War and Social Upheaval: Great Military Commanders

Figure 1.--

There have been many great military commanders in history. The commanders at the top of the list according to most military historians would be: Alexandr, Hannibal, and Caesar. After then there is more discussion, but we would suggest men like Attila, Pepin, Charlemagne, Saladin, Geghis Kahn, Barbar, Marlbourgh, Washington, Napoleon, Nelson, Wellington, Jackson, Lee, Grant, Trotsky, Guderian, Zukov, Nimitz, Eisenhower, Patton, and many others. As a result of these men, it was not always the strongest armies and states which survived with profound impacts on history. This is a topic that military historians debate endlessly often influence by nationalist pride than pure military history. It is a debate that will no doubt contiue for ever. Many have been forced or attempted to also deal in statecraft after their military victories. Most but not all of these men gained victory over numerically superior forces. Only one of these men, however, gained victory over an opponent that was both numerically and militarily superior--Admiral Nimitz at Midway. And only three of the great commanders we know of were able to make the transition from battlefied commander to statesmen. Here non-military factors hav to be considered, factors like relations with enemy leaders, capturing enemy political centers, sustaining the army, knowing win to stop fighting and negotiate, and others. The three men that most readily come to mind are all Americans, George Washington, Andrew Jackson, and Dwight Eisenhower. All three might not be included in a list of the greatest commanders of history, but their military achievements ensured great victories which profoundly affected history and repeated the same success as elected presidents. Many of the other commandes better known for their military exploits failed as statesmen and the empires they conquered were broken up and lost to history after their death. Here we welcome reader comments about our choices or others we should include.

Alexander the Great (Macedonia/Greece, )

Alexander has to be at the top of any list of great military commanders. He was a peerless warrior, leading from the front. Alexabder united the Greeks by making it clear what would happen to city states that defied him. His ability to size up a battlefield and adjust tactics as combat deleoped are surely without rival. His major target was the Persian Empire which at first did not take him seriously. Alexander defeated huge Persian armies and created an huge empire in the process. He pacified the north through bloody pillage and sacking, then invaded India. Historians criticize him for over extending his empire. [Strauss] Alexander after defeating King ??? wanted to go deeper into India, but his been refused and Alexander had to return to ??? here he died of unknown causes. He showed some skill as a statesman, marrying into the Persian ruling class and allowing King ??? to rule as a vassal. He made no provision for the secession as he was still a very young man. His vast empire was soon torn apart by disutes among his generals--the ????. While his Empire wa torn apart by the ?????, in the process much of the Mediterranean world was Helinized which affted both Rome and Christianity and thus come down to the modern world.

Caesar (Rome )

Caesar was another peerless commander, perhaps not in the same league as Alexander or Hanibal, but surely very close. Caesar did not create the Roman Empire, but he added Gaul to it and a was in the process of adding Germania and Britain whe he was assasinated. He showed the same ruthlessness in Gaul as shown by Alexander and Hanibal. Gaul owing to the rich soil and climate proved to be one of Romes most valuable provincs adding to the territorial integrity of the Empire. He went on to defeat rival Roman armies, including that of the great Pompey. Caesar proved to be the most adept of the three legendary ancient commanders in making the transition from military commander to statesmen until the process was cut short by his assasination in the Senate. [Strauss] It was not Caesar that, however, finally ended the Republic and founded the Empire, it was his nephew Ocavian. Octavia was not a notable military commander, but as the Emperor Augustus was a canny politician and administrator. The family members who followed Augustine were a group of repobates that even Hollywood would have difficuly making up, but the strength of the Empire was such that even they could not seriously weaken it.



Hanibal (Carthage )

Hanibal was another peerless field commander in the same league as Alexander. He defeated numerically superior and well trined and armed Roman armies time and time again. No military commander before or since have so decimated powerful Roman armies. The Romans began to prevail when they avoiding combat with Hanibal. He was totally unable to make the transition from military commander to statesman. Here his hatred of Rome may have been a factor. One historian suggests that Hanibal made gross strategic errors. He was stubborn when flexibility might have allowed him to end the war with important gains for Carthage. [Strauss] In the end Rome won and Carthage was completely destroyed.

Marlbourough (Britain )

Marlbourough and Wellingon are widely seen as Britain's two greatest military commanders. Both are best known for a sinle battle. Marlborough at ???? against Louis XIV and Wellington at Waterloo against Napoleon. Unlike Wellington, Marlborough marched an English army deeper into Europe than any other English commander in history. Wellington in India developed had to deal with the machinations of local potentates and the need to balance often conflicing polotical realties. [Davies] All of this came together in bth the Peninsula where his now well-honed genius for strategy, movement, anf tactics became apparent.

Napoleon (France, )

Corsican Napoleon Bonaparte may be the one modern military commander who deserves to be ranked along with three great military commanders of history (Alexander, Hanibal, and Caesar).

Wellington (Britain )

Irishsman Arthur Wellesly, variously called the 'Iron Duke' and the 'Invibible Genral'. Wellington got his early military experience in India, like many important British commanders. Here the actual British military presence was limited, given the size of the sub-continent and its population. As a junior officer he learned how to plan a campaign, organize forces, develop and use intelligence, and work with allies. [Davies] Wellington is noted for both the Peninsular Campaign and for the final defeat of Napoleon at Waterloo (1815). Some military historians commanders question his martial skills, poeinting out that in the Peninsulr Campaigns he fought Napoleon's marshalls and not Aapolein himself. An at Waterloo, Napoleon's Army and Napoleon himself was not at the height of their powers. Even so, one important indicator of militar genius has to be success in battle and Wellington suceeded in the Peninsula (Spain) against formiable commanders and often superior French forces. And Wellington suceeded at Waterloo where i really counted, albeit with the help of the Prussians. Wellington as a commander was loved by his men and admired by his fellow officers. It probably is the case that Wellington lacked the innate military genius of Napoleon. Even so he was undeniably competent and understtod the relatinship between politics and war that often seems to have eluded Napoleon.


Davies, Huw J. Wellington's Wars: The Making of a Military Genius (2012, 336p.)

Strauss, Barry. Masters of Command: Alexander, Hannibal, Caesar, and the Genius of Leadership


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Created: 6:25 AM 5/18/2013
Last updated: 6:25 AM 5/18/2013