While there’s no official definition of ‘ancient history’, modern historians tend to define it as the period from the beginning of human civilization up until the early Middle Ages, usually until the fall of the Roman empire in 476 AD. From Europe to China to Africa, it was a period of intense violence among countless rising and falling empires, leading to some of the most devastating wars in history we know of.
10. War Of Actium
The War of Actium was fought in 31 BC as a part of the Roman civil wars between Octavian and Mark Antony. While there were many reasons behind the conflict, the main one seemed to be the tensions between the two because of Antony’s relationship with Cleopatra. Octavian used Antony’s will as pretext for all-out war, which hinted at a potential shift of the Roman government to Alexandria and an eventual control of the eastern territories by Antony, Cleopatra, and their children.
The decisive battle happened on September 2, with Marcus Vipsanius Agrippa commanding Octavian’s fleet against Antony’s forces. Cleopatra’s unexpected departure from the battlefield ultimately led to Antony’s defeat, and by the end of it, both Antony and Cleopatra had committed suicide to escape captivity and retribution by Octavian’s forces.
While the war remains forgotten in the larger contemporary history of Rome, it was an important event that solidified Octavian’s position as the dominant political figure. It was the beginning of the transformation of the Roman Republic into the Roman Empire, with Octavian – later Augustus – establishing himself as the first Roman Emperor.
9. Kalinga War
The Kalinga War was a major conflict fought between the Mauryan Empire and the state of Kalinga in the southeastern part of India. Beginning sometime around 261 BC, it’s considered one of the bloodiest military campaigns in ancient India due to its death toll, largely fought as a war of conquest by the Mauryas to expand their influence to other parts of India.
Kalinga was a prosperous region with strategic trade routes and a strong navy, making it a threat to the Mauryan Empire. The war would result in devastating losses for the natives and invaders alike, with around 100,000 soldiers killed and 150,000 captured by the end of it. According to the legends, the scale of the violence and its bloody aftermath deeply affected the Mauryan king Ashoka, leading him to abandon further conquest and embrace Buddhism.
8. Alexander’s Wars Of Conquest
Alexander was the king of Macedonia from 336 to 323 BC, as well as one of the most famous military commanders in history. His conquests began in 334 BC, starting with the invasion of the Persian Empire with his army of Macedonians and experienced mercenaries. He won early victories at the Battle of Granicus and the Battle of Issus, where he defeated the Persian king Darius III. Alexander’s campaign would continue with the conquest of other large, historically-important regions like Egypt, Babylon, and Susa.
After decisively defeating Darius at the Battle of Gaugamela, he marched eastward into the ancient region of Bactria and then into India, though growing dissent among the troops resulted in him taking his army back into Macedonia, where he died at the age of 33. Alexander’s legacy survived in the form of successor kingdoms that had a huge influence on the regions he conquered long after his death, though these were also some of the most devastating conflicts of that time.
7. Bar Kokhba Revolt
Named after the rebel leader that started it, the Bar Kokhba Revolt – also sometimes called the Second Jewish Revolt – was fought in the ancient region of Judaea between 132 and 135 AD. The underlying cause was oppressive Roman rule, specifically the policies of the Roman governor Tinnius Rufus and Emperor Hadrian that tried to establish a Roman colony in Jerusalem, all the while restricting Jewish religious practices and customs.
The uprising was initially successful, as the rebels were able to capture and temporarily hold the city of Jerusalem after defeating the powerful Roman Legion XXII Deiotariana. That wouldn’t last long, however, and those gains were quickly overturned after the intervention of Hadrian himself, who summoned reinforcements from Britain led by Gaius Julius Severus. The region was brought under Roman control by the end of the conflict, which concluded with the death of Bar Kokhba in 135 AD. Jewish casualties throughout the war are estimated at around 580,000, though that doesn’t include civilian deaths due to hunger and disease.
6. Punic Wars
Also known as the Carthaginian Wars, the Punic Wars were a series of three deadly conflicts between Rome and Carthage beginning in 264 BC. The First Punic War – between 264-241 BC – started from a dispute over the control of Sicily and the western-Mediterranean sea lanes. Rome emerged victorious after almost two decades of bitter warfare, gaining Sicily as its first overseas province. The second war – from 218 to 201 BC – saw the famous Carthaginian general Hannibal invade Italy by crossing the Alps with his troops, including war elephants.
Despite initial victories, however, Hannibal was eventually defeated by the Roman general Scipio Africanus, leading to the complete loss of Carthaginian control over Italy. The Third Punic War from 149 to 146 BC ended in the fall of Carthage to the legions of Scipio Aemilianus, followed by the almost-complete destruction of the city in the coming weeks.
The wars resulted in the end of the Carthaginian empire, with its territory being turned into the Roman province of Africa. As retribution, most of the surviving Carthaginians were sold into slavery, with almost every part of their culture completely wiped off from history. Even the most conservative estimates put the number of casualties in the hundreds of thousands, making it one of the most destructive wars in history.
5. Cimbrian War
The Cimbrian War refers to the series of conflicts between the Roman Republic and migrating Germanic tribes, the Cimbri and Teutones. Fought between 113 BC to 101 BC, these tribes started posing a threat to Roman allies in modern-day Austria during one of their southward migrations. Roman leaders initially underestimated their strength, leading to a disastrous defeat at the Battle of Arausio in 105 BC and tens of thousands of military casualties.
As a result, Rome took drastic measures to counter the growing threat from the tribes, granting sweeping military powers to one of their leaders, Gaius Marius. He’d go on to successfully reorganize the Roman army into a professional fighting force, leading to his decisive victory over the Teutones at the Battle of Aquae Sextiae in 102 BC. Marius later fought the Cimbri at the Battle of Vercellae in Gaul, resulting in another huge victory for the Roman forces. The war was marked by huge battles and extraordinary casualties on both sides – some estimates suggest that over 600,000 people lost their lives due to various reasons throughout the conflict.
4. Warring States Period
The Warring States era from 475 to 221 BC forms a part of a larger period in Chinese history called the Spring and Autumn period. The country was divided into seven smaller competing kingdoms throughout this time, each fighting for control over the other with some of the largest recorded battles in Chinese history.
It was a time of widespread warfare and political intrigue, but also major advancements in culture, philosophy, science, medicine, and a bunch of other fields across China. The time period saw the rise of various philosophical movements we now come to associate with ancient China, including Confucianism, Daoism, Legalism, and Mohism. The era also saw the widespread adoption of iron tools and weapons in various forms, beginning the Iron Age in the region.
The seven independent states constantly fought for control over territory, and this was when the concept of a single Chinese emperor ruling over all the kings emerged in the region. The conflict ended with the rise of the Qin dynasty, when it finally conquered the other kingdoms in 221 BC and established the first unified Chinese empire in history. While there are few official estimates about the death toll, one could tell that it was one of the deadliest conflicts of its time by the fact that just one of its campaigns – the Battle of Changping – resulted in the loss of around 650,000 soldiers.
3. Gallic Wars
From 58 BC to 50 BC, Julius Caesar fought a brutal series of wars now remembered as the Gallic wars. The aim was to bring large parts of the territory of Gaul – now France and a few other neighboring regions – under direct Roman control. On the Gallic side, it was a war to stop Roman encroachment on traditionally Gallic-territories, along with other deep-rooted issues going back over several centuries.
While the Gauls were fierce fighters by all accounts, they lacked cooperation and teamwork on the battlefield, where Rome’s advanced equipment and experienced legions gave them the clear upper hand. The Battle of Alesia in 52 BC cemented their control over the Gallic territories and marked the end of the civil war, though it came at a terrible cost, especially for the Gallic tribes. According to estimates by Roman historians Plutarch and Appian, the conflict resulted in the death of over one million Celts – a casualty rate not experienced by even the most-affected countries of the Second World War.
2. Yellow Turban Rebellion
Named after the yellow headgear worn by its members, the Yellow Turban uprising was one of the largest rebellions in history, beginning in China in 184 AD. It was largely a fight of the peasantry against the ruling Han Dynasty, caused by a number of factors including natural disasters, epidemics, and socio-economic issues.
The civil war would soon spread to most parts of China, with various rebel armies made up of local peasants and warlords springing up across the region. The Han Dynasty responded with force, with many Chinese military officers gaining higher positions for their experience suppressing the rebellion.
The Yellow Turban rebellion’s impact was profound and long-lasting, as it severely weakened the Han Dynasty and its control over its territories, directly leading to its eventual collapse in the year 220. By some estimates, the war claimed the lives of around 8 million people across China, making it one of the deadliest civil conflicts in history.
1. Three Kingdoms Period
The Three Kingdoms period in China refers to the time immediately following the fall of the Han Dynasty, beginning in 220 AD and ending with the short-lived reunification of the country in 280 AD. It was named after the three ruling regimes in China at the time – Wei, Shu, and Wu – and was marked by some of the largest battles in the country’s history.
The period saw continuous conflict among the three states, with important battles fought over territories like Jingzhou and Hanzhong. It would end in the year 256, when Sima Yan usurped the Wei kingdom and established the Jin Dynasty, leading to the eventual end of the war in 280. While there are no reliable estimates on the number of casualties, population counts from that time place the number of dead due to these conflicts at around 40 million.