The 10 Greatest Military Leaders of the Ancient World

In any civilization, the military is a conservative institution, and for that reason, the military leaders of the ancient world are still held in high regard thousands of years after their careers ended. The great generals of Rome and Greece are alive in the syllabi of military colleges; their exploits and strategies are still valid for inspiring soldiers and civilian leaders alike. The warriors of the ancient world, conveyed to us through myth and history, soldier on today.

Alexander the Great - Conquered Most of the Known World

Detail of Mosaic Alexander the Great at the Battle of Issus, Pompeii
Getty Images / Leemage/Corbis

Alexander the GreatKing of Macedon from 336-323 B.C., may claim the title of the greatest military leader the world has ever known. His empire spread from Gibraltar to Punjab, and he made Greek the lingua franca of his world.

Alaric the Visigoth - Sacked Rome

395 BC Visigoth King Alaric
Getty Images/Charles Phelps Cushing/ClassicStock

The Visigoth king Alaric was told he would conquer Rome, but his troops treated the imperial capital with notable tenderness — they spared Christian churches, thousands of souls who sought refuge therein, and burned relatively few buildings. His demands of the Senate included freedom for 40,000 Gothic slaves.

Attila the Hun - Scourge of God

Attila the Hun
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Attila was the fierce 5th-century leader of the barbarian group known as the Huns. Striking fear in the hearts of the Romans as he plundered everything in his path, he invaded the Eastern Empire and then crossed the Rhine into Gaul.

Cyrus the Great - Founder of the Persian Empire

Persian King Cyrus

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Cyrus conquered the Median Empire and Lydia, becoming Persian king by 546 B.C. Seven years later, Cyrus defeated the Babylonians and liberated the Jews from their captivity.

Hannibal - Almost Conquered Rome

Hannibal

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Considered Rome's greatest enemy, Hannibal was the leader of the Carthaginian forces in the Second Punic War. His cinematic crossing of the Alps with elephants overshadows the 15 years he harassed Romans in their home country before finally succumbing to Scipio.

Julius Caesar - Conquered Gaul

Julius Caesar Crossing the Rubicon

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Julius Caesar not only led the army and won many battles, but he wrote about his military adventures. It's from his description of the wars of the Romans against the Gauls (in modern France) that we get the familiar line "Gallia est omnis divisa in partes tres": "All Gaul is divided into three parts," which Caesar proceeded to conquer.

Scipio Africanus - Beat Hannibal

Scipio Africanus

Walters Art Museum

Scipio Africanus was the Roman commander who defeated Hannibal at the Battle of Zama in the Second Punic War via tactics he'd learned from the enemy. Since Scipio's victory was in Africa, following his triumph, he was allowed to take the agnomen Africanus. He later received the name Asiaticus when serving under his brother Lucius Cornelius Scipio against Antiochus III of Syria in the Seleucid War.

Sun Tzu- Wrote "The Art of War"

Sun Tzu

Chinese School/Getty Images

Sun Tzu's guide to military strategy, philosophy, and martial arts, "The Art of War," has been popular ever since its writing in the 5th century B.C., in ancient China. Famed for transforming a company of the king's concubines into a fighting force, Sun Tzu's leadership skills are the envy of generals and executives alike.

Marius - Reformed the Roman Army

Marius
Public Domain. Courtesy of Wikipedia

Marius needed more troops, so he instituted policies that changed the complexion of the Roman army and most armies after that. Instead of requiring a minimum property qualification of his soldiers, Marius recruited poor soldiers with promises of pay and land. To serve as a military leader against Rome's enemies, Marius was elected consul a record-breaking seven times.

Trajan - Expanded the Roman Empire

Trajan and Germanic Soldiers

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The Roman Empire reached its greatest extent under Trajan. A soldier who became emperor, Trajan spent most of his life involved in campaigns. Trajan's major wars as emperor were against the Dacians, in 106, which vastly increased the Roman imperial coffers, and against the Parthians, beginning in 113.