Asia has seen thousands of kings and emperors over the past five thousand years, but fewer than thirty are usually honored with the title "the Great." Learn more about Ashoka, Cyrus, Gwanggaeto and the other great leaders of early Asian history.
Sargon the Great founded the Akkadian Dynasty in Sumeria. He conquered a vast empire in the Middle East, including modern-day Iraq, Iran, Syria, as well as parts of Turkey and the Arabian Peninsula. His exploits may have been the model for the biblical figure known as Nimrod, said to have ruled from the city of Akkad.
Yu the Great, r. ca. 2205-2107 BCE
Yu the Great is a legendary figure in Chinese history, the purported founder of the Xia Dynasty (2205-1675 BCE). Whether or not the Emperor Yu ever really existed, he is famous for teaching the people of China how to control raging rivers and prevent flood damage.
Cyrus the Great, r. 559-530 BCE
Cyrus was known not only as a military leader, however. He is renowned for his emphasis on human rights, tolerance of different religions and peoples, and his statecraft.
Darius the Great was another successful Achaemenid ruler, who usurped the throne but nominally continued in the same dynasty. He also continued Cyrus the Great's policies of military expansion, religious tolerance, and crafty politics. Darius greatly increased tax collection and tribute, allowing him to fund massive construction projects around Persia and the empire.
The son of Darius the Great, and the grandson of Cyrus through his mother, Xerxes completed the conquest of Egypt and the reconquest of Babylon. His heavy-handed treatment of Babylonian religious beliefs lead to two major revolts, in 484 and 482 BCE. Xerxes was assassinated in 465 by the commander of his royal bodyguard.
The Mauryan Emperor of what is now India and Pakistan, Ashoka started life as a tyrant, but went on to become one of the most beloved and enlightened rulers of all time. A devout Buddhist, Ashoka made rules to protect not just the people of his empire, but all living things. He also encouraged peace with neighboring peoples, conquering them through compassion rather than warfare.
Kanishka the Great, r. 127-151 CE
Kanishka the Great ruled a vast Central Asian empire from his capital at what is now Peshawar, Pakistan. As king of the Kushan Empire, Kanishka controlled much of the Silk Road and helped to spread Buddhism in the region. He was able to defeat the army of Han China and drive them out of their western-most lands, today called Xinjiang. This eastward expansion by the Kushan coincides with the introduction of Buddhism to China, as well.
Shapur II, The Great, r. 309-379
A great king of Persia's Sassanian Dynasty, Shapur supposedly was crowned before he was born. (What would they have done if the baby had been a girl?) Shapur consolidated Persian power, fought off attacks by nomadic groups and extended the boundaries of his empire, and fended off the encroachment of Christianity from the newly-converted Roman Empire.
Although he died at the age of 39, Korea's Gwanggaeto the Great is revered as the greatest leader in Korean history. King of Goguryeo, one of the Three Kingdoms, he subdued Baekje and Silla (the other two kingdoms), drove the Japanese out of Korea, and extended his empire northward to encompass Manchuria and parts of what is now Siberia.
Umar the Great, r. 634-644
Umar the Great was the second Caliph of the Muslim Empire, renowned for his wisdom and jurisprudence. During his reign, the Muslim world expanded to include all of the Persian Empire and the majority of the Eastern Roman Empire. However, Umar played a key role in denying the caliphate to Muhammad's son-in-law and cousin, Ali. This act would lead to a schism in the Muslim world that continues to this day - the division between Sunni and Shi'a Islam.