The Man Behind the Man: 8 Great Commanders Who Stood in the Shadows of Legendary Leaders

The Man Behind the Man: 8 Great Commanders Who Stood in the Shadows of Legendary Leaders

Patrick Lynch - September 28, 2017

History is littered with the names of outstanding leaders such as Alexander the Great, Julius Caesar and Genghis Khan. But what of the men who thrived under their leadership? After all, leaders are only as good as the people around them; surround yourself with clueless sycophants and failure is the only outcome. Conversely, bring in the best, and there’s a good chance you’ll reap the rewards, as long as they don’t try to overthrow you. In this article, I look at eight great military commanders who operated under leaders that are better known.

1 – Parmenion (400 – 330 BC?) [Alexander the Great]

While Alexander the Great is widely recognized as one of the great military commanders of all time, we should spare a thought for his lesser-known general, Parmenion. He had long since established his reputation as a high-quality general long before he went into the service of Alexander. Parmenion’s exploits began under the reign of Alexander’s father, Philip II. His victory over the Illyrians in 356 BC is one of the earliest recorded examples of his brilliance.

In 346 BC, Parmenion won another brilliant victory, this time over an army at Helos in Southern Thessaly. He was arguably Philip’s most trusted lieutenant as he was sent to conclude peace with Athens in the same year as his victory at Helos, and he led the Macedonian army to Euboea to maintain influence in 342 BC. Philip’s death caused disruption and led to a Macedonian defeat at the hands of the Persians under the command of a mercenary named Memnon of Rhodes.

The Man Behind the Man: 8 Great Commanders Who Stood in the Shadows of Legendary Leaders
Parmenion. Garys Facts

Arrian’s account of Alexander’s life suggests that Parmenion was cautious and indecisive. In reality, he merely executed the level of caution one would expect from such an experienced commander. His steady approach was necessary to counteract the bold, and occasionally reckless, tactics adopted by the young lion Alexander.

According to Diodorus Siculus, Alexander heeded Parmenion’s advice to delay an attack at the Battle of Granicus in 334 BC. While Alexander spent the battle commanding the cavalry, a task not normally taken on by a leader, Parmenion took control of the infantry phalanx and was possibly the brains behind the battle strategy.

At the Battle of Issus in 333 BC, Parmenion once again took control of the infantry while his leader chased after Darius III. Although the Persians outnumbered the Macedonians, Parmenion expertly countered their attack and gave his leader the chance to mount a brilliant counter-offensive.

There is also a suggestion that Parmenion advised Alexander to launch a night attack at the critical Battle of Gaugamela in 331 BC that all but ended Persian resistance. Despite his many years of loyal service, the great commander suffered for the sins of his son, Philotas, who was implicated in a plot to kill Alexander. Philotas was executed and Alexander, fearing retribution from Parmenion, ordered two of his men, Sitalces and Cleander, to murder his best commander in 330 BC. They found Parmenion before he heard about the order and stabbed the old man to death.

You May Also Interested: Battle of Chaeronea 338 BC – The Battle Paved The Way for Alexander the Great’s Incredible Career!

The Man Behind the Man: 8 Great Commanders Who Stood in the Shadows of Legendary Leaders
Bai Qi. Wikipedia

2 – Bai Qi (? – 257 BC) [King Zhaoxiang of Qin]

Zhaoxiang was the King of Qin for 57 years (307 BC – 250 BC), and he owes an awful lot of his dominance to the extraordinary military skill of his prime minister, Bai Qi. According to Chinese historians, Bai Qi is one of the four best generals of the Warring States era along with Lian Po, Wang Jian, and Li Mu.

Not a great deal is known about his early life, but we do know that Bai Qi was the Qin commander at the Battle of Yique in 293 BC. He led his 120,000 man army against the combined might of the Wei and Han states which had a total of 240,000 men. The Qin utterly annihilated their enemies and suffered fewer than 8,000 losses against approximately 150,000 enemy casualties.

The rest of his military career was marked by a series of impressive victories. In 278 BC, he captured Chu’s capital city, Ying, and received the title of Lord Wu’an (lord of martial peace) from his grateful king. Perhaps his most notable victory came at the enormous Battle of Changping, an almost two-year fight between around 1 million men. Eventually, the Qin army emerged victorious over the Zhao army who suffered an estimated 450,000 casualties. The victory ensured that Qin unification of China was almost inevitable.

Bai Qi’s importance was emphasized in his absence. In 257 BC, he claimed he was ill, and command of the army at the siege of Handan was given to General Wang Ling who lost the battle. When Bai Qi returned, he told his king that a long-range war was impractical and claimed he was sick once again when asked to command. Eventually, the King of Qin exiled Bai Qi who was later forced to commit suicide.

Chinese historians have yet to find a record to show that Bai Qi ever suffered a defeat. He embarked on over 70 campaigns, captured over 80 castles and was involved in the death of up to two million enemy soldiers. The latter fact led him to become known as the ‘human butcher.’ There was no question about his ruthlessness. After successfully capturing a Wei fortress in 272 BC which resulted in the death of 130,000 enemy soldiers, Bai Qi killed another 20,000 Zhao soldiers and threw their bodies into a river.

The Man Behind the Man: 8 Great Commanders Who Stood in the Shadows of Legendary Leaders
Battle of Thapsus. Pinterest

3 – Titus Labienus (100 BC? – 45 BC) [Julius Caesar]

Not a great deal is known about the early life of Titus Labienus although it is likely that he had ties with Pompey from an early age as he had a desire to rise up through the military ranks and Pompey was a patron for Picenum. Labienus served in the army from 78 – 75 BC in Cicilia and the next mention of him is when he became Tribune for the Plebs in 63 BC. At this point, Caesar worked closely with Pompey, and it was during this time that Labienus struck up a friendship with Caesar.

Labienus used his political role as a springboard into a position of military commander, and he became Caesar’s legate in Gaul. Indeed, he is the only legate Caesar mentioned by name during his first campaign record which suggests that he held Labienus in high regard. It’s clear that Caesar trusted him implicitly because Labienus was given full command of the legions in Gaul when the great commander was away; as he was in 54 BC during his second invasion of Britain.

Labienus distinguished himself during a battle against the Nervii and Atrebates near Sabis in 57 BC. He defeated the Artebates force and sent his 10th legion to aid Caesar against the Nervii, thus turning the tide of the battle and helping his leader secure an important victory. Other impressive wins for Labienus include a victory over the Treviri and a big success against the Parisii at the Battle of Agendicum. Caesar rewarded him by making Labienus the governor of Cisalpine Gaul in 51 BC before things went sour.

Before Caesar took Rome, Labienus defected over to Pompey. Historians are still unable to agree as to the reasons for the move. Perhaps he felt as if he was the equal of Caesar on the battlefield and that he deserved even greater credit. Maybe he was simply opposed to Caesar’s move and wanted to help his country against a possible tyrant. Also, it is important to remember that he knew Pompey many years before he met Caesar. Whatever the reason, his decision was a disastrous one.

Labienus lost none of his command skills while on Pompey’s side. The difference was, he was used less often than he had been under Caesar. Pompey did not listen to his advice to attack Caesar in Gaul, and at the Battle of Thapsus, supreme command was given to Cato, a man whose military skills paled in comparison to Labienus’. Previously, at the Battle of Ruspina in 46 BC, he was able to bring a temporary halt to Caesar’s advance.

Even his death at the Battle of Munda in 45 BC owed more to the incompetence of his troops than his own shortcomings. He spotted an assault on the army’s rear and went to meet the enemy with his cavalry which he brought from the front lines. His men misinterpreted the move as a sign of retreat and fled. The Pompeians suffered huge losses, and Labienus was killed in the battle.

The Man Behind the Man: 8 Great Commanders Who Stood in the Shadows of Legendary Leaders
Bust of Agrippa at the Ara Pacis which is a copy of the version in the Louvre.

4 – Marcus Vipsanius Agrippa (63 BC – 12 BC) [Emperor Augustus]

Agrippa was approximately the same age as Gaius Octavius (the future Emperor Augustus), and the two were educated together and soon become close friends. During the Civil War, Agrippa’s brother, Lucius, fought against Caesar but when the Optimates forces were defeated, Lucius was arrested. However, Octavius intervened on Lucius’ behalf and ensured he was freed. Interestingly, Agrippa fought with Caesar and was involved in the decisive Battle of Munda in 45 BC.

In the same year, Caesar sent him to Apollonia to study with Octavius, but when he heard news of Caesar’s assassination in March 44 BC, he urged the future emperor to march on Rome with the troops he had at his disposal. Octavius didn’t heed this advice and elected to sail to Italy with a small group. By now, Octavius was Caesar’s heir, and he took the name of the fallen commander; historians refer to him as Octavian from that point until the day he became Augustus.

The death of Caesar led to a fierce power struggle, and Agrippa was one of Octavian’s most important officers. He was the praetor urbanus in 40 BC and became consul in 37 BC after spending two years away on military campaigns. In 37 BC, he married the daughter of Titus Atticus, one of Cicero’s friends. Mark Antony apparently arranged the marriage, possibly as part of a peace agreement with Octavian at Brundisium. In 36 BC, Agrippa showed his naval skills by defeating Sextus Pompeius, the son of Pompey, in two sea battles; first at Mylae and then at Naulochus.

Octavian rewarded his main commander with a golden grown. Agrippa continued to show his brilliance with a key role in his leader’s successful campaign in Dalmatia. As curile aedile in 33 BC, Agrippa spent his own money on improving Rome’s water supply, building baths and cleaning the sewers. His crowning achievement came at the Battle of Actium in 31 BC when he played a major role in destroying the fleet of Mark Antony and ensuring Octavian won a final victory in the Civil War.

Agrippa spent the rest of his career serving Octavian. He helped his leader carry out a purge of the Senate in 29/28 BC and was consul in 28 BC and 27 BC. Agrippa stood by his ruler as Octavian became Augustus in 27 BC. When the new emperor was extremely ill in 23 BC, he handed Agrippa his signet ring; an indication that Agrippa would be his successor. Augustus recovered, and Agrippa began traveling around the growing empire; he also set up colonies for veterans. Agrippa succumbed to illness in 12 BC, and when he died, Augustus delivered a funeral oration in his friend’s honor.

The Man Behind the Man: 8 Great Commanders Who Stood in the Shadows of Legendary Leaders
Narses. Wikipedia

5 – Narses (478 AD? – 573 AD?) [Justinian I]

When discussing great Byzantine generals, Belisarius is often the first name to crop up, and with good reason. However, few ever consider the brilliant eunuch Narses who was a general at the same time as his more illustrious compatriot. There is little information about his early life other than the fact that he was a member of the Kamsarakan Armenian noble family which explains how he managed to become a commander in the Byzantine army.

No one knows precisely when or how Narses arrived in Constantinople; the first mention of him in the famous city was by Procopius in 530 AD. He had a small level of involvement in suppressing the Nika Riots of 532, and he clearly made an impression because Emperor Justinian sent him to Italy to help Belisarius in 538. The two men did not trust one another, and soon, the army was split into two camps. To avoid trouble, Justinian recalled Narses to Constantinople.

After Belisarius had enjoyed victory and then suffered defeat in Italy, the Emperor sent Narses in 551. He was originally second-in-command behind Germanus, but when the original leader died, Narses was given the role. Historians believe he received command because he was too old to rebel successfully against Justinian. Narses’ army was comprised of men from different regions and included Huns, Lombards, Persians, and Heruli. Narses was able to keep them disciplined and won a great victory over the Ostrogoths at the Battle of Sena Gallica in 551.

The following year, Narses crushed the Ostrogoths at the Battle of Taginae and soon took Rome after a short siege. He had further success at the Battle of Monte Lettere in 553 and followed it up with arguably his greatest win at the Battle of the Volturnus in 554 when he annihilated a combined Alemanni and Franks army which outnumbered his own. That autumn, he was possibly the last general to receive an official Roman triumph in Rome.

He spent the next 13 years in charge of Italy although his administration was apparently not very popular. He returned to Constantinople in 567 before retiring to Naples. Narses was persuaded to return to Rome by Pope John III and died there in around 573. Narses’ body was returned to Constantinople.

The Man Behind the Man: 8 Great Commanders Who Stood in the Shadows of Legendary Leaders
Subutai. Pinterest

6 – Subutai (1175? – 1248) [Genghis Khan]

Subutai was the chief military strategist of none other than Genghis Khan and was also Ogedai Khan’s number one commander. During his extraordinary career, Subutai was involved in over 20 campaigns, conquered territory in over 30 countries and won an estimated 65 battles. Also, he is believed to have conquered more territory than any other commander in history. One of his greatest strengths was his ability to coordinate the movements of his armies even when they were hundreds of miles apart.

Subutai was born in around 1175 (although some historians believe he could have been born as early as 1160) in Mongolia. As part of the Uriankhai clan, his family had been associated with the family of Genghis Khan for several generations. However, Subutai was a ‘commoner,’ his father was a blacksmith, so there was no favoritism involved in his ascent to power.

He joined the army of Khan when he was just 14 years of age, and within a decade, Subutai had risen to the rank of general, and he distinguished himself during the invasion of Northern China in 1211. Subutai took Huan the following year, and Khan referred to him as one of his “dogs of war.” He became known for adopting innovative and ingenious strategies and was one of the first Mongol generals to understand the importance of siege warfare. He won so many great battles that there isn’t space to list even half of them, but they included the Kalka in 1223, Sanfeng in 1232, Hermannstadt in 1241 and Mohl in 1241. The latter battle came just a day after the Mongols had won at the Battle of Legnica.

In 1241, Subutai was discussing an invasion of the Holy Roman Empire when he heard the news that Ogedei Khan had died; an event that ended invasion plans and changed the course of history. His campaign against the Song Dynasty in 1246/47 was his last major military escapade. He retired to Mongolia and died near Ulaanbaatar in 1248. Unlike so many western commanders who used to fight at the front of the army, Subutai remained on elevated ground to observe the battle and give orders by waving flags. This tactic enabled him to make quick-fire, tactical adjustments in the heat of battle.

The Man Behind the Man: 8 Great Commanders Who Stood in the Shadows of Legendary Leaders
General Andre Massena. Putty and Paint

7 – Andre Massena (1758 – 1817) [Napoleon Bonaparte]

Massena was one of Napoleon’s eighteen Marshals of the Empire and had the nickname ‘the Dear Child of Victory.’ He differed from most of Napoleon’s other generals insofar as he did not train at the best military academies that France and Europe had to offer. Instead, his was a natural gift for command, and he rose from humble origins. Indeed, he was once called ‘the greatest name of my military Empire’ by Napoleon.

Massena was born in Nice in 1758 and was the son of a shopkeeper. He was sent to live with relatives in 1764 when his father died, and his mother remarried. At the age of 13, Massena worked as a cabin boy on a merchant ship and spent four years at sea before returning to Nice to enlist in the French Army. In 14 years, he rose from the rank of Private to the role of Warrant Officer, the highest attainable rank for someone of non-noble birth.

He showed his leadership skills during the French Revolutionary Wars which broke out in 1792 and the following year; he was promoted to the rank of general of brigade following by the title ‘general of division’ in December 1793. Massena was involved in virtually every important campaign on the Italian Riviera for several years, and when Napoleon became the leader of the army in 1796, he quickly recognized Massena’s talent. Massena repaid this faith by playing a major role in the victory at Rivoli in 1797.

One of his most impressive victories came at the Second Battle of Zurich in 1799. In the aftermath, he forced the legendary General Suvorov to retreat across the Panix Pass. When he refused to buckle under an Austrian siege of Genoa in 1800, Massena’s reputation was at its peak. His stubborn refusal to yield forced the Austrians to use enormous resources in the siege and paved the way for Napoleon’s victory at Marengo. Massena was rewarded with command of the French forces in Italy, but he was quickly removed from his position; apparently for excessive looting.

Napoleon forgave Massena and promoted him to the position of Marshal of France in 1804. He was shot in the eye in a hunting accident in 1808, but the following year, he once against distinguished himself in the Danube campaign and received the title Prince d’Essling. In 1810, as the commander during the invasion of Portugal, Massena was defeated by the Duke of Wellington at Bucaco. He retreated and suffered further defeats at Sabugal and Fuentes de Onoro and was removed from command. Massena never served again; a harsh ending to a brilliant career. He died in Paris in 1817.

The Man Behind the Man: 8 Great Commanders Who Stood in the Shadows of Legendary Leaders
Stonewall Jackson.

8 – Thomas ‘Stonewall’ Jackson (1824 – 1863) [Robert E. Lee]

This may be a slightly controversial entry, not because Jackson wasn’t an outstanding general, but because he didn’t really stand in the shadow of Lee. Nonetheless, Lee was the General-in-Chief of the Confederate States Army, which meant that he was Jackson’s superior in terms of command.

Jackson was born in Clarksburg, Virginia, in 1824 and despite having little in the way of regular schooling, he gained a place at West Point military academy in 1842. He excelled to the point where he was allowed choose the arm of the military he wanted to join, and he chose artillery. It was in this field that he performed well during the American-Mexican War (1846 – 1848). After the war, he was stationed in Florida and New York, but his forthright and uncompromising attitude ensured he clashed with his fellow officers.

He is known for his array of peculiar personal traits which was one of the reasons why he hated his spell as a teacher at Virginia Military Institute. His attitude towards African-Americans was very different to the prevailing behavior at the time. So much so that he was held in high regard by African Americans in the town of Lexington. According to historian S. C. Gwynne, writer of Rebel Yell, Jackson acquired three slaves for the sole purpose of ensuring they didn’t suffer at the hands of cruel slave owners. He also taught slaves how to read, an action that increased his unpopularity amongst his peers.

Although Jackson did not want secession because he knew the violence that would ensue, he stayed loyal to Virginia and agreed to join the Confederacy. He apparently got his nickname during the Battle of the First Bull Run in July 1861 when General Bee said: “Look at Jackson standing there like a stone wall.” There is confusion over whether Bee even said these words and if he did, whether he was praising or mocking Jackson. Regardless, from that point on, his group were known as the Stonewall Brigade.

Jackson frustrated the Union armies during the Shenandoah Valley Campaign which lasted almost a year. During that time, he defeated four enemy armies and inflicted heavy losses on them. He joined Lee in June 1862 and played important roles in the Second Battle of Bull Run, Antietam, Fredericksburg, and Chancellorsville. The latter is arguably his signature victory as along with Lee, Jackson routed the Union army of General Hooker in May 1863 despite being significantly outnumbered.

However, Chancellorsville proved to be a turning point in the war against the Confederates despite their great victory. When Jackson’s attack ended, he took some men into the forest on a scouting mission. A North Carolina regiment opened fire in the belief that Jackson and his men were the enemy. Jackson was shot during the encounter, and his arm was amputated in a bid to save his life. It wasn’t enough as Lee’s ‘right hand’ died on May 10. Despite his reputation for secrecy and as a disciplinarian, Jackson was admired throughout the South and his death deeply impacted the soldiers and citizens of the region.