“Centuries before Alexander the Great was even born, powerful warlords were writing their own pages in the annals of military history.”
ALEXANDER THE GREAT was just 32 when he died. The Macedonian conqueror breathed his last on June 10, 323 BCE in a Babylonian palace that once belonged to Nebuchadnezzar II. Although historians disagree on the cause of death (was it binge drinking, typhoid, malaria, poison?) all agree that he was one of finest, if not the best, military commander in history. Over the span of roughly a decade, Alexander led his army of Greek phalanxes and his elite Companion cavalry on an epic odyssey through what is now Turkey, Egypt, Syria, Iraq, Iran, Afghanistan and Pakistan. During that time, he fought and won 10 major battles bringing the centuries-old Persian Empire to its knees.
Undefeated, Alexander was poised to push into India, but called off the invasion of the subcontinent after his war-weary army refused to march any farther. By the time of his death, he’d carved out an empire that stretched from the Mediterranean to the Indus River – an area spanning two million square miles. But within 20 short years, the late ruler’s hard-won kingdom had splintered into a series of squabbling factions headed by an assortment of his own generals and advisors. Impressive as his feats remain, Alexander was by no means the world’s first great conqueror. Centuries before the Macedonian emperor was even born, powerful warlords were writing their own pages in the annals of military history.
Hamilcar I (510 BCE to 480 BCE)
While Hamilcar I of Carthage may not be as well-known as Hannibal, the greatest Punic commander of all time, the 6th Century ruler did oversee the transformation of his burgeoning Phoenician city state into a powerful commercial and military power. Having secured lands from modern day Morocco to eastern Libya, Hamilcar set his sights on the strategically vital island of Sicily, which at the time was being colonized by Greeks. In 480 BCE, the Punic ruler amassed a massive army of 50,000 men and sailed against Syracuse, the ruler of which, Gelo, was trying to unite other Greek settlements on Sicily against the Carthaginians. Interestingly, Hamilcar’s massive flotilla embarked on its expedition at the precise moment that the Persian emperor Xerxes was marching on Greece. Were the two powers in collusion? An intriguing idea, but one that lacks much supporting evidence. Storms battered the Punic fleet during its transit, and once ashore, things only got worse for the invaders. While advancing along the coast to Syracuse, the massive Carthaginian army was surprised and destroyed at Himera by a much smaller Greek force. In the ensuing melee, Hamilcar perished. Some sources report he was slaughtered when enemy cavalry attacked the Punic king’s camp; others say that the humiliated monarch threw himself onto a bonfire after watching his army scattered. Despite its defeat, Carthage would maintain its foothold on Sicily for years to come, but the defeat at Himera, which supposedly coincided with the decisive Greek victory over the Persians at Salamis and Sparta’s spirited defence of Thermopylae, stalled the empire’s designed on Sicily for decades.
Cyrus the Great (559–530 BC)
Two hundred years before Alexander, an obscure ruler from a the tiny city state of Anshan named Cyrus II would forge what would become known as the Achaemenid or First Persian Empire. He did so through a series of astonishing wars of conquest against the Medians, Lydians and even Babylonians between 559 BCE and 530 BCE, bringing, according to Herodotus, “every nation without exception into subjection.” Before his supposed death in battle against the Massageteans in modern day Central Asia, Cyrus had secured the largest empire the world had yet seen.
Its 2.2 million square miles stretched from Asia Minor to India. Surprisingly, Cyrus’ remarkable achievements weren’t just limited to the battlefield. Known as the “King of the Four Corners of the World,” Cyrus ruled over a remarkably multicultural empire, one that famously strove to incorporate the customs and practices of its diverse population. “There is no nation which so readily adopts foreign customs as the Persians,” Herodotus wrote. And Cyrus went beyond just simple tolerance of minorities. He actually codified his subjects’ human civil rights into law, creating perhaps the first charter of its kind in history.
Esarhaddon (681 BCE to 669 BCE)
For several centuries beginning around the 21st century BCE, the Assyrians held sway of much of what is now Iraq and Iran. But by the 9th century BCE, their once mighty empire was a mere shadow of its former glory. That all changed with the ascension of Esarhaddon. Setting out in 679 BCE to… ummm… make Assyria great again (largely at the expense of neighbouring tribes and kingdoms, the new ruler launched campaigns into southern Mesopotamia and later modern-day Turkey. Emboldened by his many victories, Esarhaddon next launched a daring foray against the formidable Egyptian empire. In 671 BCE, his army crossed the Sinai, defeated the forces of the pharaoh Taharqa and marched into the ancient Egyptian capital of Memphis. Declaring himself the ruler of the Nile, Esarhaddon set about plundering his new territory of its treasures. To celebrate his triumph, he commissioned a stele commemorating his total victory over the Egyptian ruler. “I carried off to Assyria his queen, his harem, his heir, Prince Ushankhuru, and the rest of his sons and daughters, his property and his goods, his horses, his cattle, his sheep in countless numbers,” the engraving boasted. Esarhaddon’s rule over Egypt would be short lived however. After leaving for his own capital of Nineveh to crackdown on his own scheming nobles, the deposed pharaoh’s subjects rose in rebellion against the occupiers. In 669 BCE, Esarhaddon personally commanded the re-conquest of Egypt, but died suddenly while on campaign. His son and heir Ashurbanipal crushed the insurrection and installed his own puppet pharaoh. The new Assyrian king would spend decades presiding over one of the ancient world’s most impressive empires. But by the time of Ashurbanipal’s death in 629 BCE, the realm was bankrupt and rife with discontent. Over the subsequent 10 years, internal strife and rebellions tore the empire to pieces.
Thutmose III (479 BCE to 1426 BCE)
Dubbed the “Napoleon of Ancient Egypt,” the pharaoh Thutmose III is remembered as the greatest military leader of the New Kingdom Era. Over a span of 20 years, Thutmose led at least 16 campaigns that pushed his empire’s boundaries into Syria in the north and Nubia in the south. His war chariots captured as many as 350 cities rolling over all opposition they encountered from the shores of the Mediterranean to banks of the Euphrates. Like Alexander the Great, Thutmose III never lost a battle. He died, likely of an illness, in 1425 BCE. He was 56. When not defeating his empire’s enemies in far off lands, ancient Egypt’s fighting pharaoh ordered the construction of more than 50 temples and countless monuments, including a trio of obelisks, erroneously dubbed Cleopatra’s Needles. These would be plundered from Egypt in the 19th century and re-erected in London, Paris and New York City respectively. All three still stand.
Sargon the Great (2340 BCE to 2284 BCE)
The first bona fide “emperor” in human history, Sargon the Great, was conquering Mesopotamia and the Levant nearly two thousand years before Alexander was even born. He began his meteoric rise to power in the 24th century BCE as a lowly cupbearer to the ruler of Kish, a Sumerian city state in present day Iraq. After the paranoid monarch there dreamt that his junior servant was plotting his overthrow, he ordered Sargon murdered. The young servant survived and in turn murdered the king, thus assuming the throne himself.
From there, Sargon kicked off a conquest of tribal lands of the fertile crescent using history’s first known professional army. Grain surpluses in his kingdom allowed Sargon to conscript, arm and feed a standing army of hundreds — something that no ruler before had been able to do. His formations of trained spearmen, all equipped with helmets and shields, were drawn up into phalanxes that could be supported by massed archers and rudimentary chariots. Together, Sargon’s army cowed all the tribes that opposed them. He ruled his Akkadian empire for nearly 50 years; his descendants presided over the vast realm for another century.