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Mosaic of Alexander the Great

10 great military generals from history

From a young Greek king who carved out an empire in just 12 years, to a formidable Russian commander who halted the Nazis at the gates of Moscow.

Image: Alexander the Great | Public Domain

The course of human history has been changed time and time again by the strategic genius of a handful of exceptional military commanders. From a young Greek king who carved out an empire in just 12 years, to a formidable Russian commander who halted the Nazis at the gates of Moscow, we take a look at some of history’s greatest generals.

1. Alexander the Great

Born in 356 BC, Alexander the Great ascended the throne at the age of 20 following the assassination of his father, Philip II of Macedon. Alexander’s ambition straight from the off was to expand the empire his father had founded. His first victory, over the Persians at the Battle of Granicus in 334 BC, showed what an astute leader and strategist he could be at such an early age.

Alexander’s conquest of Asia Minor followed, culminating in a stunning victory over the Persian emperor Darius III at the Battle of Issus in 333 BC. He defeated Darius’s forces again two years later at the Battle of Gaugamela, leaving him with vast swathes of territory from the Adriatic to the Indus River, His plan to conquer India and beyond never came to fruition, however, as he died in 323 BC at the age of just 32.

2. Hannibal

Hannibal Barca was a Carthaginian general whose audacity and strategic brilliance made him one of the Roman Empire’s most formidable enemies. His career reached its height during the Second Punic War when he marched a herd of war elephants over the Alps, stunning Rome’s leaders, who did not think such a thing was possible. He scored decisive victories at Trebia, Lake Trasimene, and Cannae, due in no small part to his ability to second guess his enemies’ tactics and put in place measures to successfully counter them.

Having ruled most of Southern Italy for 15 years, Hannibal was eventually defeated at the Battle of Zama in modern-day Tunisia due to a lack of reinforcement from Carthage. After fleeing into exile, one of the few men to take on the might of Rome and emerge victorious committed suicide in 183 BC

3. Julius Caesar

Caesar’s military career began in Hispania in modern-day Spain, where he showed early brilliance as a natural leader of men and a brilliant strategist. After allying with the generals Pompey and Crassus, Caesar embarked on the conquest of Gaul and later the invasion of Britain, vastly expanding the Roman Empire. After Gaul was finally subjugated, Caesar turned on his old allies, defeating Pompey at the end of a brutal and bloody four-year civil war in 45 BC. The now all-powerful Caesar was declared ‘dictator for life’ in 44 BC, but his rule was short-lived. He was assassinated that same year. His death marked the end of the Roman Republic and the beginning of the rule of the Emperors.

4. Attila the Hun

Attila the Hun’s brutal conquest of swathes of East and Central Europe earned him the nickname ‘The Scourge of God’. The head of a marauding horde of bloodthirsty tribesmen made up of Ostrogoths, Bulgars, Alans and Huns, Attila relied on speed and surprise to overwhelm his enemies with cavalry and infantry charges, leading to their swift defeat. Allied with his brother Bleda, Attila mercilessly cut his way through large parts of Roman territory, reaching as far as Gaul.

His bloody rampage westwards was eventually halted at the Battle of the Catalaunian Plains in 451 AD, after which he invaded Italy with plans to take Rome itself. He died suddenly two years later, and the empire he had violently battered into being quickly fell apart in his absence.

5. Saladin

Born in 1137, Saladin rose to fame as a formidable military commander during the Crusades. As the Sultan of Egypt and Syria, Saladin vowed to conquer the holy city of Jerusalem, which he duly did after the Battle of Hattin in 1187. At a time when capturing a city usually led to the slaughter of most of its inhabitants, Saladin’s subsequent chivalrous treatment of Christians and Jews earned him the respect of many outside the Muslim world.

His victory at Hattin is seen as the decisive turning point in the Crusades, consolidating Muslim power in the region for centuries. He died in 1193 as the unchallenged ruler of a vast empire and is today revered as the greatest Kurdish military leader who has ever lived.

6. Genghis Khan

Born in 1162, Genghis Khan rose from humble origins to become one of the greatest and most fearsome generals of all time. His military career began in the conflicts between the tribes of Mongolia, where he quickly showed his skills as an outstanding warrior and strategist. He rose through the ranks, eventually uniting the squabbling Mongol tribes under his leadership.

Khan then set about conquering vast swathes of China, Central Asia and parts of the Middle East. A brilliant tactician on the field, Khan was a ruthless ruler. By the time of his death in 1227, roughly 40 million people were dead as a result of his violent conquests.

7. Frederick the Great

Ascending to the throne of Prussia in 1740 following the death of his foul-tempered father, Frederick II inherited the fourth-largest army in Europe and he quickly set about putting it to good use. Frederick showed his brilliance as a genius tactician during the War of Austrian Succession and the Seven Years' War, where victories at Hohenfriedberg, Leuthen, and Rossbach earned him a reputation as a swift, decisive and intuitive commander.

He then embarked on a series of military reforms that quickly elevated Prussia to the position of dominant military power in Europe. A patron of the arts and the sciences as well as one of the greatest military leaders of all time, Frederick the Great died in 1786 at the age of 74.

8. Napoleon Bonaparte

Arguably the greatest general who has ever lived, Napoleon Bonaparte’s military genius redefined warfare and reshaped Europe in the 18th and 19th centuries. Utilising an astute tactical prowess, a willingness to embrace innovation and an uncanny ability to second guess his enemies and exploit their weaknesses, Napoleon scored victory after victory across Europe and Africa at battles such as Austerlitz, Jena, and Wagram.

For a time, it seemed that the self-crowned Emperor of France was unstoppable. However, his disastrous invasion of Russia in 1812 led to his downfall and exile to the Italian island of Elba. He returned from exile three years later, only to be defeated for a final time by a coalition led by the Duke of Wellington at the Battle of Waterloo. Exiled for a second time on the remote island of St. Helena, he died in 1821 at the age of 51.

9. Erwin Rommel

Already a decorated soldier after fighting in World War I, Erwin Rommel cemented his reputation for military genius as the commander of the 7th Panzer Division during the Blitzkrieg invasion of France in 1940. He was then put in charge of Nazi Germany’s North Africa Campaign, where he scored stunning victories against the British at Tobruk and Gazala, conquering most of North Africa and earning him the nickname ‘The Desert Fox’ for his cunning as a military commander.

After overseeing Germany’s defences against the Allied invasion of Normandy in 1944, he was implicated in the 20 July Plot to kill Adolf Hitler. To avoid publicly executing such a legendary and revered soldier, Rommel was offered the choice to take his own life, which he did in October 1944.

10. Georgy Zhukov

Born into a poor peasant family in Russia in 1896, Zhukov rose through the ranks during World War I and the Russian Civil War. A brilliant military strategist, Zhukov’s organisational skills came to the fore following the Nazi invasion of Russia in 1941, where he led the successful defences of Leningrad, Moscow and Stalingrad. Stunning victories on the battlefield followed, in particular at the monumental Battle of Kursk.

Elevated to Marshal of the Soviet Union, Zhukov was in charge of Operation Bagration, which first drove the Nazis from Soviet territory and ultimately led to Germany’s defeat in the Battle of Berlin. Sidelined for political reasons after the war, Russia's greatest military commander died in 1977 at the age of 77.