Ancient Fools: 5 Blundering Ancient World Commanders

Ancient Fools: 5 Blundering Ancient World Commanders

Patrick Lynch - December 15, 2016

It is possible for any commander to lose a battle; for example, they could be in charge of a force that is significantly inferior to that of their opponent. Throughout history, we have learned about military leaders who found a way to lose battles that were easier to win. It takes a unique talent to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory, but many commanders have achieved this feat.

You probably know about modern day incompetence on the battlefield, but perhaps you are less informed about the ancient idiots below. In this article, I look at five remarkable military mistakes that had dire consequences. In some of these cases, the ineptitude of these men not only led to the deaths of thousands, but it also changed the entire course of history.

Ancient Fools: 5 Blundering Ancient World Commanders (Zhao’s Army in Miniature Form)

1- Zhao Kuo – Battle of Changping (260BC)

The Changping campaign was fought between the State of Zhao and the State of Qin and began in April 262 BC. Qin had invaded the state of Han in 265 BC in a bid to capture Shangdang. It was a strategic location as it ensured Qin had a clear route to invade Zhao. The State of Han offered Shangdang to Zhao rather than allowing it to fall into enemy hands after years of trying to hold out. In 262 BC, the commander of the Zhao army, Lian Po, decided to wait at Changping rather than engaging the enemy. He knew their rivals were further away from home and would run out of supplies sooner rather than later.

A stalemate ensued, but by 260 BC, the Zhao were unhappy with the strategy and replaced Lian Po with a commander named Zhao Kuo, son of the legendary General Zhao She. Kuo’s father reportedly told his wife never to allow his son to command an army which suggests that Kuo was utterly unfit to lead. In the meantime, the accomplished General Bai Qi became the new commander of the Qin army.

Kuo wasted no time in assembling an army of approximately 400,000 men, and he attacked the Qin camp. His enemy retreated to their fortress, and Kuo foolishly followed; leaving his supply train behind. The Qin cavalry surrounded Kuo’s army, and a withdrawal to the Zhao fortress was blocked off by the enemy. Now, Kuo was trapped and to make matters worse; the Qin destroyed his supplies.

The Zhao army was surrounded for 46 days before it finally surrendered having run out of supplies and failed in several attempts to break out. The general was killed by Qin archers before the surrender and Bai Qi ordered the execution of the remaining troops. Before this disaster, Zhao was one of the most powerful states. It never recovered from Changping, and by 221 BC, Qin asserted its dominance and unified China.

Ancient Fools: 5 Blundering Ancient World Commanders
Ancient History Encyclopedia

2 – Gaius Flaminius Nepos – Battle of Lake Trasimene (217BC)

The Battle of Lake Trasimene was a major battle in the Second Punic War between the Carthaginians and the Romans. The war had been instigated in 219 BC when Hannibal Barca laid siege to the city of Saguntum. Although the Carthaginians suffered setbacks at the Battle of the Ebro River and the Battle of Cissa, they enjoyed a significant victory at the Battle of the Trebia, and a confident Hannibal led his men across the Apennines in 217 BC.

A Roman general by the name of Gaius Flaminius Nepos fancied the task of stopping Hannibal and positioned his troops in Arretium to halt the enemy advance. Flaminius was an arrogant individual who was mainly interested in courting public opinion. When Hannibal changed the route of his march and went into the Arno marshes, Flaminius was forced to move.

It was an incredibly poor decision by Hannibal as many of his men fell sick as they traveled through the swamp and he lost his right eye due to infection. A more assertive commander may well have destroyed the Carthaginians as they exited the marshes, but Flaminius failed to take advantage. His inaction allowed Hannibal to recover and his army soon caused chaos in the Italian countryside. Instead of marching directly to Rome, Hannibal turned east towards Lake Trasimene and made sure to do so in full sight of the pursuing Roman army. He cleverly ensured his maneuver was timed so the enemy could only see him move as night fell.

As the Romans camped outside the valley, the Carthaginian general plotted what was to become the biggest ambush in military history. The following morning was foggy with low visibility, and Flaminius made the extraordinary mistake of not sending scouts into the wooded hills. It would have taken a few minutes, and they may have spotted the trap that had been laid for them.

Instead, Flaminius ordered his entire army to charge once his advance party had caught up with the enemy rear guard. He clearly had no idea just how large the enemy army was as he could only see the Iberian and African veterans. Unbeknownst to the Roman general, Hannibal’s Gallic troops and cavalry were hidden in the woods. The Roman charge was a chaotic one and quickly lost formation.

Hannibal gave the order for the trap to be sprung and thousands of men appeared from nowhere to surround the Romans. Flaminius died along with at least 15,000 soldiers; approximately half of his force. All but 5,000 or so troops evaded death or capture in a devastating loss. If the Romans thought Lake Trasimene was as bad as it could get, they were in for a nasty surprise at Cannae the following year.

Ancient Fools: 5 Blundering Ancient World Commanders

3 – Publius Quinctilius Varus – Battle of Teutoburg Forest (9 AD)

Varus attempted to outdo the idiocy displayed by Flaminius over 200 years previously when he too walked into an ambush. The Romans had first encountered Germanic tribes in 102 BC and fought them on many occasions over the next few centuries. By 4 AD, General Tiberius (later to become Emperor), subjugated some Germanic tribes and the Romans enjoyed further successes a couple of years later. In 6 AD, Varus was given command of the Roman force.

He was respected by the Senate and feared by the people because of his ruthlessness when dealing with insurgents. Varus took command of the XVII, XVIII and XIX Legions on the Rhine. At Teutoburg Forest, the Germanic tribes were commanded by Arminius who was once the Roman general’s trusted advisor but united the tribes in secret. Arminius created a fake report about a local rebellion when Varus was on his way to his winter camp near the Rhine after setting out from his summer camp near the Weser River.

Varus chose to quell the uprising immediately and began marching through unfamiliar territory. As they entered Teutoburg Forest, a violent storm had arisen, and the army was forced to spread out in a long, thin line where they trekked through muddy terrain. Varus also made the mistake of not sending out any scouting missions before they tried to navigate the forest. Arminius used this opportunity to slip away and get the tribes ready for their deadly ambush.

The confused Romans came under attack as the Germanic tribes fired javelins down on their prey. The Romans survived the first onslaught and set up a fortified position in the forest but the next day, the Germans relentlessly pursued their foe and continued with their guerilla-style tactics. The Romans tried to escape the following morning, but Arminius had set another trap. His men felled trees and ensured there was only one path for the enemy to take which led to a dead end. When Varus and his exhausted men walked into the trap, the Germans rushed towards them and destroyed the Romans.

The Romans lost at least 20,000 men while Varus committed suicide once he realized all was lost. Teutoburg Forest changed the course of history. Had the Romans not been annihilated in his fashion, they may have been able to defeat the Germanic tribes. It halted Roman expansion and created a frontier in the center of Europe that lasted for 400 years.

Ancient Fools: 5 Blundering Ancient World Commanders
Hello World Civ (Cao Cao’s Ships Burning)

4 – Cao Cao – Battle of the Red Cliffs (208 AD)

This disaster was a little surprising because it appears as if Cao Cao was a capable leader. During his career, he had helped defeat the Yellow Turban rebellion, gained power in Wei and on at least one occasion, Cao Cao won a battle with inferior numbers. At the Battle of the Red Cliffs in the winter of 208 AD, he made an extraordinary blunder that led to a remarkable defeat.

The Han dynasty had ruled China for the vast majority of the previous four centuries but was beginning to crumble. While Emperor Xian was supposed to be the leader, he was emperor in name only as several powerful warlords controlled China. Cao Cao was one of the strongest, and by 207 AD, he had control over most of northern China. After defeating the Wuhuan, he was appointed Chancellor in 208 AD. This ensured he had control over the imperial government. In other words, he was arguably the most powerful man in China.

However, Cao Cao wanted it all, so he decided to gain land south of the Yangtze River. Sun Quan and Liu Bei were allies and the most powerful men in southern China. The two forces met near the river although the precise location is hotly debated. Cao Cao’s army consisted of at least 220,000 warriors while his opponents probably had no more than 50,000. It should have been an easy win for the all-conquering warlord, but he made some astonishing mistakes that sealed his fate.

While Cao Cao had a significant numerical advantage, his men were tired and plagued by disease after enduring a series of marches in their leader’s southern quest. They were unable to gain the upper hand during an initial skirmish and retreated to the northwest banks of the Yangtze. Cao Cao had chained his ships stem to stern to prevent sea-sickness. A general called Huang Gai spotted this and sent a fake letter of surrender to catch his opponent off guard.

He sent some ships filled with kindling over to Cao Cao’s fleet under the pretense that they were surrender vessels. These ‘fire ships’ were set alight by their small crew who fled on small rafts. This element of Cao Cao’s army panicked and was massacred upon its retreat. Cao Cao attempted to flee with the rest of his men, but torrential rains had transformed the Huarong Road into a deadly swamp, and the troops were drowned in the mud or trampled on by their horses. Cao Cao went home and became King of Wei in 216 AD; he also remained as imperial chancellor until his death in 220 AD. However, he failed in his mission to conquer China.

Ancient Fools: 5 Blundering Ancient World Commanders
(Civilian Military Intelligence Group)

5 – Valens – The Battle of Adrianople (378 AD)

According to historians, the city now known as Edirne but formerly called Adrianople has been the site of no less than 15 battles! When the Battle of Adrianople is mentioned, most people think of either the 324 AD version involving Constantine the Great or the 378 AD edition featuring the Roman Emperor Valens. Certainly, it is questionable whether any commander in the other 14 battles managed to be as utterly inept as Valens. It was one of the major turning points in history; after suffering a heavy defeat, the Romans lost their confidence and became easy pickings for the rampaging barbarian hordes. Less than a century later, the great Western Roman Empire had been destroyed.

Valens was the ruler of the eastern part of the Roman Empire and asked his nephew Gracian, the emperor in the west, to help him suppress a Gothic uprising in Thrace. It was a mess of Valens’ making as he allowed the Goths to settle in the east in 376 AD after they had been kicked out of their lands by the Huns. Things took a turn for the worse when the Goths rose up against the perceived tyranny of the Roman provincial commanders. The next two years saw a series of running battles with no clear victor.

By 378 AD, Valens had decided to take affirmative action and took a force of 40,000-50,000 men to meet the Goths head on a few miles outside the city of Adrianople in modern day Turkey. The days before the fateful battle featured nothing but blunders from the Roman commander. After learning that his general Sebastianus and the Western Emperor Gratian had enjoyed some success, Valens wanted to taste victory himself and got ready for battle. About three days before Adrianople, Valens received word that the Goths only had an army of around 10,000 men marching towards the city.

If this was his first mistake, his second one was not listening to his nephew. Gratian sent a messenger who told Valens to wait for reinforcements, but the stubborn emperor wanted the glory for himself. The Gothic leader Fritigern sent an envoy to request peace talks, but Valens, convinced of victory due to his supposedly superior numbers, rejected these proposals. It appears that Fritigern was merely buying time.

The Romans marched for seven hours over difficult terrain to meet the opposing Gothic force. By now, Valens’ men were tired, dehydrated and far from peak condition. Sources suggest that the Goths tried to negotiate a hostage exchange; again, this was to buy time for their cavalry to return from a foraging expedition. Valens adopted a standard military formation and marched forward; apparently, some Roman units started the battle before any order was given. As the Romans attacked their foe, the Goth cavalry arrived on the scene and surrounded their enemies.

The heavily armed Gothic cavalry destroyed the Roman light infantry. The Roman heavy infantry should have had the discipline to retreat, but instead, it collapsed and was annihilated. Valens probably died on the battlefield although his body was never recovered. The Romans lost up to two-thirds of its force at Adrianople, and this set the scene for the collapse of the Western Roman Empire.