My List of the Greatest Commanders in History

Aug 2015
Los Angeles
Guan Yu (關羽) is really qualified as one of the worst military commanders in history.

How about open a thread for the list of the worst military commanders, Nobunaga-sama ? That would be an interesting subject.
Why is Guan Yu one of the WORST COMMANDER?

What is going on in this thread?

Not only is Sun Quan better than Guan Yu, but apparently Guan Yu is one of the worst?
Jul 2017
There's different aspects of generalship though. Octavian was a decent strategist and grand strategist, though he falls short on the operational and tactical level. That doesn't change the fact that his strategical abilities were quite decent. The reason I personally put Philip II above many, personally, is because even though we have little info on his tactical abilities (though he did create Hellenistic warfare), his strategic abilities were first class.
Jan 2015
Ontario, Canada
That's just bullshit. Augustus would then be a great military commander. It was his decision to take over Gaul, his decision to engage Anthony, and his decision to do all the military operation. By your definition, Augusts would be one of the greatest military commander.
Maybe you're onto something.
Octavian's decision to fight Antony was sound but what we need to consider is that Octavian had no way to lose except in a long attrition war. Octavian had many more troops than Antony and an experienced fleet, as well as the prestige of Caesar. He actually shows a lot of lapses in judgement if we look at 43 BC and 40 BC.

Not sure what you mean "his decision to take over Gaul", since Gaul was conquered by Julius Caesar. Unless you mean the Second Triumvirate in which case it wasn't really due to choice. Octavian was the junior partner and so Gaul was the only thing left to him. Lepidus was awarded Africa and Hispania, Marcus Antonius got all of the East and all of the Balkans. Italy was neutral territory controlled by the Senate. It was only gradually that Octavian was given control of Illyria and then later forced Lepidus to give up his territories in Hispania and then Africa. Afterwards he took control of Italy militarily and politically while Marcus Antonius was busy governing in the East and dealing with the Parthian invasion.

Octavian's military career could be summed up as follows:

Mutina campaign - His performance was trash, not only did he fail strategically but he was outmaneuvered by both Antony and Cicero on every level. The only thing that went well for him was that the other two consuls got killed fighting Antony so Octavian took their legions. He tried to dig himself out of a hole by using his 6 or so legions to take Rome but he completely failed to realize that by doing so this put him at direct odds with Brutus and Cassius who had more than 10 legions. Antony who came back from Mutina stronger than before now had control of Gaul and Hispania and more than 10 legions, Octavian had no choice but to form the Triumvirate with Antony and Lepidus. Why they didn't just kill Octavian is beyond me. Octavian's performance in the actual battles at Forum Gallorum and Mutina were not good either.

Philippi campaign - He is recorded as not having done anything in this campaign and all military affairs were handled by Antony. His contingent was commanded by Quintus Salvidienus Rufus. Octavian spent most of this campaign in his tent and contributed nothing.

Sicily campaign - The Italian Peninsula required the naval routes to be open so that they could receive grain shipments. Choosing to defeat Sextus Pompey was good but it was not optional. At the time Octavian had nothing else to do and required the defeat of Sextus Pompey for economic, strategic and political purposes. This naval campaigns were commanded by Marcus Agrippa. Octavian himself came down through Calabria and crossed over into Sicily but was defeated at Tauromenium. Lepidus meanwhile came over from Africa and marched overland towards Messina. Agrippa defeated Sextus Pompey at Mylae and Naulochus.

Fulvia's revolt - Fulvia and Lucius Antonius rebelled with some aristocrats and senators and funded their own private army. Due to a lack of funds and an unwillingness to fight the heir of Caesar the legions mutinied. Fulvia and Lucius Antonius were besieged in Perugia by Octavian's army. The campaign here was commanded by Quintus Salvidienus Rufus. Aside from ordering the destruction of Perugia and executing the supporters of Fulvia and Lucius Antonius, Octavian doesn't seem to have contributed anything. His decision to fight them on Italian soil was also somewhat of a poor decision because Octavian was not in control of Italy, neither in name nor in reality. He faced many consequences to his support and in his relations with Marcus Antonius.

Brundisium campaign - Sending Publius Ventidius Bassus to deal with the Parthian invasion of Syria and Anatolia, Marcus Antonius went himself to deal with Octavian's takeover of Italy. Antony landed his army in the heel of Italy to besiege Brundisium and gain a foothold in Italy. There was a long stalemate and Antony's troops were apprehensive about fighting the Caesarian faction. Antony however landed with a contingent to the north in the Adriatic and overran Octavian's defenses, bringing towns and supporters over to him and threatening Octavian and Rome itself with a flanking maneuver. Octavian had no choice but to sign a treaty at Brundisium.

Illyria campaign - Due to the Treaty of Brundisium Octavian gained control of Illyira, but there was a catch, Illyria was in revolt. Octavian used this campaign to bolster his political popularity and to gain control of the Adriatic. His legions landed and carried out an operational maneuver to net the Illyrian armies. In this campaign Octavian showed better performance than before and was at least able to avoid an ambush and maneuver toward enemy cities and take some of them. However in a battle at the heavily fortified city at Setovia, it is cleared that Octavian struggled and gave command to Titus Statilius Taurus and returned to Italy. It was Taurus who defeated the Illyrians and put down the revolt, but Octavian who took the credit.

Actium and Alexandria - Octavian decided to wage war on Marcus Antonius, as he desperately needed Egyptian grain to avoid an embargo by Marcus Antonius. Using his much larger army of veterans and a seasoned fleet he crossed over from Italy to Epirus. Antony relied on keeping his supply lines to Egypt open and keeping Octavian immobile between the mountains and the coastline. Antony tried to bait Octavian into a series of engagements and ambushes but Octavian avoided these and kept to his camp. Octavian marched south towards the ports of Ambracia so that his army could be sustained by his fleet. Antony being in no position to engage his army had no choice but to take Ambracia and hold it. The navy being commanded by Agrippa, carried out raids in the Peloponnese and secured ports, also damaging Antony's supply lines. Antony's army was plagued by desertion, defection and hunger and finally some of his officers defected to Octavian and brought him Antony's plans. Antony had no choice but to break out, which he largely succeeded in doing but incurred many casualties at the naval engagement at Actium (Octavian also knew Antony's plan). Antony with what remained of about 20,000 of his best troops sailed back to Egypt. Antony's army defected and Octavian marched overland through Greece, Anatolia and Syria. Also sending legions from Africa and Cyrenaica overland into Egypt, Octavian's army marched overland from Pelusium to Alexandria and also landed troops directly at Alexandria. Somehow despite being totally outnumbered Antony managed to defeat Octavian's army in an engagement. Octavian kept up the siege of Alexandria and took the city. It must be noted that the army was commanded by Titus Statilius Taurus so we can't know what Octavian's direct contributions were, if any in the realm of strategy or operations.

We could also go over how Octavian governed the empire or expanded the borders or put down revolts, as a series of military affairs but that is mostly redundant at this point. I think it is clear that Octavian did not understand military affairs, was mostly an awful military commander and at times left much to be desired at a strategist. Really he got by with immense amounts of political trickery, the prestige of the Caesarian faction and having much more access to Italian veterans and most of Caesar's veterans. There really was no way to lose the Actium campaign since he both had the better navy and far more as well as veteran troops. Add to that the constant defection of troops to him and you can see how Actium had more to do with politics than warfare. But even so Octavian's actions were not really the deciding factor, rather it was his name and resources which were the deciding factor. Take this away and his actions might have even been detrimental due in large part to the fact that his actions were illegal. He not only openly purged the Senate but put down tax revolts and persecuted the supporters of Marcus Antonius in Italy, Gaul and Africa as the war was breaking out.
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Jan 2015
Ontario, Canada
Why is Guan Yu one of the WORST COMMANDER?

What is going on in this thread?

Not only is Sun Quan better than Guan Yu, but apparently Guan Yu is one of the worst?
You really haven't made an argument in favour of Guan Yu though.

As Tokugawa said, Sun Quan is comparable to Ike. But in this case Guan Yu is not only not at all an Ike, he was barely even a Patton or an Omar Bradley. The guy couldn't fulfill his role as governor of Jing, or even win a campaign. His successes were as a subordinate before taking up his position in Jing prior to 215.
Jan 2015
Ontario, Canada
Nobunaga-sama, I recommend adding Takasugi Shinsaku (高杉晉作) to the list.

He was really a flawless frontline commander, an almost perfect military commander in “tactical level”.

Although he only participated in two wars, he played the major and decisive role in toppling the Choshu Domain’s “conservative faction” (俗論派), converted the Choshu Domain to the “anti-Shogunate side”, paved the way for the subsequent Satsuma-Choshu Alliance (薩長同盟) and the revolutionary Boshin War (戊辰戰爭).

He also contributed much in the defense of the Choshu Domain against the Tokugawa expeditive army which came to punish Choshu.

He also founded the Kihetai (奇兵隊), and maximized its potential strength.

I recommend Takasugi Shinsaku adding into the list of the greatest military commanders.


Takasugi Shinsaku (高杉晉作, 27th September 1839 - 17th May 1867), the Chosun Domain (長州藩) 's samurai in the Bakumatsu Period (幕末), renowned for his active participation in the sonno joi (尊王攘夷 — revere the emperor to power & expel the barbarians) and the anti-Shogunate movement (倒幕). He proved himself a military genius in two wars — one for overthrowing the Choshu Domain's conservative regime at Hagi and another war that successfully repelled the Tokugawa Shogunate's full-scale invasion of the Choshu Domain.

During his AD 1862 journey in Shanghai (上海) as a representative of the Shogunate, he realized the overwhelming superiority of the Western nations' military power over the Asian nations, and concluded that Japan will degenerate into a semi-colony of the Western great powers sharing the fate of the Qing Dynasty of China unless the modernization would be carried out.

He pondered on the methods for resisting the foreign invasion after he had returned to Japan, and began to participate the prevalent sonno joi movement. In AD 1863, the Choshu Domain was resolute to "expel the barbarians", carried out the indiscriminate bombardment on any foreign vessels passing through the Shimonoseki Strait (下関海峡), thus triggered the Shimonoseki Campaign (下関戦争);In this crucial moment, Shinsaku founded the Kihetai (奇兵隊 — the strange army) — anyone enlisted would be accepted regardless of the difference of social classes, thus completely shattered the tradition that only samurai had the right to be a soldier ; this had the profound impact on the military history of Japan. He believed that the future military force will be dominated by the "commoners", rather than those high-bornt, decayed samurai who had long since lost their fighting ability and spirit.

In AD 1864, the navies of Britain, France, USA and the Dutch striked back for vengeance and launched the devastating bombardment on Shimonoseki, capturing or destroying all the batteries on the shore. The Choshu Domain was greatly humilitated and was forced to seek peace. Shinsaku was assigned to negotiation for discussing peace terms as an envoy. This catastrophic defeat further enabled him to realize the huge disparity of military power between the Western nations and Japan.

Soon after the bombardment of Shimonoseki and the Kinmon Incident (禁門の変, occurred on 19th July 1864, in which the Choshu Domain attemped to take control of the Emperor by sending troops to occupy Kyoto, only got crushed by the Satsumi 薩摩 and the Aizu 會津 Domain 's troops), the Choshu Domain was declared as the "rebel" by the Shogunate. Panicked, the Choshu Domain's real power fell into the hands of the conservative faction (俗論派), which begged the Shogunate for peace while cracking down the sonno joi movement and the reformist faction ruthlessly (with many retainers imprisoned or executed) in order to pacify the Shogunate's wrath. Even the Kihetai was ordered to disbandment after a clash with the samurai troops.

Disappointed, enraged, Shinsaku determined to wage the coup d'etat against the conservative regime in the Choshu Domain. At the night of 15th December 1864, he declared the armed rebellion at Kosanji with 84 brave men, historically known as the Kosanji Uprising (功山寺挙兵) ; despite of the numerical inferiority initially, his uprising troops was increasing in number with many people joining his side and ultimately overthrew the conservative regime at Hagi (萩, the seat of the Choshu Domain) after the crushing victory at the Battle of Ohda-Edou-Akamura (大田・絵堂 ・赤村の戦い), which lasted from 6th - 16th January, allowing the reformist faction to take back the Choshu Domain's de facto authority. Hereafter, Shinsaku took charge of the Domain's military reform, purchased the newest type of rifles and gunboats from the British Empire through the Satsuma Domain (薩摩藩), which eventually formed the alliance with the Choshu Domain.

In June 1866, the Tokugawa Shogunate launched the punitive expedition against the Choshu Domain, historically known as the Second Choshu Expedition (第二次長州征討). Though extraordinarily outnumbered by the Shogunate force, Shinsaku was undaunted and superbly confident. With only a single warship Heiinmaru (丙寅丸), he crushed the Shogunate navy of 3 ships at the north of the island Suo-Oshima (周防大島) in a brilliant night raid. Then he continued the fighting against the Shogunate force around the Shimonoseki Strait and Kyushu, defeated the loosely-organized, ill-moraled Shogunate army which was actually the disorganized coalition of a great number of vassal lords. The enemy armies even burnt down their headquarter at Kokura Castle (小倉城 ) in panic and confusion on 1st August. Finally, the Tokugawa Shogunate recognized his defeat and abandoned the expedition ; this sealed the inevitable downfall of the Tokugawa Shogunate with his reputation and authority severely damaged.

On 17th May 1867, Takasugi Shinsaku passed away in the age of 28 due to the illness of turbeculosis, ended his short but resplendent and thrilling life that caused the even greater upheavel in the turbulent era of the Bakumatsu Period. Regrettably he could not witness the final demise of the Shogunate. Had he not existed in this world, the Meiji Restoration (明治維新) might be delayed as the Tokugawa Shogunate survived longer.


What do you think about this outstanding military commander ?
Don't know where to start with this but I would certainly look into it.
Jan 2015
Ontario, Canada
I could add Jan Chodkiewicz (1560—1621) and Petro Konashevych-Sahaidachny (1582-1622) who won Khotyn Battle - Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth with Ukrainian Cossaks vs Turks, Crymean Tatars, Nogai Horde and Moldova

I think it was the largest battle of the 17c (2 September - 9 October 1621)
I still need to research the subject. But I am considering Jan Karol Chodkiewicz. However my opinion is that a lot of these sources tend to exaggerate the sizes of the Ottoman and Tatar armies. Numbers which vary on multiple factors which include who was in command, whether it was a major expedition and where the troops being levied are from.
Jan 2015
Ontario, Canada
Not sure what to make of Stonewall Jackson, he had decent and good performances but his only campaign in the Shenandoah Valley was not that impacting. Anyway here is what I recorded from his record.

Thomas "Stonewall" Jackson 1824-1863
(Manassas 1861)
-Baltimore & Ohio Railway raids 1861
x -Battle of Falling Waters
-1st Battle of Bull Run

(Shenandoah Valley 1862)
-1st Battle of Kernstown
-Battle of McDowell
-Battle of Front Royal
-1st Battle of Winchester
-Battle of Good's Farm
-Battle of Cross keys
-Battle of Port Republic 1862

(Seven Days 1862)
x -Battle of Beaver Dam Creek
-Battle of Gaines Mill
-Battle of Savage's Station
-Battle of White Oak Swamp
-Battle of Glendale
x -Battle of Malvern Hill

(Northern Virginia 1862)
-Battle of Cedar Mountain
-1st Battle of Rappahannock Station
-Jackson's Manassas Station Operations
-2nd Battle of Bull Run
-Battle of Chantilly

(Maryland 1862)
-Battle of Harpers Ferry
-Battle of Antietam

(Fredericksburg 1862)
-Battle of Fredericksburg

(Chancellorsville 1863)
-Battle of Chancellorsville (died)
Jul 2018
Hong Kong
Why is Guan Yu one of the WORST COMMANDER?
Why are you so surprised, mariusj ? Are you heavily influenced by the historical novel like Romance of the Three Kingdoms (三國演義) or the video games, the animes / mangas associated with that series ?

In fact, whether in ability and personality, Guan Yu was greatly overestimated thanks to the myth prevailing in the folk tales.

The Taiwanese scholar Bo Yang (柏楊) had a very negative view to the "legendary" Guan Yu.
Here is what he commented :

Mr Guan Yu (關羽) was a famed general in the Eastern Han Dynasty period at the junction of the AD 2nd century and the AD 3rd century. His bravery was recognised by the contemporary and the later eras’ people. However, his immortality of heroism in the history of China and the image of popularity that had been lasting for 1,600 years yet was still undiminished was not because of his bravery, but his personal loyalty to Mr Liu Bei (劉備). This kind of loyalty was interpreted as “righteousness” (道義).

Particularly after the Manchus (滿州人) conquered China in the 17th century Qing Dynasty (清朝), Guan Yu became an exemplar for “political education” as the Manchu rulers emphasized the value of righteousness and the fusion of the Manchus and the Han ethnic group (漢族) that will last forever. Not only the Chinese venerates Guan Yu, the Guan Yu Temple could be also seen and enshrined everywhere in the Korean Peninsula too. Guan Yu is the only person that enjoys the fame of heroism in multiple countries.

However, let us cast away the novel Romance of the Three Kingdoms which had the most influence upon us, Guan Yu really had no place in history by checking the historical works for reference. Despite of his bravery, he was no more than an impetuous fool, had neither stratagem nor manner. Besides, he was narrow-minded and short-sighted. There was only a liege and himself in his eyes. From the very beginning he rejected Mr Zhuge Liang (諸葛亮), and only ceased to bear that thought after being persuaded by Liu Bei ; he also rejected Mr Huang Zhong (黃忠), nobody could anticipate what would he do if not because of the eloquence of Fei Shi (費詩) : in other words, Guan Yu might be treacherous if Liu Bei failed to support him ; if Guan Yu obtained his liege's support, then Huang Zhong might rebel against Liu Bei ; Mi Fang (糜芳) and Fu Shiren (傅士仁) were already an example.

Loyalty is only valuable when the object being served is beneficial. If loyalty only serve for self-interest — look, I'm dedicating my entire strength for you ! Then it is not the real allegiance, but the foolish and hot-headed gesture, only causes harm to the object being served who ends up offending everyone in this world. This was exactly how Guan Yu treated Sun Quan (孫權) and Lu Su (魯肅). He turned them to enemies with such a rude and ill-considered method when they could become his close friend and ally instead.

It was amazing that Guan Yu was so exhilarating with only a few humble letters by Mr Lu Xun (陸遜), only proved that he was too naive. And after his defeat, he sent envoys to contact with Lu Meng (呂蒙) ; as a result, the envoys were "exploited" and acted as a messenger for the enemy, caused the disintegration of Guan Yu's army. In 482 BC, Mr King Fuchai (夫差) of Wu (吳) immediately slew a messenger who came to notify him that the capital Gusu (姑蘇) had fallen, when he was still hosting a diplomatic summit with many state leaders at presence in Huang Chi (黃池), in fear of the news leak out that would destroy his army's morale.

If Guan Yu had little brain, he should worry about the blockade of news ; yet instead, the envoys between Guan Yu and Lu Meng's armies went forth and back for several times, we cannot comprehend what actually he wanted to gain.

When Guan Yu's army retreated southward, Cao Ren (曹仁) did not pursue ; when Pengcheng (彭城) fell into the hands of Liu Bei in 205 BC, Xiang Yu (項羽) made a comeback and soundly crushed Liu Bei in a single battle. On the contrary, Guan Yu's large army was routed and diminished rapidly even without being pursued by the enemy army. What kind of military commander he was !?

Mr Guan Yu had never commanded the grand army for large-scale campaign prior to his AD 219 Jingzhou Campaign. Yet with a sudden full-scale offensive that caught the enemy unprepared, he accomplished the incredible success. Xu Huang (徐晃) was merely a second-rate general, yet even so, Guan Yu failed to counter him and was compelled to lift the siege of Fencheng (樊城). Guan Yu had already lost the campaign even before Lu Meng backstabbed him. Even suppose that he won and marched northward, we have no reason to believe that Guan Yu could defeat the veteran general Cao Cao (曹操).

The greatest stupidity he exhibited was entrusting the base to the two generals he despised who hated him very much. The success of Liu Bang relied on Xiao He (蕭何) 's charge over Guanzhong (關中) ; the success of Liu Xiu (劉秀) relied on Kou Xun (寇恂) 's charge over Henei (河內) ; the success of Cao Cao relied on Zao Zhi (棗祗) 's charge of the cultivation in the Xu County (許縣). Only Guan Yu's base was established on the sandy beach. Liu Bang constantly promoted Xiao He's rank and position for ensuring his loyalty and preventing him bear any thought of disloyalty ; yet Guan Yu proclaimed that he will punish the two generals who took charge behind, was totally unlike a well-experienced general, but a capricious upstart.

Guan Yu's greatest mistake was ruining the "Longzhong Strategy Plan" (隆中對) devised by Zhuge Liang twelve years ago. Had the Kingdom of Shu (蜀) maintained the friendship with Sun Quan and launched the joint offensive towards the Kingdom of Wei (魏), the entire situation might be greatly improved. The whole strategy crumbled just because of Guan Yu's recklessness.


Now you understand why I regard Guan Yu as one of the worst military commanders in history, mariusj. Except courage, he was grossly incapable in every other aspects required for an ideal general (leadership, incisiveness, charisma, wisdom, planning, adaptability, precaution...etc).

In comparison, Sun Quan was far much better than Guan Yu in many of those aspects.
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Ad Honorem
Aug 2015
Good post, thanks. Was Guan Yu employed by Cao Cao for some time and after that returned to Liu Bei? How historicaly relevant is a chapter from Romance when he intercepts Cao Cao after Red Cliffs and let's him go because of Cao Cao's good treatment when he was with him?

Sorry, I was impressed by Chinese series San Guo and I wonder how much of it is true.
Jan 2015
Ontario, Canada
Good post, thanks. Was Guan Yu employed by Cao Cao for some time and after that returned to Liu Bei? How historicaly relevant is a chapter from Romance when he intercepts Cao Cao after Red Cliffs and let's him go because of Cao Cao's good treatment when he was with him?

Sorry, I was impressed by Chinese series San Guo and I wonder how much of it is true.
The chapter is just a myth. In reality Cao Cao let him go, he wasn't chased down or anything. It was inserted into Sanguo Yanyi for the purpose of making an adventure story and to highlight Guan Yu's physical prowess.

The more I read about Guan Yu I find that he is a very arrogant and vein person.

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