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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

Alexander’s failures in Generalship appear in occasional poor scouting in particular on the way back from India when he stumbled into a desert resulting in many deaths. He also committed numerous atrocities and murdered some of his friends and Generals. These included Parmenion (an experienced General from his father’s times as well as his), Philotas (Parmenion’s son), Callisthenes (friend and historian of his conquests), and Cleitus (who had saved his life in battle!). Such acts were unwise when trying to sway the favour of many different nations, which is what Alexander tried his hardest to do. Amongst many of his atrocities he was known for wiping out a town filled with the descendants of Greeks who had betrayed a Greek town in Asia Minor some few hundred years before. He was also guilty of destroying Persepolis, once the beautiful capital of the Persian Empire filled with riches. Yet it is also important to understand a strategy in some of these events. Persepolis was a city built to signify the grandeur and significance of the great Persian Empire so by destroying it he was also destroying Persian hopes and dreams, thus helping to give a speedier end to the war. While it was a psychological blow to the Persians, it made Alexander seem all the more Greek. The myth that he and an Athenian woman together instituted the burnings helped to secure the trust and faith of the Greeks who could have caused him great trouble if they had rebelled against his homeland while he was far away.



Hannibal Barca, 247BC – 182BC

Caesar’s enemy, the Gauls, were by no means a better enemy than the Persians. In many cases a mere disorganised rabble, easy pickings for a strong, disciplined army like that of the Romans. The important factor for Caesar’s hopes of victory was the Gauls’ lack of effective cavalry, which was the very same problem the Romans suffered throughout their existence. Though they beat many of their enemies, those who did defeat them had a prominent cavalry force. Arguably one of their worst defeats was that of Crassus at Carrhae. When the Romans came up against a formidable cavalry force they were simply unable to adapt, and this problem of course was the same for Caesar. Hannibal’s defeats of the Roman army came about because he had the luxury of strong Numidian cavalry. The Generals that Caesar faced were able, though by no means geniuses. Vercingetorix in particular understood that the Romans could not be beaten in open battle by a rabble of tribes with little armour and no discipline. Pompey did no wonders to stop Caesar though had ample time when Caesar decided to quell other areas such as Spain before dealing with his main threat. The Roman army gained its great success without doubt from its extraordinary discipline and determination against enemies who were either in decline (such as the Greeks/Macedonians etc) or simply just not advanced enough (Gaul/Briton/Spain etc).

And there may not even have been a Roman Empire if Hannibal had been able to master the value of siege engineers. He showed he could regularly devastate the Romans in open battle at Cannae in particular by the fact that his cavalry could easily deal with that of the Romans. If the Roman cavalry had defeated his that day, the Romans could have attacked his wings and put an end to Hannibal’s whole ingenious plan. However, they didn’t because Hannibal was fighting an army with a set of cavalry barely worth turning up to the fight! Out of all the enemies the three Generals had to face he probably faced the best but yet still it was very much a beatable army. Roman strength laid not so much in its army’s tactical brilliance (Roman battle tactics remained very limited, disciplined, collective fighting often won the day) as in its ability to raise new ones very quickly; they suffered many disastrous defeats such as at Cannae, Trasimene, Trebia, Teutonberg Forest and Carrhae yet they didn’t affect the Empire. The Empire continued as they merely trained new armies from their vast population. It took Rome three disastrous attempts to discover that Hannibal could not be beaten in open play unless by Fabian tactics or destroying his supplies.

Hannibal does however deserve great credit for his army, which he trained into a highly mobile and flexible unit. The only drawback seems to be his dependence on mercenary Numidian cavalry, which would eventually be his undoing at Zama. A battle where I believe he let himself down greatly, even though he did not desire to yet fight the marauding Romans (being heavily pressured by the Carthaginian senate). What I wonder is why he sent in his elephants first that day when they’d been rarely used in his Italy campaign and must have seemed a volatile liability. May it possibly have been wiser to hold them back to protect the flanks and scare off the highly superior enemy cavalry (the Numidians, having changed sides via a small civil war in which the Romans aided the winner)? As a matter of fact in Alexander’s battle at the Hydaspes, his enemy (Porus) knew of Alexander’s superior cavalry force and thus kept his own cavalry protected by his elephants. It was only by a clever trick that Alexander was able to lure out the cavalry and then annihilate it.

Another of Hannibal’s failures was that of his inability to sequester engineers or ships. Where he compares yet again with Alexander is that Alexander was able to beat the Persians despite having no significant navy, the only navy he did have he disbanded. On the other hand, Hannibal was unable to beat the Romans partly because of his lack of sea power. His aim to merely batter his enemy until they agreed to peace was not a wise policy against a stubborn enemy like the Romans, he needed a strategy of conquest.  A few big defeats were not going to scare the Romans off.

It is now I attempt to focus upon the qualities and genius of these characters. Alexander more than any other has had himself written about with glowing and yet also notorious propaganda. In particular he is said to be brave and resilient and led from the front letting his men feel that he was sharing in their fear and pain. It is documented that he picked up many injuries in battle including being shot by a catapult bolt while on his near East campaign and receiving a punctured lung when shot by a bowman while single-handedly assaulting a fort in India. There is also a story that when hiking across the sweltering desert back to Babylon from India he threw away a helmet of water given to him, insisting that he drank only when his men did. Such acts can give a huge inspirational lift to ones army and Alexander regularly helped his men on the march and publicly commended them for deeds in battle. The idea clearly being to make himself seem one of the men, with them and alongside them in labours not just leading them as a tyrannical dictator. He needed their loyalty and enthusiasm so he set an example to follow in battle and on the march.

His education from Aristotle helped him become a good orator and erudite in the field of politics and Generalship. He knew a good speech could easily sway a mob of revolting soldiers and he also recognised that if he wanted to keep his empire it had to be run by the local natives as well as Macedonians. He put Persians into the army and in satrapies knowing that the local populace would prefer local governors to marauding Greeks. He had the ambition to unite and integrate east and west under one leadership in the same way that the Romans established the ‘Pax Romana’. He aimed to eliminate differentials of race and nationality and create a prosperous world.

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  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.”