In spring 322 B.C., the crowds gathered everywhere along the ancient roads from Babylon to Syria. What they saw passing by, heading westward, was a procession like no other. First came the engineers and road-repair crew to smooth the way, then the military guard, then a team of sixty-four mules and—finally—the object that the beasts were pulling, a funeral cart. It was so grand and magnificent that the cart had taken two years to construct. It was decorated with sculpture and paintings and covered with enough gold and jewelry to make it gleam in the sun. Inside the covered cart, hidden from view, buried under a gold-embroidered purple robe and a hammered-gold coffin with a golden lid, lay the body itself, embalmed and surrounded by spices. It was all that was mortal of Alexander the Great, dead nearly two years now.
Since his death, Alexander’s marshals had jockeyed not only over his empire but his corpse. The body conveyed prestige and, if you believed the soothsayers, the favor of the gods. Some wanted to bring it to the traditional burial place of Macedonian kings at Aegae in Macedon. Others wanted it in the Shrine of Ammon, at an oasis in Libya, where Alexander had once been welcomed as the son of Zeus. The governor of Egypt, Ptolemy son of Lagus, had the last word. Accompanied by an army, he met the funeral procession in Syria and brought it to Egypt. Ptolemy had no intention of shipping the body off to the desert; instead, he gave it a place of honor in his capital city, Alexandria.
There Alexander’s Tomb invited visits by kings and emperors for the next seven hundred years, until it was finally sacked.
Nearly three hundred years after Alexander’s funeral procession, a funeral took place in the Roman Forum. It was March 18, 44 B.C., three days after the Ides and the most famous assassination in the history of the Western world. There might not have been a funeral at all if the assassins—the Liberators, as they called themselves—had followed their original plan. They intended to dump the corpse of Julius Caesar in the Tiber River. But they panicked and left the body where they had killed it, which allowed it to be brought to Caesar’s home. Then, instead of insisting on a private burial, they agreed to a public funeral in the Forum with full honors. It was a mistake.
And so, the scene was set for Shakespeare’s famous “Friends, Romans, countrymen!” speech. Although Shakespeare’s version is fiction, the speech is based on fact. When Caesar’s body was brought to the Forum for a public funeral, Mark Antony really did give the funeral oration. It was a short speech and lacked the three famous words, but it was powerful. Antony mixed his sorrow with anger at the killers. When he was finished, Antony held up Caesar’s bloodstained robe and pointed out the wounds.
The crowd responded by rioting. The ordinary people of Rome had supported Caesar when he was alive. Now they missed him, especially when they heard that Caesar’s will left a cash gift to every citizen and a new public park to the city. Antony’s words and gestures set their passion ablaze. The crowd burst into nearby buildings, hauled out wooden benches and stands, and built a pyre. Although the plan had been to carry Caesar’s body to his daughter’s tomb across town and cremate it there, the people would have none of it. They cremated Caesar on the spot. Then they streamed out of the Forum with torches and attacked the houses of the men who had killed him. Caesar himself could not have turned the tables more dramatically.
The third funeral—actually, a memorial service—took place two thousand years later, in 1934. The site was a hill outside the industrial city of Gebze, thirty miles east of Istanbul. The spot looks over the Gulf of Izmit, the ancient Astacus Gulf, toward the rugged hills of the far shore. None other than the president of the Turkish republic, Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, delivered the eulogy. One of history’s most successful generals and statesmen, Atatürk had come to honor another general who had reached a dead end here. He had ended his life on the coast, below the very hill where Atatürk stood, about 2,115 years before. He was Hannibal. It was here, in ancient Libyssa in 183 B.C., that Hannibal took poison rather than let the Romans take him alive.
Atatürk genuinely admired Hannibal, but he had an ulterior motive for the memorial. In 1934 Benito Mussolini, dictator of Italy, was trying to pressure Turkey. Atatürk responded by honoring Hannibal, one of the greatest enemies Italy had ever had. He ordered a monument to be put up at the traditional but unconfirmed site of Hannibal’s tomb. It took nearly fifty years, until 1981, for the monument finally to be built.
“The brave have the whole earth for their sepulcher,” said the Athenian general and statesman Pericles. Alexander’s tomb in Alexandria is long gone. Caesar’s temple in the Roman Forum lies in ruins. How ironic it is that Hannibal, who failed against Rome and died a suicide, has a modern monument to his passing.
• • •
We’ve come, at last, to bury Caesar—and Alexander and Hannibal too. It’s worth asking what good, if any, lives after them. What lessons are to be learned from the stories of the ancient world’s three greatest generals?
Their military reputation is secure. They rank among history’s greatest commanders. They got more out of small armies than most generals are able to accomplish with a horde. They were inspired leaders. They triumphed on the battlefield against enemies who vastly outnumbered them in manpower and money. They led devoted armies over vast distances, collectively fighting from Spain to India. Although they did not shrink from terror when needed, they appealed to the masses by branding themselves as populists and as favorites of the gods.
Ambitious and audacious, they aimed at nothing less than the greatest deeds. Hannibal failed as a military strategist but he succeeded as a combat commander. Alexander and Caesar triumphed in both arenas. Not that they didn’t falter—they did. Some of their decisions might have proved fatal, but these two captains had the support of Divine Providence.
There are permanent lessons here for students of war, especially because the three cases look so similar on the surface. All three of our commanders illustrate certain things in common:
Shock and awe is the beginning of a military campaign but not the end of it. Even successful attacks invariably run into obstacles. The history of war is the history of mistakes, and the mark of a good general is less knowing how to avoid errors than being able to recover from them. He must also know how to maneuver for the best position. The side with a better army should do everything it can to draw the enemy into pitched battle, because the alternative is a war of attrition, and that plays to the other side’s strengths.
So far, so similar, but Hannibal parted company from Alexander and Caesar when it came to the next step. Winning a pitched battle is a great thing, but wars are not won by battle alone. You have to know how to use victory. A great commander goes on to close the net and does so in a timely and cost-effective way. This stage is the most challenging and difficult part of waging war, and all too easy to be forgotten amidst the glamour of a famous victory. Hannibal fell short, for instance, despite a stunning effort at Cannae.
Alexander and Caesar succeeded in closing the net, but only at a steep price. Their wars dragged on too long and took so high a toll in blood and money that they undercut the possibility of winning a lasting peace. And they turned the supreme commander into a war addict who would rather go off to find new dragons to slay than build a stable society at home.
When it came to translating military victory into political capital, Alexander and Caesar each faltered. Neither of them achieved lasting success, and yet they paved the way for others to succeed.
As politicians, they were great destroyers and, in an indirect way, great builders. Alexander destroyed the Persian empire, Hannibal destroyed his own empire, and Caesar destroyed the government of the Roman republic. Alexander made the Hellenistic kingdoms possible, Hannibal spurred Rome to expand across the Mediterranean, and Caesar was, in effect, the first of the Roman emperors. They cast a giant cultural shadow as well. Thanks to Alexander, Greek civilization spread on a vast scale. Thanks to Hannibal, Rome began to think like an empire. Thanks to Caesar, Romans began to feel like subjects of an emperor.
If we had to sum up the three commanders’ political achievement in a single word, that word would be: one. Before Alexander, Greece, Rome, and Carthage were small, independent states. After Caesar, they were one empire. What Alexander dreamed—universal kingship—Caesar and Augustus carried out. Hannibal tried to stop the process but in the end he only hurried it along.
Government by one man—monarchy—was efficient and orderly. After a long period of war, monarchy made the world more peaceful. But it also slowly smothered political liberty. The world wasn’t big enough for citizens and great captains.
As I wrote this book, a colleague asked me what I was working on. I told him that I was writing about Alexander, Hannibal, and Caesar. “Ah,” he said, “tyrants.” No, I protested, pointing out the complexities, but eventually I had to admit that he was right. Alexander and Caesar were tyrants. Hannibal was not, although some in Carthage feared that he wanted to be.
Alexander promoted democracy here and there while Caesar forgave his opponents, but those were tactical moves. Neither man intended to share power. Alexander executed his own generals; Caesar made war on his fellow Romans. Alexander was a king who leaned toward absolutism; Caesar was a dictator for life who leaned toward monarchy.
With the possible exception of Hannibal, none of our three captains stood for modest, restrained constitutional government. They wanted to dominate the state by the allure of their achievements. They were self-promoters who branded and marketed themselves to the maximum. They all appealed, and perhaps still appeal to those who like charisma in their leaders. But none of them promoted celebrity as successfully as Alexander did.
Alexander the Great, Hannibal, and Julius Caesar are models and warnings. We ignore them at our peril, but we should imitate them only with caution. War will always be a sad fact of life, and they were too good at war for us not to learn from them. But a good society never lets war be guided by anything other than the public interest. What guided Alexander, Hannibal, and Caesar was their selves.
Alexander overwhelms us. He burst on the world already a phenomenon, a conquering cavalry commander even before he became king at age twenty, and he kept the attention of three continents until the day of his passing—and well beyond it. Charm won him a lot of what he wanted, and the rest he took by force. The story is told that one of his subordinates trembled when he saw a statue of Alexander, years after his death. I think that would have pleased Alexander.
Rarely has there been a leader whose virtues match his vices so closely. As the crown prince of Macedon, he grew up in a royal court that combined privilege and paranoia. His ambition launched him and undid him. He wanted to be nothing less than king of Asia, but he never determined what that would mean. His gift for making war gained him an empire but the actual administration of it bored him. His talent for leadership won his Macedonians’ love but left them with the fury of a jilted suitor when he moved on. His breadth of vision let him glide smoothly into the new role of king of Asia but then his role as king of Macedon seemed narrow and parochial, so he neglected it. His belief in his own destiny made him take huge risks in battle, which won military success, but at the cost of seven wounds to his own body. Perhaps it was the wounds that left him vulnerable to a virus that killed him in his thirty-third year. Hannibal and Caesar took risks in battle but not to the same degree. They were wounded less often and less seriously.
Providence favored Alexander. Gifted with courage and intelligence, he received an ideal education. He quarreled with his father, King Philip of Macedon, but Philip was assassinated when Alexander was twenty, leaving his son with a martial legacy: a plan to conquer the Persian empire and the tools to do so. Alexander’s Persian enemy had a great general who could have stopped his invasion before it succeeded—Memnon of Rhodes. But Memnon died suddenly, leaving only lesser men to stand up to Alexander. They failed to do so.
Alexander was a combat commander for all seasons. His was an amazingly versatile military talent. He displayed equal mastery of pitched battle and sieges, and he was as much at home against elephants and desert raiders as against an enemy phalanx. At heart he was a cavalryman, with a cavalryman’s speed, mobility, and agility. In pitched battle, he orchestrated the interplay of infantry and cavalry with a skill that was as elegant as it was deadly. His ability to size up an enemy or a battlefield and come up with a quick and effective answer made him the embodiment of strategic intuition. Darius III of Persia was no mean general, but Alexander outclassed him.
Alexander excelled as a leader of men. He led by example. He shared the men’s hardships on campaign and their dangers in battle. He had great insight into what it felt like to be an ordinary soldier. Alexander did his best to keep Macedonian casualties low and rewards high, from pay to loot. He also went the extra mile to take care of soldiers’ widows and orphans.
Alexander was audacious, but he took greater chances on the tactical level than the strategic level. Although he risked his body in battle, he engaged the enemy on a step-by-step basis. For instance, he did not head farther eastward before he took care of business in Anatolia. Winning battles was only the start of things for Alexander: he also raised money, won political support among the local population, and neutralized the Persian fleet.
On that last point, Alexander faltered. He didn’t appreciate sea power enough to come up with a proper response to Memnon’s naval offensive. Divine Providence stepped in and saved Alexander.
Throughout his long march eastward, Alexander rarely neglected his infrastructure. In a lightning campaign after his battlefield victory at Gaugamela, he made a beeline for Persia’s treasuries at Susa and Persepolis, and they solved his financial problems for good. He maintained close enough control of his home government that he got additional soldiers from Macedon when he asked for them. He proved extremely creative and adaptable when it came to finding new and foreign sources of manpower as well.
Alexander displayed excellent judgment in domestic politics. Much as he may have wanted to get rid of the older generation of commanders, especially Parmenio and his family, Alexander knew that he needed them. They knew more of war than he did and they had strong support in the army. But after he defeated Darius, Alexander decided to settle scores.
He inspired many with the ideals of democracy, divine intervention, and military glory. Yet terrorism and simple murder were parts of his character as well. He destroyed the great Greek city of Thebes and massacred or enslaved its inhabitants. A similar fate awaited tens of thousands of civilians in Sogdiana and India. He had his rivals and opponents in the Macedonian court killed before they could kill him.
Alexander was never more impressive than in the aftermath of his two greatest battle victories, Issus and Gaugamela. In both cases, he showed his understanding of the stages of war. After Issus, he might have headed inland or directly to Egypt, but he stopped to conquer Tyre instead. He recognized that he could not close the net in the West as long as the Persian fleet retained a base like Tyre. After Gaugamela, he appreciated the need to close the net by capturing Darius’s treasuries—and Darius himself. Battlefield victory is not enough. Alexander demonstrated his wise understanding of this rule.
Unfortunately, his strategy grew less measured as he went farther east. Alexander’s priority should have been an empire that was big but manageable, and one in which Greeks, Macedonians, and Asians could work out a new administrative arrangement, guided by Alexander and his sons. That would have meant ending the war as soon as was practical. Instead, Alexander’s priority was conquest, glory, and surpassing his Persian predecessors.
The result was unnecessary wars in Sogdiana and India, wars of such cost that eventually his men mutinied and forced his return. But he never went back to Macedon. Babylon was his capital now, and he planned gigantic new wars from there, beginning with a seaborne invasion of Arabia and continuing with expeditions to the Caspian Sea, Carthage, and Italy. At the end of his career, Alexander finally appreciated the value of sea power.
The most striking thing about Alexander’s final years was the disconnect between the breadth of his vision and the narrowness of his interest in administration. He was a visionary, not a manager. He showed great flexibility in adopting some of the dress of Persian royalty and the protocol of the Persian court. He laid the foundations of a new army, rooted in Asia. It was never tested in battle, but the very audacity of this post-Macedonian military was remarkable. He integrated the Macedonian and Persian elites through intermarriage.
None of this amounted to the idea of universal brotherhood that has sometimes been attributed to Alexander. He fully intended Greeks and Macedonians to be on top in his new empire. He merely recognized the need to make the Persians partners in governance if the new regime was going to have a chance to succeed. Alexander was not a bigot, but he was more of a pragmatist than a believer in pluralism.
Yet Alexander showed little interest in basic questions of his new empire. What roles would Greeks and Macedonians play in administering it? Would they emigrate eastward and, if so, where would they live? What new institutions would support the new regime? How would it be governed?
Instead of grappling with these fundamental questions, Alexander preferred to make war again. But war is a young man’s game, and Alexander was the avatar of youth, just like his idol and supposed ancestor, Achilles.
Another idol of Alexander’s was Cyrus the Great, the king who founded the Persian empire, and on whose throne Alexander now sat. Cyrus was no administrator either—he was a warrior-king.
All three commanders claimed divine support, but only Alexander insisted that he was the son of a god—Zeus, the king of the Greek gods—and only Alexander demanded to be worshiped during his own lifetime. All expected deference, but only Alexander had his subjects, at least his Eastern subjects, bow and scrape in his presence.
Alexander offended ancient notions of constitutional government in another big way, by promoting youth. Ancient republics and democracies believed that good government requires maturity, which began around age thirty. Anyone younger seemed too inexperienced and emotional. Hannibal was nearly thirty when he invaded Italy and Caesar was fifty, but Alexander was only twenty-two when he invaded the Persian empire. Yet, far from hiding his age, he proclaimed it in sculpture and on coins. That hardly reassured ancient lovers of liberty. They considered rule by the young to be the enemy of free and constitutional government.
The sad truth about Alexander was never more apparent than in his alleged last words. When asked to whom he wanted to leave his empire, he replied, “To the strongest.” This is sometimes cited as a sign that, in his death spiral, the king was no longer thinking things through. I believe the opposite is true. Alexander had not won his empire through justice or piety or wisdom but through his strength as a warlord. How better to choose a successor?
Hannibal was an outstanding wartime commander, both in battle and on campaign, and both as manager and as tactician.
Polybius revered Hannibal’s “leadership, bravery, and ability in the field.” He marveled at Hannibal’s success in keeping his army together in Italy—that is, in enemy territory—for fifteen years of constant fighting. We may add more than two years of war in Spain (221–219 B.C.) and another year of war in North Africa (203–202). It was an army of different races, different nationalities, and different languages, Polybius says, but Hannibal made them “hearken to a single command and obey a single will.” All three commanders were great leaders of men, but Hannibal takes the prize. His soldiers never mutinied, unlike Alexander’s men or Caesar’s. Hannibal held them together “like a good ship’s captain.”
His battles were masterpieces of combined-arms work that only an army united under “a single will” could have carried out. He rivaled Alexander’s skill at coordinating infantry and cavalry and perfected his favorite tactic of envelopment. And Hannibal added a dimension of cunning and surprise that was generally lacking in Alexander’s battles. From the concealed Carthaginian soldiers at the Trebia to the third-line veterans at Zama, Hannibal was the master of military tricks.
This is not to say that Hannibal was perfect as a combat commander. He won all his pitched battles until his last one—Zama. He rarely achieved much through siegecraft, a key tool of the art of war of his day. He paid a high price for his bold crossing of the Apennines in 217 and an even higher one for traversing the Alps in the snow the year before, when he could have chosen a milder season to cross. Indeed, his first campaign in the war against Rome, the long march from Spain to Italy, was arguably his worst, because it cost him more than half his army.
But a great captain has to be more than a combat commander, and that’s where Hannibal falls down. When it came to politics and strategy, he was simply out of his depth. Certainly, he did a fine job of branding himself as a liberator, a populist, and a strong man—a new Hercules. But public relations skill wasn’t enough to win the war against Rome.
Hannibal did not succeed as a strategist. He displayed a complete lack of understanding of the stages of war. He simply had not given enough thought to how to transfer success on the battlefield into closing the net around the enemy. Unlike Caesar, he failed to think ahead.
The heart of Hannibal’s plan—invading Italy—was not new. Pyrrhus had paved the way. What was new about Hannibal’s strategy was marching overland to Italy from Spain. It was audacious, it caught the Romans unprepared, and it forced them to give up their planned invasion of North Africa. But it cost Hannibal half his army. It played the opening notes of Hannibal’s funeral march, a piece whose theme was manpower.
Manpower—Hannibal had too little and the Romans had it in abundance. That leads to his deeper strategic failure, the underestimation of the enemy. Hannibal expected Rome’s confederacy to crack after battlefield defeat and he thought Rome would sue for peace shortly afterward. But he didn’t understand Rome’s strengths.
Rome’s republican constitution bred solidarity and patriotism—and it did so on the grand scale, because of a shrewd policy of sharing Roman citizenship with local elites. By the time Hannibal invaded Italy, there were nearly one million Roman citizens all over Italy, a huge number by ancient standards.
In a long war, Rome’s manpower resources gave it a big advantage. Once Fabius put the policy of attrition into place—and once he made it stick—Rome got in the way of Hannibal’s plans. That’s why Hannibal needed to win a quick victory. His moment came after Cannae. He should have followed Maharbal’s advice and sent his cavalry dashing off to Rome. His bruised and battered army could have lumbered after it.
While Hannibal was in no position to storm the city, much less to take it by siege, his shock attack might have scared a traitor into opening a gate. It might have shaken loose one or more of Rome’s central-Italian allies. It might have impressed the Carthaginian government enough to send adequate reinforcements. It might have done any number of things to bring a better outcome than Hannibal got.
At the moment that called for the height of audacity, Hannibal shrank back. It was his biggest mistake and it greatly reduced his chances of victory.
In the years following Cannae, Carthage opened a second front in Sicily and tried, without success, to open another in Sardinia. It reinforced its army in Spain, where Rome had opened a second front of its own. This took the focus off the Italian campaign, to disastrous effect. During the entire Second Punic War, Carthage sent about eighty thousand troops to Sardinia, Sicily, and Spain, and only four thousand to Hannibal. He might very well have won the war with those additional troops.
Much of the fault for Hannibal’s ultimate failure lies with Carthage’s government, which had priorities outside Italy. But Hannibal himself was not blameless. He too looked outside Italy for victory. After the Carthaginian government refused to send him the reinforcements he requested in 215 B.C., perhaps he decided to bow to political reality. He had huge influence in other theaters of war through his brothers’ commands in Spain and his connections to important men in Sicily. And he negotiated an alliance with Philip V of Macedon.
None of it worked. Neither Carthage’s admirals nor its generals were up to the task. Carthage had no other Hannibals.
But Rome had the capacity to come up with Scipio Africanus. He copied Hannibal’s best qualities but added political and strategic skill to them. The result, after a long struggle, was total victory for Rome.
No one could say that Divine Providence favored Hannibal in the Second Punic War, but it did allow him to achieve something in failure that neither Alexander nor Caesar achieved in success. Providence made Hannibal a greater statesman than he was a general.
Various anecdotes circulated about Hannibal in exile. It’s dangerous to set too much store by them. But if they are true, they suggest that Hannibal retained his intelligence and his charm even as he grew increasingly bitter.
One story says that Scipio came to Ephesus, a city in Anatolia, on an embassy to Antiochus and met Hannibal. Scipio asked Hannibal who the greatest general of all time was. Alexander, said Hannibal, because he achieved so much with such a small army and because he traveled such vast distances. Second came Pyrrhus because of his talent for choosing the right battleground and deploying his men well, and because of his skill at winning the support of Italians for him, a foreigner. Hannibal ranked himself third.
Then Scipio asked what Hannibal would have said if Hannibal had defeated him. Without missing a beat, the story goes, Hannibal replied that, in that case, he would consider himself the greatest general of all.
It was a graceful compliment and shrewd—“Punic wit,” as Livy says. But Hannibal did not give it up easily. He was too politically astute to make an enemy of Scipio, but Hannibal proved less polite when he wasn’t facing Rome’s greatest general.
The story goes that his hosts in Ephesus invited Hannibal to a lecture by the renowned philosopher Phormio. He spoke on generalship and wowed everyone except Hannibal. Excusing himself first as a Phoenician speaker whose Greek was imperfect, he then stuck in the knife. Hannibal “said that he had seen many doddering old men but he had never seen anyone more senile than Phormio.”
If the tale is true, it reveals a man of wit who used diplomacy only to soften up the audience for bluntness. He was angry too and maybe sensitive to his own age, since he was in his midfifties at the time, an age that his two heroes, Alexander and Pyrrhus, never reached.
Caesar was mature. That’s one of the main reasons for his success. Unlike Alexander or Hannibal, each of whom was a supreme commander in his twenties, Caesar did not hold supreme command until his early forties. That was in Gaul; he was fifty when he crossed the Rubicon and began the civil war.
Caesar had other advantages as well compared with Alexander and Hannibal. He came last of the three, and so he could learn from his predecessors’ mistakes. When he began the civil war, he had the experience, the self-confidence, and the veterans of one of the most successful military campaigns in history, the conquest of Gaul.
Gaul made up for what might have been a disadvantage for Caesar—he was more or less a self-made man. Caesar was neither a king nor the son of a famous warrior father. True, he came from an aristocratic family with important connections, but he had to rise on his own talent. That, as much as his family’s tradition, may explain the rapport with the common man that Caesar always had, and that earned him so much political capital.
But it was his status as a mature adult that really set Caesar apart from the other two commanders. He had seen enough of life to be surprised by very little of it. He had nothing to prove in battle; he would just as soon win the war by bribery and payoffs. “To know all is to forgive all,” as the saying goes, and Caesar had known a great deal by the age of fifty. That may help explain his policy of clemency.
Perhaps his age also contributed to Caesar’s famous speed. He was an old man in a hurry. Caesar conquered the Roman empire and won the civil war in just a little more than four years. It took Alexander nine years to conquer the Persian empire, and an advance force of Philip’s army had been softening up the Persians for two years before Alexander began. Hannibal’s war with Rome lasted seventeen years.
Caesar’s long life also let him show the extraordinary range of his talent. Unlike the other two commanders, he was a successful domestic politician before he became a general. He knew how to use all the levers of power. He was also an outstanding public speaker. Alexander and Hannibal were literate men, but only Caesar wrote books—brilliant books. Even two thousand years later, his Commentaries are classic works of military narrative and political propaganda.
These talents helped Caesar greatly but they also entailed costs. On the one hand, he had mastered the art of outdoing his rivals or making an end run around them. And he raised communication to an art form. On the other hand, he identified too closely with the class from which he had risen. In spite of his populist tendencies, he was every inch a Roman aristocrat. Caesar still wanted the admiration and respect of the noble peers over whom he eventually towered. He was no longer one of them but he couldn’t accept the fact.
And yet, unlike Alexander or Hannibal, Caesar had learned that there was more to life than battlefield triumphs. He knew how satisfying it was to enact laws that made his country better. So, after winning the civil war, he enacted many new laws.
Caesar failed to solve the political problems of the Roman republic that caused the civil war in the first place. Yet he showed more interest in governing than Alexander did even if, in the end, Caesar followed Alexander by opting out. Both men preferred new wars abroad to the messy and frustrating business of governing at home. Still, some of Caesar’s reforms had consequences that lasted for centuries—and, in the case of his calendar, for thousands of years. He came as close to combining military and political success as any of the three commanders did.
Like Hannibal, Caesar took moderate risks in battle. He proved immensely cautious on the strategic level, though. He didn’t make a big move without thinking ahead two, three, even five or ten moves. For instance, after winning control of Italy in 49 B.C., he didn’t turn eastward before first conquering Spain. On the operational level, by contrast, Caesar was a daredevil. From his late autumn crossing of the Adriatic in 49 B.C. to his leap into battle in Alexandria in 48 to his scattershot crossing from Sicily to Africa in 46, Caesar took big chances. He had every reason to fail but, again and again, he succeeded. He attributed his success to the good fortune of Caesar, but we may look for the hand of Divine Providence.
Caesar’s battle tactics had nothing of the elegance of Alexander’s or Hannibal’s, but the Romans rarely were elegant in war. Cavalry was never a Roman strong suit, and their infantry was powerful and flexible but rarely balletic. Fortunately for Caesar, most of his enemies were Romans too. He had considerable advantages over them. A large number of his men were veterans and they were buoyed by their success in Gaul.
As a commander, Caesar was a great improviser, whether against Pompey’s cavalry at Pharsalus or his own men’s near-mutinous behavior at the start of Thapsus. He never lost his nerve, whether in the face of deadly Numidian cavalrymen at Ruspina or the sudden specter of defeat at Munda.
And he was a great leader of men. Caesar’s soldiers loved him. Few generals could have kept their army together through the near-starvation conditions of Dyrrachium or the long march that followed defeat there. Only a commander with political instincts as sharp—and as cold-blooded—as Caesar’s would then have rewarded them by granting permission for them to sack a city. To turn to another occasion, only Caesar had the oratorical skill to end a mutiny with a single word.
Logistics was not Caesar’s strong suit, as shown both by Dyrrachium and the North African campaign. He should have paid more attention to infrastructure. But he certainly knew the importance of money, as shown by his actions everywhere, especially in Egypt and the Near East. And organizational skill will take a general only so far. Pompey was a great organizer but he lacked Caesar’s killer instinct. Pompey was too cautious, for example, to take the risk of trying to finish off Caesar after getting him on the run at Dyrrachium. Caesar would never have held back.
Caesar won the civil war by audacity, talent, and sheer will. He lost the peace through frustration and arrogance. Political bickering in the Roman Forum was a huge comedown from smart salutes in a military camp. Caesar must surely have been relieved in March 44 B.C. as he readied to leave Rome for three years of war in the East.
And then, there was the problem of his arrogance. Caesar refused to understand how insulted the other Romans were by his “clemency” or, if he understood it, he refused to believe that anyone would have the guts to touch him. So he dismissed his bodyguard and died on the Ides of March.
A leader must listen not only to his heart and his head; he must have his finger on the pulse of the body politic. In the end, Caesar communed only with himself and with the gods whom he thought were on his side. Like Alexander, he fell prey to delusions of grandeur and omnipotence.
FAIREST OF THEM ALL?
Three great commanders, but which of them was the greatest? When it comes to ambition and audacity, we are spoiled for choice. All three unleashed terror on civilians. All three were guided by the hand of Divine Providence. And yet, certain differences stand out.
Hannibal was probably the greatest commander, both in combat and in the field. He carried out one of the most elegant and destructive examples of victory by envelopment in the annals of military history—Cannae. If Philip and Alexander began the art of battlefield mobility, Hannibal brought it to perfection. Then too, Hannibal held his army together for fifteen years in Italy without a mutiny. That was true leadership.
Hannibal was also the worst strategist. Caesar was probably the best. Not only did he conquer the Roman empire quickly, in little more than four years, he did so methodically and by design. His good judgment was all but unfailing. Alexander was a great strategist as well but he made a major blunder against Memnon and the Persian fleet. Only the intervention of Divine Providence saved him. Nor did Alexander know when or how to end the war. He continued fighting far too long.
Both Alexander and Caesar showed deep insight into the stages of war, but Caesar wins this prize. He indulged in nothing as unnecessary and draining as Alexander’s wars in Sogdiana and India. Hannibal did not understand the stages of war.
Alexander was nearly as good a field commander as Hannibal and nearly as good a strategist as Caesar. When it came to military operations, he was the most adaptable and agile. He was also the most successful manager of logistics and infrastructure. He started out broke and ended up the richest man in the world. He always had plenty of manpower.
Alexander was without peer when it came to branding. Caesar’s name is unforgettable and his success is stamped on every page of his Commentaries. But Alexander was selling youth and charisma—literal charisma, in its original sense of divine grace. Neither the wit of Veni Vidi Vici nor the force of Hannibal as Hercules can compare with that.
Conquerors rarely make good peacemakers and they are even worse as administrators. Hannibal did succeed as an administrator but not as a conqueror. Alexander showed remarkable grandeur of vision for his new empire, but he paid so little attention to the practical details that it collapsed on his death. He changed the world by ending the Persian empire and laying the foundation for the Hellenistic kingdoms, but they went their own way rather than following his stamp.
Caesar closed the door on the Roman republic and its limited liberty. He was Rome’s first post-republican king, even if he avoided the term. Caesar left an heir, Octavian, the later Augustus, to complete the project that he began. Finally, however flawed and arrogant his policy of clemency was, he pardoned his enemies rather than execute them. He deserves credit for that.
All in all, Caesar was the greatest of antiquity’s great commanders. Hannibal is the hero of lost causes and perfect battles. Alexander has an unmatched star quality. Caesar, for all his flaws, came closest to statesmanship.