Masters Of Command: Alexander, Hannibal, Caesar, and the Genius of Leadership, by Barry Strauss
As someone who likes reading about classical military history , this book is something that is pretty obviously something that would interest me. And given the author’s own work as one of the main contemporary classicists with a strong interest in military history in the ancient Greek and Roman world, this book is well within the author’s wheelhouse. This is the sort of work that fulfills expectations–you know enough of the author’s work to know that he is quite capable of writing very well about the subject matter and find that he does so in a way that is not necessarily surprising but is definitely excellent. This book has the feel that the author is trying to pivot from writing about ancient history for a small audience to writing about a larger audience that wants to view military history as a way to examine successful leadership qualities in general. The work does not make a full shift to shallow numbered leadership principles as some authors make their career on, but it certainly is a move to try to make classical military history more generally accessible and more obviously relevant to a wider audience. How you feel about that aim will greatly influence how you feel about this book.
In about 250 pages or so, the author manages to conduct a parallel analysis of three of the most notable ancient military history commanders in Alexander of Macedon, Hannibal Barca, and Julius Caesar. He begins with an author’s note, chronology, glossary, and maps to set the context for the analysis that follows. After that the author defines ten qualities of successful commanders (1) and examines how they apply to the three leaders in question. The author then examines the three ancient generals according to six criteria, namely how they handled their initial attacks (2), dealing with resistance (3), the clash between these leaders and their most powerful adversaries (4), closing the net towards victory (5), and knowing when to stop (6), something the author does not believe any of these leaders knew how to do well. The author then gives a conclusion, acknowledgements, and notes and an index. Overall, the work does a good job at presenting some of the notable aspects of Alexander’s conquest of the Persian Empire, Hannibal’s efforts in the Second Punic War, and Julius Caesar’s career after crossing the Rubicon.
Is this a great book? I’m not sure. It is a very good book, a very competent book, a thought provoking work that offers a skillful comparative analysis of three famous generals about whom much has been written and whose efforts have served as an inspiration to many. The author is candid about their flaws–he notes that Alexander was careless about political matters, that Hannibal had a major strategic flaw in not seeking to defeat Rome and in not understanding the strength of its political system, and that Julius Caesar had an immense laxity with regards to logistical matters. This book is no hagiography, but it does give appropriate praise as well as trying to keep an air of drama and reflecting on the fact that great commanders often do not fit in well with their own political cultures. It is easy for a successful leader to seek political power and to denigrate the political process and to solve social and political and diplomatic problems mainly through force. It was as true in the ancient world as it is true today that when you are a hammer, everything starts to look like a nail. And if you like reading about ancient military leaders in parallel, even if you already know about them a great deal, this book certainly has a great deal to offer.
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