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Junior Generalissimos — Ten of History’s Youngest Military Commanders

Victorious warriors win first and then go to war, while defeated warriors go to war first and then seek to win.

Sun Tzu

Age is just a number, even when talking about world leaders. History shows a long list of rulers well under the age of 20 who found themselves at the helm of entire empires.

Polish King  Władysław III was just 19 when he led a crusade against the Ottomans, and  look at Muhammad bin Qasim who was given command of an army at the age of only 17!

It has been said that war is a young man’s game. Need proof? Check out this list of youngest military commanders in history:

1 – Scipio Africanus

Junior Generalissimos — Ten of History’s Youngest Military Commanders The Continence of Scipio, Pompeo Batoni, c.1771.

Scipio Africanus began his career as a military leader when he was in his teens. By 25, he was a Roman proconsul.

Young Scipio learned to fight as a teenager after accompanying his famous father on campaign during the Second Punic War. In fact, at Battle of Ticinus, the 18-year-old Scipio mounted a daring (and ultimately successful) charge to save his dad’s life after the old man found himself surrounded by Carthaginian spearmen.

2 – Muhammad bin Qasim

Junior Generalissimos — Ten of History’s Youngest Military Commanders

Muhammad bin Qasim was a general who fought for the Umayyad Caliphate, the second of the four major Islamic caliphates following the death of the Prophet Muhammad. He was a member of the Thaqeef tribe, learning the art of leadership and warfare from his uncle, who was the Umayyad governor at the time. After proving himself on the battlefield at a very young age, he was given command of an army at the age of only 17.

3 – Alexander the Great

Junior Generalissimos — Ten of History’s Youngest Military CommandersAlexander the Great Refuses to Take Water. Painting of Giuseppe Cades, 1792

Alexander the Great spent his 20s conquering the known world.

After rising to the Macedonian throne in 336 BCE at the age of 20, the future Greek conqueror embarked on a storied decade-long campaign that took an army of 30,000 hoplites from the shores of the Aegean Sea, through Persia all the way to the banks of the Ganges River in India. Alexander died of fever at the age of 32 leaving behind one of the ancient world’s largest (if not shortest-lived) empires.

4 – William the Conqueror

Junior Generalissimos — Ten of History’s Youngest Military Commanders

William the Conqueror was no stranger to combat when he invaded England in 1066. He fought his first major battle at 18.

William, known by some as “the Bastard”, assumed his father’s title at the age of 7. Eleven years later, a Burgundian count named Reginald I challenged the young noble’s claim to the duchy. In 1047, William petitioned  King Henry I for assistance. The French ruler pledged an army of 10,000 to help defend his young protégé’s birthright. Emboldened, William met the rebel force near Caen, at Val-es-Dunes , and outfought his enemies. The triumph helped cement the Norman leader’s hold on power, laying the groundwork for his invasion of England 20 years later.

5 – Mehmed the Conqueror

Junior Generalissimos — Ten of History’s Youngest Military CommandersSultan Mehmed, painting by Fausto Zonaro

He conquered Istanbul at the age of 21 and brought an end to Byzantine Empire.

Mehmed II commonly known as Mehmed the Conqueror (Turkish: Fatih Sultan Mehmet Han) was an ottoman sultan  who ruled first for a short time from August 1444 to September 1446, and later from February 1451 to May 1481. At the age of 21, he conqueredConstantinople (modern-day Istanbul) and brought an end to the Eastern Roman Empire. Mehmed continued his conquests in Anatolia with its reunification and in Southeast Europe as far west as Bosnia.

6 – St. Joan of Arc

Junior Generalissimos — Ten of History’s Youngest Military CommandersCentral Part of The Life of Joan of Arc Triptych, Hermann Stilke, 1843

Joan was born in the small French village of Domremy in 1412. The house she was born in still stands and is now a museum. When she was 12 years old, she claimed to have a vision of saints Michael, Catherine, and Margaret who told her to drive the English out of France.

At 16, she gained the audience of the royal French court and made a remarkable prediction about a military reversal that would occur near Orleans. Impressed, King Charles VII granted her request to travel with the army and dress as a knight. In order to test the validity of her claim that her mission was of a divine nature, she was sent to attempt to raise the siege at the city of Orleans. She arrived in April 1429 at the age of 17. Historians continue to debate whether or not she actually led armies or was simply a presence there to raise troop morale, but she was no stranger to the battlefield and was noted as showing no fear. On May 7, she ignored a decision to wait for reinforcement and lead a charge against the main English stronghold called Les Tourelles. Though wounded in the neck by an arrow, she returned to lead the final charge herself and was regarded as the heroine of the battle.

7 – Wladyslaw III of Poland

Junior Generalissimos — Ten of History’s Youngest Military CommandersFragment of Wladyslaw III of Poland tomb

Poland’s Władysław III was just 19 when he led a crusade against the Ottomans. He’d never see 20.

In 1444, the 19-year old Wladyslaw helped command a multinational crusade of 30,000 troops to chase the Ottomans under Murad IIfrom what is now Hungary and Bulgaria. His coalition met the 60,000-strong Turkish army at Varna. After fighting the Muslims to a standstill, the dashing young monarch personally led a foolhardy charge right into the centre of the enemy lines. He was overpowered and cut to pieces by Murad’s henchmen.

8 – Okita Soji

Junior Generalissimos — Ten of History’s Youngest Military Commanders

While not a military leader in the strictest sense of the word, he was a leading member of a special police force during the late shogunate period in Japan. Okita was a samurai who began training in swordsmanship around the age of nine. When he was only 12, he was defeating kenjutsu (swordsmanship) teachers in rival schools and attained the Menkyo Kaiden scroll labeling him as a master of his style at age 18. He was the head teacher at a dojo for the next year before becoming a founding member of the Shinsengumi, becoming their first unit captain at the age of 19.

9 – Augustus (Octavian) Caesar

Junior Generalissimos — Ten of History’s Youngest Military CommandersAugustus Caesar (Gaius Octavius)

Octavian wasn’t even 20 when he joined the Second Triumvirate to avenge the death of his uncle Julius Caesar.

Gaius Octavian, nephew and heir of the murdered Julius Caesar, was just 19 when he joined forces with Mark Antony and Marcus Lepidus  to form the Second Triumvirate. In fact, in 42 BCE, the young Roman nobleman helped command a massive coalition of 28 Roman legions totaling more than 100,000 men. Together, Octavian and Antony smashed the roughly equal-sized army of the Liberators (Brutus, Cassius and Longinus) at the battles of Philippi in modern-day Greece. The three victors divided Rome’s territories among themselves, but eventually, Octavian outmaneuvered his former partners and rose to become Augustus Caesar, the first emperor of Rome. He ruled for more than 40 years.

10 – Michael Asen II of Bulgaria

Junior Generalissimos — Ten of History’s Youngest Military Commanders

While many of these leaders were successful, Michael Asen II is one who was too young and inexperienced to have any success. He came to the throne at only seven years of age following the death of his father, Constantine Tikh, in battle. Being so young, the majority of the ruling was done by his mother, Maria Kantakouzene, who was the daughter of the Byzantine emperor, Michael VIII. At this time, the throne was fighting rebels all vying for a claim to the throne. Being the king, Michael Asen II took his father’s place at the head of the military and, though he did very little actual leading, was on the battlefield on several occasions in full battle armament made especially for the young boy.

In 1279, when he was only nine years old, the Byzantine emperor decided to place a more suitable leader on the throne. The Byzantine army easily took the capital, and Michael Asen II and his mother were sent into exile. Although he would attempt to return to Bulgaria with an army later in life, he would be unable to assert himself as the true king and his attempted takeover eventually failed. The date of his death is unknown.

featured image: The conquest of Constantinople by Fatih Sultan Mehmed

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