Here are the 8 Most Brilliant Military Commanders in History
When reviewing military history, there are hundreds of men (and women) that were incredible strategists on the battlefield, and excellent tacticians during the battle. Their achievements as military commanders are measured by both their victories and their vast military knowledge.
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But a few of those great leaders demonstrated extreme genius and a powerful ability to inspire and lead. While many commanders understand the battlefield quite well, there are a few who took it to the next level, like those mentioned below.
Here is our list of the eight (8) most brilliant military commanders in all of history.
William the Conqueror
William the Conqueror was a fearless leader of the Normans who famously invaded England in the 11th-century ¹. This was the final time that England was dominated and conquered by a foreign power. William was most known for hammering the English at the battle of Hastings. Following this decisive victory, his army marched on London.
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Attempts by England to push back William’s armies were futile as he eventually took full control of England and began his reign. He went on to enact many significant reforms to the Anglo-Saxon culture of England while ushering in a new Anglo-Norman culture.
The mighty Mongol Empire was created and ruled by Ghengis Khan². It remains the largest contiguous empire in the history of humankind — most of which was a considerable portion of Asia.
It was the uniting of several notable nomadic tribes throughout northeastern Asia that enabled Genghis to achieve this remarkable feat. With these units, the Mongols strategically raided prominent regions within China and all throughout Asia.
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The Mongol Empire went on to capture the majority of Eurasia and vital parts of Central Asia, Eastern Europe, and the Middle East. Ghengis Khan meticulously planned and executed effective military campaigns that defeated the Jin and Western Xia dynasties, and the mighty Khwarezmid Empire through the use of remarkable military tactics.
Napoleon was one of the most famous military leaders. He was a flamboyant general whose popularity grew during the French Revolution³.
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While his brilliance was clearly demonstrated on the battlefield, many believe his most outstanding achievements were on the political battlefield. It was through his excellent leadership skills and personal charisma that he went on to take total control of the French Republic and to become the Emperor of France.
Napoleon went on to become the King of Italy, the Swiss Confederation Mediator, and the Protector of the Rhine Confederation. And later, after he got exiled to the island of Elba, he reformed the island’s government and economy.
As one of the most well-known people on this list, Julius Caesar has always been considered as a great leader of the Ancient Roman Empire⁴. But what is often overlooked was his prowess as a great military commander. In the Roman Republic, many aspiring political leaders would serve in the military for two reasons: 1) to prove their leadership skills, and 2) earn their fortune from the booty they captured.
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Historians have well documented the fact that Julius Caesar had a genius-level IQ. This became quite clear when he marched in the wilderness and defeated a large, highly feared Gaul army. This massive Gaul army was the combination of many tribes and was led by their most powerful leader, Vercingetorix. This campaign led to Rome giving Caesar a Triumph parade — which was the greatest of honors for military heroes.
Later in a Civil War, Caesar defeated his Roman rival Pompey when the odds were massively stacked against him. These were the events that allowed him to be the very first Emperor of the Roman Empire after the Roman Republic had dissolved.
Cyrus the Great
Cyrus the Great was a remarkable leader who created the Achaemenid Empire around 550 BCE through his amazing military conquests⁵. This empire was established in Persia and extended from the Indus River to the Aegean Sea. This empire originated when Cyrus the Great conquered the powerful nations of Babylonia and Lydia. Even the Holy Bible credits Cyrus with freeing the Jewish people from slavery in Babylonia.
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Cyrus was also an extraordinary diplomat. He was well-known for his tolerance for those he had conquered. After he conquered Babylonia, the nations of Syria, Mesopotamia, and Palestine also fell under his rule.
Alexander the Great
The accomplishments of Alexander the Great were mostly extraordinary because most of them had been achieved before he reached the age of 30⁶. Even more impressive was that he was also the King of his nation and not just a military commander. He was notorious for picking up his sword and joining his soldiers on the battlefield.
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Alexander began his conquests by capturing his neighbors in Greece. Next, he went to the mighty Persian Empire. After this, Alexander continued his campaign by defeating and conquering several cities in Carthage, Egypt, and India.
While he wanted to keep marching east, his troops were totally exhausted, and his generals finally convinced him to return home. Alexander later died under mysterious circumstances. Many claimed his death was caused by malaria, but the official cause of death is unknown.
Robert E. Lee
Robert E. Lee is the most recent commander on this list. During the Civil War, his value as an effective leader was immediately recognized as he was given control of the rugged Northern Army of Virginia⁷.
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His incredible strategic genius was demonstrated by how his armies repeatedly defeated Union Armies that were much larger than his. No military leader during the entire Civil War participated in as many significant battles as General Lee. And he won almost every one of them against incredible odds.
President Lincoln’s primary objective at the beginning of the war was to eliminate Lee’s army, but he never accomplished that goal — even after firing and hiring many different generals. General Lee defeated all of these on Virginian soil. Lee wasn’t ever defeated until marching north.
The incredible thing about Lee’s battlefield victories was the fact he always fewer soldiers than his opponents. And his soldiers also had far fewer provisions too. These two facts alone are a great testament to both his military genius and the ability to inspire others.
When it comes to leadership and military genius, it’s hard to find anyone as influential as Hannibal Barca⁸. Hannibal grew up with the primary goal of invading and defeating the hated Romans. After assuming command of the Carthaginian army, he started assembling an invasion force in the Spanish city of New Carthage — which is Cartagena today. This is where he gathered a vast variety of mercenaries, which included his famous battle elephants.
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Hannibal was fully aware that the Romans had expected to engage him at Sicily, but instead, he did the unthinkable. He marched his army through Southern Europe, trekked through the snow-covered Alps, and invaded northern Italy — completely surprising the Romans.
For nearly 20 years, Hannibal’s great army savaged the peninsula of Italy. In most of the significant battles, Hannibal’s army was hugely outnumbered, but his skills as a tactician allowed to win almost every one of those battles. Hannibal was an absolute master in two areas: 1) finding the weakness of his enemies, and 2) using the terrain to gain an advantage.
Perhaps his most famous victory was the Battle of Cannae. This was where Hannibal had less than 40,000 soldiers and met a Roman army that had over 50,000 men. He knew that Consul Varro — who was leading that Roman army — was overly aggressive. So Hannibal quickly lured the Romans into a trap.
Suddenly the Romans were penned up against a Lake, and Hannibal crushed them. At the end of the battle, there were over 40,000 dead Romans, while Hannibal only lost around 6,000 from his army.
A fantastic aspect of Hannibal’s Italian campaign was his ability to maintain and recruit soldiers. His country Carthage offered very little support in terms of supplies and reinforcements to Hannibal.
Hannibal had to feed his army from local Roman farms, and he also had to reinforce his army along the way. For many years, countless Roman armies attempted to remove Hannibal’s army from Italy, but they failed. Finally, he was beaten in battle by Scipio, but they were unable to capture Hannibal.
Additionally, consider the fact that Hannibal’s army was comprised of soldiers from several different countries. For this reason, Hannibal spoke several languages and had the ability to inspire all of them.
: Mark Cartwright. (January 30, 2019). William the Conqueror. https://www.ancient.eu/William_the_Conqueror/.
: Owen Jarus. (February 11, 2014). Genghis Khan, Founder of Mongol Empire. https://www.livescience.com/43260-genghis-khan.html.
: Robert Wilde. (July 8, 2019). Biography of Napoleon Bonaparte, Great Military Commander. https://www.thoughtco.com/napoleon-bonaparte-biography-1221106.
: Joshua J. Mark. (April 28, 2011). Julius Caesar. https://www.ancient.eu/Julius_Caesar/.
: Ricahrd N. Frye. Alexander the GreatCyrus the Great. https://www.britannica.com/biography/Cyrus-the-Great.
: History.com. (November 9, 2009). Alexander the Great. https://www.history.com/topics/ancient-history/alexander-the-great.
: PBS. The Life of Robert E. Lee. https://www.pbs.org/wgbh/americanexperience/features/lee-timeline/.
: Biography.com. (October 15, 2015). Hannibal. https://www.biography.com/military-figure/hannibal.