Roman Leaders: The 10 Greatest Generals behind the Empire

From the formation of the Roman Republic in 509 BCE, through the Roman Empire’s zenith around 117 CE, and even up until the Fall of Rome and the Empire’s adoption of Constantinople as its capital in 330 CE, war played a key role in Roman expansion across the northern hemisphere. The Romans undertook land-grab on a huge scale, their successes down not only to the political capabilities of their elite, but to their military might and the strategic ability of their Generals. They were responsible for the Republic’s and Empire’s expansion through war, gradually completing the “Romanisation” of the provinces.

Not everything went smoothly: the Romans fell foul of Germanic tribesmen at the Battle of the Teutoburg Forest (9 CE), where they lost three full legions (an estimated 15-20,000 soldiers gave up their lives during this battle alone). This prompted remorse on the part of Augustus when he heard of the defeat (the Romans never again attempted to push east of the Rhine, save for some retaliatory skirmishes). But there’s no denying the vast successes the Romans had in subsuming massive tracts of mainland Europe, Britain, the Middle East and North Africa.

Here, History of War picks ten of the most influential Generals in Roman military history…

'Scipio Africanus Freeing Massiva' by Gianbattista, Giambattista Tiepolo, 1719 and 1721
‘Scipio Africanus Freeing Massiva’ by Gianbattista, Giambattista Tiepolo, 1719 and 1721

10. Scipio Africanus (236-183 BCE)

General of the Republic

Scipio’s command of the Roman armies in Spain at an early age – he was just 25 years old when he was commissioned by Rome to defeat the Carthaginians and their leader, Hannibal. At this time, the latter was stationed in Italy, where he had established an almost impenetrable defence, so Scipio attacked Hannibal’s base in Spain, despite a previous failed attempt that had seen both of the Roman Commanders in charge killed. Scipio, however, was successful; he captured the Carthaginian headquarters in Cartagena in 209BC and, a year later, captured Hannibal’s brother, Hasdrubal, by disguising the strength of his forces (hiding heavily armed and armoured troops behind a front screen of light infantry).

Scipio’s finest hour, however, came during the Battle of Zama in North Africa in 202 BCE, where he finally managed to defeat Hannibal himself, forcing his old nemesis’ return to Carthage on the edge of Lake Tunis. The Carthaginian Commander used enraged war elephants in an attempt to trample Scipio’s marauding troops, but the Roman General simply ordered his men to open ranks, allowing the beasts to stampede through without causing significant casualties. Hannibal was later forced to make a peaceful truce with Rome, bringing an end to the 17-year-long First Punic War.

"Marius Amid the Ruins of Carthage" by John Vanderlyn
‘Marius Amid the Ruins of Carthage’ by John Vanderlyn, 1832

9. Gaius Marius (157-86 BCE)

General and Consul of the Republic

Marius is attributed with a number of actions that had significant influence on the transformation of the Roman civilisation from Republic to Empire. He allowed non-landed Romans to join the army (previously, they’d been required to own property). At the same time, he changed the law so that soldiers had to carry their own equipment (such men became known as “Marius’ Mules”). He also held the elected office of Consul an unprecedented seven times from 107 BCE – though the position became increasingly autocratic, with his “election” more to do with the granting of emergency powers to fight off invading hordes than with the application of the constitution.

Marius also made a name for himself as a General of considerable acumen in several campaigns, especially in Africa and against German tribes. Notoriously, he defeated the Teutones as they advanced into Italy (the tribe had agreed a two-pronged attack on the country with a fellow Germanic tribe, the Cimbri, from their positions in Gaul), ambushing the hordes on the edge of the Alps and killing a reputed 100,000 invaders.

A supposed bust of Lucius Cornelius Sulla, held in Munich
A supposed bust of Lucius Cornelius Sulla, Munich Glyptothek

8. Lucius Cornelius Sulla (138-78 BCE)

General and Consul of the Republic, and Dictator of Rome

Despite being born into poverty, Sulla achieved rank within the Roman army and became an essential cog in the winning of the Jugurthine War. Jugurtha, head of the Numidians, had defied Roman decree by dividing up Numidia among his royal family. Rome retaliated, defeating the leader and driving him into exile in Mauretania. Sulla struck a deal with Bocchus, King of Mauretania, that had Jugurtha handed to the Romans, bringing a bloodless end to the war. Sulla was lauded in the Senate. He subsequently fought alongside Marius against the invading Cimbri and Teutone invaders, before taking up political positions – including that of Consul following his efforts as General during the Social War of 91-88 BCE.

Sulla became the first General to march on Rome, in response to Marius effectively stripping him of his command. Despite several of his Commanders refusing to go with him, he managed to force Marius from the city, though Marius would later return and assume power whilst Sulla was mounting a campaign in Asia. In 82 BCE, Sulla marched on Rome a second time, his success resulting in the Senate appointing him Dictator, bringing with it near-limitless power.

Senators visit xxx to urge him to become Dictator in this painting by xxx
Senators visit Gnaeus Pompeius Magnus to urge him to become Dictator

7. Gnaeus Pompeius Magnus (106-48 BCE)

Political and Military Leader of the Roman Republic

Hailing from a wealthy provincial background, Magnus – or “Pompey The Great” – was one of the main leaders during the final decades of the Roman Republic, and Rome’s most famous General during its closing. He first entered the political scene by raising troops to help Sulla liberate Rome from the Marians in 83 BCE. Helping to defeat them, he earned the nickname “teenage butcher”. When pirates later began threatening Rome’s corn supply in 67BC, Pompey was given command of 120,000 soldiers and 500 ships. Dividing the Mediterranean into 12 zones, he solved the problem within three months.

Pompey later formed the first triumvirate along with Julius Caesar and Crassus, marrying Caesar’s daughter, Julia, to cement the alliance. However, when Julia died in 54 BCE, a chasm was formed between Pompey and Caesar, who found themselves at war. Caesar triumphed and Pompey ultimately fled to Egypt, where he was killed on his arrival.

Vercingetorix throws down his arms at the feet of Julius Caesar, painting by Lionel Royer.
Vercingetorix throws down his arms at the feet of Julius Caesar, painting by Lionel Royer.

6. Gaius Julius Caesar (100-44 BCE)

Dictator of the Roman Republic

Probably the most famous of all the Romans, as a politician Caesar was the first Emperor in all but name. After his conquest of Gaul, which extended Rome’s territory to the English Channel and the Rhine, he became the first Roman General to cross both when he built a bridge across the Rhine and conducted the first invasion of Britain. These achievements granted Caesar unmatched military power, which threatened to overshadow Pompey and his Senate. Pompey accused Caesar of insubordination and treason, and ordered him to disband his army and return to Rome. Caesar refused and, in 49 BCE, led his army into civil war, in which they triumphed.

As dictator in Rome, Caesar overhauled the calendar, started construction of a basilica and issued a new coinage with his head on it. He was murdered in 44 BCE, his death precipitating the end of the Roman Republic.

'The Banquet of Mark Antony and Cleopatra' by Francesco Trevisani, circa 1705-1710
‘The Banquet of Mark Antony and Cleopatra’ by Francesco Trevisani, circa 1705-1710

5. Marcus Antonius (83-30 BCE)

Consul of the Roman Republic

Considered by many to be the greatest Roman General, Mark Antony started his career as an Officer in Egypt. Between 54-50 BCe, he served under Julius Caesar, becoming one of his most trusted Officers. As a result, upon Caesar’s assassination, Antony became Rome’s leader, with Caesar’s posthumously adopted son, Octavian, as his main rival. The second triumvirate was formed by Antony, Octavian and Lepidus, with Antony taking possession of the eastern half of the Roman Empire, and Octavian most of the west. Tensions were apparent between the two men almost immediately, however.

Antony married Octavian’s sister, Octavia, but later took Cleopatra, Queen of Egypt, as his lover and wife. This meant that he lost his alliance with Rome. When war broke out between the two men as a result, Antony was defeated, and he and Cleopatra fled to Egypt, where they committed suicide

A bust of Portrait of Vipsanius Agrippa, circa 25–24 BCE
A bust of Marcus Vipsanius Agrippa, circa 25–24 BCE

4. Marcus Vipsanius Agrippa (63-12 BCE)

General and Consul of the Empire

As well as being Octavian’s key military advisor, Marcus Vipsanius Agrippa was General of the Roman Empire’s fleet of ships and was responsible for the construction of Portus Julius harbour, which joined Lucrinus Lacus and Lake Avernus so that Rome’s ships could be effectively defended from Sextus Pompey’s fleet. Agrippa and Octavian fought together in many land and sea battles right across the Empire, including Gaul, Germanicus and – probably – Africa, where the former may well have fought against his brother in one of the civil wars (though this has never been substantiated).

Agrippa was as well-known for his civic duties as for his military exploits. He was responsible for co-ordinating repairs and improvements to Rome’s water works, renovating and extending the Aqua Marcia aqueduct, and introducing water to new parts of the city. When Augustus came into power, Agrippa worked closely with the Emperor, repairing streets and buildings, and organising festivals for Rome’s inhabitants to enjoy. Augustus paid a back-handed compliment to Agrippa when he later said, “I found the city of brick but left it of marble.”

The Death of Germanicus (1627), oil painting by Nicholas Poussin
‘The Death of Germanicus’ by Nicholas Poussin, 1627

3. Germanicus Julius Caesar (15 BCE-19 CE)

General and Consul of the Empire

The son of Drusus, Caesar followed in his father’s footsteps, going on to become one of Rome’s most celebrated Generals. He was appointed Commander of the Forces in Germanicus in 14 CE, following the death of Augustus. After quashing a rebellion among the eight legions he commanded, he marched to Teutoburg Forest, scene of a battle in 9 CE. There, he buried the bones of fallen Roman soldiers, before pursuing the Cherusci tribe, killing many in an act of vengeance.

In 16 CE, he proved his strategic ability again when he came up against a German alliance at the Battle of the Weser River, many thousands of German troops being killed compared to minor Roman losses.

A statue of Gnaeus Julius Agricola overlooking the Roman baths in Bath
A statue of Gnaeus Julius Agricola overlooking the Roman baths in Bath

2. Gnaeus Julius Agricola (40-93 CE)

General of the Empire and Governor of Britain

Agricola was the General who conquered Britain – and not just parts, but all of it, fighting battles across the country and, as eventual Governor, laying down 1,300 miles of roads and building at least 60 forts.

After holding office in Rome, Agricola was sent by Emperor Vespasian to serve in Britain as a Commander. Later becoming a Governor, he was ordered to conquer the entire island. Leading his army to the north of Scotland, Agricola established forts across much of the lowlands and introduced Romanising measures, encouraging communities to build towns on the Roman model and educating the sons of the native nobility in the Roman manner. He also instructed the prefect of the fleet in the north of Britain to sail around the northern coast, confirming for the first time that Britain was, in fact, an island. Agricola was recalled from Britain in 85 CE, the rumour being that Emperor Domitian was jealous of his successes.

Nero Claudius Drusus in Parian marble, circa 9 BCE–2 CE.
Nero Claudius Drusus in Parian marble, circa 9 BCE–2 CE.

1. Nero Claudius Drusus (38-9 BCE)

General of the Empire

Rome was robbed of one of its finest Generals when Drusus died a month after falling from his horse whilst attempting to push into Germany. He was just 29. The brother of Tiberius – who went on to become Emperor – Drusus was rumoured to be the son of Emperor Augustus, although officially his father was cited as being Tiberius Claudius Nero. This rumour was encouraged by Drusus, because it placed him in direct lineage to Augustus.

Drusus’ military prowess demonstrated itself during his forays into Germany. He was the first Roman General to mount successful campaigns east of the Rhine, pushing his troops as far as the Weser and Elbe rivers. The Sicambri, Batavi, Frisii and Chatti tribes were all subjugated by his army in 11 CE. And a year later, he defeated the Mattiaci, Marcomanni and Cherusci tribes. Although elected for Consul, he instead chose to ride out once more for Germany, where he met his maker in 9 CE.

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