When we think of the great, powerful civilizations of the ancient world, the Romans are almost always at the top of the list. The Roman Empire is, arguably, the most famous empire in history, and for centuries it successfully projected an image of cultural and military superiority.
But that image is not entirely accurate. One could argue that Rome had about 200 years of being at the top, followed by a delayed, but inevitable fall that far outlasted its glory days. The reign of Commodus in 180 AD is usually regarded as the end of Rome’s Golden Age and the beginning of its downfall.
But even at the height of its power, the Roman Empire was not some unstoppable juggernaut. You’ve probably heard of some of its greatest foes, like Hannibal or Attila the Hun, but as you are about to see, they are far from the only ones who have proven more than a match for the might of Rome.
8. The Senones
Surely, there can be no greater sign of a Roman defeat than having the city of Rome sacked – when its enemies so thoroughly demolished their opposition that they were able to march straight into the capital, kill its citizens, burn down its buildings, and plunder its treasures.
Rome has been sacked on four occasions during ancient times, that we know of, and three of the four came during the last dying breaths of the Western Roman Empire, when it was a mere shell of what it used to be. The first one, however, took place 800 years earlier, in the initial stages of the Roman Republic, before Rome became the dominant power in the region.
The ones responsible were the Senones, a tribe of Gauls originally settled in the basin of the River Seine. They were led by a chieftain named Brennus, who marched on Rome sometime around 390 BC, going by the conventional chronology. They fought the Romans at the Battle of the Allia, which resulted in a decisive victory for the Senones. Ancient historian Livy blamed the defeat on the Roman tribunes who did not consider the Gauls a true threat and went to battle unprepared, expecting an easy victory. Instead, the Senones crushed them and made their way to the gates of Rome.
The Gallic tribe took over the city, occupying most of it, except for the Capitoline Hill, which was the best defended area, where also most of the city’s treasures had been taken. According to the story, the Senones demanded a large ransom of gold to leave Rome, and when the Romans complained that the terms were unjust, Brennus immortalized himself with the phrase Vae Victis – “Woe to the vanquished.”
7. Pyrrhus of Epirus
You’ve probably heard of the term “pyrrhic victory” before. It refers to a victory where the winning side suffers such great losses that, ultimately, it wasn’t really worth it. But you might not know that the expression comes from a Greek king who went up against the Romans.
His name was Pyrrhus and he ruled over the kingdom of Epirus in the western Balkans during the early 3rd century BC. Back then, Rome was just a city-state; a powerful one, but Italy was still filled with other kingdoms, including one called Tarentum which was at war with the Romans. The people of Tarentum asked Pyrrhus for help and, as he also had dreams of building an empire, he accepted, hoping to conquer Rome. Therefore, 280 BC marked the beginning of the Pyrrhic War.
Pyrrhus was not only a skilled and experienced commander, but he had war elephants, something the Romans had yet to face. He won his first major victory at the Battle of Heraclea that same year, but still sustained heavy losses. Then came the Battle of Asculum in 279 BC where Pyrrhus won again, but sustained far more casualties than the Romans. According to Plutarch, Pyrrhus said after this battle that “if we are victorious in one more battle with the Romans, we shall be utterly ruined.”
And, indeed, Pyrrhus decided against marching on Rome, and instead changed course to Sicily to fight the Carthaginians, but with a similar result. Although he won, he was not able to maintain control over the region, so in 275 BC Pyrrhus returned to his homeland.
One of Rome’s longest-lived enemies was Parthia, which despite multiple attempts from the Romans, remained a thorn in their side for centuries.
Formed during the mid 3rd century BC, Parthia was an Iranian civilization that became a regional power by rebelling against the Seleucid Empire and defeating them. Now, Parthia ruled over Mesopotamia and wanted to expand westwards, bringing it to the attention of Rome which was looking to expand to the east. Tensions were high between the two empires and a clash seemed inevitable.
It happened in 53 BC, when the Romans struck first in the Battle of Carrhae, in modern-day Turkey. The Romans had the element of surprise on their side, had secured an alliance with the Kingdom of Armenia and were led by Marcus Licinius Crassus, the richest man in Rome and one of its most celebrated generals. And yet the unthinkable happened – the Roman army was not only defeated, but was absolutely devastated. One estimate says that out of 35,000 soldiers, 20,000 were killed in battle, 10,000 were captured, and only 5,000 managed to escape.
Crassus himself was killed after the battle and, according to Cassius Dio, this was done by pouring molten gold down his throat, to punish him for his greed. This had great implications back in Rome because Crassus was part of the First Triumvirate with Julius Caesar and Pompey. His death meant certain war between the other two, but also that the Romans were duty-bound to attack Parthia again to avenge their humiliation.
Such wars took place intermittently for over 160 years, with neither side defeating the other conclusively. Eventually, it was the Sasanians who put an end to the Roman-Parthian Wars by conquering Parthia and founding the Sassanid Empire, which would go on to have its own conflicts with Rome. Speaking of which…
5. The Sasanian Empire
The Sasanians proved to be just as problematic for Rome as the Parthians, with the exception that the former were more interested in looting the cities they defeated instead of adding them to their empire.
The conflict between the two powers first escalated under King Shapur the Great, the second ruler of the Sassanid Empire, which historians also call the Neo-Persian Empire. He had the benefit of being able to use intrigues and plots occurring at the Roman court in his favor. Even though he lost his initial skirmish with the Romans around 243 AD, he still gained the upper hand when the Roman Emperor Gordian III died under suspicious circumstances. His successor (and likely the man who plotted his assassination), Philip the Arab, was eager to obtain peace so that he could return to Rome and consolidate his power, so he agreed to what historians described as “a most shameful treaty” with Shapur in order to end the war.
Of course, no matter how advantageous, this treaty only satiated Shapur briefly. Less than ten years later, he launched a new campaign against the Romans, and pillaged many of their cities. Then, in 260 AD, King Shapur started a third military campaign, and this one had the most shocking result of all, as the Sasanian king managed to capture Valerian, the Roman Emperor at the time. Valerian was taken prisoner, giving him the ignoble distinction of being the only Roman Emperor to be captured and die in captivity.
4. The Visigoths
After the Senones had sacked Rome during the early days of the Roman Republic, the city-state grew in power and in size, and became the most dominant force in Europe. It wasn’t until 800 years later that the city would get sacked again, this time by the Visigoths led by King Alaric I.
The year was 410 AD and the glory days of the Roman Empire were long gone. The kingdom had been split into the western and eastern halves, with each one having its own capital and emperor. By that point, Rome wasn’t even one of the capitals anymore, having been replaced first by Mediolanum (modern-day Milan), and then Ravenna. Even so, it was still considered one of the empire’s greatest possessions, the “eternal city,” and the idea of it being overrun by barbarians was quite unthinkable.
And yet, it happened. Germanic tribes amassing at the borders of the empire had always been a problem, but it became greatly exacerbated over the last few decades as the Western Roman Empire simply did not have the strength, anymore, to contend with all of them. In fact, the Romans often hired certain Gothic tribes that were willing to fight for them in exchange for land and money.
That was what happened with Alaric. During the late 4th century AD, he took his Visigoths and fought for the Roman Emperor Theodosius I against the Franks. But he wasn’t happy, as he felt slighted by the little compensation he received, considering how many kinsmen he sacrificed in battle. Therefore, once Theodosius died in 395 and was replaced by his young and inexperienced son, Honorius, Alaric decided to become an enemy of Rome.
In 402 AD, he invaded Italy, but was defeated and pushed back. He waited for the opportune moment, when the Romans were busy with other enemies, and invaded again in 407. This time, he was more successful, and ended up laying siege on Rome. At first, he tried to negotiate a treaty, and install a senator named Priscus Attalus as new emperor, but the talks fell through so, on August 24, 410 AD, the Visigoths marched into Rome and sacked the eternal city.
3. The Cherusci
The Roman Empire went on for centuries, but during its early years, it faced a humiliating defeat so bad that it threatened the existence of the empire itself. It was the Battle of the Teutoburg Forest, although it aptly became known as the Varian Disaster, where three legions and their auxiliaries were completely destroyed.
The year was 9 AD. Augustus had founded the Roman Empire and was looking to expand it. He was met with great success in many places – in Africa, Hispania, Pannonia, Dalmatia – but in Germany he hit a roadblock in the form of the tribes that lived there.
The Roman general leading the charge in that region was Publius Quinctilius Varus. He thought he had an ace-in-the-hole in the form of Arminius, a Germanic prince and son of the chieftain of the Cherusci tribe. He had served in the Roman army, was granted citizenship and even made a member of the equestrian class. The Romans thought that Arminius would convince some of the friendly Germanic tribes to fight for them against the rest, but he did the opposite – he organized a Germanic revolt against Rome.
When he heard of such rumors, Varus refused to believe they were true. He trusted Arminius and that misplaced trust led to his downfall. While passing through the Teutoburg Forest, the Roman army was ambushed by an alliance of Germanic people, and were absolutely annihilated.
When word reached Augustus of this catastrophic defeat, there was a genuine fear that it would prompt uprisings across all the Roman provinces, which would doom the empire as soon as it got started. Ever since then, the Rhine River was used as a natural border by the Romans and, barring minor incursions and battles, they never tried to conquer the land east of it again. The term Magna Germania was used in order to refer to the region of free Germanic people, in order to distinguish it from Germania Superior and Germania Inferior, the two Roman provinces west of the Rhine.
All things come to an end, and so did the Roman Empire, so surely, the ones who brought about its demise must be included on this list. This happened in two parts – first came the fall of the Western Roman Empire, at the end of the 5th century AD. The one responsible for this was named Odoacer, a general who united several Germanic tribes and deposed the last Western Roman Emperor.
Odoacer was actually born in the empire. We’re not sure about his ethnicity. We just know he wasn’t considered a “true Roman,” so he probably was Germanic. He joined the army and rose through the ranks, ending up in command of the multiple Germanic tribes that were used by the Romans as cheap infantry. These included, among others, the Scirii, the Rugii, and the Heruli. Meanwhile, the Emperor of Rome was Romulus Augustulus, who was still a child, so his father, General Orestes, was actually in charge.
Anyway, Orestes refused to give the barbarian tribes the land they desired as reward for their services, so they united under Odoacer and rebelled. First, they captured and executed Orestes and then, in 476 AD, they deposed the young emperor following a swift victory at the Battle of Ravenna. Afterwards, Odoacer became the first ever King of Italy, although whether or not he actually used the title is a matter of debate.
Ancient Rome was no more, although the Eastern Roman Empire still lived on and it was, by far, the stronger of the two. It lasted for almost another thousand years, until the arrival of…
1. The Ottoman Empire
In 1453, Sultan Mehmed the Conqueror waged war on the Eastern Roman Empire, better known today as the Byzantine Empire. For centuries, the weakened Romans needed help from other western powers to keep the Ottoman threat at bay, but now the sultan wanted to eliminate them once and for all. He had a much more powerful army, and in April of that year, he arrived at the gates of the Byzantine capital of Constantinople, and laid siege.
Many had tried in the past to take Constantinople and they all had failed. But Mehmed had something that they did not: cannons, and a lot of them. He knew that, in this case, it was only a matter of time. After 55 days, on May 29, the city fell. Emperor Constantine XI died that day, either in battle or being executed afterwards. He was the last Roman emperor and with his death came the end of one of the world’s mightiest and longest-lived empires.
Many historians now consider the Fall of Constantinople as a pivotal point in history, one which unofficially marks the end of the Middle Ages and the beginning of the Renaissance.