Underrated Generals in History

Feb 2019
As a counter to a recent thread which focuses on overrated generals this one focuses on under-credited or forgotten military commanders.

My nomination is Archduke Charles, Duke of Teschen. Overly cautious but achieving great victories in 1796 and great performances all around. The first to defeat Napoleon in over a decade in 1809 and giving him a challenge at Wagram. Had a solid grasp of strategy and was skilled at defensive warfare, distinguished himself as the reformer of the Austrian Army. Largely forgotten by many and pushed aside in favour of other commanders.

Your thoughts on underrated generals and your nominations?
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I'll nominate the Roman emperor Galerius (Caesar 293-305, Augustus 305-311). Galerius receives little positive attention, in part due to the lack of known details about his campaigns, and in part because Christian sources derided him for his persecution of the Christians. Nevertheless, he seems to have been the greatest general among the Tetrarchs.

He did the most campaigning among the Tetrarchs, and Diocletian assigned him the war against Persia (c. 296-298), the most important campaign of the period. Galerius' devastatingly decisive victory over the Persians was considered to have redeemed Rome and avenged the Romans upon Persia after the military embarrassments against the Persians during the mid-third century (one emperor killed, another captured, Antioch twice sacked, three armies destroyed, fortresses destroyed, a humiliating treaty, Palmyra taking matters into its own hands, etc). Famously, in the contested kingdom of Armenia Major, Galerius performed a surprise attack on the Shahanshah Narseh's camp, seizing much wealth and taking many important captives, including Narseh's wives, daughters and sisters. Supposedly he had personally scouted the enemy camp. Narseh fled into his own territories, and Galerius counter-attacked, invading Media, Adiabene and Persian Mesopotamia before linking up with Diocletian in Nisibis. The Persians sued for peace, and were forced to give up Armenia and seven trans-Tigritanian territories. The Persians would not regain these territories until the death of Julian in 363.

Galerius also defeated a coalition of Egyptian rebels and Nubians (293-294), and fought numerous successful campaigns against the Carpi, Sarmatians and Marcomanni (299/300 - 307/8).

He was also a successful general before he became Caesar. He was a career soldier who at some point in time became Diocletian's son-in-law, and is reported as campaigning on the Danube in c. 290.

The one campaign he is known to have lost was his march against Maxentius in Italy (307). However, unlike Constantine's later victory over Maxentius at the Milvian Bridge (312), Maxentius did not leave the walls of Rome to confront his adversary. By the time of Constantine's campaign, Maxentius' Rome was suffering from food shortages. This was not the case in 307, and so Maxentius had no reason to risk his army in a straight fight against Galerius, by then the most successful military leader in the empire. Thus, Maxentius remained behind his walls and used bribery to provoke defections among Galerius' troops. Some troops also supposedly defected because they found such an action against Rome (and against his son-in-law) to be impious. Galerius was forced to withdraw, but gave his troops free rein to ransack the countryside as he marched north, for which he was condemned by the contemporary Christian writer Lactantius. Galerius never returned to Italy. He assigned the task of retaking Italy to the emperor Licinius and withdrew from active campaigning as illness took hold. Licinius himself was too cautious against Maxentius, and Galerius was dead by the time Constantine defeated him.


Central panel: Galerius defeating the Persians on the Arch of Galerius in Thessaloniki. Lower panel: The Tetrarchs.
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The career soldier-turned-emperor Aurelian (r. 270-275) is rather underrated in the sense that few know of him. It doesn't help that his reign was short and that we know few details of his campaigns. That being said, he was clearly an extraordinary military leader. After playing a decisive role as general of the cavalry during Claudius II's war against the Goths (269-270), he fought an incredible number of successful campaigns during a reign of just five years, defending and reuniting a fractured empire. Note the following achievements:

1. Defeated his rival Quintillus (270).
2. Defeated a Iuthungian incursion into Raetia (270).
3. Defeated a Vandal incursion into Pannonia (270/1).
4. Defeated a major Iuthungian invasion of Italy with two major victories (271) - this followed two earlier Alemannic/Iuthungian invasions of Italy (during the 260s) - Aurelian's defeat over this third invasion ended German aggression against Italy until Alaric and Radagaisus in the 400s.
5. Put down a rebellion in Rome (271).
6. Defeated the usurpers Domitianus in Narbonese Gaul and Septimius in Dalmatia (271) - although these two may have been defeated by loyal subordinates rather than Aurelian himself.
7. In a major victory, he expelled Goths from the Balkans and launched a punitive expedition across the Danube against their homeland, killing the Gothic leader Cannabas (272) - The Goths would not raid the Balkans in serious numbers again until the reign of Constantine.
8. Defeated the Palmyrene Empire of Zenobia, with major victories won at Tyana, Immae, Daphne, Emesa and Palmyra (272)
9. Defeated the Carpi (273)
10. Defeated a second Palmyrene rebellion, with one detachment or loyal army putting down a related rebellion in Egypt (273)
11. Defeated the Gallic Empire of Tetricus (274) - supposedly Tetricus betrayed his own army to Aurelian, recognizing that he had little chance against Aurelian and not trusting in the loyalty of his own soldiers - the reunification of the empire was thus completed.
12. Dealt with unrest in Gaul (275)
12. Defeated a German incursion into Raetia (275)
13. Marched his army towards Persia, intending to avenge the defeats that Rome suffered in the previous decades (275)

Aurelian was assassinated in Thrace en route to Persia because of a conspiracy involving some of his secretaries and officers. Nevertheless, it is telling that the assassins fled to Asia Minor, and that the army did not organise a replacement, but deferred to the senate to appoint their next emperor. This was completely at odds with practice at the time. It shows that the army was blindsided by Aurelian's death and had not been anticipating his replacement in any meaningful way. This seems telling, considering that between 235 and 285 numerous emperors were appointed and replaced by the army. The imperial field army was loyal to Aurelian despite the third-century zeitgeist, and his successors Tacitus and then Probus made sure to hunt down Aurelian's assassins.
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