The Great Unknowns: 5 Military Commanders You’ve Probably Never Heard Of

The Great Unknowns: 5 Military Commanders You’ve Probably Never Heard Of

Patrick Lynch - June 4, 2017

Given the popularity of the first Great Unknowns article, I decided to dig up details of a few more great commanders that few non-history buffs have heard of. It turns out that there are dozens of legends to choose from so narrowing it down to five was a difficult task. Never fear, there are more where they came from.

The Great Unknowns: 5 Military Commanders You’ve Probably Never Heard Of
Epaminondas and Pelopidas at Battle of Mantineia. Alchetron

1 – Epaminondas (410 – 362 BC)

Epaminondas is one of the lesser known great commanders of the ancient world. The Spartan dominance of Greece came to an end thanks to his battlefield prowess. Hailed as ‘the first man of Greece’ by Cicero, he was born in Thebes in the early 5th century BC. His considerable achievements are all but forgotten, perhaps because Alexander the Great obliterated Thebes just a generation after his death.

We don’t know a huge amount about his early life though he was educated by one of the top philosophers in Greece. In 382 BC, the Spartans were passing through Thebes and decided to capture its citadel and install a dictatorial leadership. Previous leaders such as Pelopidas were forced to flee the city, but Epaminondas refused to kowtow to the enemy. Three years later, Pelopidas returned and led a rising against the Spartans; Epaminondas played a pivotal role in the eight-year struggle known as the Theban-Spartan war (379-371 BC).

The Thebans were successful and forced the Spartans to make peace. By 371 BC, Epaminondas was one of the five magistrates of the Theban federation, known as the Boeotarch. He was angry that Athens and Sparta wanted to treat each Boeotian city separately; he wanted them to be represented by the Boeotian League. Eventually, the treaty was signed without Thebes.

It was from this point onward that Epaminondas gained his reputation as a legendary commander. Sparta invaded Boeotia but the Thebans, led by Epaminondas, inflicted a crushing defeat at the Battle of Leuctra in 371 BC. He adapted innovative tactics and killed so many enemies that it crippled the Spartan military. Throughout the next nine years, Epaminondas led a series of campaigns against the Spartans in the Peloponnese that destroyed their power permanently.

In 367 BC, the tyrant of Pherae, Alexander, captured Pelopidas but Epaminondas led an army to rescue the influential Theban. While Pelopidas died at Cynoscephalae in 364 BC, he won the battle. Epaminondas became the outright leader of the Theban military, and his fourth and final campaign in the Peloponnese occurred in 362 BC when he was victorious at the Battle of Mantineia. He died in the battle, and while he successfully subdued the Spartans yet again, his death was a shattering blow to Thebes. King Phillip II of Macedon, Alexander the Great’s father, apparently visited Thebes when he was a boy and became inspired by Epaminondas’ military achievements which he studied in depth.

The Great Unknowns: 5 Military Commanders You’ve Probably Never Heard Of
Heraclius, Alchetron

2 – Heraclius (575? – 641)

Heraclius’s reign is arguably one of the most misunderstood of all the Byzantine emperors. Towards the end of his reign, the Muslims took swathes of Byzantium’s territory, but this should not detract from the formidable military skill of Heraclius. Indeed, those who have studied this period of history in depth sometimes suggest that Heraclius was the equal of the (correctly) revered Belisarius.

One thing for sure; Heraclius was a survivor. He was emperor for over 30 years at a time when his empire was crumbling under pressure from the Avars, the Persians, and the Muslims. He was born in Cappadocia, Italy in around 575 and was the oldest son of Heraclius the Elder. His father gained the title Exarch of Africa in 590 after helping Emperor Maurice defeat Bahram Chobin. In 602, Phocas overthrew Maurice and became the new emperor, but his ineffectual rule angered Heraclius, the Elder who turned against him in 608. The old man knew he was unable to rule, so he helped his son defeat Phocas. Heraclius the Younger executed the former emperor and was crowned in 610.

He was now the Byzantine emperor, but Heraclius inherited an empire at a low ebb. The Lombards has taken Italy, the Visigoths were rampaging through Spain, the Slavs and Avars took Greece, and the Persian Sassanid Empire was at its peak under its greatest leader, Khosrau II. If all this wasn’t bad enough, Constantinople was ravaged by a plague which led to starvation and trade was non-existent. There was no real army and had Phocas lasted much longer; the empire would have surely been destroyed.

Fortunately, Heraclius was an exceptional leader and commander and managed to keep the empire together. He immediately shocked the people by announcing his plan to move the empire’s capital to Carthage. This gambit united the residents of Constantinople in fear and Heraclius used the opportunity to get everything he wanted from the city; this included an end to the in-city fighting while wealthy individuals had to pay their taxes.

However, he had to wait 12 years before building an army worthy of the name. Before his arrival, the empire had relied on German mercenaries for hundreds of years until the Germans no longer wanted to fight for the Romans. Heraclius was the first to train a proper Roman army in around 300 years and in 622, he led them from Constantinople to take on the Sassanids. He defeated one of the best enemy generals by tricking him; Heraclius faked an advance and then a retreat to lure the Persians into a trap.

He defeated an army led by Khosrau II in Azerbaijan, and after spending winter at the scene of his latest triumph, Heraclius led his army into Persia. He ran into deep trouble when two of Persia’s three field armies tried to combine and defeat him. Somehow, Heraclius defeated the first army just before the second one arrived and then annihilated the fresh enemies. Despite being outnumbered yet again, Heraclius advanced on the third army with remnants of the other two and destroyed them in a night attack.

In a desperate last gamble, Khosrau II paid Balkan barbarians to attack Constantinople. In an extraordinary piece of military skill, Heraclius split his army into three. One faction of 12,000 fought and defeated the 60,000 man army of Khosrau at Nineveh in 627. A second section, consisting of 12,000 cavalry, rushed to save Constantinople and defeated the Avars and Persian fleets and the third section under Heraclius, pillaged Persia where he killed almost every last enemy soldier that defended the capital.

The Senate named Heraclius ‘Scipio’ upon his return to Constantinople but the victory over Persia came at a heavy cost. It weakened the Byzantine Empire and left the Sassanid Empire on its knees. At this time, Muslim invaders had arrived, and they made short work of the Persians. To make matters worse, Heraclius became gravely ill and was unable to lead an army against the new threat. As a result, subordinates led the charge but were soundly defeated; this included a crushing loss at the Battle of Yarmouk in 636.

It is grossly unfair to blame Heraclius for the Byzantine defeat against the Muslims; had he led the army, perhaps things could have turned out differently. As it happened, he lived long enough to see most of Egypt and the Levant fall into enemy hands; he died in 641. Perhaps had Heraclius died before the Muslim invasion, he would have been seen in a completely different light. It is ironic that his defeat of the Persians paved the way for an easy Muslim conquest of the once proud Sassanids. However, by galvanizing the empire, he ensured that Constantinople was strong enough to withstand the numerous Muslim sieges a generation after his death.

The Great Unknowns: 5 Military Commanders You’ve Probably Never Heard Of
Khan Krum at Varbitzsa Pass in 811. Photobucket

3 – Khan Krum (? – 814)

Also known as Khan Krum the Horrible, this one-time Bulgar Chieftain became the Khan of Bulgaria at some time between 796 and 803. He was an energetic leader and a truly outstanding commander on the battlefield. During his relatively brief reign as military leader, Bulgaria’s territory doubled in size. Little is known about Krum’s early life except that he was from Pannonia and was possibly descended from an old Bulgar royal house. There is also little information regarding his rise to power, but once he had command, Krum was determined to make the most of it.

Within a couple of years, Krum destroyed the Avars and ensured the Bulgars ruled in the region of Ongal. He was the leader of an army featuring different backgrounds including Slavs, Thracians and Hellenized Macedonians along with Bulgars. Krum was known for riding at the front and slaying enemies in single combat. He enjoyed a victory against the Byzantines at the Struma River in 807, and two years later, Krum forced the surrender of Serdica. He wrote his name in infamy by first promising the safety of the 6,000 men inside before slaughtering them and burning the city to the ground.

Krum’s actions at Serdica provoked Byzantine Emperor Nikephoros I into action. He plundered Marcallae in early 811 and took over the Bulgar capital of Pliska on July 20. The emperor looted what he could and ignored diplomatic overtures from Krum. Nikephoros matched Krum’s cruelty by murdering children and generally pillaged and plundered Pliska. When the emperor began his return to Constantinople, his army was trapped by a sudden ambush at the Varbica Pass. Krum’s men wiped out the Byzantine army and Nikephoros were killed. Krum supposedly lined the emperor’s skull with silver and used it as a cup. Apparently, Krum forced all Byzantine diplomats to drink from the skull.

After Nikephoros’ son had died from wounds suffered in the ambush, Michael I Rangabe became the new leader. He was one of the few survivors of Varbica pass and sued for peace almost as soon as he became emperor. Krum agreed on the proviso that the Byzantines handed over Bulgar defectors. Michael refused, so Krum led his men on an invasion of Byzantine lands. He captured Mesembria in 812 and won a decisive victory at the Battle of Versinika in 813. Michael was so embarrassed by the nature of the defeat that he abdicated the throne.

Leo V the Armenian became the new Byzantine emperor, and he arranged a meeting with Krum, but the Bulgar leader was ambushed and wounded by arrows. The irate Krum ravaged the area around Constantinople and took Adrianople. Although winter was coming, he found time to capture Arkadioupolis and take 50,000 captives. During the cold weather, Krum planned an attack on Constantinople, but on April 13, 814, he died from a cerebral hemorrhage and was succeeded by Omurtag, his son.

The Bulgar Empire lasted another 200 years. While Khan Krum is known for his conquests, he also instituted his Empire’s first written law code. Thieves and drunks were punished, and slander was a serious offense. He brought Slavs and Bulgars into a centralized state and was considered a strict but fair ruler by his subjects.

The Great Unknowns: 5 Military Commanders You’ve Probably Never Heard Of
Statue of Skanderbeg in Tirana. Wikimedia

4 – Gjergj Skanderbeg (1405 – 1468)

Also known as the Dragon of Albania, Skanderbeg is an Albanian national hero and was renowned for his fearsome fighting ability. He began his career fighting with the Ottomans before serving the Republic of Venice and the Kingdom of Naples as he fought against the Ottoman Empire. Such is his popularity that he has become the subject of various myths in Albanian Nationalism. Skanderbeg fought in various wars for around 40 years, and it is suggested that he killed 3,000 men on the battlefield during this time.

Skanderbeg was born Gjergj Kastrioti in Kruje in 1405 and was the son of the prince of a small Albanian district. By the time he was 18 years of age, the Ottomans had crossed the Bosporus and were laying siege to Eastern Europe. By 1423, they had conquered virtually all of what remained of the Byzantine Empire barring Constantinople and a few small regions. When they arrived at Kruje, Skanderbeg’s father surrendered and handed his four sons over as hostages. As a result, he trained as an Ottoman Janissary along with his brothers. He was only supposed to remain in the army for three years, but when his father died, the Sultan canceled the contract and kept Skanderbeg as a slave soldier.

He excelled in the Ottoman army, and the Sultan gave him the nickname ‘Lord Alexander the Albanian,’ a tribute to Alexander the Great. However, Skanderbeg did not want to spend the rest of his life in the Janissaries, so he left the Ottoman army during the Battle of Nis in 1443 along with 300 other Albanians. He used a fake letter (which claimed the Sultan gave him control) to take the castle of Kruje and announced a revolt against the Ottomans. The Ottomans were seldom defeated by a European army, but Skanderbeg gained victories in 1444 and again in 1445 at Moker and 1447 at Oranik.

One of his greatest achievements came in 1450 when he repelled a 150,000 man Ottoman Army that laid siege to Kruje Castle. Skanderbeg used guerilla tactics to destroy the enemy supply cabins and forced the Turks to abandon the siege. After taking Constantinople, the Ottomans once again turned their attention to Albania and inflicted a defeat on Skanderbeg in 1455. However, he got revenge at Ujebardha in 1457 and four years later, the Ottoman Sultan, Mehmed II, made peace with the Albanians.

Skanderbeg turned his attention to an uprising in Albania, and he also helped allies in Naples. The Ottomans abruptly ended the peace treaty in 1466 and Mehmed II followed in his father’s footsteps by trying to take Kruje Castle. They attacked relentlessly, but Skanderbeg was able to hold them off. However, he died of malaria in 1468, and within a decade, Kruje had fallen to the Ottomans.

The Siege of Berat in 1455 was Skanderbeg’s only military defeat, and he routinely defeated armies that outnumbered him; sometimes by as much as 10:1. His career was celebrated by various popes with Pope Nicholas V referring to him as the ‘Champion of Christendom.’

The Great Unknowns: 5 Military Commanders You’ve Probably Never Heard Of
Portrait of Sobieski from late 17th century. MrHeaneys Class

5 – John III Sobieski (1629 – 1696)

Also known as Jan Sobieski, this great commander is regarded as Poland’s best ever monarch. He is hailed as ‘The Man Who Saved Europe’ due to his brilliant leadership at the Battle of Vienna in 1683 where he helped defeat the Ottomans. Sobieski was born on August 17, 1629, in Olesko, Poland, into a family renowned for its military achievements. As well as being an outstanding soldier, Sobieski was a man of learning and earned a degree from the Jagiellonian University while still a teenager.

On top of everything else, Sobieski was a cultured man due to the large amount of traveling he did after college. He visited numerous great European cities including Paris and London and his experiences shaped the man he became. Sobieski met influential men such as William II, Prince of Orange and Charles II of England and learned to speak German, French, Italian, Latin and even a little of the Tartar language for good measure.

As he was always in learning mode, Sobieski came to understand what made Europe’s great nations so powerful and later used this knowledge to improve his own country when he became king. When the leader of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth died, the Ukrainian Cossacks attempted to break away and gain independence. In response, Sobieski joined the army and quickly gained promotion. For a brief period, he spent time with the Ottomans on a diplomatic mission and learned some Turkish military traditions.

In 1655, Sweden invaded Poland and Sobieski pledged allegiance to the Swedish King, Charles X Gustav. However, he switched sides the following year and kicked the Swedes out of Poland. He enjoyed various military promotions throughout the 1660s after showing great leadership ability time and again. Sobieski defeated the Tartars and Cossacks in October 1667 and became grand hetman of the Polish army the following year. A noblewoman who he called Marysienka saw greatness in Sobieski and hoped to help him become king. However, Michael Wisniowiecki claimed the throne in 1669.

After further victories against the Cossacks, Sobieski became king in 1674 upon the death of Michael. Due to further battles on the frontiers, he was not crowned until 1676. The new king had grand plans for a country that was close to financial ruin. He aimed to implement new reforms, regain lost territories and ally himself with the French and Ottomans against the Habsburgs. However, the Ottomans emerged as the greatest enemy and, after a series of battles; the Poles signed a peace treaty with the Ottomans. Sobieski used this time to reform the army, and he sought new allies. In 1683, he made an agreement with King Leopold of the Holy Roman Empire.

In the same year, his spies uncovered an Ottoman invasion plot. Sobieski immediately ordered the fortification of Krakow and Lwow. He marched against the enemy with the aid of the Saxons and Bavarians as they went to the aid of the Habsburgs. A huge Turkish army of at least 140,000 men besieged the small Viennese garrison. With the city of Vienna at his mercy, Grand Vizier Kara Mustafa did not attack and finish things off. He waited and waited until about a week later; Sobieski and his army rode to the rescue and crushed the enemy. The Turks fled, and Vienna was saved.

He fought against the Turks for another four years but could not gain a decisive victory. Despite spending much of his life on a battlefield, Sobieski remained in excellent health for most of his life. However, the Savior of Europe died in 1696. His successes helped Poland became a great nation, and his triumph at Vienna probably saved Christianity in Europe.