Top 10 Ancient Roman Generals and their Notable Accomplishments
One of the most prominent and powerful civilizations to have ever existed in the history of humanity was the Roman Republic, which later transitioned into the Roman Empire. The reason why it was so mighty was due to their military strength and strategies, as well as the impeccable skills of generals who led these armies. Through their efforts, the Republic and Empire continued to expand despite the strings of challenges it faced.
Here are some of the best and most influential Roman Generals who changed the course of the Roman Empire and that of history at large:
Aurelian (214-276 AD)
Lucius Domitius Aurelianus, also known as Aurelian, was perhaps the most underrated Roman emperor and general. He started his reign during one of the empire’s unsteady periods, the Crisis of the Third Century, when it nearly collapsed. But Aurelian turned Rome’s luck around for the better and restored the empire after winning several military victories.
Not much is known about his early years, but it is believed that he joined the army when he was roughly 20 years old. Although he might have been a low-ranking officer, Aurelian rose through the ranks and most likely became a commander during the early years of Claudius II’s reign.
After the death of Claudius, there was a struggle for power led by the deceased emperor’s brother, Quintillus. The army, who was against Quintillus, declared Aurelian emperor of the Roman Empire. Aurelian, an emperor, has many military accomplishments to his name. He defeated the Alamanni tribe, as well as the Marcomanni and Juthungi hordes. Aurelian also defeated the Vandals and conquered the Gallic Empire.
He expanded the Roman Empire further by merging it with Palmyra after defeating its leader, Zenobia. Aurelian was an extremely successful emperor and army general. However, his reign was cut short in a 276 AD assassination masterminded by several envious members of the Senate.
Scipio Africanus (236-183 BC)
Scipio Africanus was born into the Cornelli Scipiones family, one of the six main patrician families in the Roman Empire. Many of his ancestors had held top public offices as far back as when Rome was a republic.
At age 25, he joined his father and uncle to serve in the military when Rome went to war with Carthage and its leader, Hannibal. During that period, Hannibal had strengthened his defense, so Scipio’s early attacks failed and resulted in the deaths of several Roman officers.
Nevertheless, he persevered and was eventually successful. Around 209 BC, Scipio captured Cartegena, which was the capital city of Carthage. The following year, he captured Hasdrubal, who was Hannibal’s brother.
His biggest accomplishment as a military general occurred during the Battle of Zama in Northern Africa when he eventually defeated Hannibal. His longtime enemy had launched several war elephants to stomp on the Roman troops, but ever the smart general, Scipio called for his men to open their ranks and allow the elephants to pass through with little to no damage. Hannibal surrendered and was forced to enter a truce with the Roman Empire, effectively bringing an end to the First Punic War.
Scipio Africanus is regarded as one of the best Roman tacticians and generals throughout the empire’s history. His victory in Northern Africa earned him the name Africanus, which meant “the African.”
Read More: Rome’s Destruction of Carthage
Gaius Julius Caesar (100-44 BC)
Much like Scipio Africanus, Gaius Julius Caesar was born into a patrician family, the Julii. However, at the time of his birth, his family was not as influential in politics as they had previously been. He took on the role as the head of his family at the very young age of 16 after his father died. These were difficult times for Caesar, as Rome was plunged into a civil war led by Caesar’s uncle Gauis Marius and his rival Lucius Cornelius Sulla.
Following Sulla’s victory, Caesar left Rome for Asia and started his military career during the Siege of Mytilene. Soon, he rose to become a powerful military officer and started to dabble in Roman politics by the time he was 31 years old. He invaded Britannia twice and also conquered Gaul, using the internal conflicts within the Gallic Empire to his advantage.
When the Roman Senate demanded his return to Rome, as he was gaining too much power, Caesar defied their orders and crossed the Rubicon River instead, sparking the Great Roman Civil War against General Pompey. Despite having fewer men, Caesar defeated Pompey. Caesar was also very influential in Egyptian politics, helping his lover Cleopatra become the Queen after defeating her brother Ptolemy XIII during the Battle of the Nile.
Caesar was eventually assassinated by members of the Senate on the Ides of March, 44 BC after he was accused of wanting to turn Rome into an empire.
Marcus Antonius (83-30 BC)
It wouldn’t be fair to mention Julius Caesar without including his right-hand man Marcus Antonius. More popularly known as Mark Antony, he was a powerful statesman and an army general who supported Caesar’s dreams of Rome becoming an empire. He played an instrumental role in the Roman Republic’s eventual transition to an empire.
Antony started his military career in Syria and served in the Roman military as one of Caesar’s generals during the conquest of Gaul and the Civil War against General Pompey (also known as Pompey the Great). By the time he was 22, Antony carried a lot of influence and became Caesar’s representative.
Following Caesar’s assassination, he formed a dictatorship with Octavian, Caesar’s heir and Marcus Aemilius Lepidus, who was also one of Caesar’s generals. The trio formed the Second Triumvirate and defeated Caesar’s murderers. However, they all fell out with each other and Antony decided to marry Caesar’s former lover, Queen Cleopatra to strengthen his claim on Rome. However, they were defeated by Octavian during the Battle of Alexandria. They died through suicide after they fled.
Gnaeus Pompeius Magnus (106-48 BC)
Like many other generals, Gnaeus Pompeius Magnus, also known as Pompey the Great, was born into a wealthy Roman family. Growing up, Pompey learned a lot about military strategies, as well as diplomacy from his father.
He entered the military at a young age, serving under Sulla as one of his generals. Because of his early success, he rose to become a Roman consul three times. He also led other wildly successful military campaigns, including the Sertorian War, the Third Servile War, and the Third Mithridatic War. He earned the third name “Magnus”, which means “the Great” after Alexander the Great, who had been his childhood hero. His enemies also called him the “teenage butcher.” Pompey was also tasked with ensuring that pirates no longer invaded the Mediterranean. He executed the task brilliantly and divided the region into 12 major zones.
Pompey formed the First Triumvirate with Marcus Licinius Crassus and Julius Caesar in 60 BC. During that period, Pompey had a good relationship with Caesar and even married his daughter, Julia. But after the deaths of Crassus and Julia, their relationship deteriorated, as they both contested to become Rome’s leader. Their rivalry resulted in the Great Roman Civil War, where he was eventually defeated by Caesar.
Septimius Severus (145 – 211 AD)
Septimius Severus was from a noble family from Libya and most of his family members held top positions in the military, as well as politics. Severus became a legate (or commander) when one of his cousins was appointed consul, marking the start of his military career.
In 197 AD, Severus created an army and conquered the Kingdom of Edessa thus expanding the Roman Empire. Before then, he had fought in several other battles, including the Battle of Issus, where he defeated his rivals Pescennius Niger and Clodius Albinus, and also annexed the Kingdom of Osroene. In his later years, he embarked on military campaigns in Northern Africa and fought against the Garamantes, eventually seizing their capital city, Garama.
Severus used his brute military force to become emperor, but he was very unpopular amongst the Senate. Due to their strained relations, he ensured that many senators working against him were executed. He was also behind the dissolution of the Praetorian Guard, which had been established to protect emperors. Rather, he told the guards to train other soldiers and this move made the Roman army grow much larger. Severus died in 211 AD during an invasion of Caledonia in Britannia.
Vespasian Flavian (9-79 AD)
Born Titus Flavius Vespasianus, Vespasian joined the Roman army as a tribune in 36 AD. During the reign of Emperor Claudius in 41 AD, Vespasian was appointed commander of the Legio II Augusta based in Germania. Two years later, the legion embarked on a campaign to invade Britannia. Vespasian conquered many British towns and defeated other tribes. He also invaded Vectis (modern-day Isle of Wight) and built a fortress, which served as the army’s headquarters at Isca Dumnoniorum. Vespasian was celebrated upon his return to Rome.
But his military achievements did not end there. In 63 AD, he was appointed governor of the Africa Province and later became one of the then-emperor Nero’s advisers. Despite being much older than most Roman generals, Vespasian was then sent to Judea to squash threats of a rising revolution against the Roman Empire by the Jews.
During the Year of the Four Emperors in 69 AD, Vespianus’s military achievements helped him garner much support and he was later declared emperor by the Senate. He continued the expansion of the empire into Britannia and began the construction of the Colosseum before dying in 79 AD.
Gnaeus Julius Agricola (40-93 AD)
Gnaeus Julius Agricola continued Vespasian’s military campaigns in Britannia, ensuring that the entire region was conquered. He built over 60 forts and constructed many roads totaling about 1,300 miles.
He started as a military tribune and also held several public office positions in Rome. He lent his support to Vespasian during the Year of the Four Emperors. Upon the latter’s election as ruler of the empire, Agricola was made governor and consul to Britannia.
While there, he saw to the infrastructural development of the region. He ensured that new buildings that were constructed were similar to those back in Rome and also used the Roman approach in educating the British nobles.
Agricola also ordered a ship to sail around Britannia to ascertain that it was an island. Despite his successes, Agricola was called back to Rome by Vespasian’s second son, Domitian who had become emperor and was rumored to have been jealous of the general. His return marked his retirement and Agricola later died in 93 AD.
Nero Claudius Drusus (38-9 BC)
Nero Claudius Drusus, also known as Drusus, the Elder was one of the Roman Empire’s most notable generals during its earlier years. He became a military commander when he was only 23 years old and also constructed numerous forts along the Rhine River.
Drusus’ military campaigns, especially those that took place in Germania, expanded the empire even further, taking him and his troops to places they had never been to before. Before the invasion of Germania, he worked extensively in Gaul, ensuring that the new Roman province was stable enough to run on its own.
He made strategic preparations ahead of the invasion of Germania, forming allies with the Batavian tribe. Through this relationship, Batavia created a canal to allow Drusus’ army to directly sail to Germanian. During the campaign, Drusus continued to expand his army and the empire and proved to be unbeatable.
Marcus Vipsanius Agrippa (63-12 BC)
Marcus Vipsanius Agrippa served as the general of the Romans fleet of ships. He also served as Emperor Octavian’s consul after the latter succeeded his father, Julius Caesar. Agrippa is credited for building the Portus Julius harbor, which helped the Roman ships defend the empire against Sextus Pompey and his ships.
Together with Octavian, the pair fought and won many land and sea battles, including regions in Africa, Germania, and Gaul. Aside from being a successful general, Agrippa was also known for improving infrastructure in Rome. Many other sections of the city received water and he conducted several repairs to improve Rome’s water system. The pair also built many roads and hosted festivals for the Roman citizens.