3 Ancient Military Leaders You Need to Know

Armies Throughout the Ages

The ancients weren't short on fierce fighters. Here are three standout soldiers from antiquity - hailing from all over the globe, from Greece, Rome, and Egypt - with fascinating stories to tell.

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Scipio Barbatus

A sketch of the tomb of Scipio Barbatus. Giovanni Battista Piranesi/Wikimedia Commons Public Domain

This soldier, who died in the 280s B.C., boasts one of the first – if not the first – biographical inscription of a historically verified Roman ever found. Scipio Barbatus's epitaph, inscribed on his sarcophagus, located in his family tomb, showed what life events and attributes early Romans thought were important to commemorate, as classicist Mary Beard noted in SPQR.

The note talked a lot about all his good qualities. It stated that Lucius Cornelius Scipio Barbatus (“Beardie” or "Long-Beard") was as good-looking on the outside as he was on the inside, served his city as “aedile, consul and censor among you,” and capped off his career by expanding Rome’s control over the Italian peninsula, even taking hostages to secure those conquered towns' allegiance.

The third century B.C. was the time when Rome really kicked off its expansion, so it looks like Scippy played an important role in making a tiny Italian town into the incredible power that we grew to know - and sometimes love - over the centuries. And the Scipios were a pretty important family. His descendants, probably also buried in the Tomb of the Scipios, included Scipio Africanus, who defeated Hannibal at the Battle of Zama in the Second Punic War.

 

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Ahmose, Son of Abana

Amenhotep I, one of the pharaohs Ahmose, Son of Abana, served, is dressed to impress. CM Dixon/Print Collector/Getty Images

An Egyptian naval leader who served under the first pharaohs of the Eighteenth Dynasty – a.k.a. the folks that kicked out the foreign Hyksos – Ahmose left an invaluable autobiography on his tomb walls. Interestingly, he called himself by his mother’s name, Abana, rather than his dad’s, although the latter man was named in the inscription; more on different reasoning for naming different people as parents here. But regardless, Ahmose served a big role in helping free Egypt from control of the Hyksos. #IndependentEgypt

On his tomb, Ahmose lauds his own accomplishments. During his youth, he “became a soldier … on the ship The Wild Bull in the time of the Lord of the Two Lands, Nebpehtire [Ahmose I], the justified. I was a youth who had not married; I slept in a hammock of netting.” He added, “When the town of Avaris was besieged, I fought bravely on foot in his majesty's presence.” During other battles, he took victims’ hands as trophies and received the “gold of valor,” a great military honor, from the king. Ahmose also carried off spoils from battle, then got even more rewards from the pharaoh.

That went on into the reign of Ahmose I’s son, Amenhotep I, where he served in a campaign against the Nubians. “Now I was in the van of our troops and I fought really well. His majesty saw my valor. I carried off two hands and presented them to his majesty,” bragged Ahmose.

He also fought in Nubia and Canaan under Amenhotep I’s successor, Thutmose I. During his campaign in Canaan, he said, “Now I was in the van of our troops, and his majesty saw my valor. I brought a chariot, its horse, and him who was on it as a living captive. When they were presented to his majesty, I was rewarded with gold once again.”

After all this good stuff, Ahmose got to retire to enjoy the fruits of his labor. The inscription concluded by boasting of having achieved old age – as few probably did in his era, especially amongst soldiers – and having attained the favor of three pharaohs.

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Cynaegirus

The Battle of Marathon, as shown on a Roman sarcophagus. De Agostini/A. Dagli Orti/Getty Images

The Battle of Marathon in 490 B.C. was a monumental victory for the Greeks over the enemy in the Persian Wars. The site even bequeathed its name to the long races of today, thanks to a messenger running the marathon distance to spread the good news. But lots of good guys died on both sides of the battle, including Cynaegirus of Athens.

Who was Cynaegirus? As Pliny the Elder recounted in his Natural History, he was one of three generals on the Greek side. Plutarch's Parallel Lives added one more leader to the mix; he recounted that the Athenians "sent out nine thousand men against him [Datis, commander of the Persians], under the command of Cynaegirus, Polyzelus, Callimachus, and Miltiades."

In his Lives of the Eminent Philosophers, Diogenes Laertius included Cynaegirus as one among "many strove to acquit themselves as gallant soldiers in battle." Similarly, Ammianus Marcellinus asked the poets to sing of heroes like Cynaegirus in the Rerum Gestarum, warbling, "Let long ages tell of Sophanes, Aminias, Callimachus, Cynaegirus, those glorious high lights of the Medic [Persian] wars." To be fair, Ammianus also credited the rest of the army, adding, "But not less distinguished was the valor some of our soldiers on that day, as is shown by the admission of all men."

What did Cynaegirus do to make his name? Well, he made his mark during Marathon, according to Suetonius in the Life of Julius Caesar, when he hopped on board of a Persian ship and forced the enemy back with his shield, despite a not-so-handy injury. Suetonius compared a Roman naval commander with the Athenian, since both got hands chopped off while at war. Plutarch observed, "Cynaegirus had both his hands cut off upon laying hold of a Persian ship that was endeavoring to get away." Ouch!

Herodotus added in an intriguing note when he said, " Cynegirus son of Euphorion fell there, his hand cut off with an ax as he grabbed a ship's figurehead." Who else was a son of Euphorion? The famous tragedian Aeschylus! Looks like the brothers served their country in more ways than one. And Cynaegirus was immortalized in a famous painting, as recounted by the orator Himerius, where he's trying to sink the Persian fleet with his bare hands.