The Mightiest General of the Ancient World?
The Mightiest General of the Ancient World?
It is a question on the mind of many military historians and here I offer my opinion, having accumulated quite an interest and comprehension of ancient warfare and Generalship. For such an extensive period I deemed it best to focus upon the three most recognised and respected Generals of the age. I fear otherwise this article would never end!
The first General is obvious as that of Alexander the Great, King of the Macedonians between 336BC and 323BC. The second being Hannibal Barca, General of the Carthaginian army that almost brought down the might of Rome between 218BC and 201BC that could possibly have set an entirely new course in European history. My third General being that of Gaius Julius Caesar who set the foundations for the Roman Empire between 60BC and 44 BC. Though there were many fine Generals both ahead and before in the period I believe it is pretty clear that these are often favourites for the position of the finest General of a time filled with petty wars and great battles.
I wrote this article because I believe too many people put emphasis on the actual General and not enough on his enemy and his tools (in other words his army). Many Generals have done great feats with their respective armies but are they things that make them truly great as a General. To what extent is success the measure as opposed to the quality of their enemy? Or genius? Are politics involved or merely military matters exclusively? I have attempted to answer this by including a wide number of factors beginning with summary of their successes. Each achieved wonders though Alexander it would seem surpassed his rivals by conquering half the known world. Yet Caesar established a dictatorship from almost nothing (with his name becoming eternally linked with kingship e.g. Kaiser, Tsar etc) and Hannibal almost changed the course of history by regularly massacring the mighty Roman army.
Even then, as successful as they were, they still had their failures. The mighty Alexander had his army mutiny against him and force him to turn back in India as well as the fact that he failed to make firm foundations for his empire to last longer than his own lifetime. Hannibal at his death lost everything. As many times as he marched on Rome, he barely threatened the heartland and was eventually defeated by the Romans and forced to commit suicide to avoid capture and humiliation. As for Caesar though his rise was gradual his fall was remarkably sudden. He failed to win over all of the Senate, eventually being assassinated. He was then outdone by his adopted son Octavian, a man much more able to handle the Senate and people than he was, though less able militarily.
Gaius Julius Caesar, 100BC – 44BC
Most importantly is who actually faced the greatest enemy? With regards to Alexander, it is important to question an empire that rose and fell in the space of just over 200 years. Yes! But that is what makes Alexander ‘great’ I hear you say. However were the Persians actually that strong by the time Alexander went on his rampage? Granted they had numbers as well as some strong variations in their army (Scythed chariots and war elephants) but was that not their weakness? Darius was able to gather a huge army from a vast and fertile empire no doubt, but let us consider that within this army there must have been considerable differences in language and culture. An example of the problems of this would be the idea of the English fighting alongside the French and Germans in Medieval times. Such an army would have had serious problems with mutual trust and communications. Darius himself demonstrated that he was a poor foe. At both Issus and Guagamela he made a hasty retreat relatively early in the battle. Unlike the Greek army, the Persian army was highly dependant upon leadership.
The Persian system of governorship was fine for peacetime but just not suitable for war against a half decent enemy. Satrapy gave a significant amount of freedom to those given the honour of it. Indeed Xenophon in his anabasis talks of private wars between satraps and it would seem their system was little better than medieval feudalism. In this case picture Alexander facing the French in the early 15th century when the Dukes of Orleans and Burgundy are battling one another at a time in which the English were so successful under Henry V. This it would seem was the kind of empire Alexander faced. One which had already peaked and had been in decline ever since the Greeks defeated Xerxes over a hundred years before. Since than it had been involved in many internecine struggles for power in which chief eunuchs had often played kingmaker. Even then, Alexander had arguably the finest army around (until the Roman legions) behind him. It was an army far greater than that of the once great Greeks who had beaten the Persians at Marathon and Plataea (who incidentally were under the better Generalship of Xerxes and Darius). The Macedonians were composed of experienced and disciplined infantry with a deadly cavalry arm. On the other hand the Persians were fragmented, much more multi-national, disorganised and under an inept leader. Surely Phillip, Alexander’s father who revolutionised the Macedonian army, should get the credit for the conquest of Persia that he had originally planned?
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