When Theodore Ayrault Dodge, the American Civil War historian known for his love of the ancient generals, dubbed Alexander, Hannibal, and Caesar “great captains” in 1889, imperial ambition was some- thing to be admired. Today, after the bloody 20th century, we are less sure of it. The grandeur of these three great generals of antiquity [see mini-bios, page 30] in- spires, but their lethality terrifies. All the more reason to ask what accounted for the great commanders’ success—their virtues or their vices?
In fact, it was a little of both. These commanders shared, to varying degrees, personal qualities and styles of warfare that made them great. Let’s examine their secrets of success and decide which man best exemplified each. To quantify this, we’ll rate the generals on each factor using a five-star scale, with five stars being the epitome.
The Greeks said it best. Their word for “ambition” is philotimia, which literally means “love of honor.” Their word for “drive” is horme, which has overtones of emotion—think of our word “hormone.” Megalopsychia means roughly “greatness of soul,” or a passionate drive to achieve great things and be rewarded with supreme honor.
Enter Alexander and Hannibal and Caesar.
They were members of what Abraham Lincoln once called “the tribe of the eagle”: men of towering ambition who thirsted for distinction. Nothing less than the conquest of new worlds satisfied them. Alexander wanted to conquer the Persian Empire, Hannibal to break Rome’s power for good, and Caesar to be the first man in Rome even if it took civil war.
Good judgment, guided by education, intuition, and experience, defines all three commanders. They were all immensely intelligent but each had something more: a keen strategic intuition. When faced with a new situation, each could draw from past experience and come up with the right answer. They knew how to operate without perfect information and they were unflappable under pressure. They thought creatively, rapidly, and effectively. And they could read others like a book. They knew war, but they also knew people.
They did not need on-the-job training. Before they crossed the Hellespont, the Alps, or the Rubicon, our three leaders had all acquired proficiency in the art of war.
Caesar was a consummate politician; Alexander perhaps next best, mastering both court intrigue and Greek political theory. Hannibal stood at a disadvantage. When he attacked Rome, Hannibal had not set foot in his homeland of Carthage since age nine—nearly 20 years before. He was out of touch with its domestic politics, and he would eventually pay for his ignorance.
They had iron in their souls. The great commanders were decisive, forceful, and assured. They consulted their staffs but frequently overruled them. They thrived on giving orders. Men obeyed them, not in deference to rank but because their commanders had earned their respect. The men had learned to trust their leaders with their lives.
These commanders breathed dignity. Alexander was a king; Hannibal and Caesar were lordly. Yet all had the common touch, especially that politician Caesar, of whom one officer said, “I didn’t follow the cause. I followed the man—and he was my friend.” All three generals appealed to their followers, not just as conquerors or chiefs but also as men. They didn’t rely on friendship to manage their troops, however. Skilled actors and manipulators, they could fire up an army or douse its passion. They were masters of reward and punishment. They used honors and cash prizes to foster bravery. They paid troops well—or faced mutinies. They were big hearted and wanted everyone to know it.
They stoked the fear factor by punishing anyone who crossed them, men and officers alike. Beatings, executions, and even crucifixions— these too were their tools of leadership.
Honor was at the heart of their character. Courage was the blood of their veins. But the warrior virtue that best embodies Alexander, Hannibal, and Caesar alike is audacity.
Each was, in his own way, scaling Mount Everest. The king of little Macedon was not meant to conquer Persia’s vast empire. The governor of Gaul was not supposed to topple the Roman senate and its armies. And it was unimaginable that the Carthaginian commander of southern Spain should cross both river and mountain and invade Italy. But they dared to do what couldn’t be done.
“Because he loved honor, he loved danger”—what Plutarch said of Caesar in battle—applies to Alexander and Hannibal as well. They fought in the thick of things. They designed their military campaigns with boldness. Although generals are often risk averse, these three were risk takers.
Still, while Alexander, Hannibal, and Caesar each occasionally took a wild gamble, they usually calculated the odds. They raced out in front but rarely without first securing their base. And their audacity had limits, most notably in the case of Hannibal: He did not march on Rome after Cannae; Caesar would have.
They were soldiers for all seasons. When the conditions of combat changed, they retooled. Having excelled at conventional warfare, Alexander switched to counterinsurgency when faced with guerrilla war. Hannibal shifted effortlessly between set battles and ambushes. Caesar was at home on the open battlefield, but he threw himself successfully into urban warfare.
Speed was their watchword, mobility their hallmark. Alexander’s thundering heavy cavalry, Hannibal’s nimble light horsemen, and Caesar’s swift infantry thrusts—these were the agents of success. They traveled light, with little in the way of a supply train. Their men lived off the land.
But agility had its limits: Each of these leaders suffered serious military defeats.
To win a war takes certain material things: arms and armor, ships, food—the infrastructure of war. With enough money, of course, you can buy the rest. You can even acquire manpower—disciplined and veteran mercenaries.
The one thing that money can’t buy is synergy. It can’t buy a combined-arms force (light and heavy infantry and cavalry as well as engineers) that is trained to fight together as a coherent whole—and welded to its leader. You have to build that on your own.
And build it our three generals did. They each inherited a dazzling instrument and honed it into something even sharper and more deadly. Yet none of them achieved perfect synergy. Caesar suffered from poor logistics and cavalry. Alexander didn’t have a strong navy. Hannibal struggled most of all because he lacked money, manpower, and the ability to conduct sieges.
In its original, ancient Greek sense, strategy refers to generalship overall, from battle tactics to the art of operations (weaving battles together in pursuit of a larger goal) to war strategy. Add to these what we now call grand strategy—the broader political goal that a war serves. Great commanders must understand them all.
Alexander, Caesar, Hannibal all had an instinctive grasp of operations. However, Caesar’s tactical proficiency did not match Alexander’s or Hannibal’s.
Hannibal, in particular, was the master of surprise. Though neither Alexander nor Caesar was in Hannibal’s league, they had a few surprises of their own. But when it came to war strategy, Alexander and Caesar far outclassed Hannibal. They thought ahead and they were dogged. Hannibal, for all his success, failed at long-term thinking. His battlefield triumphs stunned but did not subdue Rome. When the enemy bounced back, Hannibal had no Plan B. We don’t know who was more to blame, Hannibal or his home government, but we do know who had the last laugh—Rome.
Our three generals were willing to kill innocents, and everyone knew it. That too was a secret of their success.
Scene from a civil war: When a young official tried to stop Caesar from breaking into the treasury in Rome, Caesar raised his voice and threatened to kill him. “And young man,” he said, “you have to know that it was harder for me to say this than it would be to do it.” The terrified official left. But threatening a government official’s life was nothing compared to massacring entire cities, as the great commanders did.
Caesar and Alexander each sacked—raped, pillaged, the works—a Greek city. Alexander would ravage Central and South Asia, his angry Macedonians massacring town after town. Caesar did the same in Gaul, where the ancient biographer Plutarch says he killed a million people and enslaved a million more. Exaggerations—but close enough to the truth that most Italians were quick to surrender when he crossed the Rubicon. Caesar then cleverly played against type and pardoned his enemies, which won the applause of a relieved public.
The first thing Hannibal did when he reached Italy in 218 BC was massacre the people of Turin—a small place in those days— in order to break resistance in the surrounding area. When he left Italy 15 years later, Hannibal slaughtered the Italians who refused to go with him—and he didn’t hesitate to chase them into the grounds of a temple to do so. Or so the Romans claimed.
Men with imperial ambitions don’t go to war over little things like border disputes. They need grand causes. And to rally people behind them, they need clear symbols, a distinct image. None of these generals was a man of the people but—chameleons all— each billed himself as a populist.
Alexander began as an avenger and a liberator and he ended up as a demigod. He promised payback for Persia’s invasion of Greece 150 years earlier, proclaimed the liberation of the Greek cities that he conquered, and made them democracies, whether they liked it or not. Once he reached Iran, he put on selected items of Persian dress and insisted that his men now bow low in his presence, Persian style, in a nod to his new Eastern subjects. Meanwhile, he told his Greek allies to worship him as the son of the god Zeus.
Hannibal too stood for retribution and liberation, and he walked his own path to the gods. To Carthage, he promised vengeance for its earlier defeat by Rome; to Italians, he promised freedom from Roman domination. He claimed the support of the Carthaginian god Melqart—our Hercules. And he encouraged his Celtic followers to consider him a hero out of their myths.
Caesar went to great pains to show that he was no mere provincial governor in revolt. He said that he was fighting for the rights of the Roman people and for his own good name—the latter a moral issue dear to Roman hearts. As for Caesar’s divine heritage, his family traced its ancestry back to Venus. And Caesar acquired something else—celebrity. His Commentaries on the Gallic War made him a symbol of military prowess. By the time he crossed the Rubicon a year after conquering Gaul, Caesar’s reputation served as a force multiplier.
Napoleon asked for generals who were not only good but also lucky. He would have been pleased with Alexander, Hannibal, and Caesar. But only the guidance and protection of Divine Providence, and not mere luck, can explain how they reached the heights they did. Although our previous nine secrets of success were important, Divine Providence was essential.
Caesar was a daredevil; he took many big risks that should have failed. And just as Alexander assumed the throne, the only Persian general that could have defeated him died suddenly, opening the way for him.
The Romans played into Hannibal’s hands by launching their biggest army against him. He was waiting at Cannae. There, Hannibal achieved one of the world’s greatest battlefield victories, although he did fail to follow up Cannae with a march on Rome—and that cost him the war.
So who was the greatest general? The final tally, out of a possible 50:
Caesar 48 • Alexander 45 • Hannibal 40
All hail Caesar!
MHQ contributing editor Barry Strauss is a professor of history and classics at Cornell University. This article was adapted from Masters of Command © 2012 by Barry Strauss, published by arrangement with Simon & Schuster, Inc.
Originally published in the Summer 2012 issue of Military History Quarterly. To subscribe, click here.