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Posted on Oct 15, 2005 in Front Page Features, War College

The Mightiest General of the Ancient World?

By Anthony R Walker

The Mightiest General of the Ancient World?

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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.

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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.

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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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2 Comments

  1. All three were great, and each one had something special that set him up to be one of the finest of the classical age.
    There can be no doubt, that each of these generals were of the finest caliber.
    When studying the classics, there are many modern historians and the like who, since it has been written many times, tend to create new versions of history and believe these feats were nominal, and also be-
    gin to say that,” He would have won if?” I believe we refer to these as Armchair Generals.
    It is clear that armies must be formed, trained, supplied, and used in a way which takes the enemy by surprise, or indirect approach. A general must also have a motivating character, and a flexible plan with fallback options. A knowledge of force concentration, and guarding flanks,supply, all these task are left for the general.
    Alexander was the ultimate risk-taker, and took these risks with incredible speed. In a way, he outran a longer life to be remembered always, he succeeded. Posterity now remembers him as Alexander the Great. Even after all he conquered, he came upon the sea, and began to weep, for there was nothing left to conquer. One need only to get caught up in the stories of his ongoing campaigns with his companion cavalry, which had no equal, to realize he was probably the greatest. One can also recall his loosening of the Gordium Knot, which only fueled his legend. It is true, that Phillip built the empire and army, and was scheduled to conquer Persia, which I also believe he would have done so, like his son. Alexander, did become the new leader of Macedon, but he also became the conquerer of the known world, the feat was still accomplished. left in his wake was a new precedent of conquer or be conquered, the Alexandria library, and a host of other cities named for him. Alexander was born for war, tutored by Arisotle,read poetry, even was a musician, a man of great intellect. Alexander was also lucky, a trait revered by Napoleon.
    Hannibal, could have been the greatest of them all, had he had the much-needed support of a greedy Carthaginian government, and had he found a way of besieging Rome. That was the big question, why did Hannibal stop before Rome, he had all the momentum. Could the reason have been lack of siege equipment, and why did he not construct any?, was he under-manned, and knew, he simply was not strong enough to attack Rome successfully?, or was he horrored by the death of thousands, even family members? It could have been a support issue from Carthage.
    Hannibal was also raised of nobility, like Alexander, and also like Alexander, he and his father both both shared a hatred of their common enemies.
    One must remember that Hannibals father, Hamilcar was undefeated in battle.
    With Hannibal, one remembers his audacious movement with his elephants, over the alps to the Po., the scourge he left, and the fear in all Romans. Even today in Rome, parents trying to put their young to sleep, tell… “Hannibal is at the gates!”
    Hannibal is also remembered for the greatest tactical victory, utilizing the double envelopment, he annihilated the Roman army under Consul Varro. It is believed, that never before in history up to this day, that no army has ever suffered such death and destruction. On that day at Cannae in 216B.C., Hannibal surrounded a much larger Roman army, and killed 50 to 60 thousand Romans. Could this killing field have kept him from moving on to Rome? Was there just too much death?
    Hannibal crosses the alps, splits rocks with vinegar and fire, destroys and cripples Romes army three times, has the greatest tactical victory probably in history, and is respected so much for his acumen as a general, that the Romans fear, even going to battle with him. All of these feats were tremendous, and they all happened. Napoleon was so enamored with Hannibal that he left his name scratched below Hannibal’s in the alps.
    Caesar wanted control, at all costs. He wanted to be remembered with the likes of Alexander and Hannibal. Upon arriving in Alexandria, Egypt, Caesar came upon the body of Alexander, preserved for all. He began to weep, wondering if he could conquer an empire as vast as Alexanders. Caesar became consul, and led his army to Gaul, and since he was writing the history, began to conquer his so-called barbarians, culminating in the two-front battle of Alesia, where he simply walled them in. it has become known today, that these barbarians were quit technological and had between 4 or 5 hundred gold mines throughout their territory. Ah, more gold for Rome! After capturing the last and greatest of Gaul leaders, Vercingetorix, Caesar knew he must return to Rome. The triumverate of Cassius,Pompey, and Caesar were at an end. Rome wanted Caesar to give up his legions. Caesar, knowing he would be killed , turned his estimated army of 22 thousand and crossed the Rubicon, where he was able to drive away Pompey, only to meet him at the battlle of Pharsulus. Pompey, attacked with his calvary, to try and turn the flanks of Caesars army, who had no cavalry. caesar, anticipating this movement, held some of his army in reserve to come up on the flanks as the cavalry arrived. These soldiers were equiped with long spears, which in turn, immobilized the cavalry. Upon witnessing this, Pompey turned and evacuated the field. Caesar was the conquerer of Gaul, winner of the Civil War, and now he wished to become emperor, which the senate disapproved of, ending in the stabbing death of Caesar, in 44 A.D.
    These too were remarkable achievements, and thanks to Caesar, our calendar is now referred to as the Julian calendar, we have the month of July named for him, as well as the Caesarian section during childbirth. There are also those who aspire to be like Caesar. the Russian Tsar (Tsar meaning Caesar).
    Each of these generals were similar and different in their applications as leaders in military and political matters. They all seem to have the luck of Napoleon, but all of their stories do not end the same. Alexander left somewhat of a legacy in government, his manouevers in battle are studied to this day. Ultimately, he could not live out his accomplishments. It can also be said that he created an early model, for the world government, utopia-minded people today.
    Hannibal, had the Rome offensive occured, would have been the greatest general of all time, already the father of the stratagem.I cannot give much audience to Scipio, who beat an army, way past it’s prime, and barely holding on, at the battle of Zama. All Scipio did was repeat the tactics he learned from Hannibal. I also believe Hannibal tried to avoid this battle. Hannibal had way too many enemies in Carthage, who unknowingly, cut their own throats. Like Alexander, his tactics, especially the double envelopement, is studied to this day. The Romans completely destroyed the Carthiginian Empire, and the Carthiginians were no more.
    Caesar, great commander, politician, writer, lover of Cleopatra, with whom they had a child.
    Even though Hannibal reached the age of 63, we learn war is an extension of politics, and one’s life, probably will not reach a golden maturity. We learn that war is terrible and that it is definitely a racket, but one that is necessary for others to have that golden maturity. Only commanders such as these today,or our WWII commanders, can give each of us that golden maturity. Godspeed.

  2. I’m not sure why there is any need to consider which of these three towering historical figures was “the best”, other than this seems to be a consistent interest in modern day armchair generals. All three accomplished remarkable things in their time, regardless of the strength of their respective foes, the contributions of their predecessors, or the quality of the support each received from “the home front.”

    I am a student (by no means an authortiy) of ancient warfare/history, and am much more read regarding Alexander than Hannibal or Julius Caesar, but for my money, Alexander’s accomplishments (particularly considering it all occurred in only 12 years) were the greatest (you don’t get that added to your name for perpetuity for nothing).

    Yes, the military machine he inherited was Phillip’s doing, but it is very unlikely that even Phillip (also worth consideration for one of the greats in ancient leadership) would have taken that army as far as Alexander did. Indeed, one of the main reasons I consider Alexander the greatest of these was the sheer scope of his conquered territory. Hannibal conquered nothing so vast, and even the scope of Caesar’s Roman Empire in his time didn’t really compare- and Caesar also arguably had a much more stable Roman economic/political/military base to draw from, than Alexander (Alexander’s home front was more an enemy than an ally). Aside form ATG’s renowned generalship in battle, to me his greater (and simply amazing) accomplishment was his unique physical and mental ENDURANCE: he conquered not just a lot of space, but some of the most forbidding terrain on the whole planet, in an age where creature comforts were very, very few. It is also seldom recognized that ATG’s feat of crossing the Hindu Cush (in the middle of winter) was far more challenging than Hannibal’s celebrated crosiing of the Alps.

    I somehwat disagree with the criticism that ATG’s “empire” was no such a thing, simply because it “didn’t last beyond his death.” I think there is every reason to believe that, had he lived another 15-20 years (maybe even with less) he would likely have even come to conquer Hannibal’s Carthagenians, and Rome itself. The available histories seem clear that he did have those plans in progress, at the time of his death. On his final return to Babylon, in the months just before his death, he also did manage to correct most of the corruption that had befallen his previously conquered territories, after he had moved into the far East. It’s likely that, even with the huge size of the empire he would have had to manage, he would have succeeded. His ambition was legendary, and his vision unique.
    His fabled “pothos” also sets him apart from all others of his time.

    One can of course argue this endlessly, and offer reasonable arguments for all three generals (and then some), as well as offer any number of flaws in their respective characters- without remotely coming close to any concensus.

    But perhaps that’s the value in it, after all…..not to reach any conclusions, but simply to recall that glory of their times.

    I think it would be fair to say that 21st Century historians have no one to look to, who would today begin to approach the magnificence of an Alexander, a Hannibal, or a Caesar- indeed, the most revered of modern generals, if they have anything in common that helps define their accomplishments, more ofetn than not have drawn much of their lessons of generalship from these same three Ancients.

    “Fortune favors the bold.”

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