One of the most entertaining and fascinating time periods of ancient history is classical Rome.
There was no place quite like it — the beauty and splendor of the Eternal City and the advances in culture.
But underlying that veneer was intrigue, deception, and murder.
The story of Ancient Rome is much like a modern-day soap opera, and these ten people were integral players in the telling of that story.
Note: the following individuals are listed chronologically, not in order of perceived importance or notoriety.
1. Romulus and Remus
Remember when I wrote that the story of Rome is much like a daytime TV soap opera, well look no further than the mythical founders of Rome!
According to myth, the two brothers were left to their own devices as young boys and were raised by a she-wolf as her cubs. The two boys grew up hard and grew up tough, to say the least.
As the boys moved into adulthood, they each gained supporters in their little community and decided to start building a grand city.
In typical Romulus and Remus fashion, the two could not decide on which plot of land to build the new city on.
Remus got angry one day and challenged his brother to a fight, Romulus summarily killed him with a rock to the skull and thus the City of Rome was born.
Quite the fitting start for a city that would see so much murder and intrigue!
2. Julius Caesar (100-44 B.C.)
Arguably the most famous Roman of all time, Caesar was a brilliant military commander who used his victories on the battlefield and parlayed that into political power.
A gifted politician, he formed the “Triumvirate” with Crassus and Pompey before campaigning against Gallic tribes in the Gallic Wars of the 50’s BC. By 53 B.C.
The triumvirate was broken with the death of Crassus as Pompey and Caesar become bitter enemies.
The Roman Senate demands Caesar return home with his army, but Caesar refused and opened a Roman Civil War when he crossed the Rubicon River with his forces in 49 B.C.
Caesar won and was installed as dictator for life. With Caesar being declared dictator for life, this is the death of the Roman Republic and the beginnings of the Roman Empire.
Not every Roman was happy with the change, especially influential senators that felt threatened by Caesar.
A group of senators led by Caesar’s friend Brutus would exact revenge on Caesar on the ides of March 44 B.C.
The Senators would stab and kill Caesar in the chambers of the Roman Senate, ending a remarkable life, and setting the stage for more strife and conflict for Rome.
3. Spartacus (111 B.C.- 71 B.C.)
Gladiatorial games are really interesting to read about, but not often is any interest shown in the gladiators themselves.
The existence of a gladiator was survival of the fittest, kill or be killed. The only way for a fighter to earn his freedom was to win enough death matches to make his way out of slavery.
As you could imagine, this leads to just a tad bit of resentment on the parts of the gladiators towards the guys in charge.
Finally, one gladiator gained enough support from his fellow competitors and other slaves.
Spartacus led a slave revolt against his Roman captors and fought to the death for his freedom. Spartacus was killed in battle.
4. Marcus Tullius Cicero (106-43 B.C.)
A gifted orator, writer, and politician Cicero is the shining example of somebody willing to risk everything for what they believed.
Cicero was renowned during his time for his fights against oppression and the dictatorship founded by Julius Caesar.
Cicero was a devoted enemy of the new Empire; he longed for a return to Republican ideals.
He would pay for his outspokenness, Mark Antony ordered Cicero’s execution and his body parts were displayed in the Roman Forum, not the ending a man of such renown deserved.
5. Virgil (70 – 19 B.C.)
Arguably the most famous writer of Ancient Rome, Virgil was responsible for the myth that is the foundation of Rome.
While Virgil did not create the myth of Romulus and Remus, his story, The Aeneid, furthered the tale with the story of Aeneas and his journey home to Rome.
According to Virgil’s story, Aeneas was a descendant of the twin founders of Rome.
Virgil’s epic was recited throughout the empire to citizens as a source of pride for all Romans.
For leaving his literary mark on Western Civilization, Virgil deserves a spot in the top 10 most famous Romans.
6. Octavian (63 B.C.-14 A.D.)
The first true Emperor of Rome, Octavian was the great nephew of Julius Caesar, and he learned much from his uncle.
Octavian would form an alliance with Marc Antony, one of Caesar’s best Generals and they would accomplish great things until egos got in the way. Antony would challenge Octavian and pay dearly.
After Octavian destroyed Antony’s Army, the General committed suicide along with his lover Cleopatra in a depressing Romeo-Juliet scene.
The young Octavian then used his political cunning to gain absolute power in Rome, be crowned Emperor and re-name himself Augustus meaning, “The Illustrious One.”
The Illustrious One lived up to the moniker, ordering military expeditions throughout Africa and Europe and vastly expanding the holdings of the Empire.
7. Caligula (12-41 A.D.)
The dynastic rule is truly a roll of the dice, sometimes the dice come up great, and you get a good ruler like Augustus, but at other times the dice come up snake-eyes, enter Caligula.
Caligula is the epitome of everything that is evil in a corrupt leader, according to historical sources he killed and ordered killings on a whim.
Most of his family was executed by his orders to eliminate all other claims to the throne. Caligula was also supposedly a sexual deviant.
Add all this together, and you get a tyrant of the highest order.
Caligula was so hated that his guards plotted his demise, and in 41 A.D. the Praetorian Guard executed their emperor. A fitting end for a brutal tyrant.
8. Nero (37-68 A.D.)
There is an adage that “absolute power corrupts absolutely,” if you subscribe to that theory, Nero is exhibit A.
Nero was from the same lineage as Caesar and Augustus, but he followed more closely in the footsteps of another relative, Caligula.
Nero was paranoid of the highest order, he saw enemies behind every corner, but to be fair many people did want him dead.
Nero had his mother killed almost immediately after taking power because of his belief that she was undermining his reign.
Nero cared very little for the Roman people and spent most of his time planning extravagant building projects that benefitted his lavish lifestyle. Those projects are, today, some of the best Roman architecture the world has ever seen.
Nero is most infamous for supposedly setting fire to large portions of Rome and “fiddling as Rome burned.” The conflagration was apparently set by Nero to clear land for his proposed palace.
As you may guess, this type of ruler was hated by the Roman people, and Nero was eventually forced out of power.
With enemies all around him, Nero became the first Roman Emperor to take his life.
9. Constantine (272-337 A.D.)
The man credited with giving the Romans religious freedom, Constantine is remembered today for his Edit of Milan which allowed the practice of Christianity throughout the whole of the Roman Empire.
A striking change from the original stance of the Empire, Constantine also accepted Christianity himself.
Not only a religious reformer but Constantine also presided over a time of relative peace throughout the Empire.
A grand accomplishment when the bloody history of Rome is taken into account, Constantine is someone who is forever remembered as one of the most famous people in ancient Rome.
10. Justinian (482-565 A.D.)
Called by many historians “The Last Roman,” Emperor Justinian is the only Eastern Roman Empire Emperor to make this list.
He makes a list based on his expansion of his Empire into Africa and his part in helping the Byzantine culture grow under his watch.
Constantinople became a center of arts, science, and culture under his watch. One could argue that Justinian was truly the last decent ruler of Rome.
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