Top 10 Greatest Military Commanders in History
As history continues to be written, there have been many who have achieved notoriety through their military knowledge, wise tactics, or successful conquests.
Although there have been many good military leaders, only a few military geniuses can be considered the greatest military commanders who had ever lived. The following are, in my own humble opinion, the top 10 leaders in history who have shown extreme brilliance and unmatched bravery on the battlefield.
10. Charlemagne (742-814)
Right action is better than knowledge; but in order to do what is right, we must know what is right.— Charlemagne
Also known as Charles the Great, Charlemagne was King of the Franks and founder of the Carolingian Empire, the medieval predecessor of what is now modern France. Born to Pepin the Short, King of the Franks, and Bertrada of Laonthe, Charlemagne expanded the Frankish kingdom, conquered the Lombard kingdom in northern Italy, and in 800 AD was crowned Holy Roman Emperor by Pope Leo III. Charlemagne's conquests united the western European lands for the first time since the fall of the Roman Empire.
In 813 Charlemagne crowned Louis the Pious, his only surviving legitimate son, King of the Franks and co-Emperor. Charlemagne died shortly after in 814. The Holy Roman Empire—safe for about 75 years from 888 to 962 when it fell to succession disputes—remained a politically recognized territory until the Napoleon's invasion in 1806.
9. Saladin (1138-1193)
I have become so great as I am because I have won men's hearts by gentleness and kindliness.— Saladin
An-Nasir Salah ad-Din was an Arabized Kurdish Muslim leader born in Tikrit, Iraq. He founded the Ayyubid dynasty in Egypt and extended his empire to Arabia, North Africa, Nubia, Syria, Mesopotamia, Palestine, and Transjordan. Saladin's armies united the Muslim world by force. Saladin also helped repel Frankish invaders and hold off the Third Crusade.
He gained respect throughout the Muslim world for his accomplishments. Saladin's armies were able to stop Richard the Lionheart from taking Jerusalem during the Third Crusade in 1191 and 1192. Despite these battles, Saladin and his European adversaries had complicated but respectful relationships with each other. After the Battle of Arsuf, Richard offered Saladin his sister, Joan of England, and proposed that Jerusalem could be their wedding gift.
Saladin died of a fever on March 4, 1193 in Damascus, not long after Richard's departure.
8. Peter the Great (1672-1725)
Alas! I have civilized my own subjects; I have conquered other nations; yet I have not been able to civilize or to conquer myself.— Pyotr Alexeevich Romanov
Pyotr Alexeyevich Romanov was one of Russia's greatest Tsars, ruling from 1682 to 1721. He was born in Moscow, then Russia's capital. As ruler, he introduced elements of Western culture to Russia, making his courtiers shave their traditional beards and adopt the fashions and manners of their Western European counterparts. He sent foreign delegations to study and learn trade and industry in the West.
As a commander, Peter I modernized the Russian army and established its first naval fleet. In 1712 he moved the capital to St. Petersburg on conquered lands convenient to the sea. Under his command, Russia became a world superpower and an empire with the Romanov dynasty at the helm until the Bolshevik revolution in 1917.
In January 1725, Peter I died of bladder gangrene. He was 52, having reigned 42 years.
7. Adolf Hitler (1889-1945)
The very first essential for success is a perpetually constant and regular employment of violence.— Adolf Hitler
Adolf Hitler was born in Austria to a poor family. As a young man, he was a painter who failed to get into the Vienna Academy of Fine Arts. He served in the Bavarian Infantry as an Austrian citizen in World War I and was wounded at the Battle of the Somme. After Germany's defeat in World War I, Hitler became involved in local politics, ultimately becoming the leader of the National Socialist German Workers Party, also known as the Nazis.
In 1933 he gained dictatorial powers of Germany. Fueled by virulently racist and antisemitic sentiments, Hitler conquered nearby lands under the doctrines of Lebensraum ("living room" for Germans) and Volksgemeinschaft (the "people's community" or territorial unity of ethnic Germans across Europe). As his armies expanded beyond traditional German lands, Hitler achieved massive victories on the eastern and western fronts. The early success of the Nazi military—the Wehrmacht—was enabled by Blitzkrieg, the rapid and enormously damaging air strikes that preceded invading ground forces.
In 1945 the Second World War turned in favor of the Allied forces against Hitler. On April 30, 1945, afraid of being captured by the Russians, Hitler, his wife, and his closest advisers, killed themselves and their children in their bunker.
6. Genghis Khan (1162-1228)
If you had not committed great sins, God would not have sent a punishment like me upon you.— Genghis Khan
Genghis Khan was born an illiterate peasant named Temüjin. He died the emperor of the Mongol Empire, the largest contiguous empire of all time.
As a teenager, Temüjin was introduced to life on the battlefield after being captured by members of a rival tribe who held him in a wooden stockade. He escaped, and the incident had a profound impact on him and was the beginning of his brutal military endeavors.
Genghis Khan was the first to unify the Mongol tribes. He directed his massive armies towards China and broke through the Great Wall to occupy northern China, followed by Afghanistan and Northern India. His conquests were known for their terrible massacres and brutal genocides. His empire expanded as far west as Poland and as far east as Korea.
In 1227, after defeating the Tanguts, Genghis Khan died. Some historians say that he fell off his horse. Others say that he died from pneumonia.
5. Napoleon Bonaparte (1769-1821)
If you build an army of 100 lions and their leader is a dog, in any fight, the lions will die like a dog. But if you build an army of 100 dogs and their leader is a lion, all dogs will fight as a lion.— Napoleon Bonaparte
The greatest military commander and political leader of Revolutionary France was actually not French at all. Napoleon was born to a noble family in Ajaccio, Corsica and moved to France for school as a young man. He was accepted to a Brienne-le-Château—a military academy—a decade before the French revolution.
In the late stages of the French revolution, when France was at war with many European countries, Napoleon rose through the ranks of the Revolutionary Army and became Commander of the Interior under the Directory government. His political influence grew with his military successes in Italy and Egypt. In 1799 he staged a coup d'état and was de facto ruler until he crowned himself Emperor of France in 1804.
At its peak in 1811, the French Empire, including alliances, ranged from Spain in the west to the border of Russia in the east, and from Italy in the south to Norway in the north. A bungled invasion of Russia in 1812 drastically weakened Napoleon, and he was finally defeated by the Coalition forces in 1815 at the Battle of Waterloo.
Following defeat and unpopularity back in France, he was exiled to the island of St. Helena where he died in 1821.
4. Hannibal Barca (247-183 BC)
I will either find a way, or make one.— Hannibal Barca
Hannibal was a Carthaginian military commander born in 247 BC in the city of Carthage, in what is now north-eastern Tunisia, and lived during the ascending years of the Roman Republic.
Leading the forces of Carthage, he fought against Rome during the Second Punic Wars. He is most well-known for leading the Carthaginian army, mounted on elephants, across the Alps. Hannibal sustained a military campaign against Rome for 15 years. What little information survives about him is in Roman writings, which indicate the Romans respected him as a leader and feared him as an enemy.
Hannibal died by suicide, preferring death to falling to the Romans. The exact year of Hannibal's death is unknown. The Roman writers Titus Pomponius Atticus and Livy reported it to be in 183 BC, while others say he died in 181 BC.
3. Richard the Lionheart (1157-1199)
He was the lord of warriors, the glory of kings, the delight of the world. Nature knew not how to add any further perfection: he was the utmost she could achieve.— Geoffrey de Vinsauf, about Richard I
Richard I of England, also known as Richard the Lionheart, was an English king in the twelfth century. He was born in Oxford, England. His reputation as a great military leader and warrior has earned him the title of Richard the Lionheart.
Richard I led the Third Crusades; medieval military campaigns mandated by the Roman Catholic Church—largely against Muslim armies—for control of Jerusalem. He united his English army with both French and Germanic forces. He sailed with his army to Palestine and took command of the Siege of Acre, conquering the city and executing 3,000 Muslim prisoners, including women and children. Lionheart then moved towards Jerusalem but failed to take the city from Saladin. As mentioned above, Richard's relationship with Saladin was one of mutual respect as much as military rivalry.
In 1199, Richard was shot by a common foot-soldier's crossbow while laying siege to a castle in France. He died from a resulting infection and was buried at Fontrevaud Abbey next to his father, and his heart was buried at Rouen in Normandy.
2. Julius Caesar (100-44 BC)
I came, I saw, I conquered.— Julius Caesar
Coming in second is Julius Caesar, Rome's most famous leader and military commander.
Born in the Roman Republic, his early life can be mapped onto a tumultuous period in the Republic's history. In this atmosphere of political disarray, Caesar earned fame by commanding Roman forces through invasions of western Europe and by putting an end to the unrest in those areas. He played a critical role in the gradual transformation of the Roman Republic into the Roman Empire around 27 BC and was appointed Dictator perpetuo (dictator in perpetuity).
The common idiom "crossing the Rubicon"—meaning reaching a point of no return—refers to Caesar's crossing of the Rubicon river in 49 BC after refusing to step down from his military command. His illegal armed entry into Roman territory incited the conflict that would ultimately put him in power.
In 44 BC, Julius Caesar was assassinated by a group of senators led by Marcus Junius Brutus. His death sparked a series of civil wars and unrest from which the Empire never fully recovered.
1. Alexander the Great (336–323 BC)
Heaven cannot brook two suns, nor earth two masters.— Alexander the Great
Alexander III of Macedon, known as Alexander the Great, was born in Macedon. Alexander inherited his throne as well as a strong army with a high level of training and discipline. Alexander united the Greek city-states, re-established the Corinthian League, and went on to conquer the Persian Empire.
Alexander's army invaded Anatolia (also known as Asia Minor or Small Asia) in 334 BC, and within five years, Alexander controlled Asia Minor, the Levant, Egypt, and Persia. For eleven years, with his army often outnumbered, Alexander never lost a single battle. Alexander did not stop there, fueled by ambition and bravery, he went on and invaded Afghanistan and northern India in 330 BC, still undefeated in any battle whatsoever.
Alexander wanted to continue on to China, but upon his return to Babylon, he developed a fever and died in 323 BC.
Other notable warriors
Pyrrhus, King of Epirus.
Frederick the Great, King of Prussia.
Gustavus Adolphus, King of Sweden.
Khalid ibn al-Walid, Drawn Sword of God.
Joan of Arc, The Maid of Orléans.
Otto Von Bismark, Prince of Bismarck.
Cyrus the Great, King of Persia.
Erwin Rommel, the Desert Fox.
Muhammad, the Warrior Prophet.
© 2011 Ramy Mehelba