Military history fascinates us because it shows us the best and the worst of human nature. Unparalleled bravery and unprecedented cruelty stand side by side. Rank rapacity lurks in the presence of extreme self-sacrifice. High ideals live alongside cynical power games. Man’s capacity to think – which separates him from all other creatures – eagerly embraces his animal instincts. The greatest military feats combine all of these things.
This will be part one in a three part series where we talk about the 15 greatest military feats of all time. Here, we’ll focus on ancient military history, covering the period before gunpowder came into general use in warfare.
In making lists like this, we inevitably open ourselves to criticism. Many candidates come to mind, and how do you define “greatest,” anyway? The question is more art than science. Nevertheless, I’ll make the attempt, using these general criteria.
- Did the feat bring some aspect of warfare (tactics, operations, strategy, siegecraft, logistics, morale/psychology, information, etc. to an apogee)?
- Did it involve a commander doing damage with scant resources?
- How influential was it in history?
This is a companion piece to Quintus Curtius’ recent podcast about what he thinks are the 15 greatest military commanders in history. You should check it out.
Without further ado, here’s my list of the greatest military feats in ancient history, in chronological order.
#1 Alexander the Great’s Siege of Tyre (332 BC)
After defeating the Persians at the Granicus and Issus, Alexander the Great swept down into Syria and the Levant, securing control of the Mediterranean coastline. Here, he came upon the wealthy Phoenician city of Tyre, which refused to submit to him.
In addition to a settlement on the mainland, Tyre contained a sizable island settlement, called New Tyre. After the citizens on the mainland refused to let Alexander make a sacrifice in a temple on the island, the Macedonian King angrily told them that he would show that their island was part of the mainland! When two Macedonian envoys sent to New Tyre were executed, Alexander settled down for one of the ancient world’s great sieges, vowing vengeance.
Tyre would be a tough nut to crack. Several centuries earlier, the Babylonian King Nebuchadnezzar II had besieged it for 13 years and failed to capture it.
Alexander began by destroying Old Tyre and using its rubble to construct a mole, inching slowly toward the island, which was situated about half a mile off the mainland. In front of the mole was a fortification which allowed Macedonian missile troops and artillery to bombard the island’s walls and defenders.
It was an agonizing slog, and then, months after construction started, the Tyrian navy raided the mole, destroying the fortifications and sending the Macedonians back.
Undaunted, Alexander ordered the work to begin again. He also requisitioned ships from all over the territories loyal to him, realizing that only a combined land and naval assault would take the city.
The construction of the mole continued and reached the settlement’s walls, while ships with battering rams attacked. It was a long, back and forth battle between the Tyrian navy and Alexander’s. Tyre seemed no closer to falling.
Finally, at the southern portion of the city, the ships made a breach in the wall. Alexander and his elite troops raced to move through the gap, while the forces in every other sector redoubled their efforts to pin the defenders down. In a whirlwind, the city was burned and its residents slaughtered or sold into slavery.
This video has a good rundown of the siege.
In terms of its impact, Alexander the Great’s siege of Tyre destroyed the ancient Phoenician commerce network and guaranteed the ascendancy of Alexandria as the most prominent city in the region. When we consider how much influence that city would have on regional politics and in advancing human knowledge, that alone would make this feat significant, but Tyre also brought the art of siegecraft to an apogee rarely equaled in history. Thus, it belongs on the list of the greatest military feats in ancient history.
#2 Hannibal’s blitzkrieg in Italy (218-16 BC)
I’m more critical of Hannibal than most. I tend to think he’s romanticized when, in truth, he couldn’t adapt to the Romans’ new strategies as the Second Punic War continued.
But no one can possibly deny that Hannibal’s initial campaign into Italy was one of the greatest feats in the history of warfare. No ifs ands or buts.
The audacity of crossing the Alps in the winter – with elephants – and doing so successfully, would alone be worthy of consideration for a list of the greatest military feats, ancient or modern, but Hannibal was just getting started!
Aside from the march over the Alps being one of the greatest logistical feats of all time, ancient or modern, it was a stunning psychological blow. The Romans now had to confront this man that had done something “impossible,” and had brought beasts with him that they had never seen.
They had no idea how to handle something like this and to make matters worse, Hannibal was one of the greatest combat commanders of all time. At the Battles of Ticinus and Trebia in 218 BC, Hannibal outmaneuvered and stunned the Romans, thus winning two glorious victories so soon after his remarkable crossing of the Alps.
Hannibal then staged one of the greatest ambushes in military history at the Battle of Lake Trasimene in 217 BC, using the fog and the lake to pin the Romans down and destroy them, inflicting casualties of at least 15:1 according to the reliable Polybius in his Histories 3.85.
And Hannibal still wasn’t done. We all know what came next.
The Romans, infuriated by the losses, sent an army twice the normal size against the hated Carthaginian. There, outnumbered two to one, Hannibal pulled off probably THE greatest tactical feat in military history. Outnumbered two to one, he put his troops into a crescent formation, sucked the Romans in, surrounded them, and slaughtered 40,000 of them.
Afterward, Rome finally adopted the advice of Quintus Fabius Maximus and avoided direct military confrontations with Hannibal. The Second Punic War bogged down into a war of attrition and Hannibal’s blitzkrieg ended.
Though ultimately unsuccessful, it makes the list of greatest military feats because it brought tactical warfare to one of the highest levels ever seen, and it influenced every military theorist since. For example, on the eve of World War I, the German high command was obsessed with Hannibal, and its war plan, the Schlieffen Plan, envisioned a grand Cannae that would destroy the French army and envelop Paris, knocking France out of the war quickly. The German mobilization to implement this plan turned a spat in the Balkans into a general war.
Hannibal’s ancient ghost certainly haunted the history of the 20th century.
#3 Khalid ibn al-Walid’s conquest of Syria and the Levant (635-8)
Islam spread rapidly after the death of the Prophet Muhammad in 632. The decades-long struggle for the backwater of Arabia spread, in the span of a few years, from Spain to Central Asia. The success of the Islamic conquests in large part rests on the shoulders of Khalid ibn al-Walid.
A former opponent of Muhammad, Walid converted to Islam and became a loyalist.
Taking Muslim forces into Byzantine territory, Walid rapidly overran key cities and fortresses in the area, including Damascus after a short siege. He routed numerically superior and better equipped Byzantine armies. His greatest victory was at the Battle of Yarmouk in 636, which was truly one of the most decisive battles in history, ancient or modern.
By the end of his campaign, the Byzantine Empire had been driven into Asia Minor and would never regain the territory that Walid took. The ancient Greco-Roman dominance in the region stemming back to Alexander the Great had been irrevocably broken and Islam’s ascendancy assured, all in the course of a few years. For that reason alone, Khalid ibn al-Walid’s campaigns would be worthy of consideration, but the fact that he did this much with little, against superior forces, assures his campaign’s place on the list of the ancient world’s greatest military feats.
#4 Genghis Khan conquers the Khwarezmian Empire (1219-21)
I’ve written in greater detail about this before, so I’ll just go over the major feats here.
The Khwarezmian Shah, Muhammad II, believed his borders with the Mongols were nearly impervious. On the east, he had the Tian Shan mountains, and to the north, the Kyzulkum Desert. Going around the mountains would take too long, and no one would dare cross the desert. The only sure method was through the Dzungarian Gate to the northeast.
To make a long story short (click the link above to see the long story), the Mongols attacked along multiple fronts to draw out the enemy forces and then crossed the desert to attack him behind his lines. Swarmed along multiple fronts, the Khwarezmian forces quickly collapsed. The outnumbered Mongols didn’t just defeat them, but annihilated them with minimal losses.
The Mongol invasion of Khwarezmia was unquestionably one of the greatest operational feats in the history of warfare. It was a flawless episode of maneuver war that put pressure on multiple fronts simultaneously and kept the initiative in Genghis Khan’s hands. Great territory was conquered with few resources. The operation was also a fantastic example of information warfare, as the deception campaign was sophisticated and took full advantage of Muhammad’s confirmation bias, making him feel comfortable about the security of his borders.
Finally, Genghis Khan’s conquest of Khwarezmia desolated what was one of the world’s wealthiest regions. To this day, it still hasn’t recovered. The Mongols’ feats there also opened up the Silk Road and gave Europe a larger appetite for Asian goods so that, when those trade routes closed, Europeans took to the sea to look for new ones, ushering in the Age of Discovery. This, then, was one of those victories that began shifting the global balance of power, increasing its claim to being one of the greatest military feats in ancient history.
#5 Joan of Arc Turns the Tide of the Hundred Years’ War (1429)
This is also something I’ve written about before, so I’ll spare some of the details.
After a series of extraordinary circumstances, Joan of Arc found herself sent to the city of Orleans with a small army. This was a critical point in the war with England. The English and their Burgundian allies controlled large swathes of France. The English King Henry VI, though an infant, was also claimed as King of France after the 1420 Treaty of Troyes. That claim was robustly enforced through the Duke of Bedford, the child king’s regent.
The English and Burgundians had won victories over and over again, stretching all the way back to the beginning of the war during Edward III’s reign. For three generations, the French had known nothing but defeat and humiliation. No matter how much they outnumbered their enemies, they lost. It was as if God himself was punishing France for its sins. Only the southern portion of France, below the Loire, still resisted, but this group, called the Armagnac faction, was led ineffectually by the would-be King Charles VII.
With weak leadership, a despondent military, and a vulnerable strategic position, it looked like France was doomed at the start of 1429. The English seemed certain to capture Orleans and then pour across the Loire. France was on the verge of losing its ancient independence.
As if she were a gift of God Himself, Joan of Arc came out of nowhere to lift the Siege of Orleans. Then she reduced other English strongholds along the Loire, culminating in the first significant French field victory of the war in the Battle of Patay.
With the Loire secured and the English army in the area defeated, Joan of Arc gathered Charles and marched toward Reims so that he could be coronated. The French met little resistance as they marched through the area. Troyes and Chalons both fell into French hands along the way to Reims, which opened its gates. The eastern portion of the country had been liberated and the once weak Charles was now truly King of France in the eyes of God and the people.
In the span of a few months, Joan undid 80 years of English work.
Joan of Arc’s campaign in the spring and summer of 1429 was THE most astounding psychological and morale feat in military history, ancient or modern. Nowhere before or since had the tide of morale been turned so quickly or decisively. Hopeless, despairing men had been turned into triumphant victors at the drop of a hat.
Although Joan failed to see the war through to final victory, she made an English victory impossible. Never again did the French lose confidence in themselves. She made them believe God was on their side and they acted accordingly. That alone would secure Joan of Arc’s early 1429 campaign as among the greatest military feats in history, ancient or modern.
And obviously, if England had subjugated France, the political and cultural history of the world would have changed completely, so her 1429 victory is among the most influential ancient military feats.
But she didn’t stop there.
Joan had a knack for using the new technology of gunpowder artillery, implementing it in an anti-material, rather than simply an anti-personnel role. The technology had not yet matured, but her actions were among those that started a trend that would change warfare forever. Joan often doesn’t get credit for her contribution in this.
That’s a good way to conclude the ancient feats in this series, because the introduction of gunpowder irrevocably changed the face of war. Part two will focus on the greatest feats in the history of gunpowder warfare.
Until then, read Stumped, because it includes actionable advice on manipulating morale like Joan.