The Great Unknowns: 6 of the Best Military Commanders You Probably Haven’t Heard Of

Alexsandr Suvorov. Battle Brotherhood

When it comes to discussing the greatest military generals of all time, most people will opt for Alexander the Great, Julius Caesar or Napoleon. History is littered with the names of well-known commanders who achieved great victories and overcame seemingly impossible odds. In this article, I will look at lesser known military geniuses and shed light on their careers. While hardcore history lovers will doubtless have heard of all six, some of the names should be new to a large proportion of readers.

Belisarius Under The Walls of Rome by AMELIANVS. Deviant Art

1 – Belisarius (505 – 565)

Flavius Belisarius is one of the greatest Byzantine generals and served under the reign of Justinian I. He was born in 505 and probably educated amongst Thracian peasants according to Edward Gibbon. The historian refers to Belisarius as the ‘Africanus of new Rome’ because of his success in reclaiming African provinces for the Empire. Unlike Scipio, Belisarius did not have the advantage of noble origin to help him along the way.

He began his career as a bodyguard to Justinian before the great ruler became emperor. Belisarius is credited with developing the bucellarii which was a new type of heavy cavalry armed with a sword, lance, and bow. The flexibility of this new fighting force ensured it was the best cavalry of the age. Justinian appointed Belisarius as leader of the empire’s border forces with Persia. It was a big risk because Belisarius was just 22 and while he had shown talent, he was completely untested as a military commander.

It was a masterstroke as he destroyed the Persians at Dara in 530 despite being outnumbered by at least 2:1. During this battle, he anticipated the enemy attack and dug covered ditches which the Persians plunged into during their cavalry charge. The Eternal Peace was signed between the two powers in 532 although it only lasted eight years. Belisarius was recalled to Constantinople that year, after his reputation had been damaged by a defeat at Callinicum in 531.

Upon his return to the capital, Belisarius was quickly called into action to crush a rebellion against Justinian in Nika. He was rewarded with command of the empire’s forces in its quest to reclaim African provinces lost to the Vandal kingdom. Within a year, he achieved his objective; this campaign included a brilliant victory in a battle where he was outnumbered 3:1. By now, Justinian had decided to reclaim as much of the Western Roman Empire as possible and ordered Belisarius to attack the Ostrogoths in Italy. He took Naples in 535 and Rome in 536. After defending Rome successfully, Belisarius took Ravenna in 540 and the Ostrogoths asked him to be their king! He refused, but a wary Justinian recalled his general as soon as possible.

Rome was retaken by the Goths soon after Belisarius left so he returned and beat them once again to reclaim Rome and depose the emperor the Goths had installed. His progress was hampered by a lack of supplies and an outbreak of the plague, so the campaign fizzled out. Belisarius was recalled to Constantinople yet again. His last campaign took place in 559 when he repelled the Bulgar attack on the capital. He was convicted of corruption and put in prison in 562; the charges against him were almost certainly false. Justinian pardoned him and made him a favorite at the imperial court. After several years of quiet retirement, Belisarius died in 565. He is one of the few commanders to have achieved military success on three different continents.

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  • RichPorardo

    Ah . . . the “Religion of Peace” and it’s true beginnings. WWJD

    • sfthomas

      you mekong no sense on this one

    • makkabee

      You mean how after the Christian Byzantines executed Muslim ambassadors, Muhammad decided to punish the terrorists?

      You don’t seem bothered by the Christian generals on the list. One thing Jesus probably wouldn’t do is be a hypocritical bigoted jackass like you, Rich.

      • John Erik Anderson

        There you have it, the “intellectual” using his big words, decides to chime in. People like you never see the big picture. Kinda sad.

      • Mad_MikeII

        You need to bone up on your history. The crusades occurred as a result of Muslim aggression – Jews and Christians were there long before Islam exsisted. In fact, it goes back farther than that. If you delve into the history of that part of the world, and I mean before Islam was even around, people from that part of the world have been trying to conquer Europe for the last 2,500 years, starting with Darius I of the Persian Empire, on through to Al-Walid I of the Umayyad Caliphate, to the present day. All one has to do is look at the history the people of “the religion of peace” had with one other, not exactly a lot of love and harmony going on there…

        • AtoZ

          Muslims were not the cause of the crusades, they held the ‘holy land’ that the crusaders wanted and when they took over, they slaughtered all the Jews AND Muslims. If your comments were true they wouldn’t have slaughtered the Jews as well

          • Art

            Yes, the Muslims had conquered the Holy Land, and many other Christian and Western lands when the armies of the “Prophet” burst out of Arabia, destroying everything in their path. The Crusades were a long overdue counterattack which unfortunately failed in the end, so ultimately many Western and Christian lands remained occupied and do so to this day. Of course the Muslims are the cause of the Crusades. The only cause.

          • The Romans destroyed Jerusalem and put the Jews in exile. The Muslims did spread all the way across North Africa and the Levant. They fought local leaders, most often Bedouins and other tribal or local leaders. Generally, in the “Holy Land,” the Christians and Jews were allowed to practice their religion, and Europeans could do pilgrimage to Jerusalem. The Pope, egged on by the wealthy city-state of Venice, which wanted political control of the trade routes, declared jihad– er, Holy War– against Jerusalem. When the Crusaders took the town, they slaughtered the Muslims and the Jews who lived there. Christianity: a religion of peace. By the way, when Saladin beat the Christian army, they were all allowed to go peacefully. No massacre.

          • Art

            “The Romans destroyed Jerusalem and put the Jews in exile.” True. And?

            Yes, the Muslims spread across North Africa, fighting the Byzantines and local leaders, and many others. They took most of Spain and almost took France before being driven back at Tours. It took the Spanish about 700 years to force them out and get their country back. In the East they destroyed Persia and pushed into India, putting to the sword entire cities that wouldn’t convert and without exaggeration, killed millions. Conversion by the sword was also common throughout the Middle East. All of North Africa was Christian before the armies of the Prophet ripped through them, though often conversion was through legal coercion with the threat of the sword in the background.

            In 1071 the Byzantine army was defeated at Manzikert by the Muslims and Constantinople asked for help from the West. It was slow in coming–it took 20 years–but it did come. It still wasn’t enough and infighting among the Christians and lack of support from Europe did them in eventually.

            Did the Crusaders conduct atrocities? Yes, you mentioned the Sack of Jerusalem. The worst was the sack of Constantinople in 1204, which Byzantium never recovered from, leaving them vulnerable. However, the abuses and blood the Crusaders spilled was a stream compared to the oceans spilled by the Islamic armies, especially in India but also throughout the Middle East. Yes, there were abuses of Christianity by the Crusaders but they were abuses. They were contrary to the tenets and practice of the faith. Islam on the other hand spread by the sword. Violence was key to its rise even in the days of Muhammed. Holy war and violence were central to it. They were not abuses of Islam or contrary to it.

        • Luke Sandman

          Please try to remember that some people gey their info/marching orders
          from CNN

      • Joseph Beck

        While Christianity does have flaws in think the main point is that Islam was founded on conquest, Christianity was not. There are major differences when it comes to origins and doctrine

        • Tell that to Constantine. To Charles Martel. To Charlemagne. To Charles V. To the Holy Roman Emperors. Christianity quickly became the state religion of Rome. How was Constantine converted? He saw a vision of God promising him victory in battle if he converted. Every religion has flaws. You want to Stone adulterers to death? The Bible does.

          • Art

            Charles Martel is most noted for stopping the Islamic advance, not conquering for Christianity.

            The difference lies in the founding of the two faiths. Jesus never killed anyone, never waged war or preached war, nor did his followers for centuries. Violence on any kind of scale in the name of Christianity didn’t occur for 300 years after the death of its founder. Constantine, as you noted. Muhammed on the other hand personally killed and raped and sacked in the name of spreading his new found faith, something his successors continued. These weren’t abuses but part of the faith.

            Yes, the Bible called for stoning adulterers but no one has seriously proposed that for many centuries and no one does it. This is still done TODAY in many Islamic countries, not to mention killing homosexuals, killing apostates, cutting off the hands of thieves, etc. Yes, every religion has flaws but Islam’s are still front and center and practiced. And many Muslims would say those aren’t flaws. That must change.

    • PMR

      You do see the irony of singling out the follower of Islam when three of these were Christian? That is known as confirmation bias.

  • Garntay Alfheim

    Didn’t talk about Oleg or Rurik, the founders of Georgia and the Ukraine, and how they stopped the Khanate from moving west into Europe. The eastern vikings were so influential, American SEALs, Spetznatz, and SAS special forces adopted the small unit tactics with much success…

  • Garntay Alfheim

    The Varangians, Nordic mercenaries in some cases fought for the Muslims if the price was right, and the Kievan Rus (Eastern Vikings) fought against anyone going into their lands to maintain the Volga trade route. The Kievan Rus allied with the Poles, Pechinegs, Bulgars, and others in that area of eastern Europe, while continuing dual kngships in Scandinavia and the British Aisles or France…

  • Luke Sandman

    Hey…. I have a novel idea. How about any of you people posting in the defense of Islam try going there for 3+ years as I have and tell me all about your viewpoint when(if) you return

  • This article turned into troll food in record time.

  • Eric van Tassell

    belisarious, he’s the guy who produced NCIS!