Interesting facts on some of the greatest ancient warriors

This is a demonstration of how I enjoy history. The focus is not so much on my answers, as on fun. The way I think is a great source of joy for me, so why not share? The question is very simple and open: who was the greatest warrior in human history? Now, for sure there is no one answer, so the idea is playing with perspectives.

Why do I do that? Playing with historical data is fun. When I was a kid my father used historical figures to calm me down and make me go to sleep. I am not half as good a storyteller as my father, but I can find some great stories.

As an exercise check my links and think how I could come up with the specific links.

The absolute champion

Let us consider the most obvious figures first. The most successful conquerer was probably Genghis Khan. His success can be measured in the most important statistics of all: about 0.5% of the world’s population can be traced to his linage. Maybe having frequent sex with 5000 ladies and ruling the biggest land empire will have this effect. Here are some less known facts showing what a big deal Genghis Khan used to be:

  • He was born in a relatively poor chieftain’s family. At a very young age, his father was killed, and he spent his youth in China. Possibly he returned to Mongolia as a double agent. [Compare with Lenin who returned to Russia with German support.]
  • Genghis Khan was a shaman and claimed to have knowledge from sources nobody could understand. He reorganized entire life, religion, and military of Mongol nation.
  • After winning a bitter civil war with his blood brother Jamukha, Genghis Khan turned his armies and exterminated the ancient Persian people. A huge empire of Khwarezmia, the birthplace of algebra and algorithms, and the seat of Abbasid caliph was erased with a frightening 90% death toll.
  • The victory over Khwarezmia was not really expected. In fact, the first general who was sent to Kwarezmia lost and was killed in action. Genghis Khan used a very complex strategy at the head of the army. His baggage train included such siege equipment as battering rams, gunpowder, and enormous siege bows capable of throwing 20-foot (6 m) arrows into siege works. Also, the Mongol intelligence network was formidable.
  • Genghis Khan’s empire was huge, it was twice as large ag Alexander the Great’s empire. His grandchildren doubled the area, creating the second-largest empire in history, e.g. smaller than the British empire and slightly larger than the Russian empire.
  • Genghis Khan also eradicated Chinese Western Xia and founded Yuan Empire. He was so successful that very little is known about what was a very advanced civilization of Xia and the victory was achieved by 50,000 of his troops against 500,000 Xia warriors.
  • Genghis Khan is responsible for killing about 20 to 40 million people. He was absolutely hated by all his enemies and absolutely loved by his subjects.
  • Nobody yet found the Genghis Khan’s grave. To keep the secret many builders were killed and a river was diverted.

The sword of the god

As great as was Genghis Khan, he lost several battles. There is a list of commanders that never lost a battle, and it not very long. One of them, Khalid ibn al-Walid, was called by Muhammad Sayf Allah (the Sword of God). Khalid is the only military leader who fought more than 200 undefeated battles and is considered to be one of the finest military leaders in history.

He was not just a great general.  He was also an expert duelist, a leader of mubarizun.  The mubarizun were specially trained swordsmen and lancers, with the objective to slay as many enemy commanders as possible to damage their morale.  Khalid’s victories over Persian generals were often won in duels.

After a couple of civil wars, in some of which Khalid fought against Muhammad, he became Muslim. This was a conscious career move as he would be only a minor commander otherwise: both Persian and Byzantine empires employed Arab forces in secondary roles.

Basically Khalid participated in wars under three caliphs and was personally responsible for all the early conquests of Islam and victories over Byzantine and Persian empires. He kind of reinvented the tactical use of medium cavalry and deployed it against light cavalry of other Arab nations and against heavily armored and not very maneuverable cavalry of the empires. The most interesting and well documented of these fights was the Battle of Yarmouk.

He was just a general, yet his cultural influence is still with us. While most ancient empires collapsed long ago, the Arab nations are still very much a part of the modern world.

A forgotten giant

Occasionally I stumble upon very strange stories totally unprepared. Here is one example. I quote the source as-is:

Tlahuicole was a warrior who lived pre-sixteenth century. Held captive by the Aztecs, he integrated himself in with the Aztecs and became part of their clan. Nobody knows why he stayed. Most likely, it was for women. Isn’t that why most warriors get sidetracked? Tlahuicole was promoted to commander of the Army. A job that he was really good at. It is said that he was so large, other soldiers couldn’t even lift Tlahuicole’s weapons because they were too heavy. 

When the Aztecs went to war with the people of Tlahuicole’s tribe, the Tlaxcala, the young warrior realized he could not fight for the Aztecs he had been living among nor could he go back to his people the Tlaxcala and fight against the Aztecs. It was a lose-lose situation for Tlahuicole. And so, he asked to be given a warrior’s death. He would fight as a gladiator to his death. 

Only, it wasn’t that easy. Warrior after warrior came to fight Tlahuicole, and although he was ready to accept his fate, he wasn’t ready to just lay down and be killed. He fought back. He ended up killing eight Eagle Warriors and wounding twenty other warriors before he fell to his death. After he died, his heart was cut out by a high priest as a sacrifice to the gods. 

There are many stories about the giant warriors becoming generals. Take for example the Roman Emperor Maximinus of Thrace who was above 2 m (8 feet) tall. Most sufferers of gigantism do not live long lives, but Maximinus died at age 65 in AD 238, killed in his sleep by his own soldiers.

The giant warriors were feared and revered in their lifetime, but they did not leave an equally giant mark on their world or on the future.

The balance of the legends

Not all great warriors enjoy an undisputed victory. When there is a balance between legendary warriors, legends are created. One of these legends based entirely on real events is the Chinese Romance of the Three Kingdoms. In this novel, there is one warlord who is especially feared: Cao Cao. Through to modern times, the Chinese equivalent of the English idiom “speak of the Devil” is “speak of Cao Cao and Cao Cao arrives”.

Cao Cao’s gene can be traced through millions in China, and his legacy is immense. He won victory after victory for approximately 20 years, and eventually usurped the position of the power behind the emperor. And yet he failed to unify China. At the battle of Red Cliffs, his military progress stopped and China was divided into three nations.

While waging military campaigns against his enemies, Cao Cao did not forget the basis of society – agriculture and education. He began a series of agricultural programs in cities such as Xu City and Chenliu. Historical records indicate Cao Cao as a brilliant ruler, with a treacherous personality.

Here are some more facts:

  • As a young man, Cao Cao paid a visit to Xu Shao, a man renowned for his abilities as a judge of character, and Xu Shao was blunt: “You would be a capable minister in peace and an unscrupulous hero in chaotic times.”
  • If Romance of the Three Kingdoms is Game of the Thrones, Cao Cao an unstoppable, merciless force willing to do anything in his quest for power. However, scholars agree that his depiction in the novel is historically inaccurate and that writers tailored his character to suit the political attitudes of the Ming Dynasty, who ruled at the time the book was written. The book was written in 14th century, describing the events of 2nd century…
  • During the Chinese Civil War, Mao Zedong was frequently compared to Cao Cao. Rather than damage Mao’s reputation, however, propagandists rehabilitated Cao’s reputation to make the comparison more favorable.
  • Cao Cao wasn’t just a warlord, he was also a good poet.
  • Despite his depiction as a scheming, power-hungry villain, Cao Cao made—and kept—a personal vow to never usurp the throne of the emperor. Cao Cao died in 220, at the age of 65. Upon his death, his son Cao Pi deposed Emperor Xian and declared himself the first emperor of a new state, Cao Wei.

The ruler who outplayed them all

From the list of the generals that never lost I will quote :

Tamerlane (April 9, 1336 – February 14, 1405) – infamous Turco-Mongol conqueror. As the founder of the Timurid Empire in Persia and Central Asia, he became the first ruler of the Timurid dynasty. Notorious for causing the deaths of 17 million people during his time. His descendant, Babur, would establish the Mughal Empire in India.

This is a very negative overview of the greatest chess game ever played. Tamerlane was one of the smartest people who ever lived and the best chess player of his time. Quite literally. The regular chess was too simple for him, and he preferred to play on a 10×10 board.

Timur had a limp due to injury in his knee, hence he was called the lane. He was of Turkish roots from a minor noble descent.  Around 1363, it is believed that Timur tried to steal a sheep from a shepherd but was shot by two arrows, one in his right leg and another in his right hand, where he lost two fingers.

His rise to power was slow, as he joined each time the greatest of fighting powers until he became the man behind Chagatai Khans. While he was not a descendent of Muhammad or of Genghis Khan, his title was Amir, meaning general.  His throne was roughly in today’s Afganistan.

Timur’s military career involved massive battles over 35 years of conquest. At the time, Timur was responsible for the unification of the two Mongol Hordes and was the power behind the Mongols.

Unlike Genghis Khan, Tamerlane did not fight wars of extermination. So how do we explain the death toll? In 1383 Timur started his conquest of Persia. The campaign was long and Persian cities revolted. When in 1387 citizens of Isfahan killed Timur’s tax collectors. Timur ordered a massacre of the city with 200000 casualties.

In 1380 a young Mongol Khan  Tokhtamysh, ruler of the uniter hordes lost a crucial battle in Russia with 136000 casualties. So he switched his attention to lose himself of Timur’s lordship. After a long buildup, there was a civil war in the Mongolian empire. In 1395 Timur won the battle of the Terek River (total 10000 casualties).  This particular was interesting due to huge cavalry marches, 100000 men over 1000 miles.

As a result, Timur was the head of a very restless and victorious army, so he needed new conquests for the army. In 1398 there was the conquest of Delhi (100000 casualties) and in 1402 battle of Ankara (15000 casualties).  There were also attempts to attack the Ming dynasty, but not very successful.

In simple terms, Timur died just outside the Ming border, leaving to his children a huge empire.  After his death, Timur remained a powerful legend. I quote:

It is alleged that Timur’s tomb was inscribed with the words, “When I rise from the dead, the world shall tremble.” It is also said that when the soviet scientist Gerasimovexhumed the body, an additional inscription inside the casket was found, which read, “Whomsoever opens my tomb shall unleash an invader more terrible than I.” In any case, three days after Gerasimov began the exhumation, Adolf Hitler launched Operation Barbarossa, the largest military invasion of all time, upon the Soviet Union

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