Greatest Commanders

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


25. Cimon of AthensCimon

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

24. Pompey the Great

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

23. Sargon II of Assyria

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

22. Trajan

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

21. Scipio AemilianusScipio Aemil

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

20. Aemilius Paullus MacedonicusAemilius%20Paullus

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

19. Hamilcar Barca

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

18. Probus

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

17. Luculluslucullus2

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

16. Sullasulla

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

15. Aurelianaurelian_bust 2

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

14. Epaminondas of Thebes220px-Epam1

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

13. Thutmose IIIThutmose III

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

12. Septimius Severus

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

11. Seleucus Nicator

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

10. Gaius Marius

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

9. Antigonus One-Eyed

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

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

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

7. Cyrus the Great

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

6. Pyrrhus of Epirus

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

5. Philip II of Macedon

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

4. Julius Caesar

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

3. Scipio Africanus

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

2. Hannibal Barca

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

1. Alexander the Great

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


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

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

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

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

For more, read:

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



And here:

51PP2mbMKaL__SY344_BO1,204,203,200_Great Captains Unveiled






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




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  1. ethanreilly says:

    Nice post! Personally I don’t think you’ve rated Pyrrhus too highly – his tactical skill is undeniable, but some of his strategic choices are more than a little puzzling. Too bad your definition (from the Oxford Dictionary) of the Ancient World doesn’t include the 6th-century as well, otherwise I would have like to have seen Belisarius make the list. Other names I would have liked to see is Leonidas, Alcibiades, Xenophon, Sertorius, Stilicho, Attila, Aetius – but I guess they’d more likely fit somewhere lower on the list, 25 – 50 maybe…

    • barrycjacobsen says:

      You know your great generals, Ethan!

      What I asked myself in every case (and reconsidered and reshuffled the order accordingly) was if I had an army would I rather have it commanded by general A, or B? And if A had to fight B, which would I put my money on?

      I recognized Pyrrhus’ failures as a strategist. But he was so strong a field commander that he couldn’t be overlooked. For instance, if two armies were equal in every respect, one commanded by Sulla and one by Pyrrhus, who would you bet your money on? Now, Sulla was a good commander; and did very well against the Pontians. But against Pyrrhus, in battle? I would put my money on “the Red King” every time!

  2. Carl says:

    Caesar conquered Gaul and prevailed in a Civil War. Fighting 26 battles, he lost 3. He directed 15 campaigns, all successful (even if he spent much time getting out of trouble of his own making). Scipio fought 8 battles and directed 9 campaigns. Never defeated, 2 or 3 of the campaigns were unremarkable or not successful. He only gained Spain because Hannibal transferred more than 35.000 soldiers from there to Italy in 208 and 206-205 BC and the 202 BC campaign is unlikely to have been anything like Polybios makes it out to be. Scipio cannot compare with Caesar. Rely on Liddell Hart at your own peril.

    • barrycjacobsen says:

      Where do you get the “2 or 3 of the campaigns were unremarkable or not successful”? Which are you referring to. No, we have a disagreement here. Caesar made many mistakes, and should have been destroyed on several occasions but for the extremely high quality of his troops, their steadiness and the ability of his Centurions. I refer to his leaving his poor scouting against both the Helvetii and the Nervii. The first resulted in his being attacked in the rear while engaged frontally. Normally, that would have been disastrous. To his credit, he was able to turn his third line about and the steadiness of his legionaries allowed him to fight in two directions. But hardly an example of great generalship. The second example resulted in his being ambushed while making camp; and with a large portion of his army strung out on the road. Again, it was only the steadiness of his troops that averted the kind of disaster that would normally have resulted.
      Caesar was also a huge risk-taker; and often got himself in very tight situations. Scattering his legions around Gaul, Dyrrachium, Africa, Alexandria, and Munda were all very nearly disastrous; and of his own making.

      Scipio, on the other hand, never lost a battle or took a misstep. He was a nearly flawless commander.

      That is not to say that Caesar was not a very great commander; nor that he was the greater over-all supreme commander (Scipio was always on a Senatorial leash, and had no chance to show his ability as a Grand Strategist or conqueror in the same way as Caesar, Alexander, or, say, Napoleon; who were all rulers with a free hand to do as they wished.)

      • Carl says:

        A deeper argument is difficult in a reply box. Scipio failed to get real results out of the campaigns of 208 BC (8.000 taken captive at Baecula is a wild number, allowing Hasdrubal Barca to leave), 207 BC (the attrition of Hasdrubal Gisco forced a Roman retreat), and 194 BC (Livy says Scipo ‘returned to Rome to conduct the elections without doing anything worth recording).’ If you take Polybios at his word with regard to Scipio, you might as well accept the bulletins of Napoleon at face value. Scipio could make a quick advance to gain strategic advantage and his pursuit after Ilipa and night attack on Syphax near Utica were outstanding achievements. However, nowhere do you see strategy like Caesar employed on the Aisne in 57 BC or at Ilirda in 49 BC. Certainly he was reckless and erratic, but in a desperate position he always found a way to prevail.

  3. barrycjacobsen says:

    Which is why Caesar is considered one of the Great Captains of History! But whether he was a better general than Scipio is debatable. I do agree that he showed flashes brilliance as a strategist; though, again, often over-bold. He never displayed the tactical brilliance or innovation of Scipio.

    If your going to discount Polybius’ praise of Scipio due to his close relationship with the family; than you certainly have to discount Caesar’s own accounts of his exploits for the same reason: lack of objectivity!

    I don’t, however. I think both have stood the test of time, their lives and feats carefully studied by historians since.

  4. Great job!

    Mostly I agree with you but I would like know why you did not consider Ramesses II, and about Scipio he almost lose the Zama battle, even with Massinissa Cavalary. He was a prudent General, for the Roman school he was an innovator but actyally he just studied perfectly Hannabal tattics. The Zama battle is the Canne battle but this time are the romans with cavalary. I like Scipio but like you said he always remains at senatum leash. For me if you want be between the biggest you need to be able to take decisions.


    • barrycjacobsen says:

      I’m afraid you have failed to study Scipio’s campaigns, Samo; as you grossly mischaracterize them. His campaigns and battles in Spain were beyond masterful; and his first year in Africa, in which he defeated both Syphax and Gisco at the Battle of the Great Plains was boldly and brilliant conducted. Yes, Zama was a tough fight, but he certainly didn’t “almost lose” that battle. At no portion was he ever in danger of doing so.

      I recommend you improve your scholarship by reading “Scipio Africanus: Greater than Napoleon” by Liddel Hart (

      AS for Rameses II, I can only say, “really???” He only won one battle, and that truly was a near-fought thing. In fact, many historians would argue he lost the Battle of Kadesh; but won the subsequent PR campaign in the years that followed (after all, what we know of the battle come only from Egyptian sources; which are pure propaganda).

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  7. Alex Nuwamanya Isimbwa says:

    Dear readers,
    when we corroborate evidence about the the most valiant of ancient commanders, Hanninal wins. However, I do not know why we have no Achilles on the list.

    • barrycjacobsen says:

      First, thank you for you comments.
      Second, this is a list of “Greatest” commanders, meaning most skilled as a commander of forces. NOT most “valiant”; something rather more difficult to assess, and less important in an commander. BTW, if we were rating “most valiant”, Alexander wins hands-down, IMHO.
      Finally, Achilles is not on the list because, again, this is commanders, not heroes. Not to mention that this is historically attested persons, not semi or wholly mythical ones; in which category Achilles squarely falls.

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  9. Brian says:

    This is good. Most top 10s or so Are always the same. And what time period are we talking here? Ancient goes up to around 500 and as far back as the Sumerians in some 3200 bc. And no females. I always found Zenobia to be a great leader of the Palmyrene Empire. Took on Rome and Egypt during her reign sometime in 250 or so. A lot of Chinese generals should also be on this list. Depending on what your Ancient time line is. And a bit surprised Genghis Khan is not on this list. Reason for leaving him out?

    • barrycjacobsen says:

      Thanks, Brian. I think 25 gives a better range than 10.
      As to the time period, it tells you right up front: from earliest history till the Fall of Rome (476 AD).

      No, there are no females. Why should there be? Women were seldom warriors in history, and almost never commanders. Zenobia was a political figure; there is no evidence in the sources that she ever commanded those Palmyran armies. The victories achieved early-on against the Sassanids (Egypt was a province of Rome, so didn’t “take on” Egypt) were achieved by her husband, Odenathus. Even IF she commanded against Aurelius, she lost. Every battle. Hardly the stuff to catapult her into the same company as Julius Caesar or Alexander. We aren’t PC here: we don’t practice “affirmative action”, giving weight according to gender or race.
      As for Chinese or Indian races, the criteria for the list states only Western and Middle Eastern commanders. Too little is known in the West about far Asian commanders (other than legends). That’s why Chandragupta isn’t on the list.
      Genghis Khan, who lived in the 13th century, is not an “ancient” commander; but a Medieval one. He is on our 25 Greatest Commanders of the Middle Ages.

  10. axrendale says:

    A great list! I enjoyed reading it.

    Now for my quibbles: (Because without disagreement, where would be the fun?)

    I would argue that Caesar should not only be ranked above Scipio, but also vaulted above Hannibal and Alexander to claim the #1 spot on the list. (I note that you cited Napoleon as an expert judge of generalship. He believed that Caesar was the outstanding military figure of antiquity, and the second best of all time. No prizes for guessing who he thought was the best of all time.)

    I read your objections above to as follows: 1) Caesar was too much of a risk-taker, and often landed himself in hot water through an excess of boldness. 2) He made too many mistakes, and thus compares poorly to a commander like Scipio who “never lost a battle or took a misstep.” 3) “He never displayed the tactical brilliance or innovation of Scipio.” I’d respond thusly:

    1: It’s true that Caesar was often bold to the point of recklessness, but I see it as a calculated recklessness, rooted in a sober assessment of his opponents, and a supreme confidence in his own ability to get himself and his men through just about any situation no matter how bad. Perhaps better than any other ancient commander, Caesar possessed a supreme grasp of psychology, and he understood the devastating effect that the sheer unpredictability of his movements had. He fought by the same creed as Stonewall Jackson: “Always mystify, mislead, and surprise the enemy.” This to me more than anything explains the outcome of Dyrrachium. Posterity has looked with scorn at the way Pompey threw away the opportunity for a decisive victory, but I feel he deserves more sympathy. Fighting against a man who had slipped through a tight blockade of the coast like a ghost in the night, whose armies moved with scarcely believable speed, and who inspired his soldiers to fight like demons even when they were literally living off roots dug out of the ground – is it not understandable that he succumbed to an excess of over-caution?

    Caesar’s high-risk/high-reward approach to strategy had its pitfalls, but at the end of the day he was always vindicated in his belief that he could make good whenever he bit off more than he could chew. And when his gambles paid off – in his incomparable Spanish campaigns, in the defeat of Vercingetorix, in the second half of the Greek campaign – the results spoke for themselves.

    2: When it comes to pointing out the mistakes that Caesar made in his early campaigns, I think it’s worth emphasizing that his development as a commander followed a fairly different pattern to most of the other names on this list. Unlike most of them, who had multiple campaigns under their belts when they were still in their 20s, Caesar spent most of his early career devoted to politics, and only came to generalship comparatively late in life (when he invaded Gaul for the first time, he was the age of Hannibal at Zama). Much like Frederick the Great, Caesar as military commander went through a fairly steep learning curve.

    That’s not to say that he didn’t also commit mistakes later in his career, but I tend to feel that these are over-shadowed by the stuff he got right. To switch comparisons, very few generals in history have committed more or greater blunders than Napoleon, but the Emperor is still mostly recognized as the outstanding soldier of modern history – even when he is compared to another commander like, for example, Marlborough who “never lost a battle or took a misstep.” I feel the same dynamic applies comparing Caesar with Scipio.

    3: Dinging Caesar for a lack of innovation is unfair in my opinion, given that he followed in the footsteps of his uncle Marius, whose work ensured that he already had the perfect military instrument to work with – not much fine-tuning required. As for “tactical brilliance”, I would argue that the victor of Alesia and Pharsalus needs answer to nobody on that score.

  11. james says:

    I would put Brasidas the Spartan on the list. He out witted the Athenians in every turn, marched his army out of the Mountains of Macedonia by inventing a new formation to ward of attackers during his march, was a good diplomat, defeated the Athenians in the battle of Amphipolis and was able to use less amount of resources than his foes to accomplish what ever mission he was given. Had he not died young in battle, there is no telling how much more he could accomplish for Sparta. Plus of all the Spartans at that time, Brasidas was the commander the Athenians most feared.

  12. John says:

    Great list, finally someone put it right instead of just choosing some most famous people of the period and putting them in an order just by how much they like them with no real proof of their military skills. Maybe you could make a list of greatest conquerors also? By area they managed to conquer for example? Most that I could find are only top 10 and not all are really realiable.

    • barrycjacobsen says:

      Thanks, John! Did you see the other two lists? 25 Greatest Commanders of the Middle Ages; and 25 Greatest Commanders of the Renaissance?

      Top conquerors would be interesting, though I agree coming up with 10 would make more sense. Most great empires were created over several generations (if not centuries). For instance, both the Roman Empire and the British (which spanned a greater stretch of the globe than any other) were not the creation of one man; but the work of centuries. The Arab empire of the early Caliphs was created over two generations, by several commanders; not one great conqueror.

      Genghis Khan is, of course, the conqueror whose campaigns covered the most mileage. Followed by Alexander the Great, and then Timur. Cyrus the Great likely comes in fourth, though I’d have to do some studying to confirm that.

      Thanks for the suggestion, and thumbs up, John!

    • barrycjacobsen says:

      BTW, are you a Frost Giant??

  13. jbkool says:

    Dude you missed TWO of greatest military commanders in history GHENGIS KHAN and ATTILA THE HUN you also failed to include great CHINESE, JAPANESE and INDIA ancient warlords and commanders, you must be Italian because 95% of the men you chose are from Italy, however you should do another list a REAL greatest generals and commanders list that includes men all over the entire WORLD!!!

    • barrycjacobsen says:

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

      As for Genghis Khan, he is not an “ancient commander”, but a Medieval one. You will find him in the next list, 25 Greatest Commanders of the Middle Ages.

      Attila the Hun was an effective political leader, but he is vastly overrated as a military leader. He only commanded one battle that we have any record of, and he lost that one. He inherited the Hunnic Empire, he didn’t create it; and he didn’t expand it under his reign. He died a frustrated figure, and his empire collapsed very soon after his death.

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