My List of the Greatest Commanders in History

Oct 2018
Iphicrates is also the general who defeated the Spartiates at Lechaeum using peltasts, and whose reforms, whereby he gave his hoplites (or, according to some scholars, his peltasts) longer spears and swords, smaller shields, heavy bronze armour and light boots called Iphicratids, are believed to have inspired the arming of the Macedonian phalangites.

Lord Oda Nobunaga

Ad Honorem
Jan 2015
Ontario, Canada
I think he should be, yes. In the context of the Second Punic War I think he's on the level of Marcellus.

Of the ones you just posted I only really know about Galerius. Xanthippos seems like a good inclusion. From that period, what about Miltiades? I don't know much about him, but I wonder if he is worthy.
My policy is generally to include a commander that has more than one campaign under their belt. Miltiades is pretty much just known for Marathon, after he attempted to invade the island of Paros but failed. His earlier career is also very obscure, from the little we know he inherited control of a city in the Chersonese from his uncle and brother. Somehow he managed to subject much of the area to his rule. Afterwards he served the Persians and was one of the officers that guarded the Danube bridge during Darius' campaigns against the Scythians. Since he was a Greek and technically also an Athenian citizen, he took part in the Ionian revolt and invaded a few of the islands in the Aegean. Well his political timing couldn't have been worse because the Ionian Revolt was put down by Darius' generals and Miltiades had to flee back to Athens. The problem was that as a Tyrannos he naturally had lots of critics in Athens, also Miltiades was known for making enemies. Granted when Miltiades left Athens it was still ruled by a Tyrannos, when he came back it was a Democracy.

After Marathon his expedition to Paros was a failure and this sort of left him in disgrace. It was also rumored that his reasons for invading Paros were personal as the island had slighted him in the past. What I do find interesting is that Miltiades had a rivalry with both Themistokles and Xanthippos. Likewise those two competed with each other for decades after Miltiades died. This later transferred over to Themistokles and Xanthippos having a rivalry with Miltiades' son Kimon. Then later between Kimon and Xanthippos' son Perikles. But the overarching reason I think is because Miltiades was associated with Tyranny. Xanthippos had married into the Alcmaeonidae clan, likely not by accident the niece of the Democratic reformer Kleisthenes. Therefore it is pretty clear that Xanthippos intended to maneuver himself into a position of political dominance through the Democratic factions. Mitiades was too old school and his political prestige depended on his victory at Marathon as well as aristocratic supporters (which is also likely that Xanthippos and Themistokles were among the 10 Athenian generals). Probably also not by accident but his son Kimon was a supporter of the Spartans and their system.

However Miltiades' defeat at Paros dashed these hopes and Xanthippos was outmaneuvered by the Populist strongman Themistokles. Later on we see the same pattern emerging when Themistokles is ostracized and Perikles outmaneuvers Kimon, but as a Populistic Democrat. Faced with such a combination and many Democratic and aristocratic allies, Kimon didn't stand a chance. I'm not sure to what extent this played a part in the historiography or the developments but it must have been a major factor. I would also suggest that Miltiades' reasons for invading Paros had to do with his own desire to achieve another victory and to acquire some kind of wealth. Maybe Paros was not that important but it lay in the crossroads right along the Athenian island chain to Anatolia, it was also a city state which had supported the Persians. Given the context it makes sense to follow up Marathon by securing these islands, and a good way to increase his popularity.

This is pretty much my abbreviated explanation of Greek and specifically Athenian poltiical developments. To get a really good picture of how this all occurred I would have to start at the Bronze Age and that would take way too long. But the tldr is that Miltiades was like an old school Prussian general, Xanthippos was a rich well connected Democratic supporter, Themistokles was a Populist but the means don't seem to phase him, Perikles was fairly radical and would make Kleisthenes seem like a conservative reactionary. All in all it might be easy to see why Miltiades is overshadowed, but his political ability was severely lacking. Probably a capable Tyrannos in the Chersonese, made some bad calls in hindsight by going all in for the Ionian Revolt. Later in Athens he just couldn't handle the Democratic system and all the factionalism and infighting which it brought. His politics game was weak and by the time of Salamis when he had been dead for a decade, Miltiades was forgotten. However Themistokles made enemies as well and everyone more or less piled on him. When he was ostracized Perikles filled the vacuum since it was now clear that despite being a Democracy the Athenian political system and upside down society was craving a leading figure. Perikles' precision and curve balls in taking power completely astounded the Athenians and he dominated the city politically and militarily. After all Perikles was basically the successor to Kleisthenes, not just politically but also by blood (something Kimon also tried to do by marrying into that family). Alkibiades would later try to ride Perikles' reputation to no avail, and the Alcmonidae became an irrelevant dynasty after the Peloponnesian Wars.

So why are Miltiades and Themistokles so well remembered? Well part of it is just because they had big battles to their names. Miltiades pretty much salvaged his reputation with Marathon but destroyed it again with Paros. On the other hand if Paros was sufficient to ruin him so utterly this shows that Miltiades didn't know how to play the game, that his political support was never that strong, and that Marathon itself did not actually have too much political capital. In effect you could say that Marathon was only half done, because a decade later the Persians came back. Salamis was regarded as total and better reflected Athenian aspirations of maritime control. Themistokles was also a far more capable politician than Miltiades. However Themistokles made lots of enemies and it is clear that his rivals resented his dominance. At the same time Xanthippos won another victory at Mycale and it seemed as though Themistokles was being overshadowed. In fact the sources later point out that when Themistokles was serving the Persians, that Kimon's accomplishments were also seen as having surpassed those of Themistokles. Even if this was not the case Themistokles had become redundant in Athens and Salamis was being presented as a victory for the Athenian people rather than just the victory of one man. Perikles had no issues with using Salamis and Themistokles in his politics. The reason why Perikles is not associated with any great victories is because he never fought one in the field. Instead Perikles as the Strategos formulated strategy (although he did command various campaigns just not great battles), for instance Kimon was Perikles' subordinate. However due to the Peloponnesian Wars and Perikles' untimely death, Perikles also seems to have become irrelevant. Even so Thukydides states that Perikles' strategy was optimal given Athenian limitations and that defeat only came after they deviated from his plan. But that aside Perikles was more remembered for his political rhetoric and pushing reformative legislation (similar to Hammurabi I suppose, ironically because Hammurabi was a conqueror, but later sources kind of forgot).

All that just to say that I could be convinced to include Miltiades, but I don't really like him. A lot of it is just because of his overall poor performance, his only notable success was Marathon, and we don't have a clear record of what he did in the Chersonese or in the Ionian Revolt, and how or why he ran away from the Persians for that matter.

Actually, on the subject of Athenians, have you included Iphicrates?
I have not. Would have to do more research. What did he do exactly?

Lord Oda Nobunaga

Ad Honorem
Jan 2015
Ontario, Canada
Have you considered Abu Ahmad al-Muwaffaq for his command during the Zanj revolt? Tabari's unusually detailed account (v. 37 of the English translation) points to a highly-competent military leader, especially at the organizational and logistical levels.
Sorry I only just saw this. I have never heard of this guy. I'll have to look into it. I can check Al-Tabari at some point.
Oct 2018
I have not. Would have to do more research. What did he do exactly?
Regarding Miltiades you clearly know much more about all of this than I do, and your reasons for excluding him are fair, although I would point out that, regardless of what it says about political ability or the significance of a battle, the Athenians in general seem to have been all too willing to make enemies of their heroes, considering the fates of Themistocles, Alcibiades and the admirals at Arginousai.

As for Iphicrates, one might summarize his career as follows:

1. Late 390s/early 380s: He was perhaps Athens' most successful general in the Corinthian War, campaigning as a general and admiral in the Peloponnese and the Chersonese, and winning several important battles against the Lacedaemonians and their allies including the aforementioned battle against the Spartiates at Lechaeum (post 511), the battle where he defeated the Spartan general Anaxibius in a defile near Abydos (post 510), the ambush of Anaxibius (thereby killing Anaxibius and wresting control of the Chersonese: post 510), the battle in which he seized the Lacademonian camp while they were foraging (post 510), and his defeat of the Chians (post 510).
2. Late 380s: He successfully campaigned for Athens in Thrace, restoring Seuthes to his throne. This campaign included a notable ambush of the Thracian army by Iphicrates, and presumably the incident in which he used Thracian prisoners to defend against Thracian skirmishers (post 510).
3. Early 370s: He campaigned in Egypt as a mercenary general on behalf of the Persians.
4. Early 370s?: He reformed his hoplites in a manner that constituted a precursor to the Macedonian phalangite (Philip II notably spent time with Iphicrates when he was in exile from Macedon)
5. Late 370s: He relieved Corcyra from a Lacedaemonian siege and defeated the Syracusan reinforcements.
6. Late 370s or early 360s (I don't remember): He fought against a Theban invasion of the Peloponnese. I seem to recall reading that Epaminondas avoided doing battle with him (if he was as tricky as those anecdotes in post 510 indicate, I don't blame him).
7. 360s: Iphicrates sides with his marriage relation, Cotys of Thrace, against the Athenians.
8. 350s: Having been pardoned by Athens, he commands a fleet for them in the Social War. After he and two of his colleagues refuse to go into battle during a severe storm, he is impeached by the one admiral who did and was defeated in battle, Chares. Iphicrates is acquitted after he gives a speech while holding a sword and has armed mercenaries among the audience.
9. In general: Having enjoyed a forty-year military career, his numerous tactical feats were sufficiently notable that Frontinus and Polyaenus include numerous anecdotes about him in their volumes on military tactics. The anecdotes included in post 510 are only a few highlights. He was also spoken of as a great general by Xenophon and Nepos. Nepos, Iphicrates 1: '...he was such a leader, that he was not only comparable to the first commanders of his own time, but no one even of the older generals could be set above him. He was much engaged in the field; he often had the command of armies; he never miscarried in an undertaking by his own fault; he was always eminent for invention, and such was his excellence in it, that he not only introduced much that was new into the military art, but made many improvements in what existed before.'
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Feb 2018
Short on time, so I can't quote sources, my apologies.

After the Kalka River campaign, Subutai invaded the Rus states and conquered them?
So in that case Batu didn't do much on his own? The Siege of Gran showed Batu Khan to be incompetent? Why, what happened? Then you would say that Batu Khan was not a good general?
After the Kalka campaign (ended in 1224), Subutai conquered the Xia and Jin in China, and defeated a Song invasion, from 1225-1234. He was then transferred over to the Western front in 1235 since Batu had made little progress since 1230.

From memory, there are 5 main points against Batu:
1. Guyuk and Buri openly mocked him for incompetence, as is recorded in the Secret History.
2. He blundered at the siege of Torzhok (supported in Rashid al Din and the YS) where Subutai or Boroldai had to bail him out (failure in 2 weeks vs success in 3 days).
3. He blundered at the battle of Mohi, showed signs of defeatism mid battle and wanted to retreat, and had to publicly apologize to Subutai after the battle.
4. The siege of Gran's citadel. He could have simply masked it and moved on like they did elsewhere, but he made a poor attack.
5. Ogedei in the Secret History gives all the credit for the war to Subutai and Bujek/Boroldai. Thus presumably all of the princes were simply following orders.

What was Jochi doing NW of the Aral sea? Fighting Kipchaks? What was that all about? Sources say that Jochi had been in Kyrgyzstan earlier in 1210 and 1218. He would know the way into the Fergana Valley.

Wanted to add my two bits about Batu. He only triumphed against isolated Russian principalities. It took no genius to do that just a massive army to back him up. You quoted a source saying that the Mongol princes were under the supervision of mongol generals until the mid 13th century. That would include Batu who did well in a titular role.

Graziani? No. Well, at least he avenged Adowa.
He was dispatched with Subutai on the mission to defeat the Merkits who had fled. They sought refuge with the Kipchaks, so that meant another campaign to the Irtysh, which is where the Khwarezmians attacked them. This happened in 1216-18 btw. You can see Atwood, 2017, or Sverdrup 2017, for more info on this. The earlier chronology of that campaign is wrong. So Jochi is at the Irtysh in 1218 at the outbreak of war with Khwarezm, and very likely with Genghis Khan at Otrar in 1219. There is little reason to suppose he somehow teleported into the Tien Shan during this time frame without direct primary source evidence to counter this logic (I don't know what McLynn used).

I never know where to look for the full list to see what you have, but the best Mongol generals are very clearly [in rough order]: Genghis Khan, Subutai, Bayan, Jebe, Muqali, Uriyangkhadai, Chormaqan, Aju. Then after this group you have something like: Shi Tianze, Boroldai, Baiju, Guo Baoyu, Zhang Rou, Shi Tiangying, and probably a bunch of others I'm forgetting. Hulegu is the only prince worth considering, but its not clear how much he actually did vs Ket-Buqa since we are reliant on the dynastic Persian sources here. In the post-dissolution period, Kaidu seems to have performed reasonably well.

Lord Oda Nobunaga

Ad Honorem
Jan 2015
Ontario, Canada
Regarding Miltiades you clearly know much more about all of this than I do, and your reasons for excluding him are fair, although I would point out that, regardless of what it says about political ability or the significance of a battle, the Athenians in general seem to have been all too willing to make enemies of their heroes, considering the fates of Themistocles, Alcibiades and the admirals at Arginousai.
Mostly I wanted to see that if Miltiades was done dirty in the historiography, then what the reason for that might have been. Large part it was as you say, the Athenians needed to constantly ruin individuals to justify their Democratic policy. The other is also because Athenian politics was quite vicious, maybe if Themistokles and Xanthippos did not exist then Miltiades could have become the dominant figure. But the fact is he still would be defeated at Paros, and then the Democratic regime would have purged him anyway.

The other goal being to analyze his political ability in military situations. So for example the Ionian Revolt, he grabbed a few islands, got chased out by the Persians who smashed the rebels in Anatolia,,, what exactly was his strategy then?

One thing I did consider is if Xanthippos and Themistokles did not in fact play a greater role at Marathon than the sources say. We know that there were ten generals present, one for each Athenian tribe so presumably Xanthippos and Themistokles were among them. However Miltiades is only mentioned as a Strategos where as Kallimachos is referred to as the Polemarchos (basically a Marshal or the King's Deputy). It is also clear that the strategoi would vote before making decisions, so Miltiades is not actually in control. As well as this Miltiades was credited with devising the plan but Kallimachos died in battle and was given credit as the nominal commander. Had Kallimachos not died, would Miltiades even receive the credit and to what extent was the death a factor in Miltiades' popularity?

As for Iphicrates, one might summarize his career as follows:
Seems good to me, I guess Iphikrates is in.

Lord Oda Nobunaga

Ad Honorem
Jan 2015
Ontario, Canada
I'll try something a bit different this time. Since there are so many events in the distant past that don't have very much documentation and of which we know so little, but have never the less been discovered Archaeologically, or bits of it have been transmitted through other written sources, then I will try to cover some of the mythological events and figures. Not all of them of course but just the ones which I can think off the top of my head. This isn't so much about the Myths themselves but the historical context and analysis.

Gilgamesh and the Rise of Sumerian Civilization: Gilgamesh is listed on the Sumerian Kings List as having ruled in Uruk and the Epic states that Aga ruled in Kish at that time. Aga of Kish is believed to have lived due to inscriptions which have been discovered. Due to this it is believed that Gilgamesh might also have been real. The Epic of Gilgamesh contains mythological elements and is largely stories about these sorts of fictional adventures. In these myths Gilgamesh supposedly went to the north of Mesopotamia and crossed into the Anatolian mountains, where he fought giants and monsters. Despite this the Sumerian Kings List also accredits Gilgamesh as the King of Sumer, which implies rule or hegemony over the entire region. Some scholars believe that if Gilgamesh existed then it must have been during the Early Dynastic Period between 2800 BC and 2500 BC.

The Fall of Crete and Minoan Civilization: While in the myths the fall of Crete is generally attributed to Theseus and the death of King Minos, this appears to be a later tale. The Minoan Civilization which had existed since about 2700 BC to 1100 BC, was said to dominate the Aegean Sea. It is true that archaeology has shown large cities on the island and Cretan wares across the Mediterranean, but also many foreign goods in Crete. According to the tales of Minos and Theseus, the Cretans had a strong presence in mainland Greece and subjugated many cities to pay tribute. The Theseus story is likely a later creation, with many allegorical additions by Athens (specifically Theseus/Athenian rule of the sea) during the Classical period, the myth itself probably emerged from the Archaic period. However later writers say that Theseus lived during the Heroic Age, Castor of Rhodes dates Theseus' rule of Attica from 1234 to 1205 BC. According to Homer the Athenians took part in the Trojan War under Menestheus (ruled 1205 BC to 1183 BC according to Castor), who overthrew Theseus. Theseus' son Demophon also took part in the war and later reclaimed Attica. Homer also states that a Cretan contingent took part in the Trojan War at the end of the Heroic Age, which implies Mycenaean rule on the island. However the conquest of Crete by the Greeks likely took place during the 1400's BC or the 1300's BC, as archaeology shows Mycenaean wares and constructions as well as Mycenaean Linear B tablets.

The Deeds of Herakles: Much can be said about the mythological Herakles. It is clear that the Labors of Herakles are intended as an allegory for philosophical and religious purposes. The Herakles cult gained prominence in Boeotia, Attica and the Peloponnese during the 500's BC but undoubtedly existed prior during the Archaic period (the earliest dated text of the Labors is from the 600's BC). Many scholars also believe that the name "Herakles" dates as far back as the Bronze Age. Indeed, ancient people also associated Herakles with the "Age of Heroes" (in Hesiod's chronology the Heroic Age, during which the wars of Thebes and Troy took place, was immediately after the Bronze Age when men waged incessant war), roughly what we consider the Late Bronze Age. It is true that during the Bronze Age, the cities and tribes of Greece waged constant war between one another as can be seen from the archaeological record. Pausanias states that Herakles was associated to certain Bronze Age sites in Thebes and that he was known for removing the yoke of Orchomenos. A statement which is more or less proven archaeologically as in the Late Bronze the Boeotian plains were ruled by Orchomenos, at some point the Thebans defeated them and became the dominant city in that region of Greece. The first six Labors of Herakles take place in the Peloponnese, supposedly Herakles was in the service of Eurystheus of Mycenae. These "Labors" may coincide with the expansion of Mycenaean power in the Peloponnese. Later Herakles was said to go on raids and wars across the Aegean Sea and in Anatolia, which is certainly possible if the Hittite records of Aegean adventurers is an indication. Other tales of Herakles in Africa, Italy and Iberia are later additions which can be attributed to other people or myths. At some point Herakles also waged his own wars in the Peloponnese, however he is never referred to as a king in the myths, perhaps he was a warlord or leader of a militant organization (although Clement of Alexandria refers to him as King of Argos, perhaps a vassal king of Tiryns then). It is possible that there are multiple events and deeds which were done by multiple people and later spun into one narrative about Herakles. This may be reflected by the rival cults of Herakles in Argos and of Herakles in Thebes. Were there in fact two men, one in Argos and one in Thebes? It is obvious that elements of the Herakles Myth come from other sources such as the Phoenician deity Melkart or the Egyptian deity Shu, among other obscure myths. However there is also a good chance that Herakles was a real person since some of these deeds appear to be based in reality. Herakles, along with some of these other myths, have a very Viking quality to them. According to Saint Jerome the Heroic Age lasted from 1460 BC to 1103 BC. Saint Jerome also gives Herakles' death as 1226 BC, either way the wars in Thebes and Troy a generation or two later would date to the 1100's BC, which coincides with the Bronze Age Collapse and the Fall of Mycenaean Civilization. As such Herakles would likely be dated from about 1400 BC to 1200 BC.

Ragnar Lodbrok and the Vikings: The subject of multiple Norse sagas and Scandinavian and Christian histories alike. The legendary Ragnar Lodbrok was said to be a viking and a king. Among many magical deeds he was also said to have fought wars in Scandinavia and raided the British Isles. Many medieval histories also attributed to him many raids in Frankia and the "Reginherus" who carried out the Siege of Paris in 845 is generally believed to be the same as Ragnar Lodbrok. Eventually he is killed in Britain and his famous sons Ivar, Ubba, Halfdan, Bjorn, Hvitserk and Sigurd invade the British Isles to claim revenge. This coincides with the Heathen Army which ravaged the British Isles for decades. His sons also waged other wars by raiding the Mediterranean as well as invading Scotland, Ireland and supposedly wars and adventures in Scandinavia and Russia. Of all of these mythical characters, Ragnar Lodbrok and the sons of Ragnar are the most likely to have existed.
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Lord Oda Nobunaga

Ad Honorem
Jan 2015
Ontario, Canada
Update 4.0
-added 46 new names
-removed Batu Khan from the original list

  1. Yarim-Lim I (Yamhad) (1800 BC-1764 BC)
  2. Horemheb (18th Dynasty) (1350 BC-1292 BC)
  3. Merneptah (19th Dynasty) (1280 BC-1203 BC)
  4. Tiglath Pileser I (Assyria) (1140 BC-1076 BC)
  5. Shoshenq I (22nd Dynasty) (970 BC-922 BC)
  6. Shalmaneser III (Neo-Assyria) (880 BC-824 BC)
  7. Cyaxeres (Median Empire) (645 BC-585 BC)
  8. Harpagus (Median Empire/Achaemenid Empire) (600 BC-535 BC)
  9. Xanthippos (Athens) (525 BC-475 BC)
  10. Iphikrates (Athens) (418 BC-353 BC)
  11. Quintus Fabius Maximus Rullianus (Roman Republic) (365 BC-290 BC)
  12. Gaius Claudius Nero (Roman Republic) (247 BC-190 BC)
  13. Gaius Galerius Valerius Maximianus (Roman Empire) (260-311)
  14. Louis the Pious (Frankish Empire) (778-840)
  15. Ferdinand II d'Aragon (Aragon, Castile) (1452-1516)
  16. Lala Kara Mustafa Pasha (Ottoman Empire) (1500-1580)
  17. Pyotr Rumyantsev (Russia) (1725-1796)
  18. Guy-Victor Duperre (France) (1775-1846)
  19. Luis Alves de Lima e Silva (Brazilian Empire) (1803-1880)
  20. Wilhelm von Tegetthoff (Austria-Hungary) (1827-1871)
  21. Friedrich Karl von Preussen (Prussia, Germany) (1828-1885)
  22. Ito Sukeyuki (Japan) (1843-1914)
  23. Aleksei Brusilov (Russian Empire/Russian SFSR) (1853-1926)
  24. Noel Edouard de Castelnau (France) (1851-1944)
  25. Joseph Joffre (France) (1852-1931)
  26. Zivojin Misic (Serbia) (1855-1921)
  27. Svetozar Boroevic (Austria-Hungary) (1856-1920)
  28. Louis Franchet d'Esperey (France) (1856-1942)
  29. Armando Diaz (Italy) (1861-1928)
  30. Henri Gouraud (France) (1867-1946)
  31. Gerd von Rundstedt (Germany) (1875-1953)
  32. Douglas MacArthur (United States) (1880-1964)
  33. Matthew Ridgway (United States) (1895-1993)
  34. Li Mu (Zhao) (280 BC-229 BC)
  35. Wang Ben (Qin) (250 BC-210 BC)
  36. Meng Tian (Qin) (250 BC-210 BC)
  37. Liu Bang "Emperor Gaozu" (Chu/Han) (256 BC-195 BC)
  38. Zhou Yafu (Han) (190 BC-143 BC)
  39. Huo Qubing (Han) (140 BC-117 BC)
  40. Ma Yuan (Han) (14 BC-49)
  41. Zhang Liao (Lu Bu/Cao Wei) (165/169-222)
  42. Zhang He (Yuan Shao/Cao Wei)
  43. Cao Ren (Cao Wei) (168-223)
  44. Xu Huang (Cao Wei) (169-227)
  45. Lu Xun (Sun Wu) (183-245)
  46. Hong Taiji (Qing Empire) (1592-1643)