History's Best (or at least Greatest) Military Leaders

Purely for fun, I thought I'd talk about something that's long interested me.  Who would you pick for the best military leaders of all time?

There are a lot of factors you can use to quibble with here.  Someone might have been technically brilliant, and yet circumstances drew them a raw deal, so that they never got a chance to shine.  You could argue some other guys lucked out; they were in the right place at the right time, so that they looked better than they were.

So to give it some context, here are the parameters:  if Earth was being attacked by aliens and you could go back in time to pick out one leader to save us, who would be on your list of candidates?

I'll start with the no-brainers, in their chronological order.

1.  Alexander the Great
2.  Julius Caesar
3.  Genghis Khan
4.  Napoleon

You could make an argument that Caesar was a brilliant politician who happened to be an above average general, so that technically he doesn't belong.  But the man was in the habit of winning, and that's what we're looking for; there've been periods in history when the best leader was the one with the organisational skills.

Onwards with the best of the rest:

5.  Khurush the Great

Who?  You probably know him as Cyrus the Great, but his real name was Khurush.  He founded the Persian Empire by starting with a small client state and then conquering everyone in sight.  He built the largest empire the world had yet seen.  Alexander was fascinated by Khurush and studied him intensely.  In turn, Caesar was fascinated by Alexander, and Napoleon by Caesar.  

6.  Charlemagne

You know it's tough company when the founder of the Holy Roman Empire can only get slot #6.   Charlemagne often gets dropped off lists of great leaders, and I don't know why, because it's not like unifying Europe is easy.  Maybe it's because he lived at a time when military technology had reduced the craft to a level of "see-enemy-hit-enemy".

7.  Scipio Africanus

After the battle of Cannae, at which Hannibal's army slaughtered 50,000 Romans, including most of the leadership team, a junior officer named Scipio was given command, at the age of 25.  At that time, Rome's control had been reduced to her city walls.

Scipio reconquered Italy.  Then he reconquered Southern France.  Then he reconquered Spain.  Then he took back the Mediterranean.  Then he invaded North Africa.  Then he conquered Carthage.

Scipio never lost a battle, and he did it against Hannibal, widely considered the greatest commander since Alexander.  There wouldn't be another such match of titans until Napoleon faced Wellington.

Speaking of which...

8.  Hannibal
9.  Wellington

10.  I'm open to suggestions!


Stephanie Thornton said...

I'm going to go with Genghis Khan for #1.

But then you know I'm biased. :)

And what about Belisarius?!

Again, I might be biased.

Anthony Pacheco said...

I think one can make a compelling case for the sish polymath Empress Leiesha, whose empire at its height spanned all known jump points. Culturally, the Empress’s mark on the galaxy can’t be denied as most of the systems not fallowed today still subscribe to her curious blend of hyper-capitalism backed up by outright sish personal dominance of other species. Indeed, one could argue the reduction of the Empire’s borders is simply a natural economic contraction where a slower overall Galactic Population Growth Index (GPGI) necessitates a reduction of naval ships because the percentage each system allocates to naval funds naturally decreases when economic activity decreases (a direct result of a smaller GPGI). This is a system the Empress herself put together, and is only mentioned because it highlights she was a rather brilliant individual.

What is not well known is the Empress was a ferocious sish warrior but also a brilliant naval strategist. The Terrans, with their technological superiority did not willingly submit to her takeover of Fleet, yet were bound to the results because they themselves had turned Fleet into an interconnected series of corporations serving Earth interests, rather than a formal navy under a system of government. Thus the Empress took over human space through a convoluted, but ultimately effective and surprisingly quick, hostile corporate takeover. This was the hallmark of her rule.

Of course we all know what she did with the Terran Fleet once she had it, and her exploits there are better known. Many peoples assumed it was the sish Admiral O’dey and the human Admiral Connery combining sish tactical supremacy with the humans’ technological advantage, and the Empress’s sheer force of will over the two. But curiously Connery never wrote an autobiography, and if one read between the lines in O’dey’s humorous but insightful I Always Knew Humans Were Not Snacks, you can see the Empress’s handiwork in almost all of the major engagements. Indeed, they all have a blend of unconventional tactics coupled with a vastly superior logistics system, fingerprints which are almost identical to her implemented commerce system and takeover of Fleet.

Amalia Dillin said...

Why Wellington but not Napoleon?

Military history is not my strength, so I am just going to sit back and absorb on this one -- maybe I can talk el husband into weighing in, because that's more his area of expertise!

Gary Corby said...

Amalia, I have Napoleon listed in the top 4! I did those 4 in chronological order because the idea of trying to sort them is just way too hard.

Anthony...er...I'm still absorbing your interesting theory...

Amalia Dillin said...

Oh geez -- I don't know how I missed that! Sorry for the reading error.

Clare Wilson said...

I love it that you included Scipio Africanus! I studied his campaigns during a classics course in college, and he was an amazing general - my favorite on the list besides Napoleon.

As for #10 - maybe Suleiman the Magnificent? Or I suppose Don Juan of Austria, who conquered Suleiman eventually.

Gary Corby said...

Hi Stephanie,

I had a feeling you might feel that way about Genghis. Considering that at one point his family had nothing and was living off wild fruits, and that he ended up ruling the largest land empire ever, he totally deserves a #1.

Belisarius would be a decent #10.

Gary Corby said...

Hi Solari,

Yes, Suleiman's another good choice!

Adam Dillin said...

I definitely have to agree with your list - all of those men were outstanding leaders and I feel that most of them deserve their legendary status. My own list would be very similar to yours.

I do, however, have another nominee to put forth: the venerable Theban general Epaminondas. He may not have had such a lengthy C.V. of conquests as Caesar, Alexander, or some of the other leaders on your list, but Epaminondas significantly altered the paradigm of Greek battle tactics. His innovative atypical troop formations (perhaps themselves inspired by maneuvers of his countryman Pagondas) and extensive use of skirmishers allowed Thebes to shatter Spartan domination of Greece and raise his city to a short-lived preeminence. His methods are debated to have served as inspiration for Philip II of Macedon and his son Alexander (though the latter would later destroy Thebes less than 30 years after the Theban's death to serve as an example to other Greek cities resisting Macedonian rule).

Gary Corby said...

Hello Adam!

It's a pleasure to meet you.

I really, really like Epaminondas for a #10. Even #9. Wellington vs Epaminondas would be kind of epic.

You could also make a case for Pyrrhus (who Hannibal rated #2 in his time). I didn't list him though because then I'd be easily accused of bias for ancient Greeks.

Personally, once I got past the obvious top 4, I found it increasingly hard to rate one commander over another.

Gary Corby said...

Should have added, the guy I wanted to list but forced myself not to, was Winston Churchill. Clearly the stand out leader of last century, but too far removed from the military side to fight off space aliens.

Geoff Carter said...

No mention of Pericles?

Gary Corby said...

"No mention of Pericles?"

Then I'd really get accused of bias.

I think Pericles is like Churchill. Though his day job was General, it was a means to an end. He had victories but he wasn't a particularly outstanding military commander. Of course, if you needed someone to lead the nation, you could do worse.

Sarah W said...

I have a soft spot for Scipio Africanus, mostly because he rarely seems to get the credit he deserves from non-academics.

I agree with you about Churchill--I love the man, but his primary job (in which he excelled) was to keep the country together and the alliances going and to sign off on military plans. He supervised the big picture, but he was slightly removed. Of course, his was (or is?) a different era of warfare from the others.

But if we're talking space aliens, I'm gonna have to go with Captain America. Sorry.

Laura Hughes, MittensMorgul said...

As usual, love the post! And the comments!

Using your scenario of an alien invasion, the world would need someone like Churchill to hold the populace together while a military leader organized the defense. Both are important to defeating the saucer people. I would bring Churchill to lead the people.

As far as a military commander, as long as we would have enough time for our chosen warrior to get up to speed on modern technology without his head exploding, I think any of your top choices would be excellent. I'm having a hard time imagining Alexander the Great trying to come to grips with stealth bombers, automatic weapons, and nuclear bombs, though.

Would any of those brilliant generals of the past even know what to do with modern battlefield technology? Would their skills carry over to an entirely different kind of warfare?

DeadlyAccurate said...

But how many of these guys followed a "slaughter everything in your path" style of war? Would they still be as great making targeted attacks with minimum civilian casualties?

(I know our wars in Iraq and Afghanistan don't have a good record of avoiding civilian casualties, but we don't go into it with the idea of indiscriminately killing civilians either).

Gary Corby said...

They don't need to know how the technology works, they only need to know what it can do. They'd all pick that up very quickly.

Napoleon was a very strong mathematician; he actually had a paper published before he rose to great heights, and he was known for hanging out with the great scientists of the day. He'd have no trouble. Caesar hired people to reform the calendar and presumably understood the astronomy behind it (hence the Julian calendar). Alexander was taught by Aristotle and remained interested in science. So a big leap for all of them, but I suspect within a few months any one of them would know more science than most modern adults.

Deadly, Alexander was noted in his own time for his extremely lenient treatment of defeated enemies. (If you don't count Thebes...he wasn't keen on people who broke their word). Caesar got stabbed to death because he was significantly too forgiving to defeated enemies. Napoleon was quite ruthless about casualties, and Genghis belonged to the rape-pillage-burn school of social administration.

Karin said...

Gustav Adolf?

Gary Corby said...

Another fine choice, Karin.

John said...

I want to say Henry II, but if you're going to take Henry, you can't ignore his Richard I. I'd say take them as a team, but their fractious relationship likely would doom the whole thing from the off. That said, both were tireless, fearless, and, as you say about Caesar, accustomed to winning. Give either another ten years of life and you could argue they'd have cut short Capetian authority in France by a hundred years.

Susanna Fraser said...

I automatically approve of any top ten generals list that has Wellington, but for your tenth spot I'm trying to think of an American to list. The two candidates that came to mind, even though they didn't lead armies on anything like the same scale of the men on your list, are the Jacksons--Andrew and Stonewall--mainly for having the sheer obstinate cussedness I'd want in whoever is standing against the aliens. At least, I'd want them on the staff of whoever is in charge. :-)

Also, would you consider a naval commander for your list, someone like Nelson? They'd be just as likely to be effective against the space aliens, after all.

Unknown said...

Obviously I am biased as an American, but George Washington, or Patten I feel deserve a spot on the list. Although in historical terms the Revolutionary war may not be as large of a clash as others, it is hard to deny the magnitude of his leadership. Patten, although involved in several scandals related to American brutality was one of the main reasons that the Axis powers were defeated, in my humble opinion. He was able to counter the blitzkrieg tactics effectively and came up with a strategy to defeat the armored units of Germany by out manuevering them with American forces, gaining large amounts of territory in the process. Also Robert E. Lee, although he was on the losing side, it is undeniable that he was a military genius that few throughout history are on par with. It is arguable that he was the most effective commander against superior forces that the world has ever known. His genius stole numerous battles for the confederacy that would have been lost without him. . Wellington and Hannibal were excellent choices. Jackson ( Stonewall) was a certified badass and one of the great generals of the last 500 years, without a doubt, the man had balls. Andrew Jackson was no slouch either- he was tough as nails and probably the most badass president we have ever had.

Gary Corby said...

All interesting comments!

One of the problems with history is that there's a lot of it. If you're taking only ten people from across roughly 3,000 years of written history, then you'd expect 1 name per 300 years. Napoleon fills the quota for the entire modern age, and Wellington overfulfills.

The USA has contributed roughly 3% of the world's population of the last 300 years. (That's very rough, but I'm not out by more than 1%). The expected number of top 10 military geniuses emanating from the US therefore should be 0.03 people. What amazes me is that across the entire span of history, there's no obvious candidate at all for India, and only one for China. Sun Tzu though we don't really know enough about.

Gary Corby said...

Forgot to add, Patten apparently believed he was the reincarnation of Hannibal, so one might argue we already have him covered.

Gary Corby said...

...and I still forgot to mention the excellent point about Nelson. Terrific choice, but...I dunno. Naval warfare is so very tactical.

There's a whole other discussion about whether land commanders could do as well at sea, and vice versa. I'd've thought space warfare would be more an air force sort of thing, and planes haven't been around anywhere near long enough to provide a top class commander. Give it another 1,000 years, I guess.

Sarita said...


Gary Corby said...

Welcome to the blog, Sarita. Belisarius would be a fine choice.

Huscarle said...

I would suggest the following:-
Quintus Sertorius who defeated all-comers including Pompey the Great, but fell to betrayal from within.
Timur-i Lang (Tamerlane) who rose from being a nobody to building the largest empire known at that time; an empire that didn't survive the death of his somewhat forceful personality!

Gary Corby said...

Hello Huscarle, welcome to the blog.

Tamerlane's an excellent choice!

Unknown said...

Jan Žižka. (John Zizka)

Gary Corby said...

Hi Tadeáš, welcome to the blog.

I'm glad you said Žižka! He is exactly who I was thinking of when in the original post I said some Generals were technically brilliant but got a raw deal from their circumstances.

For those who don't know him, Jan Žižka was a Czech commander of the 1300s who came very close to inventing tank tactics, but using armoured wagons.

Unknown said...

I am surprised that nobody has mentioned Winston Churchill's illustrious ancestor, John Churchill, first Duke of Marlborough.

From WikiP: "To military historians David Chandler and Richard Holmes, Marlborough is the greatest British commander in history, an assessment that is shared by others, including the Duke of Wellington who could "conceive nothing greater than Marlborough at the head of an English army."
Considering that English armies created the greatest empire ever known, this is no small triumph.
Others have compared him favourably to Alexander and Hannibal.

Gary Corby said...

Hi George, and welcome.

I was half-expecting a Marlborough suggestion too. He does seem to get lost behind Wellington these days.

Unknown said...

Khaleed Ibn Walid

Unknown said...

What about Charles XII?

Gary Corby said...

Hi Fred, welcome to the blog.

Yes, the Swedish had an excellent General in Charles.

Unknown said...

I agree with Alexander the Great's and Caesar's positions but I think those tpo are very very close in comparison. It is definately a tough decision.