History’s Most Powerful Rulers

History’s Most Powerful Rulers

Khalid Elhassan - May 29, 2023

Powerful people have often changed the trajectory of history through innovation and by thinking outside the box. Take history’s first empire builder. He tore up the old schoolbook whereby kings claimed their right to rule came directly from the gods. In a first that has been copied by many since, he rose to power with help from the commoners by asserting that he was one of them. In another first that was copied by many since, soon as he secured power, he ditched the commoners and screwed them over. Below are twenty five things about that and other fascinating facts about some of history’s strongest and most powerful figures.

History’s Most Powerful Rulers
The Akkadian Empire. Rebus Press

History’s First Empire Builder

Ancient Mesopotamian ruler Sargon of Akkad (reigned circa 2334 – 2279 BC) was history’s first powerful conqueror and de facto emperor. As a young officer, he led a revolt that toppled the king of Kish. Next, he marched north, conquered cities and recruited an army, then turned south against the city states of ancient Sumer. He crushed their combined forces in a decisive battle. A brilliant military commander, Sargon seized all of southern Mesopotamia, as well as parts of Syria, Anatolia in modern Turkey, and Elam, in what is now western Iran. The Akkadian Empire he cobbled together is considered to be history’s first multi-national empire.

History’s Most Powerful Rulers
‘The Mask of Sargon’, once attributed to him, now believed to be that of his grandson, Naram-Sin. Wikimedia

Sargon’s realm was the first political entity that was ever administered efficiently through the use of bureaucracy on a large scale. His model was copied by future rulers and kingdoms. Sargon was also an innovator in the realm of propaganda, who came up with a radically different origin story to gather support, and to justify his right to rule. Before Sargon, Sumerian rulers believed in an ancient version of the divine right of kings. To set themselves apart from the commoners and elevate themselves above the masses, Sumer’s kings asserted that they were chosen by the gods to rule. As seen below, Sargon, as canny a politician as he was a brilliant military leader, did away with that narrative.

History’s Most Powerful Rulers
Fragment of a clay tablet with cuneiform text about Sargon of Akkad. British Museum

A Powerful Ruler’s Radically Different Origin Story

In Sargon’s era, there was a great and growing wealth gap between the powerful nobles, who controlled three fourths of the land, and the laboring masses who eked a living from what was left. Aware that the commoners resented the exploitative nobility, Sargon presented himself as a fellow commoner of humble origins, who picked himself up by his bootstraps. Per The Legend of Sargon of Akkad, recounted in an ancient stele from circa 2300 BC, Sargon presented himself as an orphan – an illegitimate child of a temple priestess, or holy prostitute. As he put it at the start of the narrative: “Sargon, the mighty king, king of Akkad, am I. My mother was a changeling, my father I knew not“.

History’s Most Powerful Rulers
Prisoners escorted by soldiers, from a victory stele erected by Sargon of Akkad, circa 2300 BC. Wikimedia

More than a thousand years before the Old Testament’s Moses story, Sargon recounted that as a baby, his mother had placed him in a basket, and set him adrift on the Euphrates River. He was found by a kind gardener of a Sumerian city’s king, who raised him as his own. Later, when he began his rise, Sargon presented himself as a man of the people, which earned him the support of the commoners. Unfortunately, Sargon seems to have screwed over the commoners once he secured power with their help. His reign was not always popular with the masses, and he spent much of it putting down revolts. Still, he established a powerful empire – history’s first – that lasted for nearly two centuries. Not bad for an illegitimate orphan abandoned on a river by his mother.

History’s Most Powerful Rulers
Emperor Gaozu of Han. Origins

A Powerful Emperor and an Even More Powerful Barbarian

Ancient China’s Emperor Gaozu of Han (256 – 195 BC) was no idiot. Born Liu Bang, he was a peasant who rose to become a minor official in the Chin Dynasty. When the realm fell into chaos following the death of Shi Huang Di, China’s first emperor, Liu Bang became a rebel leader and proved himself a master of anarchy. He invaded the Chin heartland and forced that dynasty’s last ruler to surrender in 206 BC. He then fought a civil war between the anti-Chin rebel leaders, won, and in 202 BC declared himself Emperor Gaozu (“High Founder”).

The former peasant turned emperor established the Han Dynasty, which ruled China for four centuries. However, Gaozu did make one bad move that cost him – and China for centuries after his death – dearly. It came about in a failed attempt to crush Steppe nomads whose raids had inflicted serious damage upon his realm. They were led by Modu Chanyu (234 – 174 BC), a powerful Steppe warrior and chieftain who habitually turned his defeated enemies’ skulls into cups from which he drank blood.

History’s Most Powerful Rulers
Xiongnu. Pinterest

The Barbarians Who Humiliated China

Modu Chanyu unified the eastern Steppe’s nomadic tribes and founded the Xiongnu Empire. It stretched from Central Asia to Manchuria, and its warriors’ plunder expeditions terrorized the Chinese to their south for centuries. That led to the establishment of a complex relationship that alternated between trade and raid, marriage treaties and tribute and war. In 200 BC, China’s Emperor Gaozu tried to bring the Xiongnu to heel. Unfortunately for him and his empire, it ended in catastrophe – the worst setback suffered by the Han Dynasty’s powerful founder. In a rare bad move, Gaozu let Modu Chanyu lead him on a merry chase through the Steppe

In the meantime, the nomads harried the invaders’ supply lines and kept their forces on constant edge with frequent skirmishes. When the Chinese were exhausted, Modu ambushed and trapped them in a disadvantageous spot, where they were cutoff from resupply and reinforcement. Surrounded, Emperor Gaozu was forced to buy his life with an appeasement treaty known as the Heqin. It recognized Modu and the Xiongnu Empire as equals, and defined The Great Wall as the mutual border. It also sent the Xiongnu leaders Chinese princesses as brides, and sought to buy them off with regular tribute payments that were face-savingly referred to as “gifts”.

History’s Most Powerful Rulers
Chinese princesses, sent as brides to Steppe nomad leaders as part of the heqin tribute. Top China

An Epic Insult

After Emperor Gaozu’s death in 195 BC, Modu Chanyu sent an offensive marriage proposal to his widow, the dowager empress. Incensed, she and her court were all for a declaration of war, as her generals urged the extermination of the obnoxious nomads. However, calmer voices reminded everybody of Modu’s victory just a few years earlier, and that the Xiongnu army was actually more powerful than China’s. The empress reconsidered, wrote back a humble declination of the proposal, and sent the nomad leader a gift of imperial carriages and horses.

So badly had Modu beaten the Han, and so memorable was the defeat, that further Chinese attempts at a military solution were abandoned. Instead, the humiliating Heqin system that sought to buy off dangerous nomads with princesses and tribute became the bedrock of Chinese diplomacy for centuries. The appeasement continued even after the Xiongnu Empire collapsed and the Xiongnu vanished into history’s mists. Chinese princesses and Chinese “gifts” continued to be sent regularly to Steppe chieftains for over a thousand years, and the last recorded instance of Heqin occurred as late as 883 AD.

History’s Most Powerful Rulers
Peter the Great. Wikimedia

Russia’s Most Powerful Tsar

Peter the Great (1672 – 1725) was a towering figure. Both literally, in that he stood 6 foot 7 inches tall, and figuratively, in that he transformed Russia from a backwards medieval state, into a less backwards one that sought to westernize itself. To establish Russia as a great and powerful nation, he instituted great reforms that revolutionized both the state and society. Many Russian governmental institutions today trace their origins to his reign. Peter ascended the throne at age ten in 1682, and ruled jointly with his brother Ivan V until the latter’s death in 1696. Thereafter, Peter ruled alone as Tsar of All the Russias.

The Russia inherited by Peter was extremely backwards. For centuries, it had remained isolationist and rejected modernity while the rest of Europe had experienced the Renaissance and Reformation. So he set out set out to drag his realm into the modern world. Peter’s reforms were radical and far reaching, and were strongly resented and resisted by Russia’s medieval aristocracy and religious reactionaries. Many of them came to see him as the literal Antichrist. As see below, the powerful reformist tsar persisted, ignored his detractors, and steamrolled over them.

History’s Most Powerful Rulers
Peter the Great cutting the beards of Russian boyars. Irina Boranova

A Flood of Modernization

Peter the Great introduced secular education. He paid special attention to the sciences, recruited foreign experts and technicians, and brought them to Russia to teach his subjects. Peter modernized the Russian army along western lines, and created a strong navy. He also brought the reactionary Orthodox Church under tighter governmental control, and organized Russia into more rational territorial and administrative divisions. Peter’s greatest territorial ambition was to secure access to the sea for his mostly landlocked realm. He expanded along the Baltic, and seized Finland, Latvia, and Estonia. That got him into a major war with Sweden, then one of Europe’s most powerful states.

Peter eventually crushed the Swedes at the Battle of Poltava in 1709. To consolidate his gains, he founded and built the city of Saint Petersburg on the Baltic, and made it his capital in lieu of Moscow. He also successfully warred against the Ottoman Turks, and thus secured access to the Black Sea. In 1721, Peter proclaimed Russia an empire, and had himself declared Emperor. His reforms were geared towards the westernization of Russia’s elites and professional classes, as he sought to develop industry and commerce, and create a gentrified bourgeoisie. However, as seen below, Peter’s reforms did not extend to the Russian masses.

History’s Most Powerful Rulers
‘Peter I Interrogates Tsarevich Alexius Petrovich at Peterhof’, by Nikolai Ge, 1871. Wikimedia

This Powerful Tsar’s Modernization Efforts Did Not Extend to Russia’s Serf Masses

Conspicuously absent from Peter’s reforms were efforts to alleviate the abominable conditions of the serfs, a majority of Russia’s population. In the powerful reformist tsar’s reign, their lot actually worsened. Peter squeezed the serfs hard to pay for his wars. He raised their taxes, which, thanks to his more efficient bureaucracy, were now harder to evade. He also conscripted serfs into his armies, with enlistments terms as high as 25 years. Given the era’s brief life expectancies, such enlistment terms amounted to life sentences for most conscripts. Such policies led to bloody peasant and Cossack uprisings, which Peter brutally crushed.

The resistance to Peter the Great’s modernization efforts was widespread. Opponents of the tsar’s reforms included Peter’s only son to reach adulthood, his heir Tsarevich Alexei. So determined was Peter to bend his heir to his will, that Alexei fled Russia and sought asylum in the Austrian Empire – a move that Peter viewed as treason. So he inveigled his son to return with promises of forgiveness and reconciliation. Soon as Alexei crossed the border into Russia, he was arrested, imprisoned, and killed soon thereafter in 1718. Reportedly, Peter had him flogged to death. One thing that can’t be denied, is that Peter the Great was determined to get his way, and for better or for worse, the powerful reformist tsar left his everlasting mark on Russia.

History’s Most Powerful Rulers
Genghis Khan. Imgur

A Powerful Conqueror Who Cooled the Planet

The Mongol invasions kicked off by Genghis Khan, history’s most powerful conqueror, created the world’s biggest contiguous land empire. They also cooled the planet. Not that such was his goal, or that he or anybody else back then knew anything about global warming or cooling or carbon emissions. Still, that is just what he did. In a nutshell, Genghis Khan’s Mongol conquests cooled Earth because so many people were killed that it resulted in reforestation. As the author of the study that examined that put it: “It’s a common misconception that the human impact on climate began with the large-scale burning of coal and oil in the industrial era … Actually, humans started to influence the environment thousands of years ago by changing the vegetation cover of the Earth‘s landscapes when we cleared forests for agriculture“.

Genghis Khan kicked off invasions that swept across Asia, the Middle East, Russia, and into Central Europe. They killed an estimated 40 million people. That was in a world whose population was about a twentieth of the one we live in today. If extrapolated to modern population figures, it would be the equivalent of more than four times the deaths of World War I and World War II combined. That massive body count meant there were significantly fewer people to engage in activities that emitted carbon. Most significantly, many regions were depopulated. So huge areas of what had once been cleared and cultivated fields reverted to forests, whose trees and vegetation absorbed carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. As seen below, the scholars, who published their study in The Holocene in 2011, began their research with a global model of land cover in 800 AD. What they found surprised them.

History’s Most Powerful Rulers
Carbon capture by trees. Klimatet Och Skogen

Mongol’s Devastation Reduced Humanity’s Carbon Footprint

The Holocene study’s scholars examined four major historical events that could have impacted the climate because of reforestation after populations were drastically reduced. Those were the Mongol invasions of the thirteenth century, the Black Death in the fourteenth century, the conquest of the Americas in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, and the fall of Ming China in the seventeenth century. All of these events caused massive fatalities. The Black Death, for example, killed over 25 million people. However, Mother Nature barely noticed those calamities – except for the Mongol invasions. Genghis Khan’s depredations reduced global CO2 by about 0.1 part per million. It was a minor, but nonetheless noticeable and measurable effect. As one researcher explained, that was because the Mongol invasions had the greatest impact on the amount of land covered by vegetation:

We found that during the short events such as the Black Death and the Ming Dynasty collapse, the forest re-growth wasn’t enough to overcome the emissions from decaying material in the soil … But during the longer-lasting ones like the Mongol invasion and the conquest of the Americas there was enough time for the forests to re-grow and absorb significant amounts of carbon“. The Holocene study demonstrated that the depopulation and disruptions caused by Genghis Khan and his successors were so massive that they led to a significant drop in the amount of cleared land under cultivation. Then as now, people chopped down forests to clear land for agriculture. That automatically increased the amount of carbon in the atmosphere, because vegetation stores carbon. Trees and shrubs are what scientists call “carbon sinks”: defined as things that absorb more carbon from the atmosphere than they release.

History’s Most Powerful Rulers
Pompey the Great. Wikimedia

Before Caesar, There Was the Powerful Pompey the Great

Gnaeus Pompeius Magnus, better known as Pompey or Pompey the Great (106 – 48 BC) was one of the most powerful statesmen and generals of the Roman Republic’s final decades. He was eventually by eclipsed by Julius Caesar, whose son in law and partner in a scheme to divvy up Rome known as the First Triumvirate, Pompey became. The fell out though, and became rivals, and finally enemies, in the civil war that tore apart the Roman Republic after Caesar crossed the Rubicon into Italy with an army in 49 BC.

Pompey was born into a family that had only recently joined the senatorial ranks. It was nonetheless a powerful and incredibly wealthy family, with vast holdings in Picenum in central Italy. His father was a general who became consul in 89 BC, and had a reputation for double dealing, greed, and ruthlessness. An ally of the dictator Sulla, he was killed in 87 BC in a civil war against the supporters of Gaius Marius, Sulla’s rival. Nineteen-year-old Pompey inherited his father’s vast wealth and, more importantly, his legions. When Sulla returned to Italy from a war against Pontus, Pompey joined him with three legions in his march on and seizure of Rome. As seen below, it was the start of a rapid rise that saw Pompey become Rome’s most powerful figure.

History’s Most Powerful Rulers
Romans under Pompey’s command taking out a pirates’ nest in Cilicia. Weapons and Warfare

The Roman Republic’s Most Powerful Figure Before Julius Caesar

After Sulla secured Rome, he sent the young Pompey to recapture Sicily and Africa from the Marians. Pompey accomplished that in two swift campaigns by 81 BC. He capped off his victory with the execution of the captured Marians – they had killed his father, after all. Pompey was named Magnus, or “the Great”, by his troops, and denigrated as the “Boy Butcher” by detractors. After Sulla’s retirement, Pompey menaced the Senate and got it to appoint him commander of the war against the final Marian remnants in Hispania. He eventually won that conflict after considerable effort by 71 BC.

When Pompey headed back to Italy, he took his army with him, ostensibly to help put down Spartacus’ slave revolt. In reality, Pompey wanted his army with him in Italy, to guarantee his election to the consulship, which he secured in 70 BC. In 67 BC, he became the Republic’s most powerful figure when he was granted vast authority throughout the Mediterranean to settle a piracy problem that had grown out of control. He managed to do so in a brilliant campaign that lasted only three months. He was then appointed to command a war against Pontus, and granted authority to settle the entire eastern Mediterranean. To do that, he ruthlessly annexed some kingdoms into the Roman Republic, and reduced others to client state.

History’s Most Powerful Rulers
The death of Pompey the Great. Look and Learn

The Eclipse of Pompey

Pompey the Great’s settlement of the eastern Mediterranean was his greatest and most enduring achievement. With few modifications, it lasted for over 500 years. When he returned to Italy in 62 BC, Pompey sought land upon which to settle his veterans and legislation to ratify his settlement of the east. However, political chaos in Rome prevented that. He finally accomplished his goals after he formed a Triumvirate with Julius Caesar and Marcus Licinius Crassus, Rome’s two most powerful men after Pompey. Power in the Roman Republic was divided between the trio, and to seal the deal, Pompey married Caesar’s daughter.

After Crassus died in 53 BC, followed by Pompey’s wife and Caesar’s daughter soon thereafter, the two remaining Triumvirs drifted apart, and finally went to war in 49 BC. Pompey and the optimates conservative faction fled to Greece, where they raised an army. Caesar followed, and Rome’s two greatest generals finally met at the Battle of Pharsalus in 48 BC. Pompey might have been great, but Caesar proved greater, and Pompey’s army was crushed. He fled and sailed to Egypt, where he was tricked to come ashore. He was assassinated and his head was chopped off as soon as his feet touched Egyptian soil.

History’s Most Powerful Rulers
Mongols on the march. Pinterest

The Mongol Empire Hit its Peak Not Under Genghis Khan, but His Successor

Ogedei (1185 – 1241) was Genghis Khan’s third son and unexpected successor. In his reign, the Mongol Empire reached its greatest territorial extent. His two older brothers, Jochi and Chagatai, were ahead of him in the line of succession but had developed a bitter enmity. Jochi claimed the right to inherit as the eldest. Chagatai countered that Jochi, whose parentage was questionable because their mother had been kidnapped by an enemy of Genghis in the year before Jochi’s birth, was a bastard. That made Chagatai the eldest true born son. When it became clear that the empire would descend into civil war if either inherited, Ogedei was selected as a compromise heir.

Ogedei realized that he was not Genghis Khan’s military equal. He nonetheless became even more powerful than his father had been because he recognized his limitations, and was open to wise counsel. He relied on capable subordinates who greatly expanded the frontiers of the Mongol Empire to its greatest southward and westward extents. From his capital in Mongolia, he directed simultaneous campaigns on multiple fronts separated by thousands of miles. He employed field generals who acted independently within their theaters, but remained subject to Ogedei’s orders, relayed via a swift horse relay courier network.

History’s Most Powerful Rulers
Ogedei. Wikimedia

10. When the Mongols Were at Their Most Powerful

In the east, the Mongols continued Genghis Khan’s campaign against the Jin, in alliance with southern China’s Song Dynasty. Ogedei commanded in person until 1232, then returned to Mongolia and entrusted to subordinates the final mopping up operations, which terminated with the extinguishment of the Jin Dynasty in 1234. The Mongols then fell out with their Song allies, and a new campaign began against southern China. Simultaneously, Ogedei’s Mongols invaded the Korean Peninsula and asserted Mongol suzerainty. In the south, Ogedei’s armies invaded India, marched into the Indus Valley and on to the Delhi Sultanate, and occupied parts of today’s Pakistan and the Punjab. At the same time, another Mongol army marched into and subdued Kashmir.

In the west, Ogedei’s powerful armies marched out of the recently conquered Khwarezm to subdue the remainder of today’s Central Asia. They overran Khorasan, Afghanistan, Persia, and reached Mesopotamia. From there, they turned northward and conquered Armenia, Georgia, and the Caucasus region, then continued to reduce Russia to centuries of vassalage. Afterwards, they penetrated into Eastern Europe, captured Poland, Bulgaria, Hungary, and reached the Adriatic Sea. The Mongol forces in Europe under Subutai were drawing plans to continue the advance into Italy and Central Europe, when news arrived of Ogedei’s death. Europe was saved because Ogedei’s demise necessitated a halt to the campaign and a return to Mongolia for the selection of a new Khan.

History’s Most Powerful Rulers
Wrecked ancient statues inspired Shelley’s Ozymandias. Quora

Ancient Egypt’s Most Powerful Pharaoh

I met a traveller from an antique land,

Who said—”Two vast and trunkless legs of stone

Stand in the desert. . . . Near them, on the sand,

Half sunk a shattered visage lies, whose frown,

And wrinkled lip, and sneer of cold command,

Tell that its sculptor well those passions read

Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things,

The hand that mocked them, and the heart that fed;

And on the pedestal, these words appear:

My name is Ozymandias, King of Kings;

Look on my Works, ye Mighty, and despair!

Nothing beside remains. Round the decay

Of that colossal Wreck, boundless and bare

The lone and level sands stretch far away – Ozymandias, by Percy Bysshe Shelley

Ozymandias was the Greek name for Ancient Egypt’s Pharaoh Ramesses II (circa 1303 – 1213 BC), or Ramesses the Great – a title he might have bestowed upon himself. He is often identified as the pharaoh who clashed with Moses in the Exodus story. This Ramesses was the greatest, most powerful, and most celebrated ruler of the New Kingdom, Ancient Egypt’s most powerful period. A warrior through and through, he battled sea pirates, fought numerous campaigns in the Levant, and led several military expeditions into Nubia.

History’s Most Powerful Rulers
Ramesses II. Wikimedia

A Clash of Ancient Giants

In 1274 BC, Ramesses II fought the Battle of Kadesh, the earliest battle in recorded history for which details such as tactics and formations are known. It was also the largest chariot battle ever fought, in which up to 6000 chariots took part. The violent clash occurred against a backdrop of a generations-long rivalry between Egypt and the Hittite Empire of Anatolia, as they jockeyed to control the lands of Canaan between them. Early in his reign (1279 – 1213 BC), Ramesses II decided to finish off the Hittites. His preparation lasted for years, in which he gathered up a powerful army and built up supply depots.

Ramesses marched north from Egypt into Canaan with four divisions. First was the Amon Division, led by Ramesses in person, followed by the divisions of Re, Ptah, and Sutekh. When he heard the news, the Hittite King Muwatalli II marched south from Anatolia into Canaan, with 3000 heavy chariots and 8000 infantry. In late spring, 1274 BC, Ramesses emerged from the hills above the city of Kadesh on the Orontes River, near today’s Lebanon-Syria border, without having spotted the Hittites. They were closer than he thought.

History’s Most Powerful Rulers
Ramesses II at the Battle of Kadesh. The Masculine Epic

The Powerful Ramesses the Great

When Ramesses II reached Kadesh, the Hittites were right behind the city. Nomads falsely informed the pharaoh that the Hittites were nowhere near. Emboldened, Ramesses hurried with the Amon Division to Kadesh, and left the rest of his army behind. As Ramesses advanced, the Hittites circled around the city, and kept Kadesh between themselves and the Egyptians, who remained unaware that their enemies were so close. While Ramesses and the Division of Amon made camp, the Division of Re straggled up the road behind. That was when 2000 massed Hittite chariots charged directly across the Egyptian line of march. They wrecked the Division of Re, then surrounded Ramesses in his camp.

Ramesses gathered his personal guards, and led a desperate charge that drove some Hittite leaders into the river. Fortunately for the pharaoh, the Hittites behind Ramesses abandoned their chariots to loot the Egyptian camp. That was when the Division of Sutekh arrived, and slaughtered the looters. As King Muwatalli sent in the rest of his chariots, the last Egyptian Division of Ptah arrived, and the battle lasted until sunset. After prolonged slaughter, the Hittites finally withdrew into Kadesh, leaving the field – and victory – to Ramesses. Upon his return, the warrior pharaoh littered Egypt with monuments and murals that detailed the engagement. In them, he described himself as “Ramesses, the Great, Conqueror of the Hittites” – which is how we know so much about the battle.

History’s Most Powerful Rulers
Proportion of males descended from Genghis Khan. Discover Magazine

A Powerful Conqueror’s Millions of Descendants

In an earlier entry, we saw how Genghis Khan impacted the global climate by killing a whole lot of people. On the flip side, he also impacted it by making a whole lot of people. One of the more chilling quotes attributed to Genghis Khan, which says quite a bit about what he was all about, is about what made him happy. As he put it: “My greatest joy is to defeat my enemies and drive them before me. To see their cities reduced to ashes. To see their loved ones shrouded and in tears, and to embrace their wives and daughters“.

As turns out, Genghis Khan’s wide sweeping conquests afforded him the opportunity to embrace many an enemy’s wives and daughters. That is backed up not only by the historic record, but by science. A 2003 DNA study showed that 1 out of every 200 men in the world is descended from the powerful Mongol conqueror. That is based on a study of Y chromosomes, which are only passed from fathers to sons. Genghis Khan’s paternal chromosomes are even more prolific within the borders of what had once been his empire. Within those vast expanses, roughly 1 out of every 10 men is descended from the Great Khan.

History’s Most Powerful Rulers
A younger Octavius. Wikimedia

A Nobody Became Rome’s Most Powerful Figure and First Emperor

Gaius Octavius (63 BC – 14 AD), better known to history as Augustus Caesar or just plain Augustus, was Rome’s first emperor. He was born to an affluent plebian family on his father’s side, while his mother was of the patrician Julii lineage, and a niece of Julius Caesar. Octavius’ famous grand uncle launched his grandnephew into public life, and groomed him to be his heir. Octavius was in Albania, completing his military and academic studies, when his grand uncle was assassinated in 44 BC.

When he returned to Italy, Octavius learned that Caesar had adopted him as his son in his will, and made him his chief heir. He was advised to decline the dangerous inheritance, but he ignored the advice and went to Rome. There, Caesar’s lieutenant, Mark Antony, refused to honor the will. Caesar’s assassins ignored the teenager, and Cicero, one of Rome’s chief elder statesmen and a key figure of a politically powerful but militarily weak faction, sought to manipulate him. As he quipped, he would “raise, praise, then erase” the young man. As seen below, things did not go how Cicero thought they would.

History’s Most Powerful Rulers
Mark Antony and Octavius. Imgur

An Underestimated Teenager

While everybody underestimated Octavius, he paid for public games in honor of his adoptive father to gain recognition and popularity. He also wooed Caesar’s veteran soldiers to his side. When Octavius secured a military force under his command, Cicero’s faction sought the young man’s aid. They bent the rules to appoint him a senator despite his youth, and sent him against Mark Antony, who was forced to retreat from Italy to Gaul. Then the consuls in official command of the forces arrayed against Mark Antony were killed. Octavius seized the opportunity, and got the Senate to appoint him to a vacant consulship despite his youth.

The youthful politician then double crossed the Senate, reached an agreement with Mark Antony, and joined him in a power sharing dictatorship. They then exacted a terrible revenge upon their foes with a massive purge that executed thousands of opponents, actual and suspected, including Cicero. Next, they went after Julius Caesar’s assassins, and defeated them in a final battle. Octavius and Antony then swore friendship, sealed the bargain with the marriage of Antony and Octavius’ sister, and divided the Roman Empire. Antony was given the east, while Octavius stayed in Rome and ruled the west.

History’s Most Powerful Rulers
Augustus. Flickr

The Powerful Augustus

In Egypt, Mark Antony fell in love with Cleopatra, married her, and abandoned Octavius’ sister. Octavius used that as a pretext to attack Antony, whom he defeated decisively in 31 BC. He then seized Egypt and the eastern provinces, brought the entire Roman Empire under his control, and proceeded to reorganize the state. He ended the Roman Republic, whose political structure, created for a city state, had proved impractical for the governance of a vast empire. That impracticality had led to a century of chaos and bloodshed, until the reins were taken by Octavius, whom the Senate granted the honorific “Augustus”.

In the Republic’s place, Augustus established a stable, autocratic, and centralized de-facto monarchy: the Roman Empire. He inaugurated a period known as the Pax Romana, that brought to the Greco-Roman world two centuries of peace, stability, and prosperity. He held supreme power in the Roman world from 43 BC, first in conjunction with Mark Antony until 31 BC, and thereafter alone, until his death in 14 AD. As he lay on his deathbed, Augustus compared the role he had to play as emperor to the theater. His final words to those gathered around him were: “Have I played the part well? Then applaud as I exit“.

History’s Most Powerful Rulers
Facial reconstruction of Tamerlane, based on his recovered skull. Owlcation

The Steppe Conqueror Who Was Even Scarier than Genghis Khan

Tamerlane (1336 – 1405) was the last powerful Eurasian Steppe conquerors to terrify the civilized world. He is chiefly remembered for his savagery, and his wide ranging rampage from India to Russia and the Mediterranean and points in between, killed about 17 million people, or 5 percent of the world’s population back then. If extrapolated to the world’s 2023 estimated population of about 7.95 billion people, it would be the equivalent of almost 400 million deaths. Tamerlane, a Muslim Turko-Mongol who claimed descent from Genghis Khan, was born in the Chagatai Khanate, ruled by Genghis’ descendants, in today’s Uzbekistan. His rise began in 1360, when he led Turkic tribesmen on behalf of the Chagatai Khan. After the Khan’s murder, a struggle for power ensued, at the end of which Tamerlane emerged as the power behind a throne occupied by a figurehead Chagatai puppet through whom Tamerlane ruled.

Tamerlane’s claimed descent from Genghis is dubious. Nonetheless, he claimed that he wanted to restore the Mongol Empire and re-impose legitimate Mongol rule over lands seized by usurpers. He then spent 35 years earning a reputation for savagery. In that period, he brought fire and sword to the lands between the Indus and the Volga, the Himalayas and the Mediterranean. Among the cities he left depopulated and in ruins were Damascus and Aleppo in Syria; Baghdad in Iraq; Sarai, capital of the Golden Horde, and Ryazan, both in Russia; India’s Delhi, outside whose walls he massacred over 100,000 captives; and Isfahan in Iran, where he massacred 200,000 people. Tamerlane piled up pyramids of severed heads, cemented live prisoners into the walls of captured cities, and erected towers of his victims’ skulls as object lessons and to terrorize would-be opponents.

History’s Most Powerful Rulers
Sultan Bayezid was humiliated by Tamerlane, used as a footrest, and caged. Quora

The Powerful Tamerlane

Tamerlane’s most impressive victory came at the expense of the Ottoman Turks. At the time, the Ottomans were a rising power in their own right, as exuberantly confident in their prowess as was Tamerlane. For years, insulting letters were exchanged between Tamerlane and the Ottoman Sultan, Bayezid, until Tamerlane finally showed up and defeated him in 1402. He took to Ottoman ruler captive, and humiliated him by keeping him in a cage at court, while Bayazid’s favorite wife was made to serve Tamerlane and his courtiers, naked.

His decades-long rampage finally ended in 1405 as he prepared to invade China, only to get ill while encamped and die before he could launch the campaign. Tamerlane’s grave was reportedly cursed. His body was exhumed by Soviet anthropologists on June 19th, 1941. Carved inside his tomb were the words “When I rise from the dead, the word shall tremble“. Two days later, the Nazis launched the largest military operation of all time against the USSR. The Soviets survived only by the skin of their teeth. Just to be on the safe side, in November, 1942, shortly before Operation Uranus which led to the first major Soviet victory at Stalingrad, Tamerlane was reburied with full Islamic ritual.


Where Did We Find This Stuff? Some Sources and Further Reading

Appian – The Civil Wars, Book II

Cassius Dio – Roman History

Chambers, James – The Devil’s Horsemen: The Mongol Invasion of Europe (2001)

Discover Magazine, August 5th, 2010 – 1 in 200 Men are Direct Descendants of Genghis Khan

Encyclopedia Britannica – Carbon Sink

Encyclopedia Britannica – Peter the Great

Gonick, Larry – The Cartoon History of the Universe: Volumes 1 – 7, From the Big Bang to Alexander the Great (1990)

Gonick, Larry – The Cartoon History of the Universe, Volume II (1994)

Grey, Ian – Peter the Great, Emperor of All Russia (1960)

Hildinger, Erik – Warriors of the Steppe: Military History of Central Asia, 500 BC to 1700 AD (1997)

History Collection – These Leaders Were Accused of Abusing Their Power

Holland, Tom – Rubicon: The Triumph and Tragedy of the Roman Republic (2004)

Holocene, The, July, 2011, 21(5) – Coupled Climate-Carbon Simulations Indicate Minor Global Effects of Wars and Epidemics on Atmospheric CO2 Between AD 800 and 1850

Kitchen, Kenneth – Pharaoh Triumphant: The Life and Times of Ramesses II, King of Egypt (1983)

Lamb, Harold – Tamerlane: The Earth Shaker (1929)

Leach, John – Pompey the Great (1978)

Live Science – Mongol Invasion in 1200 Altered Carbon Dioxide Levels

Manz, Beatrice Forbes – The Rise and Rule of Tamerlane (1999)

Marozzi, Justin – Tamerlane: Sword of Islam, Conqueror of the World (2006)

Massie, Robert K. – Peter the Great: His Life and World (1980)

Monga Bay – How Genghis Khan Cooled the Planet

Pritchard, James B., Editor – The Ancient Near East, Volume I: An Anthology of Texts and Pictures (1973)

Saunders, John Joseph – The History of the Mongol Conquests (2001)

Sima Qian – Records of the Grand Historian, Volume 8

Suetonius – The Lives of the Twelve Caesars, Book II, Augustus

Whiting, Marvin C. – Imperial Chinese Military History, 800 BC – 1912 AD (2002)

Woods, John E. – The Timurid Dynasty (1990)

World History Encyclopedia – Sargon of Akkad

World History Encyclopedia – The Legend of Sargon of Akkad