As history continues to be written, there have been many who have achieved notoriety through their military knowledge, wise tactics, or successful conquests.
Although there have been many good military leaders, only a few military geniuses can be considered the greatest military commanders who had ever lived. The following are, in my own humble opinion, the top 10 leaders in history who have shown extreme brilliance and unmatched bravery on the battlefield.
10. Charlemagne (742-814)
Right action is better than knowledge; but in order to do what is right, we must know what is right.
Also known as Charles the Great, Charlemagne was King of the Franks and founder of the Carolingian Empire, the medieval predecessor of what is now modern France. Born to Pepin the Short, King of the Franks, and Bertrada of Laonthe, Charlemagne expanded the Frankish kingdom, conquered the Lombard kingdom in northern Italy, and in 800 AD was crowned Holy Roman Emperor by Pope Leo III. Charlemagne's conquests united the western European lands for the first time since the fall of the Roman Empire.
In 813 Charlemagne crowned Louis the Pious, his only surviving legitimate son, King of the Franks and co-Emperor. Charlemagne died shortly after in 814. The Holy Roman Empire—safe for about 75 years from 888 to 962 when it fell to succession disputes—remained a politically recognized territory until the Napoleon's invasion in 1806.
9. Saladin (1138-1193)
I have become so great as I am because I have won men's hearts by gentleness and kindliness.
An-Nasir Salah ad-Din was an Arabized Kurdish Muslim leader born in Tikrit, Iraq. He founded the Ayyubid dynasty in Egypt and extended his empire to Arabia, North Africa, Nubia, Syria, Mesopotamia, Palestine, and Transjordan. Saladin's armies united the Muslim world by force. Saladin also helped repel Frankish invaders and hold off the Third Crusade.
He gained respect throughout the Muslim world for his accomplishments. Saladin's armies were able to stop Richard the Lionheart from taking Jerusalem during the Third Crusade in 1191 and 1192. Despite these battles, Saladin and his European adversaries had complicated but respectful relationships with each other. After the Battle of Arsuf, Richard offered Saladin his sister, Joan of England, and proposed that Jerusalem could be their wedding gift.
Saladin died of a fever on March 4, 1193 in Damascus, not long after Richard's departure.
8. Peter the Great (1672-1725)
Alas! I have civilized my own subjects; I have conquered other nations; yet I have not been able to civilize or to conquer myself.
— Pyotr Alexeevich Romanov
Pyotr Alexeyevich Romanov was one of Russia's greatest Tsars, ruling from 1682 to 1721. He was born in Moscow, then Russia's capital. As ruler, he introduced elements of Western culture to Russia, making his courtiers shave their traditional beards and adopt the fashions and manners of their Western European counterparts. He sent foreign delegations to study and learn trade and industry in the West.
As a commander, Peter I modernized the Russian army and established its first naval fleet. In 1712 he moved the capital to St. Petersburg on conquered lands convenient to the sea. Under his command, Russia became a world superpower and an empire with the Romanov dynasty at the helm until the Bolshevik revolution in 1917.
In January 1725, Peter I died of bladder gangrene. He was 52, having reigned 42 years.
7. Adolf Hitler (1889-1945)
The very first essential for success is a perpetually constant and regular employment of violence.
— Adolf Hitler
Adolf Hitler was born in Austria to a poor family. As a young man, he was a painter who failed to get into the Vienna Academy of Fine Arts. He served in the Bavarian Infantry as an Austrian citizen in World War I and was wounded at the Battle of the Somme. After Germany's defeat in World War I, Hitler became involved in local politics, ultimately becoming the leader of the National Socialist German Workers Party, also known as the Nazis.
In 1933 he gained dictatorial powers of Germany. Fueled by virulently racist and antisemitic sentiments, Hitler conquered nearby lands under the doctrines of Lebensraum ("living room" for Germans) and Volksgemeinschaft (the "people's community" or territorial unity of ethnic Germans across Europe). As his armies expanded beyond traditional German lands, Hitler achieved massive victories on the eastern and western fronts. The early success of the Nazi military—the Wehrmacht—was enabled by Blitzkrieg, the rapid and enormously damaging air strikes that preceded invading ground forces.
In 1945 the Second World War turned in favor of the Allied forces against Hitler. On April 30, 1945, afraid of being captured by the Russians, Hitler, his wife, and his closest advisers, killed themselves and their children in their bunker.
6. Genghis Khan (1162-1228)
If you had not committed great sins, God would not have sent a punishment like me upon you.
— Genghis Khan
Genghis Khan was born an illiterate peasant named Temüjin. He died the emperor of the Mongol Empire, the largest contiguous empire of all time.
As a teenager, Temüjin was introduced to life on the battlefield after being captured by members of a rival tribe who held him in a wooden stockade. He escaped, and the incident had a profound impact on him and was the beginning of his brutal military endeavors.
Genghis Khan was the first to unify the Mongol tribes. He directed his massive armies towards China and broke through the Great Wall to occupy northern China, followed by Afghanistan and Northern India. His conquests were known for their terrible massacres and brutal genocides. His empire expanded as far west as Poland and as far east as Korea.
In 1227, after defeating the Tanguts, Genghis Khan died. Some historians say that he fell off his horse. Others say that he died from pneumonia.
5. Napoleon Bonaparte (1769-1821)
If you build an army of 100 lions and their leader is a dog, in any fight, the lions will die like a dog. But if you build an army of 100 dogs and their leader is a lion, all dogs will fight as a lion.
— Napoleon Bonaparte
The greatest military commander and political leader of Revolutionary France was actually not French at all. Napoleon was born to a noble family in Ajaccio, Corsica and moved to France for school as a young man. He was accepted to a Brienne-le-Château—a military academy—a decade before the French revolution.
In the late stages of the French revolution, when France was at war with many European countries, Napoleon rose through the ranks of the Revolutionary Army and became Commander of the Interior under the Directory government. His political influence grew with his military successes in Italy and Egypt. In 1799 he staged a coup d'état and was de facto ruler until he crowned himself Emperor of France in 1804.
At its peak in 1811, the French Empire, including alliances, ranged from Spain in the west to the border of Russia in the east, and from Italy in the south to Norway in the north. A bungled invasion of Russia in 1812 drastically weakened Napoleon, and he was finally defeated by the Coalition forces in 1815 at the Battle of Waterloo.
Following defeat and unpopularity back in France, he was exiled to the island of St. Helena where he died in 1821.
4. Hannibal Barca (247-183 BC)
I will either find a way, or make one.
— Hannibal Barca
Hannibal was a Carthaginian military commander born in 247 BC in the city of Carthage, in what is now north-eastern Tunisia, and lived during the ascending years of the Roman Republic.
Leading the forces of Carthage, he fought against Rome during the Second Punic Wars. He is most well-known for leading the Carthaginian army, mounted on elephants, across the Alps. Hannibal sustained a military campaign against Rome for 15 years. What little information survives about him is in Roman writings, which indicate the Romans respected him as a leader and feared him as an enemy.
Hannibal died by suicide, preferring death to falling to the Romans. The exact year of Hannibal's death is unknown. The Roman writers Titus Pomponius Atticus and Livy reported it to be in 183 BC, while others say he died in 181 BC.
3. Richard the Lionheart (1157-1199)
He was the lord of warriors, the glory of kings, the delight of the world. Nature knew not how to add any further perfection: he was the utmost she could achieve.
— Geoffrey de Vinsauf, about Richard I
Richard I of England, also known as Richard the Lionheart, was an English king in the twelfth century. He was born in Oxford, England. His reputation as a great military leader and warrior has earned him the title of Richard the Lionheart.
Richard I led the Third Crusades; medieval military campaigns mandated by the Roman Catholic Church—largely against Muslim armies—for control of Jerusalem. He united his English army with both French and Germanic forces. He sailed with his army to Palestine and took command of the Siege of Acre, conquering the city and executing 3,000 Muslim prisoners, including women and children. Lionheart then moved towards Jerusalem but failed to take the city from Saladin. As mentioned above, Richard's relationship with Saladin was one of mutual respect as much as military rivalry.
In 1199, Richard was shot by a common foot-soldier's crossbow while laying siege to a castle in France. He died from a resulting infection and was buried at Fontrevaud Abbey next to his father, and his heart was buried at Rouen in Normandy.
2. Julius Caesar (100-44 BC)
I came, I saw, I conquered.
— Julius Caesar
Coming in second is Julius Caesar, Rome's most famous leader and military commander.
Born in the Roman Republic, his early life can be mapped onto a tumultuous period in the Republic's history. In this atmosphere of political disarray, Caesar earned fame by commanding Roman forces through invasions of western Europe and by putting an end to the unrest in those areas. He played a critical role in the gradual transformation of the Roman Republic into the Roman Empire around 27 BC and was appointed Dictator perpetuo (dictator in perpetuity).
The common idiom "crossing the Rubicon"—meaning reaching a point of no return—refers to Caesar's crossing of the Rubicon river in 49 BC after refusing to step down from his military command. His illegal armed entry into Roman territory incited the conflict that would ultimately put him in power.
In 44 BC, Julius Caesar was assassinated by a group of senators led by Marcus Junius Brutus. His death sparked a series of civil wars and unrest from which the Empire never fully recovered.
1. Alexander the Great (336–323 BC)
Heaven cannot brook two suns, nor earth two masters.
— Alexander the Great
Alexander III of Macedon, known as Alexander the Great, was born in Macedon. Alexander inherited his throne as well as a strong army with a high level of training and discipline. Alexander united the Greek city-states, re-established the Corinthian League, and went on to conquer the Persian Empire.
Alexander's army invaded Anatolia (also known as Asia Minor or Small Asia) in 334 BC, and within five years, Alexander controlled Asia Minor, the Levant, Egypt, and Persia. For eleven years, with his army often outnumbered, Alexander never lost a single battle. Alexander did not stop there, fueled by ambition and bravery, he went on and invaded Afghanistan and northern India in 330 BC, still undefeated in any battle whatsoever.
Alexander wanted to continue on to China, but upon his return to Babylon, he developed a fever and died in 323 BC.
Other notable warriors
Pyrrhus, King of Epirus.
Frederick the Great, King of Prussia.
Gustavus Adolphus, King of Sweden.
Khalid ibn al-Walid, Drawn Sword of God.
Joan of Arc, The Maid of Orléans.
Otto Von Bismark, Prince of Bismarck.
Cyrus the Great, King of Persia.
Erwin Rommel, the Desert Fox.
Muhammad, the Warrior Prophet.
© 2011 Ramy Mehelba
Hyphantes on March 02, 2016:
Charlemagne, Saladin, Peter the Great, Adolf Hitler and Richard the Lionheart are very questionable choices. If you had ever read a book on strategy (I could recommend Sir Basil Henry Liddell-Hart), you'd understand why.
javellins on January 01, 2016:
Hitler is the last known world leader and military commander that conquer vast land after Napoleon....Great List!
but really, Genghis should be on top of the list though.
just jim on August 19, 2015:
I would add king Arthur to the list
Nick DeGeorge from Shenzhen, China on January 10, 2015:
Charlemagne's accomplishments far exceeded his grandfather's in both military and civil accomplishments. Martel was a fine and clever commander but Charlemagne conducted dozens of campaigns creating the greatest Empire in existence since the Fall of Rome.
You can find a great documentary on YouTube called the Dark Ages and they cover both Martel and Charlemagne's legacies and you can see why Charlemagne belongs on the list over Martel.
For QASIM you are correct Khālid ibn al-Walīd does belong on the list in ever sense.
Eric Wang on January 08, 2015:
When you chose Charlemagne as one of the people on the list, I feel like it is my duty to contradict that. His grandfather, Charles Martel, was, in my opinion, a far greater commander than he. He only lost the first battle of his life, and from then on became an unstoppable force, repelling the Umayyads not once, but twice. you should really consider his skill. Thanks.
Nick from Gilbert Arizona on December 30, 2014:
To boil down the great commanders of history to ten men is very difficult and others deserve merit.
Volkan on December 30, 2014:
For me; At least an Ottoman Commander would be on that list. For example; Sultan (The Conqueror) Mehmed. Middle Age has finished just after he conquered the Istanbul in 1453 which called Constantinople before.
For the modern times, one of the best commander was Mustafa Kemal ATATÜRK, so far. English which supported by New Zealand and Australian soldiers which are called as Anzaks with also some of French troops have been defeated by him in Gallipoli in 1915 during the 1st World War. This was an amazing victory. Just after the 1st World War, he started the Turkish Independence War against the Alliances which united by British, French, Italian, Greeks, Armenian, Russian and the Ottoman government itself and established the Republic of Turkey in 1923.
For this list; Genghis Khan or Alexander the Great should be leading the list. And then, Saladin Eyyubi and Khalid Bin Waleed. For the other great commanders, 10 men list is not enough, lol.
Nick DeGeorge from Shenzhen, China on December 25, 2014:
My list :
Brilliant leaders all who impacted vast changes without a defeat .
Robert e Lee .. Wrong .. Gettysburg
Napoleon .. Russia , Leipzig, Waterloo
Hilter .. Stalingrad
Saladin .. Defeated by Richard the 3rd
Gustavus .. Too few battles but got himself killed in itself should exclude him
I let my list stand to scrutiny certainly other leaders deserve merit but did they accomplish as much?
Nick DeGeorge from Shenzhen, China on December 25, 2014:
Part of the confusion is you are including leaders who were great political leaders but not military commanders. Men like Richard and Salidin were great leaders from inspiration standpoint but not great commanders Richard defeated Salidin and Richard himself was killed at a minor siege .
Napoleon and Hannibal they both suffered catastrophic defeats better to have Scipio who defeated Hannibal and Wellington who defeated Napoleon. Flavius Belasarius the Byzantine reconquered most of the Roman Empire and was never defeated in battle.
Frederick the Great was defeated many times and Peter was a great leader but hardly a military genius .
Hitler should not be on the list one word Stalingrad . While Zhukov certainly deserves the credit for a large number of brilliant victories .
If hitler is on the list why is not Stalin who meets the same criteria of having controlled most of Europe ?
A provocative article history is subject to many perspectives and is meant to engender debate and discussion .. Bravo!
kostas on December 24, 2014:
Well most of them belong in this list no doupt
For some i wont say so. Hittler then is something out of the question
he was a great political leader no doubt about that (even if he was a mad narcist) but he was not a great general. He just reorganized the economy of germany and turned it into one huge weapon factory. As for the war part
his generals were the ones to carry the war for him .For instance on the first battle against france and england germany was outnumbered and about to win. Then romel (not hitler) came with a plan to cross with half the army through the south using the forests as his cover and encircle the enemy . Hitler in the meantime just ordered them to stop...in the middle of the forest......in wich if they were found by the allied forces none would come out alive... and the war would have end in the first mounth. And you ask why he did that ?
because he was not sure that the strategy was sound . Now please tell me what kind of general would comand his armies to stop fighting in the middle of a battlefield just because he wasn't sure if his strategy was the right one :P
no offence to anyone but for historicall accurasys' sake hittler must be kept out of this list for sure.
Nick from Gilbert Arizona on October 10, 2014:
And what would those omissions be?
The link to how hitler lost the war ...
To the battlefield series the battle for stalingrad
Enjoy the history is clearly documented watch it
Nick from Gilbert Arizona on October 10, 2014:
That is absolutely correct the British sacrificed London to prevent invasion. It's also interesting that Goring's Deputy Field Marshall Milch drafted a plan whereby German paratroopers and special forces would be dropped at night and seize key airfields after which troops would be landed. This was right after Dunkirk many experts felt Britain would have collapsed but Hilter was so certain they would negotiate he rejected the plan.
These have been spirited discussions I recommend without reservation the series Battlefield it's the best documentary on the campaigns of ww2 in existence. They can be viewed for free on YouTube .
Lawrence Hebb from Hamilton, New Zealand on October 10, 2014:
One thing you mentioned Nick is the Battle of Britain and the change of tactics by Hitler, the truth there is rather interesting as the RAF knew they were losing the Battle so they hit on a desperate plan to try to change the German tactics.
Bomber command were given the orders to Bomb Berlin! The British knew that the raid would do little damage but the fact was the raid took place as Hitler was giving a speech and Goering had assured him that the RAF could never penetrate the German defenses! Imagine the embarrassment when in the middle of the speech the Bombs started to fall. That was when Hitler made the speech "For every bomb that falls on Berlin a thousand will fall on London"
If the Germans had continued their strategy as planned then within a week the RAF would have been finished but that raid bought them the precious time they needed
Nick from Gilbert Arizona on October 09, 2014:
Hitler had approved the OKW plan to repeat the basic assault strategy of world war I however the plan to attack through the Ardennes was Manstein's. He presented at a lunch he had with Hitler and it was adopted. Great Military Commanders are one's with consistent success.
Hitler rates very poorly. Some examples:
He ordered the columns to halt allowing the British to evacuate at Dunkirk.
He interfered and changed the strategy of attack during the Battle of Britain resulting in losing the battle.
He ordered an invasion of Russia without any strategic plan and interfered in August to result in the campaign dragging into winter ending in a disastrous defeat.
Stalingrad Campaign again was poorly conceived his interference resulted in large misallocations of resources and he never conceived the Germans would get over extended. His order to not retreat cost a 1/4 million German fatalities.
I suggest you watch either world at war or the battlefield documentaries to enlighten you on Hitler. He was a poor leader and his racist policies incited resistance all across occupied territories.
I would not rate him to stand with someone like Georgi Zhukov or even Joseph Stalin who at least learned to take advice after generating so many disasters.
colincm on October 09, 2014:
I really must correct the erroneous remarks on here about Hitler. Firstly , lawrence01 , you are referring to the 20th July 1944 conspiracy and not the intended assassination before the launch of the 1940 attack on France to which I referred. : the 1940 bunker was at Aachen the 1944 bunker was the Wolf's Lair in East Prussia.
Guderian wrote the military paper "Achtung Panzer" when a colonel in 1936 and it was he who moved north to Abeville to trap the Allied armies as planned by Hitler , Manstein and OKW...many plans were submitted and as usual it was the man at the helm \(Hitler) who had to decide which to adopt , he altered the number of panzer units deployed so as not to alert the Alliess to German plans.
Lawrence Hebb from Hamilton, New Zealand on October 09, 2014:
Thanks Nick. I think you're right on both points but it was Augustus Ceaser that set the limits of the Empire thinking that it would become ungovernable (which it did) but I would remove him from my list.
Nick from Gilbert Arizona on October 09, 2014:
Actually Gudeian wrote the definitive book on armored warfare . Hitler did take direct command of armies creating one disaster after another.
His inability to even create a cohesive strategy was a determining factor in their defeat.
It should be noted the Russians had a plan to kill Hilter but Stalin ordered it terminated as Hitler's bad decisions were aiding the Russians substantially.
It was Julius Caesar who established the base for Rome's ruling the known world as for Augustus Caesar his disaster at Teutonburger Wald eliminates him from any list .
For pure military success the Emperor Trajan never lost a campaign expanding Rome to its greatest limits.
Hannibal Barca one name...Zama
Nick from Gilbert Arizona on October 09, 2014:
I would like to understand your criteria . To be considered a great commander means a record of victory and not disaster.
Where is Flavius Belisarious the Byzantine General who reconquered most of the old Roman Empire? Caesar should be number one . The only others that belong are Charlemagne, Alexander the Great and Genghsis Khan . Peter the Great did not directly command armies. Saladin was defeated by Richard the Lionhearted and Richard made no impression or lasting conquest anywhere except in legends.
It may interest you to know Adolf Hilter was a Bufoon on military strategy he was a political genius the conquest of Europe was the result of men such as Rommel , Guderian and Manstein .
I suggest you watch a documentary called " How hitler lost the war." Hilter's interference in strategy and tactics led to some of the greatest disasters in military history perhaps you did not hear of Stalingrad?"
Much better would have been Georgi Zhukov who broke the Germans in WWII .
Napoleon did much to enhance warfare however Leipzig , Waterloo dismissed his standing and you ignore Wellington who was the greatest Commander of the Napoleonic Wars .
If you write an article you need separate success in the realm of politics from military genius .
Lawrence Hebb from Hamilton, New Zealand on September 27, 2014:
These were interesting reading. Hitler was never a general and the only time he took command of the Army was at the Battle for Kiev where the Germans suffered their most crushing and devastating defeat. He was a great orator but not a good military commander.
The Germans did have superb generals. Rommel wrote the book on Tank warfare.
One great leader who is often overlooked in lists like these is Octavian or Ceaser Augustus who took over not long after Julius Ceaser, reunited a fractured Empire, set the laws by which it enjoyed peace for 200 years and set the boundaries of the Roman Empire.
muhammad abdullah javed on September 23, 2014:
Hi Ramy excellent effort, you have nicely dealt with the details, in view of the bloodshed and the no. of soldiers died you could have elaborated each genral's efforts little further, we hope you will continue to inspire us with such hubs.
Reiff on April 24, 2014:
I would agree with this list but with a few refinements:
10. Edmund Ironside
8. Leon Trotsky
5. Gustavus Adolphus
2. Khalid Bin Walid
1. Ghengis Khan
jordan on March 23, 2014:
khalid bin walid would be the greatest military commander of all time. he not only came up with tactics but also fought on the battle always in the front of the battle not like hitler who never fought. and if you were to fight against him he would never lose. he was given the nickname sword of Allah. meaning sword of God. how could the sword of God ever loose that's why i say he never lost a fight over 100 battles
EJ Lambert from Chicago, IL on June 06, 2013:
I've always learned to appreciate the lesser known commanders who didn't have the big armies but accomplished amazing feats anyway. I remember Charles "the Hammer" Martel had unified the Franks during the Dark Ages just as the French lands were coming under attack from an invasion of Arab Muslims who had just finished conquering Spain. Their army had not been stopped since sweeping across North Africa and up onto continental Europe. They outnumbered Martel by almost 3-to-1 when the two armies met at Tours. Yet proper training of his troops (something not done at the time) and cunning spy usage that tricked the Arabs into thinks their vast stores of plunder were being stolen gave the Frank commander a brilliant victory.
Marquis from Ann Arbor, MI on April 18, 2013:
People, learn how to break down time periods. A general from the ancient era would lose if he went up against a general from the modern era. I will provide examples below.
This is how you should break down the time periods: Ancient, Medieval and Modern.
Greatest Ancient Era General: Alexander the Great (before fall of Rome)
Greatest Medieval Era General: Genghis Khan (after Rome fell - 1300s)
Greatest Gunpowder Era General:Gustavus Adolphus
Greatest Imperial/Early Modern Era General: Napoleon Bonaparte
Joe Shmoe on April 16, 2013:
Hitler's tactical genius was counteracted by his ego.
Also, Why is Ghengis Khan so low, he conquered more land than anyone else, and is the only leader to defeat Russia in the winter, and successfully conquer the Afgans
Usman on February 26, 2013:
Sultan Salhudeen Ayubi, what a legend, not just on the battle grounds but also through exemplery character....
Tony T on September 08, 2012:
The only entry for England or Britain here is Richard the first, not trying to shoehorn more English in there, but if there is an English or British leader in there, I would not put Richard the lionheart in before a number of great commanders from that region. A list that could include the likes of, The Duke of Marlborough, Admiral Nelson, Francis Drake, the Duke of Wellington, Alfred the Great, Edward the Elder, Edmund Ironside, Cadwalla, William Wallace, Robert the Bruce, William the Conqueror, Henry V, William Marshall and even Harold Godwinson (but for a close run defeat and an untimely death at Hastings, he subdued the welsh, defeated northern rebels, fought for the normans in france and was knighted and he defeated the Vikings at Stamford Bridge. But for Hastings he would have be Harold the Great and if he had not died there, he may have raised more forces and ultimately won).
Richard failed in a number of his ventures, including rebellions against his father, he wasn't as popular as Robin Hood movies make him out to be, he never spoke english. He lived died and was buried in france, hardly ever came to england and when he did he was just after tax money raised at knifepoint, for his personal ambitions in the middle east, and as you said, he slaughtered innocent civilians when saladin released his prisoners. He was at best a great warrior, brave and ferocious but had flaws and wasn't a huge success, his victories in the end, meant little.
JimAdams67 from Lakemont, Georgia on April 30, 2012:
I too disagree with Hitler being in the list. Early in the war when the Generals controlled the military Germany had great success. Later when Hitler took control is when you see epic failures. Stalingrad is a prime example.
Hitler was a master manipulator. He was a great speaker and knew how to take advantage of peoples weaknesses. He did great things for Germany right up until June 21, 1942.
The others in the list I do agree with, but I would have replaced Hitler with maybe Attila the Hun or even Washington. Great leaders do not always need to capture territory.
Ramy Mehelba (author) from Egypt on January 03, 2012:
Anytime :) Thanks for the nice comment :)
James A Watkins from Chicago on January 02, 2012:
This is a great list. I enjoyed your most excellent Hub. Well done! Thank you for the good read.