Great Battles and Armies in Ancient History

An Overview of Great Battles and Armies in Ancient History

Throughout history, individuals, nations, and political factions have used the conflict to acquire control over territories. Human history has been shaped by battles in more ways than we can comprehend. War is responsible for cataclysmic transformations, revolutions, and even the internet we use today. Nothing better exemplifies war than the armies that fight it. Ancient warfare refers to conflicts between the beginning of written history and the conclusion of the ancient period.

The Technology used in Ancient Battles and Armies

Prehistoric and ancient warfare differ more in terms of organization than technology. The rise of city-states, followed by empires, allowed warfare to evolve considerably. Early ancient armies continued to rely mostly on bows and spears, the same weapons created for hunting in prehistoric times. Soldiers were being separated into ranged and shock infantry at this period, with shock infantry either charging to induce penetration of the opposing line or holding their own. These forces were ideally being blended, putting the opponent in a bind whether they should gather the forces and expose them to ranged attacks or spread them out and expose them to shock. This equilibrium soon shifted as technology-enabled chariots, cavalry, and artillery played an active part on the battlefield. Some other developments were hand-to-hand weapons such as swords, spears, clubs, maces, axes, and knives. Even catapults, siege towers, and battering rams were used during sieges.

Great Armies in Ancient History

The Neo-Assyrians Army

The Neo-Assyrians Army
Credit: About History

In the 10th century BCE, the Neo-Assyrian Empire began, and during this time, Ashurnasirpal II was praised for employing solid tactics. For three centuries, the Neo-Assyrians controlled Mesopotamia, forming the world’s biggest empire. Its rulers captured enormous swaths of land ranging from Egypt to the Persian Gulf. Its military prowess was aided in part by the reforms of monarch Tiglath-Pileser III, who established Assyria’s first standing army in the ninth century BC. He expanded the empire by absorbing thousands of immigrants from vassal kingdoms, but the empire’s most fearsome troops were its horse-drawn chariot contingents. The Neo-Assyrians were a force to be reckoned with, with their superior numbers, iron swords, and thunderous chariots. They established the world’s first de-facto empire, including modern-day Anatolia, the whole Fertile Crescent, the Judean coast, sections of western Iran known as Elam, and even Egypt.

The Achaemenid Empire Army

Popularly known as Cyrus the Great’s Persian Empire is one of the few monarchs in history who merited the label “Great.” He gathered a disorganized union of tribal Northern Iranian holdouts to construct one of ancient antiquity’s biggest empires. He accomplished this by establishing the first completely professional army in human history. An army comprised men from Thrace in Eastern Europe to the Nabateans of Arabia, from Scythian horse archers of the steppes to Indian Elephant Mahouts. The Achaemenid Empire was the world’s biggest and possessed the world’s first army of half a million troops. Such a vast army would not be seen in the Western world again until Napoleon’s time, 2,300 years later. Moreover, it comprised elite, specialized warriors like the Immortals, a highly equipped infantry known today as one of history’s most storied battle groups.

The Roman Empire Army

The Roman Empire Army
Credit: Learnodo Newtonic

Ancient Rome’s lasting legacy as one of the most powerful and successful civilizations globally is due to its military might. The Republic’s extraordinarily well-trained, disciplined, and well-equipped army captured a vast expanse of territory from England to Egypt, crushing many. It grew even more formidable when the Republic became an Empire. During that time, it shifted from a system of short-term conscription to the development of a permanent standing army. The famous legionaries of Rome were among the most formidable troops in history due to their organization, training, and better weapons. Its employment of multi-line formations, among other things, allowed the Roman army to refresh front-line troops during battle when new Roman soldiers would square up against fatigued adversaries. In addition, mobility was being employed to gain offensive advantages by the Roman Army, frequently headed by excellent generals.

The Han Dynasty Army

From 202 BC until 220 AD, the military apparatus of China was the Han dynasty. The forces of ancient China were impressive, but the Han dynasty stood out. In the late third century BC, the collapse of the Qin Dynasty threw China into disarray until rebel leader Liu Bang of Han reunified the country. Nomadic confederations such as the Xiongnu in the north posed early dangers to the Han empire. Male commoners were forced into two years of military service during Han rule, expanding the military ranks, while a professional standing army was being used to secure the fragile northern border. Popular weapons were the crossbow and the jian, a straight, double-edged blade. With these factors, the Han dynasty expanded its frontiers and survived for four centuries until falling victim to warfare and internal corruption.

The Mauryan Army

Chandragupta Maurya, who defeated Seleucus Nicator’s Greek army, to Ashoka the Great, unified India’s physical continent; the Mauryas were India’s first major empire. They built their empire on the back of the most magnificent army seen in the subcontinent up to that point. According to Megasthenes, a Seleucid Empire envoy, Chandragupta Maurya raised an army of 30,000 cavalry, 9,000 war elephants, and 600,000 infantry. Chandrguta conquered much of the Indian sub-continent. He established an empire stretching from the Arabian Sea to the Bay of Bengal.

The Spartan Army

The Spartan Army
Credit: Weapons and Warfare

Located in southern Greece, Sparta was the perfect military state. The Spartans, an ancient warrior society, championed their style of strict military institutions. In reality, the Spartans had the only full-time army in all of ancient Greece.  Even their social systems produce tough warriors from regular citizens. Boys were torn from their mothers at a young age and immersed in the flames of endless training, hard punishment, and persistent campaigning until they died. Because their lives were so hard, any Spartan who lived to old age was highly regarded for his ability as a warrior. In addition, the army adhered to a strong code of honour, fraternity, and frugality. During the Persian invasions, the Spartans’ war machine not only helped them survive the world’s biggest army. After overcoming the Athenians in a lengthy war for hegemony, they eventually came to dominate all of Greece.

The Egyptian Army

Ancient Egypt could not have survived for three thousand years without creating an extremely strong military. It was one of history’s earliest great civilizations, united circa 3100 BC, and had to defend its vast frontiers against several foreign forces. The first Egyptian troops had a spear with a copper tip and a big wooden shield made up of leather skins. A stone mace was also carried throughout the Archaic era and was eventually supplanted by the bronze combat axe. In addition, Egypt inherited the composite bow and horse-drawn chariot from the Hyksos invaders. Hyksos invaders gained control between the Middle and New Kingdoms and gave the Egyptians the cruel, sickle-shaped khopesh. Together with establishing a professional, standing army, these innovations aided the Egyptians in revolutionizing their military and defeating many of their old adversaries.

The Mongolian Army

The Mongolian Army
Credit: History of Yesterday

The Mongols, led by Temujin, afterwards known and feared as Chengiz Khan, brought them together by his will. This Mongol confederation sliced through Eurasia like a hot knife through butter. Rather than their martial prowess, their strategy and mobility won the day. Their secular attitude and readiness to absorb aspects of hostile troops set them apart at the time. They learned siegecraft from the Chinese and applied it to the Persian Khwarizmi kingdom. They used the well-known technique of feinting withdrawal to pull the enemy into a pincer trap and then defeat them. Chengiz’s dominion spanned from Korea in the east to Hungary in the west, from Russia and Siberia in the north to the gates of India in the south by the time he died. An astonishing feat for a nomad army of goat herders in the age of knights and matchlocks.

The Babylonian Dynasty Army

This small city-state became an empire that conquered practically all of Mesopotamia under the leadership of Hammurabi, the sixth monarch of the 1st Babylonian Dynasty. The monarch is most renowned for the famed “Code of Hammurabi,” which established the realm’s rules and was recorded on a stone stele. But he was also a conqueror, commanding a well-trained army that routed many of the neighbouring city-states before advancing on other important powers in the region, notably the Old Assyrian Empire. One of his favourite strategies was to poison local water sources, causing his opponents to surrender.

The Carthaginian Empire Army

The Carthaginian Empire Army
Credit: Pinterest

While the Huns subsequently became Rome’s sworn rivals, Carthage had the position first, fighting them in the Punic Wars. Hannibal was the Carthaginian Empire’s great and powerful leader. His smart and influential military tactics are being studied today nearly two thousand years later. His use of the pincer movement to surround and destroy a far bigger Roman force in the Battle of Cannae is one of the greatest military manoeuvres in history. But leading his army, war elephants and all, down the Alps and into Italy may have been Hannibal’s finest triumph.

The Huns Army

These barbarians from the Eurasian Steppes swept past troops in Central Asia and Western Europe, fighting and pillaging their way far into the Western Roman Empire under the command of the famed Attila. Devious tacticians and experienced riders battled from horseback with bows, long swords, and spears, overpowering opponents with quick charges while holding soldiers in reserve for reinforcement. Sweeping into Europe, they appeared invincible, and it wasn’t until Attila’s death, crippled by internal strife, that battle began to turn against them.

The Macedonian Army

The Macedonian Army
Credit: Realm of History

The military of the Kingdom of Macedon was one of the most powerful in the ancient world. King Philip II of Macedon designed and fortified it. The new Macedonian army was a mash-up of many formations. Phillip used Macedonians and other Greeks, particularly Thessalian cavalry, and mercenaries from around the Aegean and Balkans. By 338 BC, more than half of his army for his planned invasion of the Achaemenid Empire of Persia had come from beyond Macedon’s boundaries — all over the Greek world and neighboring barbarian tribes. Following Philip’s death, his son, Alexander the Great, led the army to do the unthinkable: destroying Persia, Asia Minor, and Egypt without losing a single war.

Great Battles in Ancient History

The Battle of Kadesh in 1274 BCE

The Battle of Kadesh
Credit: Goodreads

This fight between the New Kingdom of Egypt under Ramses II and the Hittite Empire arose on the banks of the Orontes River, near the modern-day borders of Syria and Lebanon. It is the oldest combat in history with specifics of army formations or military tactics recording done. This battle is the greatest chariot combat in recorded history, involving over 5,000 chariots, where more than 2,000 were destroyed. It also resulted in the earliest surviving peace pact, the Eternal Treaty or the Silver Treaty.

The Battle of Muye in 1046 BCE

The Zhou dynasty reigned for 790 years, making it the longest-reigning dynasty in Chinese history. But all dynasties, even the most powerful, must start somewhere. That beginning came for the Zhou dynasty at the Battle of Muye when an army of only around 50,000 Zhou soldiers defeated over 500,000 enemy soldiers and 170,000 armed enslaved people to bring the Shang dynasty to an end. When the enslaved people were given weapons to protect Yin, many of them deserted to the Zhou side. Others held their spears upside down, indicating that they didn’t want to face the better-trained Zhou.

The Battle of Plataea & Thermopylae in 479 BCE

The Battle of Plataea & Thermopylae
Credit: Realm of History

A massive Persian force headed by King Xerxes attacked Greece in the summer of 479 BC. The Greeks attempted to resist the Persian force in a small pass with 300 Spartans and 7,000 hoplites led by King Leonidas. Despite the Spartans ‘ valiant attempts, Persia seized Thermopylae and won triumphs in Artemisium, Thessaly, Boeotia, Euboea, and Attica. First, however, King Xerxes was defeated in the Battle of Salamis. Then, with half of his army, Xerxes escaped and returned to Asia. Under the leadership of Spartan King Pausanius, 60,000 hoplites marched into Boeotia to confront the Persians. The historic fight took place in Boeotia, near Plataea.

The Battle of Gaugamela in 331 BCE

On the 1st of October, 331 BCE, Alexander the Great fought the decisive battle against the Persian Achaemenid Empire. Alexander’s strategies were effective despite having a more limited military force than the Achaemenid Empire. The two huge armies came together near Gaugamela. Alexander’s clever tactics were so efficient that the war resulted in the Achaemenid Empire’s demise.

The Battle of Hydaspes in 326 BCE

The Battle of Hydaspes
Credit: Pinterest

The Battle of the Hydaspes River fought in 326 BC between King Porus of the Hindu Paurava kingdom and Alexander the Great. It was one of Alexander the Great’s most costly wars. Alexander tried to cross the river during a downpour during this encounter even though a large Indian force awaited him on the other side. The fight occurred due to Alexander’s mission to expand his dominion into India. The conflict paved the ground for the development of Greek and Indian cultures that lasted for millennia.

The Kalinga War in 261 BCE

No conflict in Indian history is as meaningful, either in terms of intensity or outcome, as Ashoka’s Kalinga war. No battle in human history has turned the victor’s attitude from wanton brutality to exemplary piety like this one. The Kalinga War, a brutal struggle between the Maurya Empire, which stretched much of the Indian subcontinent south of the Himalayas, and the coastal state of Kalinga, may have cost up to 300,000 deaths. Witnessing the conflict’s slaughter drove Mauryan king Ashoka to turn to Buddhism, swearing off further conquering battles.

The Battle of Changping from 262 BCE to 260 BCE

The Battle of Changping
Credit: Illustrated Curiosity

The Battle of Changping occurred in China during the Warring States period between the states of Qin and Zhao. In 262 BC, the Qin were trying to conquer the Zhao. The Zhao invaded the Qin camp with a 400,000-strong army. However, Qin’s army ambushed the Zhao force in the mountains before reaching the camp. After 46 days without supplies, the Zhao surrendered, and the Qin scored a resounding victory.

The Siege of Syracuse from 214 BCE to 212 BCE

The sovereign Kingdom of Syracuse was a close ally of the Roman Republic, ruling the island of Sicily, which Carthage had wrested during the First Punic War. As the Second Punic War dragged on, pro-Carthage groups within Syracuse caused the city to feel the pain of the Roman siege once more. This time, however, the city was home to the renowned polymath Archimedes, who devised inventive methods to aid in repelling Roman forces and extending the siege for months. The city did not fall until a Roman soldier assassinated Archimedes in his home, against instructions from the Roman commander to spare the inventor’s life.

The Battle of Metaurus in 207 BCE

The Battle of Metaurus
Credit: The Masculine Epic

The War of Metaurus was a pivotal battle during the Second Punic War. Hannibal grabbed equipment from his brother Hasdrubal while waiting for reinforcements. The reinforcements and equipment were critical to winning the campaign against Rome. Marcus Livius Salinator and Caius Claudius Nero headed the Roman army. Claudius arrived at Metaurus to accompany Marcus Livius. However, Marcus Livius was fighting Hannibal in Grumentum, 100 kilometres south of the Metaurus River, at that time. Hasdrubal was put in prison in Metaurus by cruel and unsuspecting troops. Instead of the promised military reinforcements, Hannibal received Hasdrubal’s head, which the Romans threw into his camp.

The Battle of Gaixia in 202 BCE

The Battle of Gaixia
Credit: Ancient Origins

The Chinese Han dynasty began with Liu Bang’s victory in the Battle of Gaixia in present-day Suzhou in 202 BCE. The Han armies had previously achieved several strategic successes, but they controlled just a tiny area of China. Nevertheless, Han troops eventually defeated their Chu opponents in a fight rife with double-crosses, captures, and would-be rescues. This defeat culminated in the suicide of Chu leader Xiang Yu and opened the way for Liu Bang to declare himself Emperor of China, ushering in the Han dynasty.

The Third Servile War from 73 BCE to 71 BCE

The Third Servile War was the final in a series of slave rebellions against the Roman Republic, led by the insurgent Roman enslaved person Spartacus. The 78 enslaved people and fugitive gladiators expanded into a vast army of 120,000 men, women, and children. With the prospect of slave rebellions mounting, the Romans assembled an army of eight legions led by Marcus Licinius Crassus. The conflict ended with a resounding Roman victory in 71 BCE. Six thousand battle survivors were crucified along the Appian Way to set an example and dissuade future uprisings.

The Battle of Carrhae in 53 BCE

Crassus, one of Rome’s wealthiest men, gathered his armies and chose to attack Parthia. He did this without the approval of the Roman Senate. Crassus marched into Parthia across the Mesopotamian desert, refusing King Artavasdes II of Armenia’s suggestion to take an Armenian route for the invasion. The conflict between the two empires occurred at Carrhae. Surena, the Parthian leader, decisively won the fight, slaying and capturing the majority of the Roman soldiers and killing Crassus. This led to the downfall of the Roman Republic and the establishment of the Roman Empire.

The Battle of Red Cliffs in 208 CE

The Battle of Red Cliffs
Credit: Rebellion Research

Near the conclusion of China’s Han dynasty, two southern warlords faced off against a numerically stronger opponent from the north. This battle lists as the biggest naval battle in history. The northern warlord Cao Cao claimed to have dispatched 800,000 warriors to seize regions south of the Yangtze River. However, they were only confrontations by a considerably smaller army of roughly 50,000 soldiers. Southern warlords Sun Quan and Liu Bei led this army in the Battle of Red Cliffs. Cao Cao’s commanders questioned whether his reinforcements numbered 800,000. In any case, the southern warlords were significantly outnumbered, yet they kept their northern rival at bay due to better maritime expertise. This confrontation aided in forming two southern dynasties, ushering in the Three Kingdoms period of Chinese history.

The Battle of the Catalaunian Fields in 451 CE

This struggle between Rome and its treaty-bound Germanic allies and tens of thousands of Huns under the command of the notorious Attila may not have been decisive. Still, it did assist in altering the history of the area and the world. Though Attila’s march into Roman-controlled Gaul was halted, the Romans and their allies military capabilities were severely limited. If it hadn’t been for Attila’s death two years later and the consequent fall of his kingdom, an ensuing battle the fate of the Roman Empire might have turned out very differently.


Throughout history, there were many armies who fought wars for various reasons. In every battle, blood is spilt, kingdoms are destroyed, and people are slain. Some conflicts left an indelible mark on history. While others spawned stories that have been passing down through the centuries. Most notably, some of the effective military techniques developed on ancient battlefields are still being useful today.

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