The Greatest Commanders and Warriors From Antiquity

The Greatest Commanders and Warriors From Antiquity

Khalid Elhassan - January 29, 2021

The question of who was the ancient world’s greatest warrior usually boils down to a debate between Alexander the Great and Julius Caesar. For example, Alexander the Great changed history in more ways than many people realize. Although he was king of ancient Macedonia for less than 13 years, Alexander the Great influenced history in an irrevocable way. To list a few reasons for his renown, he was one of the world’s greatest military generals, he created a vast empire that stretched from Macedonia to Egypt and from Greece to part of India. This allowed for Hellenistic culture to become widespread.

The Hellenistic cities that resulted from Alexander’s conquests were significant because they often became major cities in their respective regions, they served to spread Greek culture throughout the Hellenic realms, and they served as places where culture could develop. While Alexander the Great impacted the ancient and modern world, there are many more warriors and military leaders from antiquity that do not get enough credit for their power and influence. Following are thirty things about some such remarkable warriors from ancient cultures.

The Greatest Commanders and Warriors From Antiquity
Feet like these inspired Shelley’s poem. Pintrest

30. The warrior Pharaoh who fought history’s first battle of whose tactical details and formations are known.

“I met a traveler 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

The Greatest Commanders and Warriors From Antiquity
A relief from circa 1250 BC, depicting Ramesses II capturing enemies: a Nubian, a Libyan, and a Syrian. Cairo Museum

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. 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.

The Greatest Commanders and Warriors From Antiquity
Bust of Ramesses II. Wikimedia

29. The Great Ramesses’ greatest battle

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, with up to 6000 chariots taking part. It 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, and spent years gathering up a powerful army and building up supply depots.

The Greatest Commanders and Warriors From Antiquity
Ramesses II depicted slaying one enemy and trampling another at the Battle of Kadesh. Wikimedia

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. Upon hearing 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.

The Greatest Commanders and Warriors From Antiquity
Ramesses II at the Battle of Kadesh. Egypt Cleopatra Tours

28. The warrior Pharaoh who snatched victory from the jaws of defeat

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, leaving the rest of his army behind. As Ramesses advanced, the Hittites circled around the city, keeping Kadesh between themselves and the Egyptians. While Ramesses and the Division of Amon made camp, the Division of Re straggled up 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.

The Greatest Commanders and Warriors From Antiquity
The mummified head of Ramesses II, and a forensic rendering of how he probably looked in like. Historica Leva

Ramesses gathered his personal guards, and led a desperate charge that drove some Hittite leaders into the river. Fortunately, 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 detailing the engagement and describing himself as “Ramesses, the Great, Conqueror of the Hittites” – which is how we know so much about the battle.

The Greatest Commanders and Warriors From Antiquity
Thutmose III. Wikimedia

27. The warrior Pharaoh who fought history’s earliest battle for which reliable details are available

Two centuries before Ramesses II established his reputation as ancient Egypt’s greatest warrior, there was Pharaoh Thutmose III. His best-known fight engagement was the Battle of Megiddo, in 1457 BC. It is the earliest recorded battle for which reliable details exist. It took place between an Egyptian army led by Pharaoh Thutmose III, and a coalition of rebellious Canaanite states seeking to free themselves of vassalage to Egypt. The rebellion was centered in the city of Megiddo, an important hub at the southern edge of the Jezreel Valley, astride the main trade route between Mesopotamia and Egypt.

The Greatest Commanders and Warriors From Antiquity
The approach routes to Megiddo. Bas Library

Thutmose advanced from Egypt at the head of a strong army to Yaham. From there, he had the choice of three routes: a southern one via Taanach, a northern route via Yoqneam, and a central one via Aruna that would take him straight to Megiddo (see map above). The southern and northern routes were longer, but safer. The central route was quicker but risky, requiring passage through narrow ravines in which an army would have to advance single file, vulnerable to being bottled up front and rear.

The Greatest Commanders and Warriors From Antiquity
Thutmose III at the Battle of Megiddo. War History Online

26. Thutmose won a decisive victory by calling his enemy’s bluff

Thutmose III realized that the central route to Megiddo through Aruna was so obviously dangerous that no reasonable commander would risk his army in its ravines. He also reasoned that the rebels would leave it unguarded because they would not expect the Egyptians to court disaster by running such an obvious risk. Thutmose was a warrior who was not above risk-taking, so he took a gamble and took the central route. It was unguarded, and the Egyptians arrived at Megiddo sooner than expected.

The Greatest Commanders and Warriors From Antiquity
The Battle of Megiddo. Egypt Tours Portal

Thutmose’s sudden arrival caught the Canaanites flat-footed. In the ensuing Battle of Megiddo, Thutmose won a decisive victory that secured Egyptian hegemony over the region for centuries. 3375 years later, in World War I, British General Allenby, an avid student of ancient history, faced the same choice as Thutmose. Allenby led a British army advancing from the south, against Ottomans and Germans entrenched in the Jezreel Valley. He stole a march upon them and burst unexpectedly in front of Megiddo with an advance through the central route via Aruna.

The Greatest Commanders and Warriors From Antiquity
Epaminondas defending Pelopidas. Ancient World Magazine.

25. The Theban Warrior who faced Ancient Greece’s most formidable military power

War broke out between the Greek city states of Thebes and Sparta in 378 BC, and the Thebans, led by Epaminondas (died 362 BC) had their work cut out for them. Back then, Greek city states, except for Sparta, staffed their phalanxes with citizen-soldiers – civilians who temporarily took up arms during wartime. By contrast, Sparta’s citizens were professional soldiers who began training at age seven in a brutal military academy, and spent the rest of their lives readying for war.

Sparta could afford that because of massive slavery. It conquered its Messenian neighbors in the eighth century BC, then turned the entire Messenian population into state slaves, known as Helots. To control the Helots, who outnumbered the Spartans ten to one, Sparta became a militarized state and society. It also became a police state, with secret police known as the Krypteia, to terrorize the Helots and kill any who seemed restive or showed leadership potential. It was lebensraum writ small – the Nazis drew upon Sparta when drawing their plans for conquering Eastern Europe and enslaving the locals.

The Greatest Commanders and Warriors From Antiquity
The Spartans were ancient Greece’s most feared warriors. Imgur

24. Epaminondas deliberately went against the Spartans’ strongest unit

Sparta’s military structure produced an elite phalanx that was unmatched in discipline and toughness. By the fourth century BC, Sparta was Greece’s leading power, and the Spartan phalanx was one that nobody wanted a piece of. That is, until Epaminondas showed up, and broke the spell of Spartan invincibility by breaking the Spartans at the Battle of Leuctra in 371 BC. There, Epaminondas led a Theban army of 7000 hoplites, plus 600 cavalry, against a bigger Spartan army of 10,000 hoplites, plus 1000 cavalry.

The Theban elite was a unit of 300 warriors known as The Sacred Band, comprised of 150 pairs of homosexual lovers. The Spartan elite was a unit of 1000 full Spartan citizens, trained for war since childhood. Greeks usually placed their best troops at the right side of their line. Thus, it was rare for the best troops of both armies to come into contact with each other. Epaminondas changed that by putting his best troops on the left side of his line, directly opposite the Spartans. Then he demonstrated his prowess as a creative warrior with two innovations that revolutionized warfare.

The Greatest Commanders and Warriors From Antiquity
The Battle of Leuctra. Ancient History Encyclopedia

23. The Warrior who broke Sparta’s back, and destroyed Spartan hegemony

Epaminondas’s first revolutionary innovation was to depart from the norm of lines of a uniform depth – usually 8 to 12 men deep. Instead, he stacked the left side of his line 50 deep, by thinning the rest of his line. That is, he concentrated force at the decisive point. Second, instead of advancing in line abreast, Epaminondas echeloned his army so that his powerful left was the first to reach the enemy, and his right was the last. The Spartan right, stacked twelve deep, shattered upon impact with Epaminondas’ fifty deep left.

The Spartans lost 1000 men, including 400 elite citizens, plus the Spartan King Cleombrotus I. The myth of Spartan invincibility never recovered. Epaminondas then invaded Sparta and freed the Helots, who formed an independent state. Since its society and economy depended on slave labor, Sparta was forever after reduced to minor player status. Epaminondas died in 362 BC, killed while dealing Sparta another crushing defeat. His innovations formed the bedrock of King Phillip II of Macedon’s military principles, and those of his son, Alexander the Great.

The Greatest Commanders and Warriors From Antiquity
Miltiades. Wikimedia

22. The Warrior who saved Ancient Athens from the Persians

When talking about ingratitude, few historic polities can rival ancient Athens, which was notorious for screwing over her heroes. Miltiades (550 – 489 BC) was one of the earliest examples of that unfortunate tendency. He was a formidable warrior and general best known for his victory at the Battle of Marathon in 490 BC, which took place a decade before the events depicted in the movie 300. It was an upset win against a numerically superior force, which saved Athens from Persian conquest.

Miltiades was born into a wealthy Athenian aristocratic family. So wealthy that it owned a private kingdom in the Chersonese (today’s Gallipoli Peninsula), which Miltiades inherited in 516 BC. When Persia’s King Darius I invaded the Chersonese in 513 BC, Miltiades surrendered and became a Persian vassal. In 499 BC, the Ionian Greeks of Asia Minor revolted against Persian rule. Miltiades marched against the rebels, but secretly supported their cause and helped funnel them aid from Athens. That set in motion a chain of events that led to the Battle of Marathon.

The Greatest Commanders and Warriors From Antiquity
‘Helmet of Miltiades’, given by him as an offering to the Temple of Zeus at Olympia. Touch of Modern

21. The underhanded machinations of Miltiades triggered a war between Persia and Athens

Athens sent an expeditionary force to help the Ionian Greeks’ uprising against Persia. The Athenians joined the rebels in marching to the Persian governor’s seat in Sardis, which was put to the torch. The Persians eventually crushed the revolt in 495 BC, and discovered Miltiades’ betrayal. He fled to Athens, where he was elected one of its ten generals. The Persians determined to punish Athens for aiding the Ionians, and sent a punitive expedition which landed on the plain of Marathon north of Athens, in 490 BC. It numbered at least 25,000 infantry, 1000 cavalry, and thousands of archers.

The Athenians marched out with about 10,000 hoplites – armored heavy infantry – with no cavalry or archers. The Athenians, who had ten generals and a rotating command with each general in charge for a day, wavered. For over a week, they simply watched the Persians from heights overlooking Marathon, until Miltiades’ turn to take command. He convinced a closely divided war council to give battle. Descending from the heights, Miltiades assembled the army with reinforced flanks and a weakened center, and advanced. Once they got within Persian archery range, Miltiades ordered his men to charge at a full run.

The Greatest Commanders and Warriors From Antiquity
The Battle of Marathon. Ancient History Encyclopedia

20. Within a year of saving Athens, this warrior would die in an Athenian jail

The heavily armed and armored Athenian hoplites under Miltiades’ command rapidly closed the distance to their enemy, and smashed into the more lightly armed Persians. The Athenians’ reinforced flanks pushed back their opposition, which transformed the Persian line into a bulge surrounded on three sides by Miltiades’ men. The Athenians in the reinforced flanks then wheeled inwards to attack the Persian center, which panicked, broke, and fled in a rout to their beached ships. It was a stunning victory, with the Athenians and their allies losing about 200 dead to the Persians’ 6400.

The Greatest Commanders and Warriors From Antiquity
The Battle of Marathon. Realm of History

Miltiades returned to Athens in glory, but it did not last. The following year, he led a strong expedition against some Greek islands that had supported the Persians, but bungled it badly, and suffered a severe leg wound. The defeat of such a warrior of renown seemed so absurd to the Athenians, that they figured only deliberate treachery could explain it. His fellow citizens, whom he had so recently saved, tried him on treason charges. He was convicted and sentenced to death, but the sentence was commuted to a heavy fine. He was sent to prison, where he died when his leg wound became infected.

The Greatest Commanders and Warriors From Antiquity
Themistocles. Flickr

19. Themistocles was another warrior who saved Ancient Athens, only to be rewarded with ingratitude

Miltiades was not the only warrior to save Ancient Athens, only to be rewarded with ingratitude. Another Athenian hero screwed over by his country was Themistocles (524 – 460 BC). He was a brilliant politician and admiral, whose strategy saved Athens and Greece from Persian subjugation with a victory at the Battle of Salamis in 480 BC. Born to an aristocratic father and a non-Greek concubine, Themistocles was ineligible for Athenian citizenship, until democratic reforms made all free men in Athens citizens. As a result, Themistocles became a lifelong champion of democracy.

After Miltiades had secured victory for Athens over the Persians at the Battle of Marathon in 490 BC, most Athenians thought the danger had passed, but not Themistocles. In the 480s BC, Athens’ state-owned silver mines struck a rich vein, and many Athenians wanted to divide the windfall among the citizens. Themistocles, convinced that the Persians would return, called for investing the new riches on warships. That set the stage for a showdown between the champions of democracy and its opponents.

The Greatest Commanders and Warriors From Antiquity
Broken bits of ancient Athenian pottery, or ostra, with the names candidates for ostracism. Grethexis

18. Themistocles got rid of the opposition by exiling opponents

There was strong opposition to Themistocles’ plan to invest Athens’ resources – especially the newly discovered silver – in warships. A strong navy meant higher taxes, borne mostly by the rich. Simultaneously, it would enhance the political clout of the poorer classes who would row those ships. A land strategy based on hoplites, such as those who had won at Marathon, would cost less. It also would secure the monopoly of the middle and upper classes – the only ones who could afford to equip themselves as hoplites – on the prestige of being Athens’ sole armed protectors.

Themistocles got rid of the opposition by literally getting rid of it. Athens had a process called ostracism, whereby the citizens could vote each year to exile one man for ten years. So Themistocles engineered the ostracism and banishment of his chief opponents, then won the Athenian Assembly’s approval for his ship-building program. By 480 BC, when the Persians launched a massive invasion of Greece, Athens had over 200 triremes – as many as the rest of Greece combined. The city also had a booming ship-building industry, and her shipyards were kept constantly busy, churning out new warships.

The Greatest Commanders and Warriors From Antiquity
Triremes in action. Weapons and Warfare

17. Themistocles had to browbeat his allies into standing up to fight

In 480 BC, the Persians under King Xerxes overcame a Spartan force at Thermopylae, then advanced on Athens. Many Athenians wanted to fight the Persian army, but Themistocles convinced them it would be futile. Supported by a vague prophecy from the Oracle of Delphi, whom Themistocles bribed, he argued that Athens should put its faith not in the city walls, but in her “wooden walls” – Athens’ ships. Thus, when the Persians arrived, they found a nearly deserted Athens, whose citizens had been evacuated to the nearby island of Salamis. Seizing Athens, the Persians razed its walls, and put the city to the torch.

The Persians then assembled their navy of about 600 to 800 warships on the beaches south of Athens, near the island of Salamis to the west. An allied Greek navy of about 375 warships, mostly Athenian, awaited them, guarding the eastern entrance of a strait separating Salamis from the Greek mainland. The Greek navy was under the nominal command of the Spartan Eurybiades, but in practice, its true commander was the Athenian Themistocles. Athens’ Greek allies wavered, and called for a retreat from Salamis. Themistocles convinced them to stay by threatening that the Athenians would defect to the Persians if the allies refused to fight.

The Greatest Commanders and Warriors From Antiquity
King Xerxes. National Museum of Iran

16. A wily warrior who forced his reluctant allies to fight

As it became clear that the commitment of Athens’ Greek allies was shaky, Themistocles decided to force a battle as soon as possible. So he sent king Xerxes a secret message, claiming friendship, and informing him that the Greeks were demoralized. To bag them, Themistocles advised, the Persians should send a naval detachment to block the western exit of the strait, then attack from the east. The bottled-up Greeks would then either surrender, or put up a poor show. Either way, Xerxes would emerge victorious.

The Greatest Commanders and Warriors From Antiquity
The Persians commenced the Battle of Salamis by bottling up the Greek fleet. Circle of Ancient Iranian Studies

Xerxes followed Themistocles’ advice, and the Greeks went into a panic upon awaking the next day to discover that the Persians had bottled them up in the strait. Themistocles calmed them down, and devised a plan whereby the Greeks retreated far up into the narrows. The Persians fought a battle with their ships on an east-west line facing Salamis. That would have allowed them to attack the Greeks on a broad front, and take advantage of their numerical superiority to overlap and envelop their foes. Themistocles demonstrated his chops as a warrior with a counterplan that thwarted the Persians, then crushed them.

The Greatest Commanders and Warriors From Antiquity
The Battle of Salamis. Encyclopedia Britannica

15. Themistocles turned his enemy’s numerical advantage into a disadvantage

Themistocles drew the Persians into a battle whose lines ran north-south, along the Strait of Salamis’ narrow width. That negated the Persian numerical superiority at the point of contact. It also drew the maximum number of Persian ships into restricted waters. By getting the Persians to cram their huge navy into a tight space, Themistocles turned the Persians’ numerical advantage into a disadvantage. Persian ships found themselves packed in an ever tighter space, fouling each other and unable to properly maneuver. Simultaneously, more and more Persian captains, eager to impress Xerxes who was watching the battle from a nearby hilltop, rushed in, adding their ships to the growing jam.

The Greatest Commanders and Warriors From Antiquity
The Battle of Salamis. Warfare History Network

To add to the Persians’ woes, the waters off Salamis were tricky, and while the Greeks knew their secrets, the Persians did not. All those factors combined to bring about a decisive Greek victory, in which the Greeks lost about 40 ships, while the Persians lost about 300. Casualties were even more lopsided than the ship losses, as many Greeks who ended up in the water swam to the safety of nearby Salamis. Persians, by contrast, were either shot by arrows as they neared Salamis, or were slaughtered as soon as they reached shore.

The Greatest Commanders and Warriors From Antiquity
The Battle of Salamis. Andrew Howat

14. The warrior who won history’s most consequential battle

No other battle in history, had it gone the other way, would have resulted in as radically different a world as would have occurred if the Greeks had lost the Battle of Salamis. Western history is rooted in Greek civilization, especially Athens’ contribution to that civilization. The height of Athenian culture and civilization, featuring an explosion in the arts, literature, philosophy, and democracy, occurred in the decades following the victory at Salamis. If the Greeks had lost, Greece would have become a Persian satrapy. There would have been no independent Hellenic civilization to eventually seed that of the West.

The Greatest Commanders and Warriors From Antiquity
The Battle of Salamis. Ancient Pages

Instead of drawing upon Greek civilization, Western history might have become an extension of Persian civilization and culture. The ripple effects might have included no Christianity as a major religion. Christianity only became a world religion after it escaped its Jewish roots, and fused the teachings of Jesus with the Hellenism of the Roman East. A knock-on effect of that would have been no Islam as a major religion. There had been a significant Christian presence in Arabia for centuries before Islam, exerting considerable influence upon the locals. Indeed, many viewed Islam in its earliest days as just another Christian heresy, because of the significant overlap between it and Christianity.

The Greatest Commanders and Warriors From Antiquity
Themistocles being honored at Sparta after the Battle of Salamis. Dissolve

13. Despite saving Athens, the Athenians ostracized and exiled this warrior

The Battle of Salamis, engineered by Themistocles, was the decisive Greek victory that turned the war around and saved the Greek mainland from the Persians. Persia’s King Xerxes, who until then had personally commanded the campaign, hurriedly took ship and returned home. However, there was still some mopping up left to do. King Xerxes left behind a formidable army under a relative to continue the campaign, but it was defeated and destroyed the following year at the Battle of Plataea.

The Greatest Commanders and Warriors From Antiquity
Athenians rebuilding their city walls under the direction of Themistocles. Hutchinson’s History of the Nations

When the Athenians returned to their destroyed city, their Spartan allies asked them not to rebuild the city’s walls as a sign of good faith. Themistocles led a delegation to Sparta to negotiate and dragged out the negotiations while the Athenians feverishly rebuilt their walls. By the time the Spartans caught on, the walls had already been erected. Afterward, Themistocles’ political fortunes declined. Despite having saved Athens, his city screwed him over. Not given to gratitude for long, the Athenians ostracized and exiled him some years after Salamis. Nimbly, he went to Persia, and ended his days governing some Greek cities in Asia Minor on behalf of the Persian king.

The Greatest Commanders and Warriors From Antiquity
Bust now believed to be of Scipio Africanus, formerly identified as belonging to Sulla. Wikimedia

12. The Ancient warrior who beat Hannibal

Publius Cornelius Scipio Africanus (236 BC – 183 BC) got the “Africanus” honorific because of his military victories in Africa. A formidable warrior, he was one of the Roman Republic’s greatest generals and strategists, best known for his conquest of Carthage’s territories in Iberia during the Second Punic War (218 – 201 BC). He closed the war strong, capping it off by defeating Hannibal on his home turf at the Battle of Zama in 202 BC to end the conflict with a Roman victory.

Scipio’s first mention in the historic record dates to 218 BC, when he led a cavalry charge that saved his father, one of that year’s consuls, from encirclement by Carthaginians. He survived the disaster at Cannae two years later, when Hannibal nearly wiped out a Roman army 87,000 strong. Scipio was one of the few Roman officers to keep their wits about them and cut their way to safety with 10,000 men – the sole survivors, who formed the nucleus of a reconstituted Roman army.

The Greatest Commanders and Warriors From Antiquity
Hannibal Barca. Reddit

11. In his first campaign as a Commander, Scipio transformed the war’s strategic picture

In 211 BC, Scipio’s father and uncle were defeated and killed fighting Hannibal’s brother in Hispania. In elections for a new proconsul to lead an army to avenge that defeat, Scipio was the only Roman willing to seek the position, which others eschewed as a death sentence. Only 25 at the time, Scipio was underage to be elected a magistrate, so a special law was enacted to give him command. He opened the campaign and established his credentials as a warrior of note with a surprise attack in 209 BC, that captured New Carthage (modern Cartagena), the Carthaginian seat of power in Hispania.

Scipio’s capture of New Carthage changed the strategic picture and the course of the war. At a stroke, he secured ample supplies, as well as a great harbor and base for further operations. He then campaigned across Hispania, winning a series of victories. By 206 BC, he had wrested all of Hispania from the Carthaginians. Scipio then returned to Rome as its most successful general to date, and was elected consul in 205 BC. By then, Hannibal was isolated in southern Italy, cut off from supplies and reinforcements. Then Scipio transformed the war with another bold stroke.

The Greatest Commanders and Warriors From Antiquity
Scipio’s campaign in Africa. Wikimedia

10. This warrior saved Rome from its greatest peril to date, only to be rewarded with persecution and prosecutions

Instead of going after Hannibal in southern Italy, Scipio decided to go directly after Carthage. Dismissing the Carthaginian warrior and genius commander who had so tormented Rome, Scipio boldly took the war to the enemy’s homeland by invading North Africa in 204 BC. The Carthaginians recalled Hannibal from Italy to take command of their armies at home, setting the stage for a climactic showdown between Rome’s and Carthage’s greatest generals. It came at the Battle of Zama in 202 BC, in which Scipio won a complete victory that ended the Second Punic War.

The Greatest Commanders and Warriors From Antiquity
Bust of Scipio Africanus. Wikimedia

Scipio returned to Rome and a hero’s welcome. However, while he was widely celebrated and lionized by the general public, he was hated by fellow patricians. Jealous of his accomplishments, and resenting his high status as the Republic’s foremost warrior, Scipio’s enemies went about tearing him down. They persecuted him with trumped-up charges of treason, bribery, and general corruption in order to sully his reputation. The ingratitude left Scipio disillusioned and bitter, and led to his withdrawal from public life. He retired to his estates in Campania, where he remained until his death in 183 BC.

The Greatest Commanders and Warriors From Antiquity
Gaius Marius. Kooness

9. Before Julius Caesar, there was Gaius Marius

Before Julius Caesar secured his reputation as Ancient Rome’s most formidable military commander and most famous warrior, there was Gaius Marius (157 – 86 BC), a formidable warrior and a general who saved Rome from extinction. He was also a statesman who headed the populares, Rome’s political faction that leant towards the rising middle and lower classes. Marius was elected consul an unprecedented seven times, and was the first general to illustrate that political support and power could be secured from the votes of veterans.

Marius was not an aristocrat, but a plebeian from an equestrian or knightly family. He joined the Roman Republic’s political power structure as Novus homo, or “new man” – a term for those who were the first of their family to serve in the Senate. Marius owed his rise to his talents as a soldier against the backdrop of the Numidian War in North Africa, which was being bungled by incompetent aristocratic commanders. Marius rode the criticism of the war’s mishandling to get elected to his first consulship in 107 BC. He took command and swiftly secured victory.

The Greatest Commanders and Warriors From Antiquity
Pre-Marian legionaries. Pintrest

8. The Warrior who revolutionized the Roman Legions

Gaius Marius initiated revolutionary military changes that came to be known as the “Marian Reforms”. The Germanic Cimbri and Teuton tribes had crossed the Alps, entered southern Gaul, and threatened Italy. They wiped out two Roman armies sent to meet them – sending Rome and Italy, always fearful of barbarians since an invasion by Gauls had sacked Rome and devastated Italy in 387 BC, into a panic. To meet the crisis, Marius opened the ranks of the Roman legions, hitherto restricted to propertied citizens who could afford to arm and equip themselves, to all citizens.

The Greatest Commanders and Warriors From Antiquity
Legionaries after the Marian Reforms. Total War Center

Until then, Roman legionaries supplied their own arms and armor, and were not paid salaries. As a result, the legions were restricted to the financially comfortable. That kept out a vast manpower pool of Rome’s poor, whom Marius turned to and tapped to fill the Republic’s depleted military ranks. Instead of relying solely on those who could afford to equip themselves, Marius opened the legions to all Romans, including the poorest. Henceforth, the government would furnish legionaries with their weapons and armor, and pay them salaries.

The Greatest Commanders and Warriors From Antiquity
Gaius Marius meeting an ambassador of the Cimbri tribe. Plutarch’s Lives for Boys and Girls

7. Gaius Marius’ reforms had unforeseen effects that transformed Rome

An unforeseen knock-on effect of Gaius Marius’ military reforms was the way in which they transformed the character of the Roman army. Until then, the Roman Republic’s military had been a middle-class and patrician institution of unpaid amateurs. The Marian Reforms transformed it into a professional army for whose legionaries’ military service became a career. They came to look to their generals, not the government in Rome, for rewards during service, and for severance pay and retirement benefits upon their discharge.

Marius’ reforms and his competence as a warrior and general enabled him to win the war against Numidia. They also allowed him to raise and train an army that crushed the Germanic Cimbri and Teutons, and removed their threat to Rome by 101 BC. That made Marius Rome’s most popular politician. By 100 BC, he had been elected consul six times. With the barbarian threat removed, however, Marius’ limitations as a politician, which had been masked by his brilliance as a warrior, emerged. With the emergency over, Marius’ political star dimmed as Rome’s traditional power brokers reasserted themselves.

The Greatest Commanders and Warriors From Antiquity
An exiled Gaius Marius in Carthage, after he was chased out of Rome by Sulla. Wikimedia

6. The decline of a formidable warrior

In 91 BC, the Social War between Rome and her Italian allies broke out. Marius was recalled to service, but had to quit because of poor health. Sulla, a former subordinate, prosecuted the war to a successful conclusion. The rise of Sulla’s star while that of Marius fell led to friction and jealousy. It broke into the open in 88 BC. That year, Sulla was elected consul, and was appointed by the Senate to command a war against Pontus. Marius got a tribune to call a popular assembly that overrode the Senate and gave command to Marius, instead. That was technically legal, but highly unusual and controversial.

Sulla surprised Marius and everybody by marching on Rome – a first in Roman history – and forcing Marius and his supporters to flee. Sulla entered Rome, where he got the Senate to pass a death sentence against the Marians, then marched off to the war against Pontus in 87 BC. When he left, Marius, who by then had raised an army in North Africa, returned to Rome. He executed about a dozen leading Sullans, and displayed their heads on pikes in the Forum. Marius was then elected consul for a seventh time, but died just 17 days into his term, in 86 BC.

The Greatest Commanders and Warriors From Antiquity
Bust of Pompey. Louvre Museum

5. The Great Roman Warrior eclipsed by Julius Caesar

Gnaeus Pompeius Magnus, better known as Pompey or Pompey the Great (106 – 48 BC), was one of the greatest statesmen and generals of the Roman Republic’s final decades. Pompey was first Julius Caesar’s son-in-law and partner in the First Triumvirate that divided up and ruled Rome, then his rival, and finally his enemy. His career, as well as the ups and downs of his relationship with Caesar, were pivotal in the transformation of the Roman Republic into the Roman Empire.

The Greatest Commanders and Warriors From Antiquity
Julius Caesar. Encyclopedia Britannica

Pompey was born into a family that had only recently joined the senatorial ranks. However, it was a powerful and incredibly wealthy family, with vast holdings in Picenum in central Italy. Pompey’s father, who had a reputation for double-dealing, greed, and ruthlessness, was a general who became consul in 89 BC. An ally of Sulla, he was killed during the civil war against the Marians in 87 BC. As a result, a then-nineteen-year-old Pompey inherited his father’s vast wealth and, more importantly, his legions.

The Greatest Commanders and Warriors From Antiquity
Romans under Pompey’s command taking out a pirates’ nest in Cilicia. Weapons and Warfare

4. Pompey secured the Mediterranean for Rome

When Sulla returned to Italy from the war against Pontus, Pompey joined him with three legions to march on and seize of Rome. Sulla then sent him to recapture Sicily and Africa from the Marians, which he accomplished in two lightning campaigns by 81 BC. Pompey then executed the captured Marians and was named Magnus, or “the Great” by his troops. After Sulla’s retirement, Pompey menaced the Senate into appointing him commander of the war against the final Marian remnants in Hispania, which he eventually won after considerable effort by 71 BC.

The Greatest Commanders and Warriors From Antiquity
Marble bust of Pompey the Great, dated circa 50 BC. Pintrest

Pompey returned to Italy with his army, ostensibly to help put down Spartacus’ slave revolt, but in reality to guarantee his election to the consulship in 70 BC. In 67 BC, he was given authority throughout the Mediterranean to settle a piracy problem that had grown out of control. He did so in a brilliant campaign that lasted only three months. Pompey was then appointed to command a war against Pontus, and was granted authority to settle the entire Eastern Mediterranean. He accomplished that by annexing some kingdoms into the Roman Republic, and reducing others to client states.

The Greatest Commanders and Warriors From Antiquity
The rump of Judea, in blue, circa 63 BC, having been reduced to a small vassal state after Pompey annexed the north, in red, to Rome. Wikimedia

3. Pompey and Caesar were allies, before they fell out

Pompey’s settlement of the Eastern Mediterranean’s affairs was his greatest achievement. With few modifications, it lasted for over 500 years. He returned to Italy in 62 BC with a reputation as Rome’s greatest warrior and general. Pompey sought land upon which to settle his veterans, and legislation to ratify his settlement of the east. However, he was thwarted by political chaos in Rome. Pompey finally accomplished his goals after forming a Triumvirate with Julius Caesar and Marcus Licinius Crassus to divide Rome’s power amongst themselves, sealing the deal by marrying Caesar’s daughter.

The Greatest Commanders and Warriors From Antiquity
The murder of Pompey the Great. The Ancients

After Crassus died in 53 BC, followed by Pompey’s wife and Caesar’s daughter soon thereafter, the remaining Triumvirs drifted apart, and finally went to war in 49 BC. Caesar invaded Italy that year, forcing Pompey and the conservative optimates to flee 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. Caesar proved greater, and Pompey’s army was crushed. Fleeing, he sailed to Egypt, where he was inveigled to come ashore, only to get assassinated and have his head chopped off as soon as his feet touched Egyptian soil.

The Greatest Commanders and Warriors From Antiquity
Flavius Aetius. Warfare History Network

2. The Last Great Roman Warrior

Flavius Aetius (391 – 454) was the last great general and warrior of the Western Roman Empire. Born into a military family, he spent part of his youth as a hostage of the barbarian Visigoths, and later the Huns. Living amongst the barbarians gave Aetius valuable insider knowledge and insights, which came in handy later as he fought to prevent Attila the Hun from overrunning Western Europe. Attila ruled a multi-tribal empire dominated by the Huns, that spanned Eastern and Central Europe. During his reign, 434-453, he earned the moniker “The Scourge of God” for his depredations.

The Greatest Commanders and Warriors From Antiquity
‘Attila the Scourge of God’, by Upiano Checa, 1887, depicting the Huns’ invasion of Italy. Pintrest

Attila terrified the civilized world, invaded Persia, terrorized the Eastern and Western Roman Empires, plundered the Balkans, and extorted vast sums of gold from the Romans. He crossed the Danube in 440, plundered the Balkans, and destroyed two Roman armies. The Roman emperor admitted defeat, and Attila extorted from him a treaty that paid 2000 kilograms of gold up front, plus an annual tribute of 700 kilograms of gold each year. In 447, Attila returned to the Balkans, which he ravaged until he reached the walls of Constantinople, before recoiling.

The Greatest Commanders and Warriors From Antiquity
Huns at the Battle of the Catalaunian Fields, by Alphonse de Neuville. Wikimedia

1. As a reward for Saving Rome, Aetius was murdered by his Emperor

In 450, the Western Roman Emperor’s sister sought to escape a betrothal to an old aristocrat whom she disliked. So she begged Attila’s help, and sent him her engagement ring. Attila interpreted that as a marriage proposal, accepted, and asked for half of the Western Roman Empire as dowry. When the Romans balked, Attila invaded, visiting his usual depredations. Aetius was put in charge of organizing the resistance. By then, the Western Roman Empire was a shell of its former self, and lacked the military means to stand up to the Huns on its own. So Aetius formed an alliance with the barbarian Visigoths.

The Greatest Commanders and Warriors From Antiquity
Flavius Aetius. Wikimedia

Aetius promised the Visigoths a homeland in southwestern France in exchange for fighting off the Huns alongside the Romans. At the climactic battle of the Catalaunian Plains in 451, Aetius and the Visigoths defeated Attila and beat back his invasion. Aetius’ success aroused the jealousy of the Western Roman Emperor Valentinian III, who felt intimidated by his formidable general. On September 21st, 454, Aetius was delivering a report to the emperor when Valentinian leaped up from his throne, and out of the blue, accused the general of drunken depravities. Then, before the startled Aetius knew what was happening, the emperor and a co-conspirator hacked the general to death with a sword.


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

Ancient History Encyclopedia – Epaminondas

Ancient History Encyclopedia – Miltiades

Ancient Warfare – The Battle of Salamis

Appian – The Civil Wars, Book II

Appian – The Spanish Wars, Book XII

Encyclopedia Britannica – Aetius

Encyclopedia Britannica – Scipio Africanus

Evans, Richard J. ­- Gaius Marius: A Political Biography (1994)

Herodotus – The Histories, Books VI, VII, VIII

Hildinger, Erik – Swords Against the Senate: The Rise of the Roman Army and the Fall of the Republic (2002)

Holland, Tom – Persian Fire (2005)

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

Julius Caesar – The Civil War

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

Leach, John – Pompey the Great (1978)

Livy – History of Rome, Books XXVI, XXVIII, XXIX

Plutarch – Parallel Lives: Marius

Redford, Donald B. – The Wars in Syria and Palestine of Thutmose III

Strauss, Barry – The Battle of Salamis: The Naval Encounter That Saved Greece and Western Civilization (2004)

Tyldesley, Joyce – Ramesses: Egypt’s Greatest Pharaoh (20001

Wikipedia – Battle of Megiddo (15th Century BC)

Wikipedia – Epaminondas

Wikipedia – Pompey