Genghis Khan vs. Alexander the Great: A Historical Comparison

Posted by Bill Mattocks on Sunday, December 10, 2023

Genghis Khan and Alexander the Great are two towering figures in world history known for building massive empires through remarkable military conquests. But how do these famous conquerors and their empires compare? This post examines their historical backgrounds, military tactics and conquests, governance and legacy to spotlight key similarities and differences.


Genghis Khan portrait

Genghis Khan (born Temüjin, c. 1162 - August 18, 1227) was the legendary founder and first Great Khan of the Mongol Empire. Born into an warring tribal society in Mongolia and Central Asia, Genghis Khan unified the nomadic tribes before leading the Mongol armies on a string of successful campaigns across Asia and Eastern Europe. By the time of his death, the Mongol Empire stretched from the Yellow Sea to the Caspian Sea, the largest contiguous land empire ever.

Alexander III of Macedon (July 20, 356 BC - June 10, 323 BC), better known as Alexander the Great, was the king of Macedon who created one of the largest empires of the ancient world by conquering Persia, Syria, Phoenicia, Judea, Gaza, Egypt, Bactria and Mesopotamia, extending the boundaries of Greek culture far into the East.

While these empire builders lived nearly 1,500 years apart, they have some striking parallels in their backgrounds. Both ruled warlike, mobile horse-based cultures located on the fringe of “civilized” agrarian societies. Both lost their fathers at a young age and came to power amid crisis and warfare. Once in power, both proved to be political and military geniuses who revolutionized warfare with innovative strategies and tactics. Their conquests fused East and West, linking trade networks and facilitating cultural exchange across Eurasia.

However, while their empires and conquests have similarities, their governance and legacy differed considerably, as explored below.

Alexander Mosaic depicting Alexander the Great

Military Innovations and Conquests

Genghis Khan’s Conquests

After uniting the nomadic tribes of the Mongolian plateau around 1206 AD, Genghis Khan and his horde of horseback archers swiftly conquered most of Eurasia. Unlike past nomadic confederations that raided settled societies before retreating back to the steppes, Genghis invaded and occupied the territories he conquered.

Key military innovations included:

  • Highly mobile cavalry - The Mongols’ ponies and sheep provided food on the move, allowing the horde to advance rapidly. Light cavalry could attack from all directions with deadly arrow barrages.

  • Disciplined divisions and command structure - Genghis divided his fighters into more nimble units of 10, 100, 1,000 which were easily directed by flags and drums.

  • Psychological warfare - By exterminating resisting cities and publicizing these bloody examples, they terrorized many opponents into surrendering without a fight.

  • Adapting enemy technologies - Upon conquering agrarian societies, the Mongols quickly adopted siege engines, gunpowder weapons and naval transport for amphibious operations.

With these advantages, the fast-moving horseback archers rapidly swept west and east:

  • West: Destroyed the Khwarezmid Empire (Persia). Defeated the Kievan Rus’ principalities. Invaded Eastern Europe.

  • East: Conquered the Xia and Jin Chinese Dynasties. Subjugated Korean Peninsula. Pushed into Southeast Asia.

At its peak extent, the Mongol Empire stretched over 9 million square miles, making it history’s largest contiguous land empire. After Genghis Khan’s death, it eventually fragmented into four khanates.

Mongol Warrior

Alexander’s Conquests

Alexander inherited a highly trained professional Macedonian army from his father Philip II. Using innovative tactics and strategies, he led this army on a decade-long string of conquests against the sprawling Persian Empire. Key innovations included:

  • Combined arms - The Macedonian army incorporated various specialty units into a unified fighting force (heavy/light infantry, Companion cavalry, archers, siege engines).

  • Hammer and anvil - Heavy cavalry smash the center as light infantry wheel around the wings, pinning enemies to be slaughtered.

  • Siegecraft - Engineers designed mobile siege towers and battering rams to directly assault fortified cities.

  • Psychological warfare - Alexander spread propaganda and exaggerated reports of his exploits to terrify opponents. Executed resisting populations to discourage further opposition.

With these advantages, Alexander’s forces rapidly advanced:

  • Asia Minor - Defeated and deposed the Persian appointed-rulers of western Asia Minor (334-333 BC).

  • Syria - Defeated Darius III, the Persian king, at the pivotal Battle of Issus (333 BC). Seized the Phoenician coast.

  • Egypt - Crowned pharaoh of Egypt in Memphis; founded Alexandria (332 BC).

  • Mesopotamia - Destroyed the Persian imperial capital at Persepolis. Darius assassinated by own troops while fleeing (331 BC).

  • Central Asia - Defeated last Persian resistance. Pushed east into Bactria and northern India (327–325 BC).

At its height, Alexander’s empire stretched across three continents and some two million square miles. After his death, the lands were divided by generals and faded away.

Greek Warrior

Governance and Legacy

Genghis Khan’s Pax Mongolica

Though ruthless in conquest, Genghis brought stability in his wake. He tolerated local customs and religions, encouraged trade, simplified writing, promoted science and technology exchange across the routes. This 300-year era of communication and prosperity is known as the Pax Mongolica.

However, his empire ultimately fragmented due to:

  • Tribal political structure without clear succession laws

  • Overreliance on individuals’ loyalty/kinship rather than bureaucracy

  • Absence of binding ideology beyond personal loyalty to Khan

Still, Genghis Khan’s legacy includes:

  • Vast dissemination of technologies like paper, gunpowder, and compass from East to West

  • Spread of Asian crops/fruits and MCC gene to Europe by Mongol trade networks

  • United isolated regions into modern country precursors (China, Russia)

  • Looms large as national folk hero and founder of Mongolia

So while his empire dissolved, Genghis Khan profoundly impacted world history by integrating Eurasian world networks.

Alexander’s Helenization

Alexander sought to fuse Greco-Macedonian culture with Persian cultural elements into a new empire. This Hellenization included:

  • Intermarriage between Macedonians and Persians

  • Blending of administrative practices

  • Spread of Greek language, education, art and science

However, fierce resistance from his veterans over adopting Persian dress and rituals showed the difficulties of reconciling such vastly different cultures.

Moreover, Alexander barely built an administration before dying unexpectedly. With no clear successor, generals carved up the empire after years of fighting. Still, Alexander’s conquests led to profound cross-cultural exchange and left an enduring legacy:

  • Spread Greek culture, language and thought for centuries (Hellenistic Age)

  • Established long-lasting Greek-influenced cities/kingdoms (Alexandria, Seleucid Empire)

  • Inspired mythic stories and idealized image as consummate conqueror

So Alexander the Great served more as a spectacular shooting star blazing a brief, brilliant arc across continents rather than builder of lasting empire.

Mongol rider compared to Macedonian soldier

The enduring images of the Mongol horseman (left) and Macedonian infantryman with sarissa pike (right) reflect major differences in warfare between the Eurasian Steppe and Mediterranean worlds. [2]


In review, Genghis Khan and Alexander the Great were peerless strategic masters who engineered military forces which steamrolled opponents. Their conquests established vast multi-ethnic empires linking diverse cultures across Asia and Europe through trade and exchange.

However, Alexander sought to explicitly infuse Greek culture while Genghis Khan allowed local traditions to continue largely uninterrupted. More critically, once their central authority vanished, the lack of bureaucracy or ideology to bind their conquests together meant both empires fragmented amongst infighting warlords.

Nevertheless, their domineering legacies as the most brilliant military leaders of all time continue. Alexander endures as a quintessential conqueror who immeasurably spread Greek civilization across continents in an unparalled short burst. Meanwhile, Genghis Khan resides as the very progenitor and hero of Mongolia who united dispersed tribes into history’s largest land empire.

The names Genghis Khan and Alexander the Great will forever conjure up iconic images of ruthless, galloping hordes and glittering phalanxes who rocked the ancient world order through sheer military genius.

Frequently Asked Questions

Who had the larger empire, Genghis Khan or Alexander the Great?

At its peak, Genghis Khan’s Mongol Empire stretched over 12 million square miles, making it the largest contiguous land empire in history, nearly 6 times larger than Alexander’s empire at over 2 million square miles.

How were their military tactics different?

The Mongols used high-mobility horseback archers to shoot arrows from all directions, evading close combat. Alexander’s Macedonians relied on dense infantry phalanxes and heavy cavalry charges to smash opponents head-on with lengthy pikes and swords.

What happened to their empires after their deaths?

Both the Mongol and Macedonian empires fragmented into splinter states soon after their deaths with no clear succession plans. Alexander’s generals divided his empire while Genghis Khan’s heirs split his empire into four main khanates which soon contested each other.

Who was more successful at cultural diffusion?

While Alexander explicitly spread Hellenistic culture, Genghis Khan largely allowed local cultures to continue intact. However, the Mongol Empire’s stability and trade links (Pax Mongolica) facilitated more gradual cultural diffusion between isolated regions.

What was their most critical military innovation?

The Mongols’ most critical innovation was high-mobility cavalry archery with each warrior carrying his own food supply for indefinite rapid advances. For Alexander’s Macedonians, developing combined tactical arms (infantry, cavalry, artillery) proved decisive in conquering Persia’s more numerous but less coordinated forces.

How has Hollywood portrayed them?

Hollywood often dramatizes and exaggerates their military conquests without much historical accuracy. More recent films like Mongol (2007) portray Genghis Khan’s early life. Classic films like Alexander (1956) and Alexander (2004) depict Alexander as a dashing romantic warrior rather than pragmatic ruler.


“Genghis Khan.”, A&E Networks Television, 2 Aug. 2016, Accessed 10 Dec. 2023.

“Alexander the Great.”, A&E Television Networks, 27 Oct. 2009, Accessed 10 Dec. 2023.

Charles, Michael B. “The Rise of the Mongol Empire.” Encyclopedia Britannica, Accessed 10 Dec. 2023.

“Battle of the Kalka River.” Encyclopedia Britannica, Accessed 10 Dec. 2023.

“Pax Mongolica.” Encyclopedia Britannica, Accessed 10 Dec. 2023.