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Posted on Mar 8, 2006 in Armchair Reading, Front Page Features

Armchair General Reader Challenge

By Armchair General

In our March 2006 issue we asked our readers to select the greatest conqueror of all time in our Reader Challenge.  We have selected the top 5 submissions for publishing on our website.  You decide whether they found the greatest of the great…

han1.jpg

Who Was the Greatest Conqueror of All Time?

–Doug Caffey, CA submitted Hannibal Barca

Alexander the Great, Julius Caesar, Genghis Khan and Napoleon would have to be on any such list. All four controlled their governments, supply lines and political environments. While Genghis Khan probably conquered the most territory, his military opponents were weak and unorganized and it is hard to name a famous battle that he won against equal or superior forces.

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Considering many factors, however, Hannibal Barca would be the top candidate for the greatest conqueror and military commander in history! Consider the following facts:

  1. He was purely a military commander and did not control his government, which was little help in supplying his army or in forging supporting political alliances.
  2. Aside from military battles, his crossing of the Alps and keeping his army together was one of the greatest feats in ancient warfare.
  3. Unlike, Alexander, Caesar, Genghis Khan or Napoleon, Hannibal’s army was a polyglot of tribes speaking a variety of languages and otherwise having little in common. Only Hannibal’s genius for leadership could have forged these groups into an effective army.
  4. Hannibal’s opponent, Rome’s Legions, were the greatest army and fighting force of its day.
  5. For almost 15 years Hannibal ran wild in Italy, without any help or supplies from Cathage, and in the process destroyed a number of Roman armies and captured or killed multiple Roman generals. During this almost 15-year period, Hannibal was never defeated in a major battle.
  6. Hannibal’s opponent, after the first few battles, refused to meet him in open combat and followed him from a safe distance. In no other case in history has the strongest military power of its day, having its country invaded, refused to confront the occupying force due to overwhelming fear of military defeat.
  7. Hannibal never lost a battle until Zama, where he was outmaneuvered politically due to Rome’s success in convincing Hannibal’s critical Numidian cavalry to switch sides and fight for Rome instead.
  8. At the battle of Cannae, Hannibal’s forces effected the first double envelopment in recorded military history and killed 70,000 out of a Roman army of 86,000 in a little over one hour. Thus it could be said that Hannibal’s military genius, 2,161 years before the bombing of Hiroshima, as equal to an atomic bomb since approximately the same number of people were killed in the same period of time!

In conclusion, no other military commander in history, with less help from his country and no supply lines and little re-inforcements, won more battles and lost less against a stronger enemy, over a longer period of time, and struck more fear into his enemy than did Hannibal Barca! The only thing that saved the Roman Empire was a political miscalculation, meaning the various cities did not revolt against Rome as planned, as Hannibal’s military ability and genius overwhelmed the mighty Roman legions for almost 15 years without losing one single major battle!

nap2.jpgWho Was the Greatest Conqueror of All Time?

–Alexander T. Gerges, KS, submitted Napoleon

In my opinion, of all the conquerors, Napoleon is the greatest. I do not say this just because of all of his outstanding military victories; every military genius has military victories, and some were greater than others. No, what makes Napoleon the greatest, in my opinion, is that Napoleon started from humble beginnings and not from a privileged position. When the French Revolution began and France was attacked by almost every major power in Europe, Napoleon was a lowly officer in the French Artillery. His defense of Toulon brought him command of the Army of Italy: a ragtag, starving, and ill-equipped force. With that army, Napoleon defeated one of the greatest military powers of that time, the Austrian Empire. He then continued winning until he had conquered an empire and defeated every major European power on the battlefield.

Even after the Russian campaign ended with disaster and all the European powers united against him, Napoleon – against the odds – fought brilliantly with a weakened, inexperienced and poorly supplied army, winning stunning victories. After Leipzig, Napoleon fought what some historians consider his most brilliant campaign, winning again and again against his enemies. Wellington said in desperation, “Night or the Prussians must come.” Blucher did come and the battle was lost for Napoleon.

While Alexander the Great, Julius Caesar and Frederick the Great were brilliant generals and tacticians, they started in positions of power. They were given their armies. Both Alexander’s and Frederick’s fathers gave them well-trained and modern (for their time) armies, albeit unused, which they then used to conquer and win battles. Julius Caesar was given an army by the Roman senate, which he used to great effect. Of all these men, only Napoleon started from humble beginnings. Napoleon’s first major command was weak, ill-equipped, yet he reanimated that army’s morale and fought and won. Napoleon’s genius therefore lies not only in his ability to command and win victories, but in his ability to win those victories with a weakened army fighting for a destabilized country. He took those armies and that country and made them the most powerful in Europe that was only beaten by the combined might of Europe.

The story of Napoleon is a true underdog story; how the will, strength and drive of one man can forge an empire from the ruins. No other conqueror in history is as great because of that rise from humble beginnings. All others started with some sort of proficient military force they used to conquer, but Napoleon began with nothing more than his own abilities and the opportunities presented by the French Revolution. Napoleon rose to the heights of greatness with weak, poorly trained armies from a destabilized nation. That is why in my opinion Napoleon is the greatest general who ever lived.

nap1.jpgWho Was the Greatest Conqueror of All Time?

–Jeffrey A. Jessee, AL, selected Napoleon

The honor roll of military history contains many names. Names like Caesar, Alexander, Hannibal and Napoleon. These men were legends in their own times but one of them, Napoleon Bonaparte, left a legacy of accomplishment greater than the rest. Some of these conquerors, such as Alexander who inherited the greatest military machine of his time – the Macedonian army – seem destined for glory. Napoleon’s beginnings, on the other hand, were less than auspicious. Although he was born into a family of minor nobility, he had little wealth and no influence. In fact, in comparison to this peers at the military school he attended in France, he was practically destitute and attended on a scholarship. When he did eventually rise to power, the army he had to work with was demoralized and ragged while the country he fought for was bankrupt, surrounded by enemies and on the verge of complete chaos.

A few short years after assuming power as First Consul, Napoleon had begun to pull France out of its steep decline. One of the primary causes of the French Revolution had been the country’s horrible financial state. Neither Louis XVI nor the Revolutionary governments that followed were able to address this problem. Napoleon improved tax collection, provided government assistance to the poor, organized interest-free loans and instituted the Bank of France – all of which contributed to stabilizing the economy.

Another lasting contribution was the replacement of the feudalistic legal system in France and various countries throughout Europe with the Code Napoleon. Prior to this overhaul of the legal code, there were extensive variations in laws throughout France. The new system was very progressive; it implemented a separation of church and state, thus promoting religious freedom, upheld individual freedoms and rights, and improved marriage laws for women.

Finally, Napoleon’s superb administrative and organizational talents combined with his ability to inspire and lead his men resulted in a display of military genius unequaled before or since. Taking over a tattered and starving army, he turned it into the greatest weapon of war Europe had ever seen. Napoleon replaced the army’s monolithic organization with the corps system, greatly increasing its ability for flexible maneuver. His army was trained to march faster than its opponents and also relied more on foraging rather than supply depots resulting in rapid troop movements. Additionally, as an organization devoted to promoting its members based on talent as opposed to nobility, it was exceptionally well officered in comparison to other countries. The end result was an army that, following Napoleon’s divide-and-conquer strategy, dominated Europe for nearly two decades, consistently delivering decisive defeat to a series of coalition armies.

Despite Napoleon’s inauspicious beginnings, he went on to fight more battles than Caesar, Alexander and Hannibal combined; he won most of those engagements. While his military accomplishments were truly astounding, his most lasting achievements were probably the Code Napoleon and the establishment of the Bank of France.

mao1.jpgWho Was the Greatest Conqueror of All Time?

–Matthew Macchiaroli, via email, selected China’s Mao Zhedong

The greatest conqueror of all time is not Alexander or Napoleon, but Mao Zhedong, the revolutionary fighter in China. Mao Zhedong’s greatness begins as a young peasant who in a country of millions strived for a better life. While Alexander the Great was the son of a great king and had many luxuries, Mao Zhedong had to fight for the benefit of basics like the ability to read and write, and his drive would be shown again and again on the battlefield. As Mao got older he immersed himself in literature, especially the works of Communist Karl Marx. Mao, like every great general, learned that if he could get the support of his people he could defeat any enemy that opposed him. Mao’s extraordinary tactics and ability to militarize the people all made him the greatest conqueror of all time.

Mao’s basic tactics that won him many wars was guerrilla tactics. Mao was not the first conqueror to use guerrilla tactics but he perfected them and his model would be used time after time by other commanders. In his book, On Guerrilla War, Mao talks extensively about his revolutionary tactics that could defeat empires much more powerful than China. At the time, China was a nation that was made up of about 400 million people and was divided by the Communists, Nationalists and the Japanese Empire. Mao fought these much more powerful foes by calling on and militarizing the common Chinese peasant. There were plenty of them to serve China. His weak peasant armies would be “like fish in the sea,” for they would live side by side and be protected by the very people they were fighting to free. The peasant forces would fight the highly equipped enemy armies by not engaging them conventionally but by attacking the enemies’ rear and other lightly defended areas. This way the peasants could neutralize the powerful enemies’ strengths of technology by using stealth and speed. Slowly, while his men gained more experience and weapons, they could defeat the enemy in more conventional ways, but still attack in lightly protected areas. These tactics let Mao defeat armies composed of much more highly equipped and trained soldiers.

While many other conquerors are counted great because of the land they annexed, Mao conquered something much greater than dirt – he conquered the soul and mind of the Chinese citizen. By freeing the people from landowner debts and using propaganda, Mao turned many of the 400 million Chinese to his side. If this is not greater than merely conquering land then what is? Mao gave his people an image, an image of a united China that was prosperous. Mao did not keep all of his promises, but by gathering the people to his side, he did defeat the very violent Japanese Imperialists and the corrupt Chinese Nationalists.

Mao Zhedong is the forgotten general who holds the title of Greatest Conqueror.

kha1.jpgWho Was the Greatest Conqueror of All Time?

- John E. Shanahan, NY, selected Genghis Khan

I have chosen a non-Westerner, Genghis Khan, as the greatest conqueror in human history. Uniting the tribes of bickering sheep herders from the sparse plains of Mongolia, joined by Tartars and Turkish warriors and a multitude of religions, Genghis Khan and his hardy mounted archers shook the world. His armies crushed and subjugated the powerful northern kingdoms of China, smashed into Southeast Asia, destroyed the Persian Empire, sliced through Central Asia, the Middle East and Russian, and slaughtered the finest knights of Europe. In the space of one lifetime, Genghis Khan carved out the largest land empire ever conquered, four times larger than the empire of Alexander the Great.

Fear and wholesale butchery of resisting urban populations was a proven Mongol tactic. Leaving no potential rebel or mutinous attacker behind alive was paramount. It has been estimated that over 40 million souls were destroyed by this man and his horde. However, those who submitted were spared and ruled leniently. Genghis Khan and his hardy warriors on their rugged ponies were different than other barbarian invaders because they were excellent at sieges and had exemplary engineers for river crossings. These disciplined Mongol armies preferred to fight in the winter, when they could use the frozen lakes and rivers as highways through the lands they destroyed or subjugated.

Some of the long term consequences of Mongol conquest were the unification of large regions in Russia and China. Russian rulers were able to gain prominence and later break away to form their own empire when they were accorded the status of “tax collector” for the Mongol empire. Genghis Khan’s tight discipline in both military and government made his empire extremely safe. This safety and high road maintenance encouraged trade, cultural exchange and extensive knowledge transfer between east and west along the “Silk Road.” Even the Black Death may have traveled along this trade route. A highly successful postal service was created because this route was so protected. One out of every 200 people in Eurasia are of Mongol descent, Persia became Iran and the origins of the Ottoman Empire were results of this greatest of conquerors.

Do you agree?  Discuss the great conquerors of history in our discussion forum!

2 Comments

  1. Wow! I really enjoyed reading this article on Hannibal. Thanks for the time and research!

  2. I like all the articles except the one on Hannibal. What Hannibal does not have in common with those other four positions was that Hannibal did not defeat his greatest enemies. Although in Italy for 15 years, he was stuck there and despite his three greatest victories over Rome, the Romans were still fighting. Hannibal didn’t win his war. Napoleon, on the other hand, fought many wars and constantly forced his rivalries to admit defeat. This is about the greatest conquerors and Hannibal did not conquer.

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