5 Military Geniuses From History

War has been a constant from the beginning of human history. Winning takes strength but also brains. Here are the craftiest military minds to ever lead.

Mar 14, 2024By Kassandre Dwyer, M.Ed History
military geniuses history


Military success has often led to the advancement or failure of countries as a whole on the world stage. Winners of engagements have been left to forge ahead to write the future, while losers were left behind to fade or rebuild. Within these transformations, leaders emerged on both sides, immortalizing themselves with their impressive strategies and decision-making that paved the way for those who followed them into the heat of battle to face death. These military geniuses have fought their way into remembrance with their sharp minds and daring tactics.


1. Alexander the Great

alexander the great mosaic
A famous mosaic of Alexander the Great. Source: Literary Hub


Ascending the Macedonian throne upon the death of his father, Philip II, in 336 BCE, the 20-year-old King Alexander was far from inexperienced in politics or on the battlefield. He immediately began subduing threats when he rose to power and never stopped. A war-seasoned commander from his teen years, Alexander was eager to achieve one of his late father’s dreams: a Macedonian conquest of the vast Persian Empire, which stretched from Egypt and western Asia to the Indus Valley.


alexander great bust
Marble portrait head of Alexander the Great, c.300-150 BCE. Source: British Museum, London


Alexander succeeded in this endeavor and more, halting his conquest in India only at the behest of his own men, who were battle-weary and homesick. He earned his title of “the Great” largely due to his success in war, which included never losing a battle in his 13-year reign. Alexander incorporated a number of strategic efforts into his fighting, one of the most notable being a personal one. He led from the front, which he believed struck fear into the opposing army and inspired his own men.


He ensured that his men were exceptionally well-trained and armed. The Macedonians utilized light armor that aided their mobility, which became one of their key advantages for the time. Alexander always scouted the battle terrain ahead of time, which assisted him in another one of his noteworthy measures: his ability to make quick, effective adjustments in the midst of battle. Though perhaps his death at the premature age of 32 left a great deal of his potential unrecognized, Alexander is still remembered as one of the premier military minds of the ancient world.

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2. Hannibal Barca

military genius hannibal alps
An artistic depiction of Hannibal and his army crossing the Pyrenees mountains. Source: Theatrum Belli


A son of Carthage in North Africa, Hannibal Barca was raised from a young age to hate the Romans. Born at the end of the First Punic War, his country suffered greatly at the hands of the Romans. A bold soldier, Hannibal became commander of the Carthaginian army at age 26 in 221 BCE.


He was soon enveloped in what would become the Second Punic War, largely resulting from Rome’s anger at his recent conquests that expanded Carthaginian territory. Hannibal decided to strike where Rome would least expect it, organizing one of history’s most impressive lightning campaigns. He, along with his army of over 50,000 and 37 war elephants, crossed the Pyrenees mountains through autumn snows and arrived in Northern Italy. He beat the Romans in a succession of battles, moving south over the next two years.


military genius hannibal art
Barca is often depicted in art and media with an eye patch. Art by LordGood. Source: DeviantArt.


Hannibal also began a diplomatic strategy, securing alliances with Syracuse and Macedonia in 215 and 214 BCE. Rome began cutting off his lines of contact with his home country, and Hannibal found himself somewhat stranded in Southern Italy with exhausted forces. He employed a variety of tactics to keep his men afloat, including diversionary attacks and guerilla warfare. However, eventually, his depleted forces were forced to return to Africa when the Roman army allied itself with Carthage’s neighbor Numidia and attacked Carthage proper at the city of Zama.


Eventually, Hannibal’s success would cease, and Carthage would once again be defeated by the Romans. He resigned his post as general; however, the people of the ruined country of Carthage chose Hannibal to serve as suffete, a type of government representative, in hopes of pulling their country back to its feet. However, he was forced to flee when Rome became suspicious that he may be forming alliances to strike back at them once again and arrive for an inquiry. Hannibal spent the rest of his life on the run until he completed suicide by poison in 183 BCE.


3. Subutai

military genius mongol map
A map of the Mongol Empire circa 1240 CE by Ancient.eu. Source: Short History


Genghis Khan is known to historians the world over for his successful Mongol empire that established the largest land dominion known to history in the 13th century. However, the fact that he did not accomplish this feat alone is often left unrecognized. Genghis Khan owed a great deal of his success to his primary military strategist, General Subutai (also spelled Subetei or Subetai).


Subutai was not of noble origins; he was born the son of a blacksmith, but he quickly rose through Mongolian military ranks due to his skill and strategy on the battlefield. He is credited with leading over twenty campaigns over his career, in which he conquered more territory than any other commander in history, including Alexander the Great. Subutai was known for implementing imaginative, unique strategies and effectively coordinating armies that were hundreds of miles away from one another.


military genius mongol horseman
Rendering of a Mongolian cavalryman. Source: About History


Subutai was one of the earliest proponents of siege engines. Many of the tactics he implemented, such as using stonethrowers to open a path for his cavalry while at the same time flanking the enemy, had never been seen by the forces his armies were facing, making them especially devastating.


He used spies to prepare his battle plans, gathering intelligence on some of his enemies for up to a year before the attack. While many picture the Mongols as bloodthirsty, Subutai knew talent when he saw it and made a habit of incorporating skilled military minds and engineers from conquered peoples into his army.


military genius subutai
A rendering of Subutai. Source: Medium


Subutai’s career outlasted the death of Genghis Khan and that of his son, Ogedei Khan, upon which Subutai and his army returned home from their assault on Eastern Europe. If not for the change in Mongolian leadership and alterations in the empire, many historians believe that Subutai would have succeeded in taking on the Holy Roman Empire and the remainder of Europe. Subutai passed away at age 72 after his retirement two years prior.


4. Belisarius

military genius belisarius mosaic
Belisarius is believed to be the bearded man on the left of Justinian, center. Source: Crafty Theatre


Another one of history’s finest tacticians, Belisarius, commanded armies for the Byzantine emperor Justinian in the sixth century. His greatest claim to fame was the recovery of territories in the west that had once belonged to the Roman Empire, but that had been considered all but lost. His gains gave the Roman Empire hope for reestablishment; however, poor administration in the following years led to the loss of many of his accomplishments.


belisarius conquest map
The salmon-colored areas on the map indicate areas of “Justinian’s Reconquest”: campaigns led by Belisarius. Source: Novo Scriptorium


Belisarius was believed to be of Slavic origin. He started his military career as one of Justinian‘s bodyguards and quickly moved his way up the ranks, establishing himself as the greatest general of his age. His achievements included bringing North Africa back under Roman control after one hundred years under Vandal rule, then reclaiming Italy and Rome proper. The Goths, whom he defeated in Italy, were so impressed with his military prowess that they offered him a crown as the King of Italy, which he declined out of his loyalty to Emperor Justinian.


military genius blind belisarius
Belisarius is incorrectly depicted as blind and poverty-stricken in many instances of fine art, including this 1797 painting by Baron François-Pascal-Simon Gerard. Source: Getty Museum, Los Angeles


Belisaruis was particularly celebrated for his excellent judgment in the field, which seemed to encompass who, when, and how to fight, but also when to walk away. Mythology surrounds Belisarius’ later life, as the emperor seemed to have trust issues in regard to his best general. This is not surprising, as the Roman Empire had been plagued with distrust and disloyalty throughout the ages.


Justinian had concerns that Belisarius might use the army, ultimately dedicated to their general, to seize power. Seeing Belisarius offered a throne in the west might have put even more worries in the emperor’s head. Still, Belisarius remained loyal, and despite storytelling, he was not blinded by Justinian for treason and reduced to begging.


A popular myth stated that Justinian had Belisarius’ eyes put out for betrayal, forcing the once powerful military leader to beg to survive. Accounts of soldiers encountering their former superior in rags on the street led to shock and pity. However, the story likely arose as a parable illustrating how those in power can so easily destroy the competent; and a gripe about the treatment of veterans, probably coming about around the time Belisarius actually was accused of plotting against the emperor later in his career. He was later pardoned and retired to his estate in Constantinople. He died in 565 CE at the age of 60.


5. Saladin

military genius saladin statue
A statue of Saladin in Damascus, photo by Bedirhani HaldunTuzel. Source: Trip Advisor


Known as Saladin in the Western world, Salah al-Din al-Ayubbi founded the Ayyubid dynasty in what is now Egypt and Syria. Born in 1138, he became a sultan and was known as a champion of Islam, defending the Arab world against Christian warriors during the First Crusade. Saladin would be exceptionally successful during the Crusades, expanding his empire and gaining control of the heavily sought-after Jerusalem.


Saladin used his diplomatic skills to unite the Muslim world, which aided his army’s success during the Crusades. Though he commanded his army for over two decades, Saladin fought in just a handful of battles. His accomplishments came not from constant victory on the battlefield but long-term campaign strategy. Saladin combined his diplomacy with psychological warfare, particularly in an offensive manner, as he sought to boost the morale of his own troops. A light force, his army was able to move rapidly, particularly in comparison to their Crusader counterparts, who often relied on heavy knights. Despite his death from illness, likely typhoid, at age 56, Saladin’s empire would persist for decades beyond the loss of its founder.

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By Kassandre DwyerM.Ed HistoryKassie is a farmer with a passion for history who has a day job teaching middle school social studies in her hometown. In addition to earning NBCT certification and M.Ed. in History, she holds an M.Ed in Curriculum & Instruction and a B.S. in Sustainable Agriculture/Animal Science. She is particularly interested in telling the stories of often overlooked historical perspectives or hidden truths, and is especially intrigued by the history of America’s Indigenous peoples, war, and the “wild west.”