Greatest Military Generals in History

Updated on March 17, 2019
Sudhir Devapalan profile image

I am a front-end developer by profession, but I enjoy writing articles about anything mysterious, interesting, and fascinating.

There have been a number of famous military generals in history. However, there are a select few who have stood out from the crowd with their brilliance. They may not have won every battle, but their strategic mind and ingenuity had changed the course of warfare. These generals have proven that the size of the army alone is not enough to decide the course of a battle.

Best Military Generals

10. Attila the Hun

9. Cyrus the Great

8. Saladin

7. Erwin Rommel

6. Robert E. Lee

5. Julius Caesar

4. Napoleon Bonaparte

3. Genghis Khan

2. Alexander the Great

1. Hannibal Barca

10. Attila the Hun

Attila the Hun
Attila the Hun

Attila was the ruler of the Huns from 434 AD to 453 AD. He was more famously known as Attila the Hun. His enemies called him “the Scourge of God.” Attila was feared by the Eastern and Western Roman Empire due to his leadership skills and ruthlessness. In 452 AD he invaded Italy and almost captured Rome itself. However, he decided to withdraw his troops after successful negotiations with the Bishop of Rome, Leo I.

Attila united the tribes of Huns, Ostrogoths, and Alans to form a strong fighting force. He never considered the Romans to be a real threat and ransacked about 70 cities. Attila’s army comprised of a large contingent of cavalry which struck the enemy quickly and without mercy. There was no general who wanted to wanted to face the Huns in battle under Attila.

The Huns usually appeared from nowhere and melted away leaving destruction in their path. The Huns were stopped only once during the entire time period Attila was their leader. It was the Battle of the Catalaunian Plains where the combined forces of the Romans and Visigoths stopped the Hun invasion of Italy. This was one of the bloodiest battles in history and its outcome is still debated as a stalemate. Attila died in 453 AD on his wedding night under mysterious circumstances.

9. Cyrus the Great

Cyrus the Great
Cyrus the Great

Cyrus II of Persia, also known as Cyrus the Great was the founder of the Achaemenid (Persian) Empire. “The King of the four corners of the world” ruled between 559 BC to 530 BC. Under his rule, the Persian empire stretched from the Mediterranean sea in the west to the Indus river in the east. Cyrus was well recognized for his achievements in human rights, politics, and military strategy.

The Battle of Thymbra was a decisive battle fought between the Lydian Kingdom and Cyrus the Great. 420,000 troops from the Lydian Kingdom faced off against about 200,000 troops under Cyrus. Despite being outnumbered 2:1, Cyrus utterly defeated the Lydians, and the Persians occupied Lydia.

8. Saladin

King Guy surrendering to Saladin after the Battle of the Horns of Hattin
King Guy surrendering to Saladin after the Battle of the Horns of Hattin

Saladin or Salah ad-Din was the founder of the Ayyubid dynasty. He ruled the Muslims or Egypt and Syria between 1174 AD and 1193 AD. He led a series of successful campaigns against the Christian Crusaders. He captured Jerusalem on October 2, 1187, ending its nearly 9-decade occupation by the Franks.

Even among his enemies, Saladin was considered as a chivalrous knight known for his fierce struggle against the crusaders and his generosity. His greatest triumph was the Battle of the Horns of Hattin. 20,000 Crusaders under King Guy of Lusignan faced off against about 20,000-30,000 Muslim warriors under Saladin.

The Crusaders marched from their camp under the hot sun to relieve the besieged city of Tiberias. They were constantly harassed by Muslim horse archers and the scorching heat. They finally faced Saladin’s army near the Horns of Hattin and were literally annihilated. The piece of the true cross, a holy relic for the Christians was also captured. This directly led to the fall of Jerusalem and other major cities held by the Crusaders in the holy land.

7. Erwin Rommel

Erwin Rommel
Erwin Rommel

Erwin Rommel was a Field Marshal of the German Army during World War 2. He was given the nickname “The Desert Fox” for his role in the African campaign. He is one of the few German Generals who was respected by the Allies for his chivalry. The North African campaign was referred to as a “war without hate.”

Rommel’s 7th Panzer division enjoyed great success during the Battle of France. His division crossed 200 miles in just seven days and captured about 100,000 Allied troops. The exact location of Rommel’s Panzers was at times not known by the enemy as well as the German headquarters earning the nickname, “The Ghost Divison.”

In February 1941, Rommel was appointed the commander of the German troops (The Afrika Korps) in North Africa. It is here that he earned the nickname “The Desert Fox” for his audacious surprise attacks. He almost won the war in North Africa but was stopped by the British at El-Alamein. He committed suicide on October 14th, 1944 after he was charged with the assassination attempt on Hitler.

6. Robert E. Lee

Robert E. Lee
Robert E. Lee

Robert Edward Lee was the commander of the Confederate forces during the American Civil War. He was initially the Commander of the Army of Northern Virginia which was the most successful of the Southern Armies. In February 1865, Lee was given command of all Southern troops. The Confederate forces under Robert E. Lee continuously handed major defeats for the Union forces.

The Confederate forces were under-equipped and outnumbered. However, under the leadership of Lee, they came out on top every time. The Battle of Chancellorsville was Lee’s "perfect battle" where he defeated a much larger Union Army by dividing his troops. Around 130,000 Union troops faced 60,000 Confederates in the battle. Although Lee won this battle, he was not able to prevent Union withdrawal effectively. The Confederates were also not able to replenish their losses.

Lee was used to fighting battles in which he was outnumbered but still came out victorious. His strategic genius was the only thing keeping the Southern States in the war. However, the invasion of the North ended with the Battle of Antietam (September 17, 1862). This was the bloodiest day in the United States history resulting in 22,717 soldiers winding up dead, wounded, or missing. It was a strategic loss for the Confederates and resulted in the Emancipation Proclamation.

5. Julius Caesar

Julius Caesar
Julius Caesar

Gaius Julius Caesar was a famous Roman Politician and military general who changed the course of Roman history. The month of “July” was renamed in honor of Caesar. In Rome, the role of a dictator had time restrictions. Caesar abandoned these time restrictions by proclaiming himself as “dictator in perpetuity.”

The major military campaigns of Caesar includes the Gallic war and Caesar’s civil war. The Gallic war was between Rome under Caesar and the Gallic warriors under Vercingetorix. The Gauls were decisively defeated in the Battle of Alesia. 60,000-75,000 Romans faced off against the garrison of about 80,000 Gauls and a relief force of about 248,000 Gauls.

Caesar ordered the construction of fortifications facing the city as well as another set of palisades facing outside to handle the relief forces. Although outnumbered by the Gauls, the Romans managed to defeat them under the leadership of Caesar. On March 15th, 44 BC Caesar was assassinated by his own countrymen for the radical reforms he made. This event gave rise to the phrase "beware the ides of March," which was famously used in the play Julius Caesar by Shakespeare.

4. Napoleon Bonaparte

Napoleon Bonaparte
Napoleon Bonaparte

Napoleon Bonaparte was the Emperor of France from 1804 AD to 1814 AD and again for 100 days in 1815. Napoleon rose to prominence during the French Revolution and dominated Europe for more than a decade. He fought a number of battles against a series of coalitions and won most of them.

Napoleon stood alone against the world and won time and again. His Grand Armee seemed invincible. Napoleon’s greatest triumph was the Battle of Austerlitz where 68,000 French troops faced off against 95,000 troops of the Third Coalition comprising of Austria and Russia. This Battle was also known as the "Battle of the Three Emperors."

Although outnumbered, the French came out victorious. Napoleon held negotiations before the battle leading his enemies to think that his army was weaker. He also attacked the allies in their weakest points. The average French troop was also better trained and experienced. Napoleon’s dream run came to end on June 18th, 1815 at the Battle of Waterloo.

3. Genghis Khan

Genghis Khan
Genghis Khan

Temüjin was born in 1162. He was the founder of the Mongol Empire and earned the title “Genghis Khan” meaning “Great Khan.” He united a many tribes in northeast Asia into one of the most deadly Empires in history. The Mongols led a number of campaigns against China, Persia, and Qara Khitai. The Mongol Empire stretched as far as the Adriatic Sea to the Pacific coast of China.

Genghis Khan was known for his brutality and ruthlessness. His army was a force to be reckoned with. Mongol horse archers were expertly trained to shoot even while moving away from the target. They relied on hit-and-run tactics and laid ambushes for enemy troops. Advanced tactics and leadership enabled the Mongols to overpower powerful adversaries like the Khwarazmian Empire.

The Mongols also employed psychological warfare. If a city refused to surrender, they would utterly destroy it but leave a few survivors to spread terror. The captured generals will then be executed by pouring molten silver over their eyes and ears! Despite all this, the Great Khan was also generous. He banned the kidnapping of women, adopted a writing system, conducted a regular census and allowed freedom of religion.

2. Alexander the Great

Alexander the Great
Alexander the Great

Alexander III of Macedon is truly worthy of the title “Alexander the Great”. He was the son of King Philip II of Macedonia. He inherited more than just a Kingdom. The Macedonian troops were highly trained and motivated. And under the brilliant leadership of Alexander, they would conquer half of the known world. His Empire stretched from Greece to Northwestern India.

Alexander was a brave and daring warrior. He used to get into the mind of his enemies and predict their actions to counter them. He would also fight on the front lines with his troops and be in mortal danger which earned the trust and respect of his men. Some would say that he was reckless, but it paid off in his battles as he had never lost a single major battle in his life.

The Battle of Gaugamela showed the true military genius of Alexander. 47,000 Macedonians under Alexander faced off against 120,000 Persian troops under Darius III. Alexander’s left flank under Parmenio was purposely weakened to allow the Persians to concentrate their attacks. The infantry was arrayed at a 45-degree angle to tempt the Persian cavalry to attack. The Macedonian infantry held on and since so much of the Persians were committed to Alexander’s left flank, the Persian center was left vulnerable.

Alexander was waiting for this opportunity and charged his cavalry through the gaps in the center. Seeing this, Darius fled the battlefield which left his troops in disarray. Alexander, however, was forced to turn back to help Parmenio as his troops were hard pressed. This, however, sealed the victory for the Macedonians. The Macedonians lost 700 men whereas the Persians lost about 40,000.

1. Hannibal Barca

Hannibal Barca
Hannibal Barca

Hannibal Barca was a Carthaginian general during the Second Punic War between Rome and Carthage. Hannibal is arguably one of the greatest military generals in history. He was the son of Hamilcar Barca who was the leading Carthaginian commander during the First Punic War. Hannibal Barca swore a blood oath to his father that he would forever be an enemy of Rome. He kept his oath and battled against the Romans till the end.

I swear so soon as age will permit...I will use fire and steel to arrest the destiny of Rome.

— Hannibal Barca

Rome had won the First Punic War, and this left Carthage in a tight spot. Hannibal began building his army by campaigning in Spain. Conflict with Rome was inevitable, and soon Hannibal was facing the Romans in the Second Punic War. Rome had control over the seas, and so a naval invasion was out of the question. So Hannibal did the unthinkable.

He took his army of 38,000 soldiers, 8,000 horsemen, and 38 elephants on a journey across the Alps. The journey was harsh, and only about 20,000 infantry, 4,000 cavalry, and a few elephants survived. But the Romans were caught off guard, and the Carthaginian army was free to rampage across Italy. Hannibal was also able to get reinforcements from states that defected to him.

Hannibal was able to score major victories in the Battle of Trebia and Battle of Lake Trasimene. The Romans faced heavy casualties reaching close to 30,000 in each of these battles. Hannibal needed to be dealt with, or Rome was sure to fall. In 216 BC, Rome raised the largest army she had ever mustered. Some say the number of troops was close to 100,000, but a realistic number would be around 80,000.

The Battle of Cannae was Hannibal’s greatest masterpiece. 50,000 Carthaginian troops under Hannibal faced 86,400 Roman troops led by Paullus and Varro. Despite being heavily outnumbered, Hannibal fought the battle and devised a formation that would allow him to win. Hannibal deployed his troops in the form of a crescent with his weakest troops in the center and his strongest troops in the flanks.

As the Battle began, the Roman troops struck hard and pushed the troops in Hannibal’s center back. Sensing blood, they went all in and pushed forward. Hannibal’s plan worked as expected. His center bent under the weight of the Roman attack but did not break. As the center slowly retreated, the Carthaginian flanks encircled the Roman troops. The Carthaginian cavalry chased off the Roman cavalry and returned to hit the Romans in the rear completely encircling them.

The Battle of Cannae
The Battle of Cannae

The very first double-envelopment tactic was now complete. Military generals hundreds of years later would still learn from this battle. The Romans were completely surrounded and unable to even move or fight. The slaughter continued for hours and at the end around 67,500 Romans were either killed or captured. Rome had lost one-fifth of the entire population of male citizens (150,000) over 17 years in Hannibal’s campaign.

Questions & Answers

  • Why isn’t Khalid Bin Walid in this list of greatest military generals?

    Many people have requested to add Khalid ibn al-Walid to the list. So I'll be adding him soon.

  • After Rome was captured what happened next?

    Rome was not captured by Hannibal. He did not have the men or resources to lay a siege. He was recalled to Carthage with his army before he could defeat the Romans.

© 2018 Sudhir

Comments

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    • profile image

      Firoz Nagra 

      44 hours ago

      Where is father of these all Khalid ibn waleed and tamur lane

    • Sudhir Devapalan profile imageAUTHOR

      Sudhir 

      2 weeks ago from Chennai, India

      @Kubort: That's an excellent suggestion. Subutai is a commander overshadowed by Genghis Khan but deserves a lot more praise that what he is currently given in history.

    • profile image

      Kubort 

      2 weeks ago

      What about Subutai? Ghenghis Khan is known as a great reformer but Subutai as a warrior, if Ghenghis Khan is number 3 then there is no question that Subutai should be number 1.

    • Sudhir Devapalan profile imageAUTHOR

      Sudhir 

      3 weeks ago from Chennai, India

      It is true that Alexander's achievements are unmatched which made him carve out one of the largest empires in history. However, Hannibal was facing a more trained, professional army with better leadership skills.

    • profile image

      Luisora 

      3 weeks ago

      Alaxender beat 250 000 persians not 120 000 so I think he's better then Hannibal

    • Sudhir Devapalan profile imageAUTHOR

      Sudhir 

      8 weeks ago from Chennai, India

      @Marin: Ya true. But since I created the list of only 10 I couldn't add him. Scipio learned a lot from Hannibal and beat him in his own game but during the battle on Zama, the Carthaginian troops were not well prepared and even Hannibal wanted to avoid the fight. Will definitely add him when I expand this list. There are many more generals who are worthy of being added!

    • profile image

      Martin 

      8 weeks ago

      I think that you should have put Scipio Africanus somewhere in the list, he beat Hannibal in the battle of zama even though he was outnumbered and hannibal had 80 elefants

    • Sudhir Devapalan profile imageAUTHOR

      Sudhir 

      2 months ago from Chennai, India

      Sun Tzu is famous for his book "The Art of War" and it is indeed a great masterpiece studied by many great generals over the centuries. However, we do not have any concrete evidence on the list of actual battles that Sun Tzu has participated and played a significant role in. He might be a great scholar on war but we don't know if he has played any significant role in them.

    • profile image

      Myoneshad 

      2 months ago

      I really cant believe any list that doesnt include the name Sun-Tzu. I mean his teachings are still taught is military academies to this day and he lived 2500 years ago.

      I agree Scipio Africanus probably deserves top ten. As well as Patton. But not having Sun-Tzu as number one is like not having Cy Young among the greatest pitchers of all time.

      Might want to re-examine your list.

    • Sudhir Devapalan profile imageAUTHOR

      Sudhir 

      2 months ago from Chennai, India

      In some aspects, it may seem that way but both Robert E. Lee. and Erwin Rommel were able to pull out incredible victories with less amount of men and resources. And it was Bernard Montgomery who first defeated Rommel before Patton but these men were backed up by a really powerful army.

    • profile image

      Bob Tex 

      2 months ago

      George S. Patton was a much better general than Robert E. Lee. Lee was great in most battles, but totally blew Gettysburg with horrible strategy and tactics. He should have listened to Longstreet.

      Patton also defeated Rommel.

    • Sudhir Devapalan profile imageAUTHOR

      Sudhir 

      2 months ago from Chennai, India

      It is definitely hard to rate these great generals and justify their superiority but to me the daring and strategic mind of Hannibal was superior. Alexander was an incredible leader with a bold attitude. Yet he was considered to be rash and careless as well. He also had a brilliant Army which his father raised. Napoleon was another brilliant mastermind but he had his fair share of mistakes. Caesar had won many victories against larger armies but they weren't disciplined professional soldiers like the Romans themselves.

    • profile image

      CTH 

      2 months ago

      If Hannibal is #1, what does that make Scipio Africanus?

      Seriously, Hannibal has some great victories to his credit, but putting him above Alexander, Napoleon, and Caesar?

      Well, it's your list, of course, it's just surprising to me, that's all.

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