10 Formidable Monarchs Who Ruled Vast Empires in Ancient Asia
Some of humanity's most ancient civilizations originated on the current continent of Asia. At the dawn of civilization, places like Mesopotamia, Harappa, China, and others saw various advance settlements that consisted of a large populace. Those settlements were ruled by several powerful monarchs in the succeeding centuries. In fact, the kingdoms of Ancient Asia gave rise to some of the most dynamic kings of antiquity. Those rulers changed history in their own ways during their time, and their impact on the modern world is still evident in many ways. But we have forgotten most of these monarchs. In this article, we will discuss a collection of them, more or less heard of, who ruled large kingdoms in some parts of the Asian continent.
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Wu of the Han Dynasty of China: (Lived: 156-87 BC):
The Han Dynasty of China gave the country its modern identity. We now ethnically refer to the Chinese people as Han Chinese. The Han Chinese are the largest ethnic group of people in the modern world. In antiquity, the Han Dynasty of China came into power in the year c. 206 BC, but established its hegemony from 202 BC onward. This dynasty is also known in history as the Western or Former Han. One of their greatest monarchs was Emperor Han Wudi (or Emperor Wu of Han). Wudi was born as Liuche in the year 156 BC, as far as is known. He ascended the throne at the very young age of fifteen, in the year c. 141 BC.
Traditional portrait of Emperor Wu of Han from an ancient Chinese book. (Public Domain)
Under him, Ancient China saw one of its greatest territorial expansions. The polity's reach extended from the Ferghana Valley in the west to North-Central Korea in the east and North-Central Vietnam in the south. Wudi also successfully thwarted the continuous raids on his northern borders by a powerful tribal confederation by the name of Xiongnu. Not only did he achieve military success, but he also united his vast empire under the same ideology and philosophical entity of Confucianism. Under his rule, the country prospered both economically and culturally. Emperor Han Wudi had a very long and successful reign. He died around the year 87 BC.
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Menander I of the Greco-Bactrian & Indo-Greek Kingdoms: (Lived: 180-130 BC)
In the aftermath of Alexander the Great’s conquests in history, a lot of his conquered territories were divided between his generals, friends, and families after his death. We refer to those people mostly today by the term "diadochi," which means successors.
Those successor states were dispersed across a large portion of the globe. Out of them, one entity rose in the subsequent years by the name of the Greco-Bactrian Kingdom. It encompassed a large area over the modern nations of Afghanistan, Turkmenistan, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, Iran, and Pakistan, touching almost the north-western parts of present-day India. The region of Bactria was roughly centred on the modern Afghan province of Balkh.
One of those Greco-Bactrian kings was Milinda (or Menander). He was most likely born around 180 BC. Menander later became an Indo-Greek king when he ventured further deep into the North-Western territories of the Indian Subcontinent. In fact, several sources claim that he even made several successful raids into the eastern regions of India. Today, he is considered to be the greatest of the Indo-Greek kings. He is also possibly the only Indo-Greek king mentioned and praised by ancient western historians. It is said that later in his life, Menander converted to Buddhism and became one of its greatest patrons. His discourse with a Buddhist monk has been recorded in a famous work called Milinda-Panha.
The Milinda-Panha ('Questions of Milinda') is a Buddhist text which dates from sometime between 100 BC and 200 AD. It claims to record a dialogue between the Indian Buddhist sage Nāgasena, and king Menander. (Public Domain)
Modu Chanyu of the Xiongnu Empire: (Ruled: 209-174 BC)
Much before the Mongol dominance of the medieval world, a great nomadic empire existed towards the north of China, centred on the Mongolian plateau. We know this entity as the Xiongnu Empire.
Many experts believe that the later Huns came from this group of people, apart from the Mongols themselves. It became a completely powerful entity when a great leader amongst them called Modu Chanyu came to power in c. 209 BC by killing his father.
Modu united the scattered tribes of the Mongols into a powerful unit, just as Genghis Khan would do much later on. Then, finding the Chinese weak, Modu started raiding their northern borders, thereby making himself and his empire rich and prosperous. His efforts made the Xiongnu Empire the greatest in its time. It extended from South Siberia to China's northern borders, encompassing an important part of the empire's wide and huge boundary limits. Thus, under Modu’s successful overlordship, his empire became an entity of gigantic size and variety. Modu Chanyu ruled until c. 174 BC. In his earlier days, he was not his father's favourite son or the favourite heir to succeed. But by using guile and his cunning ways, he usurped the throne and made their kingdom one of the best in the world in its time. Most of the records of Modu Chanyu and his Xiongnu tribe are preserved in Chinese works. Their origin and other aspects, like language, etc., are disputed and matter for further research.
Sculpture of Modu Chanyu. Chinggis Khaan National Museum, Ulaanbaatar. (KoizumiBS/ CC BY-SA 4.0)
Bimbisara of the Haryanka Dynasty of India: (Ruled: 544-491 BC)
King Bimbisara of Ancient India's Haryanka Dynasty was one of the first truly great Indian monarchs whose historicity could be proven with some certainty. He ruled the kingdom of Magadha, which had produced some of India's greatest emperors over the centuries. King Bimbisara is said to be the founder of his dynasty. Before him, Magadha was just another polity, but it became powerful under his rulership. Bimbisara lived at a time when Gautama Buddha was preaching his Buddhist doctrines and Mahavira Vardhamana was teaching Jaina philosophy. Thus, he lived during the time of Asia's two most important religious teachers. King Bimbisara was probably born in the year c. 559 BC and started his rule in c. 544 BC at a very young age.
Representation of King Bimbisara offering his kingdom, Magadha, to the Buddha. (Julian/Adobe Stock)
He expanded his empire through military conquests and matrimonial alliances. Bimbisara also endorsed diverse religious faiths in his territory. He left a great administrative structure in his kingdom and a powerful military, on the basis of which Magadha reached the pinnacle of glory in the succeeding years. King Bimbisara passed away in 491 BC after many years of successful rule. He was supposedly put to death by his own son, ‘Ajatashatru’. Ancient Magadha was roughly centred on the modern Indian state of Bihar.
Cyrus the Great of the Achaemenid Dynasty of Persia: (Lived: 590-530/529 BC)
Cyrus the Great's influence over the culture and politics of his succeeding generations is still palpable today. He is considered to be the greatest Persian monarch of all time. Cyrus has always been perceived as a father figure by the Iranian people, even in the modern era. According to most sources, Cyrus the Great, or Cyrus II, founded the Achaemenid Empire, which became the first truly great Persian Empire due to his efforts.
The works of Greek writers Herodotus and Xenophon convey the majority of the details about Cyrus' life and conquests. Of course, those details are hyperbolic, with figments of mythical elements.
It is generally believed that Cyrus was born to his royal father, Cambyses I, sometime around 590 BC or 600 BC. After he became king, he expanded his empire, to a great extent through his sheer military genius. He undertook several military campaigns, defeating numerous kingdoms and rulers one by one in the process. His empire stretched across a huge portion of this world, right from the Aegean Sea to the regions of South-Asia, thereby uniting many areas under one strong grasp.
Cyrus was not only a military genius; he was also a great human. His kindness and benevolence are now the stuff of legend. As a result of his deeds, he is even mentioned in the Holy Bible as the rescuer and deliverer of Jewish people from their brutal captivity. Cyrus the Great probably died in a battle sometime in the year 530 BC or 529 BC, but before that, he had already transformed a small kingdom into one of history's mightiest empires. His reign would go on to influence and inspire world events, culture, religion, philosophy, and literature like nothing else.
Cyaxares of the Median Empire: (Ruled: 625-585 BC)
Long before Cyrus subjugated the Medes tribe, they had risen to become a very powerful empire under their king, Cyaxares. The Medes were an ancient Iranian people who spoke a language called Median. As a base, they were centred in a region that now corresponds to north-western Iran.
King Cyaxares came to power in c. 625 BC. He'd seen his father killed in a battle by the Assyrians. He had to take his revenge. Cyaxares was an administrative as well as a military genius. He gradually united most of the ancient Iranian tribes under his suzerainty, thereby making the ‘Median Empire’ a very powerful entity.
Cyaxares used different means at different times to get rid of his enemy. Sometimes he even used treachery to achieve his ends. In that regard, he invited the Scythian leaders to a banquet, where he killed all of them quite easily after getting them heavily drunk. Then he made an alliance with the Babylonians and defeated his greatest foe, the Assyrians. Thus, he avenged his father in the end.
Cyaxares achieved several victories against numerous other forces at various points in his life, the chronological details of which are hazy. Thus, under Cyaxares, the Median Empire rose to unprecedented heights during that era. This great monarch of antiquity passed away in c. 585 BC.
Tomb of Cyaxares. (Public Domain)
Sennacherib of the Neo-Assyrian Dynasty: (Ruled: 705-681 BC)
Sennacherib is the most famous king from the ancient Assyrian civilization (Neo-Assyrian) of Mesopotamia. He was the second king of the eponymous dynasty probably named after his father, Sargon II. Sennacherib's siege of Jerusalem has made him immortal, as he is a much talked-about figure in the Old Testament.
He came to power in c. 705 BC, and his reign is marked by several military campaigns that he undertook. Contrary to the popular belief of the time that he was martially weak, Sennacherib had several military successes, including the subjugation of several towns and cities in the Levant region.
But his campaign against Jerusalem might have been unsuccessful due to a miraculous outbreak of some disease in his military camps. Sennacherib is also known for the destruction of the settlement of Babylon.
But at the same time, he was also a great builder who embellished his capital city of Nineveh with grand edifices. This Assyrian great ruler passed away in the year c. 681 BC.
Sennacherib on his throne. (Public domain)
Tiglath Pileser III of the Neo-Assyrian Dynasty: (Ruled: 745 – 727 BC)
One of the greatest empires of antiquity was the Assyrian Empire, which rose to unprecedented heights during a phase that we now call the Neo-Assyrian Empire period. At its pinnacle, this entity dominated Mesopotamia, Persia, the Levant, Asia Minor, Arabia, etc.
According to many experts, the advent of the Neo-Assyrian Dynasty as a superpower happened due to the brilliance of its ruler Tiglath Pileser III. Some even believe him to be the practical founder of this dynasty.
Tiglath-Pileser III came to power in the year c. 745 BC, probably through a coup. The administrative innovations and military strategies that this ruler introduced during his time were followed by scores of monarchs later on. In his style of functioning and ruling, Tiglath Pileser III remained an unsurpassed monarch. He passed away in c. 727 BC.
Tiglath/Pileser III, identified by his conical cap with a turban wrapped around it (so-called Polos), stands (under a parasol) in his royal chariot and raises his right arm in a greeting gesture, from the king’s Central Palace at Nimrud, Mesopotamia. (Osama Shukir Muhammed Amin FRCP(Glasg)/CC BY-SA 4.0)
Hammurabi of the Old Babylonian Dynasty: (Ruled: 1792 – 1750 BC)
Hammurabi, or Hammurabi the Great, is best known in history for his brilliant code of laws. This text of laws by Hammurabi is one of the oldest known detailed codes of conduct in history and also one of the best preserved ones. They are known for their fairness and equanimity, and have been a model for subsequent codes and laws in other texts and religious literature.
The language of Hammurabi's code is Akkadian. Hammurabi was a king of the Old or First Babylonian Dynasty of Mesopotamia. He was an Amorite by ethnicity. The Amorites were a Semitic-speaking group of people. Hammurabi came to the throne in c. 1792 BC.
He was a benevolent king under whom the people lived mostly in peace and prosperity. He undertook numerous military campaigns and built a large empire. Because of his military prowess, the entire of Mesopotamia came under his rule, under the umbrella of the Babylonian Empire.
Hammurabi passed away in c 1750 BC, and Babylonian hegemony faltered right after his death. Hammurabi has remained one of the most famous ancient Mesopotamian rulers in modern popular culture.
Sargon the Great of the Akkadian Dynasty: (Ruled: 2334 – 2285 BC)
Sargon the Great is considered by most experts today to be the first great king of recorded history. He was perhaps the founder of the Akkadian Dynasty of Mesopotamia. That is why he is also referred to as "Sargon of Akkad."
The name Sargon is said to have been a Biblical translation of the Akkadian name ‘Sarru-kinu’, which may be translated into English as ‘The True King’. Records state Sargon reigned from 2334 to 2279 BC. (Public Domain)
The Akkadian Dynasty or Empire is thus named because it was centred on the town of Akkad. After the Sumerian civilization, the Akkadian Empire is generally accepted as the first true great realm of Mesopotamian antiquity.
Sargon the Great came to power in c. 2334 BC. He conquered the various Sumerian city states and founded his vast empire. He was a military genius who had led numerous successful campaigns even outside of Mesopotamia, all the way to the Levant and the Mediterranean Sea.
Sargon was probably Semitic-speaking and came from a humble background, from which he rose through his great intelligence, presence of mind, and sheer ability. Out of Sargon's children, his daughter ‘Enheduanna the Priestess’ is quite noteworthy, because she is the earliest known author in world history.
Top image: Sumerian king statue one of the most ancient kingdoms of the Asian monarchs. Source: Francis Valadj/Adobe Stock
By Saurav Ranjan Datta