Roman Leaders: 10 Greatest Generals in Ancient Rome
The greatest generals of Ancient Rome were not just brilliant strategists. From emperors to governors, these men wielded power through recruitment, political machinations, or obtaining the goodwill of the people. Some were born to military men, others to wealthy politicians. One would so impact history that he would end up being the sire of three different emperors.
While it would be impossible to rank these ten men accurately, all should be recognized for their abilities. Five listed here would rule Rome at some point in their lives, and two would be recorded as having never lost a battle. Of the others, each had the ear of a king or emperor, and several had the power to be literally untouchable.
Despite being men of violence, a number of these generals were lucky enough to retire and even write their memoirs. Historians would write about many of them, with Plutarch devoting an entire book to one of them.
There are other great generals that came out of Rome but these ten have risen above the rest in history, to be remembered as beyond impressive.
1. Scipio Africanus
Publius Cornelius Scipio Africanus was one of the few people in history to be undefeated in battle. At 25, he was made general of an army of Rome, where his fight against Hannibal led to the end of the Punic War.
Scipio Africanus was a crafty general. One of the few Roman generals to recognize the benefits of psychological warfare, he was known for his night-time raids and laying of traps.
The historian Livy recorded that one night his soldiers wiped out forty thousand men without a single loss by surrounding an encampment and setting it ablaze.
At home, Africanus was a humble but impressive leader. Refusing the role of dictator, he would still attend some meetings of politicians and even acted as ambassador in the failed attempt to resolve things between Massinissa and the Carthaginians.
He was a gifted speaker and wrote his own memoirs in Greek. However, by the end of his life, he went into self-exile, bitter about the directions Rome was taking. It is said that his tombstone read, “ungrateful fatherland, you will not even have my bones.”
2. Flavius Stilicho
Once considered the most powerful man in the Western Roman Empire, Flavius Stilicho was considered a brilliant war-time tactician and trusted guardian of Emperor Honorius. In fact, until Honorius came of age, Stilicho took the role of de-facto leader of the empire.
On the field, Stilicho never lost a battle. In fact, if it were not for interference by other leaders and politicians, Stilicho may have captured the Visigoth king, Alaric, halting the progression of the Western power.
Despite meddling, Stilicho was able to suppress rebellion in Africa and retake Macedonia for the empire. His great political power also allowed him to amass armies for other generals, even recruiting men who had fought for his enemies years earlier.
Unfortunately, Stilicho was arrested and executed after rumors of an attempted coup and failing to suppress an uprising in Britain. With no other great leaders to take his place, the empire soon fell to the Visigoths.
As cunning a political figure as he was a tactician, Lucius Cornelius Sulla Felix won the first large-scale civil war in Roman history. While known for being a blood-thirsty leader, willing to use his armies against civilians, many still respected Sulla for walking away from his dictatorship as soon as he enacted the changes to government that he had been willing to fight for.
Before taking on the role of dictator, Sulla already had an incredible reputation. Famously, he was known for capturing the King of Numidia by having the monarch’s own father betrayed him. At Pompeii, he successfully repelled forces, with no enemy soldier ever setting foot inside the city.
When he heard naval forces had mutinied against a captain, he recognized the failings of the captain, forgave the soldiers, and pardoned all who may have committed a crime in doing so. Not willing to be an “armchair general”, Sulla is reported to have killed Lucius Cluentis, a rebel general, with his bare hands.
Sulla believed that senators should be the ultimate power in Rome and, while dictator, gave them all power of the courts and doubled the size of the Senate. He took away many of the democratic rights of the general population but did so under the belief that popularism was causing great damage to Rome.
After enacting reforms, he disbanded his army, retired, and wrote his memoirs, which have now been lost. His public funeral would be the largest Rome had ever seen before that of Caesar Augustus, fifty years later. On his tomb was written, “No friend ever served me, and no enemy ever wronged me, whom I have not repaid in full.”
Governor of Great Britain, Gnaeus Julius Agricola was first the general responsible for conquering the Islands in the name of Rome. Agricola was born to a political family and began his career as a military tribune in Britain.
He was involved in suppressing Boudica’s uprising, overcame the Celtic tribes of Wales, and won many battles against the people of Brigania (northern England).
By 71 AD, Agricola had expanded Roman rule to the very top of the Island for the first time. He then began the first roman expeditions into Ireland and is said to have given refuge to an exiled King. Irish legends confirm this story, calling the king Túathal Techtmar. They say that the king soon returned to Ireland and reclaimed the throne.
Agricola was eventually recalled back to Rome, where he received triumphal decorations and a statue. He was offered a governorship of Africa but elected instead to retire.
5. Constantine The Great
Flavius Valerius Constantinus, Roman emperor in the early fourth century, is best known for his conversion to Christianity and putting in the systems that created the “Roman Catholic Church.”
However, he was also an astute general, quelled multiple rebellions, and established the beginning of the Byzantium Empire. So great and influential was his rule that he is often considered the “line” that delineates Antiquity from The Middle Ages.
Constantine was born of one of the four “Tetrarchs”, leaders of the roman empire in the late third century. Taking over from his father, his portion of the empire covered Britain, Gaul, and Spain, and offered him the largest army known at the time. It was not Constantine who began the fight for supreme emperor over the empire.
After rebellions by Maximian and Maxentius, however, Constantine was given little choice but to use his armies to take control over Rome. His armies moved across Italy, taking over strongholds like Turin and Verona with little trouble. By the time he arrived at the gates of Rome, the people there had turned on Maxentius. One text even records a crowd mocking the emperor, warning that Constantine “was invincible”.
Once an emperor, Constantine waged a propaganda campaign, destroying all images of Maxentius and having writers literally rewrite the history books to depict him as a tyrant. Constantine also went on a building spree, making the Circus Maximus twenty-five times bigger in size, and building a “new Rome” in what is now Istanbul.
Among the apocryphal tales of Constantine the Great is the claims that he killed a lion in one-on-one combat, announced his leadership of Rome by sending paintings to his competitors, and killed his wife by boiling her in her bath.
6. Pompey the Great
Gnaeus Pompeius Magnus, or “Pompey,” was a general and statesman, Sulla’s student and Julius Caesar’s peer. Pompey was a general at the young age of 22, leading three legions of soldiers he had personally recruited to fight alongside Sulla in his march against Marius.
After driving followers of Marius out of Sicily, Pompey oversaw the island and gained great popularity there. He was sent to Africa, where he retook Numibia in only 40 days. It is for this that Sulla gave him the title “the Great”. Plutarch records that at this time, the general was so young as to have yet to grow a full beard.
Through a series of political machinations, Pompey was able to be made consul (magistrate) at a young age and, with the death of Sulla, helped once more to lead armies to control the civil strife that arose in Rome. By the age of 35, he had quelled multiple rebellions, including that of Spartacus, and granted not one but two triumphs.
Against many rumors, he then disbanded his army as a sign of good faith and took a position in government. There, he helped restore the tribunate (where ordinary people were allowed to speak) and formed bonds with Julius Caesar.
While he easily made enemies, even of old friends, Pompey was known for being both a great general and a careful politician. Unfortunately, he eventually fell on the wrong side of Julius and fought against him from becoming a dictator. He was eventually assassinated.
Much of what we learn about Pompey today comes from a single text. The Life of Pompey by Plutarch was part of a series of biographies written about the great men of antiquity less than a hundred years after Pompey’s death.
7. Septimius Severus
Roman Emperor from 193 to 211 AD, Lucius Septimus Severus took his leadership by force, killing the previous emperor, Didius Julianus. During his reign, he overcame two separate claimants to the throne, expanded Rome’s reach into Upper Mesopotamia, and expanded the eastern border to the Tigris.
Severus may have killed Julianus, but it was in retaliation for the death of Pertinax, who had been killed by his own guards. When taking over, Severus had the entire Praetorian Guard dismissed and anyone associated with the death of Pertinax executed.
Severus commanded great loyalty, not least because of a twenty-five percent pay rise for all soldiers. He was also the first emperor to insist some of the imperial armies stay in Italy as reserve troops and launched campaigns in Africa and Britain. Unfortunately, illness took over while he was in England, and he passed before he had the opportunity to take Scotland.
Son-in-law and close friend of Augustus Caesar, Marcus Vipsanius Agrippa was known as well for his leading of forces as for being overseer for the construction of some of the most important buildings in Ancient Rome.
Agrippa’s most famous military success would be the Battle of Actium, a naval war between Rome and the forces of Antony and Cleopatra combined. Outnumbered by a hundred ships, Agrippa strategically cut off communication between Cleopatra (who was currently in Greece) and her people in Egypt. Agrippa’s ships were smaller and more maneuverable than Antony’s, and Antony could break through the blockade only by sacrificing several of his own forces.
Agrippa was more than a soldier. It was under his guidance that Rome became known as “the city of marble,” and he was put in charge of building everything from aqueducts to The Pantheon. In later life, he was given “ tribunicia potestas” power, making him as powerful as Augustus himself.
These powers could allow him to veto decisions made by magistrates and present laws to the people. It also meant that any person who attempted to harm or impede them in any way could legally be put to death.
At this time, he was made governor of the eastern provinces. Agrippa died in 12 BC while trying to conquer the upper Danube. His loss was so felt that Augustus placed his remains in his own mausoleum.
9. Drusus the Elder
Nero Claudius Drusus Germanicus, brother of Emperor Tiberius and stepson to Augustus, was always going to be a powerful leader. However, unlike many generals and politicians in ancient Rome, he did not waste his opportunities. Drusus was the primary force behind the conquering of Germania from 12 BC onwards, and if he had not died at such a young age, may have been the greatest general Rome had ever seen.
Drusus may have legally been the son of Senator Tiberius Nero, but with his mother having remarried Augustus before the child was born, there were suspicions among the ruling class. These were strengthened when, at only 19, the emperor gave him special powers to hold public office.
He used those same powers to enact laws while his older brother, Tiberius, was away at war. He became governor of Gaul at only 23 and was known for promoting new public works for the people. He began leading parties across the river by creating fifty separate bases along the Rhine, with his eyes on conquering everything on the other side.
Unfortunately, Drusus died at the age of 29 after falling off his horse on the way back from battles with German chieftains. Drusus was mourned greatly, he remains kept in the mausoleum of his stepfather.
Monuments were built in Rome and Gaul to honor his memory, and his mother had many literary works penned in remembrance. Amongst them is Ovid’s lost work, “Consolatio ad Liviam“. Drusus left behind several children and eventually became the ancestor of three separate emperors: Claudius, Caligula, and Nero.
10. Julius Caesar
The most famous of the Roman generals, thanks to an unusual assassination and its fictionalization by Shakespeare, was Gais Julius Caesar. Caesar had led the Roman armies during the Gallic wars before beating Pompey (number six on this list) in a civil war. As dictator of Rome, he ruled for only five years before being assassinated.
While Julius Caesar may be best known for his political reforms as a leader or his death at the hands of the Senate, he was first and foremost a brilliant military thinker. As governor of Northern Italy and the Northwest Balkans, Caesar set about weakening the Germanic tribes that often provided support for Rome’s enemies.
At one time, he built a large bridge across the Rhine to better aid incursions into the area as a show of force. Julius invaded the southern beaches of Britain and established allies in the area. Unfortunately, he was unable to go no further due to famine back in Gaul.
Julius was known for employing clever siege strategies, and his win at the Battle of Alesia is studied today. During it, Julius built two separate walls around the city, effectively “trapping” his own troops inside. However, this meant the city could not be helped by outside forces, while Julius had first ensured his army had enough provisions to outlast the people within the inner walls.
Julius’ defeat of Pompey was equally cunning, involving a “hidden” fourth line of infantry behind his small cavalry. When Pompey’s calvary charged, Julius’ dispersed, and the Pilas of the infantry quickly dispatched the majority of the enemy’s horses.
The Generals of Rome were some of the greatest leaders in history. Many were also competent political leaders, while some even held the role of Emperor or Dictator. The greatest of these would come from the same period of time. During the last century BC, we would see Julius, Agrippa, Pompey, and Drusus all go into battle, sometimes against each other.
If something is to be learned from these great warriors, it is that battlefield tactics are rarely enough to make it to the history books. The greatest generals were also peace-time leaders, gifted recruiters, and governors looking to improve the lands they controlled.
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