9 Ancient Leaders Who Changed the Course of History
The annals of history are filled with tales of great leaders who have left their mark on the world, shaping the course of human events through their actions, decisions, and vision. From conquerors who built vast empires to statesmen who brought peace and stability to their nations, these ancient leaders were the architects of their times, crafting legacies that have endured through the ages. Their names resonate throughout history as symbols of power, courage, and innovation, inspiring countless generations with their stories of triumph and tragedy. In this list, we delve into the lives of nine ancient leaders who changed the course of history, exploring their impact and legacy on the world they helped shape.
1.Alexander the Great- King of Macedon
Born in 356 BC Alexander was born to Philip II King of Macedon (one of the Greek-speaking kingdoms), and Olypmias, a princess of Epirus.
When Alexander was only 20 years old his father was assassinated, leaving him to take the throne. Alexander rose to the occasion. He quickly gained the cooperation of the other Greek kingdoms and then quickly set out to conquer Greece’s old nemesis, Persia.
Alexander the Great riding horseback, wielding a sword mid-battle and leading his military troops in battle to conquer Persepolis. (Justinas/Adobe Stock)
Over the next ten years, Alexander marched his armies across the Mediterranean and into Asia, conquering much of the known world. He ultimately defeated the Persians, capturing their capital city, Persepolis. He then set about carrying out his dream, a cosmopolitan empire that stretched from east to west.
He never realized this dream. He died at the tender age of 33 from a mysterious illness, and his generals then split up his hard-won empire. Alexander's effect on the course of history cannot be underestimated. His death ushered in the Hellenistic period which led to the spread of Greek culture across the world. His successes influenced the course of philosophy, science, and literature for centuries to come.
2.Julius Caesar and the Demise of the Roman Republic
Born in 100 BC, Julius Caesar is one of the most famous, and influential figures in ancient Roman history. A Roman statesman, general, and author, he played a pivotal role in the events that led to the fall of the Roman Republic and the rise of the Roman Empire.
Caesar was foremost a great military leader. His career consisted of a series of stunning victories including the conquest of Gaul (modern-day France) and the defeat of his nemesis, Pompey (a rival military leader).
He was known for taking his tactician's mind and applying it to politics. He played a key role in the formation of the First Triumvirate, a potent political alliance that consisted of him, Pompey, and Marcus Licinius Crassus. This alliance allowed him to consolidate his power and influence over Rome.
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Statue of Julius Caesar in Rome. (nata_rass / Adobe Stock)
When this alliance ultimately dissolved the result was Caesar returning to Rome in 44 BC and becoming dictator for life. As it turns out that wasn't for long. On March 15, 44 BC Caesar was famously assassinated by a group of senators who feared Caesar had become too powerful. His death left Rome in crisis and the ensuing chaos led to a series of civil wars that culminated in the rise of Octavian (Caesar’s adopted son) as the first Roman Emperor. Without Caesar’s lust for power, history’s greatest empire may never have existed.
3.Augustus Caesar- First Roman Emperor
It seems only right that we follow Julius Caesar with his adopted son and successor, Augustus Caesar (the former Octavian). After Julius Caesar was assassinated in 44 BC Octavius emerged as one of the leaders of the Caesarian faction in Rome. In the civil wars that followed he defeated his primary rival, Mark Antony, and emerged as Rome’s undisputed ruler.
A reconstructed statue of Augustus Caesar, dated circa 30 BC (Public Domain)
Shortly after coming to power, he consolidated his position by securing the loyalty of the Roman army, reforming the legal system, and establishing a system of clientage that ensured the support of the elites. These reforms led to Rome becoming a stable and prosperous empire the likes of which the world had never seen before. Augustus oversaw a vast building program that transformed the city of Rome into the cultural capital of the ancient world.
Augustus’ reign was a remarkably stable one. Under his rule, Rome prospered and arts and culture flourished. His legacy remained long after his death and his system of government and administration became the template for the rule of later emperors. Augustus is rightly remembered as a wise ruler who laid the foundations for the Golden Age of the Roman Empire.
4.Qin Shi Huang- The First Man to Unite China
Born in 259 BC, Qin Shi Huang’s first taste of power came when he ascended to the throne of the state of Qin at the age of 13, after his father’s death. He quickly began consolidating his power and showed what was to come when he began suppressing rival factions within his kingdom and established a centralized bureaucracy.
Qin Shi Huang, King of Qin. (Public Domain)
Qin Shi Huang had become king during what is known as China’s “Warring States Period”. After he had consolidated his power within his own kingdom, he set out to conquer China’s other six kingdoms through brutal military conquests.
In doing so he became the first emperor to unite China. His rule was a mixed bag. On the positive side, he abolished feudalism and replaced hereditary officials with ones who had actually earned their positions.
He then embarked on a series of ambitious construction projects like the Great Wall of China and a canal that linked the Yangtze and Pearl Rivers. He also had numerous roads built, reformed the coinage, and redistributed much of the kingdom’s land to the peasants.
On the less positive side, he was a brutal authoritarian who violently suppressed all forms of dissent. He was responsible for the burning of books and the execution of scholars. Worst of all, he became more and more obsessed with holding on to power.
This led to him seeking immortality via a search for the elixir of life. This ironically led to his death – he died from the toxic effects of mercury which he believed would make him immortal. He also had the terracotta army built for the purpose of serving him for eternity. Towards the end of his life, he increasingly lost his grip on sanity.
Despite his somewhat chequered legacy, Qin Shi Huang’s reign had a profound impact on Chinese history. He set the stage for the long history of Chinese Imperial rule and many of his construction projects are still standing today.
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5.Ashoka the Great: India’s Promoter of Peace and Tolerance
Ashoka the Great was an Indian emperor who ruled over the Maurya Empire from 268 BC until 232 BC. Of all the rulers on the list, Ashoka’s is perhaps the most marked by change.
Ashoka started his reign with a brutal period of expansion and conquest during which he led successful military campaigns that extended Maurya territory across much of the Indian subcontinent. This period of expansion culminated in his victory in the Kalinga War of 261 BC.
The suffering and sheer loss of life this war had caused led Ashoka to reflect on what he and his empire had become. Soon after Ashoka embraced Buddhism and renounced violence and aggression. He implemented a series of policies that were aimed at promoting social and cultural harmony and promoted the teachings of the Buddha. His various edicts included the tolerance of other religions, the promotion of social welfare, and an emphasis on non-violence and compassion.
Ashoka’s legacy as a ruler is defined by his principles of non-violence and social welfare. He is remembered as a leader who sought to create a just and harmonious society. Ashoka went from one of India’s most bloody and violent rulers to its most benevolent.
6.Cleopatra VII- Egypt’s Last Pharoah
So far, this list has been ruled by men, but no more. Let us introduce Cleopatra VII, famed for both her beauty and political wiliness. She ruled from 51 BC until her death in 30 BC and remains, quite rightly, one of the most famous ancient leaders in history.
‘Cleopatra’ (1888) by John William Waterhouse. Cleopatra, one of the most powerful ancient leaders. (Public Domain)
Her reign was marked by her ambitious foreign policy which revolved around a strategic alliance with Julius Caesar of Rome. The two met in 48 BC and became lovers with Cleopatra bearing a son, Caesarion, whom she claimed was Caesar’s. When Caesar was assassinated, her foreign policy hit a slight bump but a hasty alliance (and affair) with Mark Antony, another Roman general, soon put it back on track. For a while.
While Cleopatra was known for her intelligence and political acumen, her alliance with Mark Antony spelled her empire’s doom. Mark Antony was defeated by Octavian (who became Augustus) in 30 BC. Cleopatra and Antony then committed suicide which resulted in Augustus taking Egypt and making it a province of Rome.
7.Genghis Khan: Founder of the Mongol Empire
Genghis Khan was born in 1162 AD and was originally known by the name Temujin. He later became the founder of the Mongol Empire, the largest land-based empire the world has ever seen.
He rose to power by unifying several competing Mongol tribes under his leadership. He was known for his military conquests and innovative tactics. His brilliant strategies meant he won campaigns from modern-day China to Central Asia and even Eastern Europe.
Genghis Khan, powerful leader of largest world empire. Inner Mongolian History Gallery, Inner Mongolia Museum, Hohhot, China. (Gary Todd/CC0)
Under his direction, his army was known for its lightning speed, strict discipline, and brutality. Despite this brutality, he was also known for his religious tolerance and support for trade and commerce. Those subjects who survived the initial invasion were allowed complete religious freedom. Khan also encouraged trade and commerce by ensuring safe passage for merchants and protecting their goods.
After Khan died in 1227 his empire was split among his sons and grandsons. Under their rule, the empire continued to expand and establish a lasting legacy of Mongol power and influence. Khan’s empire had a profound impact on world history, facilitating the spread of culture, religion, and technology across Asia and Europe. Unfortunately, many people today only remember his brutality.
8.Hatshepsut- The Second Female Pharaoh
As far as we know Hatshepsut was the second woman to rule as the pharaoh of ancient Egypt. She was also the most consequential.
Queen Hatshepsut, longest reigning female leader of Africa. (Jbribeiro1 / CC BY-SA 4.0)
Hatshepsut was the wife, daughter, and sister of a king and technically also the wife of a ‘god’. You would think then that when her brother/husband died she would have been a shoo-in for the throne. But alas, no. Egypt had strict laws and traditions banning women from ruling.
To claim the throne Hatshepsut had to use her formidable political cunning, regal background, and religious sway. It was worth the effort. Upon seizing the throne Hatshepsut set out on a massive building campaign aimed at legitimizing her rule.
No ruler that had come before her, and only a few after her, carried out as many building projects as she. To pay for all of this she reconnected old trade routes that had been disrupted prior to her rule and sent out military expeditions to neighboring states. These ushered in a prosperity that defined the 18th dynasty.
Sadly, later pharaohs tried to change the historical record by claiming many of Hatshepsut’s successes for themselves. This led to Hatshepsut largely disappearing from the historical record. When archaeologists first came across hieroglyphs referring to a queen, they were quite confused and it has taken decades to unearth all of her accomplishments.
9.Boudica - The Warrior Queen
Boudica is a testament to the fact that not all great ancient leaders necessarily had to be winners. She was the queen of the Celtic Iceni tribe, famous for leading her people against the Romans.
When Boudica’s husband died he essentially handed over his small kingdom to Rome and his daughters in the hope that in doing so Rome would offer his people some form of independence. Instead, the Romans simply came in and brutally suppressed the population.
Queen Boudica is celebrated today as a national heroine and an embodiment of the struggle for justice and independence. (Public Domain)
This betrayal is what inspired Boudica to lead her Iceni people and their neighbors against Rome. She got off to a strong start. Her armies sacked Colchester and decimated the Roman 9th legion. From there, her army advanced sacking Roman settlements and causing Roman officials to flee to Londinium.
Sadly, her success was short-lived. The Romans soon retaliated with a massive force that met Boudica’s army just outside of London. Boudica refused to back down, choosing to die a free woman rather than surrender. She led her rebels into battle and died during the battle or sometime after.
What makes Boudica so unique is unlike the other entries on this list, she was a rebel. Many of the leaders on this list were great leaders but they were also oppressors. Boudica is the opposite, a symbol of the fight against oppression and what happens when people dare stand up to totalitarian leaders.
The 9 ancient leaders we have discussed in this conversation all left a lasting impact on the course of history. From conquerors like Alexander the Great and Genghis Khan to religious and cultural figures like Ashoka the Great, each leader shaped their respective societies and left a legacy that endured long after their deaths.
Whether through their military conquests, their legal and political innovations, or their cultural and artistic achievements, these leaders changed the world in significant ways. Their legacies continue to inspire us today, reminding us of the power of leadership and the enduring influence of great individuals on the course of history. By studying their lives and achievements, we can gain a deeper understanding of the complex forces that have shaped our world and the leaders who have left their mark on it.
Top image: The profiles of the some of the most powerful and influential Ancient Leaders. Source: Ded Pixto by Adobe Stock
Bawden. C. 2023. Genghis Khan. Available at: https://www.britannica.com/biography/Genghis-Khan
Editors. 2009. Cleopatra. Available at: https://www.history.com/topics/ancient-egypt/cleopatra
Mark. J. 2013. Alexander the Great. Available at: https://www.worldhistory.org/Alexander_the_Great/
Rattini. K. 2019. Who Was Ashoka? Available at: https://www.nationalgeographic.com/culture/article/ashoka