Of the thousands of commanders who have served in history’s armies, why is it that only a few are remembered as great leaders of men in battle? What combination of personal and circumstantial influences conspires to produce great commanders? What makes a great leader great? An analysis of the biographies of six of the greatest captains of the ancient world—Thutmose III of Egypt, Sargon the Great of Assyria, Hannibal of Carthage, Scipio Africanus, Philip II of Macedonia, and Caesar Augustus—helps identify the characteristics of intellect, psychology, and personality that made these men great military and political leaders. Unsurprisingly, these commanders possessed many of the same personality traits.

The ancient world is not as distant as it is usually thought to be. Ancient societies were often confronted by technological challenges equal to those faced in modern times. Thutmose III, for example, had to reform an Egyptian military system that had remained unchanged for almost 2,000 years. This called for new tools of war requiring sophisticated manufacture unfamiliar to Egypt. New tools, in turn, required radically different forms of military organization. Mass conscription, revised tactics, expensively trained soldiers, a professional officer corps, a logistics base, and a quartermaster corps all had to be invented out of whole cloth. Egyptian society, too, was forced to change. For 3,000 years, Egypt had been sealed off from the outside world. Now it had to confront that world and all its strangeness.

The psychological shock was enormous. Everything from new foods to new musical instruments flowed into Egypt, along with new ideas about everything from religion to political legitimacy. One of every 10 men was required to serve in the military, and for the first time in 3,000 years, Egyptian soldiers were sent beyond their borders to fight and live among strange cultures. When compared to the wrenching experience of Egypt’s emergence upon the world stage of power politics in the 16th century bc, the American entry into the Cold War following World War II seems like a minor event. The new Egyptian military order lasted for more than half a millennium. The Cold War lasted less than one-tenth that long.

Two Factors: Traits of Personality and Historical Circumstance

If the challenges of human life and technological change are essentially similar in ancient and modern societies, what might be learned from ancient cultures about what it takes to be a great leader? Two sets of factors are relevant to the emergence of such leaders. The first involves traits of personality and character that permit the great commander to comprehend his world as it is, even as he sees beyond it to the objectives he wishes to advance in the future. The second is the historical circumstance in which the commander finds himself. Great commanders are only possible when challenging times provide opportunities for their unusual abilities to come to the fore. Grave social and military crises create opportunities for leaders to arise who might otherwise have lived completely ordinary and unrecorded lives.
The connection between crises and the emergence of great leaders is often impossible to discern at the time, being revealed only through the hindsight of history. So it was that Hannibal’s deadly challenge to Rome made possible Scipio’s being offered a major military command at so young an age. Caesar’s murder transformed Augustus from a frail young man of supposedly limited ability into a major actor on the Roman political stage. The Mitanni security challenge to Egypt forced a young pharaoh to react and in the process become a great military and political leader.

Experiencing War at an Early Age

All the great captains of the ancient world, with one exception, experienced war at an early age. Thutmose III was the commander of the Egyptian Army at 16, and a year later led his first military expedition into Nubia. Two years after that, he recaptured Gaza. He was not yet 22 when he fought his most famous battle at Megiddo. There, in what is now modern-day Israel, Thutmose confronted a large Canaanite army under the rebellious kings of Kadesh and Megiddo, restive vassals who controlled fertile, strategically located territory on Egypt’s northeastern border. Thanks to his personal scribe, Tjaneni, Thutmose’s triumph that day in 1479 bc is the first battle recorded in reasonably reliable detail. With an eye toward history, Thutmose later had his artisans inscribe his exploits on the walls of Amun-Re’s temple at Karnak.

Disregarding his older, more experienced generals’ advice to take an easier path to Megiddo, Thutmose chose to send his troops single file through a narrow ravine near Aruna. His reasoning was sound, if simple: if his generals had recommended an easier line of march, his enemies would have thought of it as well. Thutmose decided to do the unexpected. The king of Kadesh, watching the more likely paths, ignored the mountainous pass at Aruna. Personally leading his men on the perilous route, Thutmose had his mounted scouts, armed for the first time with composite bows, take out any guards posted by the enemy. The next morning he attacked, dividing his army into three wings and driving the rebel forces into Megiddo. It took a seven-month siege to capture the city proper, but with one dramatic victory, Thutmose had effectively restored Egyptian authority in the region.

Like Thutmose of Egypt, Scipio was still a teenager when he commanded a cavalry troop at the Battle of the Ticinus River in 218 bc. A year later, at age 18, he fought at the Trebbia River, a tributary of the Po, where he was wounded. A year after that, Scipio met the Carthaginians at Cannae. He assumed command of the Roman armies in Spain at the age of 26 and immediately set out to avenge his father’s death by restoring Roman rule on the Iberian Peninsula. At the Battle of New Carthage, in 209 bc, Scipio did just that, storming the city and capturing it in seven hours’ time.

Other great captains began their careers equally early in life. The fabled Carthaginian commander Hannibal accompanied his father, Hamilcar, to Spain at the age of nine and witnessed firsthand his father’s conquest of Spain. He first saw combat at age 18 in command of a cavalry battalion. He was 26 when he assumed command of the Carthaginian armies in Spain. Philip participated in the cavalry battles of the Macedonian tribal wars when he was only 16 and assumed command of the Macedonian army at 23. Sargon’s military training began as a boy and continued until he assumed the throne. Only Caesar Augustus, like his famous uncle, Julius Caesar, never experienced war until he took command of one of Rome’s mercenary armies in the Roman civil wars.

Education and Intellect

The great captains were all well-educated men, formally trained by the educational establishments of their times. Sargon II was perhaps the best educated, a classical scholar who was fluent in the ancient Sumerian languages and a military historian who wrote commentaries on his country’s ancient battles. Thutmose III, educated as a priest of Amun-Re, was a botanist and an architect. Scipio and Augustus received solid educations at the hands of private Greek tutors. Hannibal, too, was educated by Greek tutors in the manner of the Hellenic nobles of his day and spoke Punic, Latin, and Greek. Philip II of Macedon received his education in the Royal Page School, the Macedonian West Point, a four-year military academy for the sons of Macedonian nobility run by Greek teachers and experienced combat officers. Philip spoke several languages and surrounded himself with artists and philosophers. He recruited his boyhood friend, the philosopher Aristotle, to instruct Alexander.

Formal intellectual training provides a commander with the confidence to trust his intellect to explain the world around him. Educated leaders think in terms of cause and effect, of chains of action, and influence, where one can bring about desired ends by setting in motion events far removed from those ends. Leaders educated in such a manner are less likely to accept the world as it is or permit tradition and cultural practices to control their actions. Instead, they see themselves as controlling their own fate, able to change the course of events rather than being controlled by them. It is difficult to see how anyone could become a great leader without this psychological disposition. If the great commanders of the past excelled at anything, it was their ability not to become victims of unanticipated change.

The Creativity of an Open Mind

To adjust to changing circumstances requires a mind receptive to new ideas and open to new possibilities. Thutmose III’s adoption of new military technologies, Philip’s invention of new infantry formations and weapons and new tactical cavalry doctrines, Scipio’s redesign and employment of the infantry cohort, and Sargon’s new strategic doctrine of preemptive war are examples of leaders willing to entertain and apply new possibilities. Philip’s new cavalry tactics, training, and logistical innovations made sense because he had already decided to subdue Greece.

An open and receptive intellect permits a leader to challenge existing assumptions about his environment and generate new ways of thinking as a means of adjusting to a new environment. This is an intellectual achievement of the first order and characterizes the thinking of history’s great commanders. Augustus was able to see a new future for Rome only after he had conceived of the Roman world in a completely new way, as a peaceful and prosperous empire based on the integration of conquered peoples into a social order very much different than the old Republic.

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