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 Great
Though often portrayed as a man of peace, more an administrator than a warrior,
Alfred fought perhaps more battles with greater success than any other King in English history. For his entire reign, he battled intermittently against the Danish invaders for the survival of his native Wessex (the only one of the original four Anglo-Saxon kingdoms to survive the Danish onslaught); and ultimately for the survival 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”.
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.
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.
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 Campeador
Rodrigo Díaz de Vivar, the 11th century Spanish national hero, spent his life fighting both for his native Castile; and as a free-agent, allied with his friend, the Amir of Zaragoza. In an era of rising religious strife (the fundamentalist Islamic Almoravids were campaigning to cleanse Muslim Spain of its more “liberal” tendencies) he worked 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.
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 Great
Otto was he eldest son of Henry the Fowler, Duke of Saxony and the first non-Frankish King to rule over Germany since Charlemagne created the Frankish Empire. Otto’s first military command came against the pagan Slavs in 929, at the age of 17; the same year his father secured his rule over the kingdom. His father died in 936, and Otto was crowned Duke of Saxony and King of Germany at Charlemagne’s former capital of 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 Guiscard
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 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 Hunyadi
The premiere Hungarian soldier of the 15th century, Hunyadi spent his life strengthening the Hungarian kingdom as a bulwark against the advancing Ottoman Turks; replacing 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.”
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.
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.
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.
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 Tzimiskes
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 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.
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.
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”.
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 Khan
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.
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