Ancient history is filled with myths, legends, and true stories about some incredible military leaders. From Roman emperors to the wise generals of China, the great commanders of the ancient world each obtained their reputations by being brave, creative, and ruthless.
In history, military leaders have been people worth writing about. Courageous and creative, these men thought outside of the box to quash rebellions, conquer nations, and change the face of the battle for the rest of time.
Some of these leaders never lost a battle, while others were happy to lose a small fight in order to win the war.
Here is a list of 10 greatest ancient military commanders:
1. Alexander the Great (4th Century BC)
Alexander of Macedon’s first battle was only at the age of 16, and by his death, he had conquered a large proportion of the known world. When his army eventually stopped at the Beas river, India, it was because they were tired and homesick, not in danger of losing.
It is said that Alexander wept because he would end his reign without having conquered every country in the known world.
However, in his fifteen years leading the Greek empire, Alexander never lost a single battle. As a military leader, he led from the front, sword in hand, and continued many fights while wounded himself.
2. Scipio Africanus (3rd Century BC)
Publius Cornelius Scipio Africanus was a brutal and intimidating leader. The Roman soldier was general by the age of 25 and was undefeated in battle. Most famously, he fought off the great Hannibal at the Battle of Zama, thereby ending the Punic War.
Scipio was often quite sneaky in his battles. Known for laying traps, night-time raids, and using soldiers as bait, for Scipio, the ends always justified the means.
In one famous battle, his soldiers surround a sleeping camp and set fire to it, allowing no means of escape. According to the historian Livy, about forty thousand men died in the fire.
3. Sargon of Akkad (24th Century BC)
The leader of the Akkadian empire lived so long ago that it is difficult to work out what is fact and what is simply legend.
However, if we take the stories, inscriptions, and archeology at face value, Sargon may have been one of the greatest leaders in ancient history.
According to the Babylonian “Chronicle of the Early Kings”, Sargon comfortably conquered dozens of cities, razing them to the ground.
He also defeated multiple rebellions and left behind a reputation so great that multiple later Kings would take his name as a way to intimidate their enemies.
4. Han Xin (2nd Century BC)
In Chinese history, Han Xin’s exploits as a military commander have given him the title “the God of War”. Xin was one of the key figures in the formation of the Han Dynasty and a close advisor to Emperor Gaozu.
Han Xin’s greatest military achievements often resulted from cunning strategies that would catch his enemies off guard.
During the conquering of the three Qins, he had soldiers publically repairing roads that crossed between Guanzhong and Hanzhong as a distraction while a smaller army followed the longer, more hidden path through Chencang.
Many Chinese idioms have been formed from the biography of Han Xin, including “Shame of crawling through between someone’s legs” and “life and death are due to two women.”
Xin was eventually executed for fear of rebelling against Gaozu, though historians disagree as to if he was going to.
While awaiting execution, Xin wrote three books on military strategy and developed a board game that was one of the many precursors to modern Chess.
5. Ashoka the Great (3rd Century BC)
Indian emperor of the Maurya Empire, Ashoka’s reign lasted over fifty years. During this time, he commanded his troops as they conquered the Kalinga region in eastern India. His desire, according to many contemporary sources, was to free the region from the cruel Nanda empire.
In only one year, his army killed over one hundred thousand troops and captured as many again. By the end of the short campaign, the region had fallen to Ashoka without him losing a single battle.
However, the bloody war that was Kalinga changed the emperor greatly. Vowing to never fight again, he turned to Buddhism and spent the rest of his reign working to rebuild the region.
Ashoka’s greatest military victory could very well be the fact his army spent the next two decades with no need to take arms.
6. Flavius Stilicho (4th Century AD)
One of the greatest commanders of the Western Roman Empire and guardian to the child-emperor Honorius, Stilicho’s thirteen years of battle included many victories against the Visigoths and northern Vandals against Rome. He also suppressed the rebellion in Africa and the provinces of Great Britain.
Stilicho is one of the few military leaders on this list that never lost a battle. However, many times he was forced to withdraw under orders, which frustrated him greatly.
Alaric, the king of the Visigoths, could very well have been captured early in his war against Rome, but multiple times Stilicho was forced to let him escape.
After a political rebellion back in Rome, Stilicho was arrested and executed. Seizing this opportunity, Alaric made his move, and by 410 the capital of the empire was under Visigoth control.
7. Thutmose III (15th Century BC)
While half of Thutmose the Great’s reign was spent as a child, when he took over as Pharaoh of Egpyt, he began a major campaign to extend the empire. By the end of seventeen separate wars, he had made the Egyptian empire as large as it was ever to be.
Thutmose, who has sometimes been called “The Napolean of Egypt”, is recorded to have captured over 350 cities from Syria to Nubia. He was known for taking more dangerous or difficult routes to catch his enemy unaware, as well as using his navy to transport large numbers of troops.
Thutmose spent much of the plunder from his victories on creating great monuments and art back home. During his reign, he oversaw the Karnak temple complex as well as the “tekhen waty”, the largest obelisk ever cut from a single stone.
It is from these temples and tombs that we have been able to learn the most about the Pharoah and his many conquests.
8. Sulla (2nd Century AD)
Lucius Cornelius Sulla Felix, better known as “Sulla”, was the first person to gain control of the Roman republic by sheer force.
Sulla first came to be known for his successful capturing of the King of Numidia, which he was able to do by convincing the king’s father to betray him. Against the Cimbri and the Teutones, Sulla was able to win by the Masi tribe to fight against their usual allies, and at Pompeii, he was able to fend off opposing forces while at the same time keeping the city under siege.
Sulla’s great military feats came from his superior powers of persuasion. While an excellent fighter and battle-ground commander, it was his understanding of people that gave him the upper hand.
When sailors mutinied against their captain at the siege of Pompeii, he correctly recognized the mutiny was deserved and pardoned all. On the other hand, when rebel forces under Cluentius arrived to attack his army, Sulla spared no prisoners and killed the leader with his own hands.
9. Narses (5th-6th Century)
General under Byzantine Emperor Justinian I, Narses was often seen more as a treasurer than a commander, especially in his earliest years beside general Belisarius.
However, when taking control of the armies himself, he used his superior financial prowess to amass armies for far lower prices and used these superior forces to win many battles.
On the battlefield, Narses’ tactics often took advantage of flanking archers, followed by a central charge of calvary through a confused and injured enemy.
Narses was also known as a commander willing to go into action himself, taking advantage of his enemies’ belief that he was just “a money-counter”.
10. Sun Tzu (5th Century BC)
While possibly not even a real person, Sun Tzu could never be left off a list that is about great military minds.
Historians suspect he may have been a close minister to King Helu of Wu, who used the knowledge of the military leader to conquer the lands of Chu. Others suggest that Helu used an already existing book that had already been around two hundred years. Archeologists have found copies of the text in libraries dating back to 200 BC.
“The Art of War” is considered the seminal work in military tactics and adaptations today are used by businessmen and sports coaches alike. It is thirteen chapters long and emphasizes the importance of military intelligence, the use of geography, and the ability of an army to adapt to situations.
It has been argued that the text was a major reason why America lost the Vietnam War and is now a key text for students in American military academies.
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