler of Macedon whose campaign resulted in the end of the Achaemenid Empire in the 4th century BCE (Before Common Era). Then there was Pyrrhus, king of Epirus in northern Greece, who secured crucial victories against the Romans and Macedon, although some of those victories came at a huge cost to him.
From ancient Rome’s Julius Caesar to Cyrus the Great of the Persian Empire, the following are the 12 greatest ancient military commanders (ranked in an ascending order):
Tiglath-Pilser III (745-727 BCE) was the famed military commander and ruler of the Neo-Assyrian Empire. After seizing the throne in a palace coup, he proceeded to create the first standing army of the empire which he used to take control of large parts of south western Asia Minor and places in the Near East region, including Babylonia, Chaldea, and places in the Arabian Peninsula.
Tiglath-Pilser III was a very intelligent and powerful neo-Assyrian king. It’s been stated that he always acted in a very decisive manner, instituting a host of reforms that allowed him to keep his vast empire together. In a bid to avoid large provinces in his empire from rebelling against his rule, he broke up those provinces. He then established a system that ensured that the officials/governors of those provinces (about 80 in total) reported directly to him.
In addition to developing a robust political system in the Assyrian Empire, Tiglath-Pileser III was famed for defeating the kingdom of Urartu in the first year of his rule. Under his leadership, the Assyrian army was able to expand the empire’s territory to include vast lands in and around Asia Minor. Tiglath-Pilser III famously marched his army into the kingdom of Urartu and defeated its very powerful ruler called Sarduri II. He also moved against Sarduri II’s allies, including the Neo-Hittites and the Aramaeans.
Also known as Ramesses the Great, Ramesses II bore epithets like ‘Ra is the one who bore him’ or ‘born of Ra’. Recognized as the “ruler of rulers”, Ramesses the Great constructed more buildings and structures than any other pharaoh in the history of ancient Egypt.
Widely recognized as one of the greatest ancient Egyptian pharaohs, Ramesses II (1303-1213 BCE) reigned for more than sixty years: from 1279 to 1213 BCE. He was the third pharaoh of the 19th Dynasty of Egypt praised for being the ‘Keeper of Harmony and Balance, Strong in Right, Elect of Ra’.
Due to his numerous military conquests and accomplishments, ancient Egyptian ruler Ramesses II often gets ranked, along with the likes of Khufu, Hatsheput, and Tuthmose III, as one of the greatest Egyptian pharaohs of all time. Ramesses II is believed to have had very successful military expeditions into the Levant and Nubia in the south. At the Battle of Kadesh, Ramesses II’s Egyptian army locked horns with the Hittites. Although in what was likely an evenly marched contest, Ramesses II claimed to have decisively defeated his enemy’s forces. In any case, the battle was a historic one as both sides signed the world’s first-known peace treaty in 1258 BCE.
At the height of his power, Ramesses II had expanded his kingdom to the Fourth Cataract of the Nile in the South. The kingdom also stretched into places in present-day Syria.
Leonidas (540 – 480 BCE)
Leonidas was king of the Greek city-state of Sparta. It’s been claimed that his family line – the Agiad line – could trace its origins to the ancient Greek mythical hero and demigod Heracles and Cadmus.
Leonidas I etched his name into history by leading a Spartan force of 300 men against the mighty Persian army of about 100,000. The Spartan king inspired his vastly outnumbered force to stand toe-to-toe with Xerxes the Great’s Persian army at the Battle of Thermopylae. It is believed that Leonidas and his men fought for seven days, keeping thousands of Persian soldiers at bay. According to some accounts, he and his men inflicted a huge loss on the Persians by killing close to 20,000 Persian soldiers on the final few days of the battle.
Leonidas I, the brilliant military general who came to the throne of the Greek city-state of Sparta around 489 BCE, fought bravely against the Persians during the Second Persian war. He served as the leader of the Greek military alliance at the Battle of Thermopylae (480 BCE) where he and his men held the Persian army for days, preventing them from accessing a very important pass.
Hammurabi of Babylon (c. 1792 – 1750 BCE)
Reigning for more than four decades, First Babylonian dynasty King Hammurabi (c. 1810- 1750 BCE) transformed Babylon into a powerful empire which covered vast parts of ancient Mesopotamia. He was also responsible for conquering neighboring city-states like Larsa and Mari, and kingdoms Elam in southwest of modern-day Iran.
Owing to his immense contribution to the Babylonian Empire, King Hammurabi often gets praised as the greatest king to hail from Babylon. In some circles, he’s even rated as the greatest ancient Mesopotamian king. Born to Babylonian King Sin-Muballit, Hammurabi likely ascended the throne around 1792 BCE. Desiring to instill law and order in his ever expanding empire, King Hammurabi came out with the Hammurabi Code.
In addition to being known as one of the most famous law-givers of the ancient world, Hammurabi was also renowned for his military intelligence and prowess. His quick thinking and alliance with Larsa helped him quell an invasion led by the rulers of the Elamites (modern day Iraq). After securing the central plains of Mesopotamia, the Babylonian king turned his army against his former allies, the Larsa, and captured famous cities like Uruk and Lsin.
Pyrrhus of Epirus (c. 319 – 272 BCE)
Pyrrhus of Epirus was an influential Greek statesman and king during the Hellenistic period (323 BCE-31 BCE). Pyrrhus began his political career as the leader of the Greek tribe of Molossians before going on to become king of Epirus (present-day north-western Greece and southern Albania) in 306 BCE. However, four years later, his reign was cut short following a coup orchestrated by Cassender. With the help of Ptolemy I Soter, Pyrrhus was able to take back his throne in 297 BCE.
Pyrrhus spent large parts of his second reign (297-272 BCE) waging war against Rome and Macedon. Although a technically gifted military commander, many of his famed victories over Rome came at a huge cost.
Pyrrhus of Epirus was a very capable Greek military general who was sometimes compared to Alexander the Great. The term ‘Pyrrhic victory’ is used to describe victories that come at a huge sacrifice or loss to the victor.
Sun Tzu (544 BCE – 496 BCE)
It will be an absolute travesty of history to have a list of greatest ancient military leaders and not include Sun Tzu, the famous ancient Chinese philosopher, military strategist and author. Sun Tzu is revered for authoring one of the most famous books of the ancient era – The Art of War. The book, which is often described as the most important military treatise of the ancient times, was written around the fifth century BCE. Master Sun’s philosophies and military leadership skills have proved extremely useful even to this day, shaping the minds of leaders from all spheres of life in modern times, including politics, business, sport, and modern warfare.
Scipio Africanus (c. 236 BCE – 183 BCE)
Coming in sixth on our list of greatest military commanders and strategists of ancient times is Scipio Africanus. The most defining moment of this Roman general and consul came during the Second Punic War, where he defeated the great Carthaginian general Hannibal Barca at the Battle of Zama in 202 BCE.
Scipio was praised for carefully studying everything about his enemy’s forces and then using what he had learned against the enemy. After the Battle of Zama (in modern day Tunisia), the Roman general is believed to have earned the title Africanus.
On the back of his famous victory over Hannibal, Scipio joined his brother Lucius Cornelius Scipio Asiaticus in defeating Antiochus III of Syria at Magnesia in 190 BCE. Between 192 and 188 BCE he fought bravely for the Roman Republic as the empire secured victory over the Seleucid Empire and its allies during the Seleucid War (192-188 BCE). The war which took place in modern day southern Greece, Asia Minor, and the Aegean Sea, enabled Rome to establish a hegemony over the Greek city states and Asia Minor. In effect, one could say that Scipio was not only vital in helping Rome emerge victorious but he was also vital in making the Roman Republic a major power in the Mediterranean.
Julius Caesar (100 BCE – 44 BCE)
Like many of the great military generals on this list, Julius Caesar’s exploits and strategies in so many ways continue to inspire not just modern soldiers and army commanders but civilian leaders alike. Famously known as the conqueror of Gaul, Julius Caesar (100 BCE-44 BCE) wasn’t just an absolutely brilliant military commander but also an astute politician and legislator. In addition to conquering Gaul, this general is renowned for being the first Roman emperor to command a military expedition to Britain.
Did you know: The word for emperor – “Kaiser” – in German and ‘zar” in Russian came from Julius Caesar’s name?
Hannibal Barca (247 BCE – c. 183 BCE)
Most known as Rome’s greatest enemy, Carthaginian general Hannibal Barca was a fierce military leader who came very close to conquering Rome during the Second Punic war. The Carthaginian was a gifted and brilliant strategist whose military maneuvers proved very difficult for the Romans to handle.
Filled with absolute scorn for the Romans since his childhood, Hannibal famously crossed the Alps with over 50,000 infantry, 9,000 cavalry, and 37 elephants. After close to two decades of waging war against Rome, Hannibal took his own life in a bid to avoid capture and humiliation by Roman general Scipio.
Cyrus the Great (c. 600 – 529 BCE)
Cyrus the Great is famed as the founding-emperor of the Achaemenid Empire (also known as the Persian Empire). His rise to acclaim began after he conquered the Median Empire, Lydia and some parts of Greece. He then went on to form the Persian Empire, making him the first king in the process. He was also responsible for defeating a number of fierce nomadic tribes in present day eastern Iran.
At the height of his power, Cyrus had successfully made the Persian Empire the greatest empire in the world up until that time. Cyrus’ empire stretched from present-day Iran to places in present-day Turkey. This gave him access to major sea ports of the Mediterranean.
In addition to being a great military general, Cyrus was said to be one of the first ancient rulers to protect the basic human rights and religious freedoms of his subjects. For example, following his conquest of the Babylonians, he is said to have come to the aid of the Jews living in Babylon, allowing them to return to Israel.
In addition to coming out with one of the first human rights declaration, Cyrus made attempts at outlawing slavery in his empire. During his rule, property and land laws were put in place to prevent unlawful seizure of property.
Trajan (53-117 AD)
Born Marcus Ulpius Traianus, Trajan was Roman emperor from 98 to 117 AD. Beginning as a soldier, Trajan gradually rose through the ranks and became a legatus legionis in Hispania Tarraconensis during the reign of Emperor Domitian. He even lent his support to Domitian in quelling a revolt (the Revolt of Satruninus) spearheaded by Roman senator Antonius Saturninus.
His big breakthrough came in 96 AD when he was adopted by Domitian’s successor, Emperor Nerva. This meant that he was tapped as Nerva’s heir and successor. Less than two years later, he ascended to the throne and embarked on expanding the borders of the empire. His military expansion is famed for being the second-greatest military expansion of the Roman Empire, only behind the one carried out by Emperor Augustus.
Leveraging on the load of experience he gained from his time as a soldier, Trajan first took control of the Nabataean Kingdom (in Arabia and the Sinai peninsulas). Then in 106 AD he conquered Dacia (present-day Romania and Moldova), bringing immense wealth to his empire. For years, Dacia had been a huge nuisance to the Romans; therefore the conquest of Dacia came a huge boost to Trajan’s reign, allowing him to wage war against the Parthian Empire. That campaign of his resulted in the sack of the Ctesiphon, the capital the Parthian Empire.
In addition to his stellar military accomplishments, Emperor Trajan was also praised for his extensive infrastructural projects and social welfare programs. He comes in second on the list of the Five Good Emperors of Rome, a list which includes Nerva, Hadrian, Antoninus Pius, and Lucius Versus.
Alexander the Great (356-323 BCE)
Alexander the Great’s military exploits and strategies are the reason he is considered the best general of the ancient world. This great general, around the age of 20, inherited the throne following the assassination of his father, King Philip II of Macedon.
This young and astute military general would go on to expand his empire from the Mediterranean all the way to Punjab in India. His empire also stretched from Danube to the upper parts of the Nile River in Egypt.
All in all, Alexander the Great led a lethal army of about 50,000 men on his 12-year military conquest of most of the known world. This and many more others are the reason he is still held in very lofty regard, even several thousands of years after his death.