The Empire’s Most Wanted – 10 Mortal Enemies of Ancient Rome

Vercingetorix surrenders to Julius Caesar. (Image source: WikiCommons)

Vercingetorix surrenders to Julius Caesar. (Image source: WikiCommons)

“The famous city on the Tiber certainly had its share of foes. So behold: Ten of Rome’s most hated (and feared) enemies!”

AT ITS PEAK, the Roman Empire was home to as many as 90 million people. Territory under Rome’s control spanned 6.5 million square kilometers and stretched from Spain to Asia Minor and North Africa to northern England. But you don’t forge one of the largest and most powerful civilizations in history without making a few enemies along the way. And not surprisingly, the famous city on the Tiber certainly had its share of foes. So behold: Ten of Rome’s most hated (and feared) enemies! Inductees to our rogues’ gallery include Celtic barbarians, Asiatic warlords, traitors and cutthroats of all stripes, a bona fide warrior queen and even a high school math teacher! In fact, we think you’ll shrink back in horror from this, the worst band of thugs and scoundrels to walk the Earth for 2,000 years.

… At least that’s what the Romans would say.

Paul Jamin's 1893 classic "Brennus and His Share of the Spoils". (Image source: WikiCommons)

“Brennus and His Spoils” by Paul Jamin. (Image source: WikiCommons)

“Woe to the Vanquished”

One of Rome’s earliest adversaries was Brennus, a Celtic warlord from the region of Gaul. In 387 BCE, 12,000 warriors under his command invaded Italy and shattered a Roman army twice as large on the banks of the Allia River. The hoard then captured the city and spent weeks raping and slaughtering its inhabitants. A desperate Senate begged Brennus to stay his thugs and even offered the chieftain a half-ton of gold if he’d leave town. The wily warlord accepted, but as civic leaders measured out the ransom, the barbarian slammed his heavy sword onto the scales and demanded even more loot. When the Romans protested, Brennus thundered: “Vae victis” or “Woe to the Vanquished!” Eventually, disease thinned the ranks of his army, making it a pushover for a Roman counter attack. Brennus and his men were soon driven from the city and butchered en masse in the surrounding countryside. This first sacking of Rome served as a wake-up call to the young republic. It gradually abandoned its Greek phalanx-style battle formations and built a more professional army. For a time, the Senate even considered moving the capital to Veii, but instead erected fortifications like the Servian Wall.

The death of Spartacus. (Image source: WikiCommons)

The death of Spartacus. (Image source: WikiCommons)

Spartacus’ Rampage

Scant details exist regarding the early life of the rebel leader Spartacus. What we do know however is that in 73 BCE, the 38-year-old Thracian slave and his fellow inmates at a Capua gladiator school overpowered their jailers using kitchen knives and escaped. After gathering weapons, the small band inaugurated a guerrilla campaign against Rome, freeing and recruiting slaves as they went. Within two years, the movement had swelled to nearly 120,000 and was soon taking on and defeating whole Roman armies. In 71 BCE, the rebels were finally crushed at the High Sele Valley by eight crack legions under the command of Marcus Licinius Crassus. Spartacus is thought to have perished in the climactic battle, at which point his followers scattered. As many as 6,000 rebel slaves were recaptured and crucified all along the Appian Way between Rome and Capua, the site of the initial uprising.

Hannibal.

Hannibal.

Hannibal of Carthage

Heralded as one of the greatest military leaders in history, the 3rd Century BCE Carthaginian general Hannibal invaded Rome by way of  Spain and the Alps. In 216, the 31-year-old commander became the author of one of Rome’s worst defeats on record: the Battle of Cannae. The one-day contest saw up to 75,000 Roman soldiers encircled and cut to pieces by just 50,000 Carthaginians. It was only a Roman incursion into the Punic homeland that forced Hannibal to abandon his occupation of Italy. In 202 BCE, his stellar military career ended at the Battle of Zama in present day Libya. Following the decisive clash, Carthage fell and the one-time scourge of the republic fled into exile. For years, Roman agents pursued their former enemy. Fearing he was about to be captured while hiding on Crete, Hannibal took a dose of poison that he carried with him and died. He was 66.

Archimedes may not have used death rays to burn Roman ships (as is widely believed), but his engineering made Syracuse a tough nut to crack.

Archimedes may not have actually used death rays to burn Roman ships (as has long been believed), but his engineering expertise certainly made Syracuse a tough nut to crack.

The Killer Genius

Archimedes proved to Rome that brains could be mightier than brawn. During the siege of Syracuse in 212 BCE, the noted Greek mathematician unleashed a series of brilliant (if not downright devious) surprises on an attacking Roman fleet. His variable-range catapults relentlessly rained shot down onto the republic’s ships as they approached the seaside city, while giant parabolic mirrors he supposedly devised focused the sun’s rays onto the vessels’ sails setting them alight. Archimedes also reportedly engineered an enormous claw-like crane and grappling hook for the walls of Syracuse that could ensnare and capsize the attackers’ triremes. The Romans eventually overpowered the defences (at considerable cost) and once inside the city, the enraged victors combed the streets looking for Archimedes. According to legend, a lone Roman soldier found the aging inventor busy toiling in his workshop. Not realizing it was an enemy at the door, the 78-year-old chastised the intruder for disturbing him, at which point the Roman plunged his sword into Archimedes’ chest.

Vercingetorix. (Image source: WikiCommons)

Vercingetorix. (Image source: WikiCommons)

Unmitigated Gaul

Just as it looked like Julius Caesar had finally subjugated the Gallic tribes in present-day France, a particularly stubborn chieftain named Vercingetorix mounted a final (and bloody uprising) in 52 BCE. After uniting local clans against the up-and-coming Roman general, the warlord scored a surprising victory at Gergovia. But while Vercingetorix regrouped his exhausted army at Alesia, Caesar arrived with fresh troops and besieged the settlement. The future Consul of Rome crushed the Gauls and the notorious war chief gave himself up. Vercingetorix was imprisoned for five years. Finally in 46 BCE, Caesar brought his famous captive to Rome and had him strangled in front of an ecstatic mob. How barbaric!

Germanic warriors slaughter three whole Roman legions in the Teutoburg Forest.

Germanic warriors slaughter three whole Roman legions in the Teutoburg Forest.

The Turncoat Arminius

All of Rome howled with rage following an infamous act of treachery by the Germanic chieftain Arminius. Unbeknownst to the Romans, their one-time barbarian ally had a change-of-heart and on Sept. 9, 9 CE, he lured Publius Quinctilius Varus and 36,000 soldiers into a deadly ambush in the Teutoburg Forrest. As many as 20,000 Roman troops were cut down in the ensuing carnage. The disgraced Varus subsequently threw himself upon his sword. Upon learning of the disaster, the 70-year-old Augustus went mad, banging his head against a marble column in his palace crying aloud to his dead general to give him back his legions. Rome was scandalized by the defeat and Arminius became the most hated man in the empire. He died 12 years later at the hands rival chieftains.

A romanticized depiction of Boudica. Tacitus described her as having "tawny hair... a harsh voice and a piercing glare." (Image source: WikiCommons)

A romanticized depiction of Boudica. Tacitus described her as having “tawny hair… a harsh voice and a piercing glare.” (Image source: WikiCommons)

The Warrior Queen

The queen of Britain’s Iceni tribe, Boudica (or Boadicea) certainly had reason to hate the Romans. In the year 61 CE, governor Gaius Suetonius Paulinus muscled in on territory left to her by her late husband Prasutagus. When she complained about it, Roman soldiers tied her to a post and whipped her in front of her fellow Iceni. They then raped her daughters. Months later, while Paulinus’ legions departed for Wales to slaughter some Druids, the outlaw widow assembled a coalition of 100,000 warriors and descended onto Roman settlements to exact her bloody revenge. The swelling hoard next marched on Londinium (modern day London). In a three-day orgy of retribution, more than 70,000 Romans were put to the sword or burned alive inside their homes and temples. Learning of the uprising, Paulinus raced home with his army. Boudica’s Celts, now a quarter-million strong, intercepted the 10,000-man legion. The so-called Battle of Watling Street saw the emperor’s troops hold their ground as Iceni and their allies died by the thousands. Boudica was reportedly killed in the melee or possibly took her own life to avoid being captured.

Alaric's 410 sack of Rome.

A fanciful depiction of Alaric’s 410 sack of Rome.

Alaric’s Roman Holiday

While the king of the Visigoths, Alaric I, went down in history for his 410 CE sack of Rome, initially, the notorious conqueror wanted to protect the city, not destroy it. As the Western Empire was imploding in the early 5th century, the Romans reached out to the mighty Gothic warlord for military aid. In return, Alaric demanded that he be named supreme commander of all imperial legions (such as they were) and insisted on a homeland for his people. When the emperor balked, Alaric marched his army into Italy and on Aug. 24, 410 his Visigoths poured through the very gates of Rome. It was the first time in eight centuries that foreign troops had set foot in the Eternal City. While the invaders did loot a number of public buildings, the unarmed citizens were largely unharmed during the sacking. Also, these so-called marauding savages were in fact mostly Christian and left Rome’s churches undisturbed. Three days later, Alaric withdrew his army. He died of a fever shortly afterwards.

A 19th Century engraving of Hun warriors.

A 19th Century engraving of Hun warriors.

Attila the Hun

His name a byword for barbarism itself, Attila the Hun was the ruler of a vast multiethnic empire that stretched from Central Asia into Eastern Europe during the mid-5th Century. After tangling with the Persians and the Byzantines, the conquering warlord set his sights on the crumbing Roman Empire. He boldly claimed its territories in Gaul for himself and even demanded Emperor Valentinian III hand over his sister Honoria to be his wife. Now to be fair, the princess hated her sibling and actually called upon Attila to rescue her! In 451 CE, a joint Roman-Visigoth army halted the Huns in France at the epic Battle of the Catalaunian Plains. Attila withdrew, but the following year he planned an assault on Rome itself. Widespread famine in Italy compelled him to hold back however; he feared that his men would go hungry on the march. While contemplating his next move, Attila married a Gothic princess. Fortunately for the Romans, he died on his wedding night in 453 CE. Some say he was done in by a particularly severe nosebleed; other accounts suggest he was slain by his new bride. Either way, his vast empire descended into chaos and disintegrated shortly after his death.

The Vandals sack Rome in 455 CE. (Image source: WikiCommons)

The Vandals sack Rome in 455 CE. (Image source: WikiCommons)

Vandalism 

Rome’s final humiliation came at the hands of Genseric, the king of the Vandals. After years of war against the wandering Germanic nation, Valentinian III (yes, him again) attempted to negotiate some sort of an armistice. Just as the deal was being finalized, an upstart senator named Petronius Maximus assassinated the emperor and stole the throne. Enraged, Genseric invaded Italy from his stronghold in North Africa and marched into Rome. A relatively benign 14-day occupation followed in which many of the ancient city’s historic temples were systematically stripped bare of their bronze roofs – hence the term vandalism. Yet despite the plundering, it was hardly the orgy of violence later depicted in paintings. But for Rome, it still was curtains. A geopolitical basket case by that point, within a few short years the empire was history.

4 comments for “The Empire’s Most Wanted – 10 Mortal Enemies of Ancient Rome

  1. 27 May, 2016 at 1:14 am

    Fascinating! What about Caratacus?

  2. Dude
    6 June, 2016 at 1:20 pm

    What about Mithridates of Pontus!?

  3. Ray
    25 October, 2016 at 3:48 pm

    What about Sertorius? The one eyed former general that pompey the great couldn’t defeat

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