Antiquity's Best Generals and Commanders

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, Conqueror of Most of the Known World

Mosaic of Alexander the Great at the Battle of Issus, Pompeii

Leemage / Corbis / Getty Images

Alexander the Great, King of Macedon from B.C.E. 336 to 323, 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.

Attila the Hun, the Scourge of God

Attila the Hun

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Attila was the fierce fifth 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.

Hannibal, Who Almost Conquered Rome

Hannibal crossing the Rhone River on an elephant

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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, Conqueror of Gaul

A statue of Julius Caesar in the historical open-air museum, the Roman Forum

EnginKorkmaz / Getty Images

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.

Marius, Reformer of the Roman Army

A white stone bust of Marius features a cropped nose

DIREKTOR / Wikipedia / Public Domain

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.

Alaric the Visigoth, Who Sacked Rome

Visigoth King Alaric relaxing while wearing the head of a lion

Charles Phelps Cushing / ClassicStock / Getty Images

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 enslaved Goths.

Cyrus the Great, Founder of the Persian Empire

Young King Cyrus wearing a laurel crown and dispensing orders while pointing

 Print Collector / Getty Images

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

Scipio Africanus, Who Beat Hannibal

The fight between Scipio Africanus and Hannibal shows cavalry clashing

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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, Author of "The Art of War"

The ancient soldier Sun Tzu in a modern style with thick

John Parrot / Stocktrek Images / 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 fifth century B.C.E. 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.

Trajan, Who Expanded the Roman Empire

The stern stone head of Emperor Trajan on a black background

Print Collector / Getty Images

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 C.E., which vastly increased the Roman imperial coffers, and against the Parthians, beginning in 113 C.E.

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Gill, N.S. "Antiquity's Best Generals and Commanders." ThoughtCo, Jan. 26, 2021, Gill, N.S. (2021, January 26). Antiquity's Best Generals and Commanders. Retrieved from Gill, N.S. "Antiquity's Best Generals and Commanders." ThoughtCo. (accessed June 5, 2023).