Napoleon Bonaparte is one of the greatest military commanders of all time.
He brought Revolutionary France back from the brink of destruction with his Italian campaign in 1796 and 1797. He made a fool of Czar Alexander I at the Battle of Austerlitz in 1805. He encircled an entire Austrian army and forced them to capitulate at the Battle of Ulm in 1805. And these are just a few of his exploits.
But he was also a student of history, and repeatedly instructed his subordinates to pore over the campaigns of seven specific commanders that came before him, arguing that it was the only way to learn the art of war and become a great captain.
“Your own genius will be enlightened and improved by this study, and you will learn to reject all maxims foreign to the principles of these great commanders,” Napoleon said.
We’ve ranked the commanders based on Napoleon’s comments and their own achievements:
7. Prince Eugene of Savoy (1663-1736).
Eugene was a field marshal and statesman under the guise of the House of Savoy, which served the Holy Roman Emperor of Austria.
Wounded in battle 13 times during his 39 year career, one of Eugene’s greatest conquests was the Siege of Belgrade in 1717 against the Ottoman Empire, in which he led a cavalry attack that helped turn the tide.
“Military science,” Napoleon was quoted as saying by Madame de Remusat, “consists in calculating all the chances accurately in the first place, and then in giving accident exactly, almost mathematically, it’s place in one’s calculations.”
“Prince Eugene is one of those who understood [this] best,” Napoleon said.
6. Gustavus Adolphus (1594-1632).
Gustavus Adolphus was king of Sweden between 1611-1632, and helped put Sweden on the map.
One of his greatest victories was at the Battle of Breitenfeld during the Thirty Years War when his forces, together with the Saxons, flanked both sides of the Catholic army and annihilated the enemy.
He was killed during the same war while leading a cavalry charge at the Battle of Lutzen.
5. Frederick the Great (1712-1786).
Frederick II, or Frederick the Great, was king of Prussia from 1740-1786 and greatly expanded his kingdom’s territory through his military victories.
Some of his greatest victories were at the battles of Rossbach and Leuthen during the Seven Years War, where he defeated larger armies with great manoeuvring.
But despite being one of Napoleon’s seven great commanders, the French commander appeared to consider the next commander even better.
4. Henri de La Tour d’Auvergne, vicomte de Turenne (1611-1675).
Turenne was a French field marshal who served Louis XIV, also known as The Sun King.
Perhaps his greatest victories came in the winter of 1674 and 1675 during the Franco-Dutch War. In December of 1674, he manoeuvred around the German army and surprised them weeks later in early January, hitting the enemy’s flanks and driving them away from Alsace.
He was killed later in July 1675, as the Franco-Dutch War was still raging, by a cannonball as he was observing enemy lines.
In 1793, Revolutionary France was bent on erasing anything that had to with royalty and religion, and began destroying royal tombs at St-Denis outside of Paris.
Known as a man of the people, Turenne’s body was one of the few left untouched. His remains now reside in the Invalides.
“You seem to admire [Frederick the Great] immensely,” Napoleon once told a subordinate, according to his secretary, Bourrienne. “What do you find in him so astonishing? He is not equal to Turenne.”
“General,” Napoleon’s subordinate replied, “it is not merely the warrior I esteem in Frederick, but one cannot refuse one’s admiration of a man, who even on the throne, was a philosopher.”
“True … but all his philosophy shall not prevent me from striking out his kingdom from the map of Europe,” Napoleon said.
A few years later, after he crowned himself emperor, Napoleon annihilated Prussia during the Jena-Auerstadt campaign of 1806, and subsumed the kingdom in his empire.
3. Hannibal Barca (247 bc-183 bc).
Hannibal was a Carthaginian general and statesman in present day Tunisia who wreaked havoc on the Roman Empire.
Arguably his greatest conquest came during the Battle of Cannae when he compelled the Romans into attacking in unfavorable conditions, eventually wiping out their cavalry and then its entire army. The Roman historian Polybius wrote that Hannibal’s army killed 70,000 Romans.
Hannibal is also well known for impressively crossing the Alps before entering Italy and the Battle of Cannae, surviving harrowing assaults from the Gauls.
His power diminished, he poisoned himself around 183 BC.
2. Julius Caesar (100 BC-44 BC).
Caesar was a Roman general and politician who is one of the greatest conquerors of all time.
Well known for his victory at the Battle of Alesia and conquest of the Gauls, he was made a consul in the first Roman Triumvarate in 59 BC along with Pompey the Great and Marcus Licinios Crassus.
But civil war later broke out between Caesar and Pompey. In 48 BC, after suffering a series of defeats to Caesar, Pompey was murdered in Egypt.
“I admire the fine campaign of Caesar in Africa,” Bourriene quoted Napoleon as saying.
Shortly after that, he fought a quick war in Anatolia – in present day Turkey – and made quick work of the king of Cimmerian Bosporus. His famous words, “I came, I saw, I conquered,” were from this war.
Caesar was afterwards made dictator, but was assassinated – stabbed to death by the Roman senators – in 44 BC.
1. Alexander the Great (356 bc-323 bc).
Alexander was king of Macedonia who conquered the Persian empire, invaded India and spread Grecian culture across much of the ancient world.
Tutored by Aristotle at a young age, he became king after his father, Phillip II, was assassinated.
While he never officially ranked the seven commanders, Napoleon himself, along with many other historians, seemed to consider Alexander the best.
“I place Alexander in the first rank,” Napoleon told Bourrienne. “My reason for giving the preference to the king of Macedon is, on account of the conception, and above all, for the execution of his campaign in Asia,” adding that he admired the Siege of Tyre, conquest of Egypt and march to the Oasis Ammon most.
Alexander died from illness in 323 bc.
Like his heroes, Napoleon Bonaparte is now considered one of the greatest military commanders of all time.
Here’s what Napoleon had to say about “the campaigns of Alexander, Hannibal, Caesar, Gustavus Adolphus, Turenne, Eugene and Frederick.”
“Model yourself upon them. This is the only means of becoming a great captain, and of acquiring the secret of the war of war. Your own genius will be enlightened and improved by this study, and you will learn to reject all maxims foreign to the principles of these great commanders.”
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