(Though sometimes human genius can turn the tables)

When it comes to war, a great general once said that God sides with “whichever side has the biggest battalions”.

While greater numbers and quantity of material do not always a successful campaign make, history demonstrates that military victory tends to go to the side with more: more men, more supplies, more weaponry, etc. Against this purely physical equation must be factored the morale and quality of the soldiers involved, the ability of their commanders, terrain, objectives, comparative technology of the combatants, and other less tangible factors that impact on the final outcome.

That said, numbers matter. As Lenin famously expressed it, “Quantity has a quality all its own”. In a punching contest, the biggest kid usually wins the fight. In a boxing match, the larger heavyweight fighter might be a tad slower than the feisty banter-weight, and in the first rounds the quicker fighter can often land many more shots on the slower heavyweight. But those blows will not have the power of the bigger man’s.

1353447.jpgIf his lighter blows don’t achieve a knock-out, if the big guy can take a punch, then time is against the lightweight. In a slug-fest, the longer it goes on the more likely it is that the big man will land a heavy shot and beat the little guy down.

Throughout history we have seen examples of smaller but better trained and/or led armies winning victories over larger, less tactically adroit opponents. However, if initial tactical successes cannot be parlayed into a quick and victorious conclusion to hostilities, time tends to favor the “big battalions”.


In military terminology, a “force multiplier” is any factor or set of circumstances (or combinations of either) which make a given fighting force more effective than it would otherwise be. As example, due to the increased firepower and lethality of modern weapons and weapon’s systems, a platoon of infantry today can often accomplish a mission it might have taken an entire company to achieve in WWII. In this example, weapon’s technology is a powerful force multiplier.

Force multipliers can have a dramatic, even decisive result on the outcome of any given conflict.

Some common force multipliers are:

Training and Experience: there is perhaps no greater force multiplier. Ten trained veterans are more effective than 100 times as many untrained recruits.

Morale: both the positive morale of one side, or the poor morale of their opponent. Confidence greatly enhances fighting ability, and even desperation and fatalism can become powerful force multipliers. On the other hand, poor morale can sap the confidence and courage of any fighting force.

Leadership: arguably the most important force multiplier, as leadership (or lack thereof) directly effects all other factors. Effective leadership is all important in war. Great generals can impose their will upon the chaos of battle, achieving remarkable victories. Wellington once said of Napoleon, “His presence on the battlefield is worth 60,000 men”. By contrast, the best of armies can be brought to utter ruin and destruction in the hands of a fool.[1]

Technology: the greater the technological imbalance the greater the force multiplication. As Arthur C. Clarke once wrote, any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic. The greater the disparity in technology the fewer the troops needed to achieve battlefield supremacy.

Deception and Surprise: as the Chinese military philosopher Sun Tzu said more than two millennium ago, “All warfare is based on deception”; and surprise can render an opponent off-balance and fatally unprepared for what is coming.

Terrain: Few factors impact combat as obviously as terrain. High ground gives to its occupant a host of advantages, not the least of which is the fatigue attacking uphill causes to an opponent. Masking terrain (forests, hills) can blind one’s opponent to the movement of one’s forces, allowing a commander to gain strategic or tactical surprise. Lee used the forest of the Wilderness around Chancellorsville to blind Hooker to Jackson’s flanking movement, with near fatal results for the Army of the Potomac. The ridge between Hougoumont and Placenoit at Waterloo along which Wellington arrayed his forces conveyed to the Iron Duke clear visibility of the advancing French and his troops better fields of fire within which to mow them down.

Weather:  Weather can be both a force multiplier and a force reducer (diminishing rather than enhancing an opponent’s capabilities).  Certainly weather is the cosmic die roll influencing every military operation. But for an untimely rain shower on the evening following Quatre Bras and Ligny on June 16, 1815, Wellington would never have reached Waterloo to fight another day. Weather is really more often a force reducer,   But on occasion, generals have used weather to their advantage. Washington’s crossing of the Delaware and subsequent attack on Trenton was made possible because of the extreme cold and sleet that drove British/Hessian patrols indoors for warmth. Charles XII used the opportunity afforded by a driving snow-storm at Narva to attack his now blinded opponents in their entrenchments (see below).


A commander of genius can be a powerful “force multiplier”. Alexander of Macedon, perhaps history’s greatest of “Great Captains”, was able to conquer the much larger Persian Empire with a small but elite Army. He accomplished this in just a few short years. His campaigns were characterized by rapid movements and bold action, and he possessed a gift for finding his enemy’s strategic jugular. Darius III made many mistakes as well, never managing to effectively leverage Persia’s vast resources of money, manpower, and geographic space to his advantage (in Darius’ defense, Alexander was a master of overcoming such adversities). Alexander’s leadership gave the Macedonians enormous confidence, and they followed him further and longer into unknown territories than any army in history.

Hernán Cortés provides another example of the effect of leadership: with an army of less than 1,000 Spanish adventurers he managed, in just two years, to overthrow the greatest power in the “New World”: the Aztec Empire. Though the Aztecs had geography, wealth, and vast numbers of fierce warriors on their side they were at a disadvantage against the bold, brilliant, and opportunistic Conquistador. Cortés used every diplomatic and religious advantage Montezuma presented him. He turned his enemy’s superstitions and uncertainty as to the true identity of his Spanish visitors (Montezuma, a former priest, initially mistook Cortés for the returned Aztec deity, Quetzalcoatl ) to his advantage, gaining entrance into the heart of their empire unopposed. From there he manipulated the Aztec ruler till he had wrung every once of favor out of him, before discarding him and making overt war on the Aztecs. Cortes was also adept at diplomacy, and forged a large coalition of the Aztec’s native enemies against them.


Cortés’ abilities as a commander aside, the Spaniards possessed other “force multipliers”. First, they had superior weapons technology (steel armor and weapons, crossbows, and gunpowder weapons). They also utilized “fear” weapons: the Aztecs were terrified (at least initially) of the Spaniards gunpowder, of their cavalry (horses were not native to the New World), and of their large and fierce mastiff dogs (only very small breeds were known in Mexico, and these were a food source). Finally, the Spanish possessed the ultimate “force multiplier”, germ warfare: the Spaniards inadvertently brought smallpox to Mexico, which devastated the Aztec population.

In the Macedonian conquest of Persia and in the Spanish conquest of the New World, force multipliers allowed relatively tiny forces to overcome the much larger and materially stronger enemy. But for every such example, history provides others where the side possessing many such force multipliers still lost to the side with a quantitative advantage.


Military genius alone has a very hard time when pitted against even a mildly competent enemy possessed of greater resources of manpower and material. If you doubt that, just ask the superb generals of Hitler’s Wehrmacht, who in the later years of the war faced by an enemy blessed with more men and material.

In 1941, the German war machine was a very fine-tuned one, indeed. The German Panzer Division was a proto-typical combined arms force, in which rapidly maneuvering armored forces were supported closely by mounted infantry, mobile artillery, and air-power. The vaunted blitzkrieg conquered Poland in 1939,  and then Denmark, Norway, the Low Countries, and France in 1940. The Balkans were overrun in spring of 1941, and that summer Hitler unleashed his Panzers on Stalin’s Soviet Union.

1353423Though sure of being outnumbered by “the Bolshevik hordes” the German’s were confident in the many “force multipliers” they possessed: mobility, firepower, experience, and the talents of an exceptional officer corps. While perhaps not rising to the level of “Great Captain”, the German generals Guderian and Von Manstein were brilliant and farsighted commanders; and Hoth, Von Leeb, Von Kleist, and Von Rundstedt were all adept practitioners of the Operational Art. No army in the world had better staff work than the German.

1353424.jpgGermany was the ultimate example of the feisty overachiever up against Russia, the biggest bully on the block. Germany (like Napoleonic France in 1812) had to achieve a knock-out blow early on, before Stalin could mobilize his vast resources.

However, Russia had advantages of its own to counter the purely military ones of the Germans. First, Russia held the ultimate trump card: population. Germany, a nation of less than 70 million was engaging a nation of 169 million. Russia also had vast industrial capacity, out-producing the Germans in all categories of material (and what they couldn’t readily make themselves, their American ally gave them in abundance). Russia possessed vast geographic space to trade for time: time to absorb the initial German assault and to prepare its counter-attacks. Finally the extremes of Russia’s weather works against any invader. Not only winter, which was of legendarily harshness (just ask Napoleon’s Grande Armee in 1812) but a spring and autumn rainy season that turned the dirt roads of under-developed Russia into a muddy morass. The Wehrmacht, which needed to maneuver rapidly in order to maintain its “blitzkrieg”, was foiled first by “General Mud”, then by a winter so cold that engine blocks froze solid. Ultimately Hitler’s war machine ground to a halt within site of the Kremlin’s onion domes.

For the next three years, the Germans continued to land swift, hard blows on the Russian giant. But every time Russia got back on its feet, dazed but still combative, while the Germans came away with bruised and bloody fists.

Ultimately, the “big battalions” ground the qualitatively superior Wehrmacht into dust.

1353445.jpgIt didn’t help that on a larger, grand strategic level Hitler had to contend with a two-front war. His overt aggression and effective lack of diplomacy first alienated and ultimately set most of the rest of the industrialized world against Germany. The German military was better than any other, but not better than all others combined against it.


Looking even further back into history reveals other examples of where the “big battalions” ultimately triumphed over an opponent possessed of many force multipliers.

In 218 BC, the city-state of Carthage began its second war against the emerging power in the Mediterranean, the Roman Republic. While itself possessed of a far-flung colonial empire, Carthage started the war with no material advantages. Her native army was small and relatively unmotivated; and was only made formidable by the hiring of mercenary warriors from far and near. Once a naval power, her fleet had been bested by the Romans in the First Punic War a generation earlier, and according to the terms of the treaty that had ended that first struggle the number of ships in her fleet were sharply limited. Rome started the Second Punic War with both a larger and better trained army, as well as significant naval superiority. Rome was a powerhouse in 218 BC, with vast reserves of manpower and wealth (the sinews of war).

What Carthage had in its favor was the special ability of one man: Hannibal Barca.

1353484.jpgSon of another great soldier (Hamilcar Barca), he (like Alexander the Great) brought to the equation the intangible factor of true military genius. Beginning the war in Spain, which had been added to the Carthaginian Empire by the campaigns of his father, he started by aggressively seizing the initiative. Not waiting for the Romans to fully mobilize their significant material advantages, he brought the war to their backyard by invading Italy. This was something the Romans were unprepared for, and doing the unexpected is always a sound strategy.

In as many years Hannibal won three smashing victories over Roman armies, each of which was bigger than his own. Using the earlier boxing analogy, Hannibal was the light-on-his-feet boxer who slips his clumsier opponent’s punches and lands three knock-down blows. But Rome could take a punch: she was nothing if not resilient. Each time, the Romans got back up off the mat, dusted themselves off and came back for more.

1353486.jpgIn time, the Romans learned to avoid Hannibal’s knock-down punches. Their armies got lighter on their feet and learned to box back. In Scipio Rome eventually found a commander as wily as the one-eyed Carthaginian master. At Zama, in 202 BC Scipio, the Roman heavyweight, finally maneuvered the lightweight Carthaginian into a corner where he delivered the knock-out punch.

Hannibal, who at one point stood at the gates of Rome, was unable to force an early decision upon the stubborn Romans. The clock was not his friend, he needed an early knock out. Given time Rome’s greater material advantages wore down the smaller opponent.


In 1700, the Great Northern War pitted a coalition of larger nations against tiny Sweden. Though a relatively small state the Swedes in the 16th century were formidable soldiers. Led by a dynasty of warrior kings, the Vasa, Sweden had conquered and controlled an empire surrounding the Baltic Sea. The allied nations formed against her – Denmark, Poland/Saxony, and Russia – all wanted a piece of that Swedish Empire for themselves. The allies chose to attack Sweden at the accession of its young king, Charles (Karl) XII; who attained the throne of Sweden in 1697 at the age of fifteen. The belligerents, attempting to take advantage of the boy’s inexperience, attacked from all quarters in 1700.

1353498.jpgWhile possessing overwhelming numbers, they hadn’t counted upon the “X” factor: the young king of Sweden’s natural military talent.

As with the young Alexander of Macedon, Charles XII was one of those rare men in history: a military savant, whose natural genius comes to bloom at a very young age. Like the masterly Macedonian, Charles took command of his army at 18 years old in 1700 to defend a nation beset on all fronts. He proved a daring, resolute, aggressive and ever-intrepid commander. Again like Alexander, he directed his troops personally from the saddle, often leading his bodyguard squadrons of horse in the decisive charge.

Though small, Sweden was led by a lion!

Charles immediately took the initiative, acting first against the closest of his thee enemies. Landing a force of 8,000 on the Danish home island of Zealand, Charles rapidly compelled the Danes to submit to peace in August 1700. Having knocked out the first (and geographically closest) of the allied belligerents, he next turned on Russia. Rapidly redeploying his forces across the Baltic to Swedish Ingria, he moved quickly to turn back a Russian invasion of the Swedish province.

Russia in 1700 was newly emerging into the modern age. Under its young Czar, Peter I (not yet “the Great”) it was attempting to take its place among the power of Europe, and this at Sweden’s expense. Peter possessed a large army, levied and newly trained by Western European military advisers. However, it was an untried force, large but clumsy in execution. Peter himself, though an active and enthusiastic amateur, lacked Charles’ personal courage in battle. Time-after-time he would flinch or flee from personal hazard; leaving his army leaderless and demoralized when facing his Swedish nemesis.

He and his vast nation, Russia, was comparatively an enormous mouse facing Charles and Sweden, the tiny lion.

Charles met the much larger Russian army at Narva in October 1700. Here, he led his army of 10,000 men forward against four-times their number of Russians, defending the breastworks of their entrenchments surrounding the beleaguered Swedish town. Charles attacked in the midst of a blizzard, with blinding snow blowing into the faces of the Russian defenders. Czar Peter fled the field as the first blows were falling. With the snow at their backs, the Swedes stormed the Russian entrenchments with bayonet and pike. The Russian army was utterly crushed, losing 9,000 dead and another 20,000 captured.

1353501.jpgCharles demonstrated the decisive effect force multipliers could have on battle: superior morale, training, experience, surprise, weather, and leadership. All these played a part in the surprisingly one-sided Swedish victory, over the numerically superior Russians.

For the next 6 years Charles turned his attentions on Poland/Saxony, the third partner in the coalition that had attacked him. Chasing its king, Augustus the Strong (!), throughout his dominions and defeating his forces whenever they stopped to fight, Charles forced Augustus’ abdication in 1706 from the Polish throne and a termination of his alliance with Russia.

But the six years spent thrashing Augustus was a strategic mistake. It gave Peter and Russia time to draw upon her vast manpower resources to rebuild and train an army capable of facing the much-feared blue-coated Swedish veterans. When Charles finally got around to a reckoning with Peter, he invaded Russia at the head of the largest army Sweden would ever field in this war: 20,000 infantry and (reputedly) 29,000 cavalry (many of these later being Polish light cavalry irregulars). However large this force was, Mother Russia had supplied the Czar with even larger battalions. As Charles army marched through Poland toward the Russian border 70,000 Russian troops were between him and Moscow, retreating and laying waste to the countryside before him. Several other Russian armies, none smaller than 40,000 men, were operating in the Baltic States and in the Ukraine, as well.

Charles managed to defeat the Russians in several small engagements as he advanced; winning his last victory over the Russians at the Battle of Holowczyn in July, 1708 with his customary brilliance. But time and distance were working against him: Russia could always trade the one for the other, playing for time to replenish its “big battalions” by trading space, ever retreating into the depths of Russia. It was a problem both Napoleon and Hitler would wrestle with, no more successfully than did Charles.

The vast spaces and a harsh winter depleted Charles’ army. In spring of 1708, in need of allies, he marched into the Ukraine at the offer of alliance with the Zaporozhe Cossacks, who were in revolt against the Czar. But the Russians managed to crush the Cossack rebellion before Charles could arrive, and the Swedish King’s army faced a much larger Russian force at Poltava in June 1709.

1353505.jpgCharles’ 14,000 men advanced against a well-prepared Russian force of 45,000 in a well entrenched position, supported by nearly 100 guns. Charles, wounded in the foot a few days earlier, could take no part in the battle, and was forced to watch the battle from the rear in a litter. His bold Swedes pushed forward with great gallantry, capturing several of the Russian redoubts with bayonet. But the “bigger battalions” began to wear them down; and as the Swedish advance lost momentum, the Russians went over to the offensive. The Swedes were cut down or forced to surrender. Charles himself was carried off the field to safety.

Genius and daring, ultimately, was no match for the shear weight of numbers and resources. Charles squandered an opportunity after Narva to follow-up his victory and perhaps force Czar Peter to favorable terms. His sojourn in Poland wasted time he didn’t have. “Ask me for anything but time” [4]: it is the most implacable factor in any war.

The tiny Swedish lion was ultimately crushed by the enormous Russian mouse.


The American Civil War is a classic example of scrappy banter weight verses a lumbering heavy weight. The Federal (Northern) forces had every advantage in manpower and material. But it took time to mobilize these advantages; and, as it turned out, even more time for President Abraham Lincoln to find a general with sufficient will and ruthlessness to aggressively utilize these advantages to their fullest. (Early in the war, General George B. McClellan was so cautious and reluctant to attack, despite the material superiority possessed by the Army of the Potomac over his Confederate opponent; that Lincoln caustically commented to his staff, “If General McClellan does not want to use the army, I would like to borrow it for a time.”)

By contrast, the Army of Northern Virginia was over-flowing with fighting spirit, from its dirty, ill-clad enlisted men all the way up to its superbly confident and aggressive commanders. Such generals as Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson, A.P. Hill, Jubal Early, James Longstreet, JEB Stuart, and of course its Commanding General, Robert E. Lee were among the best leadership teams ever gathered together under one command tent in American history. Outnumbered and outgunned by their Federal opponents, the Confederate forces relied on the one thing they had in abundance: courage and aggressive spirit.

1585957.jpgTime and again, Jackson and Lee bested larger Northern armies. Jackson’s Valley Campaign and Lee’s Seven Days Battles are masterpieces of aggressive maneuver. Each are textbook examples of seizing the initiative and keeping a larger, lumbering enemy constantly on his back foot, off-balance and forced to react.

But Lee was perhaps keenly aware that the uneven struggle could not continue to go his way indefinitely. He needed to strike a knock-out blow before the Confederacy was worn down by its bigger opponent. He attempted twice to achieve this the only way it was possible: by carrying the war into the North and forcing Lincoln to sue for peace.

His first invasion of the North, in 1862, began promisingly with the Confederate Army of Northern Virginia advancing into Maryland on several convergent lines. Lee’s objectives were first the Union supply and communications hubs of Harrisburg and Baltimore. Taking Harrisburg would have severed the man rail lines connecting the eastern and western United States, while capturing Baltimore would cut off Washington DC from the rest of the North. Ultimately, by isolating Washington, DC, Lee hoped to force Lincoln to agree to favorable terms.

As Lee’s ragged Confederate battalions marched through Maryland, locals commented upon the soldier’s unkempt appearance combined with their jaunty swagger. One Marylander noted:

“They have no uniforms, but are all well armed and equipped, and have become so inured to hardships that they care but little for any of the comforts of civilization… They are the roughest looking set of creatures I ever saw…”

1353512Another described Lee’s confident veteran troops as “a lean and hungry set of wolves“!

An often bewildered McClellan’s was slow-to-react, despite the large numeric and material advantage enjoyed by his Army of the Potomac. Only a stroke of fate perhaps saved the Union from defeat in 1862.

A set of orders from Lee to his subordinates, outlining his plan of campaign and the dispositions of his divergent forces were accidentally dropped by a dispatch rider, concealed within a bunch of cigars. These were discovered by almost miraculous happenstance by Union soldiers, and delivered to McClellan. “Mac” refused to believe this stroke of fortune was genuine until a staff officer, who had served with Lee before the war, confirmed that the Confederate commander’s signature. Thus armed with his adversary’s plans, even as cautious a general as McClellan was moved to action.

In the resulting Battle of Antietam, Lee’s invasion was brought to a halt in the bloodiest single day of fighting in American history. Backed by the bigger battalions, McClellan could afford the losses; Lee could not. His battered army was forced to withdraw back into the South.

The second invasion, a year later in 1863, followed nearly the same line of approach and the same objectives. This time, the Army of Northern Virginia butted heads with the Army of the Potomac at Gettysburg, in Pennsylvania. The “high water mark” of the Confederacy, Lee’s “lean, hungry wolves” broke their teeth upon the Union’s defensive lines, upon the high ground and well supported by artillery.

Failing twice to win a knock-out, Lee spent the rest of the war on the defensive, attempting with varying degrees of success to slip the punches of his overwhelmingly bigger opponent; which, under the command of U.S. Grant had found a commander unafraid to spend lives to achieve his objectives. At last, forced into a corner with nothing more than a dreadful pounding to look forward to, the Army of Northern Virginia surrendered on April 9, 1865 at Appomattox Courthouse.


While history demonstrates examples of the smaller, more nimble army winning stunning victories against a larger and slower opponent we have seen that far more often war comes down to a sanguine mathematical equation. As in professional football (American, not the other kind), bigger is nearly always better.

This is a lesson that American military and political leaders should bear in mind.

At end of the civil war that brought him into power, Augustus Caesar downsized the Roman army from 78 legions to a “peace dividend” force of 25 legions . This force was tasked with defending an irregular and insecure border that extended from Egypt to the English Channel, from the Atlantic to the Euphrates River, around various independent kingdoms and tribal areas in the Balkans and Anatolia, and followed the line of the Rhine River, facing the inveterately hostile Germanic tribes. Additionally, Roman arms were called upon to enact punitive expeditions from time-to-time against transgressors or to expand the Empire into foreign lands.

The superiority of the Roman legions in battle was unquestioned. Roman training, equipment, organization, and leadership were all “force multipliers” that seemed to guarantee battlefield victory. This confidence underpinned Augustus’ cost saving measures of shrinking over-all force strength to a mere 28 legions.

But in 9 A.D. three of these legions (led by a lawyer, Quintilius Varus) were ambushed by German tribal warriors in the Teutoburger Wald and wiped out. So distraught was the Emperor Augustus at this loss, that months later he is said to have banged his head against the wall, crying out:

“Quintili Vare, legiones redde!“ (‘Quintilius Varus, give me back my legions!’)

1585960.jpgTeutoberg Forest was not the worse military disaster suffered by Roman arms. The loss of 16-20 thousand troops, while a signal loss, was trivial when compared to such truly significant defeats such as Cannae, where Hannibal utterly destroyed a Roman army of 80,000. Or Arausio, where an even greater number of soldiers were killed fighting the Cimbri and the Teutons. After the former defeat, the Roman Senate had forbid public demonstrations of grief or despair; simply raising another army as large the following year and “soldiering on”.

So what explains Augustus Caesar’s severe anxiety after Teutoberger Wald?


In Augustan Rome’s downsized, shrunken military structure those three legions represented nearly 17% of the entire legionary force of the empire, almost one-in-five of its soldiers. Worse, the Romans of Augustus’ day were no longer the warlike citizen-soldiers of the Republic. The Romans of the Principate were a nation of pampered and privileged civilians who relied upon the protection of a small professional army of volunteers. Not easily replaced once lost, especially in the cash-strapped empire of Augustus.

Sound familiar?


Over the last two decades American forces have been continually downsized. The large, “heavy” divisions of the Cold War demobilized in favor of smaller, more nimble Brigade Combat Teams (each of just under 5,000 soldiers). We have gone from 16 heavy divisions of 16-20,000 men each during the late 1980s to a mere 14 BCTs today. The arguments for this transition and downsizing seem persuasive at first glance: that we no longer face the prospect of armored conflict on a grand scale against the Soviets on the plains of central Europe. That smaller forces, armed with more advanced and lethal equipment, are just as deadly as the older, larger formations of the recent past, and far more deployable by air or sea.

In a short and sharp encounter with limited objectives, this argument holds water.

However, war is the province of uncertainty. Wars seldom turn out the way their planners envisioned them. Germany, for instance, thought it could win the First World War before Christmas of 1914, relying upon the mass of its corps and its brilliantly conceived “Schlieffen Plan” to crush France and Russia in a matter of months. No one in Berlin foresaw the four years of horror that followed.

If a short encounter bogs down into a bloody slugfest, even against an enemy with inferior or out-of-date equipment, the enemy’s numbers can translate into staying power. By contrast, a light “nimble” force can find itself cornered and pounded into bloody pulp by their more lumbering opponent.

1353518.jpgToday we face potential enemies in China, North Korea, Iran, and (once again) a newly revitalized Russia. All these are possessed of large conventional forces and large reserves of manpower. Considering the nature and history of these regimes, we can surmise that they also possess a ruthless willingness to expend these assets in order to achieve their objectives. While we, by contrast, are notoriously “casualty adverse” and continue to reduce the number of combat brigades we have available[5]; making the loss of any one of our these catastrophic.

A small army of light, mobile brigades is ill-suited to a slugging match on the rugged Korean peninsula, the deserts and mountains of Iran, on the beaches or fields of Taiwan, or on the open plains of eastern Europe. We place too much faith in such “force multipliers” as technology, training, and information; and forget, at our peril, that God tends to favor the Big Battalions.


  1. See, Massacre in the Passes: Elphinstone’s Disaster
  2. Germany Over All: the title of Nazi Germany’s national anthem.
  3. Fair, Charles: From the Jaws of Victory, Ch. 5; Simon and Schuster 1971
  4. Napoleon
  5. Due to budget constraints combined with partisan politics, every year the military has to sustain half of all Federal budget cuts; despite representing only 18% of the budget. Thus every year the number of Brigade Combat Teams grows fewer. Last year only three of the 14 BCTs were deemed ready for deployment in the advent of a conflict.
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Unique among the territories of the Western Roman Empire in the 5th century, Britain succeeded in holding back and even reversing the tide of Germanic conquest for nearly two centuries. This was an age of heroes… It was the Age of Arthur! 

This is the second part in a multi-part examination of Britain, in the 5th though the mid-6th Century A.D. It is a fascinating period, with the Classical Age of Greece and Rome giving way to the Germanic “Dark Ages”. The heroes of this struggle, and the “barbarian” warlords who opposed them, are the subject of this discussion.

If he indeed existed (and it is the opinion of this author that he did) Arthur was a warlord who successfully led the British resistance to the Anglo-Saxon invaders. He was born in the late 5th century, and ruled Britain into the early 6th century. Using historical analysis of the disparate chronicles, poems, legends, archeological evidence, and applying deductive logic backed by a lifetime of military study and practice I will attempt to develop a working theory of who Arthur was and the events of his life.

This was in the sunset of Roman culture in Britain, a province that was itself once the jewel in the crown of the Roman Empire. Arthur was the champion who kept the flame of civilization alive as the rest of Western Europe sunk into the Dark Ages.

But before we can discuss Arthur, it is important to understand the world in which he lived.

(Part One can be read here)



From 429 to the 440s nothing for certain is known about events in Britain. It is tempting to say that Vortigern maintained a troubled hold on power, while facilitating the foundation of his own kingdom in the west, Powys. We know that during this period Viroconium (Wroxeter), the tribal capital of Vortigern’s own Cornovii tribe, was the fourth largest city in Britain. At this time it enjoyed something of a revival, with new build projects launched and older buildings restored. It was also refortified, with its ancient Roman walls restored. All of this is consistent with the possibility that Viroconium was Vortigern’s principal stronghold.

1371141.jpgBut raids by the Picts and the Scotti[1] continued unabated. In the 440s the British sent a letter to Flavius Aetius, the Roman Magister Militum (“Master of Soldiers”) in Gaul and Stilicho’s successor as the most powerful man in the Western Roman Empire.[2] Aetius was campaigning to restore some measure of Roman authority in Gaul throughout this decade. At least some Britons, it would appear, longed for the security the Empire once represented.

The letter, called “Groans of the Britons”, told of their plight; beset by “barbarians” and begging for Roman help:

“To Agitius (Aetius), thrice consul… the barbarians drive us to the sea, the sea drives us to the barbarians, between these two means death: we are either killed or drowned.” 

This letter is often said to have been sent in response to the “Saxon Terror”. But the dates don’t match-up. The Saxons didn’t arrive until 449 A.D. (according to all original source material), while the “Groan of the Britons” letter was dispatched earlier in that decade. There have been efforts by recent historians to reinterpret the date of the Saxon advent in Britain, moving it inot the 420s; but they are wholly unpersuasive, an effort to make the facts fit their flawed narrative.

1371145.jpg Artist’s depiction of Flavius Aetius, flanked by Hunnic bodyguards of his “Bucellarii”. Aetius was the most powerful man in the Western Roman Empire at the time he received the “Groans of the Britons” letter.

So unless we accept an earlier Saxon arrival and mutiny in Britain, we must then ask: who were the barbarians who so plagued the Britons during Vortigern’s leadership?

The obvious choice is the Picts.

At this time, the Picts were united under a strong king, Drust son of Erp; called in Irish annuls “Drust of the Hundred Battles”. Under his leadership Pictish raids on Britain grew more intense and dangerous, becoming an existential threat to the existence of Britain as a viable state.

1371148Perhaps the movement of a portion of the Votadini from the Pictish borders in the north into northern Wales (see Part One) had left what remained of this tribe in the north too weak to stop Pictish incursions into Britain. Or, as in the past, the Picts may simply have used their boats to bypass the Votadini lands and the Wall garrisons as well to raid into the British heartland. In either case, Pictish raids were on the rise, and Vortigern’s political enemies among the Britons appealed to Rome for aid.

The “Groan of the Britons” letter clearly indicates that confidence in Vortigern’s ability to defend the island was (at the least) in question, and likely breaking down. The unity of Britain was ever a shaky thing, fracturing along tribal and religious lines, with one tribe/petty kingdom against another, Catholics against Pelagians, and (we can assume) between Vortigern and his opponents.

Tension had always existed between the various tribes, and the Britons had never been “one people” politically. Before the Romans imposed unity within their province, the various tribes contended with each other for cattle, land, prestige, and power. With the Roman departure new polities were springing up: petty-kingdoms, sometimes referred to as Celtic Successor Kingdoms.

1371149Some of these petty-kingdoms were merely base upon the old tribal organization, or upon the alliances of several smaller tribes. Vortigern’s own Powys was one of these, formed by a union of the Ordovices in the western Cumbrian mountains and the Cornovii to their east, extending into the Midlands.

Others, however, developed from late Roman military commands. Both the kingdoms of Rheged and Elmet grew out of military commands associated with the Late Roman Dux Britanniarum (“Duke of Britain”). Tradition has Coel Hen (“Old King Cole”) as  progenitor of several kingly lines in the Hen Ogledd (“the Old North”); and he may well have been the last Dux Britanniarum to command the northern garrisons along the Wall and at York.

Beyond tribal division, religious strife was a chief source of conflict and fracture among the Britons in the first half of the 5th century. The Pelagian “heresy” was rife within the province, and there is reason to believe that Vortigern was at least a supporter, if not in fact a leader of the Pelagians. It has been suggested that Vortigern’s real name may have been “Vitalinus”, and that he was even perhaps the last Bishop of Roman London, called Guithelin by Geoffrey of Monmouth. Could Vitalinus/Vortigern have left the orthodox/Catholic church over religious differences, becoming a Pelagian leader?

This could account for the “bad press” Vortigern receives in the later chronicles penned by Catholic monks.

Gildas the Monk, the closest contemporary historian to the events in question, calls Vortigern superbo tyranno: “the proud usurper”. The term “usurper” is normally used for one who illegally seizes power from a legitimate monarch or government. If Vortigern was seen by some of his contemporaries as a usurper, it would further explain the source of some of the opposition to his rule.

This, of course, begs the question: from whom did Vortigern seize power?

In his much fictionalized Historia Regum Britanniae (“History of the Kings of Britain”), Geoffrey of Monmouth spins an entertaining story regarding how Vortigern persecuted the three sons of the late Roman military officer-turned Imperial pretender, Constantine III. First betraying and bringing about the death of the oldest (and legitimate ruler), Constans II, and then driving his two younger brothers into exile. These brothers, Ambrosius and Uther, figure large in the later part of the story and in the legends of King Arthur that follow.

While much of Geoffrey’s chronicle is spun from mixture of local legend and whole cloth, there is reason to believe that not all is fiction. Geoffrey claimed to have used older (now lost) Welsh sources. If this is true (and it should be kept in mind that many scholars dismiss such a claim as a common literary trope), there may be some kernel of fact among all of Geoffrey’s fancy.

Vortigern may have “usurped” power from either the Council of Britain, or, as Geoffrey suggest, from the governor Constantine III left in charge (though certainly not his son Constans, who accompanied his father and died in 411 at Vienne). Or even from another leader who bore the name of Constantine. There was an unrelated Dumnonian/Cornish king, Custennin Gorneu (Custennin being the Welsh version of Constantine). Geoffrey may have gotten confused by his Welsh sources, conflating the two Constantines.

Of all this mix of fact and fancy only Ambrosius Aurelianus is a figure all scholars accept as historical.

Gildas has nothing but praise for Ambrosius, claiming he came from a noble Roman background. His parents, according to Gildas, had “worn the purple” (more of this later). An Aurelius Ambrosius, father of St. Ambrose, was Prefect of Gaul in the early 4th century. It is possible that he was a near ancestor or kinsman of the Ambrosius Aurelianus leading Britain in the 5th century, as attested to by Gildas and later sources.

1371173What Geoffrey may have tapped into is a tradition that Ambrosius, leader of the Romanized British aristocracy, led the anti-Vortigern party in open revolt against the “usurper” in the 430s, but was defeated by Vortigern (perhaps at Wallop).

As the historical Ambrosius was actively leading the British against the Saxons between 460 and 508 A.D., it is doubtful that he could have been fighting Vortigern so early. This has led other scholars to suggest that there was in fact two Ambrosius’, father and son: Ambrosius the Elder and the Younger.

In Geoffrey’s tale, Ambrosius and his brother, Uther, flee Vortigern’s persecution, taking refuge in Armorica (Brittany) across the channel. Perhaps this reflected real events in the 430’s, with Ambrosius the Elder defeated and killed while his son and namesake flees to Armorica with many of the Romano-British opposition. It may have been this Romanized British opposition to Vortigern that sent to the Roman general Aetius in Gaul the “Groans of the Britons” letter.

For the aging Vortigern Roman intervention, had it been forthcoming, would have meant the end of his leadership. To hold onto power he needed another solution, one that maintained his position against both the Picts and his own British critics and rivals. A solution seemed to appear one day off the coast of Kent.


In 449, three longships manned with Saxon warriors landed at the southeastern tip of Britain. None in Roman Britain could know that though small in number, these were harbingers of the abyss.

Their chieftains were two brothers: Horsa and his clever brother, Hengist. It is unclear as to which is the eldest. Hengist is clearly portrayed in both British and Saxon tradition as the leader of the Saxons. But the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle states that Hengist only becomes king of (Saxon) Kent upon the death of Horsa at the Battle of Aylesford. This would suggest that Horsa was king at the time of his death, and thus the elder. Perhaps Horsa was the brawny man of action, the warlord; while Hengist acted as his brother’s wily consigliere. Or perhaps they shared power equally as co-kings. We can only speculate.

1371151.jpgThese two “Saxons” were in fact not Saxons at all. They were Jutes, presumably from the Jutland Peninsula. In this time of ferment and mass migrations of the Germanic peoples, Jutland was not yet Danish. It was inhabited by a Scandinavian people, the Jutes, and their cousins, the Angles. The actual Saxons lived in this period in northern Germany, in-and-around modern Schleswig-Holstein. All these peoples shared a common culture, similar language, and worshiped the same pagan gods. Taking to the sea in longships, much as later Scandinavian Vikings would in centuries to come, from the 3rd century A.D. onward these peoples raided  along the southern coast of the North Sea and into the English Channel (and beyond).

The Romans lumped all these northern sea-wolves under the moniker of “Saxon”: Frisians, Jutes, Danes, Angles, as well as the actual Saxons of north Germany. The Even the Franks, who were not a maritime people, occasionally crossed the channel to join the “Saxons” in their wars against the Britons.

It needs to be stated that Anglo-Saxon settlements seem to have already existed along the eastern coast of Britain in the 4th century. Recent archaeology has revealed Anglo-Saxon grave-sites dating to the late Roman period. It has been theorized that the very term, “Saxon Shore” (southeastrn Britain) may come not from the threat to this region by Saxon seaborne raiders, as was traditionally assumed; but because of the widespread presence of Saxon foederates settled there by the Roman authorities to protect the province from their countrymen. Saxon settlements may have existed as far north as the eastern end of the Wall, perhaps settled along the north coast as a shield against seaborne raids by the Picts as well.

By a twist of fate, Vortigern happened to be in nearby Durovernum Cantiacorum (Canterbury) when these three “keels” of Saxon warriors landed. He bid the brothers be brought to him. The two brothers hailed Vortigern as “king”, and requested to take service with the “great leader”. These newcomers represented something Vortigern may have needed: a body of mercenaries with no ties of loyalty to anyone but their employer. Tyrants throughout history have seized or maintained their power through the use of such hired thugs; tough warriors with neither ties to or affection for the local populace; and willing to be as ruthless as necessary in stamping out dissent and opposition to the ruler. Vortigern accepted these fierce warriors into his service as foederati  and perhaps as his bucellarii (household troops).

1371152Vortigern had found his Saxon Praetorian Guard, with the dangerous Hengist as its Prefect!

The men who followed Hengist and Horsa were likely a collection of hardened pirates from a variety of Scandinavian and north-German people; outcasts banded together for profit and adventure under the strong leadership of a proven leader. Hengist himself is a semi-legendary figure who appears in various British and Anglo-Saxon sources; including “Beowulf”. Which is not to suggest in any way that he is a fictional character. It is not unusual that historical figures from one tradition or era get written into another set of legends. He was likely a jarl or petty-king of some small and poor holding in Juteland; seeking to enrich himself and his band of warriors by going “Viking”. Or, perhaps, he was a noble outcast, outlawed and driven out of his own lands by a stronger neighbor or relative.

1371154 Anglo-Saxon longships were prototypes of those later used in the Viking Era

The numbers of these Saxon newcomers is unknown. But considering the size of Scandinavian longships in the Viking Era, and assuming that the Saxon boats were comparable, capable of carrying between 25 and 40 men; then a number of between 75 and 120 warriors is likely.

The Picts were marauding south of the Wall; and Vortigern and his army, bolstered by Hengist’s Saxon newcomers, marched against them. North of the Humber, the two forces met in battle. According to the Historia Regum Britanniae, “the Saxons fought so bravely that the enemy, formerly victorious, were speedily put to flight.”

Well pleased with their performance in battle, Vortigern granted the brothers and their crews the Isle of Thanet, at the tip of Kent, for a settlement; and perhaps lands in Essex, near the mouth of the Humber or near the eastern end of the Wall (where earlier Saxon settlements may have been in existence). He also encouraged them to invite additional warriors and their families from the Saxon homeland.

This Hengist lost no time in doing.

Sixteen more “keels” arrived, bearing another 400-700 Saxon warriors. Fatefully, among these was Hengist’s daughter, Rowena (or Rhonwen), a girl of surpassing beauty. At a welcome banquet for the newcomers, tradition has it that Hengist encouraged his daughter to serve Vortigern with her own hand.

1371160.jpgThe effect of a young (perhaps teenage) girl on a middle-aged but still virile man can be profound. Vortigern became obsessed with the Saxon girl, and putting aside the mother of his sons married the daughter of his Saxon lieutenant. As bride-price, Hengist persuaded Vortigern to give the Saxons all of Kent.

According to the 8th century Welsh monk, Nennius, Hengist now used his leverage as Vortigern’s father-in-law to his people’s advantage. He advised Vortigern to bring even more Saxons over to Britain: “… You will never fear conquest by any man or any enemy, for my people are strong.” Again, Vortigern agreed. A fleet of 40 Saxon ships arrived, including Hengist’s sons, Esc (or Oisc) and Ebissa [3]. It is said the whole of the “Saxon” lands were depopulated, an obvious exaggeration. Likely some 1,400-1,600 Saxon warriors and their families came in this next wave.

1532978Reinforced, Hengist grew ever bolder, demanding more territory to feed the additional mouths. He convinced Vortigern that to effectively deal with future Pictish seaborne raids on the lands south of the wall, the newcomers should be settled along the coast north of the Humber; perhaps among the older Saxon settlements there.

Growing alarmed, the Council of Britain now demanded that the Saxons be reined-in. One version is that the Council removed Vortigern from his position, replacing him with his own son, Vortimer; who may have turned against his father for repudiating his mother and marrying the “Saxon woman”.

An anti-Saxon policy was now put into place.

Wither it was the Council or Vortigern himself behind this, the British now refused further Saxon demands. Hengist had used gentle persuasion (“soft power”) to good effect, and his position was now very strong. No more was to be gained with words. The time had come to break with his erstwhile benefactors.

The Saxon’s mutinied: sweeping out of the east, they spread fire and sword throughout the land!

The Saxon Terror had begun.


  1. Irish
  2. This appeal for Roman intervention likely came from the anti-Vortigern faction in Britain.
  3. The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle suspiciously makes no mention of Ebissa.

Some of the artwork in this article has been reproduced with the permission of Osprey Publishing, and is © Osprey Publishing, part of Bloomsbury Publishing Plc.

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This is the Part One of Deadliest Blogger’s look at the religious and military phenomenon known as the Crusades. At best, considering the sheer volume of material and scope of history involved, this can only be a cursory examination of the Crusades*; one with the politically correct blinders often placed in over modern scholarship removed. In this part we will look at the First Crusade, and the establishment of the Christian Crusader States in Syria and Palestine.

Following their disastrous defeat at Battle of Manzikert (in Armenia), the Eastern Roman/Byzantine Emperor Alexius I Comnenus appealed to the Frankish west for help in turning back the Turkish invaders. This appeal made to Pope Urban led to the sermon at Clermont, where the Pope called upon the military class of western Europe (Christendom) to put aside their petty squabbles and unite in a holy endeavor: drive the “infidels” (Muslims) from the Holy Land where Christ and his Apostles had walked.

Thus was put in motion the First Crusade.

The response was far greater than either the Pope or the Emperor expected. While Alexius had requested military aid in the form of fighting-men to be enlisted as mercenaries in Byzantine service, his call for help set in motion nothing less than a mass movement. Not only did many of the great lords of France and the Holy Roman Empire march east, leading their own vassals and household warriors; a “People’s Crusade” of peasants and minor nobles, led by Peter the Hermit, actually set out in April 1096 months ahead of the departure of the great lords. From the highest to the lowest, the men and women of western Europe were filled with crusader zeal.

This First Crusade was not about aiding Byzantium in its struggle with the Turks, though that may have been Pope Urban and the emperor Alexius’ original intent. To the men (and no few women) who embarked across a continent this was about regaining the Holy Land, occupied by Muslims since the 7th century, for “Christendom”. Secondarily, it was about the maltreatment of Christian pilgrims by the Seljuks. It was in this cause, and with promises of spiritual reward in the afterlife that Pope Urban excited the knights of Christendom to travel to the Holy Land and defend both pilgrims and the holy places from the Turks:

“The Turks, an accursed race, a race utterly alienated from God… has invaded lands of Christians and his depopulated them by the sword, pillage and fire… On whom therefore is the labor of avenging the wrongs of recovering this territory incumbent, in not upon you?”

But far from being an unprovoked act of aggression against the “peaceful” Muslim peoples and lands of the Middle East, as it is often portrayed in college history courses today, the First Crusade was a much-belated response to centuries of Islamic attacks upon and conquest of Christian lands. Lands which included most of the Middle East, North Africa, and Spain. It was also in response to Turkish banditry and to protect and keep open the pilgrim routes from Europe to the holy places.

“The Crusades were not unprovoked. They were not the first round of European colonialism. They were not conducted for land, loot, or converts. The crusaders were not barbarians who victimized the cultivated Muslims. They sincerely believed that they served in God’s battalions” [1] 

In response to the sermon at Clermont many of the leading princes of the day “took the cross”. They came, for the most part, inspired by religious duty. These were not penniless adventurers looking to enrich themselves (another politically correct myth). Many were the among the wealthiest and most powerful men in Western Europe, who had much to loose on such a far-flung venture. Europe in the 11th century was a place of conflicting loyalties and allegiances, questionable borders, of old feuds and ancient grudges. Leaving one’s lands unattended invited rival claimants to seize them from the absentee. Only a deep belief in the righteousness of their cause and a chance to be part of one of the great movements of history motivated the powerful princes of Europe to leave behind their domains and march east.



Godfrey of Bouillon, Duke of Lower Lorraine (later called the Low Countries), was a descendant of Charlemagne. Tall, blond and handsome, he was considered the perfect Christian knight. Godfrey mortgaged or sold outright most of his lands to finance his participation in the Crusade. With this he outfitted a force of several thousand knights and footman. As a commander he was indifferent at best, and wisely followed the counsel of more apt captains, such as Bohemond and Raymond. He traveled in the company of his brothers, Baldwin and Eustace, Count of Boulogne, and was effectively leader of the men of the Low Countries and northeastern France.

Raymond of St Gilles, Count of Toulouse (also known as the Count of Saint-Gilles), Margrave of Provence and Duke of Narbonne was one of the wealthiest men in Europe. A great magnate of both the Holy Roman Empire and France, he was the oldest of all the leaders and the one most favored by the Papacy for the role of commander. However, he was unable to gain acceptance in this role, and  instead was a leading voice in the council of commanders that led the crusading contingents. He traveled to Constantinople in the company of the Papal Legate, Ademar, and led the south French contingents.

Baldwin of Boulogne was Godfrey’s younger brother. Even taller than his brother, he was an accomplished knight and proved a better commander than any of the other Crusader leaders. He would lead the future Kingdom of Jerusalem to  victory in later years.

Robert Duke of Normandy, called “Curthose” (“Short-Pants”, presumably because of his shorter-than-normal legs) was the eldest son of William the Conqueror and commanded the paramount warriors of Europe, the Normans. Like other leaders he mortgaged his duchy to his brother William Rufus, the King of England, for the sum of 10,000 marks to finance his participation in the Crusade. He came with his cousin, Robert Count of Flanders and his brother-in-law, Stephen Count of Blois (father of the future king of England of that name). Though nominally leader of all the Normans, Bretons, and Flemings he was a weak leader and in practice let Bohemond of Taranto take command.

Of all the leaders of this First Crusade, only Bohemond Prince of Taranto, son of Robert Guiscard and leader of the Crusading Normans of Italy, was not particularly wealthy and intended to carve out a principality in the Holy Land. Unusually tall and well-built, he was a warrior’s-warrior. An experienced and able commander, he had warred in the past against the Byzantine Emperor Alexius during his father’s war in Greece. As commander of the Normans of Italy he led perhaps the most effective contingent of the Crusader army, with the most experience in warfare in the east. He was accompanied by his nephew, the wily Tancred. As the Crusade progressed, he became the leader of the Norman contingents.

Adhemar, Bishop of Le Puy was the Pope’s legate and representative on the Crusade. Of a noble family, he was a fighting cleric as well as a skilled diplomat. A skilled tactician, he advised Count Raymond and may well be the brains behind the successful flanking attack at Dorylaeum. He did much to keep the rival leaders at peace with each other throughout the crusade.

Far from being more backward and “barbaric” than their Muslim enemies, as is often claimed, the Crusading princes of Europe and most of their knights were in nearly every way on a cultural and intellectual par with their foes; and in the case of the Turks, somewhat more civilized. These were the cultured elites of Europe, and though perhaps not as refined  or educated as a Byzantine or Muslim grandee they were far from “barbarians”.


The Seljuk Turks were a hardy but savage people only newly arrived off of the steppes of central Asia. They had converted to Islam in the 9th century, and quickly became the shock troops of the Abbasid Caliphate. Soon, like the Roman Praetorians, they came to dominate their masters. Under Alp Arslan they had expanded their realm from the Halys River to the Oxus. Their empire had recently fallen into chaos and disunity following the death (or assassination) of Malik-Shah I in 1092. By the end of the 11th century independent Seljuk emirs controlled the various Muslim petty-states from the Aral Sea to the Bosporus.

Though ruling over cities and highly developed agricultural areas, the Turks had not wholly abandoned their nomadic lifestyle. Many still lived in clan groups, herding their sheep from pasturage to pasturage. These  lived in yurts, spent most of their life in the saddle, and (according to Western chroniclers) were, like most nomadic peoples, extremely unhygienic in their personal habits (even by the standards of the day). On the other hand, some at least had settled down on the conquered lands, taking feudal fiefs from their emirs, to whom they owed loyalty and military service. Far from the savages they were painted as in the west, the Turkish emirs of the great cities were as cultured as any in the world.

1374236Militarily, the Turks fought primarily as light horsemen. Their main weapon was the short composite bow. Like all horse archers throughout the ages, their principle tactic was that of a swarm of bees, stinging their enemies from a safe distance with a rain of arrows. When their enemy attempted to close the distance and fight at close quarters (where their lack of heavy armor and small ponies put them at a disadvantage) the Turks would merely turn their mounts and flee to a safe distance, all the time continuing to shoot at their enemies over their horse’s rump. Only once the enemy had fallen into disorder or were in flight would the Turks put aside their bows and charge home with saber, mace, or belt-axe.

The Fatimid Caliphate of Egypt was the other enemy of the Crusader army (though belatedly so). Their army was comprised of both Turkish mercenaries (and slave-soldiers, called ghulams) and native Egyptian and Sudanese forces. They relied less upon the skirmish tactics of the Turks and had a large and formidable infantry component. At the time of the First Crusade, they had wrested control of Jerusalem from the Turks. They had been at war with their Seljuk neighbors for over a generation and the Crusade caught them unprepared during a time of rebuilding.

In contrast to the light-cavalry skirmishers that were the backbone of the Turkish armies, the Crusading Franks (as western Europeans were collectively known in the east) relied on the charge of the their heavy cavalry to bring them victory. The Medieval western knight was the armored battle tank of his age. Riding the largest horses available (and stallions at that) and armed with a 10′-12′ lance, their primary tactic was a thundering charge. This was delivered in tight formation, with the stirrup of each knight touching that of his comrade to either side. It was said that the charge of a Frankish knight could “make a hole through the walls of Babylon!”[2]


The Frankish knights on the First Crusade were supported by large numbers of foot soldiers, many of which were crossbowmen. Though their rate of fire was slower than the composite bow of their Turkish enemy, they fired a more powerful shot that could pierce armor at close range. The most useful infantry, however, proved to be dismounted knights and sergeant-at-arms. The large European chargers were vulnerable to the hot arid conditions of the Middle East, as well as to Turkish horse archery. On the Crusade, the knights and mounted sergeants had trouble finding remounts. However, fighting on foot they provided the foot (many of which were nothing more than religiously-motivated peasants or townsmen) with a stiffening of professional soldiers; and gave the remaining mounted troops a solid base to maneuver around. Being dismounted proved a blessing also in that  it prevented the sort of impetuous charges that the Turks were all so adept at evading and luring into ambush; a problem many later crusaders would encounter fighting the Turks.

Throughout the Crusades, from the first to the last, victory in battle came to the side able to force the other to “fight his fight”. If the Franks were able to close with the Turks or Arabs, they usually won the day. Alternately, if the Turks or “Saracens” (the collective name given to non-Turkish Muslim warriors of the Middle East) could keep a safe distance while wearing down the Franks with missile weapons (or allowing the searing Middle Eastern sun to do that work for them), then they usually won the day. While Western mail was nearly “proof” against he short, light Turkish arrows the knight’s  unarmored horses were vulnerable to wounding and maiming.


In August of 1096 the crusading princes marched east, leading individual armies which, according to Crusader military historian David Nicolle, amounted to approximately 35,000 fighting men (of which 5,000 were cavalry).


They followed in the wake of the “People’s Crusade“, a movement of common folk who mistakenly believed that “the Lord” would provide both sustenance and victory over the Turk. In both of these they were disappointed, and this “Crusade” met disaster and destruction at the hands of the Turks upon their first encounter in Anatolia, near Nicaea in Bithynia.

The arrival of the prince’s armies at Constantinople caused no small amount of nervous apprehension within the unprepared Byzantine court.  The Crusader forces were in far greater number than the Emperor Alexius ever imagined, and the proud and prickly Frankish princes who led them poised a very real threat to the city and the Empire, should they get out of hand. It was only 15 years since the Normans of Apulia under Robert Guiscard had invaded the empire in an attempt to grab as much as they could lay hands upon; and the memory was still fresh. The Crusaders, for their part, found the Byzantines “oily” and untrustworthy, and in their dress and manner all too like the “Saracen” enemy they had come to fight. To prevent misunderstanding and suspicion from turning into violence, the emperor had the Crusaders quickly transported across the straits into Asia.

Once they had crossed over the Byzantines provided the Crusaders with guides, engineers and much needed supplies of food and fodder to the near starving armies. But not before the Emperor Alexius extracted oaths from each of the Crusader leaders (except for Raymond, who refused) that they would turn back over to the empire such towns and territories that they liberated from the Turk. The Frankish leaders considered this oath binding as far as any reconquered territory in Anatolia. But as the “Holy Land” (Syria and Palestine) had been for centuries under Muslim rule[3] the Frankish leaders did not consider these as rightfully Byzantine lands, and were thus not oath-bound to return to the emperor. This would be a “bone of contention” that would cause future discord between the future Crusader states and their Byzantine neighbor.

Marching (literally) over the bones of the People’s Crusade the army passed through Bithynia and laid siege to the Turkish citadel closest to and threatening Constantinople, Nicaea. This strong place was only captured after a 5 week siege and a failed attempt by the Seljuk Sultan, Kilij Arslan, to relieve the city. Nicaea surrendered in the end on June 18, 1097 to the Byzantines, rather than to the Crusaders; in order to avoid the inevitable sack if stormed by the Franks. Disgruntled at the loss of potential booty and what they saw a betrayal by the Byzantines, the Crusade marched on at the end of June with a small Byzantine force of 2,000 light cavalry under the veteran commander Tatikios to guide them.

Passing through the foothills of the western Anatolian mountains, the army marched in two (or perhaps three) divisions. The vanguard division was commanded by Bohemond of Taranto, and was composed of the Normands of Normandy (under their Duke Robert) and Bohemond’s of Italy; plus other north French contingents under Stephen Count of Blois and Robert Count of Flanders, as well as the Byzantine guides under Tatikios. Marching some 5 kilometers behind this van was the “main” under Godfrey of Bouillon, followed closely by the rearguard commanded by Raymond of Toulouse and the south French.

Marching towards ruined Dorylaeum along a tributary of the Sangarius, on July 1, 1097 the vanguard reached a bend in the river where it joined the Nana Dere. In the open valley beyond, Bohemond and his men beheld the army of the Sultan Kilij Arslan awaiting them, lining the low hills.

Kettle drums boomed from amongst the Turkish ranks, echoing from the surrounding hills and signally the largest battle to be fought between Christian and Turk since Manzikert.

Bohemond knew he could not fight them alone, with just the vanguard, but must hold until the rest of the Crusader army arrived. He ordered his foot to establish a “defensive camp”, while he and the mounted knights and sergeants formed up between them and the Turks, to buy them time.


The Frankish foot and camp-followers set up the tents beside the stream, with a marshy meadow protecting its rear and the stream its flank; with the mounted contingent standing to arms between them and the Sultan’s forces.

Kilij Arslan, smarting from his repulse at Nicaea, had come this time with allies: the Danismendid Turks, a rival power in central Anatolia alarmed as the Seljuks were at the coming of the Frankish Crusaders. Contemporary accounts put his numbers as high as 360,000 warriors, “all on horses and armed with bows”.[4]  The actual number was more likely a fraction of this inflated figure. However, they were highly aggressive and their tactics, new to the Franks, caused dismay as they pressed in on Bohemond’s defending knights and sergeants. Loose swarms of mounted Turks rode close to unleash a barrage of arrows, before wheeling their ponies and scampering away. Meanwhile, dismounted Turks crept around the left flank of the mounted guard, and assailed the foot setting-up the camp:

“The Turks crept up, howling loudly and shooting a shower of arrows. Stunned and almost dead, and with many wounded, we immediately fled. And it was no wonder, for such warfare was new to us all.” [5]

Only the maze of tents, stacks of supplies and equipment, and the obstacle provided by guy-wires helped keep the Turks from overrunning the camp in these confusing moments early in the battle.


While Frankish mail was for the most part “proof” against the light arrows of the Turks, their horses were not so fortunately protected. This would ever prove a problem for Franks fighting against Turkish horse archers: while their armor often rendered them relatively safe, their mounts were wounded or killed. To charge against their enemy was a natural response for western knights. But Turks on their light ponies would merely scamper away, all the while firing over their horse’s rump, till the knight’s charger was wounded or exhausted, and stumbled to a halt. At which point the Turks, like a pack of wolves would close in  for the kill.

Bohemond seems to have understood this and to have convinced his fellow leaders, Duke Robert and Count Baldwin of Flanders, to follow the lead of his Norman-Italians, dismounting their knights and standing with shield in front of their mounts, protecting the horses from Turkish arrows.  Standing firmly but idly against such assault took great discipline, and it is a testament to the Normans and to Bohemond as a leader that the knights did not attempt to mount and charge to disperse their tormentors. This would have been precisely what the Sultan hoped for, and would surely have led to disaster.

Meanwhile, another detachment of Turks swept around the Bohemond’s right, crossing to the opposite side of the stream in a likely attempt to surround the Crusader force. The camp, pitched now behind Bohemond’s mounted troops, prevented this (as well as the marshy meadow, unsuitable for horsemen). But this force were able to intercept and slaughter Frankish stragglers attempting to rejoin their comrades. Some of these escaped back the way they had come, and making their way to the second division under warned Duke Godfrey of the vanguard’s peril.

Kilij Arslan thought that he had the entire Frankish army trapped; and seems to have been unaware of the other two divisions approaching. This lack of scouting, even on the part of light horsemen like the Turks, was a common failing of armies throughout history. Soldiers tend to concentrate on the enemy in front of them, forgetting to scout their flanks or protect their rear. The immense clouds of dust that are thrown up during battle on a dry plain, particularly when large numbers of horses are involved, likely has a great deal to do with the tactical blindness exhibited by so many armies in history.

Whatever the reason, this lack of awareness was to lead to disaster for the Turks at Dorylaeum.

Focused on Bohemond the Sultan was surprised when Godfrey’s mainbody came up on his left, and deployed itself on the right of Bohemond’s line. Thus supported, the two Frankish leaders held fast against the Turkish attack.

Worse was to come for the Turks.

The rearguard, comprised of the south French under Raymond of Toulouse (advised by Bishop Adhemar, the Papal Legate), made its way by secret through the hills on the Turkish left. Debouching in the Turkish rear, the south French charged the Turks from behind. Giving the order to mount,  Bohemond and Godfrey then charged the Turks from the front as well.

Caught in this pincer movement, Turkish morale and resistance collapsed. The Crusaders didn’t pursue far (Tatikios may well have warned them that the Turks were most dangerous when they appeared to be fleeing). But thousands of Turkish dead littered the field, and the victorious Franks captured the Sultan’s baggage train, a rich haul indeed.

The Battle of Dorylaeum opened the way through Anatolia. For the next decade, the Turks treated Frankish armies with respect and caution. But it was “a near run thing”, and could well have ended in disaster, as later Crusades would under very similar circumstances. But for now, the Franks were able to continue on toward their objective: the Holy Land.


After their victory at Dorylaeum, the Crusaders marched south into central Anatolia. Once the breadbasket of the Byzantine Empire, two decades of Turkish depredation had reduced the area to a desert. Gone were the farms that once supported the hardy Eastern Roman soldier-peasant who had been the backbone of the armies of the old themata. The Turks had systematically destroyed the farmland and turned it into pasturage for the their sheep. These, in turn, had devoured what grass remained till only dry soil was left to bake in the harsh Anatolian sun.  Across this scorching plain the Crusaders passed in August and September. Many baggage animals perished, along with the priceless destriers whose size and strength gave the Frankish knights an added advantage in combat.


Buoyed only by by faith and Tatikios’ assurance that conditions would improve, the Crusaders pushed on. East of Heraclea, the army divided. The mainbody turned east into Cappadocia; while a smaller force under under Bohemond’s resourceful nephew,  Tanced and Godrey’s brother Baldwin, pushed directly south though the Cilician Gates.

In Cappadocia, the Crusaders defeated a local Turkish chieftain near a place called Augustopolis. Pushing on, they came to a town in a fruitful valley, likely Pinarbasi, famous for its healthy water springs; under siege by the local Turks. .

“Going out of Cappadocia we came to a certain very beautiful and exceedingly fruitful city which the Turks had besieged for three weeks before our arrival but had not conquered. Immediately upon our arrival there it straightway surrendered into our hands with great pleasure.” [6]

As with many isolated Christian towns and cities throughout Anatolia, this one had not yet fallen to the Turks after Manzikert, and was only too happy to surrender to a Christian army. Like others the Franks captured in Anatolia, it was turned over to the Byzantines and soldiers from Tatikios escort were left to protect it.

The Crusade then turned south at Caesarea Mazaca (modern Kayseri), formerly capital of the Byzantine Theme of Charsianon; but now held by the Danismandid Turks. The Crusaders moved on through the Taurus and Anti-Taurus  mountains. Here the local Armenians welcomed their fellow Christians, and the Franks were resupplied before continuing on.

Forbidding peaks of  the Taurus Mountains near Kahramanmaraş  (ancient Caesarea Germanicia). Crossing these mountains cost the Crusaders more casualties and supplies than did the Seljuk Turks.

However, in the mountains between Göksun and Maraş (Germanicia Caesarea in Roman times), the Crusade came to terrible grief crossing the high passes. The anonymous author of the Gesta Francorum recounts:

“We entered a diabolical mountain… which was so high and steep that none dared try passing another on the narrow trail… horses fell headlong, and one pack animal pushed over another.”

Celebrated historian Sir Steven Runciman wrote: “The mountains… took more live than ever the Turks had done.” It was an exhausted and depleted force that marched on to Antioch.

Meanwhile, the detached force under Tanced  and  Baldwin had pushed directly south from Iconium though the Cilician Gates, capturing the various towns and ports of the Cilician plain and clearing the Crusades’ western flank of Turkish garrisons. Among those towns captured was ancient Tarsus, in Roman times a great city and seat of the provincial governor (and birthplace of St. Paul the Apostle).

At Tarsus the two leaders fell out, their forces nearly coming to blows. Tancred withdrew in a fury, returning to rejoin the main Crusader army via Alexandretta (Iskenderun); arriving in time to join the siege of Antioch in October. Baldwin, for his part, received an invitation from Thoros, Armenian ruler of Edessa in northern Mesopotamia. There Baldwin was adopted as Thoros’ son and successor.[7]

Next: The Siege of Antioch

  1. Stark, Rodney: “God’s Battalions”, 2009, Harper One publishing
  2. Anna Comnena
  3. Though Byzantine forces had recaptured much of the Syrian coast during the 10th century, they had lost it again after the disaster at Manzikert. Antioch, in particular, was a point of contention between the empire and the Crusaders, as till Manzikert it had been the second city of the empire.
  4. Fulcher of Chartres
  5. Idid
  6. Gesta Francorum
  7. When Thoros was assassinated in March of the following year, Baldwin became the first Frankish Count of Edessa, soon marrying Arda, the daughter of Thoros. He was ruling Edessa when called to Jerusalem to succeed his dead brother, Godfrey as king in 1100.

For an in-depth history of the Crusades, I recommend the following works:


Some of the artwork in this article has been reproduced with the permission of Osprey Publishing, and is © Osprey Publishing, part of Bloomsbury Publishing Plc.

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Much of our perception of history is influenced by the artists who have drawn and painted scenes from out of the past. This is the second in a series in which Deadliest Blogger looks at historical armies and warriors through the images artists have given us.

The Trojan War was a seminal event in both Greek and Roman history and legend; and few episodes in Classical mythology have attracted more attention from artists, writers, or filmmakers than this famous war.

In their immortal tales the epic poets Homer and Virgil describe the ten-year war between the Greeks and the Trojans; and the wanderings of the Trojan hero Aeneas and the refugees from Troy to Italy. While these tales were accepted as history by both the Greeks and the Romans; post-renaissance scholars largely dismissed them as myth. It was not till the work of archaeologist Heinrich Schliemann, who did the initial excavations at both Hisarlik in Turkey (site of ancient Troy) and at Mycenae that the underlying truth behind the legends began to emerge. Since Schliemann, continuing archaeology has confirmed and expanded our knowledge of events first described by Homer. We now know that the site of Troy was continuously occupied over many centuries, and archaeologists have uncovered not one city, but many; each built on the ruins of the previous.

1501200.jpgMost scholars and archaeologists agree that Troy VII was the Troy of Homer.

The world of Homer’s heroes (as well as the other heroes of Greek “mythology”) was that of the late Bronze Age. Most scholars now place the Trojan War somewhere between 1260 BC and 1120 BC. This was a world in which petty-kings ruled small fiefdoms from the lofty heights of hilltop fortresses. These “palaces” were much akin to later Medieval castles of Europe: miniature towns crowded within and around mighty “Cyclopean” walls.

1499260.jpgRuins of Mycenae, fortress-palace of the House of Atreus; perched on a rocky spur.1499973.jpgArtist reconstruction of the citadel of Mycenae in the time of Atreus and Agamemnon.1499261.jpgLion Gate at Mycenae.1501176.jpgDetail from artist and historian Peter Connolly’s illustration of the Lion Gate and protecting bastion.1501353.jpgThe Mycenaean Age citadels were the center of political life in the Bronze Age Aegean. This lively image brings to life the Lion Gate at Mycenae; main entrance into the fortified palace-complex of the Atreidae kings.1501390.jpgThough girded with grim stone walls, the palaces within the citadels were spacious centers of everyday life for the ruling class.Travelers prepare to depart after visiting a Mycenaean palace.1501355.jpgThe megaron (great hall) of a Mycenaean palace.

The Greeks of the Bronze Age are called “Achaioi” (Achaeans) in the Illiad, and Ahhiyawa in Hittite sources. In the ancient eastern Mediterranean world the High King of Mycenae was one of the four principal political leaders of the day; alongside the Hittite King, the Assyrian (or Babylonian) King, and the Pharaoh of Egypt. The kings of Mycenae (according to Homer of the House of Atreus, the Atreidae) were “first-among-equals”, the paramount kings of the Achaean warlords.

1500012.jpgGreece in the Bronze Age was dotted with hilltop citadels, home to the “King” and his armed followers, his bureaucrats and courtiers, and their numerous families.

At Troy, it was Agamemnon son of Atreus who led the Achaeans to victory. Together with his father, Atreus, he had established the dominance of Mycenae over the other Achaean strongholds. Perhaps as part of this process, either Atreus or Agamemnon arranged a marriage alliance with the powerful king of Sparta, Tyndareus; in which Agamemnon married the king’s eldest daughter Clytemnestra, and his brother, Menelaus, married the younger one, Helen. When Tyndareus died without living male heirs, Menelaus ascended to the throne of Sparta at Helen’s side. However, her abduction/elopement with the Trojan prince, Paris placed his rule there (and Mycenean dominance) at risk. This was the legendary trigger for the Trojan War. However, it is quite likely that hostilities had been going on between Troy and Mycenae for some time; and this was merely the final straw that launched the two powers into all-out war.

1500034.jpgDiscovered by Schliemann in Tomb V of the Acropolis of Mycenae, the gold so-called “Mask of Agamemnon dates to an earlier king of Mycenae, from the 15th century BC.1500036.jpg1500037.jpgAgamemnon as portrayed by actor Brian Cox, in Troy (2004).

Troy (or Ilios) was a powerful city-state; and some-time vassal of the Hittite Empire (known in their records as Wilusa). Troy was not unlike Mycenae: a town surrounding a hilltop palace and temple complex, strongly walled and defended. Located on the southwest shore of the Hellespont (the modern Dardanelles) , it was perfectly situated to dominate this narrow choke-point; entrance-and-exit to the Black Sea. The Achaean states of Greece traded in the Black Sea region for grain and gold; and paid the kings of Troy a toll for passage through.

1501267.jpgTroy was perfectly placed to take advantage of Black Sea Trade. While today the old harbor has been silted up by the outflow of the Scamander River (modern Karamenderes), in the Bronze Age the citadel of Troy overlooked a harbor. No doubt Trojan picket ships, beached below the walls, rowed out to interdict ships passing by, exacting tolls and tariffs. Control of this trade route was a contributing factor to the Trojan War.

1501252.jpgShips such as this carried both warriors and trade throughout the Aegean World. When not otherwise engaged at home, Mycenaean warlords took to the sea to raid and trade as opportunity arose.

When a Trojan princess was abducted by the petty-king of Salamis, Telamon (father of the hero Ajax) relations deteriorated between Troy and the Achaeans. Perhaps this led to the Trojans placing higher tolls on Greek ship passing through to the Black Sea, or blocking access to such trade completely; setting the stage for war. Certainly the practice of women-stealing went both ways and was wide-spread throughout the Mycenaean world.

1500053.jpgArtist’s rendering of what Troy may have looked like. (Below) Troy in film: from 1956’s, “Helen of Troy”; and (bottom) from “Troy” (2004)



The warriors who followed the great lords of the citadels were semi-professional feudal warriors; owing loyalty and service (likely in return for sustenance or land of their own) to the “kings” (who was sometimes called the wánax) of the citadels. These armored warriors rode chariots into battle, and were known by the Greek term heroes; literally meaning “protector” or “defender”; the source of our own word “hero”. These well-armed and armored “heroes” guarded the citadels and the land from raiders; and ventured forth on raids and expeditions of their own, gaining “word fame” as their exploits were recorded by court bards. Meanwhile, the average person worked the land as a serf or peasant; and followed the “Heroes” to war as ill-trained “spearmen” .


In the 15th century, Mycenean Greek chariot heroes wore ponderous panoplies of banded bronze, extending to their knees. This is an example from Dendra in the Argolid; made of bronze sheets shaped into large plates and bands. It reflects a warrior who was more apt to stay mounted in his chariot, rather than fight on foot.


The helmet mounted on the Dendra Panoply is made of boar’s tusks, sewed onto a cap of leather.


Duel between heroes, 14th century.


Panoply and equipment of 15th/14th century “Heros”

Troubles between Troy and the Achaean states of Greece went back a full generation before the famous Trojan War of the Iliad. According to legend, the hero Heracles sacked Troy in retaliation for the city’s king, Laomedon, refusing to pay him for a service previously rendered (killing a monster, according to the legend). Heracles killed the king and put the baby, Priam, on the throne. Interestingly, Troy VI, shows signs of destruction by earthquake. The legend has Heracles breaking down its gate with his mighty club. Could legend and fact here meet? Perhaps the historic archetype for the legendary hero took advantage of an earthquake collapsing or weakening one or more of the gates of Troy; and, arriving by sea with a band of raiders, broke into and seized the citadel?

Killing the king, Heracles then exacted a tribute from the city in return for leaving. His friend and companion, Telamon of Salamis, took for his prize Hesione, daughter of Laomedon and sister of Priam.


Heracles, clad in the skin of the Nemean Lion, extorts the prostrate Trojans for tribute. Note that under the lion skin he wears a panoply similar to the Dendra suit. (Artist: Giuseppe Rava)

By the 13th century, the armor had evolved. Gone were the clumsy skirts of bronze; leaving only cuirass protecting the warrior’s torso. This allowed for much greater freedom of movement; particularly if the heroes had to fight on foot. If descriptions in the Iliad can be taken as representative of Mycenaean Age combat, heroes of the 13th/12th century rode their chariots into combat (driven by a driver/squire). They exchanged javelin fire with other heroes similarly mounted; or speared footmen as they passed them. At some point, they dismounted to fight duels on foot; again, usually against other, opposing “heroes”.


13th century BC vase from Mycenae. This contemporary representation of Mycenaean warriors of the Trojan War era is among the best depictions of how the “heroes” may have looked.



Legend has it that the Trojan War was started by the abduction (or elopement) of Helen, queen of Sparta, by the Trojan prince, Paris.

In Homer’s Iliad, the war between the Greeks (Achaeans) and the Trojans lasted 10 years. In truth, it would have been a tremendous logistical feat to maintain a besieging army on the sandy plains of Troy for that long. Nor would the warrior-elite dare leave their citadels, wealth, fields and families undefended for so long. A more likely scenario is that Trojan interference with the Black Sea trade led to a 10 year war; in which the Achaeans made regular or periodic raids on the Troad and against Trojan allies. The Iliad focuses on the last, tenth year. It is probable that Agamemnon’s host landed in force only then; and beleaguered Troy in that year.


The Greeks landing was not unopposed; but the Trojans were driven from the beach. Though scholars debate where the Greeks landed, the most likely place was at Besika Bay; on the west coast of the Troad opposite the island of Tenedos. This sandy stretch was sheltered by the Sigean Ridge; and would have allowed easy access to the sea and communications back home. The alternate site, on the north shore, would have placed the Greek camp in the marshy delta of the Scamander River; and too close beneath the walls of Troy for security.

1501424.jpgOnce the Greek camp was established, the fighting shifted to the Scamander plain. There, regular skirmishes occurred between Trojan and Achaean forces. The bulk of the peasant/townsmen spearmen, who had little training and no armor, took little part accept as victims. The fighting was mostly between the armored “heroes”; fighting on foot or from their chariots. When the hapless spearmen got in the way “of their betters”, they were cut down like sheep.

1501426.jpgOne such duel was between Paris and Helen’s husband, Menelaus. After throwing spears at each other, the two warriors closed with swords. Menelaus’ sword broke over Paris’ helmet, stunning the Trojan prince. In fury, the Spartan king grabbed Paris by the horsehair crest of his helmet and dragged him toward the Greek lines; in the process strangling him with his own chin-strap. Fortunately for Paris, the strap broke and he was able to scramble away to safety. (Illustration by Peter Connolly)

1501476.jpgIn another such duel, the greatest warrior among the Trojan heroes, prince Hector son of Priam faced Ajax son of Telamon. The heroes began by hurling spears at each other, in which exchange Hector was wounded. Ajax next picked up and hurled a large rock at his opponent, which stove-in Hector’s bull’s hide shield. Despite this, Hector fought on and the fight ended in a draw. Both fighters exchanged gifts, and parted with admiration of each other.

Greatest of all the heroes at Troy was Achilles, son of Peleus. “Sacker of Cities”, he led many successful raids on Trojan allied cities during the ten year war. His greatest duel was against Hector. Though a noble and gallant warrior, Hector proved no match for Achilles. Enraged at Hector’s recent killing of his friend, Patrocles, Achilles desecrates the Trojan’s body by dragging it behind his chariot. He later relents and returns the corpse to Hector’s father, Priam, for proper burial. Homer’s Iliad ends with Hector’s funeral.


Patrocles borrowed Achilles armor and, disguised as the great hero, led a Greek attack on the Trojans. Killed by Hector, his body was then stripped and Achilles armor taken as trophy. In one version (captured here by Peter Connolly) Patrocles drives the Trojans back within their walls, and is killed attempting to storm the battlements.


Hector stripped Achilles’ armor from the corpse of Patrocles. Son of a goddess, Achilles’ armor is replaced by the Gods themselves with a magnificent panoply.


Achilles slays Hector. (Illustration by Giuseppe Rava)

1501491.jpg Achilles drags Hector’s body. (Illustration by Peter Connolly)

The duel between Achilles and Hector, from “Troy” (2004)

The war continues, and after slaying other notable Trojan heroes Achilles is himself killed with a poisoned arrow; shot by Paris. The arrow strikes Achilles in the heal; the poison leading to his death.

1501512.jpgAfter the death of Achilles, the Achaean hero Odysseus came up with a plan to infiltrate a small group of heroes into the walls of Troy; from where they could clandestinely infiltrate the city and open the gates to the Greek army. This device took the form of a hollow wooden horse; into which a dozen heroes climbed.

1501529.jpgTo “sell the ruse”, the Achaean host burned their camp and departed by sea. A slave was left, to tell the Trojans that a pestilence had broken out in the Greek camp; and both sick and war-weary, they had given up the fight. However, Agamemnon’s fleet had merely sailed out of sight; sheltering behind the nearby island of Tenedos. The Trojans found the wooden horse in their deserted camp. Told that it was an offering to Poseidon, god of the sea (whose symbol was a horse), the Trojans dragged the device into their own city.


Trojans watch as Greek fleet departs by night.

1501541.jpgThe Trojans celebrated what they thought was the end of the war. Later, as they slept, the Achaean heroes within the horse climbed down and opened the gates. The Greek army had silently returned, and waited in the darkness outside. The gates open, the Achaean army rushes in. The city falls, and is subject to vicious sack and slaughter. In the end, only women are spared; the men and children being put to the sword. In the Mycenaean world of Bronze Age Greece, women were useful as household slaves; being put to work doing the myriad of chores necessary to the maintenance of palace life. Noble women taken as concubines were valued trophies of war, a symbol both of a hero’s martial success and manly virility.


Sack of the city, from “Troy” (2004)

For a scholarly look at the subject matter, visit 

Minoan Linear A, Linear B, Knossos & Mycenae

Some of the artwork in this article has been reproduced with the permission of Osprey Publishing, and is © Osprey Publishing, part of Bloomsbury Publishing Plc.

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(This is the first part in a series on the militaries of the Macedonian Successor states; which grew out of the Wars of the Diadochi that followed the death of Alexander the Great. For the next century after his death, these kingdoms were defended by armies that represented the greatest fighting forces in the Hellenistic World. Each differed from the other in fascinating ways, as will be shown.)

Of the empires created from out of the Wars of the Diadochi, none started on firmer military footing than that founded by Seleucus Nicator (“the Victorious”; or, alternately, “the Conqueror”).

1375374.jpgAt the time of his murder in 281 BC, Seleucus command (arguably) mightiest army the world had yet seen. He had defeated, and then combined with own, the armies of his erstwhile rivals Antigonus Monophthalmus (“One Eyed”) and Lysimachos. Put another way, of the four great Macedonian Successor armies fighting at Ipsus in 301 BC (twenty years earlier), all of the some 160,000 combatants now served Seleucus.

Within were men that had been junior rankers under Philip and Alexander; who had first conquered Greece and then laid “the whole of Asia” (for that is how they thought of the Persian Empire they had subdued) beneath their spears . These were hard men who had marched across the Middle East and back; veterans of the greatest campaigns and most titanic battles of the age. This force represented the combined experience and victorious tradition that was the Macedonian military machine founded by Philip and perfected by Alexander.

1375376.jpg Seleucus I Nicator

Seleucus was assassinated by an estranged son of Ptolemy Soter, King of Egypt. A portion of his “Grande Armee” chose to serve the assassin, the freebooting prince Ptolemy Keraunos. Presumably these were the veterans of Lysimachus’ army, only newly enlisted in Seleucus’ service after their master’s death at the Battle of Corupedion, and with scant loyalty to the House of Seleucus. Ptolemy Keraunos used them to seize the throne of Macedonia for himself. The rest of Seleucus’ army either dispersed or returned east; to be settled by his son, Antiochus Soter across the empire as “kleroi”, military colonists. These formed the nucleus of the future army of the Seleucid Empire.

Thus perhaps more than any of the other Successor Kingdoms the Seleucid Royal Army traced its lineage and maintained the traditions of the army of Alexander and his immediate Successors (many of which were great military leaders in their own rights). This, combined with the vast financial resources of what had been the Persian Empire at their disposal, made the Seleucid army the largest, the most lavishly equipped, and (arguably) the most effective of the armies of the Successor kingdoms.

Our most complete information on the composition of the Seleucid Royal Army comes to us from Polybius, who chronicled events beginning with the accession of the Antiochus III (“The Great”), in 223 BC. Accounts of events prior to this are fragmentary, with large gaps in our record. But it is reasonable to suppose that the army that existed at the start of the reign of the sixth Seleucid King evolved from the army that had marched with Nicator and his rival Diadochii. Perhaps the best author on the subject of the Seleucid Army is B. Bar-Kochva. His work, the “The Seleucid Army: Organisation and Tactics in the Great Campaigns” (Cambridge Classical Studies), provides an in-depth analysis and a good working thesis. However, some of his conclusions are controversial and not accepted by all scholars as the final word on the subject.

Bar-Kochva argues that the Seleucid army was composed of three rough branches: The Royal Guard, which was the standing army; the “reservists” called up in time of emergency, drawn from the various military settlements dotting the empire, and comprising the largest of the three branches; and the various units of mercenaries.

Starting with the second and largest of the three branches, the reservists, helps to explain the other two.



Seleucus’s son and successor, Antiochus I Soter (“the Savior”) settled most of old and aging Royal Army he inherited from his father in various military colonies, or “kleroi”, scattered throughout the new empire. These soldier-settlers, called “kleruchs” (in Greek, klerouchos, meaning “lot holders”) or alternately “katakoi”, were Macedonians , Greeks and Thracians. These veterans were settled together in their regiments, maintaining their unit’s military traditions and legacy; something they managed to effectively pass down to their children and later generations of Seleucid soldiers.

They were granted farm plots within the colonies, in return for their and their descendants continuing military services when required. In practice, this meant that these settlements provided regiments for the Royal Army in time of war; each fighting in their traditional styles. The Macedonian settlers provided the manpower for the phalanx and some of the cavalry units. The Greeks and Thracians provided both light and heavy infantry and cavalry units.

Keeping to their military traditions, the Seleucid kleroi could provide units of “Cretan” archers; “Thracian” peltasts; “Macedonian” and “Greek” phalangites; “Macedonian” Companions and “Thessalian” cavalry. Of course, these soldiers were seldom of purely Hellenic heritage, but were instead of mixed-blood.

1375384 Marriage at Susa

Alexander had encouraged intermarriage between Hellenes and Asians; dramatically symbolized by the mass Marriage at Susa in which he and hundreds of his friends and officers took Persian brides in 324BC. Though many Macedonians put off these Persian wives after Alexander’s death, Seleucus himself honored his marriage to the noble Persian lady, Apama (daughter of Spitamenes, Alexander’s brave and effective opponent in Sogdiana); and she became the mother of his heir, Antiochus I. Thus even the Seleucid royal family was of mixed Macedonian and Iranian blood. However, the sons of such marriages were still considered “Macedonians” by the Seleucid sources.

As with all of the Successor states, the “Phalanx” was the heart-and-soul of the Seleucid army. From the kleruchs came the three divisions of the phalanx; named for their Diadochi-antecedents: the Argyraspides (“Silvershields”), Chalkaspides (“Brazenshields”), and the Chryaspides (“Goldenshields”). The first was the core of the Royal Guard, and will be discussed below; while the latter two were reserve formations only called up in time of emergency. Each of the two reserve divisions of the phalanx, the Chalkaspides and the Chryaspides were 8,000 – 10,000 strong.

1375389.jpgThe original phalanx of Philip and Alexander fought in a sixteen-rank deep formation; armed with a two-handed, 18 foot long pike called a sarissa. Originally made of cornel wood (according to Theophrastus; author Nicholas Sekunda makes a strong though not entirely convincing argument for Ash wood) and consisting of two equal pieces fitted together and joined by an iron tubular sleeve 61/2″ long. The phalanxes of later Successor State experimented on using longer sarissa; in the 3rd century some at least reaching an unwieldy 24′. However, 21′ became the norm by the end of that century, remaining so throughout the Hellenistic period.

Likewise, the depth of the phalanx grew in the Successor armies; with the Seleucid phalanx at the Battle of Magnesia, for example, deploying in 32 ranks. This was perhaps an attempt to put more weight behind the “push of pikes” when two opposing (Successor State) phalanxes met in battle. However, 16 ranks remained the norm. Phalanxes were also drilled so that they could change depth in battle; from 8 ranks to 16, and from 16 to 32. They could also form square when attacked from the flanks or rear.


The hard-charging horsemen who had leant Alexander’s army its striking power were likewise represented within the Seleucid kleroi.

The kleroi cavalry of the earlier Seleucid kings fought as lightly armored lancers or javelineers; in the traditions of Greece and Macedonia. These were drawn from men of the Macedonian and Greek (particularly Thessalian) settlements. Lydians and Medes, who had a heavy cavalry tradition of their own, were also recruited and fought in their native styles. However, by the middle of the reign of Antiochus III these “line” heavy cavalry were rearmed and armored as cataphracts. Heavily armored horsemen, riding fully or partially armored horses, were common among the nomadic hordes of the Eurasian steppes, and had been seen in the later Achaemenid Persian cavalry from the Upper Satrapies. As the Cappadocian and Lydian horse already fought in this style, at least some of the early Seleucid “line” cavalry from these regions may already have been cataphracts. Antiochus III had direct experience with these during his campaign to reestablish Seleucid rule over the Upper Satrapies (209-205 BC); and was impressed enough to make this the standard troop type for all Seleucid kleroi and native heavy horse regiments.

1375392.jpg Early Seleucid Anatolian armored cavalry, precursors to the Cataphracts.

The total number of “line” heavy/cataphract cavalry was about 6,000. These rode fully armored horses and the riders were armored in a combination of Iranian and Greek armor from head to toe. Their main weapon was the kontos, a heavy 12′ lance. These were shock cavalry, and their role in battle was to shatter opposing formations of horse and to menace the flank and rear of opposing phalanxes. They performed this mission brilliantly in their first engagement at Panium against the Ptolemies in 200 BC.

Light cavalry regiments, drawn from Thracian or Paionian settlers, were also seen in small number. The majority of light cavalry, though, were provided by the native tribes of Anatolia, Arabia, Iran and the Upper Satrapies of central Asia (more on these later).

The kleroi provided the Seleucid state with a true reserve army component. At little cost to the monarch, a large pool of trained and organized men could be maintained; and called up with little notice to “flesh-out” any field force. The number of such kleruch-soldiers available to the Seleucid state is speculative. But not less than 25,000 men could and were called up at various times from the ranks of the kleruchs; with another 12,000 of the settlers serving at any given time in the “standing army”, the Royal Guards.



The Seleucid kings maintained a standing body of troops in various regiments, collectively referred to in the sources as the Royal Guard.

The core unit of the Guard was the Argyraspides (“Silvershields”) division of the phalanx. Also referred to in the sources as “The Seleucid Royal Guard”, this phalanx was lavishly (and expensively) equipped from the royal arsenal at Apamea, in Syria; and numbered 10,000. Interestingly, this number is identical to that of the Persian Immortals, which played the same role in Achaemenid Persia.

This regiment traced its lineage to the famed Hypaspists of Philip and Alexander. In India, Alexander had granted this regiment ( then 3,000 strong) silver-faced shields. This elite foot guard regiment fought in the Wars of the Diadochi; first under Eumenes against Antigonas One-Eye, and then switched sides after the Battle of Gabiene. Antigonas posted them to the far eastern satrapy of Arachosia (western Afghanistan). It has been suggested that Seleucus revived the unit after taking control of Babylon and the eastern (“Upper”) satrapies (modern Afghanistan and Turkmenistan); using them as the cadre for his Foot Guard.

1375405.jpgThe Seleucid Argyraspides were phalangites, drawn from the mass of kleuch settlers. Bar-Kochva suggests that this was a kind of national service; that every kleroi had to send a young male family member to serve a term of service of several years in the Royal Guard. This would serve to bond them personally to their king and country and to give them regular military training and experience. They returned to the ranks of the reservists after their term in the Guard expired; to be reactivated in time of need as a member of one of the reserve divisions of the phalanx (the Chalkaspides or Chryaspides).

Within the organizational structure of the Argyraspides, Bar-Kochva argues, there existed a “special operations” battalion. These could be detached for special assignments (such as the nighttime escalade of Sardis in 214 BC); or, if needed, fight in the manner of the original Alexandrian “hypaspists”(elite, fast-moving armored spearmen) or “thorakitai” (armored peltasts). Within the original Hypaspists of Philip and Alexander there was an elite Guard battalion 1,000 strong called the Agema. It is possible that this special battalion within the Seleucid Argyraspides was the counterpart to the earlier Macedonian Agema of the hypaspists.


After their defeat by the Romans at Magnesia in 190 BC, a portion of the Royal Guard may have been reequipped and trained as “imitation Romans”. These presumably would have fought with large oval scutum, throwing spear (perhaps a version of the pilum) and short sword. In his depiction of the Parade at Daphne in 166 BC Polybius describes this unit, which he claims numbered 5,000. Bar Kochva suggests that after Magnesia and the rough handling the phalanx  received at the hands of the Romans, that half of the Argyraspides were so re-equipped and trained to fight in the Roman style. Bar Kochva suggests that the remainder of the Royal Guard retained their sarissa, fighting as phalangites.

The Royal Guard cavalry were organized into three elite regiments, two of which can be considered as true bodyguard units, who accompanied and guarded the king wherever he traveled and fought around him in battle. Each of these was 1,000 strong. Senior was the Agema (“Guards”). Dating back to when Seleucus Nicator ruled only the Eastern Iranian satrapies, these were recruited from the finest of the Medes, a race renowned for their skillful horsemanship. They were very heavily armored, fighting in battle as lance-armed semi-cataphracts; with at least the front-portion of their horses armored as well.

1375411.jpgThe second unit of the Horse Guards were the Hetairoi (“Companions”). Without doubt, this regiment traced its lineage to men who rode behind Alexander; and was recruited from amongst the Macedonian and Greek settlers of the empire. They were armed and fought in the same fashion as the Agema, though a bit lighter (one theory is that they wore cuirass, arm protection, and helmet, but no leg armor).

Finally, from the kleroi-town of Larissa in the trans-Jordan region, where had been settled men of the famed Thessalian horsemen who had ridden behind Alexander’s general, Parmenio, came the third regiment of the Seleucid elite cavalry: the Epilektoi (“Picked” or “Elite”). From at least the 6th century BC onward, the riders of the broad Thessalian plain were esteemed as the finest cavalry in Greece. In Alexander’s army, the Thessalian squadrons were second only to the Macedonian Companions. In the Seleucid army these fought as heavy, lance-armed cavalry (though lighter than either of the two guard cavalry units, or of the line cataphract regiments). When in the 2nd century BC Media had been lost to the Parthians this unit was collapsed into and became the Agema of the Guard. Like the other two regular units of the Guard, it was 1,000 strong.

The type horses used by the Seleucid heavy cavalry are unknown, but it can be assumed they were among the largest available to the Seleucid Empire. We know that in Media there was a royal herd of Nisean horse, the first great warhorse of world history. These horses were in great demand, used by the earlier Achaemenid Persian kings and by Alexander’s horsemen in the Indian Campaign. Is seems very likely that the Seleucids mounted their Agema and Hetairoi regiments on these large, swift chargers. There is also a 1,000 strong regiment called the Nisaioi in Polybius’ description of the Parade at Daphne in 166 BC. This may be a special unit of Medes mounted on Nisaian horses, or could be a mistake; referring to line cataphracts mounted on Nisaian chargers. As according to Diodorus (17.110.6) the Nisaian herd was as large as 60,000 horses it is entirely possible that all of the 9,000 Seleucid heavily armored cavalry (2,000 Guards, 6,000 Cataphracts and 1,000 of the mysterious Nisaioi) were mounted on Nisaian chargers.

The record of the Seleucid cavalry is very good. At Panium in 200 BC, the Seleucid cataphracts shattered their Ptolemaic opponents; then swung into the rear of the Ptolemaic phalanx, winning the battle. At Magnesia in 190 BC Antiochus III charged the Roman (or Allied) legion on the Roman left, at the head of the Agema, supported by another 3,000 Cataphracts. Bar-Kochva, working off of a passage from Justin, suggests that they shattered and broke through the Roman infantry, pursing them to the Roman camp. If true, this is one of the rare occasions in ancient history where cavalry were able to break through well-disciplined infantry.



The Royal Guard and reserve troops aside, the Seleucid monarchy made use of “specialty troops” and select mercenaries when necessary.

Most emblematic of all was the corps of war Elephants and the troops trained to support them.

Seleucus Nicator ceded the Macedonian territories in India (modern Pakistan) to the Indian ruler, Chandragupta the Maurya, in exchange for 500 elephants. In truth the number 500 is unlikely, but Seleucus did come west in 302 BC with an army whose main feature was a very large number of Elephants (Bar-Kochva thinks the number to be 150, as this was the size maintained by the later Seleucids in their Royal Herd).

At Ipsus the following year, these elephants played a key role in the defeat of Antigonas Monopthalmus (“One Eye”); by foiling the Antigonid cavalry under Demetrius from reentering the battle after breaking and pursuing Lysimachus’ horsemen.

1375537 Seleucid war elephant with guard, circa 165BC

Early in his reign the second Seleucid king Antiochus I Soter faced the invading Galatians in Phrygia. Most of the elephants of his father’s army had died or been taken by the usurper, Ptolemy Keraunos, to Macedonia. With only 16 beasts, Antiochus routed these Celtic invaders at the famous “Elephant Victory” in 273 BC. Thereafter the Seleucids attempted to maintain a breeding herd at Apamea, their military headquarters in central Syria. Antiochus III, who had just over 100 at the start of his reign, brought back an additional 150 beasts from his Eastern Campaigns.

By the end of his reign (if not earlier) Antiochus III’s  elephants were heavily armored, and mounted a howdah which carried a three-man crew: a pikeman, archer, and javelineer. He also attached small groups of archers and javelineers to support the elephants. But this was an ad hoc brigading of man and beast, and was found to be inadequate. Perhaps as a response to the disaster at Magnesia, where Roman javelineers and legionaries were able to get to close-quarters and wound the beasts, later Seleucid elephants were accompanied by a 50-60 man unit of “elephant guards”; attached directly to each beast and trained to fight around them. These were likely the troop-type called thureophoroi, spear-and-javelin armed medium-infantry equipped with helmet and a light oval shield, known as a thereos; or thorakitai, similar troops equipped with cuirass and greaves as well as helmet.

Seleucid elephants were of the Indian variety, unlike those used by both Ptolemaic Egypt and the Carthaginians, which were the smaller (now extinct) North African Forest species. The larger Indian elephants were capable of carrying a bigger howdah (three-man crew as opposed to two for the Ptolemaic elephants) and being heavily armored (which neither of their rival’s elephants were). At the Battle of Raphia (217 BC) the larger Seleucid elephants were able to push back and roughly handle their Ptolemaic opposites.

1375542 Excellent illustration of a duel between Seleucid (R) and Ptolemaic (L) elephants. Note the two-man crew of the Ptolemaic elephant, as opposed to the three-man crew of the larger Seleucid Indian elephant. (This illustration seems to depict the Ptolemaic elephant as one of the larger African Bush Elephants instead of the small, now extinct North African Forrest Elephant; used by Ptolemaic and Carthaginian armies.

The elephants had a mixed history of success and failure; though the reliance placed upon them by many ancient armies (including the Seleucids) suggests they were considered an successful and much-prized weapon. The fear in which the Romans held them is demonstrated by their demands that the Seleucids destroy their herd after Magnesia; a term of the Treaty of Apamea observed in the breach! The Roman Senate even sent a special envoy, Gnaeus Octavius, in 162 BC to destroy the elephant herd at Apamea, following the death of Antiochus IV Epiphanes. However, even after this event elephants are found in Seleucid armies on campaign, most notably during the wars in Judea against the Maccabees.

Another “specialty” troop type was the scythe chariot corps. How many such chariots were maintained is unknown; but they were a small force and of questionable value. Their use at Magnesia was disastrous, and contributed to the Seleucid defeat in that battle.

1375544.jpgMercenaries were a common feature of all Hellenistic armies, and the Seleucids were no exception. Mercenaries provided the static garrisons for vital fortresses, towns, and cities. They were, however, a tiny proportion of Seleucid field forces (unlike in the Ptolemaic armies).

The exception to this was the ferocious Galatians of central Anatolia, hired by Antiochus Hierax in great numbers during The Brother’s War in the mid-3rd century. They were, in fact, the bulk of the forces he used against his brother, Seleucus II. Galatians fought both as heavy and light infantry and cavalry, and were known for their furious courage in battle.

Cretan mercenaries were highly prized by the Seleucid kings (as they were in the army of Alexander the Great), and were considered the best archers in the Mediterranean world. Unlike the native archers of Syria or Persia available to the Seleucids, Cretans were more than ready to fight at close quarters with small axe, sword or knife when required.

1375545.jpgDuring the early years of the reign of Demetrius II (circa 147 BC) the king was dominated by (and a virtual puppet of) the captain of his Cretan mercenaries, the former pirate Lasthenes. For five years the mercenaries terrorized and looted the country (“The Cretan Terror”). The citizens of Antioch rose in a doomed attempt to throw out the foreigners. In bloody street fighting thousands of Antiochenes were killed by the Cretan (and Jewish) mercenaries. Much of the city was destroyed, and the Cretans took reprisals against all who had resisted them.

However, Lasthenes overreached in the end : He attempted to disband the regular and reserve troops of the army. This led to a revolt by the general Diodotus Tryphon; who, with the support of many units, raised the infant son of a former king, Alexander Balas, to the throne. Demetrius and his Cretans were thrown-out of Antioch; Demetrius going east to fight the Parthians, the mercenaries departing the country.

The Cretan Terror showed the Seleucids what others were to learn throughout history: mercenaries in small numbers make good servants; but when in the majority make a bad and dangerous master!

As noted above, Judean mercenaries were also used and much prized, by both the Ptolemies and the Seleucids. This was at least in part due to the notable lack of love the Jews had for the local (Gentile) populations of these kingdoms. Their loyalty was strictly to their paymaster, and they had no compunction in using brutal force against the civilian population if called upon to crush dissent. Judeans fought as slingers and thureophoroi, and had a doughty reputation as fierce fighters.

Following the rising of the citizens of Antioch against the Cretans, and the subsequent sack of the city by the mercenaries, the Judean mercenaries carried a vast fortune in loot back to Judea. When the Maccabee revolt broke out a few years later, it may well have been (in part) inspired by the weakness these returned Judean mercenaries related concerning the decayed state of their Seleucid masters. Their service as mercenaries in Ptolemaic and Seleucid service gave many Jews the necessary military experience and knowledge of Hellenistic methods to fight and, at times, defeat the forces the Seleucid government sent against them.

1375546.jpgLight infantry and cavalry were often recruited from the frontiers of the Empire. Arab dromedary troops, Saka horse archers, fierce javelineers from the southern mountains of Anatolia (Psidians and Lycians), and many other wild tribesmen from the untamed regions of the vast Empire were employed for various campaigns by the Seleucid kings in their long history.


The Seleucid army was (arguably) the best and certainly the largest of the Successor Kingdoms. But it had defensive commitments spanning the Near East: from the Aegean Sea to the banks of the Jaxartes River, in modern Turkmenistan. They were surrounded by powerful neighbors and rivals, and the first call of every Seleucid king was to lead the army in the defense of the vast Seleucid patrimony. The doom that eventually overcame their Empire was largely due to the vast sprawling geography of their realm; and the failure of the Seleucid dynasty to fully mobilize the military potential of their native subjects. Their rule and their army was based solidly upon the Macedonian and Greek settlers of their Empire.

In battle, the Seleucids knew success and failure. The army evolved over time in response both to these defeats and the lessons learned; and in response to evolving threats. Its record, on the balance, is quite impressive.

Ultimately, it was the Romans and the Parthians who divided-up the Seleucid kingdom between them; then fought each other for centuries over the disputed border regions.




Some of the artwork in this article has been reproduced with the permission of Osprey Publishing, and is © Osprey Publishing, part of Bloomsbury Publishing Plc.

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Partisan politics takes precedent over national security as the “Super-Power” of the Middle Ages is betrayed from within!

On an arid upland valley in Armenia, one hot August day in 1071, the Roman/Byzantine army marched out of camp to battle the forces of the Turkish Sultan, Alp Arslan. There, near the town of Manzikert, the course of medieval history and the map of the Near East would be changed forever. It was a seminal moment, one that would set in motion a chain of events whose impact is felt to this day. The battle that ensued would sow the seeds for the future Turkish nation, and spell the doom of Byzantium.

In the latter half of the 11th century, the Eastern Roman Empire[1] was the strongest and most developed nation in Europe and the Near East. It possessed the only truly professional military in the world, the linear descendant of the armies of the Caesars. At its greatest extent in the 6th century under the Emperor Justinian , the Empire had stretched from Spain to the Euphrates River.

In the wake of the Muslim conquests of the 7th century, Byzantium (as it has come to be called) had shrunk to an area encompassing the Balkans in Europe, and the Anatolian peninsula in Asia. Under the very capable Macedonian Dynasty  the Romans had enjoyed a resurgence of power, pushing back and expanding their borders in both the east and the west. In the first decades of the 11th century the “hero Emperor” Basil II had completed this process, and the borders of the empire reached the furthest they had since the days of Justinian (see “Greatest Commanders of the Middle Ages“). The Muslim Emirates of eastern Anatolia had been conquered absorbed and the whole of Anatolia reclaimed for the Empire. Armenia, long a battleground between Rome and whatever power ruled in Persia, was again subject to the Empire. Even southern Italy again bent knee to the emperor in Constantinople.


The empire at its greatest extent under Justinian, in the 6th century


The empire at the death of Basil I, before the Manzikert campaign

However, since the death of Basil II in 1025 the Empire had been in a slow but steady decline. Civil wars had wracked the empire, and two unofficial factions had developed in the capital whose partisanship would ultimately undermine the Empire’s very existence.

One was the “Soldier’s Party”, which stood for a strong defense and championed the cause of the small farmers of the countryside. These latter provided the semi-professional militia force that was the backbone of Imperial defense. Its chief members were the great families of the provinces (called “themes”); who were also the strategoi (generals) of the thematic armies and governors of the themes. These country magnates understood that the security of their lands depended upon a strong defensive force; which their free farmers were a vital part of.

The other faction was the “City Party”, composed of the wealthy aristocrats and members of the civil bureaucracy who lived in or around the capital, Constantinople. The wealthy among them resented the taxes they paid to maintain a strong provincial defense. The members of the bureaucracy (many of which were eunuchs) distrusted the provincial nobility, which had from time-to-time rebelled against the city and placed one of its own on the imperial throne. Both these groups saw little need for the vast Byzantine military establishment. With Constantinople itself protected by the most massive and comprehensive defensive walls in the world, these grandees of the city were themselves secure enough, and had little concern for what occurred in the distant provinces. So what if a few farms got burned by the occasional Arab raid, or a few farmer’s daughters were carried off. It was a cheaper price to pay than the exorbitant taxes required to prevent it!

This factional infighting led to a cycle of civil war; with provincial generals marching periodically on the capital to replace the current occupant of the palace. Win or lose, soldiers died and the empire was weakened. When a candidate from the Soldiers Party held the throne, they attempted to shore up imperial defenses. Conversely, when the City Party was in power, it retaliated by disbanding native units, increasing taxes on the provincials (which drove many of the small landowners to financial ruin, thus reducing the supply of regular troops to the army), and replacing native Roman regiments, who might loyally follow their strategos into rebellion at some future date, with foreign mercenaries who were devoid of political interests. Under Constantine X Dukas, an emperor of the City Party, the army that garrisoned and defended Armenia, on the forward edge of the battle with Islam, had been disbanded; along with many of the regiments of other eastern Themes.

Meanwhile, on the Empire’s eastern frontiers, the rival Islamic Caliphate had become home to a new race of hardy warriors: the Seljuk Turks.

Established in the wake of conquest which followed the death of Mohammed in the early 7th century, the Caliphate was the Empire’s great rival in the Middle East. These two “super powers” of the day were often at war, and the border regions between them were the scene of regular raid-and-counter-raid by Christian Akritai and Muslim Ghazi.

The Turks were newcomers to the scene. A nomadic people, they had migrated several generations earlier from their homeland on the Central Asian steppe. Arriving in the lands of the Abbasid Caliphate of Baghdad, the Turks had converted to Islam and become eager warriors of the Prophet.

1373544Successive Caliphs had enrolled the warlike Turks as mercenaries into their armies. In time these Turkish mercenaries became the strongest force in Islam, and had supplanted the secular authority of the Caliph with that of their own Sultan; relegating the Caliph to the position of religious figurehead. (In several ways this arrangement between Turkish Sultan and the Abbasid Caliph in the 11th century mirrors that in feudal Japan between the Shogun and the Mikado, the Japanese Emperor.) Thus, by the 11th century A.D., the Abbasid Caliphate of Baghdad had become overlaid by the Seljuk Turkish Empire.

Filled with all the zeal of new converts, the Turks happily conducted jihad upon the neighboring Christian Roman Empire. The usual situation of low intensity raids-and-reprisals along the border grew larger and more dangerous. Turkish forces penetrated deep into Anatolia on several occasions, finding the interior of the Roman provinces rich pickings; their garrisons reduced in strength by decades of military cuts. In 1067 the ancient city of Caesarea (formerly Mazaca in Cappadocia), capital of the Charsianon Theme was sacked by one of these deep-penetrating Turkish raids, and the population massacred. Three years earlier, in 1064, a large Seljuk army, led by their Sultan Alp Arslan, attacked the Armenian capital of Ani, denuded of its Roman garrison following the withdrawal of troops by the late Constantine X. After a siege of 25 days the Turks captured the city and massacred the population. An account of the sack and slaughter is given by an Arab historian:

“The (Turkish) army entered the city; massacred the inhabitants, pillaged and burned it, leaving it in ruins and taking prisoner all those who remained alive… The dead bodies were so many that they blocked the streets; one could not go anywhere without stepping over them. And the number of prisoners was not less than 50,000…” [2]

Then in 1068 a new soldier Emperor took the imperial diadem. A leader of the Soldier’s Party, Romanus IV Diogenes gained the throne by marrying Eudoxia, widow of Constantine X Dukas. Her son by her late husband, the 17-year-old Michael VII, was too young to rule and had, in any case, shown little inclination or ability. At his mother’s marriage to Romanus Michael was relegated to the position of powerless “co-Emperor” to the mature soldier, Romanus Diogenes.

The Dukates were a leading family of the City Party, and deeply resented Michael being supplanted by his mother’s new husband. Though they were unable to prevent Romanus’ accession to power, they were determined to undermine his reign. Romanus was aware how precarious was his perch, which could only be made secure by a military victory: as a hero-emperor he could stand against the Dukates on his own. In 1070, he decided to lead a massive army east; to bring the Turks to a great battle and by inflicting upon them a crushing defeat stabilize the eastern frontier for a generation.

1373554Romanus spent the year mustering troops from all over the Empire, assembling the combined forces of the European and Asiatic themes: the banda (companies) of professional kataphractoi, the heavy cavalry that were the backbone of the imperial army. In addition he brought the elite Imperial Guard regiments stationed in or around Constantinople. These were collectively referred to as the “Tagmata”. Mostly composed of regiments of kataphractoi, these also included units of klibanophoroi, the super-heavy armored lancers that were the iron core of the emperor’s strike force. Many of these guard regiments dated back to the Emperors Diocletian and Constantine. But a more recently raised force was the storied Varangian Guard. Raised by Basil II, these were axe-wielding Scandinavian and Russian heavy infantry. Famed for their giant stature and ferocious courage, they were much feared and respected in the east; and formed the Emperor’s personal bodyguard, always attendant upon his person.

1373556The total force Romanus took east was 60,000 strong, and represented nearly every soldier available to the Emperor at the time. To appease his Dukate rivals, he was forced to appoint as his second-in-command a young dandy of the city: Andronikus Dukas, cousin of his co-Emperor, Michael, and a man devoid of military experience. This promotion of a political enemy to high command was to have disastrous results in the coming campaign.

The year 1070 was spent chasing small bands of Turkish raiders out of Anatolia. with the imperial grande armée advancing ever eastward. By the summer of 1071, the emperor had reached Armenia, a land of high hills and long, deep valleys.

Ancient Armenian church Khor Virap Mount Ararat looms majestically behind the monastery of Khor Virap in southeastern Armenia.

There Romanus split his army. While he and the largest part marched on the fortress town of Manzikert, Romanus detached a strong force of Roman regulars (perhaps including some of his Varangians) as well as Pecheneg and Norman mercenaries, to besiege the fortress of Chliat, a day’s march away. Manzikert was easily captured on August 23, and Romanus camped in the valley and waited for Chliat to fall and for that detachment to return.

1373562Unbeknownst to Romanus, the Turkish Sultan and his army were at that very moment marching directly upon him.

Earlier in the year Sultan Alp Arslan (“The Mountain Lion”) had made peace overtures. But Romanus needed a victory, not a negotiated settlement. He rejected the Sultan’s offer, and now Alp Arslan was coming to give Romanus what he desired: a great and decisive battle.

Roman scouting was unaccountably poor, and the first indication the Romans had that a large Turkish army was in the vicinity was when foraging parties were driven-in by large, aggressive bands of Turkish horse archers. A considerable force of Roman regular cavalry, under the general Basilakes, Dux of Theodosiopolis (a Roman fortress town near the eastern frontier, now the modern Turkish Erzurum) was dispatched to drive off what was thought to be just small groups of Turkish raiders. Instead, Basilakes blundered into the Sultan’s army, and his command was annihilated. Another contingent under Nikephoros Byrennios, commander of the forces of the European themes, was dispatched to aid Basilakes. These too were roughly handled, and retreated back into the Imperial Camp.

As swarms of Turkish horsemen poured into the far end of the valley, the Emperor and his commanders realized this was no raiding force, but the Sultan’s main army.

1373565Alp Arslan again sent a delegation to request a cessation of hostilities; but, as earlier in the year, Romanus rejected this overture. Sending messengers riding post-haste to Chliat, Romanus prepared to give battle the next day.


The following morning, August 26th, 1071 the last great native Roman army the Empire would ever field marched out of camp and prepared for battle.

The exact number of Romanus’ deployed forces is unknown. Though originally 60,000 strong, the detachment sent to Chliat (whose size is unclear) and the loss of Basilakes force had reduced this figure. They were facing a boiling cloud of some 40,000 Turkish light cavalry horse archers, led by Sultan Alp Arslan in person. He was attended by a force of heavy cavalry, Ghulam slave-soldiers who comprised his personal household guards. All factors considered, the armies opposed may have been roughly equal in number.

The Romans deployed in the usual formation recommended by Byzantine tactical manuals when faced with swift-riding nomadic horse-bowmen: two divisions in line, one behind the other, a bow’s shot apart. Though it is not stated, each of these lines was composed of 3-6 ranks of horsemen. The first line was to advance steadily against the enemy, attempting to come to close quarters if possible; but maintaining an advancing wall of armored men and horses, forcing the lightly armed and largely unarmored nomads to fall back. The second line was to follow the first, preventing its encirclement (the favorite tactic of the steppe nomad, utilizing their speed and mobility to encircle and attack from flank and rear slower-moving formations). Should the Turks get behind the first line, the second line would then charge those enemy forces; “sandwiching” and crushing them between the two lines.

1373566Romanus’ first line consisted of the professional banda of the empire. In the center, surrounding the emperor, were the elite regiments of the tagmata,  between three and six thousand strong (actual numbers are not given by the sources). On either flank of these were the kataphractoi of the European and Anatolian themes, on the left and right respectively. The Emperor personally commanded the first line, surrounded by his guards and beneath the sacred, gem-encrusted banner of the holy Labarum, the ancient standard first carried by Constantine the Great at the battle of Milvian Bridge.

The second, supporting, division was composed of the feudal retainers of the great landed gentry of the eastern frontiers, the akritai. Much like the feudal men-at-arms of their counterparts among the Franks to the west, these troops varied in quality; but all were armored cavalry capable roughly handling a lightly clad Turkic nomad if it came to close quarters. Armed with bow as well as lance, they could skirmish at a distance with the Turks as they attempted to close with and destroy them.

This was a textbook plan, as taught by Byzantine manuals such as “The Tactica” of the Emperor Leo the Wise; proved over centuries of warfare to be the most effective way of defeating elusive nomad horse archers. The weakness in the Emperor’s deployment was not military but political: Andronicus Dukas, his political enemy, was given command of the tactically vital reserve force that comprised the second line.

All that long, hot August day the steel-clad Roman horsemen advanced up the highland valley. Tantalizingly just beyond the reach of their lances, a cloud of Turkish horse-archers continued to skirmish. Arrows flew back-and-forth, doing little damage to either side. The Turks refused to stand against the mailed Roman bands, and all day continued to fall back before the Byzantine advance. Exchanging arrows, the Turks refused to stand and fight at close-quarters. By mid-afternoon the advancing Roman line passed over the campsite occupied that morning by the Sultan’s army. Still the enemy fell back down the long valley, loosing arrows as they withdrew.

1373568Casualties were likely few on either side during the day-long, rolling skirmish battle. The Romans were well armored, and few of the light Turkish arrows would have wounded or killed a man. A horse killed or lamed would dismount its rider, but as the Romans were advancing and the enemy retreating, such an unlucky victim could pass back through the ranks of his comrades and return to camp. For their part, Roman arrows falling among the loose-ordered and constantly boiling ranks of the Turks often as not missed their rapidly moving targets. As each Turk maintained a string of additional ponies a slain or lamed mount was quickly replaced.

Near evening, frustrated by the Sultan’s unwillingness to come to grips, the Emperor reluctantly ordered the Roman bands to wheel-about and return to camp.

No sooner had the Romans shown their backs to the enemy then kettle drums began booming, and the Turks closed-in like a pack of wolves.

1373569.jpgFor the next hour as the Romans retired towards their camp the Turks pressed hard upon their rear. The Romans were able to keep their enemy at bay with controlled “pulse charges”, in which individual banda  would suddenly wheel about and charge those Turks nipping at their heels. The Turks would scamper off on swift ponies, out of range to regroup, while the charging Roman band would return as quickly to its place in the retreating line. Only the best drilled and disciplined soldiers in the world would have been capable of such maneuvers. It is a testament to their quality that though greatly stressed by the factional strife that ripped the Empire throughout the century, the Roman army was still capable of this most difficult of maneuvers: a fighting withdrawal.

1373570 View of the battlefield from the rising ground to the south. It was from here that the Sultan viewed the oncoming Romans and the slow withdrawal of his horsemen before them. It was in the flat ground in the center of the picture that Romanus ordered the Byzantine forces to “about-face” and return to camp; a move that triggered the Seljuk counter-offensive.

Toward sunset, the Turks seemed to make a fatal mistake: around both ends of the retreating Roman first line swarmed light horse archers,  into the space between the first and second lines. It was an obvious attempt to separate them and destroy the Emperor’s first line in detail; something the Roman deployment was meant to counter.

For Romanus and his tired troopers, the opportunity had come at last to smash these impudent rascals at close quarters!

Imperial trumpets blew the order, calling for the still retreating second line to halt, wheel-about in-mass, and smash the foolish interlopers between the army’s two iron-clad divisions.

Instead, to the dismay and growing horror of the soldiers of the Emperor’s division, the second line continued to withdraw from the battle. Either because he misunderstood the order (unlikely), or willfully and treasonably disobeyed it, Andronicus Dukas led the second line off the field. The Emperor and the professional regiments of the Eastern Roman Empire were abandoned to their fate.

(The Dukates would later defend Andronicus’ actions by claiming that Romanus and the first division was hopelessly cut off and doomed; and that Andronicus was wise to save what he could of the army, refraining from what amounted to throwing good money after bad. This argument, however, is all too self-serving to be convincing.)

Kataphract of the Tagmata battles Seljuk Ghulam near the Labarum in the closing stages of the battle

The first division found itself surrounded and attacked from all sides. All order and command-and-control vanished, as the battle dissolved into swirling chaos. First the right-wing, composed of the troops from the themes of Anatolia (the senior regiments of the army) broke and fled back up the valley. This freed more Turks to join those swarming around the armored guard regiments massed about the Emperor’s standards. Then the left-wing, the thematic regiments of Europe led by Byrennios, cut their way out of the encirclement, seeking refuge in the nearby hills. This left only the emperor and the elite tagmata desperately fighting on.


The Sultan Alp Arslan had known from the beginning that at some point he would have to fight the Romans at close quarters in order to break them and gain a total victory. Now, as chaos reigned in the Roman ranks, the Sultan put aside his gilded bow and drew his mace (the favorite weapon of Turkish heavy cavalry). Surrounded by the armored Ghulams of his personal guard, he now charged into the center of the Roman masses, where the Emperor could be identified still fighting, surrounded by his Varangians beneath the holy Labarum.

1373579The fighting was vicious and at close quarters, and the weary and outnumbered Romans were overpowered. Romanus was captured, trapped beneath his fallen horse. He was taken before the Sultan, who treated him as a guest, not a prisoner. Among the other spoils on the battlefield was the Labarum, as well as the standards of the various guard regiments that, like it, dated back to Constantine.



Romanus was held for only a few days before being released by the Sultan, who treated him with every courtesy and even arranged an escort back into Roman territory. The defeated emperor returned to find the Dukates in rebellion, with young Michael VII now declared sole ruler. In the resulting civil war, Romanus was captured and blinded by the vengeful Dukates in such a severe fashion that he died of the injury.

The result of that “Terrible Day” at Manzikert (at Roman chroniclers referred to it) was not immediately so terrible. The Turks were granted certain towns on the periphery, but of these only Antioch was of any great consequence. But the loss of so many trained troops was serious, and the decade of civil war that followed depleted the imperial power even more. While so occupied, clans of Turcoman only nominally under the control of the Sultan drifted into undefended Anatolia. They occupied the land, killing or driving off the Roman farmers that were the backbone of the empire. Within a decade, Anatolia was lost to the empire.

The loss of Anatolia was ultimately a death-blow for the empire. Here was the breadbasket of the empire, the rich lands whose grain and taxes had fed and clothed the empire. From where the highly professional armies of the past centuries had been recruited and based. While some of the army survived to return to their garrisons in Europe or Asia, the parts were never again assembled as one mighty strike force. Without Anatolia, no native “Roman” army could be recruited of any size to regain the lost lands.

By the time Alexios Komnenos had consolidated power and established a new dynasty in 1081, the damage was irreparable, and the Turks would never be driven from these lands again. For the remaining centuries of its declining existence, the Eastern Roman Empire would be forced to rely largely on mercenary soldiers, of often dubious quality and loyalty, to fight its battles.

1373581Anatolia, once the fertile heart of the Hellenized Roman east, became after Manzikert a vast arid steppe; as the nomadic Turks deliberately turned farmland into pasture for their sheep. By the time the First Crusaders passed through on their way to Jerusalem, the once fertile farmlands of Anatolia had been reduced by the Turks to a desert.  In the years after, ancient cities that had seen the passing of Darius and Alexander, of Caesar and Belisarius, decayed and were abandoned. Romania became Turkey, which of course it is to this very day.[3]

The result of that “terrible day” was a catastrophe from which the Roman Empire in the East never recovered. The Byzantine/Roman army had for centuries shielded the West from the forces of militant Islam. Without this bastion, the west would have to rise up and provide its own military response to the march of Islam: the Crusades.


To this day we still feel the echo of those distant centuries of conflict. The hatreds and paranoia engendered by those wars between Christian Europeans and Muslims still affect relations between the Islamic world and the west today.

There is a sobering lesson to be learned from Manzikert, pertinent to America: when partisan hatred is so great and a nation’s politics become so poisonous that defeating ones’ domestic political opponents becomes more important than defeating a deadly enemy abroad; then any treason is possible to further that despicable cause. Certainly the partisans of the House of Dukas never accepted their responsibility for the disaster at Manzikert. The defeat of their political rival, Romans Diogenes, justified in their minds betraying the empire they served.


1. The term “Byzantine” was an invention by later historians, and would have seemed bizarre to the men of the time, who thought of themselves as “Romans”, and their land Romania. In Greek, the language of the Empire, their realm was called Basileia Rhomaion; and in the West was referred to in Latin as the Imperium Romanum.

2. This gruesome account comes from a friendly, Muslim, source. It should be noted that the sack and slaughter of captured enemy cities was not uncommon. Up until the 20th century it was an accepted law of war that a city that failed to answer the call to surrender by a besieging army could expect little mercy once the city was stormed. When modern (revisionist) historians point to the sack of Jerusalem by the First Crusaders as evidence of their barbarism the reader should bear this in mind, as well as the (then) recent example of the sack and slaughter at Ani and other Byzantine cities by the Turks in the years preceding the Crusade.

3. Modern Turkey sprang-up out of the Ottoman Empire after World War One. The Ottoman Turks were a different clan than the earlier Seljuks. They migrated from their central Asian homeland into Seljuk Anatolia, fleeing the Mongols under Genghis Khan. They were settled as ghazi in Bithynia, on the borders of much-reduced Byzantium. From here they slowly grew into a powerful kingdom that swallowed both the Byzantine and the Seljuk realms into their own larger empire.


Some of the artwork in this article has been reproduced with the permission of Osprey Publishing, and is © Osprey Publishing, part of Bloomsbury Publishing Plc.

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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, which can itself be divided  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 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. Thus 1453 as an historical tide shift.

So here, for better or worse, is my list of the 25 Greatest Commanders of the Middle Ages:

25. Alfred the GreatAlfred_le_Grand_à_Winchester

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 of 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 MamlukBaybars

A Circassian slave soldier, he was purchased in Syria by a Mamluk officer and sent to Egypt, where he became a member of the bodyguard regiment of the Ayyubid ruler, As-Salih. He rose rapidly, based upon his skills, both political and military. Baibars was a commander of the Mamluks in 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 he 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 Arsuf, the latter after a 40 day siege. He raised the town to the ground, a destruction from which it never recovered. In 1266 Baibars invaded the Christian lands of Cilician Armenia, an ally of the Mongols. Devastating the country, he then turned upon Christian Antioch and Tripoli. Antioch surrendered on 18 May, 1268. Though the populace were promised their lives, 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 the remaining Crusader state of 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. He is remembered as ruthless and determined enemy of the Crusader States and of the Mongols; helping to stop their advance westward. He was a great champion of Islam, second only to Saladin (see below) as the most successful Muslim leader of the Crusader Period.


23. Edward the Black PrinceS8-F53_01

The eldest son of Edward III (#20 on our list), he was in his day considered the foremost warrior in Europe. At age sixteen he commanded the right wing of the English forces at the Battle of Crecy. This 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 superior Castilian 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. Henry V PlantagenetOlivier as Henry V

Henry V of England inherited the Plantagenet claim to France (see Edward III, #20 below); 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 siegeto Harfleur in Normandy. The siege was prolonged, the town holding out for seven weeks. With 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 of 1346. However, the French nobility had used his delay at Harfleur to gather a vast army at Paris; and in a repetition of the events that led to Crecy, they 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 pursued 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 stood to 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.


21. El Cid CampeadorEl Cid 4a

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 with 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. In May 1090, El Cid defeated and captured Count Berenguer of Barcelona at the Battle of Tébar (nowadays Pinar de Tévar, near Monroyo, Teruel). Berenguer was released and his nephew and heir, Ramón Berenguer III was married to El Cid’s youngest daughter Maria to cement a peace between the Cid and Barcelona. In May of 1094 El Cid captured the city of Valencia after a lengthy siege; and though he ruled in Alphonso’s name, he was now ruler of a broad principality on the eastern coast of Spain. He ruled peacefully till attacked by the Almoravids in 1099. He died during the siege of Valencia, legend having it that his corpse was tied into the saddle and he led the victorious charge of his forces that broke the siege. El Cid 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 legendary 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. It is tempting to wonder what might have been the result had he “taken the cross” in 1096, and joined the First Crusade. His seeming lack of prejudice and ability to fight beside and deal fairly with Muslims might have markedly changed the complexion of that sanguine if ultimately successful campaign.


20. Edward III PlantagenetEdward III

A worthy heir and grandson of Edward “Longshanks” (#10 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; who 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 numerically superior 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 to the French crown, as the grandson of Philip IV (“the Fair”), with a more direct claim than his cousin Philip VI; who was not a Capetian, but of the House of 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; his knights dismounting, 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 (see below). 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


19. Otto the Great22853_Otto-I

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 Aachen. 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, marching an army over the Alps. Upon arriving in the Po Valley 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. Germany now faced invasion by the Magyars; who had been raiding deeply into Germany throughout the previous civil war, one raid reaching as far west as 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 in Germany, and he faced no internal opposition for the remainder of his reign. He soon faced trouble in Italy, however, where his Italian arrangement had broken down. While Otto was occupied in Germany, Berengar attacked the March of Verona in 958, which Otto had stripped from his control under the treaty of 952. 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, creator of 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.


18. Robert Guiscardnormans and huscarl

The Norman conqueror of southern Italy and parts of Sicily, Robert de Hauteville was one of several warrior sons of Tancred de Hauteville; a minor noble in the Cherbourg region of Normandy. Norman warriors had been coming to southern Italy since the late 10th century; first as pilgrims, then staying as mercenaries in the service of the Byzantines and the various Lombard 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”.


17. Charles Martelcharles martel

Charles Martel (“the Hammer”) was the 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 invaders. 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, as well as the pagan Saxons. Late in 718, he laid waste to Saxon territory (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 (Atlantic) ocean.” He is credited with introducing heavy cavalry tactics to the Franks, as well as 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.


16. Janos Hunyadihunyadi-janos-osprey

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 in this role 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 lesser 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 Ialomita 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 disregarded Hunyadi’s advice once 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 to rally survivors and escaped the field. However, he was taken prisoner and held in confinement by his rival, Prince Vlad Tepes (also Called Vlad Dracul, model for Bram Stoker’s 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 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 Sultan Murad II. 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, a victim of the plague that 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. Narses250px-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 late middle age before he ever saw military service; and elderly when finally given the opportunity to exercise supreme command over 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. An Armenian by birth, he was sold into slavery in Byzantium; where he was 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. For this reason if no other Justinian trusted him in high command; unlike Narses’ rival, Belisarius (see #3, below), 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; continually rising to become Grand Chamberlain, Treasurer and even the Master of Soldiers, the latter rank equivalent to the Praetorian Prefect in the old Roman Empire. He was given his first 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 goaded 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 captured soon after, 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 Guesclindu_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, that of 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. 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 France of its king and many of its military defenders, Du Guesclin continued the fight. He came 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 commanded 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; luring the Captal de Buch into mounting his men-at-arms and pursuing. 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’ 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 only after all of his weapons had been broken in the fighting! He was subsequently ransomed by King Charles for 100,000 francs, a huge sum for an otherwise minor member of the nobility; a 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 (a raider so successful his motto was “Robert Knolles 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. His successes were based upon the understanding that confronting the English directly in open battle 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 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. Saladin4436452926_7199efe088

Salah ad-Din Yusuf ibn Ayyub, 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 power-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 #12, 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 LionheartRichard

The third son of Henry II Plantagenet and Eleanor of Aquitaine, Richard showed military acumen and great physical prowess 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 was seldom at peace; fighting 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”. He established a firm reputation as a military tactician; particularly adept in siege operations. Richard’s older brothers having all previously died of natural causes, 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 (#13 above) had led to the Pope calling for a Third Crusade. Richard had “taken the cross” two years earlier. Now as king he was eager to depart. Mortgaging much of his kingdom to finance a modest but well-equipped expedition, Richard set out with a force of 8,000 trained men. In July 1190, Richard 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 force 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, which shadowed their march, keeping to the hills to the east; Richard 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 elusive Turkish horse archers. The outermost ranks of the foot was composed of crossbowmen, whose shot outdistanced that of the Turkish composite bow; protected by the shields of foot sergeants. 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 and 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. On his return voyage, Richard was shipwrecked on the Adriatic coast; and taken prisoner by the Duke of Austria. He was handed-over to the Emperor, who held him for two years till money was raised for his release. 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.

11. John I TzimiskesTzimskis

The nephew of Nicephorus Phocas (see #9, below), 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 Daras, 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 himself 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 and 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 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 smuggled into the palace. Entering the Imperial Bedchamber, he assassinated Nicephorus. 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 again turned east against the Empire’s Muslim enemies; beginning with an invasion of Upper Mesopotamia. He consolidated gains he’d made 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.

10. Edward I “Longshanks”Edward 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 War (1264–1267). He was initially under the influence and supported many of the goals of his uncle, Earl Simon de Montfort, husband of his aunt. In 1263, at the age of 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 and 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. The prince 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 now “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 (#24, above) 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 Conwy 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 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 left very large boots to fill. 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).He was a great king and gifted commander, feared and respected by his subjects; hated by he enemies.

9. Nikephoros II Phokasbyzantine_cataphact_officer 2

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 (see above) 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 campaigns 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. CharlemagneCharl

The eldest son of Pepin the Short, son of Charles Martel (see #17 above) 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 brothers was strained, only maintained with difficulty by their mother. In 769 Charles led 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 paved the way 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 Hrodgaud of Friuli and Hildeprand of Spoleto rebelled; and Arechis Duke of Benevento who had refused to submit to the Franks after Pavia. Charles defeated Hrodgaud in battle; and Spoleto surrendered soon after. 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 left his second son, Carloman/Pepin to rule as King of Italy and returned to the north, he chastised the Saxons, but was forced to return many times before that 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; but 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 once again 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; maintaining their independence till the coming of the Normans in the11th century. 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, Charles 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 would-be conquerors of Europe from his day to Napoleon, to attempt to reunite western Europe into one empire.


7. Khalid Ibn al-WalidKhalid

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 Muhammad 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. TamerlaneTimur

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 bloody 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 Thunderbolt” 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 ZizkaJan 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 alone 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 Sudomer in April 1420; at Kutná Hora in 1421; at Nemecký 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. HeracliusHeraclius

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 in 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 two of his three elite Epilekta regiments on the Asiatic side of the Bosporus, in the military districts named for them. These would become the earliest Byzantine Themes: Optimaton and Bucellarion. The third, the Feoderati would become part of the Imperial Guard for centuries. 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. Had he died after his victory over Persia, he would be remembered as the greatest soldier-Emperor since Aurelian.


3. Belisarius1a Belisarius at Milvian Bridge

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 threatened 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 mobile forces he bears comparison with such greats as Joachim Murat , Nathan Bedford Forrest, and Erwin Rommel. 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. He was the foremost Byzantium ever produced, and earned the title of “the Last of the Romans”.


2. Subutai BaghaturSubutai

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 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. When 17 years old, Subutai joined Temujin. 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 enemies of Temujin and his son’s; remaining always loyal. In 1205 Subutai was given the mission of tracking down and destroying bands of the Merkit confederacy, 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 Jurchen/Jin dynasty of northern China. With an army of 30,000, Subutai moved south across the Gobi Desert and attacked the Great Wall. This focused the Jin attention on the north; but was a diversionary tactic. Genghis Khan’s main army of 90,000 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 Jin 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 Khan1366435.jpg

Genghis Khan was born Temüjin, the third-oldest son of Yesügei, chief of one of the many Mongol clans; and an ally and blood brother (anda) of Wang/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 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, 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 him 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 Naimans. By 1206, these too were defeated and many 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 Jurchen/Jin 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 Jin 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 Shah Muhammad II 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, the army he created 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; of 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. Like Napoleon, Genghis Khan was a self-made man, and his accomplishments are solely the product of his particular genius.


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.





Some of the artwork in this article has been reproduced with the permission of Osprey Publishing, and is © Osprey Publishing, part of Bloomsbury Publishing Plc.

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