Some of the most famous people in history are those who are considered great warriors, often (but not always) known for a particular battle. Here are ten of the greatest and most famous warriors in chronological order.
1. Leonidas I of Sparta (c540-480 BC, reign 489-480 BC)
A hero-king of Sparta in Ancient Greece, also known as Leonidas the Brave, Leonidas I was the seventeenth king of Sparta from the Agiad line, and believed to be a direct descendant of Heracles – at least, that’s how they explained his enormous strength and bravery! He is best known for leading the combined armies of the alliance of Greek city-states, around 7,000 men, against the Persians’ second invasion in 480 BC at the Battle of Thermopylae, where the Greeks held off the massively larger Persian army (around 150,000) for a week before, betrayed by a local resident, they were defeated when the Persians outflanked them. Leonidas sent most of his army away then led the remainder, around 1,500 men, to guard the rear in one of histories great ‘last stands’. Leonidas and most of the remaining Greeks were killed but they succeeded in allowing the rest of the army to get away. The following year, a return engagement saw the Greeks soundly trouncing the Persians at the Battle of Plataea and ending their invasive tendencies once and for all. Well, at that time, anyway.
2. Alexander the Great (356-323 BC, reign 336-323 BC)
Alexander III of Macedon ruled his ancient Grecian state of Macedon for thirteen years, during which he built one of the ancient world’s largest, albeit short-lived, empires and was one of the most successful military leaders in history, being undefeated in battle. He did have some benefits that probably helped get him started – he was tutored by Aristotle as a child, which will no doubt have given him exceptional abilities to think well, and he inherited from his father an already strong kingdom with a highly experienced army in place. Unfortunately, after his death his empire was torn apart again by civil wars that ended in a number of states ruled by the various surviving generals and Alexander’s heirs. However, Alexander’s legacy lives on – some 20 cities founded by him bore his name, notably Alexandria in Egypt; much of the Hellenistic civilisation grew out of his spreading Greek culture in the east, and his tactics are still taught in military academies around the world.
3. Hannibal Barca (247-183/2 BC)
Generally considered one of the greatest military leaders that ever lived, Carthaginian Hannibal was most famous for marching an army that included elephants over the Pyrenees and the Alps from Iberia into Italy at the beginning of the Second Punic war, and during the 15 years he occupied most of that country he converted many allies of Rome to his side by demonstrating his ability to determine strengths and weaknesses on both sides of a battle and direct the fighting towards his own strengths and his opponents’ weaknesses. He was eventually defeated at the Battle of Zama by Scipio Africanus – because Scipio had studied Hannibal’s tactics and used them against him! After the war Hannibal entered politics, but the reforms he succeeded in enacting were unpopular with the Carthaginian aristocracy and he fled into voluntary exile, where he remained until around 183/2, when he was betrayed to the Romans and poisoned himself rather than becoming their prisoner.
4. Spartacus (c 109-71 BC)
Spartacus, a Thracian gladiator, was one of five slave leaders who lead the uprising in the Third Servile War against the Roman Republic. Although details of his life are sketchy and surviving records often contradictory, all agree that he was (1) a former gladiator and (2) an exceptional military leader. Most agree that he fought as a Roman soldier but, having fallen from grace (perhaps by deserting) he was made into a slave and sent to be a gladiator, although some think he fought on the other side and was taken as a captive … then he plotted an escape with some other slaves and, although the plot was betrayed, succeeded in getting away, building an army and waging war on his erstwhile captors. His story has obviously caught the imaginations of many storytellers over the years, resulting in many films, books etc, but he and his fellow leaders have been portrayed as rather more altruistic than they actually were! According to the records that do exist, they committed plenty of atrocities themselves in the course of the fighting, and they never claimed to be trying to end slavery in general … it was just their own freedom they were after.
5. Gaius Julius Caesar (100-44 BC, reign 49-44 BC)
Best known as just Julius Caesar (both his father and grandfather were actually called Gaius Julius Caesar as well), this great Roman emperor was much more than just a military dictator who had an affair with the Egyptian Pharoah, Cleopatra. Among other things he was a great statesman who centralised the bureaucracy of his government and installed the Julian calendar on which was based the Gregorian calendar we use today, and also a notable author in the field of Latin prose. Unfortunately, of course, he never did actually resolve the political conflicts going on around him (he pardoned his enemies instead of getting rid of them – in retrospect apparently not a good idea) and as a result when things got so ‘hot under the collar’ that he was assassinated, around 60 people took part and he was stabbed 23 times. Interestingly, most reports say that he said nothing as it happened, with some claiming he said ‘You too, child?’ (in Greek) – but none claiming anything about Brutus. It’s thought that Shakespeare perpetuated that one in his play simply because the phrase was popular when he wrote it!