Obviously modern armies would make quick work of any ancient military, but I am judging an Army based on how well they dominated in their time. Brilliant strategists like Hannibal of Carthage and Napoleon are not listed because they lost wars and did not sustain an empire. They would be listed among the greatest commanders of all time along with Alexander, Julius Caesar, and Attila. An Empire builder is a politician, strategist, economist, and leader. The rise of an empire that is sustained throughout time is the real legacy of a great military. Here is a list of the most dominant militaries of their day. The dates listed are the peak of power.
Egypt 1274 B.C. The rise of Egypt as a world power was steady over two thousand years. Egypt was basically a set of villages that defended the fertile Nile River Valley on both sides from foreigners trying to settle there. The invasion of Egypt by the Hyskos (Syria) in 17th Century B.C. led to the formation of a standing army and the beginning of the New Empire. The major advance in weapons technology and warfare began around 1600 BC when the Egyptians fought and finally defeated the Hyksos people. It was during this period the horse and chariot were introduced into Egypt. They fought wars against powerful Near Eastern kingdoms like Mitanni, the Hittites, the Assyrians and Babylonians. The Battle of Kadesh (1274) took place between the forces of Ramesses II (The same guy that killed all the Jewish Babies)and the Hittites of Muwatalli II at the city of Kadesh, in modern Syria. Egypt was ambushed crossing the Orontes River and routed. Egypt lost control of the Middle East and allowed the rise of Assyrians.
Assyrians 612 B.C. Assyria is considered to be the worlds first Empire. They competed with Babylonia and Egypt for dominance in the Middle East for centuries. They took control of Babylonia in 703 B.C. They destroyed all of Israel and enslaved the population. The tiny Kingdom of Judea was surrounded and just when it seemed that Jerusalem would fall, the Assyrian Army was infected with the plague and retreated. In 701 B.C. they faced a coalition of Egyptian, Phoenician, Philistine, and Jewish armies and crushed them all. They went on to conquer Egypt in 671 B.C. Upon King Ashurbanipal’s death in 627 BC, the empire began to disintegrate rapidly. The Assyrian Capital city of Nineveh was sacked by Babylonians in 612 B.C. and all Assyrian territory was over run by the Persian Empire by 609 B.C.
Persia 480 B.C. The Persians conquered all of southern Asia (the “stan” countries) up to the boarders of China and India. They held all of the middle east including, Anatolia, Mesopotamia, Egypt, and the Holy Land. They invaded Europe, and conquered Thrace up to the Danube River. The Greek War devastated the vast numbers of Persian troops. Even though they defeated Sparta and Athens, the loss in the naval battle of Salamis to the combined Greek Fleet led to the withdrawal of Persia from Europe. If the Persians held the Greek cities, western civilization would have been very different.
Macedonia 323 BC: Alexander never lost a battle in 12 years of constant war. Alexander conquered the Persian Empire, including Anatolia, Syria, Phoenicia, Judea, Gaza, Egypt, Bactria, and Mesopotamia, and extended the boundaries of his own empire as far as Punjab, India. Alexander’s victory over vastly superior Persia forces at the battle of Gaugamela is one of the most important and innovative battles in history. Persian chariots, which were unstoppable up to this point, were considered obsolete after Alexander’s tactics obliterated Persian Chariots. Prior to his death at age 33, Alexander had already made plans for military and mercantile expansions into the Arabian peninsula, after which he was to turn his armies to the west (Carthage, Rome, and Spain). Alexander’s battle strategies and system of governing were closely studied and implemented into the Roman Republic.
Roman Republic 49 B.C. By the first century B.C. Rome controlled every inch of shore touching the Mediterranean as well as Britain and Gaul (modern France). Julius Caesar defeated a combined Gallic Army and held the Governorship of Gaul at the same time as being consul of Rome. The senate thought he had too much power, and they ordered him to disband his army and return to Rome to stand trial for violations of the constitution. He entered Rome with his army and Civil War led to the eventual downfall of the Roman Republic.
Roman Empire 117: Rome was a world power for so long that it is tough to come up with the peak of power. The largest territory was in 117 under Emperor Trajan when Armenia, Anatolia, and Mesopotamia were conquered from the Parthian Empire. Trajan’s successor Hadrian abandoned the middle east because he did not believe they could defend the cities so far from Rome. They defeated Germania in several wars, but were never able to maintain a hold north of the Rhine River. They were smart enough to avoid land wars in Asia because they understood supply lines and communication. Rome was founded in 1000 B.C. and the eternal city officially fell in 476 but the empire continued in Constantinople until 1453, when the Ottoman Turks captured the city.
Huns 453: Attila united central Asian nomads into an elite mobile fighting force that raided cities and left them in ashes. Three Norse sagas depict Attila as a hero and his tactics may have influenced the Vikings. The Huns territory stretched from China (The Great Wall) to Germany, and from the Baltic to the Danube River in Eastern Europe. They pushed the Goths, Vandals, and many other Germanic tribes into Roman territory . Rome had to defend the entire border of the empire, so they were stretched too thin. Rome had to ally with the Germanic tribes and provide them with weapons, food, land, etc to guard against Hunnic plundering. Eventually, Rome granted Attila land to settle on, modern day Hungary, and paid him a tribute in Gold. When the Emperor Valentinian’s sister Honoria proposed to Attila, he invaded Italy to claim half of the Roman Empire as dowry. Attila was defeated at Chalons, France by a combined Roman, Gothic Army. He returned the next year and invaded Italy. Northern Roman provinces left their homes to live in on the many small islands in the Venetian lagoon which became the city of Venice. In 452, Pope Leo I pleaded with Attila to spare Rome, and he agreed leaving Italy. He died in 453 before he could capture Constantinople. Although the Roman Empire officially fell in 476, the Fall of Rome was Attila the Hun’s doing.
Arab Empire 743: The Umayyad dynasty under caliph Hisham ibn Abd al-Malik marked the greatest extent of the Muslim empire. Their rule stretched from Spain to India. They controlled Spain, North Africa, The Middle east, Persia and western India (Pakistan). The Muslims were defeated at the battle of Tours in Spain by Frankish King Charles Martel. This was the end of Islamic expansion into Western Europe. Hisham continued fighting the Byzantine Empire in Asia Minor and the Near East. They forced religious conversions of Pagans. Surprisingly, they allowed Christians and Jews to practice their faith, although they were placed into a higher tax bracket. Before the Crusades, the Muslims respected Christians and Jews rights to worship because they believe in the same God.
Holy Roman Empire 814: Charles I, King of the Franks or Charlemagne was crowned the first holy roman emperor on December 25, 800. He conquered most of Europe and converted all lands to Roman Catholicism through force if necessary. The conquest of Spain eventually pushed the Islamic Moors out of Europe. The Roman Catholics dominated Europe for the next 700 years until the protestant reformation caused several nations to split with the Holy Roman Empire. The empire formed by Charlemagne lasted until 1806 when the last emperor Francis II was defeated by Napoleon.
Byzantine Empire 1054: The Re-conquest of Crete and Cyprus and the expansion into Syria and Northern Iraq extended the Byzantine power throughout the Eastern Mediterranean again. The empire stretched from Armenia to Southern Italy. They defeated the Bulgarian empire and controlled all of the Balkans up to the borders with Hungary. The split of the Catholic and Orthodox Church in 1054 caused weakening relations with Rome. New enemies emerged as Normans invaded southern Italy, and the Turks conquered Armenia and Asia Minor. The Empire lasted until 1453 when the Turks captured the capital city of Constantinople.
The Vikings may have been the most fearsome group in the 9th-11th centuries, but they were not united under one ruler, and can not really be considered one military group. They did however control land from the Arctic to Baghdad, and North America (500 years before Columbus) to The Black Sea and everywhere in between. They conquered parts of France, Spain, Italy, and all of England in 1066 (the last successful invasion of England). The Russian Czars all the way up to present day Russians are Viking decedents. Nationalism in Norway, Sweden, and Denmark, as well as Christianization of settlements led to the end of the Viking Age.
Mongols 1279: Genghis Kahn’s grandson Kublai Kahn ruled the largest contiguous empire in world history. China (The Great wall did not work again), Russia, most of the Middle East, and Eastern Europe fell to the Mongols. They were fighting the the German Teutonic Knights, and the Japanese Samurai at the same time! How would things be different today if the Mongols did not turn back at Vienna and instead rode through Western Europe? The enlightenment may not have happened for a few hundred more years. After they left Europe, they conquered Korea from the Japanese Shogun, then tried unsuccessfully to invade Japan in 1281. Japan was saved from the Mongol fleet by a sudden violent storm that destroyed many of the invading ships. The Japanese called the storm Kamikaze, (the divine wind). Unity of the Mongol tribes was never as strong following the defeat. In 1368 China revolted and pushed out the Mongols (Yuan) to form the Ming dynasty.
Ottoman Empire: 1566: Suleiman the magnificent conquered Belgrade and the Kingdom of Hungary as well as most of central Europe. He laid siege to Vienna but failed to take the city. In the East, they captured Baghdad from the Persians and controlled all of the Middle East from Mesopotamia to Egypt. With access to the Persian Gulf, they developed the worlds best Navy. The empire expanded by defeating Spain and conquering Algeria and Tunisia. The Turks actually evacuated Jews from Christian Lands during the inquisition and returned them to safety in the Ottoman controlled Holy Land. Continued wars with Austria, Persia, and the newly emerging European powers weakened the empire. The Ottomans lasted until 1919 when British helped unite the Arabs and Iraq to fight against Turkish rule during WWI. The British and French then took control of all former Ottoman regions. Ottoman remnants settled in Asia Minor, which eventually became the nation of Turkey. The Balkan provinces were given their independence, but Britain governed Egypt, Palestine, Arabia, Iraq, and Iran until stable governments could be put in place. Sound familiar?
British Empire 1783: British had control of the all of the world’s oceans. Australia, India, Southeast Asia, Africa, North and South America and everywhere in between were controlled by the British. They were mainly a naval power, but still, the American Revolution was histories greatest upset. The British fought wars on six continents and four Oceans simultaneously. The loss of America in 1783 did little to hurt British interests world wide. India and Burma were granted independence. Britain granted parliamentary control of South Africa, Australia, and Canada to the local people who agreed to maintain loyal to the British Monarchy. The influences of British colonialism formed the modern world as we know it.
Russian Empire 1856: After the defeat of Napoleon in 1812, Russia was considered militarily invincible. They controlled the territory from The Pacific Ocean to the Baltic Sea, and the Arctic Ocean in the North to the Caucus Mountains in the South. The empire spanned over 6000 miles and 11 time zones. The advance south into Ukraine and dominance of the Black Sea led to the Crimean war. The first modern war was fought by a joint force of France, Britain, Sardinia and the Ottoman Empire against Russia. Even though Russia dominated the war, Russian Czar Nicholas I agreed to a peace treaty that severely weakened Russian influence in Europe. The peace settlement of the Crimean war actually led to WWI.
Third Reich 1942: I am breaking my rule about a long lasting empire here, but the Germans became so powerful so fast that they deserve mention. It took Russia, Britain, France, and the United States to break the German military machine. They conquered France in 40 days, along with most of Europe. The two front war and loss of Air and Sea supremacy weakened the Germans. The key to the turnaround was the Greek resistance. They held out fighting man to man in the streets for 10 months. That allowed the allies to regroup and the Russian Red Army was formed. If not for the Greek resistance, Hitler would have certainly captured western Russia. Then he could have turned west and taken Britain before America was entrenched there. It would have been a very different war after that!
USSR 1989: This great military machine never went to war, but instead fought and lost the cold war with the U.S.A. If China and Russia could have avoided a split in ideology in the 1950’s, communism could have spread throughout the world forcing an eventual war with the NATO allies along the Eastern Bloc lines. Nuclear war was far from likely although it was the great deterrent.
USA 2008: Combat troops are spread from Korea to Iraq. Firm control of land, air and sea as well as outer space make the American Empire the most dominant the world has ever seen. Iraq, The world’s 4th largest Army at 600,000 troops lasted 4 days against the U.S. in 1991.