Top 10 Roman Generals (Byzantine allowed)

Oct 2018
2,092
Sydney
Delbruck isn’t questioning the existence of elephants
I didn't suggest he was. Rather, I was reacting to this: "They do not drive in on infantry who are arrayed in close order". Looking at the quote again, I'm guessing Delbruck intended to say that they do not advance alongside close-order infantry, but that's not how it initially came across.
 
Sep 2019
187
Vergina
Delbruck isn’t questioning the existence of elephants, he’s questioning the sources explaining the deployment of the elephants as part of the phalanx line; placed inside the intervals of the phalanx, which would make it extremely easy for the legions to push back the elephants and pour into the gaps, destroying the phalanx. It’s an non realistic deployment.
Harl provides an interesting assessment of the subject:
"However they were deployed initially the elephants were likely to advance before the phalanx. Since the phalanx was vulnerable to breaking apart given the different rates of advance and obstacles, Macedonian kings learned to appreciate how elephants could terrify opponents, and so provide a shield behind which the phalanx could advance by stages and redress its lines."
Kenneth W. Harl, "Legion Over Phalanx: The Battle of Magnesia, 190 BC," in Macedonian Legacies, ed. Timothy Howe and Jeanne Reames, 268.
This makes the most sense in my opinion. The elephants deployed at the intervals then advanced and the phalanx reformed behind them.

Here are the primary source quotes for everyone to reference:
Livy: There were 10,000 infantry armed in the Macedonian fashion, who are called phalangitae. These formed the center their front was divided into ten sections; these sections were separated by intervals, in each of which two elephants were stationed. From the front the formation stretched back, to a depth of thirty-two ranks.
(Livy, 37.40.2-4.)
The total force of Antiochus was 70,000 and the strongest of these was the Macedonian phalanx of 16,000 men, still arrayed after the fashion of Alexander and Philip. These were placed in the centre, divided into ten sections of 1600 men each, with fifty men in the front line of each section and thirty-two deep. On the flanks of each section were twenty-two elephants. The appearance of the phalanx was like that of a wall, of which the elephants were the towers.
(Appian, Syrian Wars.32)
 
Oct 2018
2,092
Sydney
Harl provides an interesting assessment of the subject:


This makes the most sense in my opinion. The elephants deployed at the intervals then advanced and the phalanx reformed behind them.

Here are the primary source quotes for everyone to reference:
I was actually thinking this was the likelihood as well. Regardless of how they were initially deployed, they were to advance ahead and cause terror for the enemy frontline, as they did in numerous other battles, while the phalanx moved up behind.
 
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Caesarmagnus

Ad Honorem
Jan 2015
3,680
Australia
He's an easy guy to underrate, because some of the better records of the minutae of his battles are now lost and referred to 3rd hand by others, but how many Roman commanders had more impressive victories than Sulla? Less than 10 I'd say. Caesar is an easy first for this list, because he ticks every box you could want. He was innovative, ludicrously outnumbered most times, no meaningful defeats, and his enemies and victories cover a wide array of different types; we also have some immaculate records of his strategies and tactics that one cant help but rank him #1. It is his own writings that help us greatly understand many aspects of Roman military affairs. That said, who among the other names can boast of the victories of Sulla? Just by looking at what we do have of his record, he belongs on my top 5 list. I'm personally more impressed by what Sulla did with his career than Scipio Africanus for eg, though I at least get why people like him would be more favored by some. The records on Africanus are more exhaustive for one thing. Sulla's foes were the Italians, Pontus and his fellow Romans, usually crazily outnumbered. Africanus fame rests on beating Carthage, who in military terms wouldn't have stacked up that well to a lot of later Roman foes, for all Hannibal's greatness. Who would win in a war; Carthage or the Italian Allies Sulla faced? Would Carthage defeat the forces Carbo had awaiting him in Italy? I think the answer is pretty obvious. I'm not totally certain Carthage was stronger than Pontus to be honest, though in fairness the legions of Africanus time weren't of the same standard as those in Sulla's time either.
 
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Sep 2019
187
Vergina
He's an easy guy to underrate, because some of the better records of the minutae of his battles are now lost and referred to 3rd hand by others, but how many Roman commanders had more impressive victories than Sulla? Less than 10 I'd say. Caesar is an easy first for this list, because he ticks every box you could want. He was innovative, ludicrously outnumbered most times, no meaningful defeats, and his enemies and victories cover a wide array of different types; we also have some immaculate records of his strategies and tactics that one cant help but rank him #1. It is his own writings that help us greatly understand many aspects of Roman military affairs. That said, who among the other names can boast of the victories of Sulla? Just by looking at what we do have of his record, he belongs on my top 5 list. I'm personally more impressed by what Sulla did with his career than Scipio Africanus for eg, though I at least get why people like him would be more favored by some. The records on Africanus are more exhaustive for one thing. Sulla's foes were the Italians, Pontus and his fellow Romans, usually crazily outnumbered. Africanus fame rests on beating Carthage, who in military terms wouldn't have stacked up that well to a lot of later Roman foes, for all Hannibal's greatness. Who would win in a war; Carthage or the Italian Allies Sulla faced? Would Carthage defeat the forces Carbo had awaiting him in Italy? I think the answer is pretty obvious. I'm not totally certain Carthage was stronger than Pontus to be honest, though in fairness the legions of Africanus time weren't of the same standard as those in Sulla's time either.
I rate Sulla very highly. My only issue with his military career are the outrageous numbers given by the ancient sources. Plutarch (Sulla, 22) and Appian (Mithridatic Wars, 45) number Mithradates army at 120,000. At Chaeronea, Sulla supposedly lost 13 men and Archelaus 110,000 (Appian, 45). After Chaeronea, Archelaus remaining 10,000 is reinforced by a further 80,000 (Appian, 49). At Orchomenus, Archelaus then loses another 15,000 men including 10,000 cavalry (Appian, 59)

I hope to find a piece of scholarship that offers a reassessment of these numbers and casualties similar to the one @nuclearguy165 found on Magnesia.
 

Caesarmagnus

Ad Honorem
Jan 2015
3,680
Australia
I rate Sulla very highly. My only issue with his military career are the outrageous numbers given by the ancient sources. Plutarch (Sulla, 22) and Appian (Mithridatic Wars, 45) number Mithradates army at 120,000. At Chaeronea, Sulla supposedly lost 13 men and Archelaus 110,000 (Appian, 45). After Chaeronea, Archelaus remaining 10,000 is reinforced by a further 80,000 (Appian, 49). At Orchomenus, Archelaus then loses another 15,000 men including 10,000 cavalry (Appian, 59)

I hope to find a piece of scholarship that offers a reassessment of these numbers and casualties similar to the one @nuclearguy165 found on Magnesia.
I don't agree the numbers are outrageous exaggerations, they seem roughly plausible, for reasons I have gone into on this board a number of times. Roman generals clubbing foes who far outnumbered them is not unusual, and while some battles I find the numbers to be exaggerations, for others we have pretty strong evidence they were not. Looking at the amount of land Mithridates (and Tigranes) conquered, and the time they conquered it, I'd have been surprised if Mithridates didn't have at least a few hundred thousand soldiers under his command. It's not like the record is generally favourable to Sulla, he was disliked by many people who wrote about him, and the large numbers continue for future generals like Lucullus.

The funny thing is that the numbers arrayed against Sulla in the war against Pontus were nothing like those arrayed against him in Italy waiting for his return, and most people on here have given up trying to dispute those figures (which amount to several hundred thousand soldiers, or far better quality and leadership than Pontic armies). The Pontic war is impressive, but Pontus is the 3rd toughest foe he faced after the Italians and his fellow Romans. The initial Italian field army to start the social war was 100,000, and after that it got much bigger, and that represented only a part of Italy's strength as most of Italy didn't join the rebel factions. Italy's oppressed and poor rebel states can field those numbers, but we're supposed to be stunned by a wealthy multi-country Empire with levies from outside their borders fielding a few hundred thousand. I don't really understand the logic.
 
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johnincornwall

Ad Honorem
Nov 2010
8,008
Cornwall
I don't agree the numbers are outrageous exaggerations, they seem roughly plausible, for reasons I have gone into on this board a number of times. Roman generals clubbing foes who far outnumbered them is not unusual, and while some battles I find the numbers to be exaggerations, for others we have pretty strong evidence they were not. Looking at the amount of land Mithridates (and Tigranes) conquered, and the time they conquered it, I'd have been surprised if Mithridates didn't have at least a few hundred thousand soldiers under his command. It's not like the record is generally favourable to Sulla, he was disliked by many people who wrote about him, and the large numbers continue for future generals like Lucullus.

The funny thing is that the numbers arrayed against Sulla in the war against Pontus were nothing like those arrayed against him in Italy waiting for his return, and most people on here have given up trying to dispute those figures (which amount to several hundred thousand soldiers, or far better quality and leadership than Pontic armies). The Pontic war is impressive, but Pontus is the 3rd toughest foe he faced after the Italians and his fellow Romans. The initial Italian field army to start the social war was 100,000, and after that it got much bigger, and that represented only a part of Italy's strength as most of Italy didn't join the rebel factions. Italy's oppressed and poor rebel states can field those numbers, but we're supposed to be stunned by a wealthy multi-country Empire with levies from outside their borders fielding a few hundred thousand. I don't really understand the logic.
Although you've got half a chance with Roman legionary documentation and supposed or actual establishment strength, don't forget for the most part no one is sitting on a hill counting. People wrote what they saw - a 'large number'. Which came and went with re-telling.

Certainly throughout the medieval era numbers were far, far lower than sources often quote - often 'major' battles were quite small in numbers of particpants. For the Roman era - better roads, better legions, i'll leave it to you guys - but I've made the point!!
 

Caesarmagnus

Ad Honorem
Jan 2015
3,680
Australia
Although you've got half a chance with Roman legionary documentation and supposed or actual establishment strength, don't forget for the most part no one is sitting on a hill counting. People wrote what they saw - a 'large number'. Which came and went with re-telling.

Certainly throughout the medieval era numbers were far, far lower than sources often quote - often 'major' battles were quite small in numbers of particpants. For the Roman era - better roads, better legions, i'll leave it to you guys - but I've made the point!!
Of course the accuracy will vary. These are not precise records. The most reliable records are on the Roman side, because of all the documentation and evidence available, and the least reliable are two barbarian hordes going up against each other, but there is a certain degree of accuracy possible based on a number of things. For one, after the Romans won battles they could do things like tally the dead, tally the number of slaves sold, etc. Caesar gave a slave to each of his soldiers after Alesia for eg, which actually tells us quite a lot. It was also possible to get information by looking at armies with formations from a hill (when you do that for a living all the time you'll actually get pretty good at ascertaining rough numbers that way), or by getting intelligence reports from your allies and locals who were feeding you or others info (eg. how many ships were needed to transport a Pontic army from x to y, how many of their ships did you sink when they attacked Rhodes, etc). I said only that the numbers are broadly fine in this instance, not every instance. There are a number of reasons I've gone into for why I feel that way, and the evidence supporting it. I would honestly be surprised if an Eastern ruler doing the things Mithridates did could pull it off without a few hundred thousand soldiers under arms. He annexed alot of land, and was rapidly expanding to annex more, and we're told of him getting levies from well outside his own lands (Medians, Scythians, etc). He had access to much more wealth than say the Italian Allies, about half of whom were able to muster a few hundred thousand soldiers in their wars with Rome over a relatively short period.

Eastern rulers like Mithridates thought only in terms of numbers anyway; the bigger the army the better. He'd have been better off with smaller, better trained and more maneuverable army to be frank. It's interesting to think about whether Pontus could have taken Carthage for example, but as far as Sulla's foes go they're 3rd on the list in terms of difficulty. Even if your take away is just "Sulla was really quite badly outnumbered by Pontus", that's sufficient anyway. Remember, Lucullus is on this list and everyone is singing his praises, and yet the numbers for Tigranes army are much more likely to be exaggerated than the Pontic armies (though again, Tigranes would have needed a few hundred thousand soldiers under arms in total to conquer all the countries he did, and cause as much trouble as he did; I'm pretty sure he didn't have 300,000 in that one battle with Lucullus tho as one source claims lol). Mithridates is said to have had the same huge numbers in later wars with Lucullus (but much less against Pompey, as his manpower seems to have been finally exhausted at this point); not that it helped him. When his army of hundreds of thousands came to fight Lucullus at Cyzicus he just cut them off from their supplies, refused to give battle, and watched starvation and disease do his work for him. Bigger armies weren't always better, and the Romans knew that.
 
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johnincornwall

Ad Honorem
Nov 2010
8,008
Cornwall
Of course the accuracy will vary. These are not precise records. The most reliable records are on the Roman side, because of all the documentation and evidence available, and the least reliable are two barbarian hordes going up against each other, but there is a certain degree of accuracy possible based on a number of things. For one, after the Romans won battles they could do things like tally the dead, tally the number of slaves sold, etc. Caesar gave a slave to each of his soldiers after Alesia for eg, which actually tells us quite a lot. It was also possible to get information by looking at armies with formations from a hill (when you do that for a living all the time you'll actually get pretty good at ascertaining rough numbers that way), or by getting intelligence reports from your allies and locals who were feeding you or others info (eg. how many ships were needed to transport a Pontic army from x to y, how many of their ships did you sink when they attacked Rhodes, etc). I said only that the numbers are broadly fine in this instance, not every instance. There are a number of reasons I've gone into for why I feel that way, and the evidence supporting it. I would honestly be surprised if an Eastern ruler doing the things Mithridates did could pull it off without a few hundred thousand soldiers under arms. He annexed alot of land, and was rapidly expanding to annex more, and we're told of him getting levies from well outside his own lands (Medians, Scythians, etc). He had access to much more wealth than say the Italian Allies, about half of whom were able to muster a few hundred thousand soldiers in their wars with Rome over a relatively short period.

Eastern rulers like Mithridates thought only in terms of numbers anyway; the bigger the army the better. He'd have been better off with smaller, better trained and more maneuverable army to be frank. It's interesting to think about whether Pontus could have taken Carthage for example, but as far as Sulla's foes go they're 3rd on the list in terms of difficulty. Even if your take away is just "Sulla was really quite badly outnumbered by Pontus", that's sufficient anyway. Remember, Lucullus is on this list and everyone is singing his praises, and yet the numbers for Tigranes army are much more likely to be exaggerated than the Pontic armies (though again, Tigranes would have needed a few hundred thousand soldiers under arms in total to conquer all the countries he did, and cause as much trouble as he did; I'm pretty sure he didn't have 300,000 in that one battle with Lucullus tho as one source claims lol). Mithridates is said to have had the same huge numbers in later wars with Lucullus (but much less against Pompey, as his manpower seems to have been finally exhausted at this point); not that it helped him. When his army of hundreds of thousands came to fight Lucullus at Cyzicus he just cut them off from their supplies, refused to give battle, and watched starvation and disease do his work for him. Bigger armies weren't always better, and the Romans knew that.
Appreciate what you say but on the other hand I've read some really daft things about the Vandal War and the number of Imperial troops Justinian sent. But they didn't have that many, they didn't send that many and they certainly didn't need that many as the Vandal army was small, scattered over islands and deprived of it's former mauri troops. I think in a few areas like this, far lower number are bandied about these days when people do have a good think about transport, supplies and basic needs.

2 or 3 hundred thousand is an awful lot of bread, latrines and mud! Belisarius was probably more like 10 or 15 thousand