(Part One can be found here)

Looking over the valley below from his position at Le Belle Alliance, Napoleon surveyed a strangely quite scene. It was 3:00 pm, and the tide of battle had temporarily receded. The ground between the two opposing armies was littered with the debris of battle. In the previous two hours, his plan of battle had come undone. The attack by d’Erlon’s Corp, his one fresh strike force, had made great progress, decimating Wellington’s left before being in turn shattered by the devastating charge of two British heavy cavalry brigades (see Part One).

At this point his staff presented a messenger from Field Marshal Grouchy, the officer commanding the detached force of some 33,000 men tasked with pursuing Blücher’s Prussians and preventing them joining Wellington at Waterloo. Grouchy’s man had been delayed for over an hour, as the Emperor’s attention was fixed upon the repulse of d’Erlon and organizing the bloody counter-attack against the British cavalry. Now he read the man’s dispatch, sent 4 hours earlier. It outlined Grouchy’s failure to stay apace and stop Blücher from intervening in the present battle. Three Prussian Corps were on their way, and the closest, Von  Bülow’s IV Corps would soon be threatening the French right-rear near Plancenoit.

Napoleon was not unaware of this threat. Earlier in the morning he had detached the 7th Hussars under the gallant  Marcellin Marbot to scout the woods to the right of the French army, towards Wavre. His men had captured and sent to the Emperor a Prussian officer; who had bragged that Blücher had concentrated at Wavre  and was

1 Napoleon learns the Prussians are on his flank pledged to march to Wellington’s aid that afternoon. In response, Napoleon had deployed the 10,000 men and 28 guns of Lobau’s VI Corps earlier in the day to his right, facing at right angle to the main French line; prepared to fend off Prussian attacks from the east.

Orders had already been sent earlier in the day to Grouchy, ordering him to march with all haste to link-up with the right of the French mainbody fighting before Mont-Saint-Jean. Gouchy had been marching at a snail’s pace, a plodding one-mile per hour. However, the Emperor still had high-hopes of victory, and told his staff that if Grouchy were to 1 Waterloo tour_main_campaign_mapmarch west Von  Bülow’s Corps could be caught between his force and Lobau’s, and crushed along with Wellington.

The problem was that while he had begun the day with an advantage over Wellington of 4,000 men and 90 guns, that advantage was now gone. Nearly twice this amount had been lost with d’Erlon’s reverse, killed, wounded or taken prisoner. Now, of Napoleon’s four infantry Corps on the battlefield, Reille’s was tied up in fierce struggle over Hougoumont on his left; Lobau’s was now facing east, awaiting the Prussians; and d’Erlon’s survivors (some 13,000) were demoralized and  reassembling to the east of La Belle Alliance, and would not be ready for battle for some hours. Were Wellington to attack at this point, Napoleon had only 13,000 infantry uncommitted and ready to fight; the 10,000 men of the Imperial Guard and three reserve brigades.

With the Prussians coming, he was in no position to stand on the defensive; but must continue to attack and break Wellington before Blücher could arrive in force. While putting together a new plan of attack, he covered his weakness by renewing the intense barrage by his Grande Batterie upon Wellington’s position.

1 grand batterie

Fortunately for Napoleon, Wellington was in no position to attack, nor had he planned to do so. His right was tied-up defending Hougoumont; and though he still had considerable reserves behind this position, Wellington was determined to leave these in place. Throughout the long day, he was alert to a potential French turning movement on this flank, which could cut his line of retreat to the northwest. His left-wing, composed largely of his dark-uniformed Belgic, German and Dutch allies, leavened with red-and-green coated British regiments, had been thoroughly savaged. Huge holes exited in what had been a solid line. Officers were conspicuously absent, and in some regiments sergeants were left to command whole battalions.[1] The senior leadership had not been spared: General Thomas Picton was dead and General Bylandt of the 1st Brigade, 2nd Netherlands Division so wounded he had to turn over his command to a subordinate (Lt.  Colonel de Jongh, so wounded in turn he had to be tied with rope into his saddle). Wellington filled the gaps in Picton’s division with the 10th Brigade, veterans of the Peninsula War commanded by Major General Sir John Lambert. Lambert was only recently returned to Europe from America, where he had commanded the reserve at the Battle of New Orleans. One of his two veteran regiments was the 27th Inniskillings; who within hours would earn the dubious honor of taking the highest casualties of any British regiment on the field that day.

The constant bombardment from Napoleon’s Grand Batterie was taking its toll of the Allied regiments waiting in reserve beyond the ridge. Though they could not be targeted directly, the thousands of French cannon balls fired had skimmed over the ridge and landed among the formations massed beyond; inflicting terrible casualties. Lt. General Sir Charles Alten, commander of the British 3rd Division, said, “Never had the most veteran soldiers heard such a cannonade”. In response, Wellington ordered the line to withdraw 100 paces.

Waterloo Haye-Sainte

At this junction, Napoleon ordered Ney to begin an assault on La Haye Sainte farmhouse, forward of Wellington’s center; preparatory to a larger assault. One of Quiot’s Brigades was tasked with the mission, and the fighting around the farmhouse was soon bloody and ferocious. Once again, the farmhouse would hold out.

Meanwhile, the Prussians were coming.


True to his pledge to Wellington, Blücher’s Prussians were moving as rapidly as they could to join their British allies. In contrast to the moribund Grouchy, Blücher had set his army in motion at daybreak; three hours before the now distant Grouchy had broken camp. However, the terrain and roads were atrocious even by the pitiful standards of the day, and frustrated every effort to hasten the pace. In some places the tracks through the Bois de Paris woods were so narrow that the Prussian columns had to pass along in single file.

Blücher and his Chief of Staff, the methodic and cerebral August Wilhelm von Gneisenau had scouted ahead of their spearheads, and assessed the ongoing battle at Waterloo. They immediately comprehended that Wellington could hold his position, fixing Napoleon’s attention. Gneisenau argued for making the main Prussian effort towards Plancenoit with the purpose of cutting the Charleroi Road and trapping Napoleon’s army. When Blücher suggested this threat might bring the whole wrath of Napoleon’s main force down upon their isolated spearheads and destroy them piecemeal before they could be supported, Gneisenau keenly (and accurately) deduced that on the contrary, Napoleon would reply by attempting even more vigorously to pierce the British position; only throwing against the Prussians enough forces to delay them till this was achieved. [2]

Gneisenau knew his enemy: Napoleon reacted in exactly this manner.

Blücher was convinced, and Von Bülow’s IV Corps, followed by Pirch’s II Corps were to attack toward Plancenoit. Only Zieten’s I Corps was to take the northern route along the Wavre Road, and link-up directly with Wellington’s left flank north of Papelotte.


The vanguard of Von Bülow’s Corps would begin arriving around 4:30 in the afternoon, where they would battle Lobau’s troops over the hamlet of Plancenoit; at precisely the moment Napoleon was attempting to break Wellington’s line elsewhere.


At 3 pm, June 18th, as the lull before the next storm gave him time to consider his next move, Napoleon had two options: Withdraw or continue to fight. The first was the better military decision (and not just retrospectively, as he knew at the time the Prussians were threatening his flank and line of retreat); the second the better political decision.

Napoleon was not just a general, he was also the political leader of France. Upon his return from Elba on a wave of Republican sentiment against the returned Monarchists, he was forced to make political concessions to regain the throne. Unlike his previous tenure as Emperor of the French, this time he was constrained by a constitutional system in which he shared power with a Parliament (the Chambers). As within any such system, he had political supporters and he had (sometimes bitter) opponents. Even now, as the battle raged in Belgium, his enemies back in Paris worked against him. To maintain his authority as Emperor, it was vital to continue to maintain an aura of invincibility; to appear to be the world-conqueror he had been before 1812.

Faced with d’Erlon’s defeat, and the blood-bath at Hougoumont; with Grouchy’s 30,000 effectively out of the battle and the Prussians soon to join it, his plan was in shambles. To fall back now, his battered infantry covered by the still-intact mass of his cavalry, was undoubtedly the prudent plan. Lobau’s unengaged Corps had yet to fight that day, and could form a rearguard with the cavalry; Grouchy could fall back and join the mainbody further south. This would preserve the army intact to fight again another day, on more favorable terms.


But to retreat back into France and repeat the situation of 1814 would be a political disaster. The sense of  déjà vu created by such a retreat would bolster his enemies in Paris and demoralize his allies (and perhaps the army as well). He could well face the same outcome, his political enemies and even some of his Marshals treating with the Allies behind his back. Retreat risked political disaster every bit as much as fighting on, here at Waterloo, risked military disaster.

On that afternoon, on the field of Waterloo, Napoleon the politician overruled Napoleon the great captain. Ever the gambler, he now decided to risk all and play on.

Militarily,  had been in a similar situation before, at Eylau in 1807. There, by mid-day he had lost one Corps, Augereau’s; his center was stripped bare with nothing to plug the gap but the Imperial Guard (which he dared not commit). His response then had been to throw in Murat and the massive cavalry reserve  against the advancing Russians. In one of history’s greatest charges, they had shattered the first and second Russian line; and then, covered by the Imperial Guard Horse, withdrawn back to safety, the situation restored.

Here perhaps he saw himself in similar circumstances; and resorted to the same response.

He ordered Ney to mass Milhaud’s IV Cavalry Corps (Cuirassiers), to be covered and supported by Lefèbvre-Desnoëttes’ Guard Light Cavalry Division: some 5,100 men; in the space before La Belle Alliance, between and south of Hougoumont and La Haye Sainte.

Much has been written and debated as to the circumstances of this cavalry assault on Wellington’s center. Often it is blamed on Ney alone, acting on his own initiative while Napoleon was distracted (or, due to illness, taking an untimely nap). It is often cited that Ney, seeing Wellington’s forces withdraw 100 paces (to lessen the effect of the French artillery bombardment) as noted above , interpreted this move as the start of a general withdrawal. That, masked by the ridgeline, Ney could not see the British forming squares on the reverse slopes around Mont-St-Jean.  However, many facts weigh heavily against this interpretation of events.

First, Wellington’s lines had been beyond observation on the reverse slopes all day; only the artillery and skirmishers exposed on the forward slopes in plain sight to the French (the defenders of Hougoumont and La Haye Sainte excepted). How, then, could Ney have based his decision to launch what is sometimes described as a cavalry pursuit if he couldn’t see the British retrograde movement in the first place? Besides, the smoke of hours of cannon and musket fire had shrouded the battlefield in a fog-like smoke; so thick that at times one could not see a regiment of cavalry until it was thundering down upon you. So it is doubtful if Wellington’s retrograde movement was clearly observed at the time.

1 Napoleon watches battle

Secondly, and most compellingly, only Napoleon could order the movement of a cavalry Corps on the battlefield; and especially so elements of the Imperial Guard.  As he clarified in his orders of June 16, when he divided the army into two wings; one commanded by Ney, the other by Grouchy: “General Officers commanding Corps will take their orders directly from me (Napoleon) when I am present.” That Napoleon was in command when Milhaud’s Corps was ordered to move is illustrated by this incident: When the order to move was given, General Delort commanding the 14th Cavalry Division refused to budge. When confronted by Ney, he responded that no order had come from the Emperor; “but (only) from Count Milhaud” (his Corps commander). Delort could not be persuaded to move till a messenger was sent and returned bearing Marshal Soult’s (Napoleon’s Chief of Staff) signature; confirming that the Corps was placed under Ney’s command for the following operation. Only then did Delort order his cuirassiers to move to the assembly area.[3]

Finally, it took at least 30 minutes to move and marshal 5,100 cavalry into a tight formation. The suggestion that Napoleon might somehow have missed the thundering of 24,000 hooves, the sound of countless trumpets sounding various and sundry calls and commands; and this directly north of his command post at La Belle Alliance is absurd. Had he wished to countermand Ney’s orders and stop this assault, he had ample opportunity to do so.

There has been an attempt by Napoleon’s admirers to shift the blame for his misconduct of the battle to Ney; much as admirers of Lee sometimes attempt to blame Longstreet for Lee’s failure at Gettysburg.

As early as 23 June 1815, five days after the event, Napoleon was already muddying the water in an effort to shift blame to Ney. In his “Bulletin to the Army of June 21″, published in Paris on the 23rd Napoleon wrote:

“The Reserve Cavalry… charged the English infantry, having noticed a retrograde movement, to shelter themselves from our batteries; which had already caused them serious loss. This maneuver (the charge by the French cavalry), made at the correct time and supported by the Reserves, must have decided the day. But made in an isolated fashion and before affairs on the right were satisfactorily settled, it was fatal.” (Italics added.) [4]

This is clearly Napoleon already attempting to shift blame by implying that Ney’s attack was delivered prematurely and without proper support.

As stated above, if he felt the attack should be delayed Napoleon had ample time to cancel it. Instead, with the Prussian threat not yet apparent, and Lobau’s men already in position to deal with it; and no reserves available, as d’Erlon’s troops would not be fit for battle till 5:30 pm and given that he was unwilling to commit his Imperial Guard, Napoleon ordered Ney to commit the mass of his cavalry reserve to an unsupported attack at or around 4 pm.

Charge of cavalry at waterloo


[1] D. Robertson, “Journal of Sergeant D. Robertson, Late of the 92nd Foot“; Perth, 1842; p. 157

[2] Von Reiche, “The French Campaigns Against Russia, Prussia, and Austria in the Years 1812-1815“; Duisberg and Essen, 1815; p.261

[3] Hamilton-Williams, David, “Waterloo: New Perspectives, the Great Battle Reappraised“; Wiley & Sons, 1993; p. 320

[4] ibid, p. 389-390, Note 19

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Faced by a numerically superior opponent, Belisarius countered with field works, maneuver and a masterful use of interior lines

 In 530 A.D., the Eastern Roman Empire’s province of Mesopotamia was invaded by a large and well equipped Sassanid Persian army. The target of the Persian incursion was the frontier fortress of Daras (or Dara).

Though large in size, the Persian expedition was but another small skirmish in the centuries old struggle between the Roman Empire and that of the Persians. Beginning with Parthian dynasty and continuing with the Sassanid the Persian Great King had been the counter to Roman ambitions in Western Asia. The war between these powerful monarchies waxed and waned. Roman Emperors and Persian Shah’s died and were replaced by men more or less capable or bellicose than their predecessor; and borders changed by small increments. Until the coming of the Islam, when the Arabs changed the equation forever, this would be a zero sum game.

Julian and Shapur

The invasion of 530 promised to be nothing unique in the annals of these age-old skirmishes. The Persians came with overwhelming force to achieve the very limited aim of forcing the Romans to dismantle the newly fortified border post of Daras; enforcing the terms of a ceasefire negotiated between the adversaries some years prior. But the battle that ensued proved anything but ordinary. The Romans were commanded by a young and dynamic commander, who was determined to contest the Persian incursion. The Battle of Daras would announce the arrival, center stage in military affairs of the day, of a new star: Belisarius.


In 530 Belisarius was the newly appointed commander of Roman forces in Mesopotamia (modern Kurdish Iraq). Not yet 30 years old, Belisarius was that rarest of men: a bonafide military genius. His long life and campaigns across the Mediterranean world would earn him the title, “The last of the Romans”. However, at Daras, he was a young and untested general on the eve of this first great battle.


At the outset of the campaign, he resolved neither to abandon Daras; nor to laager within and force the enemy to besiege him. Instead, he announced to his officers and his outnumbered and poorly-trained army his intention of offering battle before the fortress!


At first blush this appeared a foolhardy course of action.

The Persians outnumber the Romans by nearly two-to-one: the force advancing on Daras numbered some 40,000, and by the advent of battle were reinforced by another 10,000. By contrast, Belisarius could muster a mere 25,000; the infantry of very poor quality and training. Numbers aside, the Persians had every reason to be confident of victory over the Romans, having won every major battle and conflict in the last several generations.

The army of the Sassanid Great Kings was a formidable fighting force. Nearly half of the Persian army were heavy armored cavalry, and by the 6th century A.D., cavalry had replaced infantry as the decisive arm on the battlefield. The striking power of Sassanid armies lay in the well-mounted and heavily armored Persian aristocracy and their feudal retainers. This type of super-heavy cavalry were known as “clibanarii” (the name translates loosely as “baking oven”; referring, no doubt, to how hot their armor was to wear in the Middle Eastern sun). These cavalry troopers were big men on bigger horses, bred to carry a man fully armored from head to toe in mail or lamellar armor! Even their horses were armored, typically at least the front portion of the charger being protected with lamellar or scale. Each rider carried a long lance, and a light composite bow. Each noble warrior was accompanied by several lesser equipped retainers; mostly lesser-equipped heavy cavalry or javelin-armed light horse.


Sassanid Persian clibanarii and standard bearer

Accompanying the superb Sassanid cavalry was a host of poorly motivated infantry, levied from amongst the peasantry. These had changed little since the days of Darius. They carried a rectangular shield made of wicker, and a short spear. But, as Belisarius was to describe them Sassanid infantrydismissively, giving them a spear no more made them spearmen then giving them a flute would have made them snake charmers! They were useless in battle; and were along only to hold down space in the battle line, and to do the drudge-work necessary in the expected siege.

By contrast, the Roman army of the 6th century was a far cry from that of Augustus Caesar, or even Constantine. It was a time of transition; and no one would be more influential in these changes from the old infantry-based army of the late Roman Empire to what we think of as the cavalry armies of the “Byzantine Empire” (as the later Roman Empire is referred to) then Belisarius. But at Daras, he had to use the tools at hand; and these were, flawed at best.

The old legions of sword-and-javelin armed infantry were long gone; or remained in name only as poorly trained garrison troops along the frontiers. Now Roman arms depended upon regiments of heavy cavalry; armed either with bow or spear. Most Roman cavalry tended to wear at least a helmet; and the regiments of heavy cavalry, which predominated, wore a scale or mail cuirass, called a “klibanon”. They were not as heavily armored as the Persian clibanarii, though they tended to be better disciplined. The infantry had degenerated into unarmored garrison troops. While some regiments were armed with spear and sword, most were archers. Unlike their Persian counterparts, they were professional soldiers. And though they were happiest when shooting from behind a fortress or city wall, they could be of some use on a battlefield.

ArchersAt Daras, Belisarius had approximately 15,000 cavalry, and perhaps another 10,000 infantry. His troops were mostly scrapped together from various frontier garrisons and the dispirited regiments from the mobile army of the East that (theoretically) backed-up the border units. Because of past defeats by the Persians, none of these troops could be relied upon to stand up to the Persian cavalry in pitched battle.

However, Belisarius had two bodies of troops upon which he could rely to perform well.

(Continue reading here, at my blog’s new home!)


















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Great Commanders Middle Ages

Once again, Deadliest Blogger presents its list of Greatest Commanders of history. This time, we take a stab at the Middle Ages, as defined by the Oxford Dictionary: The period of European history from the fall of the Roman Empire in the West (5th century) to the fall of Constantinople (1453). This is a VERY broad swath of history, and can be divided itself into the “Dark Ages” (from the fall of the Western Roman Empire to the Battle of Hastings in 1066); and the “High Middle Ages”, continuing to the 1453 (or, alternately, 1500). As one can infer, these dates and categorizations are somewhat arbitrary. But the fall of Constantinople, where previously impregnable ancient fortifications were brought down by cannons (and a postern gate left conveniently open) marks a turning point at least in the art of siege warfare; and is a harbinger of the a new age of gunpowder weapons. So here, for better or worse, is my list of the 25 Greatest Commanders of the Middle Ages:

25. Alfred the Great

Though often portrayed as a man of peace, more an administrator than a warrior, Alfred fought perhaps more battles with greater success than any other King in English history. For his entire reign, he battled intermittently against the Danish invaders for the survival of his native Wessex (the only one of the original four Anglo-Saxon kingdoms to survive the Danish onslaught); and ultimately for the survival ofAlfred_le_Grand_à_Winchester Anglo-Saxon culture. He was the youngest of four royal brothers, and unlikely to come to the throne. For this reason, perhaps, he was given the education of a cleric. But by the time he was 16, his two eldest brothers had each (briefly) ascended the throne of Wessex and died of natural causes. He became chief aid and counselor to his surviving brother, King Æthelred I in 865; the same year the Great Heathen Army, led by the Sons of Ragnar Lothbrok, invaded England. Over the next two years, Northumbria and East Anglia were conquered by the Danes. In 868, Alfred was with King Æthelred in a fruitless campaign to drive Ivar the Boneless and the Danes from neighboring Mercia. In 870, the Great Heathen Army invaded Wessex. The Saxons were first defeated by the Army at Reading; but recovered and bested the Danes soon after at Ashdown, with Alfred leading his brother’s army to victory. The winter that followed became known as the Battle Winter; with Alfred and his increasingly ill brother fighting 6 more engagements. Æthelred died that winter, leaving an infant son. Alfred was crowned by the Witan (the counsel of nobles and clergy); and negotiated a temporary peace with the Danes, bribing them to leave Wessex. For the rest of Alfred’s 28 year reign, he fought the Danes; who held the rest of England north of the Thames. At times his cause seemed hopeless, and he was very nearly overthrown in the winter of 878 when the Danes (now under a king named Guthrum) made a sudden attack into Wessex. Alfred hid in the swamps, on the island of Athelney, till Spring. Then, rallying the Saxon fyrd (levy), he defeated the Danes at the Battle of Edington, and drove them from Wessex. From then till his death, he was successful in all of his campaigns; repelling periodic incursions by the Danes and strengthening his kingdom. His greatest contributions were the brief creation of a small but effective English fleet along the southern shores of Wessex; and the fortification of most of the Saxon villages and towns (burhs), making the land much less vulnerable to sudden Viking raids. He showed that the Danes were not invincible, and that with experience and good leadership the English could face them in battle. His efforts created a power-base from which his son and grandson would launch the eventual Saxon reconquista of England. He died in 899, the only king in English history to be called “Great”.

24. Baibars the Mamluk

A Circassian slave soldier, he was purchased in Syrian by a Mamluk officer and sent to Egypt, where he became a bodyguard to the Ayyubid ruler As-Salih. He rose rapidly, based upon his skills both political and military. Baibars was a commander of the Mamluks in around 1250, when they defeated the Seventh Crusade of Louis IX of France. He led the vanguard of the Egyptian army at the Battle of Ain Jalut in 1260, turning back the Mongol advance from Egypt. Upon returning to Egypt, he assassinated the Sultan and took the throne. From 1263 till his death in 1277 heBaybars campaigned relentlessly against the Crusader states of Syria; and against the Mongols. He proved particularly adept at siege craft; and took fortresses previously thought to be impregnable (such as the fabled Krak des Chevaliers, in 1271). In 1265 he captured Caesarea, and that same year, captured Arsuf, after 40 days of siege. He raised the town to the ground, a destruction from which it never recovered. In 1266 Baibars invaded the Christian country of Cilician Armenia, an ally of the Mongols. Devastating the country, he then turned upon Christian Antioch and Tripoli. In 1268, Baibars besieged Antioch, the city surrendering on 18 May. After promising to spare the lives of the populace if they surrendered, Baibars slaughtered or enslaved the inhabitants and razed much of the city. The fall of Antioch led to the brief Ninth Crusade, which brought Prince Edward of England, the future Edward I Longshanks (see below). After making some progress, Baibars attempted to have him murdered by the Assassins. The attempt failed to kill the prince, but took him out of the fighting while a truce was concluded with Tripoli. In 1277 Baibars invaded the Seljuq Sultanate of Rûm, then dominated by the Mongols. He defeated a Mongol-led army at the Battle of Elbistan, and captured the city of Caesarea. However, he was forced to withdraw back into Syria; and died either of a wound or from poison in Damascus later that year.

23. Edward the Black Prince

The eldest son of Edward III (#16 on our list), he was in his day considered the S8-F53_01foremost warrior in Europe. At age sixteen he commanded the right wing of the English forces at the Battle of Crecy. His wing bore  the brunt of the French assault. When asked if reinforcements should be sent to his son’s aid, King Edward famously replied, “Let the boy earn his spurs!” Ten years later, in command of his own army, Edward decisively defeated a greatly superior French army under King Jean the Fearless at the Battle of Poiters; capturing the King in the process. He continued to campaign throughout France; and in 1367 intervened in a Castilian civil war, leading an army into Spain. At the Battle of Nájera he inflicted a crushing defeat on a numerically much superior Spanish army. His reputation benefited from dying fairly young, while still in his prime. While he lived, no warrior had a greater name or commander a more fearsome reputation.

22. Otto the Great

Otto was he eldest son of Henry the Fowler, Duke of Saxony and the first non-Frankish King to rule over Germany since Charlemagne created the Frankish Empire. Otto’s first military command came against the pagan slavs in 929, at the age of 17; the same year his father secured his rule over the kingdom.  His father died in 936, and Otto was crowned Duke of Saxony and King of Germany at Charlemagne’s former capital of Aachen22853_Otto-I. In the following years , he put down rebellion in Bavaria and Franconia. Defeating the West Franks (French), he received the submission of  Lorraine, which remained a vassal of the Empire throughout the Middle Ages. For the next decade Otto consolidated his power and centralized authority in a way previously unknown in Germany. Unlike his father, who recognized the local autonomy of the various German Dukes, Otto placed his own men in positions of authority throughout the realm. In 947 he defeated the invading Danes and Slavs, under King Harald Bluetooth. Expelling them from Saxony, he invaded Juteland, devastating the Danish lands till Harald came to terms; renouncing his Saxon conquests and converting to Christianity. In 951 Otto received an invitation of marriage and a plea for aid from the beautiful 19 year old widowed Queen of Italy, Adelaide. Besieged in the fortress of Canossa by her husband’s murderer, Berengar II, she offered herself to Otto, himself a widower since 947, if he would come to her rescue. The King responded, and upon arriving in the Po Valley with an army the local nobles opened their cities to Otto.  Adelaide was brought safely to him in Pavia, where the couple were married. Troubles in the north forced Otto to return to Germany. Berengar refused to submit; and rather than fight a costly war in Italy, Otto ceded the crown of Italy to him in return for fealty and the territory around Verona; which became a German gateway through the Alps. In the following years, Germany was rent by rebellions and invasions. These lasted till 954, when Otto defeated the last of them. German now faced invasion by the Magyars; who had been raiding deeply into Germany throughout the previous civil war, one raid reaching the Rhine. At Lechfield, in August 955, the Otto’s German heavy cavalry crushed a much larger force of Magyar light horsemen. This victory ended a century of Magyar depredations, and set the stage for the dominance of heavy cavalry over light in European warfare. Otto quickly marched his victorious army north, to face the Slavs; whom he defeated decisively at the Battle of the Raxa in October, 955. These twin victories over Hungarians and Slavs sealed Otto’s power over Germany, and he faced no internal opposition for the remainder of his reign. He soon faced trouble in Italy, where his Italian arrangement had broken down. While Otto was occupied in Germany, Berengar II attacked the March of Verona in 958, which Otto had stripped from his control under the 952 treaty. Berengar had also attacked Papal lands; and the Pope offered Otto the title of Emperor if he would intervene. In 961 Otto’s army arrived in Italy. Berengar’s forces retreated into their strongholds, and made no effort to prevent the Germans from marching on to Rome. On February 3, 962 Otto was crowned as Holy Roman Emperor. With Otto’s coronation as Emperor, the Kingdom of Germany and the Kingdom of Italy were unified into the Holy Roman Empire. Otto spent the year campaigning to consolidate his hold on Italy. Berengar surrendered at San Leo, in 963. Fearing the Emperor’s growing power, the Pope now turned against him and invited the Lombards and Byzantines into an alliance. Otto’s response was to march on Rome; where he deposed the Pope and replaced him with another. Otto continued to have troubles in Italy, and after a third expedition he took up residence in Rome, which became his capital. From there he negotiated a settlement with the Byzantines, in which his Imperial title was recognized in return for leaving Byzantine holdings in southern Italy unmolested. Otto died in 973 the most powerful monarch in Europe, and created the German Holy Roman Empire. As a general, his methods are hard to examine, as the sources are largely mute. But he was successful over a very long reign, and saved Germany from Slavs, Danes and Magyars.

21. Henry V Plantagenet

Henry V of England inherited the Plantagenet claim to France; and upon coming to the throne in 1413 renewed the dormant Hundred Years War. Henry’s first campaign was his most foolish, even while being his most famous.  He landed in France with a small army in August of 1415, and laid siege Olivier as Henry Vto Harfleur in Normandy. The siege was prolonged, and the town held out for seven weeks. The season growing late, Henry marched his army toward English-held Calais; plundering the countryside as he went in a repetition of Edward III’s chevauchée in 1346. However, the French nobility had used his delay at Harfleur to gather a vast army at Paris; and this followed close on his heals, attempting to bring him to battle. Henry’s tired and near-starving force was brought to heal near the castle of Agincourt. Here, Henry took up a defensive position on a narrow field, both his flanks protected by woods. The French seem to have forgotten the lessons of Crecy and Poitiers; and though all they had to do was block Henry’s movement for his army to collapse from starvation, they arrogantly decided to attack. On Saint Crispin’s Day, October 25, 1415 the French army (five times his number) assaulted Henry’s position repeatedly. Henry’s courageous leadership inspired his troops; and his dispositions foiled the French attacks. The carnage on the French side was immense, resulting in a devastating defeat for France. For the rest of his life, Henry purued a more deliberate and methodical strategy, reducing one French fortress after another and tying-down the territory with English fortresses. By the time he died in 1422 he’d conquered most of northern France; and concluded a treaty by which he married the French king’s daughter and would inherit the French throne. However, he died unexpectedly at the age of 36, leaving his claim in the hands of a regent for his infant son.

20. El Cid Campeador

Rodrigo Díaz de Vivar, the 11th century Spanish national hero, spent his life fighting both for his native Castile; and as a free-agent, allied with his friend, the Amir of Zaragoza. In an era of rising religious strife (the fundamentalist Islamic Almoravids were campaigning to cleanse Muslim Spain of its more “liberal” tendencies) he worked El Cid 4awith both Christian and Muslims; eventually creating a private, transnational army drawn from both sides of the religious divide. He fought as Prince Sancho of Castile’s Knight-Commander at the Battle of Graus in 1063; in which the Aragonese were driven from the field and their king slain. In this campaign he earned the title Campeador (from the Latin campi doctoris: a battle planner and teacher). In 1079 he led a Castilian force that helped the Amir of Seville to defeat their Grenadine rivals at the Battle of Cabra. After falling out with King Alfonso VI, he was exiled from Castile. He was welcomed by the Muslim Amir of Zaragoza, his old friend and comrade. At the head of what amounted to a private army, he defeated all enemies, Christian and Muslim. He was an educated and intelligent commander, who read and encouraged his subordinates to read the military treaties of the Greeks, Romans, and Byzantines. He became renown for doing the unexpected, using surprise and subterfuge when necessary. Combined with El Cid’s legendary martial abilities, he was an outstanding battlefield commander as well as warrior. At El Cuarte near Valencia in 1094, he routed a Muslim force six-time larger; becoming the only Christian leader of the 11th century to defeat the disciplined Almoravid army in open battle.

19. Robert Guiscard

The Norman conqueror of southern Italy and parts of Sicily, Robert de Hauteville was one of several brothers, sons of Tancred de Hauteville; a minor noble in the Cherbourg region of Normandy. Normans had been coming to southern Italy since the late 10th century; first as pilgrims, and staying as mercenaries in the service of the Byzantines and the various normans and huscarlLombard princes. The FitzTancred brothers began arriving in 1038, to seek their fortune; and soon became the leaders of all the Normans of Italy. Robert arrived in Apulia in 1047 with only five mounted riders and thirty followers on foot. He was given a small fief in Calabria, and from their began building a following and a reputation as a warrior. He was a giant of a man, according to the Byzantine historian, Anna Comnena; a great warrior and inspiring leader. He distinguished himself as commander of the Norman left at the Battle of Civitate, in 1053. Guiscard succeeded his elder brother Humphrey as Count of Apulia in 1057. For the next 4 years, he worked tirelessly to drive out the Byzantines from the south of Italy. In 1061, together with his younger brother Roger, he invaded Saracen-held Sicily, taking Messina. The campaign dragged on, slowly but successfully, for over a decade; with Palermo falling to the Normans in 1072. In 1071 Bari fell, the last Byzantine stronghold in Italy. In May of 1081 he crossed the Adriatic and besieged Byzantine Durazzo/Dyrrachium; together with his eldest son, Bohemond of Taranto, the future Crusader leader. At the Battle of Durazzo in October of that year, Robert defeated the Emperor Alexius Comnenus (himself a commander of note). Bohemond continued the campaign in Greece while Robert returned to Italy; recalled by the Pope to help against a German invasion. Robert drove the German Emperor from Rome, but his troops got out of hand and sacked the city! He died of a feaver in 1085, having consolidated and solidified the Norman holdings in Italy and Sicily; creating the future Kingdom of Sicily. He earned the sobriquet Guiscard, “the Wiley”, or “the Cunning”.

18. Charles Martel

Charles Martel (“the Hammer”) was illegitimate son of Pippen Herschel, Mayor of the Palace (essentially the Frankish shogun, as the late Merovingian kings had become mere figureheads). He struggled early in his life to take his father’s place as Mayor of the Palace and defender of the Frankish realm; suffering the only defeat of his long career at Cologne in 716, when caught unprepared by a coalition of rivals and Frisian charles martelinvaders. Despite being outnumbered, he fought brilliantly and extricated his forces. However, rallying his forces and supporters, he fell upon his enemies and defeated them at the Battle of Amblève; drawing them out of their defensive position by use of feigned retreat. He won a second, decisive victory at the Battle of Vincy in Spring 717; and placed his own candidate on the throne (he would continue to appoint kings from the royal house throughout his life). In the following years, he subjugated Bavaria and Alemannia, and he defeated the pagan Saxons. Late in 718, he laid waste their country (presaging the campaigns of his grandson, Charlemagne); scoring a victory over them in battle in the Teutoburg Forest. Later that year, Charles reestablished Frankish authority over the western portion of Frisia (Holland); which had been subject to the Franks but had rebelled upon the death of Charles’ father.The first great Carolingian leader of the Franks, Charles Martel (“the Hammer”) spent his life driving back the enemies of his people and uniting the German nations under Frankish authority. His victory over the invading Moors at the Battle of Tours in 732 was one of the decisive battles in history. Almost as important was Charles subsequent campaigns in the south to drive the Moors out of France, where he crushed one Umayyad army at Arles, and defeated another Moorish host outside of Narbonne at the River Berre. He died in 741, the greatest German war leader since Stilicho the Vandal led the army of the Western Roman Empire. Gibbon summed up the man as “the hero of the age”; a warrior of furious energy, “who in the same campaign could display his banner on the Elbe, the Rhone, and shores of the ocean.” He is credited with introducing heavy cavalry tactics to the Franks, including the use of stirrups, for the first time in the West. His victories at Tours and in the south of France guaranteed that there would be no Moorish France; but that the march of Islam would be stopped at the Pyrenees.

17. Edward III Plantagenet

A worthy heir and grandson of Edward “Longshanks” (#12 on our list), Edward of Windsor attained the throne at age 15 through a coup de main that overthrew his mother and her lover, Roger Mortimer; how had deposed and murdered his father, Edward II. From this daring beginning of his reign he showed he was cut from the mold of his grandfather and other warrior Plantagenets. At 21, he decisively defeated a larger Scots army at Halidon Hill; finally avenging the national humiliation of Bannockburn, nineteen years earlier. In 1337, Philip VI of France confiscated the English duchy of Aquitaine and the county of Ponthieu. Edward responded by laying claim Edward IIIto the French crown, as the grandson of Philip IV (“the Fair”), with a more direct claim than his cousin, Philip VI Valois. This set the stage for the 100 Years War. Edward gained control of the Channel by defeating the larger French fleet at Sluys; where the longbowmen cleared the way for men-at-arms to board and clear the French ships. In 1346 Edward landed in Normandy with a force of 15,000 men. After sacking Caen, the English marched across northern France towards Flanders. The French king, with a much larger force, pursued Edward’s army. After fighting their way across the Somme, scattering a French blocking force, Edward stopped and offered battle at Crécy. As at Halidon Hill, he dismounted his men-at-arms, and formed them into three blocks; the knights using their lances as pikes. Each block of men-at-arms (called a “battle”) was supported by wedges of longbowmen. The French arrived and attacked piecemeal, and were destroyed in detail. It was a tremendous victory for Edward (and his son, the Black Prince, #23 above; who was knighted after the battle). Edward went on to besiege and capture Calais; which remained an English bastion and entryway into France for over a century. The Black Death brought the war to a standstill; not to resume again for a decade; when the Black Prince took over command of English operations in France (see above). By the time a peace was concluded in 1360, the English had re-conquered the Plantagenet Empire lost by King John early in the 13th century. Edward left a legacy of victory that made England the premier power in Western Europe for a century; though much of the territorial gains were lost to the French counter-attack; directed by the brilliant Constable of France, Bertrand du Guesclin. Among Edward’s achievements was the creation of the Knights of the Garter, in imitation of the legendary Knights of the Round Table; and the gallant and handsome Edward was a model for Thomas Mallory’s King Arthur

16. Janos Hunyadi

The premiere Hungarian soldier of the 15th century, Hunyadi spent his life strengthening the Hungarian kingdom as a bulwark against the advancing Ottoman Turks; replacing the declining Byzantine Empire. In this he was largely successful. Though defeated in two of his major battle against the Turks (at Varna and Second Kosovo), he triumphed far more often in hunyadi-janos-ospreylesser battles and skirmishes against the Sultan’s forces. Early years in Bohemia acquainted him with the Hussite tactics of Jan Ziska (see #6); which he used to good effect in his later campaigns. He defeated a Turkish invasion at the Iron Gates in 1441; and again at the Ialomiţa river 1442. At this latter battle Hunyadi used Hussite warwagons filled with gunners; the first time the Turks ever encountered this novel tactical system. These two victories gained Hunyadi wide fame; and cemented his position as Hungary’s greatest warlord. At Varna in 1444, Hunyadi’s advice to fight on the defensive, using the Hussite battlewagons, against the larger Ottoman army under Sultan Murad II was ignored by young king Vladislaus IV; who insisted on attacking. During the battle, the king disobeyed Hunyadi again, leading a doomed charge of Polish lancers against the Ottoman center; defended by Janissaries and field works. The king was slain, and the Crusader army routed in panic. Hunyadi helped rally survivors and escaped the field. However, he was taken prisoner and held in confinement by his rival, Prince Vlad Țepeș (Dracula) of Wallachia for some time afterward. Upon his release, Hunyadi was proclaimed regent and protector of Hungary. He spent the next few years campaigning along all of Hungary’s frontiers to enforce his authority. Hunyadi invaded Wallachia in 1447, and dethroned Vlad Dracul and installed a new ruler in his place. In 1448, a new “crusade” led by Hunyadi was defeated at the Second Battle of Kosovo by Murad. However, Hunyadi redeemed his reputation with a stunning victory over the new sultan, Mehmed II at Belgrade in 1456 (a victory still celebrated by the Catholic Church to this day; the practice of ringing church bells at noon being  attributed to the international commemoration of the Belgrade victory). Hunyadi died shortly after this success, when plague struck his camp. His enemy, Sultan Mehmet II paid him perhaps the greatest tribute: “Although he was my enemy I feel grief over his death, because the world has never seen such a man.”

15. Narses

No successful general in history was less likely than the Eastern Roman eunuch, Narses. A trusted chamberlain in the court of the Emperor Justinian, Narses was in his late middle ages before he ever saw military service; and elderly when finally in sole and supreme command of the Byzantine forces in the Gothic War. He was small of stature and unsuited physically to arms. However, he had a keen mind and had taken pains to educate himself in the arts of war; having access to the Imperial library and its rich supply of ancient and contemporary manuals and histories. 250px-NarsesHe was an Armenian by birth, sold into slavery and castrated; and trained for the Imperial bureaucracy. In time he became a trusted servant of the Emperor Justinian; adept in court intrigue and the manipulation of the law. As a eunuch, he could never assume the Imperial diadem himself; and for this reason if no other Justinian trusted him in high command; unlike Narses’ rival, Belisarius, whose fame and popularity were a constant source of vexation for the jealous and near-paranoid Justinian. Though without military experience, Narses was promoted to became the commander the Imperial Guards; and eventually became the Grand Chamberlain, Treasurer and the Master of Soldiers, a rank equivalent to the Praetorian Prefect in the old Roman Empire. He was given his first actual field command in 538, sent with a reinforcement of 7,000 soldiers to aid Belisarius after that general’s successful defense of Rome. The two men worked poorly together, though Narses was “keen and more energetic than would be expected of a eunuch”, according to Procopius. Narses refused to subordinate himself to Belisarius, though the latter was given explicit over-all command by Justinian. This division in the Byzantine command led to inaction, resulting in the capture and sack of Milan by the Franks and Burgundians. After this, Narses was recalled to Constantinople, in 539. He had no military duties for the next 12 years; remaining at the Emperor’s side as a trusted official. In 545 Justinian entrusted the aged Narses with a recruiting mission to the Heruli, who dwelt near modern Belgrade; since he was apparently popular among that barbarian people. Heruls were to form a portion of the army he was entrusted with in the coming Italian campaign. The Gothic War had gone badly; Justinian’s distrust of and interference with Belisarius leading to a steady reduction of Byzantine holdings and the eventual recall of that great general. In 551, Justinian entrusted his nephew, Germanus, with command of a large expedition to renew the war in Italy. However, Germanus died on route, and Justinian gave the command to Narses; now an elderly courtier, between 60 and 70 years old. Unlike Belisarius, who was never given adequate resources, Narses received all that he asked for. His army of some 30,000 is described by Procopius as “worthy of the Roman Empire”. While Narses marched his army through Illyricum and entered Italy from the northeast, the Byzantine navy cleared the seas of the Ostrogoth fleet; defeating it at the Battle of Sena Gallica, and guaranteeing Narses lines of supply and communication. Moving cautiously, Narses reached Rimini; from where he challenged Totilla, the Gothic king, to face him in open battle. This appeal to his Germanic sense of honor brought a positive response from the usually prudent Totilla; who agreed to battle, though outnumbered by perhaps as much as two-to-one. The armies met at Taginae (also called Busta Gallorum), where using tactics that presaged Edward III at Crecy eight centuries later, he destroyed the Gothic army; Totilla dying on the field. Rome was soon after captured, and Narses marched south into Campania; laying siege to Capua. The new Gothic king, Teias, gathered the remaining Goths at Mount Lactarius (Vesuvius). There, a two day battle was fought; ending with the death of the heroic Teias and the total surrender of the Ostrogoths. This ended the Ostrogoth Kingdom of Italy; and the survivors were resettled in Pannonia, to guard the eastern approaches to Italy.  Byzantine rule was very quickly challenged, when the Franks and Alemani invaded Italy in 554; belatedly responding to an appeal from the late Teias for aid. The Franks reputedly numbered some 75,000 (and unlikely number), almost entirely foot. They marched south through Italy, pillaging as they went. The Frankish forces divided south of Rome, with half returning home. The remainder, numbering some 30,000, were further reduced by dysentery to about 20,000. Narses engaged them with an army only slightly smaller at Casilinum, in Campania; near the River Volturnus. It was a repeat of Taginae, with the Franks attempting to drive-in the Byzantine center, while outflanked by archers and eventually attacked in rear and flank by cavalry. It became a one-sided victory. The Franks were annihilated; while the Byzantine casualties were slight.  This was Narses last battle. He settled into retirement as the Byzantine governor of Italy; dying sometime between 567 and 574, perhaps in his 90s. Strategically he was cautious, though not to a fault; and perhaps because of his age and lack of physical conditioning was not known for bold or rapid maneuver. He preferred set-piece battles, in which he could stand on the defensive; again perhaps a sign of his overall physical infirmity. But he was a brilliant battlefield commander, and used cavalry and infantry in coordination as well as any commander in the Middle Ages.

 14. Bertrand du Guesclin

The “Black Eagle of France”, du Guesclin’s life is a triumph of merit over privilege. Born to a poor and minor Breton noble house, he rapidly rose during the crises of the Hundred Years War to the highest military position in France, the Constable. In this capacity he turned back the tide of war, which had favored the English since the Battle of Crecy; and restored much of France’s territorial integrity. His successes were based upon the understanding that confronting the English directly in open du_guesclinbattle risked the same defeat and humiliation seen at Crecy and Poitiers; that the longbow gave English armies a nearly unbeatable advantage. However, by employing a Fabian strategy of “small war”, of harassment, raid, and attack on isolated English outposts and castles he was able to wear down the outnumbered English invaders and recapture much territory. He first saw action in the Breton War of Succession (1341–1364); on the side of Charles of Blois, the French candidate. Du Guesclin was knighted late in his life, in 1354 at the age of 34; rewarded for countering a raid by the famous Sir Hugh Calveley on the Castle of Montmuran. In 1356-1357, Du Guesclin led the successful defense of the lands around Rennes, utilizing a brand of guerrilla tactics that would later become his hallmark. After the disaster of Poitiers denuded of its king and many of its military defenders, Du Guesclin continued the fight; coming to the attention of the Dauphine, the future Charles V (“The Wise”). It was this prince’s patronage and trust that allowed him to rise rapidly thereafter to lead the French military effort. At the Battle of Cocherel in1364 he defeated a much larger joint invasion force of English, Navarrese and Gascon allies led by Jean de Grailly, Captal de Buch; one of the premiere leaders of the 100 Years War, and the man who had led the final charge at Poitiers that had captured King Jean. At Cocherel, du Guesclin attacked in the usual, headlong French manner against the dismounted men-at-arms and archers (including 300 English longbowmen). Feigning route, the French cavalry turned and rode off; drawing he Captal de Buch to mount his men-at-arms and pursue. Du Guesclin’s knights turned about and fell upon the now disorganized pursuers, defeating them and capturing de Grailly. By this victory Poitiers was partially avenged. Returning to his native Brittany later that year, he was present at the Battle of Auray on September 29, 1364, commanding the vanguard of Duke Charles of Blois’ forces. This battle was the decisive confrontation of the Breton War of Succession, and was a disaster for the French-supported faction. Duke Charles was killed on the field, and Du Guesclin surrendered when all of his weapons have been broken in the fighting! He was subsequently ransomed by King Charles V for 100,000 francs, a huge sum for an otherwise member of the minor nobility; but testament to his value in the eyes of friend and foe alike. Two years later he was captured again, at the Battle of Nájera in Spain; this time by the Black Prince. He was again ransomed; and returned to Spain to install Henry of Trastámara, the French candidate to the throne of Castile, the Black Prince and his army having returned to France. This diplomatic triumph, solely attributable to du Guesclin’s farsighted efforts, put Castile firmly on the side of France in the Hundred Years War. This alliance would pay dividends in 1372, when the Franco-Castilian fleet inflicted a crippling defeat on the English at the Battle of La Rochelle; capturing more than 400 English knights and 8000 soldier. After his return to France, du Guesclin was formerly invested with the office of Constable. He defeated the English under the infamous Sir Robert Knolles (whose motto was “All France Controls”) at the Battle of Pontvallain in 1370, and drove the English out of Poitou. He pursued the war into his native Brittany; defeating the English again at the Battle of Chizé in 1373. He died while on a military expedition in Languedoc in 1380. He won four of the six major battles in which he held command; and destroyed the myth of English invincibility. His reputation, however, was more of a strategist than a battle captain; who understood that wars are won by more than just battles. He knew when to fight, and more importantly when not to. HIs motto could have been, “no attack without surprise”. His use of sudden attacks, particularly night assaults on fortified places, defied the conventions of the day and succeeded in reducing the once vast English territories in France to a bare coastal strip in Gascony and Calais. Though his legacy was somewhat overshadowed by Joan of Arc two generations later, he was the premiere hero on the French side of the Hundred Years War.

13. John I Tzimiskes

The nephew of Nicephorus Phocas, he rose rapidly in the Byzantine army of the mid-10th century. By twenty five he was entrusted with the Theme of Armenia, a dangerous and exposed border march between the Byzantine Empire and the Abbasid Caliphate. In 956 he intercepted a force led by Sayf al-Dawla, Amir of Aleppo, returning from a raid in Byzantine territory. In a hard fought battle amidst a rainstorm, he was bested, losing 4,000 men. He avenged this defeat early in 958, when in conjunction with his uncle Nicephorus (operating in Cilicia and northern Syria), he invading the Jazira region of northern Mesopotamia. He captured the fortress of Dara, sight of Belisarius’ first great victory, more than four centuries earlier. He next won a crushing victory near Amida over an army led by one of Sayf al-Dawla’s lieutenants; killing half and capturing half-again as many. In June 958 Tzimiskes stormed Samosata and the fortress of Raban, south of Hadath. Here Amir Sayf al-Dawla Tzimskishimself came to confront him. The ensuing campaign, from October 18 through November 15, 958, was hotly contested, with heroism on both sides. In the end, Tzimiskes prevailed and the Muslim army broke and fled. Many of Sayf al-Dawla’s best troops fell in the pursuit, with over 1,700 of his cavalry captured and later paraded in the streets of Constantinople. Between this defeat and Nicephorus successful campaign to the west, the dangerous Hamdanid Amirate of Aleppo was broken; Cilicia was once again annexed by the Byzantines even Aleppo itself captured (and held briefly) in 962. In all of these battles and campaigns, Tzimiskes earned a reputation for bravery, taking the initiative, and an ability to adapt to changing circumstances. He was his uncle’s agent in the intrigues following the unexpected death of Romanus II; which brought Nicephorus to the throne. Tzimiskes remained in the east as commander of the Eastern Army. During his uncle’s reign, Tzimiskes (along with several other general from the Syrian frontier) became the victims of court politics, and was removed from his command and returned to the capital. Disaffected with this show of ingratitude, he joined a conspiracy against Nicephorus; along with the Empress, Theophano whose lover he had become. In December 969, he was smuggle into the palace; entered the Imperial Bedchamber, and assassinated Nicephorus as he rose. He was subsequently crowned Emperor John I. Though he proposed initially to marry the twice-widowed Empress Theophano, the Patriarch refused to sanction the union. He instead married her former sister-in-law, princess Theodora, sister of Romanus II of the Macedonian Dynasty. He continued Nicephorus Phocus’ plans to campaign against the Kievan Rus; who were camped in eastern Bulgaria. His general and former brother-in-law, Bardas Scleros, defeated the Rus at Battle of Arcadiopolis (970), giving Tzimiskes time to settle affairs in the capital. A revolt briefly flared later that year in Antatolia, but was quickly quelled by Bardas Scleros, returned from Bulgaria. In spring of 971 Tzimiskes himself advanced into Bulgaria. He took the Bulgarian capital Preslav, capturing the Bulgarian Tzar and besieged the Rus in the fortress of Dorostolon (modern Silistra). After a three-month siege and several pitched battles before the city walls, the Rus surrendered and were allowed to withdraw across the Danube. In 972 Tzimiskes turned once again east against the Empire’s Muslim enemies; beginning with an invasion of Upper Mesopotamia. He consolidated gains made by him in 958. Three years later, in 975, he invaded Syria and the Lebanon, sweeping all resistance aside. He captured took all the major cities of the region, including Damascus, Caesarea, Sidon, Beirut, and Tripoli; only just failing to take Jerusalem. No Christian army had come this far south, or controlled so much of Syria/Palestine since the Battle of Yarmouk, in the 7th century. Tzimiskes died suddenly in 976 returning from this campaign, poisoned by a corrupt court official. Like his uncle, Nicephorus Phokus (whose work he aided and continued) he left the Empire stronger than when he assumed the throne; and all of its enemies trembling.

 12. Saladin

Ṣalāḥ ad-Dīn Yūsuf ibn Ayyūb, known in the West as Saladin, was the most celebrated Islamic ruler and military leader of the Middle Ages. Though a Kurd, he was a client of the Turkish Zengid rulers of northern Mesopotamia. As a lieutenant of the premiere Muslim warrior-prince, Nur ed-Din, he was sent to Fatimid Egypt; where he made a name for himself as a commander against the Crusader state. He built a 4436452926_7199efe088power-base in Egypt, eventually causing Nur ed-Din to grow suspicious. Nur ed-Din was in Damascus preparing to invade Egypt when he died. In 1174 Saladin captured Damascus. After several skirmishes with the Zengids and the Crusaders alike, he was attacked by the Zengids near Hamah in April 1175. Saladin assumed a strong defensive position; and when the Zengids attacked they were soon surrounded and defeated by Saladin’s Egyptians. After this victory, he captured most of the Zengid fortresses in Mesopotamia, and was acknowledged by the Caliph as Sultan of Egypt and Syria. The Zengids attacked again a few months later, and were again defeated at Tall al-Sultan in April 1176. Receiving the submission of his remaining enemies, he now took action against the Assassins, a powerful political terrorist organization of the day. Concluding an alliance with their leader, he retired to Egypt at the end of 1175. For the next twelve years, he warred intermittently against the Crusader kingdom and his rivals in Mesopotamia. While successful against his Muslim opponents, annexing much of Mesopotamia to the Ayyubid realm, he was frustrated by the Crusaders; his army routed by King Baldwin at the Battle of Montgisard in 1177. After years of truce (eventually violated by the Crusaders), war broke out again; culminating in the decisive Battle of Hattin, on July 4, 1187. Here Saladin defeated King Guy of Jerusalem and all but annihilated the army of the Crusader Kingdom. Their garrisons dead or captured, most of the Crusader castles and fortresses were rapidly overrun; with Jerusalem surrendering on 2 October 1187, after a brief siege. Saladin soon found himself facing a Christian response, in the form of the Third Crusade (1189–1192). In Richard I (The Lionheart) of England he found himself, perhaps for the first time in his life, against a commander of even greater ability (see #10, below). Despite defeats at Acre and in the Battle of Arsuf, he managed to retain Jerusalem and make an advantageous peace with Richard and the Crusaders. His reputation is that of both a great military leader and a chivalrous warrior. He was  merciful and magnanimous in victory; and steadfast in defeat.

11. Richard the Lionheart

The third son of Henry II Plantagenet, Richard showed military acumen at a very young age. At 15 he was made Duke of Aquitaine; his mother’s native lands in southwestern France. From then till his accession to the throne he campaigned and fought periodically; both as a rebel against his father’s authority (usually in alliance with his mother and older brothers) and as his father’s hammer against rebellious lords. It was during the two-month long siege of the rebel stronghold of Castillon-sur-Agen, in 1175, that Richard acquired the nick-name “Lionheart”. It was during this period he established a firm reputation as a military tactician; particularly in siege operations. Richard’s older brothers having died previously, he succeeded to the throne on Henry’s death in 1189. He inherited the Plantagenet Empire, with greater wealth and lands than any monarch in Western Europe. The Battle of Hattin and the subsequent capture of Jerusalem by Saladin had led to the Pope calling for a Third Crusade. Richard had “taken the cross” two years earlier. Now as king he was eagerRichard to depart. Mortgaging much of his kingdom to finance a modest but well-equipped expedition, Richard set out with a force of 8,000 men. In July 1190, Richard Plantagenet and Philip II of France sailed together from the port of Marseille with their respective armies. The armada stopped in Sicily, where Richard’s sister, Joan, had been married to the late King, William II. The new king, Tancred, had imprisoned Joan; earning the wrath of her powerful brother. Richard stormed and captured Messina; and Joan was quickly released by her captors. The two kings fell out, and Philip left Richard and departed Sicily in March of 1091; Richard departing Sicily a month later. A storm caused a portion of his fleet to run aground on Cyprus; held by a violent and hot-tempered Byzantine prince, Isaac Dukas Comnenus. Those ships contained not only Richard’s treasury, but his wife and sister. Landing with the bulk of his forces, Richard overran the island, capturing Isaac and recovering both his treasure and his ladies. Having conquered Cyprus he then set sail for Acre. Arriving on June 8, 1191, he found the siege by a multi-national Crusader army in disarray; the Crusader army much reduced by disease and fractured by conflicting political rivalries. Saladin and his army had occupied the area outside the Crusader camp, hemming them in and cutting off forage. Unable to get the leaders to agree upon any course of action, the fiery Richard took command of the Crusader army. He constructed siege engines and towers to assault the walls. Conceding the inevitable, on July 12th, 1191, the garrison surrendered; and the long siege of Acre ended. Richard’s army marched south along the coast; with careful attention paid to the disposition of the marching column.  Aware of the ever-present danger of Saladin’s army mirroring their march in the hills overlooking the coast, he kept the army in tight formation. The infantry marched on the landward flank, covering the horsemen and affording them (and their vital chargers) some protection from harassment by the missiles of mounted Turkish raiders. The outermost ranks of the footmen were composed of crossbowmen, whose shot outdistanced that of the Turkish composite bow. Kept within the center of the column were the twelve mounted regiments of knights, each 100 men strong. These were a powerful weapon, but whose charge could only be unleashed once. As such, Richard gave strict orders that none were to leave the safety of the column and engage enemy raiders without his direct command. On September 7, Saladin attacked Richard’s column at Arsuf. Richard patiently allowed his infantry to blunt the Muslim attack; as Saladin’s troops pressed ever closer. At a signal, the Christian ranks opened and his knights charged. The lighter Muslim horse and foot had drawn too close to the Crusader column to avoid the crushing charge of the Frankish knights. As a result, many were ridden down; the rest were quickly put to rout. Saladin’s army was broken, with  7,000 dead (as opposed to only some 700 Crusaders). Among the fallen was the Sultan’s own nephew,  commander of Saladin’s picked guards. It was a crushing defeat, though Saladin was able to quickly rally the survivors. Sickness brought the Crusader army to a halt before they reached Jerusalem, and Richard negotiated a fair treaty with Saladin. While Saladin would hold onto Jerusalem, the Crusader Kingdom would be left in peace with what it now held. Additionally, the Holy City would be open to Christian pilgrims to visit the shrines of their religion unmolested. Upon his return to England, Richard continued his father’s policy of strengthening the Plantagenet holdings in France; at the expense of Philip II. He built several castles and strengthened others. His most impressive one by far was the mighty Château Gaillard, the “Fair Castle of the Rock”; overlooking the River Seine, warding Normandy from French incursion. He died in 1199, from a minor wound sustained while besieging a rebel stronghold. His legacy was as both an indomitable warrior and a superb war leader; the perfect Medieval warrior-king. As a master of the arts of fortification and siege few generals in Medieval history were his equal. His two amphibious campaigns, in Sicily and Cyprus were modern in scope and efficiency, with a decisiveness and rapidity of maneuver that showed a keen grasp of strategic planning and execution. As a tactician, he showed great control, foresight and timing at Arsouf; defeating the very dangerous Turkish-Egyptian army that had destroyed the army of the Crusader kingdom at Hattin. In Saladin he faced and bested another great captain; one who had considerably more resources in men and treasure than Richard. Of the great Plantagenet leaders on this list, he was second only to Edward Longshanks as a commander.

10. Edward I “Longshanks”

The vigorous son of a weak father (Henry III), Edward Plantagenet came of age during the ferment that led to the Second Baron’s Rebellion (1264–1267). He was initially under the influence and supported many of the goals of Earl Simon de Montfort, husband of his aunt. In 1263, at 24 he commanded his first campaign; against the Welsh. Soon open war broke out between the de Montfort Baronial faction and the Royalists. At first most of southern England went over to the Barons. But Edward, now firmly committed to his father’s cause (and protecting the royal power that would one day be his) took command of royalist forces in the west and captured Gloucester and Northampton before joining his father andEdward Longshanks the main royalist forces in time for the Battle of Lewes. Though Edward routed the Baronial wing he faced, the battle was a defeat for his father the king, who was captured. Edward was placed in confinement till the following year, while de Montfort attempted to establish a constitutional monarchy. Edward escaped his captors in March 1265, and gathered support in the west. Edward defeated a smaller force led by Earl Simon at Newport (July 8); and drove de Montfort across the Severn into Wales. Meanwhile, another (larger) baronial force under Simon de Montfort the Younger was marching from London. Edward now found himself between two baronial forces; which, combined outnumbered his own by two-to-one. Breaking off his watch along the Severn, and using the advantage of interior lines, he marched rapidly against the younger de Montfort; savaging his forces in a brief surprise attack at Kenilworth. The elder de Montfort re-crossed the Severn; and marched southeast in an attempt to link up with his son. Edward pursed and trapped him at Evesham, in a bend of the River Avon. The battle became a massacre, and Earl Simon was killed with all of his men. Edward freed his father, King Henry, and spent the rest of the year crushing the baronial rebels. He was now ruler of England in all but name. With peace at home, Edward not “took the cross”, to join the 8th Crusade. He left England in 1270 with 1,000 men, bound for North Africa; where King Louis IX of France was besieging Tunis. An epidemic swept though the French camp, however, decimating their forces and taking the life of King Louis. By the time Edward arrived the French had concluded a treaty with the Amir of Tunisia, and were withdrawing. Edward and his force sailed on to the Holy Land, where a 9th Crusade had been called in response to the Mamluk Sultan Baibars capture of Antioch. Edward arrived in 1271, and acted aggressively against the surrounding Mamluks till struck down by an Assassin with a poisoned dagger. Edward languished for months, and by the time he recovered in September a truce had been concluded. Edward set sail for home. In Sicily, he received word that his father had died, and he was now King Edward I of England. His first years on the throne were spent reforming and clarifying English Law, and centralizing royal authority. From 1277 to 1284 he campaigned intermittently in Wales; eventually ending Welsh independence and making it a part of his kingdom. Throughout northern Wales he built a series of highly advanced castles, such as Conroy and Caernarvon; reminiscent of those Crusader castles he had seen in the Holy Land. A byproduct of Edward’s Welsh war was the adaption of the Welsh longbow by the English; becoming a national weapon that in the hands of trained English yeoman would be the basis of English military supremacy for the next two centuries. From 1293 to 1303, he war he campaigned in Gascony against Philip IV (“le Belle”) of France; retaining English control. His greatest wars, however, were conducted in Scotland. Edward had been asked to mediate in a succession dispute over the Scottish crown. He selected the pretender, John Balliol; in return for his homage to England. Balliol resented being Edward’s vassal; and allied with France, then at war with England. A Scottish raid on Carlisle led to Edward invading Scotland in 1296. He sacked Berwick-on-Tweed and scattered the Scots at Dunbar. Edward pursed Balliol as far as Perth, where the Scottish king surrendered. Edward stripped him of his royal vestments and sent him to prison in the Tower of London. The ancient Stone of Scone – the coronation stone of the Scottish Kings – was taken as well back to England; and Scotland was placed under English administration. While Edward was campaigning in France, the Scots rose in rebellion under William Wallace. On September, 11,1297 a large English force under the Earl of Surrey and Hugh de Cressingham was routed by a Scottish army led by Wallace and Andrew Moray at Stirling Bridge. Wallace then raided deep into Northumberland and Cumberland. Edward concluded a treaty with France; and invaded Scotland with a large army. On 22 July 1298 Edward met Wallace’s forces at the Battle of Falkirk. The English longbowmen devastated the Scottish schiltrons, and the gaps opened in their formation were exploited by the charge of armored knights; who broke up their formations. The Scots were routed, though Wallace escaped (to be betrayed a few years later). Edward spent the following years attempting to crush Scottish resistance; with only partial success. He died on the way to Scotland in 1307, in his tent. He was a great king and gifted commander, feared and respected by his subjects; hated by he enemies. The Evesham Campaign was a brilliant operation, almost Napoleonic in its use of maneuver and interior lines to isolate and defeat separated detachments of a superior force in detail. His adaption of the Welsh longbow showed foresight and judgment. His use of combined arms at Falkirk demonstrated a maturing of his skills as a battle captain; and it is noteworthy that he succeeded in defeating an enemy employing hedgehog formations of steady spearmen, where other Feudal armies had failed (at Courtrai in 1302, for example).

9. Nikephoros II Phokas

Nikephoros Phokas was born to a distinguished Cappadocian military family. He rose rapidly in rank, appointed military governor (Strategos) of the Anatolikon Theme in 945; and then to supreme commander on the eastern frontier in 953. The next year he was defeated in battle against the Abbasids; but redeemed himself campaigning in Syria in subsequent years. In 960 he was entrusted with the command of an expedition to capture Crete from the Saracens. Within a year he captured the entire Island. Returning to the East, he campaigned with his nephew, John Tzimisces in 962 to conquer Cilicia, held by the Muslims since the 7th century; clearing the way for an advance into Muslim Syria. Crossing the Taurus mountains into Syria, he captured 60 towns and cities, and sacked Hamdanid Aleppo; taking a great amount of booty. In these early byzantine_cataphact_officer 2campaigns against the Muslims, the first successful Byzantine offensives since the Muslim conquests of the 7th century, he earned the name, “The Pale Death of the Saracens”. In March 963, the twenty-six year old Emperor Romanos II died unexpectedly, leaving two young sons as his sole heirs. The Eastern Army proclaimed Nicephorus as emperor in their stead. John Tzimisces arranged a power-sharing deal with the boys mother, the twenty-two year old Empress-Regent Theophano; in which she would marry Nicephorus, and her sons by Romanus would be named as his heirs. Nicephorus was crowned Emperor in August 963. He made war against the Muslims in the south and the Bulgarians in the north; securing and expanding the borders of the empire. In 969 Antioch, once the second-city of the Eastern Roman Empire, was recaptured by a subordinate. That year, while preparing an army to repel the Kievan Rus from the Balkans, he was murdered by a conspiracy that included his young wife and his nephew, John Tzimisces; who assumed the thrown as John I. Nikephorus is credited with many military reforms, including once again arming some regiments of elite cavalry as heavy cataphracts (clibanophoroi), both man and horse covered with armor; a practice that had disappeared in the 6th century. He pushed the frontiers of the empire to limits not seen since the Arab explosion in the 7th century; driving the Muslims out of Anatolia and fixing the border march in northern Syria instead. He left the empire on the offensive against its neighbors, and stronger than it had been since Yarmouk.

8. Charlemagne

The eldest son of Pepin the Short, son of Charles Martel and the first Carolingian king of the Franks; he grew up in a military household with tales of his brilliant grandfather. He spent his early adult years campaigning alongside his father; and was fully prepared to assume the throne at 26 when Pepin died in 768. He shared the crown with his brother Carloman, the realm split between the two; a common practice among the Franks. Relations between the two were strained, only maintained with difficulty by their mother.The following year Charles ledCharl an army into Gascony; to successfully reassert Frankish authority and crush a rebellion. Carloman, ruling his portion of the Frankish kingdom from Burgundy, refused to help. The brothers were close to open war when Carloman died in 771. His authority over the Franks now unchallenged, Charles chose to intervene on behalf of the Pope in Italy against the Lombard king, Desiderius. In 773 he secured his northern frontier with a lighting foray against the Engrian Saxons, forcing their submission and cutting down one of their sacred trees. He then turned south, and crossed the Alps in two columns; one commanded by his uncle, Bernard, son of Charles Martel, the other by himself. The two columns operated together to menace the flanks of the Lombards defending the foot of the passes; and succeeded in entering the plains of the Po Valley. The Franks surrounded Desiderius in Pavia, taking the city in 774 after a ten month siege. Desiderius was dethroned and sent to live out his life in a monastery. Charles, in an act hitherto unique in Germanic history, assumed the Lombard crown; accepting the homage of many of the Lombard lords. This union between the Frankish and Lombard Kingdoms laid the foundation for the Holy Roman Empire; founded in the 10th century by Otto the Great (see above). In 775 he campaigned again throughout Saxony, forcing their submission and converting many to Christianity. In 776, Charles returned to south Italy to defeat a rebellion by the Lombard dukes of Friuli and Spoleto rebelled; and Arechis, Duke of Benevento had refused to submit to the Franks after Pavia. Charles defeated the Duke of Friuli in battle; and Spoleto surrendered. He was unable to remain to force the submission of Benevento, as the Saxons were in revolt and had destroyed his fortress at Eresburg. He chastised the Saxons, but was forced to return many times before the land was fully conquered. In frustration, Charlemagne ordered the execution of 4,500 Saxon prisoners, known as the Massacre of Verden in 782. The killings did not end the fighting, and Saxony was in ferment till 804; when, finally exhausted, they became part of the Frankish kingdom. During this war the Frisians of the Low Countries were also subdued to some extent; and though a large part of their fleet was burned, they continued as pirates for another two centuries. In 778, he crossed the Pyrenees, where though he subdued the Basques, by conquering Pamplona. His forces converged in two columns on Saragossa and Charlemagne received the homage of the Muslim rulers. Unwilling to face the full response of the Moorish forces to the south, and unsure of the Basques to his rear, Charlemagne decided to retreat. As his army crossed the Pyrenees the Basques fell on his rearguard and baggage train, utterly destroying it as it passed through the Pass of Roncesvalles. The death of Roland, Warden of the Breton March, inspired the subsequent Song of Roland (La Chanson de Roland); one of the great heroic poems of the Middle Ages. In subsequent years, the Franks pushed the borders south deep into northeastern Spain, creating the Spanish March and capturing Barcelona and much of Catalonia. In 787 Charles again directed his attention toward the Duchy of Benevento, where Arechis was finally forced to submit. However, his successors were able to regain their independence in the next generation; till the coming of the Normans. In 789 Bavaria was annexed. In the following years, till 803, he and his son Pippin campaigned against the Avars of Pannonia. This Asiatic Horde had been the greatest power in the Balkans and across the European steppes (Ukraine) since the early 7th century. They had even laid siege to Constantinople during the reign of Heraclius. Through steady campaigns, the Franks destroyed their power; taking the Great Avar Ring (their nomadic capital) twice. So complete was their destruction that a saying grew-up: “Gone like the Avars”. The remnants became vassals of the Frankish kings; settled south of Vienna. In the last decades of the 8th century, Charles pushed Frankish control into Bohemia, Austria, Croatia, and all along the Baltic coast; at the expense of the Slavic tribes. In 800, Charles traveled to Rome to reinstate Pope Leo III. At Mass on Christmas Day in Saint Peter’s Basilica, when Charles knelt at the altar to pray, the Pope crowned him Imperator Romanorum (“Emperor of the Romans”). This was the first time since the 5th century that any ruler had laid claim to the Imperial title in the West. He died in January 814; having earned the name “Charles the Great”: Charlemagne. He left the Franks the premiere people of Western Europe; a fact reflected in the fact that throughout the Muslim world and Byzantium, all western Europeans were universally called “Franks”. Militarily it is hard to judge his tactical skills, as there are no detailed record of his battle tactics. However, he was energetic and campaigned every year along the borders of his Kingdom, and some years on multiple fronts; always pushing and extending the borders of the Frankish state. He was equally successful against foes on the plains of Lombardy and Pannonia, the swamps and forests of Saxony and Frisia, or the mountains of Spain. He left a legacy that would inspire Napoleon to attempt to reunite western Europe into one empire.

7. Khalid Ibn al-Walid

Commanding the forces of Mohammed “the Prophet” of Islam, Khalid was victorious in over a hundred battles. He defeated Arab rivals to establish Islamic rule in the Arabian Peninsula; and the forces of the Byzantine and Sassanid-Persian Empires, the “super-powers” of the day. Originally an enemy of Mohammed’s, he played a vital role in the Meccan victory at the Battle of Uhud against the Muslims; and was on the losing side at the Battle of the Trench (627). After converting to Islam, however, he joined KhalidMuhammad and became one of his chief military captains. In an early attempt to bring the northern Arabian Ghassanids (clients of the Byzantines) under Muslim control, an army was dispatched to eastern Syria in 629. A Byzantine army under Theodore, brother of the Emperor Heraclius, came to the help of their clients; and a pitched battle ensued at Mu’tah (the first battle in history between Byzantine and Muslim forces). The Muslim commander was slain; as was the next two who took his place. Then Khalid assumed command, and after a fierce fight at close quarters (Khalid reputedly broke 9 swords in the fighting) he managed to extricate his defeated forces. Through various stratagems he convinced the Byzantines to break off their pursuit, fooling them into believing that reinforcements had arrived. Upon bringing the survivors home safely to Medina, he was awarded the title of Saifullah (“The Sword of Allah”) by Mohammed. In 630 Khalid led one of the four Muslim columns that stormed and captured Mecca. For the next two years, till Mohammed’s death he was sent on various military missions to spread the faith and punish “idolaters”. Khalid was one of the main advisers to the first Caliph, Abu Bakr, and the strategist for his campaign to complete the subjugation of Arabia; much of which had fallen away after Mohammed’s death. After several battles and much campaigning, Khalid won the decisive Battle of Yamama, in December 632; ending the so-called “Apostate Wars”. In 633 he led the first Muslim invasion of Sassanid territory, campaigning in southern Iraq. After defeating the Sassanid forces in four battles, he was recalled to put down a rebellion in Arabia. After succeeding in this mission, he returned to Mesopotamia and completed the destruction of Sassanid forces in the region. He was then dispatched by the Caliph to Byzantine Syria. He defeated the Byzantines in multiple engagements; capturing Damascus in 634. With the death of Abu Bakr, Khalid’s cousin Umar became the second Caliph. His first move was to relieve Khalid of command of the Muslim forces in Syria; claiming that Khalid was winning too much of the glory that belonged to Allah. The new Muslim commander retained Khalid as commander of his cavalry; and continued to rely upon him as an advisor. At the Battle of Yarmouk in 636 the Byzantines were decisively defeated, Khalid’s strategy being credited with the victory. Syria and Egypt soon after fell to the Muslim invaders. Khalid was sent into northern Syria, to roll-up the Byzantine cities and threaten southern Anatolia. Leading a 17,000 man mobile advance force, Khalid was engaged by a much larger Byzantine army; which he destroyed utterly at the Battle of Hazir in 637. After this victory he was praised by Calip Umar, who said: “Khalid is truly the commander, May Allah have mercy upon Abu Bakr. He was a better judge of men than I have been.” Despite this, Khalid was dismissed from the Muslim army and forcibly retired a year later. He died in 642 at Homs. As a general, he made better use of maneuver and surprise than any general since Belisarius (see #3) and till the coming of the great Mongols conquerors. He applied typical Bedouin tactics of hit-and-run, ambush and attack from several directions to the movements of large armies; defeating larger armies more used to set-piece battles.

6. Tamerlane

Born near Kesh in modern Uzbekistan, Timur the Lame was a Tarter who rose to power to become Vizier to the Khan of the Chagatai Khanate in Central Asia by 28. Timur was a ruthless politician and a tactical genius. He led the Khan’s army against Kurasan and to assert control of Transoxiana; but in 1369 he took control of the Chagatai Khanate, the khans being reduced to puppets. He used this as a power-base from which to expand; the ultimate goal seeming to be the reunification of the empire of Genghis Khan. He built a loyal and capable army of Turks, Mongols, Tartars, and mercenaries from all over Central Asia. He captured Kashgar and Jatah in 1380, and began expanding beyond the previous confines of the Chagatai Khanate thereafter. For the next 25 years, he conducted Timurbloody raids and invasions in all directions. From 1381 till 1387 he warred against the Il-Khanate of Persia and the independent Amirs of the region; beginning with the capture of Heart in 1381. Khorasan was overran by 1385, with Isfahan surrendering to Timur in 1386. Azerbaijan and Armenia followed. Wherever he went, ruthless massacres of the population followed. By this point he controlled an areacorresponding to present-day Iran, Iraq, Azerbaijan and Armenia, and parts of Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, Afghanistan, and Turkmenistan. In 1386 he invaded Georgia; taking Tbilisi on November 21, 1386. The Georgian King Bagrat V was captured and converted to Islam at sword point. His activity in the Caucasus caused the Khan of the Golden Horde to the north, Toktamish, to intervene. They fought in Azerbaijan, and the northern Mongols were repulsed. Taking advantage of Timur’s absence in Persia, Toktamish skirted the northern edge of the Caspian Sea and raided into Transoxiana; threatening Timur’s capital at Samarkand. By forced marches of 50 miles a day, Timur returned in time to block the Mongols, who withdrew north. That winter, reinforced from home, the Golden Horde attacked again. Timur engaged them at the Battle of the Syr-Darya in 1389; where he outmaneuvered and defeated them. Toktamish retreated back north of the Caspian. Timur gathered an army 100,000 strong, and followed Toktamish; invading Russia in 1390-91. Toktamish, with a larger force, met Timur at the Battle of Kondurcha in June 1391. The three day battle was bloody and hard-fought; only won by a ruse, when Timur fooled Toktamish’s men into believing that their leader had been killed. Toktamish’s forces fled, taking great casualties; one source claiming 70,000 killed (to Timur’s 30,000 lost over the three days). Timur withdrew to lick his own wounds. The following year he returned to the Fars region of Persia to put down revolt; killing the rebel Shah Mansur at the Battle of Shiraz. Timur moved on into Mesopotamia in 1393, and captured Bagdad. In 1394 he invaded Georgia; and was again attacked by Toktamish and the Golden Horde. Timur prevailed, and drove his enemy north of the Caucuses. Leaving forces under his son, Miran Shah, as governor of Armenia and Georgia he crossed the Caucuses into southern Russia; heartland of the Golden Horde. Battle was joined at the Terek River on 15th April. This was again a hard-fought battle, with victory hanging in the balance. Toktamish attacked the Timurid right flank and center. However, some of the Golden Horde’s amirs switched sides; helping Timur to overwhelm Toktamish’s left flank and then to roll-up his whole army. The survivors fled, and Timur followed for months, pursuing across Ukraine and Russia, all the way to Moscow; slaughtering Mongols wherever he found them. The Golden Horde was effectively finished as a power. Timur returned east, passing through and chastising Georgia for rebelling. In spring of 1389, he invaded India in several flying columns of cavalry. His columns converged on Delhi, where he was met on the plains of Panipat on December 17, 1398 by thhe Sultan Nasiruddin Mahmud. The Delhi forces were routed, and on 18 December 1398 Timur’s forces captured the city. Delhi was subjected to horrible days of slaughter and rape. It was left in ruins, and a vast pyramid of human skulls was erected as a trophy and a warning. Timur pillaged far and wide; then departed as suddenly as he had come. In 1400 the Timurid army was in Syria, where Timur was victorious over the Mamelukes at the Battle of Aleppo on 30th October. With typical ferocity the Timurids followed this with massacres at Aleppo and Damascus. More slaughter was to follow at Baghdad in 1401, which had revolted in Timur’s rear and was quickly recaptured. Timur now crossed into Anatolia, to face the immerging power of the Ottoman Turks. At Ankara the Sultan Bayazid “the Terrible” brought a large and sophisticated army of cavalry and infantry. Timur outmaneuvered and outfought the Sultan, the Timurid elephants playing a key role in breaking the Turkish ranks. Bayazid was captured and died in captivity. The Timurids overran the rest of Anatolia, reaching Smyrna on the Aegean Sea; and receiving the tribute of the Byzantines and the Mameluke Sultan of Egypt. Timur returned now to Samarkand, and prepared for the final campaign to reunite Genghis Khan’s army: the invasion of Mongolia and China. But in 1405 he died en route at Otrar. Tamerlane (as he came to be known in the west) left an even bloodier legacy than the earlier Mongol conquerors; using brutal terror as a weapon of subjugation. As a general, he was bold and aggressive, and tactically adept. As a strategist, he was not the equal of Genghis Khan or Subutai, but was rather instead a mere opportunistic and aggressive adventurer; sweeping forward and trusting to his own tactical skill and the ability of his veteran warriors to defeat any opposition. In this he was never disappointed; though his hard-fought battles against the Mongol Golden Horde could have gone either way. He failed in his goal of reuniting the Mongol Empire under his rule; and his destruction of the Golden Horde fatally damaged the Mongol rule of southern Russia. His death spared China another bloody invasion; though even had he reached there he would have been unlikely to have lived long enough to subdue that vast realm. But he succeeded in creating a very large empire indeed, and died undefeated.

5. Jan Zizka

John Zizka of Trocnov was born of the very minor Bohemian nobility; what would be called the “squire” class in 18th century England. He was a mercenary for most of his life, and served as such at the Battle of Grunwald in 1410. He returned to his native Bohemia to retire on a pension. However, when the Hussite Revolt against royal and Catholic authority broke out in 1419, he quickly became its leader; despite being sixty five and having only one eye. A movement of the lower classes, few of Zizka’s fellow Hussites had any military experience. But as farmers they were used to wielding the long staff-flail; and Zizka wisely made this a main weapon of the Hussite soldiers. But peasants armed with flails Jan Zizkaalone would not defeat the Catholic “Crusader” armies marshalling all around little Bohemia to crush the Hussite “heretics”. Throwing common military dictum and practice to the winds, he followed only his own vision; and with a farsightedness that was two centuries ahead of the rest of the world, he made gunpowder firearms the decisive weapon of the Hussite army. At an age when the plate-and-mail armor of the mounted knights and men-at-arms made most missile weapons only marginally effective (the English longbow being an exception), Zizka put his trust in the armor-defeating ability of the early “handgonne” (supplementing crossbowmen) to bring down his Chivalric enemies. The tactical problem was that these were slow to load and fire; and where vulnerable to being ridden down by charging cavalry; as were the Hussite’s peasant flailmen. Zizka solved this problem by the development of Battle Carts; farm wagons converted to armored battle vehicles. For centuries eastern nomadic peoples had fought behind wagon-laagers. Zizka’s wagons were far more advanced: armored and fitted with loopholes for crossbow and handgonnes. Each was a tactical unit, with a crew trained to fight from and defend their wagon. Each crew consisted of 16-22 soldiers: 4-8 crossbowmen, 2 handgooners, 6-8 soldiers equipped with pikes or flails to fight atop and between the wagons, 2 shield carriers and 2 drivers. Zizka habitually took the offensive, columns of such battle wagons quickly forming a wagonberg when attacked. To support his battle carts, Zizka develop small cannon on four-wheeled carts; that could be brought up between the wagons, giving artillery support. In this Zizka was the first to add artillery to the mobile arm in battle. The Catholic armies that opposed them, whose main strike arm was comprised of knights and their retainers, could find no answer to such tactics accept to futilely assault them; with disastrous result. Zizka maintained a small, disciplined cavalry; who once his enemies broke themselves upon his wagonberg could sally out and complete the route. These methods brought victory at Battle of Sudomĕř in April 1420; at Kutná Hora in 1421; at Německý Brod, a month later in January 1422 in January 1422. As well as many lesser skirmishes, Zizka successfully defended Prague from the Catholic forces at Vítkov Hill in the summer of 1420. Five Crusades were launched against the Bohemian Hussites; and Zizka (and his successors) defeated them all. His victories in Bohemia allowed the Hussites to take the offensive outside of Bohemia, and in 1421 defeated the Emperor Sigismund in Moravia; the Catholics leaving 12,000 dead on the field. Zizka lost his other eye and was totally blind in the last of his campaigns; but continued to lead his forces successfully. Ziska died of plague, leading a Hussite invasion of Moravia. His last wishes were that his skin be made into a great war drum; so that even in death he could bring fear to the hearts of his enemies! His methods influenced warfare for the next century; as first Janos Hunyadi (see above) and subsequently the Ottoman Turks studied his methods and developed their own versions. Historian John Fortescue summed up his genius thusly: “…in the rapidity of his movements and the unrelenting swiftness with which he followed up a victory he bears comparison with Napoleon. He was the first to make artillery a maneuverable arm, the first to execute complicated evolutions in the face of the enemy, and the first to handle infantry, cavalry and artillery in efficient tactical combination.” He is one of a handful of generals in history to have never lost a battle.

4. Heraclius

Son of the governor of Byzantine Carthage, Heraclius and his aged father revolted against the usurper emperor, Phocas; a centurion in the Byzantine army who had led a mutiny against the Emperor Maurice and murdered him in 602, taking the throne. Phocas was a brutal thug, and a poor administrator. His neglect and incompetence led to a crises in which the Sassanid Persians from the east and the Avars in the Balkans overran the empire. Marshaling their resources, the Heracliads captured Egypt, Cyprus, and Sicily before Heraclius arrived secretly in the capital. The Excubitors, a regiment of the Imperial Guards, joined him and Phocas was arrested and executed, by Heraclius’ own hand. The Empire was inHeraclius grave circumstances; with Constantinople on the verge of siege from the east and west. The Avars, a powerful nomadic people who had originated in Central Asia, had been attacked by the Emperor Maurice and were on the verge of defeat when that fine solider was murdered. They took advantage of his successor’s lethargy and incompetence to overrun the Balkans. The Persian Great King, Khosrau II had taken advantage of the disorder and civil war in the empire to attack. The first two campaigns conducted by his generals overran Syria and reached the sea. The third campaign overran Anatolia; and by the time Heraclius had arrived and taken the throne, Persian forces were burning the Asiatic suburbs of Constantinople, and the Avars were raiding up to the landward walls. Heraclius was able to secure the capital and little else. The treasury was empty, and the Byzantine army holding what fortresses they could. The situation temporarily worsened when the only Byzantine field army still intact was defeated outside Antioch in 611. It was twelve years before Heraclius was able to successfully take the offensive. His opportunity came with the fall of Jerusalem to the Persians in 614, with the “True Cross” carried off by the Zoroastrians. The struggle then took on the character of a holy war. The still-rich church was convinced to finance the Emperor’s military operations, and to allow imperial recruiting agents to enter the monasteries (where many who wished to shirk military service were skulking) and draft able-bodied men. He built a strike force around three newly-raised, elite armored cavalry regiments (“Epilektoi”): the Optimati (likely drawn from the best of the existing Imperial Guards), the Bucellarii (comprised of the bodyguards of various now-redundant generals), and the Feoderati (“barbarian” horsemen). In 622 he undertook his first counter-offensive. In this campaign, Heraclius began to show that he was no ordinary general. Instead of crossing the Bosporus and engaging Khosrau’s brilliant generalissimo, Shahrbaraz and his veteran army encamped and ready; he used his unchallenged naval supremacy to advantage. He embarked his small but elite force and sailed around Anatolia; landing in Persian-held Cilicia. By this move he threatened to cut Shahrbaraz’s lines of communication with Syria. The Persians withdrew from the their threatening position along the Bosporus, and crossed the breadth of Anatolia. Heraclius prepared to meet them in Cappadocia, and defeated Shahrbaraz on ground of his choosing. Rather than attempt to use this victory to drive the still much greater Persian forces out of Syria and Egypt to the south, he re-embarked his forces and returned briefly to Constantinople. Then, in 624 he sailed along the northern Anatolian coast to land in Armenia. Defeating the local pro-Persian governor, he drove deep into the Sassanid rear areas, devastating the fire temples of Media. This attack had the desired response, as Khosrau withdrew his forces from the Empire to counter Heraclius’ unexpected incursion. Heraclius defeated the Great King and his generals in two great battles, and withdrew to winter in Anatolia. In 626, Khosrau gathered his forces for one last supreme effort; marching on Constantinople and bribing the Slavs and Avars to attack the city from the European side. At the Asiatic shore, the Persians built rafts and attempted to cross; to join their allies. Only the Byzantine fleet prevented these two enemies from joining forces; where Persian siege craft augmenting Avar savagery might have spelled doom for the inhabitants. An Avar night attack was foiled as well. Heraclius refused to be drawn back to defend his capital, and ravaged deep into the fairest Persian lands. Khosrau was forced to return to defend his homeland, while the battered Avars and Slavs withdrew themselves beyond the Danube. In 627 Heraclius faced the last great army Khosrau could throw at him, near Nineveh and Arbela; site of Alexander’s great victory over Darius. Heraclius was completely victorious, and slew the Persian general Rhahzadh in single combat. The Persians were routed, losing 6,000 men. Heraclius’ army returned home laden with rich booty; enough to pay for the damage done by years of Persian pillaging of the empire. Khosrau was soon overthrown, and the war came to an end with the Persians returning the “True Cross” to the Byzantines as a peace offering. Had Heraclius died at that point, he might well have gone down in history as Byzantium’s greatest leader; and one of history’s greatest generals. Unfortunately, with his health declining and the empire exhausted, he faced a new and deadlier threat in the forces of Islam; led by many competent and one brilliant general, Khalid Idn al-Walid (see above). The Arabs struck as both of the great empires, Persia and Byzantium were exhausted after their 25 year war. Heraclius was himself unable to take the field due to infirmity; and he watched helpless as most of the territory he had recovered from Persia was stripped away by the Arabs. He died in Constantinople in 641. Heraclius ranks among the great Roman Emperors. He led his army further east than any Roman army had ever gone. He won against nearly hopeless odds, using strategic mobility and surprise; always doing what his enemy least expected. He understood the value of seizing and maintaining the initiative; and once he went on the offensive he never relinquished it. His military reorganization laid the groundwork for the later Byzantine Thematic army that defended the empire successfully for centuries. He settled his two of his three elite Epilekta on the Asiatic side of the Bosporus, in the military districts named for them. These would become the earliest Byzantine Themes (military districts): Optimaton and Bucellarion. The third would become a new part of the Imperial Guard, the Feoderati. He left an empire solid and intact, despite the Arab conquests, which would remain a bastion warding Europe from Islam in the east for eight centuries.

 3. Belisarius

Flavius Belisarius was born in 500 AD to a family of country gentry in the Eastern Roman province of Thrace. He was descended from an old Western Roman Patrician family on his mother’s side; and a Slavic officer in the Roman service, on his father’s. He was enrolled in the corps of guards at a young age, and came to the attention of the Emperor Justin and his nephew, Justinian. His leadership qualities impressed the Emperor, as did his theories on cavalry equipment and tactics. He was given permission to form an experimental unit to test his theories; and these became the nucleus of his Bucellarii, his Household guard unit that became the main strike force in all of his later campaigns. Armed with a lance, composite bow and broadsword, they were fully armored to the standard of heavy cavalry of the day. A multi-purpose unit, they were capable of skirmishing at a distance with bow, like the Huns; or could act as heavy shock cavalry, charging and crushing an enemy with lance and sword. In essence, they combined the best and most dangerous aspects of both of Rome’s greatest enemies, the Huns and the Goths. In 526 he raided across the Danube, into the territory of the Gepids. He returned laden with booty, his new-model cavalry a success. In 527, Justin died and was succeeded by Justinian; who had complete trust in Belisarius. In 528, Belisarius was appointed first inspector-general on the eastern frontier; and then Governor of the important border fortress of Dara, in Mesopotamia. War had been raging intermittently with Sassanid Persia for decades. In 530, a Persian army of 50,000 approached, with the purpose of destroying Dara. Belisarius, with only 25,000 men, engaged them on the narrow plain in front of the fortress. Using a reverted entrenchment to protect his center and channel the Persian attacks to either flank, he was able to protect his unreliable infantry from assault while fighting the battle with his better quality cavalry. It was a brilliant set-piece battle and a stunning victory for a young commander in his first battle. The following year, while intercepting a Persian army marching to attack Antioch, he suffered a tactical defeat at the Battle of Callinicum on the Euphrates in 531. However, the battered Persians retreated to their own borders, giving up their effort to attack Antioch. This led to the negotiation of the “Eternal Peace” with Persia; allowing Justinian to recall Belisarius and his Bucellarii to the capital. He arrived back in time to face the Nika Revolt, a massive civil disorder in the capital fomented by the circus factions. The rioters burned much of the city for days, and 1a Belisarius at Milvian Bridgethreatened to unseat Justinian and replace him with a candidate of their choosing. Only the fortitude of the Empress Theodora prevented the pusillanimous Justinian from laying down his diadem and fleeing the city. Belisarius and his Household troops, together with a force of Heruli Feoderati under the general Mundus, succeeded in trapping the rioters in the confined spaces of the hippodrome. A massacre ensued, some 30,000 of the mob being killed; and the Nika Revolt was crushed. In 533, Belisarius was entrusted with an expedition to recover Carthage and North Africa from the Vandals. This Germanic nation had occupied Roman North Africa in the 5th century, and established an independent kingdom. From their capital of Carthage, they launched pirate raids throughout the western Mediterranean; famously sacking Rome itself in 455. Belisarius was given a small force of 15,000 foot and 7,000 cavalry to subdue this nation of some 100,000 fierce warriors. Despite these odds, Belisarius embarked with confidence, setting sail from Constantinople in late June 533. The expedition arrived in Africa in early September. The Vandals were caught by surprise, with part of their army away in Sardinia, putting down a revolt. Belisarius led his forces toward Carthage. At the Tenth Milestone from Carthage (Ad Decimum), the road passed through a defile in a range of hills. It was here that the Byzantines encountered the Vandal army, led by their king, Gelimer. In a rapidly-moving maneuver battle, the Vandals were routed. Belisarius pursued, scattering the Vandals and capturing Carthage before it could be garrisoned. Twelve weeks later, Belisarius met the reinforced Vandal army at Tricamarum, some 30 miles west of Carthage. Unlike Ad Decimum, this was a set-piece battle. After a minimum of skirmishing with bow, the Byzantine cavalry delivered a series of sharp charges, shattering the Vandal line and putting them to rout. The African war wrapped-up the following year with the surrender of Gelimer. Belisarius returned to Constantinople; where Gelimer and the treasures of the Vandal kingdom were displayed in his triumphal parade. The best of the Vandal prisoners were allowed to enlist in his Bucellarii; a practice that would continue throughout his campaigns, till this elite strike-force had swelled to 7,000. Justinian now resolved to restore as much of the Western Roman Empire as he could. In 535, he dispatched Belisarius to attack the Ostrogothic Kingdom in Italy. Belisarius landed in Sicily and took the island for use as a base against Italy. After crossing into mainland Italy, he captured Naples in November by a ruse; his troops using an empty aqueduct to covertly enter the city. By rapid movement, he reached Rome before the Goths could close the gates. The small Gothic garrison fled, and the city was captured in December 536. With less than 15,000 men Belisarius undertook to hold the city against the main Gothic army; estimates for which vary, between 50,000 and 100,000. The siege began with a battle at Milvian Bridge, in which Belisarius was surprised by the main Gothic Army as it crossed the river, with only 1,000 men of his Bucellarii. In the fierce melee that ensued, the Goths were temporarily thrown back across the river. Belisarius personally killed 60 men, and broke two swords in the process. The Goths invested the city, and the siege began in earnest on March 2, 537. It lasted for a year and nine days, ending on March 12, 538. It was characterized by a bold and active defense by Belisarius, in which his superb cavalry sallied out frequently to skirmish with their more numerous but clumsier Gothic opponents. When the Gothic camp was ravaged by plague, and Byzantine reinforcements arrived, the Goths lifted the siege and retreated north. Belisarius spent the next two years mopping up Gothic resistance. In May 540, the Goths surrendered to Belisarius and his army entered Ravenna; on the condition that he accept their offer of the Imperial Western Roman crown. Loyal to Justinian, Belisarius brought the captive Ostrogoth king back to Constantinople. But Goths offer of an Imperial title triggered a deep and lasting distrust and jealousy of Belisarius in Justinian. For the rest of his life, he would labor under a constant suspicion. The Persian War had renewed, and Belisarius was sent east to wage an inconclusive campaign in 541-542. On the plains of Carchemish, his tiny army succeeded in turning back an invading Persian army many times their number by mere bluff. Despite this success, Justinian recalled Belisarius in displeasure. Gothic resistance in Italy had revived under a new king, Totilla; who had recovered much of what was lost to Belisarius earlier. Justinian ordered Belisarius to return to Italy; though he gave little logistical support and hampered the general with multiple, independent co-commanders. After many frustrating years, Belisarius was relieved in 549. He returned to Constantinople and was retired from service; while his rival, the eunuch Narses was commissioned to recover Italy in 553 (see above). Belisarius’ retirement came to a brief end in 559, when Thrace was invaded by the Kutrigur Huns under Khan Zabergan. With a scratch force of 300 old veterans of his wars and local civilian volunteers, the old general and his aging heroes ambushed the Kutrigur horde as it passed through a wooded defile. The Huns panicked and fled, Belisarius pursing them until they fled across the Danube. This was Belisarius’ last victory: upon returning to the capital, he was charged by the jealous Emperor with corruption and stripped of all his wealth and titles. Legend has it that he was blinded and cast into the street, a beggar. Within days, however, his veterans and estranged wife restored him to his home, and the emperor relented. Belisarius died shortly after this, in 565; surrounded by his family and old comrades. He was the foremost soldier of his age, and earned the title of “the Last of the Romans”. He has the distinction of accomplishing more with less than any general in history. With never more than 25,000 men at his disposal (and usually far less), he operated on three continents; defeating vastly larger armies of Persians, Vandals, Goths, and Huns. He recovered North Africa, Sicily, Sardinia, and Italy (though this latter needed to be reconquered by Narses later) for the Roman Empire; with little more than his own Household cavalry. He was a master of rapid maneuver, and was noted for bold actions and audacious attack. As a leader of cavalry forces he bears comparison with Joachim Murat and Nathan Bedford Forrest. By rapidity of action he kept his enemies off-balance, precluding set-piece battles or long, protracted sieges. But he showed at Dara and in the Siege of Rome that he was the master of such operations as well. His Household Bucellarii were the model for the Byzantine army that defended the Eastern Empire for the next 4 centuries.

2. Subutai Baghatur

Born in 1175, Subutai was of the Uriankhai clan of the Mongol people. His family was associated with the family of Temujin’s (the future Genghis Khan), as “guest friends” for generations; and Subutai’s father gave Temujin aid of food and supplies during his early years of outlawry. Subutai’s brother Jelme was also a follower of Temujin’s, and rescued a severely wounded Temujin on one occasion. Subutai joined Temujin, at 17 years old. He is reputed to have vowed to his new leader, “I will ward off your enemies as felt cloth protects one from the wind.” He spent his life fighting Temujin and his son’s enemies. In 1205 Subutai was given the mission of tracking down and destroy bands of the Merkit tribe, who refused to acknowledge Temujin’s overlordship of all the Mongols. In 1206 Temujin assumed the title of Genghis Khan and appointed his four “Orloks”, or field marshals, and Subutai was named one of these four. In 1210 Subutai played a vital part in the defeat of the Jurgen/Chin dynasty of northern China. With an army of 30,000, Subutai moved south across the Gobi Desert and attacked the wall. This focused the Chin attention on the north; but was a diversionary tactic. Genghis Khan’s main army of 90,000Subutai men then attacked from the west and the Chinese had to turn to meet this much greater threat. Subutai broke through and was able to join the main battle, attacking the Chinese in the flank. This move proved to be decisive, and the Jin were defeated. The Chinese capital of Zhongdu (the site of modern Beijing) was captured. In 1216 the Merkits were again a problem, and Subutai was given the task of defeating them once again. Subutai engaged them on the Chu River in 1216 and again in 1219, shattering their forces and pursuing them westward into Kipchak territory. During this campaign his force was attacked by Mohammad II, Shah of Khwarizm, along the Irghiz River; war having been declared after the Shah murdered the Mongol ambassadors. Though outnumbered, Subutai held off the Khwarizmians in a fierce battle. In the subsequent invasion of Khwarizm Subutai commanded the vanguard of the four Mongol columns. After the capture of Bokhara and Samarkand, the Shah fled westward. Subutai and another of Genghis Khan’s trusted Orlocks, Jebe Noyan (“the Arrow”) were given two tumans (20,000 men) to pursue the fleeing monarch. They hounded the Shah to an island in the Caspian, where he died. While Genghis Khan took the main army toward India, pursuing the Shah’s son Jalal ad-Din; he gave his two captains permission to continued westward in a grand reconnaissance. Passing through Azerbaijan they entered Armenia, where they were met by an army of some 60,000 Georgians and Armenians, commanded by King George IV “Lasha” of Georgia. At the Battle of Khunan on the Kotman River, the Georgians and Armenians were defeated. After wintering in Armenia, Subutai and Jebe invaded Georgia itself in 1221. The clashed with the Georgians at the battle at Bardav; then continued on across the Caucuses. In south Russia, they defeated the Alans and Don Cumans; then engaged the army of the Russian princes and their Cuman allies at the Kalka River, on May 31, 1223. The Mongols were badly outnumbered (20,000 against some 80,000), yet routed their foe in a text-book battle of maneuver and decision. The Rus lost 50,000 men, while the Mongol losses were minimal. After raiding in the Ukraine and south Russia, and receiving the submission of the Kipchaks, Subutai and Jebe returned to their Khan. Jebe died on the way home; while Subutai joined the Khan in time to play a key part in the campaign against the Western Xia (Tanguts) in 1226. Mongol operations were interrupted by the death of Genghis Khan in 1227. Genghis Khan was succeeded by his son Ögedei; and Subutai continued as generalissimo of the Mongol armies. He played a key part in the continued operations to complete the conquest of Jurgen/Chin China. Though defeated at Shan-ch’e-hui, Subutai and Ögedei were victorious at Sanfeng and Yangyi in February 1232, and at T’iehling in March. Ögedei and the main Mongol army returned to Mongolia, leaving Subutai with a small force to complete the conquest of Honan. He accomplished this with difficulty, and the Chin were finally destroyed by the end of 1234. In 1236, Subutai was given the task of conquering the west. He first led an army of Mongol princes against Russia. Beginning with the Kingdom of Volga Bulgaria, he swept into Russia in a characteristic winter campaign in 1237 (it was a hallmark of Subutai’s methods that he chose winter to attack; when enemy levies were scattered in their homes, and rivers were frozen solid enough for horse to pass over). Operating in three columns, the Mongols conquered the Rus Principalities over the next three years; destroying the great city of Kiev, which never recovered it prominence. In 1241, Subutai engineered the Mongol invasions of Poland and Hungary. Operating across hundreds of miles, the widely separated Mongol columns swept through and around the Carpathians; invading Hungary. Meanwhile, a diversionary force of two tumans led by the Mongol prince, Kaidu, invaded Poland. Kaidu defeated the Polish and Bohemian armies at Legnica, while Subutai’s columns converged upon and destroyed the Hungarian army at the Battle of Mohi. The Mongols wintered on the plains of Hungary; and Subutai prepared for the invasion of Italy and the Holy Roman Empire. However, Europe was saved by the death of Ögedei Khan in Mongolia. The following spring, 1242, Subutai led the Mongols home to participate in the election of a new Khan. Güyük was elected after a three year process. The new Great Khan placed Subutai in charge, at the age of 70, of a new campaign against the Song Kingdom of southern China. This campaign lasted for two years, from 1246 to 1247. Subutai returned to Mongolia after the Song campaign in 1248; and retired. He died that year, at the age of 73. His legacy is a great one indeed. He directed more than twenty campaigns in which he conquered thirty-two nations and won sixty-five pitched battles. He has the distinction of having conquered or overran more territory than any other commander in history; including his great master, Genghis Khan.

1.  Genghis Khan

 Born Temüjin, the third-oldest son of Yesügei, chief of one of the many Mongol clans; and an ally and blood brother (anda) of the Toghrul Khan of the powerful Kerait tribe. His father was poisoned while he was an adolescent, and he was exiled from his clan and forced to care for his family. He gathered a group of bold young fellow outcasts, some of which became officers later in his army. In the unstable political environment of Mongolia, where loose alliances and confederations were ever-shifting, Temüjin learned the art of politics and diplomacy as well as war. He began his ascent to power by allying with Toghrul Khan; who along with his boyhood friend, Jamukha aided him in recovering his wife Börte when she was kidnapped by the Merkits. By 1190 Temüjin had united the smaller Mongol tribes into his own confederation. His rule was fair and benevolent, and rather than destroying defeated rivals and taking their lands and chattel, he incorporated them into his confederacy. He also established a meritocracy, in which men rose to high position because of ability, and not family ties. He also took in orphans from other tribes, increasing his clan’s numbers and filling it with children who would grow-up owing a debt of loyalty. Temüjin’s rising power disturbed both Toghrul Khan and Jamukha, who had himself become Khan of his own tribe, the Jadaran. These two allied against him, but were defeated. Jamukha and his followers fled to the Naimens. By 1206, these too were defeated and Chingis Khanmany joined Temüjin (including Subutai, who would become his greatest general). Jamukha was betrayed by his own men and executed when he refused to join Temüjin. The Naimans’ defeat left Temüjin as the sole ruler of the Mongolian plains – all the prominent confederations and non-Mongol tribes joined with his Mongol confederation; and adopting the name “Mongol”. It was at this time that he sent Subutai against the still-recalcitrant Merkits (see above). Temüjin was acknowledged as “Khan” of the consolidated tribes and took the new title “Genghis Khan”, (Universal Ruler). He reorganized the Mongol people for war; turning them from mere nomad warriors into a professional army. The tuman was the division of the Mongol army; with the decimal system used to break subunits down all the war to the smallest, of ten horsemen. In 1209, the Tanguts of the Western Xia were subdued (though they would rise in rebellion in 1219; requiring several campaigns before they were completely destroyed in 1227). In 1211, Genghis Khan began his campaign against the Jurgen/Chin Dynasty of northern China, a process that would take 27 years. The Mongols were successful in most engagements, and the Mongols captured and sacked the Chin capital of Zhongdu (modern-day Beijing) in 1215. The Chin moved their capital south to Kaifeng, abandoning the northern half of their kingdom to the Mongols. In 1217 Genghis Khan sent his general Jebe Noyan with two tumans against the Kara-Khitai to the west; as the throne of that state had been usurped by his enemy, the exiled Naimen prince, Kushlag. Jebe overran the country, defeating and killing Kushlag west of Kashgar. The Kara-Khitai kingdom was annexed. This put the western borders of Genghis Khan’s empire adjacent to the powerful Empire of Khwarizm. In 1219, war broke out the two great powers, when the Shah executed the Mongol ambassadors. Genghis took the offensive, despite being outnumbered considerably by the Khwarizmian armies. He invaded in four columns, attacking in depth across a wide front. Much of the Shah’s forces were spread out along the Sry Darya, attempting to defend the River line. The 20,000 strong southern-most column, commanded by Jebe Noyan and Genghis Khan’s eldest son, Juchi came out of Kashgar . This force engaged the 200,000 men of the Khwarizmian mobile field force under the Shah; drawing them eastward into the Ferghana Valley. Meanwhile, the center and northern columns pierced the Syr Darya line, and began working their way south; rolling up and destroying the Khwarizmian fortresses and detachments piecemeal. They worked their way into the Shah’s rear in a massive pincher movement, catching the Shah between them and Jebe’s force. Simultaneously, Genghis Khan personally led the fourth and northernmost column east of the Aral Sea; where it disappeared into the Kizyl Kum desert. These emerged from out the desert deep behind the Shah’s lines, threatening his capital of Bokhara. His communications cut, the now desperate Shaw gave battle to Jebe and the columns converging around him; and was defeated. He fled eastward, narrowly avoiding the Mongol encirclement. Bokhara was given over to sack and rapine, as were Samarkand, Merv and Herat. The Shah was pursued by Jebe and Subutai; while Genghis Khan spent 1220 pacifying Transoxiana. The Shah’s son, Jalal ad-Din, had fled with the remnants of the Khwarizmian army into Afghanistan. There he gathered support, and defeated a pursing force of three tumans near Gazni. Genghis acted swiftly, gathering his forces and invading Afghanistan. Jalal ad-Din was deserted by his Afghan allies, who submitted. The Khwarizmian prince fled to the Punjab with 30,000 men. Genghis engaged him at the Battle of the Indus in 1221; with 50,000. The battle was hard fought, but Genghis sent a tuman around Jalal ad-Din’s flank over an apparently impassible mountain. His army routed, Jalal ad-Din plunged his horse into the swift-flowing river, and swam across under Genghis’ admiring gaze. After ravaging the Punjab, the Mongols returned to Afghanistan and consolidated their control. In 1224 Genghis returned east to punish the Western Hsi, who’d revolted in 1219 and were now allied with the remnants of the Chin. He invaded the kingdom in winter, when the rivers were frozen over, presenting no impediment to the swift moving Mongol columns. At the Yellow River in 1226 the Tangut army was destroyed, losing 30,000. By 1227 the Tanguts were destroyed, and the Mongols went great efforts to obliterate their memory as an object lesson. Genghis Khan died that year, leaving the final conquest of the Chin to his successors. He left to his sons and successors a great empire and the most powerful (and modern) army in the world. They continued to expand his empire, creating in the process the largest land empire the world has ever known. Genghis Khan was one of the greatest generals and conquerors to ever live. As an organizer he was ahead of his time. He created an army that combined all the virtues of traditional nomadic steppe armies, hardiness, relentlessness, ferocity and mobility; with that of the more civilized armies of China and the West: discipline, organization, a technologically advanced artillery and siege component, and even an engineer and medical corps. Mongol armies were able to travel further and faster than any army before or since; completing marches and maneuvers that even modern armies would be incapable of duplicating. As a strategist he has few peers. His campaigns were always preceded by careful reconnaissance and preparation of the target areas, with spies and agents. Once launched, his columns moved rapidly and with purpose; separated but coordinating operations over great distance. His invasion of Khwarism, executed by four widely separated but converging columns has never been surpassed. Tactically, his army was a well-coordinated force of light and heavy cavalry. They never faced an enemy they couldn’t defeat with either superior mobility or firepower. When faced by a stubborn or too strong foe, the Mongols were masters of the feigned withdrawal; or retreating out of the theater of operations, lulling the foe into relaxing their guard before suddenly reappearing in force. The Panzer divisions of the Third Reich had nothing to teach the Mongols in the arts of mobile warfare.

This list includes five Byzantine commanders; five English; three Mongol/Tatar; three Frankish/French (five if a French-speaking Norman and German are included); and three Muslim. This concentration among a few peoples and even families (all of the English but Alfred the Great were of the Plantagenet dynasty, and two were father-and-son) helps explain why these were the nations that dominated the history of the Middle Ages. Only six were non-royal (or failed to rise to a throne), coming from the lesser nobility. Khalid idn al-Walid came, perhaps, from the most humble origins; with Jan Zizka nearly as common.

As with the Greatest Commanders of the Ancient World, this list is limited to Europe and the Mediterranean/Middle East. Genghis/Chingis Khan almost didn’t make this list; as nearly all of his activity was geographically beyond the scope of this study. However, his conquest of Khwarizm, part of the Middle East, gave a good excuse to include him. He certainly was, without debate, the greatest general of the Middle Ages; only Subutai arguably his equal. Among Byzantine historians, there is a lively debate as to who was greater, Belisarius or Narses. As can be seen, I fall firmly in the former’s camp; and consider Narses to be often overrated. He benefited from building upon Belisarius’ military legacy and even using his veteran soldiers; as well as a level of lavish material support Belisarius never enjoyed.

As I compiled this list, I had the opportunity to reassess many of these commanders. Some I ended-up rating higher than I inititally assumed would be the case. Most notable in this category was Khalid idn al-Walid. Conversely, some were down-rated: the Black Prince suffering the worse under close inspection.

This was not a period of great military professionalism. The Mongols and the Byzantines aside, most of the rest of these commanders were military amateurs when compared to the great generals of the Ancient World; particularly the Romans. However, they were spirited and gifted amateurs; and if they lacked a formal military education, and the benefit of staff work, they all learned their trade “on the job”; which perhaps makes their accomplishments all the more impressive.










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Epaminondas of Thebes Changes the Face of Warfare With the Oblique Attack


The Peloponnesian War indisputably established Sparta as the paramount power in the Greek World. Though that long conflict had been waged, ostensibly, by Sparta to free the Greek city-states of the Delian League from Athenian dominance; the Spartan victory merely replaced Athenian hegemony with Spartan.

Though superb soldiers, the Spartans were educationally and temperamentally ill-equipped to deal with the subtleties of statecraft and diplomacy necessary for managing an empire. Over the next 33 years following the end of the Peloponnesian War, Sparta faced sporadic challenges from the other leading Greek states; with coalitions forming against her and her interests. Of these, the Thebans were both the most implacable and the most dangerous.

Thebes had been an ally of Sparta against Athens; and had even pushed for the total destruction of that city after its surrender in 404 BC. However, the following year Thebes aided in the restoration of the Athenian democracy; rightfully perceiving a revived Athens as a counter-balance to Spartan power. Over the next two decades, she often found herself at odds with Sparta; culminating in defeat in the Corinthian War, after which her Boeotian League (through which Thebes exercised leadership over the other Boeotian cities) was dissolved. The crowning agony came in 382 BC, when a Spartan force treacherously seized and occupied the city; establishing once again a oligarchical government.


Theban hoplites (drawing by James Carrozza*)

Three years later, the pro-Spartan government was overthrown by a coup, led by the dashing young Theban firebrand, Pelopidas and his friend, the philosopher-soldier, Epaminondas. A virulently anti-Spartan democracy was installed; and for the next eight years a desultory war was waged to drive the Spartan garrisons out of Boeotia and reestablish the Theban-dominated Boeotian League.

During this period Epaminondas and Pelopidas alternated command; training and improving the Theban forces. Pelopidas was particularly successful at leading small-unit operations; and in his hands the 300 strong Theban corps-de-elite, the Sacred Band became a formidable and professional body of soldiers, fully capable of facing the vaunted Spartan hoplites in battle. Skirmishing with the Spartans year-after-year, the Thebans both learned the Spartan’s method of making war; and lost their awe of Spartan military prowess.

This small cadre had started its existence as the citadel guard of the city; all chosen for their valor. Uniquely in Greek history, the entire corps was composed of homosexual couples; each man paired side-by-side with his lover. It was felt that lovers would fight like lions to protect their beloved; and under Pelopidas’ leadership the Sacred Band were indeed a corps of lions.


Boeotian hoplites. Boeotians fetishized the naked male form to a higher degree than perhaps any other Greeks; and partial nudity may not  have been uncommon, even in battle. Note the boots worn by the central figure: while most Greek warriors fought barefoot, the Boeotians often wore boots. The back figure (in red) is a Theban. Note the “club of Heracles” device, the symbol of Thebes on his shield. This might have been the shield device used by Theban hoplites; while the lion head might have been used, alternatively, by the members of the 300-strong elite corps, the Sacred Band.

In 371 B.C. the hitherto invincible Spartan army once again invaded Boeotia, this time with the purpose of finishing Thebes for good.

The Boeotians had little time to muster their full soldier levy. In consequence, they were outnumbered by the Spartan invaders when the two sides met on the plain of LEUCTRA, in southern Boeotia. The Spartan army numbered some 10,000 hoplites, at the core of which were 700 elite Spartiates, the true Spartan citizen-soldiers; and 1,000 cavalry. The Boeotians numbered approximately 6,000-7,000 hoplites, perhaps 1500 cavalry, and a similar number of skirmishers. Of these number, no more than 4,000 were Thebans.

Neither side was initially eager for battle. The Spartan King, Cleombrotus, was convinced by his senior officers that he must fight or be indicted by the ephors when he returned to Sparta. The Boeotians were even more nervous about facing the Spartans. But the Thebans knew that if this army didn’t fight now, their Boeotian allies would return home to defend their own cities; and the Spartans would isolate and besiege Thebes. For several days the Boeotarchs [1] debated offering battle to the superior Spartan forces. But Epaminondas, who argued for giving battle, won the day.


The intellectual Epaminondas, a military innovator of the first-order, had devised a plan to defeat the vaunted Spartans (who had not lost a pitched-battle in three centuries). Though most of his Thebans were not as well trained as the Spartans, they were mainly comprised of “big country boys”; farmers who were both strong and large. Boeotia means “cow land”; comprised of broad pasture land, where cattle grazed. Likely the Thebans had a larger amount of beef in their diet; which would also account for a larger, heavier man. By contrast, the Spartans tended to be smaller and wirier of build; due to the spare, near-starvation diet they were raised on in the Spartan Agoge [2]. Epaminondas knew from experience that in a pure shoving contest his larger and stronger Thebans were a match for the Spartans.

One of the hallmarks of Greek hoplite warfare was a tactic called othismos, the push of shields. Though the precise explanation of this tactic is debated by scholars, I believe it involved each hoplite in the phalanx pressing his shield into the back of the man in the rank in front of him; and using the weight of the entire phalanx to press the enemy phalanx backward. Once falling backward, a phalanx quickly lost cohesion as men tripped over each other; and rout soon followed. The Spartans were masters of othismos, advancing in ordered ranks with measured tread, every man keeping time to the trill of the flutes; steadily and silently bearing down upon the enemy.

Few Greeks would stand up to the feared Spartans. At Mantinea of 418 BC the Arcadian and Athenian phalanx broke and fled from the Spartans before making contact:

(they) “did not even stand to fight, but they fled as the Spartans approached; some were even trampled in their hurry to get away before the enemy (Spartans) reached them.” [3]

However, Epaminondas knew that his Thebans would face the Spartans; and in the push of shields his larger, stronger Thebans would have an inherent advantage. And with the fiery Pelopidas leading the Sacred Band, spearheading the Theban attack, he was confident he had men equal in valor to the Spartans.

awiv-3_balfour (2)

Unlike the Spartans, who advanced at a measured walk, the Thebans had trained and practiced advancing at a dead run; smashing into the enemy rather than pushing them. The impetus of the charge would lend the Theban attack even greater shock, Epaminondas calculated.

He had one more trick to play, and this one would be revolutionary.

First, knowing that in Greek hoplite battles each side always placed their best troops on the far right of their battle line; he deviated from the norm and placed his best troops, the Thebans, on his left flank, opposite the Spartans themselves. The rest of his forces, comprised of the allied non-Theban Boeotians, were to be echeloned back to the right. By this he was gambling that his Thebans would defeat the unbeatable Spartans; and keep his less reliable Boeotian allies out of the battle till a decision could be reached.


Never before had a phalanx deployed in echelon formation; nor had the best troops been placed on the left end of the line.

To give even great pushing power of his Theban hoplites, he arrayed his Thebans in an uncommonly deep formation.

Greek phalanxes deployed in an average depth of 8-12 ranks. In fact, as few as four ranks were not unusual. The Spartans, masters of phalanx warfare, deployed their own phalanx that day 12 ranks deep, as Epaminondas expected. The Thebans, at least since the Peloponnesian War, had experimented with phalanxes twice as deep as the norm; making up with mass what they tended to lack in training.

At Leuctra, Epaminondas arrayed his Thebans in an unprecedented, massive column almost as deep as it was broad: a human battering ram 50-men deep (or, as the Greeks would term it, “shields” deep); with Pelopidas and the Sacred Band at its head. Their orders were to charge foremost, leading the rest of the Theban phalanx; and to aim directly for the Spartan king, Cleombrotus, where he would have taken his station: on the rightmost of the Spartan line, surrounded by his bodyguard of Spartan knights, the “Hippias”.

Thus, Epaminondas’ plan was to strike the strongest point of the Spartan army, where their king, his bodyguard, and the Spartiates would be stationed. If these were defeated, and quickly, he reasoned the rest of the Spartan army, comprised of allies who looked to Sparta to lead the way, would lose heart. In essence he planned to cut off the head of the snake, and let the rest of the body die on its own.

The battle began with the skirmishers and cavalry dueling between the two hosts. In this initial phase, the Theban cavalry got the better of the fight. Then, as the two opposing phalanxes approached each other, these got out-of-the-way for the main event: the push of shields.


As the Theban column bore down on them across the shallow valley, the Spartans were unconcerned. They had fought the Thebans many times before, and knew their proclivity to charge in column. The counter to which, as with any column attack, was to extend ones own line; and envelope the column once it had become bogged down in the shoving contest.

Cleombrotus gave the order for his Spartans to extend their line; the rear 6 ranks of the phalanx attempted to spread out to their right, sacrificing depth for frontage.

What the Spartan king didn’t foresee was the dash and élan with which Pelopidas and the Sacred Band would close the distance between them.

Coming on at breakneck pace, the Theban spearhead struck the Spartans while still in the midst of this change of formation. The Spartans were caught unprepared, moving; rather than braced for the collision of two phalanxes.

5bf061d04b9f2787514002aa360ce9bbPelopidas and the Sacred Band smashed into the Spartan Hippias at the very point where Cleombrotus and his command staff were standing, directing the realignment. Disaster for the Spartans quickly followed, as the king and the Hippias were at first born backwards like flotsam on the tide; then overthrown and trampled into the dust. Cleombrotus was mortally wounded and ushered off the field, his men desperately covering his retreat.


Lending their weight to the Sacred Band’s assault was the massive Theban column; a shimmering tide of brazen shields and helmets, and glittering iron spearheads. They pushed into the chaos created by the Sacred Band’s assault, further ripping apart and trampling the thin red Spartan line. The Spartans held for a short time, fighting stubbornly as they were born backward.

In minutes, the history of Greece was forever changed, and the myth of Spartan invincibility overturned. As their king and his officers fell, the Spartan ranks shattered and then broke.

As Epaminondas had hoped, his Boeotian allies never had to strike a blow: When they saw the Spartans break, the Peloponnesian allies withdrew back to the Spartan camp, without striking a blow.


The Thebans made no effort to pursue them. As was customary in Greek warfare, they instead erected a trophy of stacked enemy shields and spears taken from the fallen; and sent a herald to the Spartan camp, granting permission to come and collect their dead and wounded. This customary permission by the victor to the vanquished was formal recognition by both parties of who held the field. For the Spartans, long accustomed to granting and not receiving such permission, this must have been a bitter pill to swallow, indeed!



The Spartans lost 1,000 men. Of these, 400 hundred were elite Spartiates, who died where they stood. At that time in its history, the manpower of Sparta had been in sharp decline for over a century. The total manpower of Sparta at this time was only some 1,200 true Spartiates. Thus, at Leuctra a third of the military manpower of Sparta died along with their king.

Though the Spartan would attempt once again to best Epaminondas and his Thebans at Mantinea in 362, it would prove a repetition of Leuctra; with Epaminondas gaining a second victory, though losing his life in the process.

In its day, Leuctra was the “shot heard round the world”; a signal moment in which the balance of power shifted forever from Sparta and the Peloponnese. First to Thebes, which220px-Epam1 would establish in the decade after a brief hegemony; then, a generation later, to Macedon. Young Philip of Macedon was a hostage in Thebes in the years immediately after Leuctra; and was able to study the methods of Epaminondas and Pelopidas first-hand.

Greek warfare would never be the same. No longer would a two phalanxes of citizen hoplites dominate the battlefield; with a simple push of shields deciding the issue. Commanders were finding new ways to utilize their heavy troops, new methods of piercing an enemy line. Combined-arms forces of cavalry and light infantry, augmenting the heavy infantry of the Greek battle line, would replace the hoplite armies of old.

Epaminondas had not just revolutionized Greek warfare, he had given future tacticians a new trick to add to their playbook: the echeloned (sometimes called an “oblique”) advance. This tactic would allow armies to gain a local superiority at one, decisive point on the battlefield; while withholding their most unreliable troops from combat till a decision was reached. It would be used by the great Macedonians, Philip and Alexander to effect; Frederick the Great of Prussia would win immortal fame at the Battle of Leuthen in 1757 using just such an approach.


The Leuctra monument at the battle site. Note the representations of Spartan shields along the top.

Here is a very well done documentary by History Channel:




[1] The chief officers of the Boeotian Confederacy

[2] The “Rearing”, the training program all Spartan boys underwent from age 8 till manhood. The boys were given little to eat; and were encouraged to “forage” from the countryside.

[3] Thucydides, The History of the Peloponnesian War 5:63

* Visit James Carrozza’s website here!



COVERMasters of the Battlefield: Great Commanders From the Classical Age to the Napoleonic Era




And this one:

carnageCarnage and Culture: Landmark Battles in the Rise to Western Power








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Greatest Commanders

One of the most popular topics of discussion among historians (both amateur and professional) concerns what generals in history deserve to be ranked as “Great”; and of these, who was the greatest. The former is more easily determined than the latter. Here, for what it’s worth, is the Deadliest Blogger List (in order) of the 25 Greatest Commanders of the Ancient World[1] in descending order:


25. Cimon of AthensCimon

The Athenian admiral and general who led the Greek coalition to final victory over the Persians in the Persian War of the 5th century BC. He excelled at naval and amphibious combined arms operations; and laid the foundations for the Athenian Empire.

24. Pompey the Great

1st century BC Roman commander of great stature, who cleared pompey4the Mediterranean of pirate infestation; ended the civil war in Spain; achieved final victory in the Mithridatic War; and annexed the remnants of the Seleucid Kingdom into the Roman Empire. However, he was outmaneuvered by Sertorius in Spain; and lost outright to Caesar in the end. Both of which account for his low place on this list.

23. Sargon II of Assyria

King of Assyria in the 8th century BC who Sargon IIcampaigned endlessly throughout his reign. He expanded Assyrian rule into eastern Anatolia, campaigning in the very difficult regions of Armenia and Azerbaijan (terrain that proved nearly fatal to Antony centuries later). He was the warrior-king par-excellence.

22. Trajan

The soldier emperor who expanded Rome’s frontiers to their greatest extent. He defeated the Dacians and Parthians in campaigns that were textbook; opponents who had proved fatal to earlier Roman commanders.Portrait of Trajan (Copenhagen) Adopted as his heir by the aged and peaceful Nerva, Trajan annexed Nabataea and waged two campaigns to conquer Dacia. The fierce Dacians had defeated and humiliated the Romans during the reign of Domitian. Trajan’s strategy here, as in his later campaigns,  was methodic and determined. After the conquest of Dacia, Trajan made war on the Parthians. He conquered Mesopotamia, creating a new province, and dragging his river fleet from the Euphrates to the Tigris marched down the river to the Parthian capital of Ctesiphon. This he captured, defeating the Parthians in battle.

21. Scipio AemilianusScipio Aemil

Son of #20 and adopted grandson of #3 (who says talent is not  hereditary??), he learned at the feet of Aemilius Paulus as a staff officer in the Third Macedonian War. In the late 2nd century BC, he was Rome’s go-to-guy; sent wherever other Roman commander’s had failed. Given command of Roman forces in Africa during the Third Punic War, he succeeded in capturing and destroying Carthage when previous commanders had been stymied. In Spain he quickly defeated the very dangerous and warlike Celt-Iberians of Numantia and captured their fortress. He was a worthy heir to his father and grandfather’s legacy of excellence.

20. Aemilius Paullus MacedonicusAemilius%20Paullus

The conqueror of Liguria and Macedonia, he commanded with a sure and calm hand. He was noted for his steadiness, and was able to repeatedly outmaneuver his opponents in both wars. He defeated the best Macedonian army to take the field since the age of Alexander and the Diadochi, and made it look easy!

19. Hamilcar Barca

The best Carthaginian commander of the First Punic War; after Hamilcar Barcawhich he saved Carthage from destruction at the hands of her own rebellious mercenaries. His use of maneuver, ruse, and stratagem to gain tactical advantage presaged the battles of his even greater son; who no doubt learned much from his father. He went on to lead a Carthaginian army across Mauritania and into Spain; much of which he conquered for his native city, laying the foundations upon which Hannibal would base his power.

18. Probus

The ultimate soldier-emperor, renowned equally for his rapid and brilliant campaignsProbus 2 as for his personal valor. He delivered Gaul from barbarian occupation, defeating in rapid succession the Franks, Burgundians, and Lygians. Crossing the Rhine, he campaigned further east than any Roman general since the time of Augustus Caesar; reaching the Elbe River. He next warred in Anatolia against a Roman rebel, defeating other Roman armies; concluding the campaign by bringing to heal the difficult and warlike Isaurian mountain tribes. Returning to Gaul, he defeated rebellious legates he had left in command there. He brought peace to the empire for the first time in a century. He was one of those gifted Illyrian soldier-emperors who saved the empire from dissolution in the 3rd century.

17. Luculluslucullus2

This bold and intrepid commander was first Sulla’s legate, commanding the Roman fleet during the latter’s Greece campaign. He defeated the Pontic Fleet in battle; then took over from Sulla and continued the Mithridatic War on land. He bested first the Pontians and then the Armenians (at the height of their power and prestige) in battle, repeatedly. His tactics were aggressive and innovative, and were studied by later generations of Roman generals. He marched his army further east than any commander before him.

16. Sullasulla

He first made his mark as the “man who captured Jurgurtha”, king of the Numidians during the eponymous war bearing his name. Sulla went on to success as a legate under Marius against the Germans; then with an independent command during Rome’s Social War against its own Italian Allies. He commanded Roman forces against Mithridates of Pontus in Greece; where his innovative battle tactics (making the first known use of field works in an open-field battle in Roman history) overcame much greater numbers.

15. Aurelianaurelian_bust 2

Another of the Illyrian soldier-emperors, he earned his title of “Restorer of the World”. His reign began with most of the empire overrun by enemies or rebels. He campaigned from the Nile to the Rhine, defeating the Goths in the Balkans, Palmyrans in Syria, rebels and invading Sudanese in Egypt, saved Italy and Rome from the Alemanni Germans, and recaptured Gaul and Britain from Roman rebels. He was a strict disciplinarian, and was referred to by contemporaries as “a centurion of genius”.

14. Epaminondas of Thebes220px-Epam1

The Theban philosopher-general, he revolutionized Greek hoplite warfare and made Thebes the dominant military power in Greece during his lifetime. His tactical reforms led to a revitalized Theban army that was twice able to defeat Spartan armies in battle. He marched into the Peloponnese and liberated the helots. He then created two anti-Spartan states, Arcadia and Messenia and fortified their citadels to be the fetters of Laconia. Sparta never recovered its former position of power and prestige.

13. Thutmose IIIThutmose III

Egypt’s greatest warrior Pharaoh, he campaigned further than any Egyptian leader before or after. He was known for his bold and aggressive strategic approach. His lightning marches gained him the initiative from his numerically superior enemies, and he used mobility, combined arms, and bold action to overcome all enemies.

12. Septimius Severus

Acclaimed emperor by his troops in Pannonia, he was faced with rivals in Syria and in Britain/Gaul. Closer to Italy than either, he Septim Severus 3forced march his army 800 miles in 40 days to take the capital; where he was proclaimed Emperor by the Senate. Negotiating a temporary truce with his rival in Britain, he attacked his enemy in the east; winning battles across Anatolia and into Syria, his final victory at Issues, scene of Alexander’s battle against Darius. Returning with his army to the west, he engaged and defeated his other rival as well. He was noted for his bold use of wide-flung cavalry sweeps, timed perfectly to arrive in the rear or flank of the opposing army in the midst of battle. Unlike many others on this list, he faced first-rate soldiers in all of his battles: the Roman legions of the high empire.

11. Seleucus Nicator

A giant in an age of giants, Seleucus served in Alexander’s campaigns; rising to high command. He was arguably the most seleucus_nikatorsuccessful of the so-called Diadochi (“Successors”). He fought but eventually came to agreement with Chandragupta Maurya, the great Indian leader; giving-up the Punjab in return for 500 war elephants. With these he helped defeat Antigonus One-Eyed (#9 on this list) at the battle of Ipsus, the greatest battle of the Successor Wars. He ended up with the largest portion of the former Persian Empire; before defeating another rival Diadoch, Lysimachus, at the Battle of Corupedion at the age of 79! At the time of his death, he was the titular ruler of all of Alexander’s Empire except Egypt.

10. Gaius Marius

The reformer who saved the Roman Republic from foreign marius2invasion while forever changing the structure of its armies. He first came into prominence during the Jurgurthine War in North Africa; succeeding where other Roman commanders had failed. After the invading Cimbri-Teutones destroyed several Roman armies, he raised a new army drawn from the previously untapped Roman urban poor. These were organized in a new fashion (abandoning the maniple tactics of earlier times and going to a cohort-based system); and trained to a high-degree. He defeated the invaders in three battles; saving Italy. During the Social War, he served with distinction; before engaging in Rome’s first civil war against his former legate, Sulla.

9. Antigonus One-Eyed

The most successful of the Diadochi in the first 20 years of conflict following the deathantigonus_i of Alexander, Antigonus Monophthalmus (“One-Eyed”) nearly reunited the dead conqueror’s vast empire under his leadership. He faced and defeated the equally brilliant Eumenes of Cardia, who led an army that included veterans of Alexander’s army. He was known for innovative tactics as well as audacious and rapid marches, even in the dead of winter; catching his foes unprepared. He was already old (nearly 60) when Alexander died, or might have achieved far more.

8. Tiglath-Pileser III of AssyriaTiglath-Pilesser III a

King of Assyria in the 8th century BC, he established the world’s first “modern” professional army; a combined arms force, armed with the most technologically advanced weapons of the age. He campaigned throughout his reign on all frontiers, expanding the Assyrian Empire in all directions. He assured Assyria’s continued dominance in the Middle East  for the next century-and-a-half.

7. Cyrus the Great

His military genius propelled the hitherto insignificant clans of the Persia to cyrus_the_great[1]dominion; creating the greatest Middle Eastern-based empire of antiquity. He defeated the Medes and Babylonians (at the height of their power), incorporating the former as the second-people of the new empire. Marching further west than any previous Middle Eastern conqueror, he defeated and annexed the Lydian Empire; extending Persian rule to the Aegean Sea. He died in battle against the nomadic Massagetae, a true warrior king, attempting to expand Persian rule into central Asia.

6. Pyrrhus of Epirus

A kinsman of Alexander on his maternal side, in battle he nearly equally the talents of the great Macedonian conqueror. He was a 05 Pyrrhus 2tactical innovator of the first order, responsible for many of the military trends that followed. Hannibal considered him  second only to Alexander and himself in ability. He challenged the youthful power of the Roman Republic, attempting to create in the west what Alexander had in the east. He defeated the Romans in two costly battles, before taking on the Carthaginians in a desultory campaign in Sicily. However, his absence gave the Romans a much-needed respite; and when he returned to Italy they defeated him in a final encounter at Beneventum. Back in Greece, he attempted and failed to expand his holdings by seizing first Sparta and then Argos; killed in street fighting in the latter. Though a great tactician and legendary warrior, he was an opportunist who lacked strategic vision, often distracted from his goals.

5. Philip II of Macedon

As Alexander later reminded the Macedonians, Philip found them vagabond sheep herders, clothed in animal skins. When he died inPhilip 2 336 BC, he left them masters of the Greek world. He spent his life campaigning to expand Macedon’s borders, and created the most advanced combined arms army of antiquity. He seldom failed in any of his undertakings; and his generalship was marked by a mix of boldness tempered with caution. He never struck till the way was well prepared, and was kept informed by a network of agents and spies. He is the world’s first “modern” military leader.

4. Julius Caesar

He was a man of genius: brilliant general as well as politician, lawgiver, builder, and administrator. While not as well-balanced a Julius_Caesarcommander as the three preceding him on this list, he was without doubt the most audacious commander of the ancient world. Though several times caught off guard by his enemies, he never failed to respond with rapidity and judgment to any contingency. He routinely seized the initiative from opponents through bold maneuver, and once he had them off-balance he seldom failed to move in for the kill. His charisma inspired devotion in his army seldom matched in history. He was a master of the art of siege, and his massive field works at Alesia are still studied today.

3. Scipio Africanus

He came of age at the beginning of the Second Punic War, and witnessed first-hand Hannibal’s earliest triumphs at the Ticinus, scipio_africanus_cm2Trebia, and Cannae. Learning from the Carthaginian master, he took these lessons and applied them to the heretofore unimaginative Romans of his day. He quickly proved a master tactician; second to none on this list as a battle commander. He never lost a battle or failed in a military endeavor. He conceived the strategy that defeated Carthage and brought victory in that war. He later guided his brother in defeating Antiochus the Great and the Seleucids in the Magnesia campaign. He has the distinction of being the only general of antiquity (and one of the very few in all military history) who faced a fellow “Great Captain” in battle (at Zama, against Hannibal); in which he triumphed.

2. Hannibal Barca

Arguably the greatest general of antiquity (see notes below), Hannibal faced and nearly overcame the greatest power of the ancient world, Rome, on it’s own soil. He was master of all of the military arts but one: in matters of strategy, HannibalBarca busttactics, and (the most important) logistics he has no superior. However, unlike Alexander, he never conducted a truly great siege; though he did take some strong places. His inability to besiege and capture Rome ultimately doomed his efforts to failure. Strategically he took a great many risks, but all were calculated and the ground work carefully prepared for success. He understood that Rome could only be defeated if deprived of its recruiting grounds in Italy; and braved the Alps to take the war to his enemy and shatter their Italian alliances. Though he ultimately failed in this, he never lost a battle till his last; and was able to defeat every army the Romans sent against him. Tactically he was a master, and in this he is unsurpassed in ancient history. But perhaps his greatest feat was not getting his army over the Alps (however impressive this was); but in maintaining that army on enemy soil for 13 years. In this he was neither aided nor resupplied from home; relying only upon his own genius and resource. To the very end, his army (largely mercenaries with no national tie to bind them) stayed loyal and followed wherever the master led.

1. Alexander the Great

By every measure of generalship Alexander excelled all others. His performance set the bar by which all others generals have been measured ever since. In battle or in siege, he was ever victorious; leading his army in four very great battles and as many great sieges. He habitually led from the front, which makes the control he exercised in battle all the more Alexander Herm - Louvreimpressive. For personal courage and prowess he has no superior among the Great Captains. Strategically, his campaigns were masterfully conducted; so much so that he made it look easy.  Many later would-be conquerors, from Crassus to Julian the Apostate attempted (and failed) to emulate his achievement. Of his strategic operations, no less an expert than Napoleon concluded: he “calculated with depth, executed with audacity, conducted with wisdom”.  A master of logistics, in 10 short years he crossed the ancient world, conquering an empire that stretched from the Adriatic Sea to the Indus River in India; and from the Danube River to the upper-reaches of the Nile. Only once, in Gedrousia, did his army run short on supplies; and that because plans to supply his forces by sea came awry. Not only a Great Captain of War, he was a very great leader of men. Even his enemies, once defeated, admired and joined him as faithful subjects. His charisma is unmatched, and his army was fiercely devoted to their leader. They followed him across the known world, through scorching deserts and over the highest mountains in the world (the Hindu Kush). In India they found themselves in an alien land, facing monstrous beasts the like of which men of the west had never seen (elephants). Yet they never lost confidence in their young king-and-commander; and he led them to his greatest tactical masterpiece at the Hydaspes River against King Porus. Finally, exhausted, they refused to march further east; his only defeat. Had he lived longer (he died at 33) he might well have conquered both Carthage and Rome; preempting the heyday of both these powers; as well as the careers of the previous two commanders on this list!


The top 5 on this list commonly appear on every such list; with Hannibal and Alexander interchangeable at the top two slots. The choice of Scipio over Caesar is perhaps controversial. Caesar was indeed an extraordinary commander, administrator, and writer. But Caesar’s trade-mark strategic boldness sometimes approached recklessness, which nearly cost him everything at Dyrrachium, Alexandria, and in North Africa. Scipio never lost a battle, nor took a misstep. He was as bold as Caesar but more calculating. Tactically, he was the most innovative commander Rome ever produced. Though he never had to resort to a long siege (something Caesar excelled at), he took the strong fortress of Novo Carthage by stratagems that prevented a prolonged leaguer.

Another (perhaps) controversial decision was to put Pompey the Great so low on this list. Early in his life Pompey was granted extraordinary powers and achieved many notable successes. But when put to the test, he was bested by the only two commanders of ability he ever faced: Sertorius in Spain, and Caesar. He was unfairly credited with winning the Sertorian War (which credit belonged to Metellus Pius) and stole the glory of ending the Mithridatic War from Lucullus. I think he is generally overrated.

Approximately half of the commanders on this list are Roman; appropriate for the most warlike and militarily successful people of the ancient world. Seven are Greek or Macedonian, with Alexander taking the top-spot; and his father coming in at number 5. Pyrrhus gets high marks for tactical innovation, and battlefield acumen. However, he was a poor strategist and perhaps is rated too high on this list.

Of the rest, two are Carthaginian; two are Assyrian (perhaps the second-most warlike people of the ancient world); and one each from Persia and Egypt. These two latter, Cyrus the Great and Thutmose III both founded empires. As such, they may deserve more attention.

For more, read:

512xRqZwQ-L__SY344_BO1,204,203,200_Great Captains a Course of Six Lectures Showing the Influence on the Art of War of the Campaigns of Alexander, Hannibal, Cæsar, Gustavus Adolphus, Frederick, and Napoleon (Classic Reprint)



And here:

51PP2mbMKaL__SY344_BO1,204,203,200_Great Captains Unveiled






[1] For purposes of this discussion, I’m using the Oxford Dictionary definition of the “Ancient World”: The region around the Mediterranean and the Near East before the fall of the Western Roman Empire in ad 476. So this list will not include Chinese or Indian commanders, such as Chandragupta.




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Genghis  Khan (properly pronounced, “Chinghis”) was one of history’s greatest conquerors. After uniting the nomadic tribes north of the Great Wall, he created the most mobile army the world has ever seen. To this day, no armies have traveled further and faster (on average) than the Mongols. While the travels and conquests of others are measured in miles, those of Genghis Khan and his successors must be calculated by lines of longitude and latitude; spanning the whole of Eurasia.

Though Genghis Khan died in 1227, the juggernaut he created rolled on under his sons and grandsons. In 1230, the Mongol general Chormaqan Noyan invaded Persia. Within a couple of short years, he had smashed all opposition. Operating out of Tabriz in Azerbaijan, he reduced Georgia and Armenia to client-status.


Mongol army on the march

This control of the Caucuses region opened communications with another Mongol army under the Mongol generalissimo, Subutai “the Invincible” and Batu Khan, a grandson of Genghis Khan. With 130,000 fast-moving Mongol horsemen, these were given the task of invading Russia; a prelude to the conquest of eastern Europe. In 1236 the Mongol army crossed the Volga, and within a year had crushed the Volga Bulgars; and subdued (and incorporated) the Kipchak and Alani tribes north of the Caucasus, and taken them into their army. Between 1237 and 1238, the Mongol tumans (divisions ordynskiedospeni2zl8hc5of 10,000 men) conquered the Rus principalities of southern Russia. Of the great towns and cities only Smolensk,  Novgorod and Pskov survived sack and slaughter; the former because it submitted to the Mongols and agreed to pay tribute, the latter two because they were two far north, protected by forest and swamp. The nomadic Cumans of the Ukraine (part of the now-destroyed Kipchak Confederation) fled before the Mongol terror; finding refuge across the Carpathian Alps, in the Kingdom of Hungary.

Russia subdued, the Mongols prepared in 1240-41 for the next thrust westward; this time following the Cumans into Hungary. As part of his planned winter campaign (the Mongols preferred to campaign in the dead of winter, when militia armies had disbanded back to their farms and villages; and the great rivers were frozen hard, presenting no barrier),  Subutai and Batu sent a force of two tumans through Poland; to cover their northern flank. This force was led by the Imperial Mongol princes, Baidar, Orda and Kadan; grandsons of Genghis Khan.

1 Mongol and PoleAfter defeating smaller Polish forces at the battles of Tursko and the Chmielnik and burning Kracow; the Mongols engaged the main Polish army, under Duke Henry “the Pious” of Silesia, at Legnica, on April 9, 1241.

Henry’s forces are estimated as high as 25,000 and as low as 2,000. Along with his own Polish forces Henry’s army included small contingents of French Knights Templars (500?) and Hospitallers; as well as a force of Teutonic Knights, who held lands in northern Poland.

In the resulting battle, the Mongols created confusion and covered their movements with a smoke screen; produced by burning reeds. The Mongol light cavalry horse archers (armed with a powerful composite bow) poured arrows into the Polish ranks, goading the never-patient knights into charging them. Feigning flight, the nimble Mongol light horsemen drew the Polish cavalry far from its supporting infantry. The Mongols then surrounded the pursuing knights as their heavy horses tired; and killed their horses with showers of arrows. The dismounted knights were then slaughtered by a charge of Mongol heavy cavalry.

Legnicia 1

Duke Henry, severely wounded in the armpit by an arrow, was surrounded with just four retainers. These were cut down, and the Duke was pulled from his horse and decapitated.

The Polish infantry was then attacked, and broke after attempting to stand.

Duke Henry’s head was displayed on Mongol lance as the invaders advanced, ravaging the countryside. Within days of Duke Henry’s defeat at Legnica, Subutai and Batu Khan engaged and defeated the main Hungarian army at Mohi.

1 mongols Europe

The Mongols were masters of maneuver warfare. Unlike most of the nomadic hordes of Eurasia, they were also accomplished in the art of besieging fortified places; and carried with them a sophisticated siege train. The Feudal armies of Medieval Europe would have had a very hard time resisting Subutai and Batu’s tumans had they continued their offensive. Fortunately for Europe and the future of Western Civilization, the unexpected death of the Great Khan Ögedei (third son of Genghis Khan) in December of 1241 stopped the Mongol advance; as the royal princes and their army had to return to Mongolia to attend the election of his predecessor.


Though the Mongols soon withdrew, Batu established a new Khanate in Russia, centered north of the Caspian Sea: the Golden Horde. It would be many centuries before Russia would free itself from the “Mongol yoke”.

What made the Mongols so devastatingly effective?

Several factors.

First, already mentioned, was their unequalled mobility. An all cavalry army, they were not slowed by infantry or a cumbersome baggage train. Even their siege equipment was broken-down and carried on pack animals. Every Mongol rider led a string of ponies, so that he could switch mounts frequently; keeping the animals from fatiguing. Practically born in the saddle, a Mongol could remain in the saddle for weeks on end if necessary; dismounting briefly only to relieve themselves.

The second factor was the tactics and weapons of the Mongol soldiers. The mix of light cavalry horse-archers (armed with a powerful composite bow) with heavy cavalry lancers was not unique to the Mongols. Every Eurasian steppe nomad army from the ancient Scythians onward were much the same. But as historian John Keegan has noted, it was perhaps the most effective tactical system till the perfection of European musketry and field artillery in the 18th century. Against a heavier foe, they horse archers could maintain their range and weaken the enemy with long-distance archery. Only when a foe was sufficiently weakened and demoralized by archery were the lance-armed heavy horse (which comprised as much as 40% of the Mongol army) unleashed to finish them at close-quarters. As seen at Legnica, they were also adept at the tactic of feigning flight, only to draw an impetuous foe into a prepared ambush.


Third, the Mongols (unlike similar armies of steppe nomads) were skilled at sieging walled places. They could quickly assemble their artillery, dismantled and carried on pack animals; and begin battering walls. When necessary, the Mongols would erect a ramp leading up to the top of the enemy’s walls. When ready, they would the terrible “endless storm” tactic. Day-and-night, working in relays without let, Mongol warriors would assault the enemy position with sword and spear. Often prisoners captured from the local countryside were herded in front of the Mongol attackers; human shields to dampen the defender’s fire, forcing them to kill their own countrymen.

Fourth, the Mongol army was a highly organized structure. Their army was divided into tumans (or toumans) of 10,000 riders; then further subdivided utilizing the decimal system all the way down to squads of 10 men. These combat formations were supported by engineers and medical personnel (recruited from the more educated and urbane subjects of the empire). The whole was commanded by a general staff of sorts provided by the royal family of the Khans, and their trusted lieutenants. Under Genghis Khan and his immediate successors, the veteran Mongol army and its officers were as accomplished at making war as any army in history. Genghis Khan himself and his chief subordinate, Subutai must be ranked among the greatest captains of war in history.

Finally, it was the nature of the Mongols themselves that gave them an advantage. They were incredibly tough, hardy people; raised in a harsh environment (the Siberian steppes) and inured to hardship. They were also disciplined soldiers: the Yasa (the Mongol code of laws established by Genghis Khan) made fleeing in the face of the enemy, or disobeying the orders of a superior officer a capital offense. Even the squad members of a coward could be executed for that single man’s dereliction of duty.

For all their virtues as soldiers, the Mongols were also utterly savage and without remorse. They took brutality and callous disregard for life to a level not seen since the Roman Republic. Resistance or rebellion was met with wholesale slaughter. Terror was a weapon employed to great effect, and such was their reputation that strong places surrendered rather than face the inevitable destruction met out to those who resisted.

In the end, they created a vast empire stretching from the Dnieper River to the Pacific Ocean. However, in their wake they left (literally) pyramids erected with the skulls of their victims.

1 Mongol Empire


For further reading:
The Devil’s Horsemen: The Mongol Invasion of Europe//

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With the popularity of such films as Alexander,  300, and its sequel 300: Rise of Empire a broader audience is being introduced (sometimes for the first time) to the warriors of ancient Greece. These films are generally poor educational tools, leaving the audience with many misconceptions; and often more questions than answers.

From the Persian Wars (499–449 BC) till the Battle of Chaeronea (338 BC) the Greek phalanx was the dominant battle formation of the ancient Mediterranean and Near East. Against Persians, Carthaginians, and Etruscans the Greeks warriors triumphed. At Chaeronea, however, the Greeks met a superior tactical system: the Macedonian. While the Macedonian army was a well-balanced, combined-arms force of light and heavy infantry and cavalry (as were most Greek armies by this time, though to a lesser degree) it is the Macedonian phalanx that revolutionized warfare for the following century-and-a-half, superseding the earlier Greek hoplite version. The Macedonian phalanx dominated the battlefield until the coming of the Romans, who fought in a very different formation, utilizing a markedly different tactical system: the legion. The Romans defeated phalanxes at nearly every encounter; and with the growth of their empire the phalanx as a tactical system largely disappeared.

Polybius and Livy examined the difference and advantages of each tactical system in depth; and they were MUCH closer to the events than we are, so their opinions should be given much weight. Based upon their analysis and that of other sources as well, we will briefly compare and contrast the three dominant tactical systems of the Classical World; from the Persian Wars to the Roman conquest of the Hellenistic Kingdoms.


It is important to understand that the Greek hoplite phalanx that defeated the Persians at such battles as Marathon (490 BC) and Plataea (479 BC) was a formation consisting of citizen-soldiers. They fought primarily as “heavy” (close-ordered, close-quarter fighting) infantry. The citizen-soldier heavy infantryman of the Greek city-state (polis) was referred to as a hoplite (man-at-arms).

His weapons and equipment consisted of a large round shield (aspis), 36″-40″ in diameter; and a long, heavy (modern reconstructions are from 4-5lbs) thrusting spear (dory) 7-9 feet in length. A sword (xiphos) was his backup weapon, and for additional defense he wore various pieces of armor, collectively referred to as his panoply.

Hoplite - Early 25th century Greek hoplite. 1-11: shield, deconstructed into various parts. 12: Corinthian-style helmet, with crest. 13: arming cap of felt, worn under helmet. 14: “lineothorax” style of cuirass. May have been made of layers of glued line, or leather covered with linen. 15: bronze greaves. 16: garters tied around ankle to support greaves, and limit chaffing. 17: “dory” (spear), with leather wrapped around grip.

These hoplites fought in a tightly-packed rectangular formation called a phalanx. Within the phalanx, each man’s shield overlapped that of the man to his left, and he partially sheltered behind the shield of the man to his right. The hoplites in phalanx deployed typically in anything from 6 to 12 ranks deep; though the later Theban phalanx was famed for the greater depth upon which it relied, deploying in anywhere from 24 to 50 ranks (referred to as “shields”) deep.

The Classical Age hoplite phalanx relied on a tactic called othismos (the push of shields), a shoving contest in which the hoplites braced and pushed their opliti_grecishields into the backs of their comrade in the rank in front of them in the phalanx; and the weight of the phalanx as a whole attempted to bowl the enemy over or push them back. In this formation only the first and perhaps the second rank could actually use their spears (or swords); the rest merely added their weight to the shoving contest. Pushing the enemy back was more important than actually killing them during this initial phase of the melee. Once large formations of soldiers began to stumble backward, they lost cohesion and began to crumble. So the point of othismos was to drive the enemy backward, and eventually to shatter their formation. Once shattered and routed, the hoplites would pursue, cutting down the fleeing enemy from behind. It was during this later phase of the fighting that the most number of casualties were inflicted and sustained.

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1 A  phalanx
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