Saturday, September 20, 2014

Impressions - Great Commanders of the Ancient World

“How can one hundred people be led by a single person?”

With this intriguing question begins a compendium of military commanders aptly titled “Great Commanders of the Ancient World, edited by Andrew Roberts. In its scope, the book is certainly ambitions – covering the period 1479 BC to 453 AD is no mean feat. A fascinating collage of characters and their unique talents are presented to the reader – from the empire builder Cyrus the Great to the military genius of Hannibal Barca or even the inspiring leadership of Julius Caesar (and his penchant for seducing the wives of his peers).In this the editor is helped by many a contributor, leading to a generally taunt book complete with a suggested reading list and index.


The federal structure has its pitfalls in writing style. For instance, the profiles of  Cyrus, Xenophon or Atilla are embellished with the author’s view on their contribution to the field of military science, power or the history of the continent they lived in. Others, especially the biographies on Thutmose III and Alaric have little on this subject. In one instance, the puzzled reader is plied with facts without providing the context – Trajan’s profile has the namesake of his rival king serving on a tower on Hadrian’s Wall, but then goes on to reveal that the king was actually beheaded after capture following a failed uprising! One wonders why then the reference to the service on Hadrian’s Wall was at all necessary.

This puzzling treatment continues with the near absence of illustrations or maps on the campaigns profiled or empires carved out in the profiles, excluding a frieze of a forlorn (and un-credited) Alexander riding on his beloved horse Bucephalus on the cover page. The reviewer is tempted to boldly ask – “How can a book profiling 25 military commanders not carry a single map? “

A final disappointment is the obsession with Greco-Roman world to the exclusion of Indian greats. True, the feats in the book are exceptional but so too were the empires created and battles waged by the Mauryan greats (Chandragupta and Emperor Ashoka). No less were the achievements of the Kushanas (Kanishka), Guptas (Chandragupta II and Skandagupta), the Pallavas and the Shatavahanas. It is puzzling that a wealth of emperors could be so casually excluded and would suggest a lack of understanding of the empire building in the Indian sub-continent. But Asia is not completely ignored – Sun Tzu and Zhuge Liang grace these pages with impressive summaries.

Deficiencies aside, the book gives a fascinating insight into the lives of these super-achievers. Hard work, persistence, an excellent grip on the geo-political conditions of their times and a willingness to act (ruthlessly when necessary) despite overwhelming odds are common themes. But fundamental to their success is an unwavering self-belief in all of these leaders. 

“Believe in yourself”, the book seems to say, “and soon enough an army will be willing to believe you and fight to the end to make your dreams come true”. A lesson truly worth absorbing and emulating.

Rating: 2.5 stars.

Summary: An interesting reading into the lives of military commanders of the Ancient world, with a particular focus on the Greco-Roman world.