Greatness and Reputation: opportunity vs action

Warning: little in the way of direction binds the following thoughts together.

Where to begin?

“Greatness” in generalship seems to be composed of a series of complementary pieces: tactics and strategy; dogged defense and speedy assaults; and then capacity for inspiring troops. Most often successful commanders exhibit multiple of these traits and the higher in rank they are, the more likely to require multiple of them, though the actual honorific “great” is a product of success more than any particular brilliance of operation.

In the Army of Northern Virginia Robert E Lee made extensive use of two men: James Longstreet and Thomas Jackson. Both men were capable of inspiring their men, though Jackson may have beenslightly better in this regard simply based on the feats of endurance his men accomplished, and both were tactical visionaries. Jackson earned his nickname “Stonewall” because of a dogged defense at Manassas I, but his greatest asset was the speed with which he attacked, while Longstreet’s was defensive tactics fifty years ahead of his time (he helped pioneer trench warfare used in World War I).

Does this mean that neither possessed superior strategic sense? No, but it is impossible to superimpose a situation because it was not something they dealt with and therefore would be supposition at best.

Two thousand years earlier, Alexander is considered the complete package, although in his own time there was some question of his overall strategy. But he won, so it is a bit hard to debate it. Phenomenal success rate, yes, but Alexander never really dealt with any situation that called for desparate defense, and validates the theory that the best defense is a good offense, but then it is hard to know the outcome if he was thrust into such a situation. Lastly, Alexander only had to subject people, he did not then have to rule them.

At the other end of Alexander’s battle line was Parmenion, who did not exhibit the attacking flair, but did the defense. At Issus and Gaugamela Parmenion’s Thessalian cavalry, 2,500 strong, held off five or ten times their number of Persian cavalry wit ha series of squadron level charges and counter-charges. Just as the strengths of Jackson and Longstreet were complementary, so, too, were those of Alexander and Parmenion. Perhaps they would have been able to take the other role, perhaps not.

Then there is Richard the Lionhearted, whose strategic failures overcame tactical success; Agesilaos, whose strategic grandiosity helped bring down Sparta; Alcibiades, whose bedroom and social antics doomed strategic and tactical brilliance, etc.

In these so-called great ones there are two factors: opportunity and personality. Do the great attackers have the patience for defense of who they launch an ill-advised attack? Would the defenders have that touch of impetuosity and recklessness to make the bold, unexpected charge? Or, if put in the right circumstance, would they adapt to the situation.

Is one more valuable than the other? Should a debate about ‘greatest general’ include that most were considered spectacular for one or two specific things? should generals be considered less “great” because they did not have to deal with certain aspects of military brilliance? Should there be a handicap for the culture and systems they are in (for example, with a traditional Phalanx, glorious charges were limited and it is much easier to be considered exceptional if you have the best army the world has ever seen).

I have my thoughts, but I would like to know what others think.


First, I have been remiss in posting just because I have had a lot going on in life, almost none of which pertains to my study of history, but I hope to rectify this by writing about various things I pick up, mostly from the books I am currently reading.

Second, I have been designing classes for almost a year now, in effect just picking topics I am interested in knowing more about or that would make an interesting class or that I would like to teach.

The first class I made was with a fellowship from Brandeis University in which I designed a course on the fall of the Roman Empire, tracing it from the mid 200’s until 1400, largely with the help of Gibbon’s Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. I think I did well and could find myself teaching it if called upon, but it was not my favorite subject.

The second class that I decided upon was a class on classical eduction. It is designed as a freshman seminar (for Brandeis students, think USEM), wherein it looks at the classical tradition, why it is important and makes people think about requirements and what they want to do. In part I chose to do this because of one book I read, and in part it is because I think I would have benefited from a course about it. At present the course is about 1/3 set and I need to find some of the additional books I lined up for it.

The second class I am currently working on is one that I only thought of today. It is still in the brainstorming phase, but I am thinking it would be on scandals in the ancient world and going against cultural norms. Like I said, I don’t have anything on paper yet, but I was thinking about selecting a number of scandalous situations and the characters involved and then going from there. The list so far includes The Queen of Bythinia, Alcibiades (his divorce and other scandalous behavior), Agrippina and Nero (Nero’s boat designed to collapse and kill her), and Procopius’ secret history.