5. Gaius Julius Caesar
The greatest general in Rome’s history, Caesar came to power first as a quaestor and praetor before being elected as consul and proconsul in 59 BC and organizing the First Triumvirate with Pompey and Crassus. He distinguished himself by leading campaigns in Gaul, Britain and Germany but his growing power scared the senate and he was asked to disband his forces. Not only did he refuse this request, he marched on Rome. He started an outbreak of civil war that lasted until December 49 BC when he held a dictatorship in Rome for eleven days while he was elected as consul. He then chased Pompey to Egypt where he remained living with Cleopatra for several years. On his return to Rome he improved the living conditions of his people and drew up elaborate plans for consolidation of the empire. In 44 BC he became dictator for life, a title that was short lived because on the Ides of March (March 15th) 44 BC, he was stabbed to death by a group of his friends and protégés including Cimber, Casca, Cassius and Brutus.
4. Hannibal Barca
A Carthaginian General, Hannibal was a master strategist who developed outflanking tactics. Dubbed the father of strategy by military historian Theodore Ayrault Dodge, he grew up with a fierce hatred of the Romans. After the death of his brother-in-law Hasdrubal, he took command of the Gaulo-Cathaginian army and set his sights on Rome. He set out in the spring of 218 BC and fought his way through the Pyrenees and the Alps with a force of 46,000 soldiers and 37 war elephants. When he was in Roman territory, he ravaged hundreds of towns leaving complete destruction in his wake. Some of his greatest victories were at Trebia, Lake Trasimenus and Cannae, even turning some Roman cities against his enemies. Scipio eventually defeated him in his homeland at the Battle of Zama, after which he signed a peace treaty in 201 BC. After several years as a suffete, he was accused by his political enemies of conspiring with King Antiochus of Syria. At the threat of a Roman investigation, Hannibal fled to the court of King Prusias of Bithynia where he poisoned himself before the Romans could force him to surrender.
3. Sun Tzu
A Chinese General, Sun Tzu was the author of the first and most sophisticated book on military theory ever written, The Art of War. While not much is known about the man, it is generally accepted that he was an accomplished General who served the King of Wu in the period of the Warring States in the 4th century BC. It was at this time that he wrote The Art of War, which covers logistics, espionage, strategy and tactics with a deep reliance on philosophy. The main points it stresses are the high cost of war, the unpredictability of battle, the correlation between political and military policies and the ineffectiveness of setting hard and fast rules. Not only has it influenced Asian military thinking for centuries, but it has also formed the base of the military strategies of Napoleon, Mao Zedong, General Norman Schwarzkopf Jr. and Henry Kissinger. In more recent times, The Art of War has been adopted by business students in Tokyo, New York and London as a text on business strategy.
2. Leonidas I
Best known for his heroic last stand at the Battle of Thermopylae, Leonidas’ early years have barely been documented although legend has it that he was the descendant of Heracles. His reign began somewhere around 490 BC and he shared control with Leotychides, as was Spartan custom of the time. The Persian army, led by King Darius, had been conquering Greece for close to ten years when Leonidas became King. When Darius died in 481 BC his son Xerxes continued his father’s expansion into the Greek mainland. In an attempt to stop the advancing army in their tracks, Leonidas (despite warnings by the Oracle of Delphi that told of his death) went to meet Xerxes with 7000 troops including the famed 300 Spartans, at the Pass of Thermopylae (aptly nicknamed the Hot Gates). Xerxes sent in wave after wave of troops including his Immortals who were in turn slaughtered by the Greeks. After a few days of fighting a Greek traitor told Xerxes of a mountain trail which he could use to outflank his enemy. Leonidas learned of the betrayal and sent away most of his men keeping only the 300 Spartans that made up his personal guard. Leonidas’ 300 valiantly fought off the advancing Persians down to their last man. Leonidas was killed and his body was beheaded and crucified which only served to anger his fellow Spartans who expelled the Persians from Greece a few months later at the Battle of Plataea.
1. Alexander the Great
Arguably one of the greatest generals of antiquity, Alexander’s conquests extended the Macedonian kingdom from Greece to India, almost the entire known world at the time. Born in 356 BC his early years were spent under the tutelage of the philosopher Aristotle. His early military career was spent releasing Greece from the grasp of the Persians. From there he moved through Syria, Egypt (where he founded the city of Alexandria and visited the oracle of Ammon and claimed his divinity), and Asia Minor before his final conquest into India. He then returned to the west and began making preparations to invade Arabia but before he could achieve this conquest, he fell ill and died in June 323 BC. Throughout his reign, the casualties of his troops compared to those of his enemies were considerably less, mostly due to his quick tactical thinking and his love for the men who fought under him.