One of the most popular topics of discussion among historians (both amateur and professional) concerns what generals in history deserve to be ranked as “Great”; and of these, who was the greatest. The former is more easily determined than the latter. Here, for what it’s worth, is the Deadliest Blogger List (in order) of the 25 Greatest Commanders of the Ancient World in descending order:
25. Cimon of Athens
The Athenian admiral and general who led the Greek coalition to final victory over the Persians in the Persian War of the 5th century BC. He excelled at naval and amphibious combined arms operations; and laid the foundations for the Athenian Empire.
24. Pompey the Great
1st century BC Roman commander of great stature, who cleared the Mediterranean of pirate infestation; ended the civil war in Spain; achieved final victory in the Mithridatic War; and annexed the remnants of the Seleucid Kingdom into the Roman Empire. However, he was outmaneuvered by Sertorius in Spain; and lost outright to Caesar in the end. Both of which account for his low place on this list.
King of Assyria in the 8th century BC who campaigned endlessly throughout his reign. He expanded Assyrian rule into eastern Anatolia, campaigning in the very difficult regions of Armenia and Azerbaijan (terrain that proved nearly fatal to Antony centuries later). He was the warrior-king par-excellence.
The soldier emperor who expanded Rome’s frontiers to their greatest extent. He defeated the Dacians and Parthians in campaigns that were textbook; opponents who had proved fatal to earlier Roman commanders. Adopted as his heir by the aged and peaceful Nerva, Trajan annexed Nabataea and waged two campaigns to conquer Dacia. The fierce Dacians had defeated and humiliated the Romans during the reign of Domitian. Trajan’s strategy here, as in his later campaigns, was methodic and determined. After the conquest of Dacia, Trajan made war on the Parthians. He conquered Mesopotamia, creating a new province, and dragging his river fleet from the Euphrates to the Tigris marched down the river to the Parthian capital of Ctesiphon. This he captured, defeating the Parthians in battle.
Son of #20 and adopted grandson of #3 (who says talent is not hereditary??), he learned at the feet of Aemilius Paulus as a staff officer in the Third Macedonian War. In the late 2nd century BC, he was Rome’s go-to-guy; sent wherever other Roman commander’s had failed. Given command of Roman forces in Africa during the Third Punic War, he succeeded in capturing and destroying Carthage when previous commanders had been stymied. In Spain he quickly defeated the very dangerous and warlike Celt-Iberians of Numantia and captured their fortress. He was a worthy heir to his father and grandfather’s legacy of excellence.
The conqueror of Liguria and Macedonia, he commanded with a sure and calm hand. He was noted for his steadiness, and was able to repeatedly outmaneuver his opponents in both wars. He defeated the best Macedonian army to take the field since the age of Alexander and the Diadochi, and made it look easy!
19. Hamilcar Barca
The best Carthaginian commander of the First Punic War; after which he saved Carthage from destruction at the hands of her own rebellious mercenaries. His use of maneuver, ruse, and stratagem to gain tactical advantage presaged the battles of his even greater son; who no doubt learned much from his father. He went on to lead a Carthaginian army across Mauritania and into Spain; much of which he conquered for his native city, laying the foundations upon which Hannibal would base his power.
The ultimate soldier-emperor, renowned equally for his rapid and brilliant campaigns as for his personal valor. He delivered Gaul from barbarian occupation, defeating in rapid succession the Franks, Burgundians, and Lygians. Crossing the Rhine, he campaigned further east than any Roman general since the time of Augustus Caesar; reaching the Elbe River. He next warred in Anatolia against a Roman rebel, defeating other Roman armies; concluding the campaign by bringing to heal the difficult and warlike Isaurian mountain tribes. Returning to Gaul, he defeated rebellious legates he had left in command there. He brought peace to the empire for the first time in a century. He was one of those gifted Illyrian soldier-emperors who saved the empire from dissolution in the 3rd century.
This bold and intrepid commander was first Sulla’s legate, commanding the Roman fleet during the latter’s Greece campaign. He defeated the Pontic Fleet in battle; then took over from Sulla and continued the Mithridatic War on land. He bested first the Pontians and then the Armenians (at the height of their power and prestige) in battle, repeatedly. His tactics were aggressive and innovative, and were studied by later generations of Roman generals. He marched his army further east than any commander before him.
He first made his mark as the “man who captured Jurgurtha”, king of the Numidians during the eponymous war bearing his name. Sulla went on to success as a legate under Marius against the Germans; then with an independent command during Rome’s Social War against its own Italian Allies. He commanded Roman forces against Mithridates of Pontus in Greece; where his innovative battle tactics (making the first known use of field works in an open-field battle in Roman history) overcame much greater numbers.
Another of the Illyrian soldier-emperors, he earned his title of “Restorer of the World”. His reign began with most of the empire overrun by enemies or rebels. He campaigned from the Nile to the Rhine, defeating the Goths in the Balkans, Palmyrans in Syria, rebels and invading Sudanese in Egypt, saved Italy and Rome from the Alemanni Germans, and recaptured Gaul and Britain from Roman rebels. He was a strict disciplinarian, and was referred to by contemporaries as “a centurion of genius”.
The Theban philosopher-general, he revolutionized Greek hoplite warfare and made Thebes the dominant military power in Greece during his lifetime. His tactical reforms led to a revitalized Theban army that was twice able to defeat Spartan armies in battle. He marched into the Peloponnese and liberated the helots. He then created two anti-Spartan states, Arcadia and Messenia and fortified their citadels to be the fetters of Laconia. Sparta never recovered its former position of power and prestige.
13. Thutmose III
Egypt’s greatest warrior Pharaoh, he campaigned further than any Egyptian leader before or after. He was known for his bold and aggressive strategic approach. His lightning marches gained him the initiative from his numerically superior enemies, and he used mobility, combined arms, and bold action to overcome all enemies.
Acclaimed emperor by his troops in Pannonia, he was faced with rivals in Syria and in Britain/Gaul. Closer to Italy than either, he forced march his army 800 miles in 40 days to take the capital; where he was proclaimed Emperor by the Senate. Negotiating a temporary truce with his rival in Britain, he attacked his enemy in the east; winning battles across Anatolia and into Syria, his final victory at Issues, scene of Alexander’s battle against Darius. Returning with his army to the west, he engaged and defeated his other rival as well. He was noted for his bold use of wide-flung cavalry sweeps, timed perfectly to arrive in the rear or flank of the opposing army in the midst of battle. Unlike many others on this list, he faced first-rate soldiers in all of his battles: the Roman legions of the high empire.
11. Seleucus Nicator
A giant in an age of giants, Seleucus served in Alexander’s campaigns; rising to high command. He was arguably the most successful of the so-called Diadochi (“Successors”). He fought but eventually came to agreement with Chandragupta Maurya, the great Indian leader; giving-up the Punjab in return for 500 war elephants. With these he helped defeat Antigonus One-Eyed (#9 on this list) at the battle of Ipsus, the greatest battle of the Successor Wars. He ended up with the largest portion of the former Persian Empire; before defeating another rival Diadoch, Lysimachus, at the Battle of Corupedion at the age of 79! At the time of his death, he was the titular ruler of all of Alexander’s Empire except Egypt.
10. Gaius Marius
The reformer who saved the Roman Republic from foreign invasion while forever changing the structure of its armies. He first came into prominence during the Jurgurthine War in North Africa; succeeding where other Roman commanders had failed. After the invading Cimbri-Teutones destroyed several Roman armies, he raised a new army drawn from the previously untapped Roman urban poor. These were organized in a new fashion (abandoning the maniple tactics of earlier times and going to a cohort-based system); and trained to a high-degree. He defeated the invaders in three battles; saving Italy. During the Social War, he served with distinction; before engaging in Rome’s first civil war against his former legate, Sulla.
The most successful of the Diadochi in the first 20 years of conflict following the death of Alexander, Antigonus Monophthalmus (“One-Eyed”) nearly reunited the dead conqueror’s vast empire under his leadership. He faced and defeated the equally brilliant Eumenes of Cardia, who led an army that included veterans of Alexander’s army. He was known for innovative tactics as well as audacious and rapid marches, even in the dead of winter; catching his foes unprepared. He was already old (nearly 60) when Alexander died, or might have achieved far more.
King of Assyria in the 8th century BC, he established the world’s first “modern” professional army; a combined arms force, armed with the most technologically advanced weapons of the age. He campaigned throughout his reign on all frontiers, expanding the Assyrian Empire in all directions. He assured Assyria’s continued dominance in the Middle East for the next century-and-a-half.
His military genius propelled the hitherto insignificant clans of the Persia to dominion; creating the greatest Middle Eastern-based empire of antiquity. He defeated the Medes and Babylonians (at the height of their power), incorporating the former as the second-people of the new empire. Marching further west than any previous Middle Eastern conqueror, he defeated and annexed the Lydian Empire; extending Persian rule to the Aegean Sea. He died in battle against the nomadic Massagetae, a true warrior king, attempting to expand Persian rule into central Asia.
A kinsman of Alexander on his maternal side, in battle he nearly equally the talents of the great Macedonian conqueror. He was a tactical innovator of the first order, responsible for many of the military trends that followed. Hannibal considered him second only to Alexander and himself in ability. He challenged the youthful power of the Roman Republic, attempting to create in the west what Alexander had in the east. He defeated the Romans in two costly battles, before taking on the Carthaginians in a desultory campaign in Sicily. However, his absence gave the Romans a much-needed respite; and when he returned to Italy they defeated him in a final encounter at Beneventum. Back in Greece, he attempted and failed to expand his holdings by seizing first Sparta and then Argos; killed in street fighting in the latter. Though a great tactician and legendary warrior, he was an opportunist who lacked strategic vision, often distracted from his goals.
As Alexander later reminded the Macedonians, Philip found them vagabond sheep herders, clothed in animal skins. When he died in 336 BC, he left them masters of the Greek world. He spent his life campaigning to expand Macedon’s borders, and created the most advanced combined arms army of antiquity. He seldom failed in any of his undertakings; and his generalship was marked by a mix of boldness tempered with caution. He never struck till the way was well prepared, and was kept informed by a network of agents and spies. He is the world’s first “modern” military leader.
He was a man of genius: brilliant general as well as politician, lawgiver, builder, and administrator. While not as well-balanced a commander as the three preceding him on this list, he was without doubt the most audacious commander of the ancient world. Though several times caught off guard by his enemies, he never failed to respond with rapidity and judgment to any contingency. He routinely seized the initiative from opponents through bold maneuver, and once he had them off-balance he seldom failed to move in for the kill. His charisma inspired devotion in his army seldom matched in history. He was a master of the art of siege, and his massive field works at Alesia are still studied today.
He came of age at the beginning of the Second Punic War, and witnessed first-hand Hannibal’s earliest triumphs at the Ticinus, Trebia, and Cannae. Learning from the Carthaginian master, he took these lessons and applied them to the heretofore unimaginative Romans of his day. He quickly proved a master tactician; second to none on this list as a battle commander. He never lost a battle or failed in a military endeavor. He conceived the strategy that defeated Carthage and brought victory in that war. He later guided his brother in defeating Antiochus the Great and the Seleucids in the Magnesia campaign. He has the distinction of being the only general of antiquity (and one of the very few in all military history) who faced a fellow “Great Captain” in battle (at Zama, against Hannibal); in which he triumphed.
Arguably the greatest general of antiquity (see notes below), Hannibal faced and nearly overcame the greatest power of the ancient world, Rome, on it’s own soil. He was master of all of the military arts but one: in matters of strategy, tactics, and (the most important) logistics he has no superior. However, unlike Alexander, he never conducted a truly great siege; though he did take some strong places. His inability to besiege and capture Rome ultimately doomed his efforts to failure. Strategically he took a great many risks, but all were calculated and the ground work carefully prepared for success. He understood that Rome could only be defeated if deprived of its recruiting grounds in Italy; and braved the Alps to take the war to his enemy and shatter their Italian alliances. Though he ultimately failed in this, he never lost a battle till his last; and was able to defeat every army the Romans sent against him. Tactically he was a master, and in this he is unsurpassed in ancient history. But perhaps his greatest feat was not getting his army over the Alps (however impressive this was); but in maintaining that army on enemy soil for 13 years. In this he was neither aided nor resupplied from home; relying only upon his own genius and resource. To the very end, his army (largely mercenaries with no national tie to bind them) stayed loyal and followed wherever the master led.
By every measure of generalship Alexander excelled all others. His performance set the bar by which all others generals have been measured ever since. In battle or in siege, he was ever victorious; leading his army in four very great battles and as many great sieges. He habitually led from the front, which makes the control he exercised in battle all the more impressive. For personal courage and prowess he has no superior among the Great Captains. Strategically, his campaigns were masterfully conducted; so much so that he made it look easy. Many later would-be conquerors, from Crassus to Julian the Apostate attempted (and failed) to emulate his achievement. Of his strategic operations, no less an expert than Napoleon concluded: he “calculated with depth, executed with audacity, conducted with wisdom”. A master of logistics, in 10 short years he crossed the ancient world, conquering an empire that stretched from the Adriatic Sea to the Indus River in India; and from the Danube River to the upper-reaches of the Nile. Only once, in Gedrousia, did his army run short on supplies; and that because plans to supply his forces by sea came awry. Not only a Great Captain of War, he was a very great leader of men. Even his enemies, once defeated, admired and joined him as faithful subjects. His charisma is unmatched, and his army was fiercely devoted to their leader. They followed him across the known world, through scorching deserts and over the highest mountains in the world (the Hindu Kush). In India they found themselves in an alien land, facing monstrous beasts the like of which men of the west had never seen (elephants). Yet they never lost confidence in their young king-and-commander; and he led them to his greatest tactical masterpiece at the Hydaspes River against King Porus. Finally, exhausted, they refused to march further east; his only defeat. Had he lived longer (he died at 33) he might well have conquered both Carthage and Rome; preempting the heyday of both these powers; as well as the careers of the previous two commanders on this list!
The top 5 on this list commonly appear on every such list; with Hannibal and Alexander interchangeable at the top two slots. The choice of Scipio over Caesar is perhaps controversial. Caesar was indeed an extraordinary commander, administrator, and writer. But Caesar’s trade-mark strategic boldness sometimes approached recklessness, which nearly cost him everything at Dyrrachium, Alexandria, and in North Africa. Scipio never lost a battle, nor took a misstep. He was as bold as Caesar but more calculating. Tactically, he was the most innovative commander Rome ever produced. Though he never had to resort to a long siege (something Caesar excelled at), he took the strong fortress of Novo Carthage by stratagems that prevented a prolonged leaguer.
Another (perhaps) controversial decision was to put Pompey the Great so low on this list. Early in his life Pompey was granted extraordinary powers and achieved many notable successes. But when put to the test, he was bested by the only two commanders of ability he ever faced: Sertorius in Spain, and Caesar. He was unfairly credited with winning the Sertorian War (which credit belonged to Metellus Pius) and stole the glory of ending the Mithridatic War from Lucullus. I think he is generally overrated.
Approximately half of the commanders on this list are Roman; appropriate for the most warlike and militarily successful people of the ancient world. Seven are Greek or Macedonian, with Alexander taking the top-spot; and his father coming in at number 5. Pyrrhus gets high marks for tactical innovation, and battlefield acumen. However, he was a poor strategist and perhaps is rated too high on this list.
Of the rest, two are Carthaginian; two are Assyrian (perhaps the second-most warlike people of the ancient world); and one each from Persia and Egypt. These two latter, Cyrus the Great and Thutmose III both founded empires. As such, they may deserve more attention.
For more, read:
 For purposes of this discussion, I’m using the Oxford Dictionary definition of the “Ancient World”: The region around the Mediterranean and the Near East before the fall of the Western Roman Empire in ad 476. So this list will not include Chinese or Indian commanders, such as Chandragupta.