Why Conquer?

Why Conquer?

Whether driven by lust for power, riches, or some other force, for centuries, leaders have used their power to overtake an existing society and bend it into something new.

Grades

3 - 12

Subjects

Ancient Civilizations, Geography, Human Geography, Social Studies, World History

Image

Roman Soldiers Subjugating Germanic People

Wealth was a motivator for many conquests. The promise of wealth motivated Julius Caesar in his conquest of Gaul.

Image by H.M. Herget
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Throughout history, many different kingdoms have risen and fallen; many empires have been born out of nothing and then collapsed to ruin. Many have led large armies to the brink of death in order to wrestle power away from mighty rulers, while others have relied on their ability to rally the masses behind their cause, noble or otherwise. What is clear throughout history, from Julius Caesar to Genghis Khan, is that it takes a distinct personality to embark on a conquest and an even stronger desire to achieve some goal in order to overcome the difficult challenges that await.

While there is no handbook to guide one in a conquest, there are similar motivations connecting some of history’s greatest conquerors. For example, the reason empires may expand is so they can grow both physically, culturally, or both. From 336–323 B.C.E., Alexander of Macedonia (also known as Alexander the Great) not only conquered most of the known world, he also spread Greek culture from Egypt to India. He encouraged cultural exchange in his empire, remaining tolerant of the different lifestyles in his new territories. During the second century B.C.E., the Roman Empire conquered Macedonia and incorporated that kingdom and Greek culture into its empire. Over the course of the reign of the Gupta Empire between 320 C.E. and 550 C.E., its lands grew from a small portion of northern India to eventually stretch from the Arabian Sea to the Bay of Bengal. This physical expansion coincided with cultural growth for the Gupta Empire as well, and education and art flourished.

The spoils of war can be a significant motivation for conquest. In the 13th century C.E., when Genghis Khan led the Mongols into battle, many of the soldiers were motivated to win the riches they usually lacked, being a nomadic people. Julius Caesar was motivated by wealth as well, and in fact, it was this motivation specifically that led to his conquest of Gaul (a region of Western Europe) in 58 B.C.E. But perhaps a more sustainable motivation than plunder is control over trade. For the Mongols, controlling the Silk Road—a network of trade routes stretching across Asia, East Africa, and into Europe—was another attractive motivator for expansion. Early on, attacks by Mongols targeted states that controlled parts of the Silk Road. Chandragupta I of the Gupta Empire strategically married the Licchavi princess in order to incorporate mines of iron ore, a valuable trade commodity, into his kingdom.

Legendary conquerors, such as Alexander, Julius Caesar, and William the Conqueror, created and then expanded their lands because of a desire to rule, combined with great personal ambition. This ambition pushed them to continue to expand their influence and spread their empires to include more land, more people, and, by way of taxes and tribute, more wealth. Alexander became king of Macedonia at just 20 years old, killing his enemies before they could challenge him and crushing rebellions. He led his conquests with an unparalleled military acumen. Julius Caesar held different titles in Rome, ranging from military tribune to praetor to member of the First Triumvirate. In these positions, he consolidated his own power and expanded Rome's influence and wealth through military conquest. William the Conqueror harnessed a similar resolve as Alexander and Caesar, establishing the power of the state of Normandy and drastically altering English society in his conquest. As king of England, he redistributed the state's wealth, transferring power to his people, the Normans. Each of these leaders’ charisma helped them to gain military support that was crucial in their conquests while also protecting their positions as rulers.

One's perceived right to rule, not just desire, has also motivated history's ancient conquests. Alexander believed himself to be the half-human son of of the god Zeus, and thus entitled to his success. William led the Norman Conquest in 1066 because he believed he was the rightful heir to the English throne. King Edward had promised that William would be his successor, but he had also made this promise to several others, causing several nearly simultaneous battles for the crown after his death. William eventually prevailed, assuming what he believed to be his rightful position, and changed England forever in his conquest. Some historians theorize that Genghis Khan also believed that his fate was to rule, although the foundations for this idea are unclear.

The draw of power, which can come in many forms, is difficult to quantify but overwhelms those that desire conquest. Conquerors face overwhelming dangers for a chance to rule but believe the reward outweighs the risk.

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Director
Tyson Brown, National Geographic Society
Author
National Geographic Society
Production Managers
Gina Borgia, National Geographic Society
Jeanna Sullivan, National Geographic Society
Program Specialists
Sarah Appleton, National Geographic Society, National Geographic Society
Margot Willis, National Geographic Society
Producer
Clint Parks
other
Last Updated

June 2, 2022

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