The BEST and WORST Leaders (or Regimes) in the history of planet Earth

Look one post above yours: Alexander the Great. He spots Hannibal considerably worse odds, but succeeds in ultimate victory rather than fails. All while leading from the absolute front. Hannibal, while tactically brilliant, didn’t quite have the overall strategy down.

On the contrary, the worst stuff written about Caligula was written after Nero when the antics of that genuine madman were simply backported to construct a stereotype of crazy emperors (that was also applied to Tiberius, by the way). Even after Caligula’s assassination, nobody reported those insane things he had allegedly done – they were all invented later.

He was in fact an asshole towards the Roman upper class – apparently he posed as a god to senators so as to force them to either contradict their emperor, or make themselves ridiculous by accepting his claim. But there is no indication, such as an official proclamation, that he ever actually believed himself to be a god. Nor that he ever had sex with his sister, or turned senators’ wives into prostitutes (he merely held them hostage as “honored guests”), or thought sea shells were campaign trophies (he brought them back when his troops refused to cross over to Britain).

Aloys Winterling’s Caligula (C.H. Beck 2003, in German) sifts through all the sources and finds Caligula’s reported madness mysteriously increase with the time elapsed after his death. Caligula was by no means a good emperor, since that job description includes getting along with senators, but neither was he insane – just petty and distrustful and incapable of handling delicate political relationships.

Now, how can you call churchill over-rated when he gave this speech, just after the horrible defeat in continental europe, he gave one of the most famous speeches of the war.

Yes, he sure knew how to make grand speeches. He was a great PR person, but a great leader? His rhetoric vastly overrepresented the actual danger Britain was in – the chances of Germany successfully invading and conquering Britain were extremely slim, and as pointed out Hitler would have been perfectly happy with a truce. In that case Britain could still have served as America’s Airstrip One later on when Hitler insanely declared war on America, and history would presumably not have changed at all.

Churchill does deserve credit for sticking to his guns but one has to wonder if Britain herself would not have been better off with a temporary truce instead of the Battle of Britain (which did very little to reduce Germany’s fighting power) and his various disastrous campaigns.

“Considerably worse odds?” Alexander had inherited a well-trained army from his father, he was the undisputed king of his own country which kept him supplied, and he could exploit the disunity of Greek city-states and the incompetence of the Persian forces. Hannibal had none of those advantages. He always struggled to build something resembling an army out of a small core of professionals and a motley crew of tribal amateurs, and his country disowned rather than supported him. Not to mention he went up against the Romans, a much stronger enemy than anything Alexander ever faced.

Agreed. Alexander has the best war tech of his time (the phalanx), which allowed him pretty good odds in every battle with the Persians. The Greeks had already beaten the Persians, against seemingly long odds. Alexander took the next logical step and used his superior tactics and arms to go stomp them around. He was a great general, but Hannibal faced worse odds.

Yes. Pretty clear cut - Rome was considerably smaller than the Persian Empire at the time.

Alexander had inherited a well-trained army from his father, he was the undisputed king of his own country which kept him supplied, and he could exploit the disunity of Greek city-states and the incompetence of the Persian forces.

Alexander had a large part to do with the army - the key attacks were invariably delivered by him and the cavalry even when Phillip was alive. Yes, he was King while Hannibal was not the ultimate authority in Carthage, but he did not have Greek city-states conspiring against him while conducting his campaign. As to the incompetence of the Persian forces, Darius come up with a pretty good and considered plan at Gaugamela - the only thing that beat him was Alexander brilliantly creating a discontinuity in the Persian line and personally delivering the flanking attack, and it was still a near thing.

The Romans fought pretty incompetently until Scipio - you don’t complete the classic double-envelopment of a numerically larger army without a certain amount of stupidity on the foe’s part.

Hannibal had none of those advantages. He always struggled to build something resembling an army out of a small core of professionals and a motley crew of tribal amateurs, and his country disowned rather than supported him. Not to mention he went up against the Romans, a much stronger enemy than anything Alexander ever faced.

I can almost hear and see the Romans sneering, “PUG, we got this!” :-)

Hannibal made do with what he had, and brilliantly. But the key part was he always had the edge in cavalry. As soon as he lost the Numidian cavalry to the Romans, he promptly had his remaining cavalry whipped at Zama and suffered outflanking and heavy losses. Tough to control the varied forces he had at times, but they weren’t bad at all.

I rather suspect that if you gave Hannibal Alexander’s army, he would have conquered the world, too. But I’m willing to bet that Alexander would have taken Rome following Cannae. If he set his mind to something, he accomplished it.

The moment for me that strikes a chord, perhaps the most illuminating, was Alexander’s battle of the Hydaspes in India, which was against a foe he had never faced, and in all honestly, probably never even knew existed. Ancient India had absolutely tremendously well-paid and large armies on the scale of Imperial China with precedence going to the Elephant corps (kingdoms’ relative strength was often given in terms of how many Elephants they could field). The complete and utter failure of later Seleucid kings to maintain even a passing toehold (offset, perhaps, by the Indo-Greek Bactrians later on) shows how difficult it was to fight against massive Indian armies on their own terrain.

Part of greatness is fighting the political battles as well as the military ones. That’s where Hannibal loses compared to Alexander, as do so many would be conquerors, such as Napoleon.

At some stage Zimbabwe had a literacy rate of 90% while he was president but that is no excuse for what he ordered and what happened in Zimbabwe over the last 20 years.

I wonder what makes someone flip like that?
Any other leaders that this kind of thing has happened to?

Excellent point, Hannibal didn’t follow through in this instance and Alexander almost certainly would have. I just don’t think Alexander, starting from where Hannibal started, would have been in the position to do so.

Dunno why not. He adapted to and integrated locals, so that’s not a problem. He was equally a genius at strategy and tactics as Hannibal (as no less an expert than Hannibal himself noted), and demonstrably better at seigecraft than Hannibal. He could endure hardship, inspired his men, plan and organize a campaign, think and react on the fly, and could handle politics and diplomacy. I really don’t think he would have done any worse.

They were both geniuses, and amongst a handful of military campaigners who had virtually no equal. But Hannibal never quite turned the corner to ulimate success, while Alexander just kept right on going beyond Persia and into India and Afghanistan, only being stopped by his worn out men and no particular reason to go any further. So I have to give the edge to Alexander on that basis.

If it means anything: my 25mm ancients army was Alexandrian Macedonian, and my 15mm army was Carthaginian. I liked 'em both.

My problem with Napoleon is that he was ultimately a guy who abandoned his troops - in Egypt and in Russia. When push came to shove, he might have mouthed the words about courage and loyalty, but bottom line was saving himself. Alexander would personally lead the attack - he wouldn’t ask anything of anyone he wasn’t willing to do himself. Napoleon might like to give that same impression, but in the end, he viewed others as expendable pawns. Which doesn’t necessaily disqualify him as a a great leader, just one that I think less of.

Alexander was well aware of King Porus, having decided he couldn’t allow him on his flanks if he wanted to continue to the east. Porus, like Darius at Gaugamela, choose his ground well (or water, in this case), but Alexander showed his genius and adaptability to a situation and won the day nevertheless. Certainly he already gained familiarity with Indian military capabilities in previous battles, so I don’t think he went into the battle blind.

Best: Abraham Lincoln. Saved the Union, rectified the last major unanswered question lingering from the formation of the country that couldn’t be solved by Jefferson and Co. While waging one of the largest wars in history up to that point he makes sure the United States will still become the dominant continental power, makes sure to keep the Europeans out of the war, keeps the domestic political situation from falling out under him when most either thought he would fail or really did want him too.

That would be great all by itself but his clemency following the end of the war is arguably only matched by Caesar following a civil war.

Runners Up:

George Washington, Augustus, Gandhi, Nelson, Alexander the Great, Hannibal, Constantine the Great

Worst: Sulla. Sure he’s not the showiest Roman in history but he’s the bastard who started the Roman Republic down its bloody road to prolonged civil war and eventual transition to an empire with all the Caligula’s, Nero’s, and Commodus’ that came with it.

Stripped of his command against a war against Pontus by his old chum Marius, who is now lusting after a seventh consulship and a great pile of loot to go with it, Sulla decides he isn’t going to take that affront and so kills the messenger from Rome and gets his troops to march on Rome. While Marius and many of his supporters flee Sulla enters Rome and commits and kills anyone who stands in his way. Eventually he heads over to beat up Mithridates but in the meantime Marius comes back to conduct his own bloody purge before he expires - probably from a overdose of political murdering. Making his way back Sulla takes over Rome for good and starts up some proscription lists with everyone on them being made an enemy of the state and subject to immediate execution. Just like everytime this thing happens the lists grow and grow often so Sulla and his political supporters like Crassus can get rich off a now dead Senator. Eventually Sulla retires his dictatorship and settles down to his Italian estates, clearly with the intention of becoming a new Cinncinatus but Cinncinatus didn’t ingrain the notion that political power and offices could be bought with a powerful army.

Say what you will about Caesar, Octavian and every subsequent Roman who got ahold of power by force - they couldn’t have done it without the successful example of Sulla.

Runners Up:

Hitler, Mao, Caesar, Enrico Dandolo

There was this guy, Neville something or other. Came right before Churchill.

Churchill saw the threat and argued against it long before. He was also the only one of the western leaders to fight for the countries occupied by the Soviets.

Yes, and Neville was in charge when he was proven wrong, and committed the UK to war to defend Poland. He was still in the government after that for a while, even after Churchill took over, and didn’t advise going for German peace initiatives.

Some interesting characters mentioned.

Sulla While what you say is true, the Roman Republic’s political system was breaking down because it was simply not designed to work over a continental empire. I think Sulla was a reflection of that dysfunction and not, per se, the cause. Nevertheless though, Sulla is still a very insightful pick.

Enrico Dandolo Whether the sack of Constantinople during the 4th Crusade was truly the world changing event some have made it out to be or not quite depends upon the level of Byzantophilism you’ve reached. Manzikert and Myriocephalon were the swan songs of the Byzantine Empire’s effectiveness as a military power in Asia Minor, and it quickly descended into a series of relatively helpless regional powers, and then not much past that, simply a series of fortified cities with little attempt at communication between them and bound together in an “Empire” in name only without any support between them provided and only until one or another power bothered to capture them. The 4th Crusade struck at a bankrupt empire in a state of near perpetual anarchy and fratricide (the Byzantines seemed almost genetically incapable of unifying against a common foe). It was, nevertheless, important for East-West relations for a large number of reasons, of course.

I’d argue that Basil II was the true villain, in Sulla-like fashion. The Byzantine Golden Age (around 865-1050ad) probably occurred for as many reasons outside as inside the empire, such as the growth once again of the Black Sea trade routes as an major source of income thanks to the Varangians, Rus, and Khazar traders and the growth of Slavic settled civilizations all around them both north of the Black Sea and in the Balkans. It helped that the Abbasid Caliphate had started to decline and the era of Arab expansion had more or less ended. But most of all the era was the era of the Anatolian aristocracy, which asserted their authority over the ossified institutions of the Empire and led their border regions to large military successes for the first time, almost literally, since Justinian. Even the occasional assassination of one Anatolian Emperor for another was relatively bloodless compared to Basil II’s time. Basil II came from the palace and not the frontiers, and waged a decades long war civil war against the Aristocracy. While he was eventually victorious the crushing defeat he inflicted on the semi-feudal backbone that had developed in Asia Minor was never replaced by an effective military force from the capital. By the time of Manzikert, the army was a broken, demoralized, badly equipped shadow of what it had been under the Anatolian aristocrats.

In a sense what was under threat was the idea of Empire, and it was the the idea of Empire that ruined itself. It might have been possible to preserve Asia Minor as a Greek and Orthodox region, if the idea of a “Empire” had been allowed to wither away and the region able to look for itself. Basil II destroyed the military might of the Empire in an almost endless civil war that only gave the appearance of greatness from a distance; in fact, he had reasserted the central authority at such a high cost the Empire no longer had the strength to resist.

The list of worst is long and sorry and there’s no way I would be able to choose just one. For best I’d go with Alexander the Great. He led from the front, wasn’t afraid to bow to local custom to keep his army moving, and left a cultural legacy that continues to echo today.

A few I haven’t seen mentioned yet:

Saladin – kicked all kinds of Crusader ass, kept Jerusalem for the Muslims, and his enemies still loved the shit out of him. I also like this nugget from the wikipedia entry: “Since Saladin had given most of his money away for charity, when they opened his treasury they found there was not enough money to pay for his funeral.”

Rommel – Literally wrote the book on small unit tactics and completely defied the Peter Principle as he rose through the ranks. A brilliant general held back only by Hitler’s mounting incompetence as the war progressed.

Julius Caesar – The siege of Alesia pretty much sums up his military prowess. Surrounding a fortified town while simultaneously fighting off a relief force that outnumbers you five to one isn’t something just anyone pulls off. Just an incredible combination of military and political leadership.

Stonewall Jackson – The goddamn Wolverine of the Civil War, because he was the best at what he did. You could give Jackson a toothpick and a can of shaving cream and he’d find a way to use them to take D.C.

Horatio Nelson – Did anyone not look up to this guy? Completely fearless, tactically brilliant, and 100% cocksure. Look up how “turn a blind eye” came about if you want a good example of Nelson at his finest.

Erich Von Manstein – Another brilliant general who’s main mistake was working for Hitler.

Leonidas – Did nobody see 300? :)

An interesting nomination. He resonates in the west because he tended to be more chivalrous than the massed chivalry he fought against. But honestly, the Crusades were always on a showstring budget, with barely enough manpower to guard their castles. Still, he proved to be an extremely capable leader.

Rommel – Literally wrote the book on small unit tactics and completely defied the Peter Principle as he rose through the ranks. A brilliant general held back only by Hitler’s mounting incompetence as the war progressed.

Heinz Guderian over Rommel if I was going to mention German generals during WWII.

Julius Caesar – The siege of Alesia pretty much sums up his military prowess. Surrounding a fortified town while simultaneously fighting off a relief force that outnumbers you five to one isn’t something just anyone pulls off. Just an incredible combination of military and political leadership.

Certainly one of the most brilliant generals of the western world.

Stonewall Jackson – The goddamn Wolverine of the Civil War, because he was the best at what he did. You could give Jackson a toothpick and a can of shaving cream and he’d find a way to use them to take D.C.

Knew his stuff, pity he fought for a morally bankrupt movement.

Horatio Nelson – Did anyone not look up to this guy? Completely fearless, tactically brilliant, and 100% cocksure. Look up how “turn a blind eye” came about if you want a good example of Nelson at his finest.

He did the thing that everyone else was just plain afraid to: commit the bulk of a nation’s seapower to a single throw of the dice. Though I’d say Alexander was fearless while Nelson was brave (he feared what could happen to him but did what needed to be done anyway). His boldness stands out against the general timidity of admirals to commit to a decisive battle.

Erich Von Manstein – Another brilliant general who’s main mistake was working for Hitler.

Still gonna go with Guderian.

Leonidas – Did nobody see 300? :)

Brave soldier, plugged the gap against impossible odds as long as he could, but let’s face it, he wouldn’t have lasted even one day if the Athenian fleet wasn’t guarding his seaward flank. The movie notes the storm - the single best scene in the movie - but not the fleet that forced the Persians the long way around and thus they ran into the storm. Themistocles was the leader that saved Greece, not Leonidas.

I put him on my list, but the genius of Nelson lies less on the fact that he was willing to commit to a decisive battle - anyone can do that if they are properly prepared for it psychologically - it was the fact that he took great strides to decentralize command structure knowing as he did the high proficiency of his officers and ratings. Trafalgar really shows this, as he commits his force to the center of the Franco-Spanish line and engages in a pell-mell melee instead of boxing it out in a more conventional line battle - you’ll win the line but you’d never get the smashing victory he achieved by heading in for a more decisive encounter. The fact that he goes in is vitally important, but its nothing without the ability to decentralize authority to his captains.

I mentioned Dandolo because it’s my opinion that besides the fact that it helped to further ossify the Byzantine Empire due to its loss of Constantinople and the surrounding regions - it hardened dramatically the split between the Latin and Orthodox churches such as that when the Byzantines were in more desperate straits two centuries later reconciliation couldn’t be attained to keep the Turks out of Europe, etc, etc.

And to further comment on one of my worsts…

Julius Caesar: Sure awesome guy, much to admire about him. We can all look up in awe to some of his aspects such as his genius when it came to the battlefield, the well deserved reputation for clemency, and the type of gambler instinct that many of the men in this thread have. But besides that we need to remember that he engages in bloodshed that is rarely matched in the ancient world and which would get him labelled as a genocidal dictator in the modern world.

To start with he stops the migration of the Helvetii illegally and with much loss of life - plainly for his own aggrandizement and for the prestige of having stopped a “barbarian horde” and thereafter enters a series of campaigns in Gaul that are widely believed to have killed more than a million Gauls. Then when it became clear that upon returning to Rome and laying down his imperium he’d be prosecuted, his career ruined and possibly exiled from the city he decides to start a civil war and no matter how much Caesar believes himself in the right, when it all comes down to it Caesar starts a series of civil wars that last decades not for lofty political goals but to protect his own political career - he takes the example left by Sulla and Marius and runs Roman political society off the side of a cliff.

Such as it is when Caesar ends up in a blood of his own blood on the floor on the Senate House I can’t really feel all that bad about his end. Sic semper tyrranis indeed.

We can all trot out a list of stuff that Chamberlain did wrong and he would rightly be seen as one of the worst Prime Ministers in British history, but he doesn’t come close to the sheer incompetence and stupidity that Stanley “Party Before Country” Baldwin showed when he was in office.

I threw that in as kind of a joke (hence the smiley), but even so I think you’re underselling his importance and his leadership abilities. He was the king of Sparta, taking his best veterans to certain death and fighting right alongside them. You have to be an incredible leader and have balls the size of Texas to pull off something like that. Plus, the sacrifice there made an enormous difference in the way the rest of the war played out. It gave the Greeks renewed hope and proved beyond a doubt that they weren’t just going to roll over in the face of a numerically superior slave army.

That said, I don’t want to downplay Themistocles, either. He was an incredibly shrewd diplomat and the battle of Salamis is among the most decisive in history. Leonidas hit Xerxes in the face with an egg, but Themistocles spanked his ass. I think the heroic loss at Thermopylae coupled with the stunning victory at Salamis served to galvanize the Greeks and make possible their subsequent victories at Plataea and Mycale. I also believe it was the sting of those two earlier battles that made the Persians decide to stay the hell out of Greece permanently.

Two great leaders, but still not in the same league as someone like Alexander, IMHO.