History is littered with the names of outstanding leaders such as Alexander the Great, Julius Caesar and Genghis Khan. But what of the men who thrived under their leadership? After all, leaders are only as good as the people around them; surround yourself with clueless sycophants and failure is the only outcome. Conversely, bring in the best, and there’s a good chance you’ll reap the rewards, as long as they don’t try to overthrow you. In this article, I look at eight great military commanders who operated under leaders that are better known.
1 – Parmenion (400 – 330 BC?) [Alexander the Great]
While Alexander the Great is widely recognized as one of the great military commanders of all time, we should spare a thought for his lesser-known general, Parmenion. He had long since established his reputation as a high-quality general long before he went into the service of Alexander. Parmenion’s exploits began under the reign of Alexander’s father, Philip II. His victory over the Illyrians in 356 BC is one of the earliest recorded examples of his brilliance.
In 346 BC, Parmenion won another brilliant victory, this time over an army at Helos in Southern Thessaly. He was arguably Philip’s most trusted lieutenant as he was sent to conclude peace with Athens in the same year as his victory at Helos, and he led the Macedonian army to Euboea to maintain influence in 342 BC. Philip’s death caused disruption and led to a Macedonian defeat at the hands of the Persians under the command of a mercenary named Memnon of Rhodes.
Arrian’s account of Alexander’s life suggests that Parmenion was cautious and indecisive. In reality, he merely executed the level of caution one would expect from such an experienced commander. His steady approach was necessary to counteract the bold, and occasionally reckless, tactics adopted by the young lion Alexander.
According to Diodorus Siculus, Alexander heeded Parmenion’s advice to delay an attack at the Battle of Granicus in 334 BC. While Alexander spent the battle commanding the cavalry, a task not normally taken on by a leader, Parmenion took control of the infantry phalanx and was possibly the brains behind the battle strategy.
At the Battle of Issus in 333 BC, Parmenion once again took control of the infantry while his leader chased after Darius III. Although the Persians outnumbered the Macedonians, Parmenion expertly countered their attack and gave his leader the chance to mount a brilliant counter-offensive.
There is also a suggestion that Parmenion advised Alexander to launch a night attack at the critical Battle of Gaugamela in 331 BC that all but ended Persian resistance. Despite his many years of loyal service, the great commander suffered for the sins of his son, Philotas, who was implicated in a plot to kill Alexander. Philotas was executed and Alexander, fearing retribution from Parmenion, ordered two of his men, Sitalces and Cleander, to murder his best commander in 330 BC. They found Parmenion before he heard about the order and stabbed the old man to death.