Twenty of the greatest commanders of the ancient world and their battles…


As my readers and followers will know, my passion – well, my greatest passion is for 1800’s warfare and in particular Napoleon – for my money the greatest commander of all time. However, one of the things which has become increasingly obvious to me is the importance of the commanders of antiquity and their battles which have shaped the way wars are fought even to this very day.

I admit I used to say that Ancient History was boring – that it only got exciting once people started shooting at each other in the 1500-1600’s but boy, was I ever wrong?? As my first major military history book (covering Julius Caesar) makes its way into print, therefore, I thought I would recount twenty of the great ancient warfare commanders from history who really made an impact, and some of their battles, strategies and tactics which can still be seen today.

If ancient warfare wasn’t your thing before today, I think you might be pleasantly surprised!

1/ Thutmosis III – Thutmosis (or Thutmose) earns his place in the annals of ancient military history by fighting the first battle in recorded history. Of course, people were killing each other for centuries, but the battle of Megiddo is where it all starts…or at least where they first started to write it down. The generally accepted date for the beginning of all military history is 1469BC, although 1482, 1479 and 1457 are also vaunted. What is important is the detail. Thutmosis – an Egyptian Pharoah was fighting the King of Kadesh who was in revolt and had taken up position on high ground around the city of Megiddo. Thutmosis ordered a demonstration to the enemy’s front and then led a daring attack through a narrow pass to get in his enemy’s flank and rear. The battle was very clearly recorded; the Caanites (Kadesh’s men) fled after a weak resistance, losing 83 men killed and 340 captured, and ran for the city gates. Thutmosis’ men then set to looting the battlefield and came away with 924 chariots and 200 suits of armour. Thutmosis was angry at his men for not attacking the city, instead of resorting to plundering, and it took him another seven months to finally capture Megiddo, ending the revolt. (Image shows ancient Megiddo)

2/ Cyrus the Great – For me, the first ‘Great Commander’ in history, Cyrus effectively built what would become the Persian Empire. Most of his battles are lost to history, but he will always be remembered for the battle of Thymbra in 547BC. This was the first battle in which a commander shaped his army’s deployment to complement his plans, and is counted as the first manoeuvre-battle in history. Forming his army into a vast rectangle, he advanced towards the enemy and allowed them to wrap around his flanks, stretching their lines. At the right moment, he attacked, first with his cavalry who poured from the rear of the formation to assault the enveloping wings of the enemy, and then from the front corners of his formation, to cut his opponents into pieces. He then executed a double oblique wheel with both wings. (Image shows battle of Thymbra)

3/ Miltiades – The famous Athenian General Miltiades was the first Greek to offer a serious check to the ambitions of Persia, and he was to do it in classic style, with a little bit of help from the Gods. A three-time Olympic winner in chariot-racing, Miltiades was a popular hero. His father having set up a Greek colony in the Cheronese Peninsula which later passed to his brother (who was then murdered and usurped) Miltiades took his revenge by arriving and feigning the most terrible sorrow, so that his brother’s murderers came to console him. Miltiades then allowed some hired mercenaries to sieze upon them and took back his father’s lands. Soon to the Cheronese came King Darius of Persia at the head of 700,000 men, and though Miltiades was forced into subjugation, he tried to lead a revolt to cut Darius off from Persia and leave him to the mercy of the Scythians who had badly defeated the Persian army. Forced to flee when his intentions were revealed, Miltiades joined the Ionian Revolt against Persia and recaptured several islands from them until the revolt was quashed and he was forced to flee to Athens. There he faced charges of despotism for his rule in the Cheronese, but managed to not only have himself acquitted, but given command of the Athenian army when he revealed his knowledge of Persian tactics. When the Persian horde arrived at marathon in 490BC, it was Miltiades who urged an immediate attack, whilst his other commanders urged that he wait for the army of Sparta which was on the way, summoned by the great long-distance runner Phidippedes. Miltiades finally persuaded them to go without the Spartans, and developed some novel tactics to the standard Hoplite formations. When the Persian cavalry moved from their beach camp to a nearby spring to water, Miltiades struck, and having massed his formations on the wings with a weak centre, now ordered the advance – not at the walk, as was normal, but now at the full charge. The Persians released their arrows, which now flew harmlessly over the heads of the Greeks as their two wings crashed into the Persian flanks and compressed them, sending men tumbling back into the sea. The terrified Persians, faced with death or drowning, now pushed through the weakened centre and made their way up the beach to escape, but they had nowhere to go. Once the Greeks had finished dealing with those on the beach, they turned about and slaughtered the fugitives. It is said that Phidippedes, returning from Sparta, had met the God Pan along the way and had asked for his help in winning the battle. From now on, the Greeks factored the effect of Pan’s own magic into their battle plans, and devised their tactics accordingly to create an effect known from here on as ‘Panic’. (Image shows Battle of Marathon)

4/ Leonidas of Sparta – Made famous for his epic stand at Thermopylae as portrayed in the film ‘300’ Leonidas was a King renowned for being a hard fighter and a wise ruler. Little is known of his military experience prior to his fateful battle and demise at Thermopylae in 480BC – by which time he was in his sixtieth year (sorry Gerard Butler!). At that battle, however, he was to immortalise his name for ever. In truth, he did not command just 300 men – the full force at his command was something around 7,000, including his 300 Spartans, but they fought against perhaps 300,000 Persians (Herodotus claimed 2,500,000!) which is some pretty big odds. We all know what happened; Leonidas held firm for three solid days, then was finally betrayed by Ephealtes who led the Persians around behind the pass. The allied Greeks escaped, but Leonidas and his Spartans held firm until all were slain. Not only the stuff of legend, Thermopylae is still a name synonymous with the use of topography and choke points as a force multiplier, and is studied at length to this day. (Image shows Battle of Thermopylae)

5/ Pagondas of Thebes – Pagondas is something of an enigma in military history; a man who pops up, fights one battle at the age of over sixty and then disappears, but perhaps his battle of Delium in 424BC is really the grandfather of all great tactical battles. Fighting against Athens, Pagondas gave the first example of deploying in deeper formations ‘en potence’, of using a cavalry reserve, of employing skirmish troops, and of varying his tactical formations throughout the battle. Needless to say, he won! (Image shows Battle of Delium)

6/ Xenophon – Okay not actually a General – indeed a mere Captain, but Xenophon proved his worth after the disastrous battle of Cunaxa in 401BC. With the Greek army defeated, their Generals were called to a conference where the Persians now assassinated them and came after the remaining 10,000 Greek mercenaries who elected Xenophon as their leader. What transpired was recorded in Xenophon’s ‘Anabasis’ – the first true military autobiography, and an amazing tale of heroism in the face of destruction and defeat of the enemy by trickery, skill and good tactics as can still be found today. (Image shows Xenophon)

7/ Epaminondas of Thebes – An amazing commander famed for fighting two very important battles; Leuctra and Mantinea, which changed the face of warfare. Epaminondas was the first man to utterly destroy the Spartans by using a clever tactic which has gone down in history as the ‘Oblique order’. Essentially this was a modified version of Pagondas’ battle of Delium, but now Epaminondas chose to attack his opponent’s strength, not his weakness, by assailing the Spartan right wing, and utilised the first ever example of a refused flank. His novel tactics – an evolution of the Delium plan – completely overthrew the previously invincible Spartans on both occasions, but he was killed in the closing stages of Mantinea. (Image shows Battle of Leuctra)

8/ Philip II of Macedon – In his day, the single greatest commander of any age, Philip had been a pupil of Epaminondas whilst in captivity as a youngster, and when his time came for command, he did not disappoint. He built Macedon from a small state of mountainous sheep-farmers into a military nation – the first man to tie military, economic, political, civil and diplomatic factions into one nationwide war effort, and then he went to war with his great siege engines, his phalanxes of sarissa-armed soldiers and his cavalry which was now used as a great metal hammer for the first time. In 353-352BC he fought the Battle of the Crocus Field – the greatest in Greek history at that time, using an oblique-order attack, but he was to top even this in 338BC at Chaeronaea against a combined Athenian-Theban army in which his young son Alexander saw his first great battle. (Image shows Battle of Chaeronea)

9/ Alexander the Great – Had Alexander not lived, his father Philip would surely rank amongst the greatest of generals, but Philip bred his son for war, and Alexander did not disappoint. In a career spanning from his late teens to the age of 33, Alexander conquered the known world, never suffering a single defeat or reverse. His great battles were fought at the Granicus, Issus, Gaugamela and the Hydaspes, but his crowning glory will always be Gaugamela in 333BC where he took on an army of half a million men with just 45,000 – and won! Always topping even a current list of the greatest commanders of the ages, Alexander was a man who never saw the limits of his ambition, and was only defeated by that great invincible war machine – his own army, which forced him to turn back from his conquest of the world. (Image shows Battle of Gaugamela)

10/ Pyrrhus of Epirus – A cousin of Alexander, Pyrrhus was the first to try the Macedonian system against the rising power of Rome. With support from Ptolemy, King of Egypt and one of Alexander’s former friends and commanders, Pyrrhus waged a war in Italy where he found the Romans to be resilient and wholly adaptable to his modes of war. At Heraclea in 280BC he broke a Roman army, but at Asculum the following year his victory was so costly that he famously stated another such victory would ruin him. The Romans were already proving that their system could evolve, and that they could call upon almost limitless numbers to fill their depleted ranks, whilst Pyrrhus’ army diminished with every clash. By the time of the battle of Beneventum in 275BC, Pyrrhus was having the worst of the engagements, and determined to abandon Italy. Becoming involved in various disputes in Greece, Pyrrhus was killed in the assault of Argos when an old lady tore a tile from a roof and hurled it down at him, breaking his neck. Pyrrhus still lends his name to the term ‘Pyrrhic victory’. (Image shows Battle of Beneventum)

11/ Hamilcar Barca – Carthage’s greatest commander and father of Hannibal, Hamilcar was wily, sneaky, resourceful and tactically astute, and first clashed against the might of Rome in the first Punic War in Sicily. Here he employed a relentless campaign of attrition but avoided pitched battle until Rome forced Carthage to peace after a successful naval war. Returning home, Hamiclar was forced to contend with his army of mercenaries who, without pay due to heavy Roman reparations, now turned upon Carthage. Here Hamilcar destroyed them in two of his greatest battles; the battle of Bagradas River and the battle of ‘The saw’ – both of which would later become patterns for Hannibal’s own battles. With Rome dominant in the Mediterranean, Hamilcar now led an invasion of Spain to secure Spanish gold and silver with which to pay his heavy war reparations, and whilst successful in subjugating large parts of the Iberian Peninsula, he was killed in battle in 228BC, perhaps as a result of an ambush. (Image shows Battle of Bagradas River)

12/ Hannibal Barca – ‘The father of strategy’ as he has sometimes been termed, Hannibal remains one of the greatest names in military history. Raised with a hatred of Rome, Hannibal was schooled in the arts of war with a study of Alexander, Pyrrhus and of his own father’s campaigns. His first test came at the Battle of the Tagus in 220BC where his small army was attacked by 100,000 tribesmen. Though barely a man, Hannibal met and destroyed them in a battle whose details are now lost to history, and soon he went on to lead his army across the Ebro, into Gaul and over the Alps. Hannibal’s most famous victories came at the Trebbia, Lake Trasimene and Cannae in 216BC where he encircled an entire Roman army and crushed it almost to a man. Yet Hannibal faced the same problems as had Pyrrhus before him, and the Romans raised armies faster than Hannibal could destroy them. Forced to abandon Italy, Hannibal returned to Carthage where he was defeated by Scipio at Zama fled and was finally betrayed to the Romans, killing himself with poison in around 182BC.  Cannae is one of the most studied battles in history, and formed the basis for the German anaconda plans of both World Wars, as well as for General Schwartzkopf’s 1990 invasion of Kuwait. (Image shows Battle of Cannae)

13/ Quintus Fabius Maximus – Known as the ‘Cunctator’ or ‘Delayer’ – Fabius is perhaps most famous for not fighting a battle at all! After Hannibal had attacked Italy and scored his major victories at the Trebbia and Lake Trasimene, Fabius employed a wholly new strategy of avoiding pitched battles and wearing the army of Carthage down by attrition. It very nearly worked, although with a couple of slip-ups, most notably at Geronium, where he was placed in joint command and the other half of his army was eaten up until he came to the rescue. Fabius was superseded by the more war-like Varro who found his army destroyed at Cannae (see above) but was then unanimously voted back in to power to save the Roman state, which arguably he did. Fabius is the father of what is now known as the ‘Fabian Strategy’ – a very useful tool in the art of war still used to this day. Image shows Quintus Fabius Maximus)

14/ Marcus Claudius Marcellus – Another of Hannibal’s greatest opponents (they really threw the proverbial ‘Kitchen Sink’ at him!) Marcus Claudius Marcellus was a Roman general famed for fighting no less than 39 battles – more than any Roman – and perhaps any person in history to that time. A distinguished soldier, he saved the life of his brother when the pair were surrounded in battle, and later went on to win Rome’s highest honour in battle, the ‘Spoila Opima’ when he met and killed the Gallic King Viridomarus at the Battle of Clastidium. Serving under Fabius Maximus, he handed Hannibal his first three defeats in a row – all at Nola (three battles around a small town) and then went off to Sicily, where he finally captured Syracuse, which was defended by the great scientist and mathematician Archimedes, who defended the city with a steam-powered cannon and even laser-beams made from lenses! He then returned to Italy where he fought two drawn matches against Hannibal at Numistro and Asculum before being drawn into an ambush near Bantia in 208BC and killed. Marcellus was known as ‘The sword of Rome’, was five times Roman Consul and was a great warrior whom Hannibal respected greatly. His record of 39 battles was to stand until overtaken by Caesar. (Image shows Marcus Claudius Marcellus)

15/ Scipio Africanus – If anyone were almost born to be the nemesis of Hannibal, it was Scipio; a man who seemed to lead a charmed life as far as Hannibal was concerned. His first action was the cavalry battle at the Ticinus river where his father, the Roman commander Publius Cornelius Scipio was unhorsed the the Romans driven from the field. The 18 year-old Scipio now charged alone into the startled Carthaginians and rescued his father. Later he survived the massacre at the Trebbia, and he was also one of very few to cut his way out of the trap of Cannae. Risen to command of an army, Scipio attacked Carthage’s base in Spain and drove the Carthaginians from the peninsula, which soon forced carthage to recall Hannibal from Italy. Finally Hannibal and Scipio were to meet in battle at Zama in 202BC where Hannibal was finally defeated. Scipio’s grasp of grand strategy has been greatly praised, whilst his battle of Ilipa, known as the ‘reverse Cannae’ is perhaps his finest tactical masterpiece. (Image shows Battle of Ilipa)

16/ Gaius Marius – The famous uncle of Caesar, Gaius Marius is most well known for having been elected Consul a record seven times. A bold and experienced fighter, Marius for ever changed the old ‘Manipular’ Roman system into a more easily repeatable and tactically useful ‘Cohort’ system. After the Roman defeat at Arasusio in 105BC (the single worst Roman defeat of all time) Marius moved to meet the invading Gauls. His new military system worked, and he handed the Gauls successive defeats at the battles of Aquae Sextiae in 102BC and Vercelli in 101BC killing as many as 100,000 Gauls in each battle. Finally ousted by his great rival Sulla in Rome’s great civil war, Marius fled to Carthage in exile, but returned and was elected Consul for a seventh time, dying just seventeen days into his Consulship. He is remembered as ‘The third founder of Rome’. (Image shows Gaius Marius in exile in Carthage)

17/ Lucius Cornelius Sulla – The friend, and later mortal enemy of Gaius Marius, Sulla was a great general and two-time Consul of Rome who also declared himself Dictator. as a soldier, he was awarded the Grass Crown – Rome’s highest military honour, and served in the Jugurthine War as well as distinguishing himself at Vercelli under Marius. Receiving command of an army to fight in the Mithridatic Wars, Sulla now considered that Marius was trying to get him out of the way as a political opponent, and now led his army to attack Rome – an unprecedented move, which saw Rome fall quickly. Sulla declared Marius an enemy of the state and passed a death sentence on him, forcing him to flee. Sulla then attacked Athens in a slaughter whereby blood was seen to flow through the streets like a river, and then defeated his opponents at Chaeronea in 86BC (where Philip of Macedon had had his great victory) before Rome, seeing that he had grown too powerful, sent a great army of 150,000 men with orders to relieve him of command. Before this clash could happen, Sulla was caught at the Battle of Orchomenus in 85BC by the Pontic Army. With 80,000 opponents to his 15,000 Sulla employed the first known example of trench warfare, using a system of dykes, trenches and earthworks to wear his opponents down and create choke-points and force multipliers.  For just 100 casualties, he saw off the Army of Pontus with losses of 15-20,000 men. Returning to Rome, Sulla was now aware of the turn of events in Rome, and teaming up with the young Gnaeus Pompeius (later Pompey the Great) he led another attack on Rome. Here was fought the Battle of the Colline Gate which saw 50,000 Romans slaughtered by their own countrymen. Sulla later retired from office and wrote his memoirs, dying in 78BC. He was the very model from which Caesar took his own political ambition, and his mode of trench warfare was to be used to perfection soon after. Image shows Batle of the Colline Gate)


18/ Pompey the Great – Gnaeus Pompeius; the man who had raised three legions to assist Sulla in his conquest of Rome soon gained a reputation as both a solid general and a fierce political opponent. After victories in Sicily and Africa against the Marian faction, Sulla bestowed upon him the title of ‘Magnus’ – The Great – a title which he retained throughout his life. Having attempted to upstage Sulla at his triumph (Pompey had bullied Sulla into granting him a procession behind his own and had arrived in a chariot drawn by a bejewelled elephant…sadly the elephant got stuck in the gates of the city, much to the amusement of all) Pompey was sent to subdue Spain, and on his return to Rome, bumped into the last remnants of the broken army of Spartacus, which he quickly mopped up, claiming the victory of the third Servile War for himself – this soon gave rise to a charge that Pompey was a glory-hunter and a victory-stealer. Elected Consul at 35, Pompey won more fame in the east before setting up a new political powerhouse in the form of the First Triumvirate, allying himself with Crassus – the richest man in Rome, and Julius Caesar – a young up-and-coming star who was the greatest orator and who had the ear of the common man. With Caesar gaining power and popularity in Gaul, Pompey determined to curb his younger protege who was now upstaging even his own great deeds, and demanded that he relinquish his armies. Caesar responded by invading Italy and – though ompey had declared that he could raise armies and defeat Caesar merely by stamping his foot on the ground, he fled to Illyria. There he joined fresh armies and handed Caesar – now in hot pursuit, a rare defeat at Dyrrachium – a battle which was more like a siege, but his next effort was to be his last. Though outnumbering Caesar greatly, Pompey found his army thrashed on the plains of Pharsalus and was forced to flee to Egypt where he was murdered in 48BC. He had been the greatest General of Rome but his star had fallen, and in beating him, the baton now passed to Caesar, who commented acidly that after Dyrrachium, the Pompeiian faction could have won, had they a commander who was a winner. (Image shows Battle of Dyrrachium)

19/ Titus Labienus – The friend and lieutenant of Caesar was one of Rome’s most overlooked commanders, serving as he did under first the great man himself and then under Pompey. Labienus was more soldier than politician, who seems to have backed Caesar’s rise to power and been rewarded with a command in Gaul. There he displayed the talents of a military genius the equal of Caesar, and particularly in his use of cavalry, saving Caesar from defeat at Sabis and then conquered the Parisii and their allies in a battle all his own at Agendicum. When Caesar and Pompey split in their famous Civil war, Labienus surprised all by siding with Pompey. Caesar – who had credited him throughout his famous Commentaries saw him again at Dyrrachium, where Labienus was noted for an unsurpassed cruelty to the Caesarian soldiers he captured. Labienus was next seen at Pharsalus – a battle which he goaded Pompey into fighting, and later turned up in Africa, winning men to his cause by a rumour that caesar had been mortally wounded at Pharsalus. Finally in Africa, Caesar and his former favourite caught up with each other at the Battle of Ruspina, and Labienus nearly won the day, tricking Caesar and surrounding him with his cavalry. Though Caesar fended him off, it was a Phyrric victory, and Labienus fell back, enthused at his performance. Finally in 45BC Titus Labienus faced off against Caesar at the Battle of Munda, but here his luck was to run out as he was killed in the rout of the Pompeiian army. It was a sad end to a great soldier whose performance was, however, marred by a sadistic streak. (Image shows Caesar surrounded at the Battle of Ruspina)

20/ Julius Caesar – Perhaps all of ancient history ends with Julius Caesar; one of the greatest commanders of all time. It was said that when Caesar saw a statue of Alexander the Great in southern Spain, he wept openly, decrying that whilst Alexander had conquered the known world at 33, yet he at even older had achieved nothing. Rising through the political and military ranks, Caesar was corrupt, ruthless and efficient. Winning the Civic Crown – Rome’s second highest honour for bravery, Caesar was soon on the road to a military command, and at last he found it in Gaul. With an unmatched speed of movement, brute force and the entrenching tactics of Sulla, Caesar conquered all of Gaul in a string of bloody battles; the Arar, Bibracte, Muhlhouse, Axona, Sabis and Alesia chief amongst them. The latter of these was a masterpiece of engineering and technical skill in which he encircled an army of 90,000 men whilst fending off a quarter of a million more who had come to their relief. Twice invading England – the first Roman to do so, he then famously crossed the Rubicon, marched on Rome, ousted Pompey from power and began a string of outstanding victories – from Ilerda in Spain where he forced seven enemy legions to give themselves up, to Pharsalus in Greece, Egypt at Alexandria and the Nile, to Zela in modern day Turkey (after which he uttered the famous words “Veni, Vidi, Vici” and then through Africa, shaking off a check at Ruspina to destroy the Pompeiians in Africa at the Battle of Thapsus, and following on to southern Spain for his final confrontation with Titus Labienus at Munda. It was said that when Caesar heard that Marcus Claudius Marcellus had fought 39 battles, he determined to fight fifty, and he did, winning 47 of them (one – Ruspina being a Phyrric victory) and holding that record until outdone nearly two thousand years later by both Suvurov and Napoleon. If Alexander was as close to a God as a man could get, than Caesar was as close to Alexander as any man ever got, and that was saying something. Caesar’s legacy is recorded in his five Commentaries – perhaps the first true autobiography of a commanding general at war, and one of the greatest works ever undertaken, which is studied today, and has formed the core of any study of the world’s greatest commanders. (Image shows Battle of Alesia)

N.B. Ricky D Phillips can be found at his Facebook page Ricky D Phillips – Military History Author and is also Group Manager for the ‘British Military History’ group on LinkedIn – the biggest and still fastest-growing Military History Forum on the web today. He is currently completing an outstanding new work on Julius Caesar to be followed by further works on Hannibal, Wellington and a seven-volume biography on Napoleon.