Ancient military commanders have led thousands of men into battle in order to triumph over the enemy. Their elaborate speeches prior to battle, many of which are still remembered today, have inspired thousands of men on the battlefield.
Ancient warfare was completely different to modern warfare. Generally speaking, armies relied on their sheer size and strength to win a war, but some ancient military commanders also used strategy and tactics that are still applauded by many historians. Here is a list of the top 12 ancient military commanders:
12. Tiglath-Pileser III (Unknown–727 BC, Assyria)
Tiglath-Pileser III was the founder of the modern military force and a pioneer of the Assyrian Empire’s political system. During his reign, he expanded the kingdom so that it dominated the Middle East for a century. In the first year of his reign, he defeated the powerful kingdom of Urartu, ruled by Sarduri II. Sarduri II had expanded his kingdom into Asia Minor, northwestern Mesopotamia, Iran, and Syria. It was one of Tiglath-Pileser III’s most significant victories.
11. Chandragupta Maurya (340 BC–298 BC, India)
Chandragupta was the founder of the Maurya Empire and a Kshatriya varna ruler. He reunited India into a single sub-continent. Chandragupta is usually considered the first historical emperor of India. Before Chandragupta, India was divided into small private kingdoms. He conquered all these small kingdoms and created a central government and a unified central kingdom.
10. Leonidas (540–480 BC, Greece)
Leonidas was a military king of Sparta. The third son of Anaxandridas II of Sparta, he is mostly remembered for his extraordinary performance at the Battle of Thermopylae. He fought against Xerxes’ army with his small, yet powerful force. The 300 Spartan men fought valiantly but were completely outnumbered. Even though Xerxes’ army was said to be in the millions, many historians believe that the real figure was between 100,000 and 150,000.
The small assembled force of 300 Spartiates fought the battle for seven days, holding back the Persian army of thousands. On the fifth and sixth days of battle, Leonidas and his army killed roughly 20,000 Persian troops. On the seventh day, Leonidas sent out all of his Greek troops and stayed in the pass with his 300 Spartans, 900 helots, and 700 Thespians. Leonidas and his men had a glorious death and are still remembered in the many legends that have been told about them.
9. Hammurabi (1810–1750 BC, Babylon)
Hammurabi was the first king of Babylon from the Amorite dynasty. He inherited the throne from his father, Sin-Muballit in 1792 BC. Hammurabi is popularly known for the Hammurabi Code, one of the first written sets of laws. He is now widely praised by many historians as an ancient law-giver.
When the Elamites (present-day Iraq) invaded the central plains of Mesopotamia from the east, Hammurabi joined forces with Larsa and defeated them. After the defeat, he broke the alliance and invaded the cities of Lsin and Uruk which were occupied by Larsa, forming alliances with Nippur and Lagash instead. He then conquered Nippur, Lagash, and Larsa. His brilliant strategy was to block the water source to the cities until they surrendered.
In addition to his brilliant fighting techniques, Hammurabi was very popular among his people. He constructed buildings and canals and introduced a system of law that was rare in his time. Throughout his reign, he constantly tried to improve the lives of ordinary people.
Read more about the Contributions of Hammurabi.
8. Ramesses II (1303–1213 BC, Egypt)
Ramesses II was the greatest and most celebrated pharaoh of ancient Egypt. Although Ramesses primarily focused on the development of the empire by building cities, temples, and monuments, he was also well known for his bravery and strategy on the battlefield.
Ramesses started several campaigns to secure Egypt’s borders and during his reign, his army of 100,000 men fought the Nubians and Hittites for their territories. The Battle of Kadesh was the earliest battle (1247 BC) where strategy, army formation, and the use of tactics were first noticed. Despite some technical errors on the battlefield, he is widely known for his strategic approach to battle and the sheer size of his army.
7. Khalid Bin Walid (592–642 AD, Arabia)
Khalid was a follower of the prophet Muhammad (PBUH) and was one of only three military generals who have remained undefeated in battle. Under his military leadership, Arabia was united as a single political entity for the first time in history. He was the only military commander apart from Hannibal who successfully executed the pincer movement against a larger superior opponent.
Khalid played a major role in the Battle of Uhud and was instrumental in commanding the Medinan force at the Battle of Ridda after the death of Muhammad. He conquered central Arabia and subdued the Arab tribes. His fabulous tactic was to annihilate the enemy troops rather than simply defeat them. He was the architect of most of the early Muslim military doctrines.
6. Trajan (53 AD–17 AD, Rome)
Trajan dedicated his life to different military campaigns. He was mostly known for the conquest of Dacia (modern-day Romania and Moldova), which had troubled the Romans for a decade. After Dacia, Trajan started a war with the Parthians and defeated them. He conquest Mesopotamia and created a new province.
5. Sun Tzu (544 BC–496 BC, China)
Sun Tzu, Chinese military general, war strategist, and author of The Art of War, completely changed the way war was fought in ancient times. The Art of War has been studied by many military commanders, nations, and intellectuals and has remained the most important military treatise in Asia for the last 2,000 years. In the 20th century, The Art of War became influential in Europe and America in various fields such as culture, politics, business, sport, and modern warfare.
4. Julius Caesar (100–44 BC, Rome)
Julius Caesar was a brilliant military general, lawgiver, builder, and politician. He was one of the most famous figures in ancient history, and he has had a significant impact on the ancient and modern world. The word for emperor often comes from variations of his name in different languages, such as “kaiser” in German and “tzar” in Russian. The month of July, which was previously known as Quintilis in Rome, was named after him. He conquered Gaul (modern-day France, Switzerland, Belgium, and northern Italy) and was also the first Roman emperor to lead a military expedition to Britain.
3. Cyrus the Great (600–530 BC, Persia)
Cyrus the Great was a Persian leader who conquered the Medes and unified the whole of Iran under a single ruler for the first time in history. Cyrus became the first king of the Persian Empire and established one of the largest empires in the world. He expanded his territory from the western part of present-day Iran and conquered a major nomadic tribe who lived in the eastern part of Iran. He invaded the kingdoms of Lydia and Greece and conquered them along with the coast of Antonia, which gave him access to the sea ports of the Mediterranean.
He issued the first human rights declaration of the ancient world which stated that all inhabitants of the empire were free to practice their own religions and social customs. He made slavery of any kind illegal and prohibited the seizure of any farmer’s land or property.
2. Hannibal Barca (247–183 BC, Carthage)
Hannibal was an audacious military commander who also had the advantage of superior military tactics and strategy. Hannibal’s hatred of Rome was instilled in him from a young age by his father, Hamilcar, who fought against Rome in the First Punic War. Hannibal’s ingenious military tactics and risk-taking behavior have earned him much admiration from historians.
Hannibal was mostly known for his courageous attempt to cross the Alps with his 50,000 infantry, 9,000 cavalry, and 37 elephants which was thought to be impossible at the time. The never-ending conflict between Rome and the Carthaginians resulted in the Second Punic War, where Hannibal shows his brilliant military tactics. Despite all his efforts and great military strategies, his life mission to conquer Rome came to an end when he committed suicide to avoid falling into Roman hands.
1. Alexander the Great (356–323 BC, Greece)
Military genius and King of Macedon, Alexander is one of the most respected military commanders of all time. After the assassination of his father, Alexander inherited the throne and the 20-year-old king continued his father’s mission to expand the kingdom. He took an army of 50,000 on a 12-year march with the intention of expanding his territory. He grew the kingdom from the Adriatic Sea to the Indus River in India, and from the Danube to the upper reaches of the Nile.
Undoubtedly, Alexander the Great and Hannibal were the two biggest inspirational military commanders of the ancient world. The list here includes only ancient leaders, and therefore other great commanders such as Napoléon Bonaparte and Genghis Khan are excluded from the list.