Masters of Command: Alexander, Hannibal, Caesar, and the Genius of Leadership

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9781439164488: Masters of Command: Alexander, Hannibal, Caesar, and the Genius of Leadership

In Masters of Command, historian Barry Strauss compares how the three greatest generals of the ancient world waged war and draws lessons from their experiences that work both on and off the battlefield.

In Masters of Command, Barry Strauss compares the way the three greatest generals of the ancient world—Alexander, Hannibal, and Caesar—waged war and draws lessons from their experiences that apply on and off the battlefield.

Alexander, Hannibal, Caesar—each was a master of war. Each had to look beyond the battlefield to decide whom to fight, when, and why; to know what victory was and when to end the war; to determine how to bring stability to the lands he conquered. Each general had to be a battlefield tactician and more: a statesman, a strategist, a leader.

Tactics change, weapons change, but war itself remains much the same throughout the centuries, and a great warrior must know how to define success. Understanding where each of these three great (but flawed) commanders succeeded and failed can serve anyone who wants to think strategically or has to demonstrate leadership. In Masters of Command, Barry Strauss explains the qualities these great generals shared, the keys to their success, from ambition and judgment to leadership itself.

The result of years of research, Masters of Command is based on surviving written documents and archeological evidence as well as the author’s travels in Italy, France, Greece, Turkey, and Tunisia in the footsteps of Alexander, Hannibal, and Caesar.

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About the Author:

At an early age Barry Strauss went crazy over books - and he still is. Along the way he became passionate about history, foreign languages, and boats but books are still at the center of it all.
Strauss grew up in and around New York City. He received bachelors, masters, and doctoral degrees in history from Cornell and Yale. He has lived and studied in Greece, Germany, and Israel and has traveled extensively in Italy, Turkey, Croatia, Cyprus, Jordan, Tunisia, and other countries with classical sites; he has also taken part in archaeological excavations. He speaks and reads seven foreign languages.
Aside from a brief stint as a newspaper reporter, he has made his career as a college teacher. Back at Cornell, he is Professor of History and Classics and Chair of the Department of History. A former director of Cornell's Peace Studies Program, he is currently director as a well a founder of its Program on Freedom and Free Societies. He considers himself the luckiest person alive to be able to spend his time reading, writing, and teaching.
His website is He blogs at

Excerpt. Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:





YOU COULDN’T MISS THE KING. THE BATTLE WAS ALREADY A MUDDLE OF MEN and horses in motion and yet he was unmistakable. He was short but muscular and he sat on a huge black steed. Shining in his splendid armor, with tall white plumes fixed on either side of his helmet, Alexander the Great, king of Macedon, led the second wave of the Companion Cavalry. A blast of bugles and a roar of battle cries had sent them off, galloping across the shallow Granicus River and up onto the opposite bank, under the waiting eyes of Persia’s finest horsemen. Flush with victory over the first wave of the Macedonian attack, the Persians charged the enemy with loud shouts.

Two Persian brothers zeroed in on Alexander himself. Rhoesaces and Sphithridates were both aristocrats; Sphithridates was governor of Ionia, a wealthy province on what is today Turkey’s Aegean coast. The brothers charged and Spithridates split Alexander’s helmet with his scimitar and grazed Alexander’s hair. Alexander struck back and drove his wooden lance into Spithridates’s chest. As Spithridates died, his brother swung his sword at Alexander’s naked head and aimed a deathblow. In the split second before he made contact his arm was sliced off by the deft sword of Cleitus the Black, a Macedonian officer. Alexander was saved. It was a May day in northwestern Anatolia (Turkey) in 334 B.C.

· · ·

One hundred eighteen years later, the din of battle sounded across the rolling hills of southern Italy, where the armies of Rome and Carthage were locked in a death struggle outside the little town of Cannae. As the Roman legions marched steadily forward, the Carthaginians gritted their teeth and retreated, taking casualties as they went. Would they collapse under the Roman onslaught or would they draw the enemy into a trap?

Both sides’ commanders led from the front. The Roman consul Paullus plunged into the thick of things, urging his infantry to crush the foe. His Carthaginian opponent faced him not far away, in the center of the Carthaginian infantry line, positioned where he had been since the start of the fighting hours earlier. Hannibal of Carthage commanded his troops in person.

Hannibal rode on horseback, wearing a mail breastplate and a plumed helmet, and carrying a round shield. His face was famous for its bright and fiery look. He had only one good eye, having lost the vision in his right eye to disease during a long, hard march a year earlier.

The battle had reached its deciding moment. Just a little longer and the Carthaginians could spring their trap, but they would be hard-pressed to hold on against Rome’s power. Knowing this, Hannibal rode among the soldiers, heartening and cheering on his men and even trading blows with the Roman enemy. If the risk he was taking didn’t kill him, Hannibal would achieve triumph. It was the afternoon of August 2, 216 B.C.

One hundred sixty-seven years later, in the spring of 49 B.C., civil war gripped Rome. The conflict raged first in Italy, Spain, and southern France. Then the central front moved eastward. The focus shifted to the coast of Epirus (today Albania), the naval gateway to the Adriatic Sea and Italy. Two great generals, Pompey and Caesar, were jockeying for position on the land outside the strategic port city of Dyrrachium (modern Durrës, Albania). Each man led a large army, camped outside of town.

They played a waiting game, punctuated by bursts of fighting. Each army tried to outflank the other and starve it out through a series of walls, moats, forts, and towers across the hilly terrain. Suddenly, in early May, boredom gave way to a bloody engagement. Deserters from Caesar’s army revealed a weak point in their lines. Pompey used the information to attack and take Caesar by surprise. But Caesar rallied and launched a counterattack that same day. It started out well, but then his men found themselves in a maze of abandoned walls and ditches. When they were assaulted in turn, they panicked.

Caesar was there, among his men, an example of courage. Tall and sinewy, he stood firm. Soldiers ran by in retreat, still holding their battle standards—long poles lined with metal disks and topped with a carved image of a human hand. Caesar grabbed the standards with his own hands and commanded the men to stop. His words were usually persuasive and his black eyes shone with vigor. Yet not a single man stopped; some looked at the ground in shame, and some even threw away their standards. Finally, one of the standard bearers, with his pole upside down, dared to thrust the sharp end of it at Caesar himself. The commander’s bodyguards cut off his arm at the last moment and saved Caesar’s life. If not for them, the civil war might have ended on the spot.

Three generals, three battles, and one pattern: a life thrown into the thick of combat. But combat was only the price of admission. These weren’t just commanders—they were soldier-statesmen conquering an empire. Alexander the Great, Hannibal, and Julius Caesar are the big three of ancient military history. Alexander set the pattern. Hannibal came a little more than a century later, calling Alexander the greatest general of all time. Caesar appeared about 150 years later and wept, as a young man, when he saw a statue of Alexander, lamenting that he, Caesar, hadn’t conquered anything yet.

Each was a master of war. They had to look far beyond the battlefield. They had to decide not only how to fight but whom to fight and why. They had to define victory and know when to end the war. They had to envision the postwar world and to design a new world order that would bring stability and lasting power. In short, they were not only field commanders but also statesmen.

Yet each would probably want to be remembered as a battle hero. Never mind the long hours of silent contemplation, the continual hashing out of plans in conferences, the negotiations for war-winning alliances, the tedious details of stocking granaries or removing wagons stuck in the mud. The thick of bloody battle—primitive, elemental—is where they felt most at home.

In battle, they were heroic. As field commanders, leaders of the army in combat and on campaign, they were peerless. As strategists, they have a mixed record. Their war plans reached for the skies, but only Alexander and Caesar got there. As statesmen all three fell short. Neither Alexander nor Caesar, much less Hannibal, ever solved the problem of how to bring about or how to maintain the new world order that each one sought.

Alexander (356–323 B.C.) conquered the largest empire the world had yet known—Persia. But he died just short of turning thirty-three, after suffering a humiliating mutiny by his men and without having provided for his succession or a plan to administer his vast new domain. His empire immediately collapsed into civil war and chaos. Fifty years later, it consisted of half a dozen new kingdoms, all governed by Alexander’s fellow Greeks, but none ruled by his family. Far from establishing a dynasty, Alexander was the last of his line to reign.

Hannibal (247–183 B.C.) took command of a colonial empire in Spain founded by his father and expanded by his brother-in-law. Then Rome challenged his control. Rome and Carthage were blood enemies, having already fought a major war over Sicily, which Rome had won. Now, with the support of his home government in Carthage, Hannibal launched a war to defang Rome once and for all. He accomplished the spectacular feat of crossing the Alps in the snow with his army and his elephants, and marched into Italy. There he handed Rome its greatest battlefield defeats, including one of the most thorough victories in the annals of warfare, Cannae (216 B.C.) Yet he lost the war. Like Alexander, he was the last member of his family to hold political power in his state.

Caesar (100–44 B.C.) followed up the epoch-making conquest of Gaul by fighting and winning a civil war against the vast wealth and manpower of the Roman republic. Caesar began a legislative program to change the republic into a monarchy, but politics bored him. He was more interested in starting a new campaign against the Parthians (an Iranian kingdom). Yet before he could leave for the front he was stabbed to death by a crowd of Roman senators, at the foot of his enemy’s statue on the Ides of March. Caesar did establish a dynasty, though—or rather, his great-nephew Octavian (63 B.C.–A.D. 14) did. In his will, Caesar named Octavian as his adopted son and heir, but Octavian had to fight for fifteen long and bloody years before the rest of the Roman world accepted him. Octavian is better known by the name he later chose—Augustus, Rome’s first emperor.

Each of the three generals was a military prodigy—and a gambler. They confronted empires: enemies with far larger armies than their own; enemies who enjoyed strategic command of the sea; and enemies with the home-court advantage. Yet these generals risked everything for victory.

All three led their forces in a dramatic sweep into enemy territory: Caesar crossed the Rubicon, Hannibal crossed the Alps, and Alexander crossed the Dardanelles. Alexander began a long war in the Persian empire (334–323 B.C.), Hannibal began a struggle with Rome known today as the Second Punic War (218–201 B.C.), and Caesar started the civil war (49–45 B.C.). Each man next experienced a mix of success and failure, and then went on to win a smashing victory in battle. Yet in the end Hannibal lost his war and Alexander and Caesar won empty victories.

I wrote this book to explain why. The story of these three supreme commanders is as fresh today as it was two thousand years ago. I...

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Strauss, Barry
Published by Simon & Schuster (2012)
ISBN 10: 1439164487 ISBN 13: 9781439164488
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Strauss, Barry
Published by Simon & Schuster (2012)
ISBN 10: 1439164487 ISBN 13: 9781439164488
New Hardcover Quantity Available: 1

Book Description Simon & Schuster, 2012. Hardcover. Book Condition: New. Bookseller Inventory # DADAX1439164487

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