In Shelley’s famous poem Ozymandias, a broken statue lies in the empty desert, its pedestal hollowly boasting, “My name is Ozymandias, king of Kings; Look on my Works, ye Mighty, and despair!”
The conquerors on this list boasted that they had “all the lands at [my] feet” or promised to make “Egypt taste the taste of my fingers!” But in the end, they, too, have been largely forgotten. Look upon their works and despair.
Civilization was born in ancient Sumeria, in the rich lands between the Tigris and Euphrates rivers. But by 2330 BC, the region was in an uproar and ancient cities lay in ruins. The culprit was Lugalzagesi, the king of Umma. Before inheriting the throne, Lugalzagesi was a priest of the goddess Nisaba and he has been labeled an “ecstatic” and a “bone fide berserk” by historians seeking to explain the unprecedented destruction he unleashed.
Shortly after inheriting the throne of Umma, Lugalzagesi also became king of Uruk, probably through marriage. He then launched a series of frenzied campaigns against the kingdom of Lagash, eventually conquering the city itself. A priest of Lagash reported that he “set fire to the [temples] . . . he plundered the palace of Tirash, he plundered the Abzubanda temple, he plundered the chapels of Enlil and Utu.”
In another inscription, the defeated king of Lagash bitterly cursed the conqueror: “The leader of Umma, having sacked Lagash, has committed a sin against Ningirsu. The hand which he has raised against him will be cut off! May Nisaba, the god of Lugalzagesi, ruler of Umma, make him bear the sin.”
But the conquest of Lagash only increased Lugalzagesi’s strength. Before long, he was ruler of all Sumeria, lord of primeval cities like Ur, Zabala, and Nippur. His armies raided from the Persian Gulf to the Mediterranean: “Enlil, king of all lands, gave to Lugalzagesi the kingship of the nation, directed all eyes of the land toward him, put all the lands at his feet . . . from east to west, Enlil permitted him no rival.”
Enlil must have changed his mind. Lugalzagesi’s conquests soon brought him into conflict with a minor ruler named Sargon. In a stunning upset, Sargon’s well-drilled troops defeated the primitive armies of Sumeria. Lugalzagesi was paraded in chains through Nippur and was soon all but forgotten, while Sargon of Akkad went on to found the first great empire in history.
9. Modu Chanyu
The horse was first domesticated on the great Eurasian Steppe, the seemingly endless ocean of grass that runs from Mongolia to Eastern Europe. Every so often, the nomadic horsemen of the plains would unite under some great ruler and erupt on the civilized world. Some of these conquerors remain famous—-Attila, Genghis, Timur the Lame—-but Modu Chanyu, who was one of the earliest, is now almost forgotten in the West.
Modu’s father was king of the Xiongnu, a people who lived in what is now Mongolia. The king preferred Modu’s brother, so Modu had him killed and took power anyway. According to the Chinese historian Sima Qian, Modu invited his bodyguards for some archery practice and told them to use his favorite horse as a target. When some objected, Modu immediately executed them. Then, he told them to use his wife as a target. Again, some objected, and Modu killed them on the spot. Finally, he told the survivors that their new target was his father. They shot him without hesitation.
After murdering his siblings, Modu launched lightning campaigns against the Donghu and Yuezhi, forming a sprawling empire that stretched across the eastern steppes. In 200 BC, he lured the Chinese Emperor Gaozu into an ambush and forced him to sign a humiliating treaty. The Chinese had to pay tribute and Gaozu agreed to give his daughter as a concubine to Modu (he sent some other girl and lied that she was his daughter instead).
In a way, Gaozu was lucky—-the king of Yuezhi had his skull turned into a drinking cup by Modu’s son. Modu himself died in 174 BC, as the ruler of an empire that rivaled Alexander the Great’s in size.
For centuries, the mighty Assyrian Empire dominated the ancient Middle East. Its influence even extended to the lands of the Medes, in what is now Iran. The Medes had mixed feelings about this and a nobleman named Phraortes led a revolt around 653 BC. But the bowmen of Assyria were justly feared, and the rebellion was crushed. Phraortes was executed and his grieving son Cyaxares swore to finish what his father had started.
This was no mean task, particularly considering that the Scythians had invaded Media in the meantime. But Cyaxares quietly submitted to Scythian rule until he was able to lure their leaders to a banquet. Once the Scythians were drunk, Cyaxares had them slaughtered. Next, he united the Medes into one kingdom under his command. He reformed the Mede army with new weapons and a focus on horsemen, which the Assyrians lacked.
In 614 BC, the Medes attacked, sacking the Assyrian stronghold at Ashur. Over the next two years, they ground closer to the Assyrian capital Ninevah, which fell in 612. Cyaxares had avenged his father and destroyed the greatest empire of the day. The Median Empire seemed destined to dominate the ancient world—-and it might have, had Cyaxares’s successor not had the misfortune to cross an young man called Cyrus, the leader of an obscure tribe called the Persians.
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