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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

His genius in Generalship went even further. He was always instinctively able to seek out his enemy’s weak spot (especially at the battle of Issus where he wiped out an entire wing of Darius’ army with a cavalry charge). He made it his business to know his enemy well, both the tactics they would adopt and the size of the army he would probably be facing as well as how best to deal with it. Most importantly he knew the greatest Persian weakness was their dependence upon the King.  Thus at Issus and Guagamela he went straight for Darius who twice fled, leading to the collapse of his army.

Guagamela was a magnificent piece of strategy with the phalanxes in step formation and so able to create jinks in the Persian line, small weak spots which could give the Macedonians the upper hand if they could exploit the gaps with their cavalry. Indeed Alexander charged straight through one, petrifying Darius who fled at the boldness of this young western King. In the Persian expedition by Xenophon it is shown that the Greek phalanx could still function without their leader, the Persians on the other hand were prone to fleeing very quickly.


The way he took Tyre was a magnificent piece of propaganda, the man who was able to part the waves to get at this so-called ‘impregnable fortress’. Alexander knew the importance of Tyre as a naval base for the stronger Persian fleet and so with the use of a marvellous piece of engineering he was able to bridge the large gap between the island and the mainland and storm the building. It was a tactic he was to use later when taking the mountain fortress of Peers-Sar, which apparently even Hercules couldn’t take! Another masterstroke of propaganda was the assault of the Sogdian rock where he sent ‘men who could fly’ to climb the steep cliffs. The taking of these two mountain fortresses just served to show that he could reach up almost to the Gods and not fail. A message sure to have sent echoes throughout Europe and Asia.

One of Alexander’s most controversial early decisions was to disband his fleet early and to effectively surrender the sea to the Persians. Nevertheless it was an intelligent move. The fleet was expensive and he was never going to defeat the superior Persian fleet at sea. Instead he had complete confidence in his ability to defeat all obstacles on land so he took the Persian naval bases one by one, leaving them with no place to dock and so effectively forcing the Persian fleet to hand themselves over to him. A piece of brilliance that Hannibal was never able to conjure up. Not only had he defeated the Persian fleet, he had effectively stolen it for his own use.  

The greatest show of genius though comes in his handling of the Persian guerrilla warfare tactics. He dealt with the Scythians famed for their horse archers by using siege craft for the first time in open battle. By firing catapults at them while his army crossed to close in on them, Alexander showed himself to be brave, bold and highly intelligent.


Alexandros III Philippou Makedonon (aka Alexander the Great), 356BC – 323BC

Caesar in some ways was able to equal Alexander in his relationship with his men and certainly was familiar with his conquests. He was yet another who led from the front, strong and resilient in setting an example for his troops. He was also a magnificent orator and won many court cases purely through his ability to sway the masses. A member of the ‘populares’ faction in Rome he was brilliant in being able to gain the loyalty of the common folk. He also made strides to know the men he commanded and was able to sway their loyalty to such an extent that they would march on Rome for him and make him Emperor. Rather than a great military man he was perhaps more of a political opportunist. Rarely were his decisions carefully thought out. He more often than not put himself in a sticky situation and lost a lot in trying to extricate himself from it. A conclusion, which Major General Fuller has spoken excellently in his biography of Caesar.

His attack on Britain was perhaps a propaganda trick gone wrong. With little research of his enemy he found that he was fighting a force adept at guerrilla warfare and he found the same when he returned to Gaul to face the Gallic revolt caused by the very folly of him going to Britain in the first place.

His successes were greatly to do with the fact that he had a strong, disciplined army that was able to fight as a unit picking off disorderly mobs such as the Helvetii. In Greece he let Pompey escape when he had him hemmed in on the coast. Pompey could well have beaten Caesar had he wiped out his supply line instead of facing him in open battle while under pressure from ‘optimate’ members of the senate. His finest stroke of genius was possibly in his African campaign when he put spearmen amongst his cavalry to deal with his enemy’s much superior force but it was also a campaign in which he was lucky to survive when poor scouting and foolish folly led him into an ambush.

Hannibal without doubt worked energetically to gain his reputation. He trained a brilliant, flexible army, declared war on Rome against the wishes of the Carthaginian senate and proceeded to take on the mightiest empire of the ancient world. He had a disciplined and quick mind as well as studying his terrain and enemies brilliantly. This is without doubt shown best at his most famous battle, Cannae in 216 BC.

He knew that the Romans would forcefully drive on through the centre of his army so he trained his troops to absorb this push, letting the wings  enclose around the Romans in what was one of the greatest military manoeuvres of all time – and is still used in tank warfare today. Yet, it was against a foe with a severe inflexibility in tactics and planning. With regards to the choice of battleground he used the river to strengthen the inside flank for his heavy cavalry while giving his light cavalry freedom to roam on the other wing exposed to the countryside.

From the very start of his campaign against the Romans he used the full extent of his genius and daring. His crossing of the Alps was his most famous feat and for good reason, to march an army over such terrain is an achievement up there with Alexander’s crossing of the Hindu Kush. The Romans were fooled into the belief that Hannibal would try to attack Rome by sea but Hannibal was smart enough to know that he couldn’t get 30,000 men across the sea to Italy when the Carthaginian fleet was far inferior to that of the Romans. Crossing the Alps had a huge effect upon Roman morale, it would seem he was a man to whom even the mountains would bow down.

The ambush at Lake Trasimene was a piece of brilliance, leading the mouse into a trap as the cat pounced. Once again Hannibal wiped out thousands of Romans, but while he was unbeatable in open battle he still lost all else. Unlike Alexander he was unable to take over control of the seas with few cities coming over to him and no clear plan of conquest (purely due to the fact that conquest would not seem to be his aim). He struggled against Fabius Maximus’ guerrilla tactics and never seriously threatened the heart of Rome. His only other highlight after the Italian campaign came when he helped a King from Asia Minor to defeat a rival at sea. This was accomplished by placing snakes in jars to use as projectiles causing devastating effects. In open battle, Hannibal may well have been one of the finest Generals that ever lived, in tactics unsurpassed but in grand strategy quite suspect. To defeat Rome it took a lot more resources than he could obtain, when unsupported by the Carthaginian senate.

To answer the question I set out to solve, I must decide upon who is the greatest and that title I believe most deservedly goes to he who already has the title. Alexander was accomplished all round as a General. In politics, tactics and strategy he was equally brilliant and though at times he went so far as to be a tyrant, the Empire was strong under his regime with his only significant failing being that he died too early and didn’t leave strong foundations for his empire to stay together after his death. Had his army not mutinied who knows how far he could have conquered?

In second spot Hannibal was a man who could have changed the course of the last 2200 years but unfortunately was only good enough to scare the Romans not to end their imperialism. He was brilliant in open battle with bouts of pure genius but his strategy was at times too suspect for him to be considered the greatest General of his age.

Caesar, though a brilliant opportunist, lacked the genius of the two above him, despite having certain characteristics of them within him. It was at times probably through sheer luck that Caesar got as far as he did, on many occasions he should have been defeated but pulled though with quick thinking from a position that he simply shouldn’t have got himself in.

Finally there is much more I could have said of these men and yet many more men that probably should have been included in my hypothesis however I believe I have made the correct deduction. For those that dispute it I await comment in what I hope is probably going to be an eternal debate for military historians.  

About the Author:

Anthony is a second year Ancient and Medieval History Student at the University of Birmingham, England. As well as enjoying factual books on military history he also enjoys the fiction of Massimo Manfredi and Bernard Cornwell. Other than that he claims to be a typical University student. He enjoys rock music and playing football. He hopes for a career as a museum curator or author.

Further reading:

The main sources I used for this article were the excellent books by Major General Fuller on Caesar and Alexander which though dated are still both brilliant summations of their Generalship.  For Hannibal I would advise reading the biography by Ernle Bradford.

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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.”