Conquerors come in many shapes and sizes: You have people like Napoleon, who stood at around five and a half feet tall (despite the myth that he was a dwarf), and then you have people like Charlemagne, who was around six four. It seems, then, that being a great conqueror isn’t about physical prowess on the battlefield, it’s about a military mind, ambition, and strategy. All of history’s greatest rulers had those qualities in spades.
Today, many of the strategies of these conquerors are still being taught at military schools around the world, testament to their universal and long-standing influence on history and warfare. Although many of the people on this list have had a terrible influence on mankind and leave a bad taste in our mouths, there’s no doubting the pure drive, motivation, and calculation of these 15 conquerors.
15. Ashoka the Great – Reigned 269 – 232 BC
Born Ashoka Maurya to the ancient Indian imperial Mauryan house, Ashoka was a brutal young man. After his father died, he killed his brothers and expanded his empire to end up ruling almost all of the Indian subcontinent, reigning from the Hindu Kush mountains in the west to Bengal in the East. After slaughtering 100,000 citizens near the Daya River, Ashoka embraced Buddhism and became a just and changed ruler. He promoted equality amongst his subjects and even vegetarianism. By the time of his death he ruled India, Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Nepal.
14. Francisco Pizarro – Reigned 1529 – 1541
Francisco Pizarro was a Spanish conquistador who conquered the Incan Empire. While Hernan Cortes is often credited with the Spanish rule of South America, Pizarro’s exploits were far more expansive. He made three expeditions to South America and finally drove to the Incan capital of Tumbes. He captured the Emperor Atahualpa, executed him, and basically conquered the whole land with about 160 men on horseback.
13. William the Conqueror – Reigned 1066 – 1086
It’s hard to have a list about successful conquerors without including the one guy whose epithet was ‘The Conqueror.’ William led the Norman invasion of England and became the last foreign conqueror of the country. He defeated the English army at the pivotal Battle of Hastings, marched on London, and took control of England. He brought about Anglo-Norman culture and expanded England’s borders into the northern half of the island, taking over parts of Wales and Scotland.
12. Adolf Hitler – Reigned 1934 – 1945
The most recent historical entry belongs to the man who is despised the world over. His name has become a byword for evil and destruction, such was the pain he inflicted on the world. Hitler began his rise to power following World War I and the economic disaster that took place in Germany. The Nazi party rose to power by providing food and jobs for Germans. Further down the road, Hitler’s demands for a “pure” race and global domination horrified the world. Around 55 million people died in World War II, and Hitler was the instigator and propagator. During his fanatical rule, Hitler’s Germany occupied 1,370,000 square miles of land.
11. Julius Caesar – Reigned 49 – 44 BC
The most famous of Rome’s statesmen helped bring the end of the Roman Republic and the rise of the Roman Empire. As a general, Caesar led the armies of Rome to victories across Europe and Africa. He defeated the Gauls during the Gallic Wars, and he defeated the forces of Pompey in a civil war after his political alliance with Crassus and Pompey deteriorated. He stepped away from the civil war with unrivaled power and influence. He was murdered by Brutus after just five years as ruler, but who knows what he might have accomplished if his rule had lasted longer?
10. Pharaoh Thutmose III – Reigned 1479 – 1425 BC
Thutmose III was the sixth Pharaoh of the Eighteenth Dynasty. He inherited the throne of Egypt at age seven and spent the first 22 years of his reign as co-regent alongside his father’s wife. When she died he conquered lands in Palestine, Syria, Mesopotamia, and Nubia, and came to a great understanding of sea power and supply lines. Thutmose established Egypt as a major power in the eastern Mediterranean and his humane, just rulership made his era a golden age of riches and temple building.
9. Napoleon Bonaparte – Reigned 1804 – 1814, 1815
Napoleon rose to power during the latter stages of the French Revolution. He became Emperor of the French in 1804 and implemented many liberal reforms across Europe, including the abolition of feudalism and the spread of religious tolerance. He was a brilliant strategist and general, and his army conquered most of continental Europe. At his peak Napoleon ruled over 70 million people and 720,000 square miles of land. His only mistake was trying to invade Russia, which led to his eventual downfall, exile, and death.
8. Augustus Caesar – Reigned 27 BC – 14 AD
While Julius Caesar set up the markings of a great empire, it was his great-nephew (and adopted son) who succeeded in implementing his dream. Born Gaius Octavius, Augustus Caesar formed the Second Triumvirate with Mark Antony and Marcus Lepidus, and when the Triumvirate separated the Republic into three divisions, Augustus gained great power and eventually founded the Roman Empire and became its first emperor.
Augustus led the empire into its most prosperous period, doubling its size after defeating Cleopatra and seizing Egypt. He also expanded the empire into Hungary, Croatia, Spain, and Gaul, and he was worshiped like a god amongst his people.
7. Hannibal Barca
While not technically a conqueror, Hannibal is considered a father of military strategy and one of the greatest military minds in history. He invaded the Roman Empire with his Carthaginian forces by bringing elephants through the Alps and defeating them in numerous battles, including battles at Trebia, Trasimene, and Cannae. He never lost on the battlefield to the Romans during the Second Punic War, and became one of the first users of the pincer tactic to cause massive devastation in rope-a-dope type situations to opposing armies. He constantly fought the Romans with smaller, more poorly equipped armies, but he always came out on top.
6. Charlemagne – Reigned 800 – 814
Charles the Great was the King of the Franks, Italy, Germany, and the first emperor in Western Europe since the collapse of the Western Roman Empire three centuries earlier. He is called the “Father of Europe” for uniting most of Western Europe under his Carolingian Empire for the first time since the Romans. He spread Christianity throughout the region and fought Muslim Saracens and pagan Saxons, going on to fight 53 campaigns before succumbing to fever at the age of 72.
5. Attila the Hun – Reigned 434 – 453
Attila is known throughout history as one of the most bloodthirsty and rabid barbarian rulers of all time. During its peak the Hunnic Empire stretched over 1,450,000 square miles of land, expanding from the Rhine River in modern day Germany across the Baltic Sea to Central Asia. Known as the “Scourge of God,” Attila began his rule by slaughtering Goth tribes and then attacking a weak Roman Empire. He pillaged and devastated Western and Eastern Rome for nearly 20 years before dying by choking on his own blood in his sleep, and soon after his barbarian empire collapsed.
4. Timur (Tamerlane) – Reigned 1370 – 1405
Timur was a Turko-Mongol conqueror and founder of the Timurid Dynasty in Central Asia. Envisioning the restoration of Genghis Khan’s Mongol Empire, Timur led military campaigns across West, South, and Central Asia, and became the most powerful ruler in the Muslim world after defeating the emerging Ottoman Empire, the declining Sultanate of Delhi, and the Mamluks of Egypt and Syria.
During its peak his dynasty controlled an astounding 2,145,000 square miles of land, and his vast conquests caused about 17 million deaths, or 5% of the population at that time. The “Sword of Islam,” as he often called himself, was the main reason why Christianity was largely expunged from Asia.
3. Cyrus the Great – Reigned 559 – 530 BC
Cyrus the Great was the founder of the Achaemenid or Persian Empire, which would go on to create the biggest empire that the world had ever seen. He was called the King of the Four Corners of the World after conquering most of Southwest Asia, Central Asia, and the Caucasus. He was well recognized for respecting religions and customs of the lands he conquered, championing human rights, and influencing both Eastern and Western cultures. He freed the Jews in Babylon and many Jews still call him a Messiah. His empire spanned across three continents, 2,090,000 square miles of land, and endured long after his death due to the political infrastructure he had created.
2. Alexander the Great – Reigned 336 – 326 BC
Easily one of the most recognizable names on this list, Alexander III of Macedon accomplished more in his 32 years than maybe anyone else in history. He was tutored by Aristotle and had conquered Greece and set sail to Asia Minor by the time he was 22. He destroyed the armies of Darius III in Syria, gained control of the entire Eastern Mediterranean coast, liberated Egypt, and pushed to India before deserting his campaign at the behest of his army. He named 20 cities after himself, created trade between the East and West, and changed the course of human history. When he died his Macedonian Empire of 2,180,000 square miles split amongst a number of squabbling rulers, and it was never quite the same.
1. Genghis Khan – Reigned 1206 – 1227
Temujin – the Great Khan and founder of the Mongol Empire – created what would become the largest contiguous empire in history, covering 4,860,000 square miles (more than double of anyone else). If Julius Caesar provided the heavy lifting for Augustus Caesar, Genghis Khan did the same for every emperor following him, including his grandson Kublai, who founded the Yuan Dynasty. Temujin was born to a small tribe, but he eventually united the Mongolian tribes and conquered territories as far apart as Northern China and Afghanistan. Genghis Khan valued quality over quantity, and his mounted archers were unmatched in warfare. Although vilified as a ruthless, brutal conqueror, that’s what makes him the best in history.