Best military leaders from late antiquity?

Dec 2019
80
Fryslân, Netherlands
I myself would nominate:
Diocletian
Constantius II
Aratius
Narses
Solomon (Byzantine commander)
 
Oct 2018
2,106
Sydney
I'd say that Shapur I, Aurelian, Galerius and Constantine should be high up there. I'll make my case properly when I'm not typing on a phone, but I'd say that Galerius was the most successful military leader of the Tetrarchic period. Diocletian's strengths were more in the realm of politics and administration.
 
Last edited:
Oct 2018
2,106
Sydney
I'd say that Aurelian, Galerius and Constantine should be high up there. I'll make my case properly when I'm not typing on a phone, but I'd say that Galerius was the most successful military leader of the Tetrarchic period. Diocletian's strengths were more in the realm of politics and administration.
Also, I get that Aurelian and Shapur I reigned before 284, but I personally consider the Crisis of the Third Century to be a part (perhaps the beginning) of late antiquity. I'm just saying that so you don't think I didn't read the OP!
 

AlpinLuke

Forum Staff
Oct 2011
27,626
Italy, Lago Maggiore
Actually Belisarius came to my mind as well. I guess that Solomon has been preferred to him [as Byzantine military leader]. Personally I tend to consider Belisarius a better magister militum than Solomon, but this can be matter of discussion.
 

pikeshot1600

Ad Honoris
Jul 2009
10,102
How about:

- Constantine
- Stilicho
- Aetius
- Clovis
- Belisarius

As mentioned, I don't see how Belisarius can be left off the list. Attila IMO was nothing but a bandit.

Incidentally, by the time of the Moslem expansion, in terms of "periodization," late antiquity has been replaced by early medieval.
 
Dec 2019
80
Fryslân, Netherlands
Out of curiosity, why the conspicuous absence of Belisarius? I'd also be interested in your reasons for including Constantius II.
While Constantius II did sometimes sabotage his own country’s war effort that is more of a political thing so I dont hold it against him as a military leader. He used a defensive strategy against the Parthians instead of wasting resources on a decisive and risky campaign against them. While his defensive approach was very unroman he had a too little resources to deal with them decisively, his good strategy prevented the Parthians from making significant gains and led to them being eventually pushed back. When the Parthians were weakened he won the decisive Battle of Narasara against them. He reorganized the armies under his control so he could fight on two fronts at once. At the Battle of Mursa [Major] He concentrated a strong force against one of Magnentius flanks (the right one I think it was) and routed it. Instead of pursuing the fleeing Magnentius he trapped and destroyed the rebel army. The rebel troops were of much higher quality than his own but he was able to break up their formation using a combination of horse archery and cavalry charges. Through his aggressive outflanking tactics he was able to dominate the flow of battle and the enemy was not allowed a chance to win (they very well might have due to the quality of the rebel troops). In the west he tried to use an ambitious encirclement but like Napoleon trying to set strategy for the Peninsular War Constantius was too far away. His organizational and strategical decisions were inventive (considered unroman and widely misunderstood in his time). His use of cavalry in the Battle of Mursa equally so. Due to his tactical abilities Magnentius was allowed no chance of victory while the Parthians learned their lesson at Narasara. He used the resources at his disposal very efficiently. (I must admit I’ve not read as much on this era as I would like, if I mistook something a subordinate did for an action by the emperor please point it out)
Belisarius was not there not because he wasn’t a great commander but for the mere reason that I consider the others I mentioned to be a step above him. At Ad Decimum his plan was to take his entire cavalry force, the main strength of his army, into a defile for reconnaissance in force, where Gelimer had set an ambush for exactly such an occasion. He did sent 300 men ahead to scout but these could very well have been trapped or just not been able to reach him before he joined them in the Vandal ambush. At the Battle of Rome (a breakout attempt during the siege of that place) he let his horse archers get dangerously close to the Goths resulting in them being charged and routed. He made some mistakes so large, especially when he was on the offensive, that I don’t consider him to be at the level of Narses etc. He was great at dispositions and positioning on both offense and defense, at Callinicum he prevented the enemy from outflanking him and positioned his army in a relatively strong position. When he needed to act rapidly he remained clam and was able to see threats and opertunites and their magnitude clearly, for which he is often praised, but he did made mistakes, like failing to create a reserve at Callinicum. A message for anyone who has not read recent publications on Belisarius‘ campaigns: the Vandals, Goths and even the Persians (when concerning the Lazic war) were not nearly that numerous. The Vandals were probably outnumbered by the Byzantines while the Goths numbered at most 40.000 at Rome, probably less.
I included Diocletian largely for his reforms. He came up with the defensive strategy later used by Constantine etc. and reformed unit structure, composition, didn’t he? (that‘s not just a rhetorical question) You probably know better than I most I know comes from background chapters from books on the era after him, have also read some general histories of the Roman and Byzantine Empire(s) which mentioned them but I’ve heard he never lost a battle so I thought he was worthy. Considering your name you probably know a lot more about Diocletian though.
 

johnincornwall

Ad Honorem
Nov 2010
8,021
Cornwall
Belisarius was not there not because he wasn’t a great commander but for the mere reason that I consider the others I mentioned to be a step above him. At Ad Decimum his plan was to take his entire cavalry force, the main strength of his army, into a defile for reconnaissance in force, where Gelimer had set an ambush for exactly such an occasion. He did sent 300 men ahead to scout but these could very well have been trapped or just not been able to reach him before he joined them in the Vandal ambush. At the Battle of Rome (a breakout attempt during the siege of that place) he let his horse archers get dangerously close to the Goths resulting in them being charged and routed. He made some mistakes so large, especially when he was on the offensive, that I don’t consider him to be at the level of Narses etc. He was great at dispositions and positioning on both offense and defense, at Callinicum he prevented the enemy from outflanking him and positioned his army in a relatively strong position. When he needed to act rapidly he remained clam and was able to see threats and opertunites and their magnitude clearly, for which he is often praised, but he did made mistakes, like failing to create a reserve at Callinicum. A message for anyone who has not read recent publications on Belisarius‘ campaigns: the Vandals, Goths and even the Persians (when concerning the Lazic war) were not nearly that numerous. The Vandals were probably outnumbered by the Byzantines while the Goths numbered at most 40.000 at Rome, probably less.
Belisarius was one of history's great commanders.

We just don't have that detailed info on this war. This whole post-Roman period to about 1200 suffers from lack of information but more so from people making bits up, filling bits in, then the next authors come along, remove the 'possiblys' and add in a bit more.

Luckily there is a modern trend to strip back to what original sources we have and try and remove the imaginary bits! It's a bit of an art because there are works loosely derived from original works which no longer exist. Rather them than me but the lazier 'historians' simply regurgitate what someone else wrote before, which may have been invented or badly deformed over many centuries.

I agree that neither Vandal armies nor Belisarius's were as large as often assumed or claimed. The Vandals were spread over various islands and ships and not that numerous in the first place. The imperial forces were desperately short on numbers as they took on too much, aggravated by the mauri rebellions they soon encountered.
 
Oct 2018
2,106
Sydney
While Constantius II did sometimes sabotage his own country’s war effort that is more of a political thing so I dont hold it against him as a military leader. He used a defensive strategy against the Parthians instead of wasting resources on a decisive and risky campaign against them. While his defensive approach was very unroman he had a too little resources to deal with them decisively, his good strategy prevented the Parthians from making significant gains and led to them being eventually pushed back. When the Parthians were weakened he won the decisive Battle of Narasara against them. He reorganized the armies under his control so he could fight on two fronts at once. At the Battle of Mursa [Major] He concentrated a strong force against one of Magnentius flanks (the right one I think it was) and routed it. Instead of pursuing the fleeing Magnentius he trapped and destroyed the rebel army. The rebel troops were of much higher quality than his own but he was able to break up their formation using a combination of horse archery and cavalry charges. Through his aggressive outflanking tactics he was able to dominate the flow of battle and the enemy was not allowed a chance to win (they very well might have due to the quality of the rebel troops). In the west he tried to use an ambitious encirclement but like Napoleon trying to set strategy for the Peninsular War Constantius was too far away. His organizational and strategical decisions were inventive (considered unroman and widely misunderstood in his time). His use of cavalry in the Battle of Mursa equally so. Due to his tactical abilities Magnentius was allowed no chance of victory while the Parthians learned their lesson at Narasara. He used the resources at his disposal very efficiently. (I must admit I’ve not read as much on this era as I would like, if I mistook something a subordinate did for an action by the emperor please point it out)
Belisarius was not there not because he wasn’t a great commander but for the mere reason that I consider the others I mentioned to be a step above him. At Ad Decimum his plan was to take his entire cavalry force, the main strength of his army, into a defile for reconnaissance in force, where Gelimer had set an ambush for exactly such an occasion. He did sent 300 men ahead to scout but these could very well have been trapped or just not been able to reach him before he joined them in the Vandal ambush. At the Battle of Rome (a breakout attempt during the siege of that place) he let his horse archers get dangerously close to the Goths resulting in them being charged and routed. He made some mistakes so large, especially when he was on the offensive, that I don’t consider him to be at the level of Narses etc. He was great at dispositions and positioning on both offense and defense, at Callinicum he prevented the enemy from outflanking him and positioned his army in a relatively strong position. When he needed to act rapidly he remained clam and was able to see threats and opertunites and their magnitude clearly, for which he is often praised, but he did made mistakes, like failing to create a reserve at Callinicum. A message for anyone who has not read recent publications on Belisarius‘ campaigns: the Vandals, Goths and even the Persians (when concerning the Lazic war) were not nearly that numerous. The Vandals were probably outnumbered by the Byzantines while the Goths numbered at most 40.000 at Rome, probably less.
I included Diocletian largely for his reforms. He came up with the defensive strategy later used by Constantine etc. and reformed unit structure, composition, didn’t he? (that‘s not just a rhetorical question) You probably know better than I most I know comes from background chapters from books on the era after him, have also read some general histories of the Roman and Byzantine Empire(s) which mentioned them but I’ve heard he never lost a battle so I thought he was worthy. Considering your name you probably know a lot more about Diocletian though.
Fair enough re. Belisarius. You evidently place a lot of value on military leaders who played a strong defensive game, specifically Constantius II vis-a-vis the Persians and Diocletian in general. It's refreshing to see, because I find the defensive element is sometimes underrated on this forum. Incidentally, which campaign does this refer to: "In the west he tried to use an ambitious encirclement but like Napoleon trying to set strategy for the Peninsular War Constantius was too far away."

Diocletian was indeed a great military organizer. I was thinking more in terms of active campaigning, but certainly as a military organizer Diocletian's inclusion makes sense. He enacted various important military measures, including the establishment of the comitatenses (so David Potter argues), the strengthening of existing fortifications in the frontier zones, the building of more fortifications to create increasingly densely fortified frontier zones, the establishment of garrisons at important locations in the rear of the frontier zones, the building of forts beyond the frontiers for offensive campaigns, the building of the Strata Diocletiana, the foundation of more legions than any emperor since Augustus, and the increased use of vexillations as permanently separated units.

As for whether he ever suffered a defeat, the one known possibility is the Battle of the Margus in 285. When the armies of Carinus and Diocletian faced one another, Carinus' army appears to have gained the upper hand. Sources vary, but either Carinus had already won the battle or was in the process of winning the battle when he was struck down by one of his tribunes. The hostile sources, influenced by Diocletianic propaganda, claim that Carinus was killed because he had defiled the wives of his officers. Perhaps this is true, but it is a literary trope often applied by Romans to rulers whom posterity has decided were tyrants. In any case, the tribune that slew Carinus was not necessarily the only person involved in the conspiracy. Aristobulus appears to have betrayed his emperor. After Diocletian won the civil war, he allowed Aristobulus to retain the offices of praetorian prefect and consul. To allow Aristobulus to retain an office as powerful as the praetorian prefecture is telling. Aurelius Victor reports that this was because of the services (officia) that he had rendered (Liber de Caesaribus 39.14). The future emperor Constantius I, as the governor of nearby Dalmatia, probably also made a timely switch in loyalty during this campaign, considering his future political career. Indeed, Constantius eventually named a son of his Dalmatius, seemingly in honour of the appointment he held around the time of this civil war. That political intrigue played such a prominent role in this victory speaks to Diocletian's political acumen.