The Roman Empire was the greatest empire the ancient world had ever seen. At its height it covered 2.2 million square miles and claimed dominion over more than 60 million people.
It was an empire forged through blood, conquest, and almost constant warfare. The Romans admired and celebrated their own great military commanders, but they grudgingly respected those who dared to stand against them. These are 10 of the most resourceful and formidable enemies of Rome.
10. King Pyrrhus
In 282 BC Rome was still little more than an ambitious city state. As Rome sought to expand its borders, it soon clashed with other powers in the Mediterranean region, most notably the Greeks who still possessed several cities in Sicily and the Italian mainland.
With these cities threatened by the growing power of Rome, a Greek general by the name of King Pyrrhus led an army of infantry, cavalry, and war elephants into Italy. His intention was to put the upstart Romans back in their place, and quite possibly to carve out a corner of the empire for himself.
The Roman legions were not yet the deadly weapon of war they would become, and they had no experience whatsoever of fighting against war elephants. Pyrrhus twice defeated the Romans in major battles, but they stubbornly refused to surrender. These victories had come at considerable cost. As Pyrrhus contemplated the battered state of his army, he reportedly lamented that one more such victory would be his ruin. This is the origin of the phrase “pyrrhic victory.”
Having been one of the first to witness the relentless nature of the Roman war machine, Pyrrhus led what remained of his army across the Mediterranean and into North Africa, where he hoped to find easier pickings. The Romans had defeated their first major rival, but many more would follow.
With King Pyrrhus having retreated from Italy, the Romans plunged into a trilogy of wars with Carthage, a major trading and naval power located barely more than 50 miles from Rome in North Africa.
In 215 BC, during the second of these wars, a new ruler came to power in the city of Syracuse. The city had once been an independent ally of Rome, but now it seemed it might ally itself with Carthage.
Syracuse, which is located on the east coast of the island of Sicily, was one of the largest and most influential cities in the known world. It was simply too important to lose, so in 214 BC Rome sent an army to occupy the city.
Unfortunately for the Romans, Syracuse was far from defenseless. It was protected by thick walls, loyal soldiers, and the ingenuity of its most famous inhabitant. That man was Archimedes, the greatest genius of his age. He’s still remembered today as a brilliant mathematician, scientist, engineer, and the man who shouted eureka from his bathtub. It’s less well known that he designed extraordinary weapons of war to defend his city and attempt to break the Roman siege.
In addition to more orthodox weapons such as catapults, Archimedes reportedly designed a claw capable of dragging a Roman ship out of the water and capsizing it, a steam cannon, and even a heat ray which allegedly used mirrors to deflect, magnify, and weaponize the heat of the sun.
With Archimedes’ help the Romans were held at bay for two years, but they eventually succeeded in breaking into the city by stealth. The Roman commander had ordered his soldiers to bring Archimedes to him alive. On this occasion Roman discipline did not prevail, and one of history’s greatest geniuses was run through with a sword while he was contemplating a mathematical problem.
Mithridates is sometimes referred to as the Poison King, and he certainly earned his nickname. Not only did he poison his mother and his brother during his rise to power, he regularly dosed himself with small quantities of various kinds of poison. His intention was to build up his tolerance and render himself immune to their effects. His fear of assassination was well founded; there were plenty of people, including the Romans, who had good reason to desire Mithridates’ death.
The Poison King inherited a small kingdom on the shores of the Black Sea, but he was an ambitious and violent man. Through both politics and warfare he sought to expand his domain and conquer his neighbors. While the Romans initially showed little interest in his activities, his aggressive approach to foreign policy eventually brought him into direct conflict with Rome.
With the Romans already distracted by a war with various independent cities in Italy, Mithridates won several victories and vastly expanded his empire. He even succeeded in capturing one of the most important men in all of Rome, a consul and general named Manius Aquillius, who he had executed by pouring molten gold down his throat.
By now Mithridates had earned Rome’s full attention, and Pompey the Great, then regarded as Rome’s most brilliant military commander, was sent to bring him to heel.
Having finally been defeated in battle, Mithridates, his wife, and his children, all consumed poison rather than fall into Roman hands. When this method proved ineffective thanks to the tolerance he had carefully cultivated, the Poison King had his bodyguard run him through with a sword.
For most of their history the tribes of Gaul, in what is now modern-day France, had fought against each other. In 52 BC a Roman invasion, and the presence of an inspirational leader named Vercingetorix, convinced them to stand together to face a common foe.
The Roman legions were the wrecking machine of the ancient world. Vercingetorix was smart enough to avoid a decisive confrontation for as long as he could. The newly-crowned King of the Gauls instead torched crops, poisoned wells, and launched a series of hit-and-run attacks aimed at exhausting Roman strength and starving his enemy of supplies.
Through this strategy Vercingetorix inflicted heavy losses on the Romans, but he had the misfortune of facing one of the greatest military minds in history in the form of Julius Caesar.
Finally cornered at Alesia, Vercingetorix and his 80,000 strong army waited behind their fortifications for reinforcements to arrive. With a ruthless will to win, and with supplies running low, he drove the civilians out of the fortress. Caesar refused to allow them to pass through his lines, and they were left to slowly starve to death in the no-man’s-land between the two armies.
A huge force of more than 200,000 Gauls marched to Alesia’s aid, albeit too late to save the unfortunate civilians. In a battle between the sheer numbers of the Gauls and the discipline of Caesar’s legions, Roman discipline narrowly triumphed. Vercingetorix was bundled off to Rome in chains, and Gaul became another Roman province.
6. Queen Boudica
Having conquered Gaul, Caesar set his sights on Britain – a wild island on the very edge of the known world.
Some of the local Celtic tribes fought against the invading Romans; others attempted to come to mutually beneficial terms. King Prastagus of the Iceni tribe was one of the latter. This arrangement worked well enough until Prastagus’s death in 60 AD, at which point the infamous Emperor Nero ordered that the Iceni’s land be brought under direct Roman control. Prastagus,’s wife, Queen Boudica, was flogged, and their two daughters were raped.
The Romans had badly underestimated Boudica, who led a coalition of tribes in open rebellion. The warrior queen proved to be a terrifying, merciless foe. Her forces set Colchester, St. Albans, and Londinium ablaze. Captured civilians and soldiers alike were slaughtered without mercy.
The final showdown between Boudica and the Romans was fought in 61 AD. Boudica chose to fight in the front ranks, telling her warriors that she would never submit to slavery: she would either defeat the Romans or die in the attempt. It would once again a struggle between a relatively small number of well-trained, highly disciplined Romans and a much larger force of furious barbarians. Roman discipline triumphed again, and Boudica’s army was annihilated. The defeated warrior queen committed suicide rather than be captured and endure whatever punishments had been planned for her.
5. King Shapur I
Romans tended to view barbarians, which essentially meant anyone who wasn’t a Roman, as brutes and savages. Shapur and the fledgling Sasanian Empire didn’t fit comfortably into this stereotype. They were a sophisticated people whose culture was in many ways as advanced and far more enlightened than Rome. They were also formidable warriors, and King Shapur, who called himself the King of Kings and believed himself to have descended from the gods, would prove himself a match for the Romans on the battlefield.
The Sasanians scored several victories over the Romans, but by far the most spectacular came in 260 AD when Shapur succeeded in capturing Emperor Valerian himself. This was new territory; no Roman Emperor had ever been taken captive by a foreign power.
Valerian would be forced to live out the rest of his life in captivity. According to some sources he was treated like an honored guest. Other accounts have him being used as King Shapur’s personal human footstool before being flayed alive, stuffed with straw, and placed on display in a Persian temple.
The Spartacus rebellion was a source of considerable embarrassment for the Romans. It was humiliating that their legions could be repeatedly bested by an army of slaves. As a result, the Romans were not inclined to record the history of the uprising in any great detail. What little we do know about Spartacus comes from just a handful of accounts, most of them written decades after the events they describe. However, there is enough to suggest that he must have been an inspirational leader and a gifted military tactician.
In 73 BC, along with fewer than 100 fellow slaves, he led a breakout from a gladiator school in Capua. These hardened fighters would form the nucleus of a rebel army that would swell to more than 70,000 strong over the course of little more than a year.
The Romans had initially underestimated Spartacus, who crushed the first two forces sent against him. With a huge slave army rampaging at will throughout Italy, the Roman Senate finally realized the true nature of the threat they were facing. Pompey the Great was recalled from Hispania, and Marcellus Licinius Crassus, the richest man in all of Rome, was given command of eight entire legions with which to crush the rebellion.
Faced with such an enormous force Spartacus’s only hope now was to flee, but he was betrayed by the pirates he’d bribed to transport his army across the Mediterranean. He was eventually defeated in battle, but his body was never found.
3. Attila the Hun
In the 4th century AD a new threat appeared from the east. Nomadic barbarian tribesmen known as the Huns began to push into Europe from across the River Volga. They were brilliant horsemen who fought their battles, and lived most of their lives, in the saddle.
With each rider armed with the most powerful bow the world had ever seen, and able to loose off as many as fifteen arrows a minute, the Huns were a terrifying enemy at the best of times. When a warlord named Attila united the tribes under his leadership, they became a threat to the survival of the Roman Empire itself.
Attila the Hun was a brutal killer who’d murdered even his own brother in his pursuit of power, but he was also an intelligent man and a brilliant military leader. As Attila won victory after victory on the battlefield, the Romans retreated behind the walls of their towns and cities. To their horror they discovered that Attila, despite commanding a fast-moving cavalry force, had a firm grasp on the sophisticated principles of siege warfare.
Attila had risked death in countless battles, but he wasn’t destined to die with a sword in his hand. In 453, having consumed a vast amount of alcohol to celebrate his wedding to a young bride, he suffered a nose bleed as he slept and choked to death on his own blood. It was an ignominious end for the man the Romans had come to call “the Scourge of God.”
2. King Alaric
Germany was occupied by fierce barbarian tribes that the Romans had never succeeded in conquering, but even these could not resist the advance of the Huns. Those tribes that chose to fight invariably lost. Others looked to make agreements with the Huns, and still others fled into the Roman Empire.
A tribe known as the Visigoths were among those that fled. One of their number would eventually be the first man to lead a hostile army into Rome in more than 800 years.
Born in 370 AD, King Alaric of the Visigoths didn’t have any particular grudge against Rome. In fact, all he really wanted was for his people to be granted their own land and become part of the Empire. Alaric would have been a valuable ally, but the Emperor refused the request. As a result, Alaric led his army into Italy. On his first attempt he was repelled by the Romans. His second effort was more successful and by 409 AD his army was camped outside Rome itself.
Alaric again demanded land for his people. The Emperor, who wasn’t in the besieged city at the time, again refused the request. Finally running out of patience, Alaric and the Visigoths sacked the city and made off with a huge haul of gold and jewels. Many historians mark this event as the beginning of the end for the Roman Empire in the west.
1. Hannibal Barca
In 241 BC the Carthaginian Empire was defeated at the hands of Rome in the First Punic War. Hamilcar Barca had commanded Carthage’s armies with immense skill against superior numbers on land, only to find himself on the losing side when the proud Carthaginian navy suffered a surprise defeat at sea.
If Hamilcar couldn’t avenge this defeat himself, then he would do so through his three sons, in whom he had instilled a deep hatred of Rome. One of these, Hannibal Barca, would prove himself to be one of history’s most brilliant military commanders and would come close to toppling the Roman Empire.
Hannibal’s most famous feat is leading his war elephants across the Alps. This unlikely maneuver certainly caught the Romans by surprise; they hadn’t imagined such a thing to be possible. However, most of the beasts died in the process, and the rest of them sickened and died shortly after the journey.
Hannibal arrived in Italy at the head of an exhausted, depleted army, but he nonetheless succeeded in defeating every force the Romans threw at him. At the Battle of Cannae he masterminded a brilliant victory, which saw his army surround and defeat a much larger Roman force. 70,000 Romans were hacked to death or captured in just one day.
It took fifteen years for the Romans to finally gain the upper hand over their nemesis. When a large army led by Scipio Africanus, who had escaped the slaughter at Cannae, landed in North Africa, Hannibal had to finally abandon Italy and race to Carthage’s rescue. Scipio had been studying Hannibal’s tactics, and it was the Roman who came out on top in the battle between the two military geniuses.
Carthage was forced to make peace on humiliating terms, and Hannibal became a wanted man on the run from the Romans. He eventually committed suicide rather than risk being captured alive.