/ Published December 18, 2020
Masters of Command: Alexander, Hannibal, Caesar, and the Genius of Leadership by Barry Strauss. Simon & Schuster, 2012, 289 pp.
Barry Strauss’s Masters of Command is a fast-paced book that chronicles the major military battles and leadership traits of three of antiquity’s greatest commanders: Alexander, Hannibal, and Caesar. Strauss, a history professor at Cornell University and a renowned expert on the classics, provides a compelling argument that leaders today can learn much by studying the successes, and failures, of these men.
Strauss contends that these commanders were successful because they all had (to varying degrees) the following 10 qualities: ambition, judgment, leadership, audacity, agility, infrastructure, strategy, terror, branding, and Divine Providence. Throughout the book, he identifies these traits while interweaving the major battles and events of these three men through what he classifies as the “five stages of war”: attack, resistance, clash, closing the net, and knowing when to stop (p. 15). The book progresses through each stage of war chronologically, starting with Alexander and going on to Hannibal and Caesar. This makes for a gripping narrative in a concise, relatively short book.
One of the book’s strongest aspects is its readability. Strauss is a master storyteller, and he manages to take his deep understanding of these men and this significant time period and turn it into an easy and engaging read. He provides enough detail on the battles to understand the key parts but is not exhaustive in his treatment to where one gets overwhelmed with the minutiae. Moreover, this is not a book solely focused on the great battles of antiquity and the leadership lessons therein but also a historical primer for classical statecraft and diplomacy. For example, the political divisions within Greek society over Alexander’s conquests, Hannibal’s need to appease elites in Carthage, and the rivalry between Pompey and Caesar provide important context for the various military campaigns. This background gives the reader a good introduction to Greek and Roman history and also serves as a reminder that there is always a political element undergirding the use of military force.
Another strength of the book is the nuanced and sometimes critical view Strauss takes on these three commanders. Romantic and mythologized accounts of these men—particularly Alexander and Caesar—loom large in the annals of history. Strauss recognizes his subjects as “great men” but is also attuned to their (tragic) flaws. In Alexander’s case, Strauss states “his ambition launched him and undid him” since Alexander expanded his empire at so great a rate that it was ultimately not governable in the long term (p. 238). Hannibal was an audacious and brilliant tactician, but he lacked an overarching strategy to defeat Rome (p. 242). Caesar was an amazing leader and great improviser on the battlefield, but he suffered from incredible arrogance that played a role in his assassination (p. 247). In short, Strauss persuasively argues that these men were truly exceptional and how we can learn from them, while also warning that they were deeply flawed men who in many cases also committed great evils.
One minor drawback to the book is the contemporary relevance of all of the 10 qualities. While many of the qualities—such as judgment, leadership, and agility—are still applicable to successful leadership today (whether in the military or other professions), terror stands out as a trait particularly unsuitable for our time and as rather anachronistic. Additionally, Divine Providence, which Strauss doesn’t clearly define but suggests is more than simply luck, is not something a leader can develop or obtain; it is just something one is either fortunate to have or not, which makes it less than helpful for practical application. Another possible drawback is the organization of the book. Some might find the constant switching back and forth between the three commanders difficult to follow, though others might like this approach.
These shortcomings notwithstanding, Masters of Command is highly recommended reading for anyone interested in studying leadership, military history, or even Greek and Roman history. Military officers in particular would benefit from the leadership lessons offered in this book as well as the deeper understanding to be gained from some of antiquity’s great battles. While technology and warfare have changed appreciably over the last 2,000 years, the importance of leadership remains unchanged. Barry Strauss does an excellent job of demonstrating how much we can glean today from the great commanders of the past.
Maj Brian Branagan, USAF
"The views expressed are those of the author(s) and do not reflect the official policy or position of the US government or the Department of Defense."