Learn more about the 10 ancient empires who commanded the fiercest and largest armies around the world.
During the reign of Ramesses II in 1250 BCE, Egypt had what was then known as the world’s largest army, boasting at one point some 100,000 soldiers which the pharaoh used to wage war against the Hittites. These military campaigns were relatively unsuccessful in the beginning, mainly due to Ramses’ lackluster commanding and strategist skills. Nevertheless, he was the first leader to command such a great number of armed forces, and his army managed to protect Egypt’s borders and ensure the safety of his land over the course of 67 years during his rule.
The Assyrians were a warrior society which controlled quite a large chunk of territory from the 10th to the 7th century BCE. Their land stretched from the borders of Egypt and way up into the eastern parts of Iran. In order to guard their precariously positioned empire, they had to have an army fit for protecting such a vast area of land, but also one that could execute successful sieges abroad and bring back wealth and riches to the king. Many historians agree that the Assyrian Empire created the first great army of the Ancient World.
Trained with ruthless discipline, their standing army was armed with both melee and long-range weapons, including spears, iron swords, bows and arrows, and other types of siege equipment used to conquer fortified cities. The Assyrians were the first people to use complicated weapons such as battering rams and siege towers so as to break down gates and climb over walls. They also had war chariots which were mainly used to smash into and create gaps in enemy lines by generals.
Though not an empire per se, the Scythians were both admired and feared for their mastery of mounted warfare. They were one of the many semi-nomadic Iranian tribes that lived in the steppes of Eurasia from the 7th century to the 3rd century BCE. The Scythians greatly excelled in horsemanship and unconventional warfare. A tradition in the barbaric lifestyle of a Scythian warrior was to drink the blood of the first person he killed and cut off the heads of all the other people he slayed, which he would later present to the king in order to get remunerated for his fighting prowess.
The Scythians are said to have led ‘Spartan’ lives, as they waged wars and fought continuously. Their army was widely known in Antiquity for its horse archers and infantry. During the late 4th century BCE, one Scythian army was said to had been comprised of a cavalry 10,000 strong, and more than 20,000 infantry forces. The Scythians were the ones who contributed to the downfall of the Assyrians when they drove another tribe into the Assyrian territory, causing them to wreak havoc there and weaken the Empire, after which the Scythians took their chance to attack and plunder this grand empire themselves.
The Persian Empire
The founder of the Achaemenid Empire, Cyrus II, also known as Cyrus the Great, was the king of Persia in the 6th century BCE. During his rule, the Persian Empire saw a huge territorial expansion, making it the largest empire in the world up until that point in history. In order to attain and preserve such a huge empire, the emperor had to have a highly-skilled and competent warrior army.
Persian warriors were widely known and represented in documents by the likes of Herodotus who described their training as arduous and their battle techniques superior to that of most. A typical Persian warrior of the time would become skilled in various fields as a youth, while at twenty he would begin his military profession during which he would specialize as either a rider or a foot soldier. Among these, Cyrus the Great had his own Imperial Guard, known as the Immortal Guard or, simply, the Immortals. Sworn to give their lives for the Emperor, they were a fixed standing force consisting of exactly 10,000 foot soldiers. Herodotus wrote that the Immortals were known as such due to their custom of replacing every killed or injured soldier with a new one, so as to maintain the total number at 10,000 at all times.
Ancient Greece (Sparta)
The Spartan army was one of the most iconic military forces in all of human history. It stood at the center of the Spartan city-state and was revered by many city-states of the time. Perhaps the most famous story about the Spartans came about from their stand against the Persian army during the battle of Thermopylae, when no more than three hundred Spartan warriors not only managed to hold off the Persian forces, but also inflict significant damage to them before losing their lives. During the Peloponnesian War (460 to 404 BCE), they established their dominance as the leading military force in Greece upon defeating their rival city-state, Athens.
Spartans paid a great deal of attention to whom they married in order to ensure the birth of the healthiest and strongest babies. Newborns were inspected by Spartan elders and, if found that any of the infants were sickly, weak, or deformed in some way, they would be thrown off a cliff. The training of Spartan soldiers would start at the age of seven when the boys would be taken away from their mothers and sent to military boarding school, where they would become accustomed to hardship, scant food, and clothing. During the course of their training, which lasted until the age of twenty, their mental, physical and spiritual toughness would become honed to perfection. After that, they would be required to be in military service until the age of forty, while those aged forty to sixty were obligated to stay in the reserves.
Philip II became king of Macedonia in 359 BCE, and he was the one who turned a previously ineffective army into the formidable force we remember today by initiating a series of military reforms. Together with his son, Alexander the Great, they created one of the greatest armies of ancient times.
To list a few of the said reforms, Philip II increased the size of the standing army from 10,000 to 24,000, and the cavalry from 600 to 3,500. He also added a corps of engineers which developed siege equipment like catapults and towers, which certainly came in handy for his son during the Siege of Tyre.
Philip II also insisted on constant mental drilling of his men; he demanded strict obedience and loyalty, and the battle-hardened soldiers who fought for both of these kings were obligated to swear an oath of allegiance to them and remain dedicated to the glory of Macedonia. This kind of thorough restructuring and loyalty proved extremely efficient at the Battle of Chaeronea, during which Philip II and his son defeated Athens and Thebes and thus demonstrated Macedonia’s great power and authority.
The Roman Empire
It goes without saying that the Romans—arguably the largest and most powerful society of its time—excelled in warfare and military prowess. For much of its history, Rome solidified its position in the Ancient World by making aggressive use of its armies, expanding the land through campaigning abroad. However, given the long and tumultuous history of the Roman Empire, it is difficult to pinpoint just one exact peak in its military power. It might suffice to say that it started during the Principate era (30 BCE – 284 CE).
When Emperor Augustus restructured his legions in 30 BCE and increased the number of soldiers within them, a legion numbered some 5,000 heavy infantry—and Augustus had twenty-eight of them! In addition, unlike previous legions before Augustus’s military reforms, they comprised solely of professional soldiers, not temporary citizen-levies. By the end of Augustus’s reign in 14 CE, the Imperial Army boasted approximately 250,000 men; this number would increase even further in the next two centuries when in 200 CE it numbered over 400,000 soldiers.
The Hunnic Empire
During the 5th century CE, Attila the Hun, famously known as the Scourge of God, united nomadic tribes of Central Asia into a formidable fighting force that pillaged and left cities in ashes. They were the ones who stimulated the Great Migration by driving other Barbarian tribes into Roman territory which ultimately led to the collapse of the Western Roman Empire.
Romans perceived the Huns’ way of life as barbaric as their fighting techniques: they slept on horseback, ate raw meat and “dined on the flesh of their victims.” It is true that the Huns were not a civilized group of people, as they had no written language and built no permanent settlements or structures. However, the name of Attila brought terror to all those whose cities the Huns had swept through.
Irrespective of the lifestyle of his army, Attila was an incredibly competent leader in battle and a hero to his people. He was held in high regard by all the tribes he united under his empire, which, in part, greatly contributed to the success of his army. This was a stark contrast to the Romans of the time, who were more or less inept at controlling their non-Roman contingents. During Attila’s reign, the Hunnic Empire stretched from The Great Wall of China to Germany, and from the Baltic Sea to the Danube River in Eastern Europe.
The Rashidun Caliphate
The Rashidun Caliphate is the name of the first four caliphs that were founded after Muhammad’s death in 632 CE. At the zenith of its power, the Rashidun Caliphate is considered to have been the largest empire up until that time in history, covering over 3 million square miles of territory, including the entirety of the Middle East, North Africa, Caucasus, Transoxiana, Anatolia, Bactria, Persia, Balochistan, the Mediterranean, and the Iberian Peninsula. The acquisition of such a vast area of land happened gradually—over the span of 24 years—solely due to the Rashidun Caliphate’s sieges and conquests abroad.
Having started at about 13,000 initially, the Rashidun armed forces comprised 100,000 troops by the year 657. The Rashidun army was the central military body of the Caliphate, used in all of the Caliphate’s expanding conquests and sustained on discipline, great organization, and strategic prowess.
The Mongol Empire
In 1206 CE, a dominant military force emerged in the wake of a new empire. United under their leader Genghis Khan, the Mongol Empire was made up of several nomadic tribes that originated in the steppes of Central Asia. Genghis Khan’s army was a force to be reckoned with; they plundered, conquered, and destroyed everything in their path, and under his leadership, but also thanks to their masterful battle tactics, the Empire grew so exponentially, it eventually stretched from the Sea of Japan all the way to Eastern Europe.
Never very large in numbers, the Mongol army mainly relied on its superior tactics and speed. Soldiers were rigorously trained; they were able to move rapidly, adapt quickly to altering situations and execute complex battle strategies. It is also worth mentioning that there was absolutely no civilian population in the Empire: as they fought wars constantly, it became a full-time job and people were either soldier, or they were a soldier’s support in some way.