10 Fierce But Often Forgotten Enemies of Rome
Rome, this very name conjures up images of an ancient empire so vast that experts from different ages have been spellbound by the unprecedented magnanimity of its reaches. Ancient Rome defined the very genesis of our Western civilization, but it also attracted hordes of enemies. The most courageous of the enemies of Rome saw its immense power, but still decided to face their formidable opponents – at best they achieved great victories, spurring on rebellions against the Roman army, at worst, they fell to their skilled adversaries.
Rome has some very interesting myths regarding its foundation story too. When the Trojan War broke out in the epic Iliad, the city of Troy was breached and destroyed by a cunning ploy. But a young man called Aeneas survived, and his tale has been narrated extensively in the epic Aeneid, created by the Latin poet Virgil. Aeneas supposedly travelled far and wide, came to ancient Carthage where he courted their Queen Dido, and left her heart-broken to go to a new place – and thus he created the city of Rome.
Another story tells us about its legendary founder Romulus, who along with his twin Remus (whom he murdered later on), were reared and brought up by a she-wolf. Romulus then went on to create the city of Rome and became its first king. Starting from him, Rome had seven legendary kings:
- Numa Pompilius
- Tullus Hostilius
- Ancus Marcius
- Tarquinius Priscus
- Servius Tullius
- Tarquinius Superbus
‘The Pride of Romulus.’ (Public Domain)
Enemies of Rome Arise!
The last legendary king, Lucius Tarquinius Superbus, was said to be cruel and haughty and hence his misrule saw him being deposed by an uprising which led to the birth of the Roman Republic in c. 509 BC. We have to note here, that one of the men who were responsible for overthrowing this king was called Brutus – Lucius Junius Brutus, a predecessor of Marcus Junius Brutus who was responsible for the assassination of Julius Caesar and later immortalized by Shakespeare.
Ever since then, Rome had defined the very epithet of a growing, burgeoning civilization which would inspire and influence world civilization in a way as to change our very notion of grandeur. However, Rome’s prosperity also attracted enemies and detractors in droves; some plundering the very city, while others created havoc in its country sides. We will discuss them now:
Brennus of Senones
Historically there may have been many Brennuses. In fact, this very name might have been a title and not a personal name, per se. But the Brennus we are talking about here was the one who famously sacked Rome in the 4th century BC. He belonged to the Gallic tribe called Senones from present-day France.
Most of the accounts of Brennus and his famous sack of Rome were known from the works of historians like Plutarch, Livy, and others who lived much later than the time of Brennus. They had probably gathered the facts from some earlier works. There is no consensus among historians as to the reason for Brennus crossing the Alps and settling on the eastern coast of Italy. It was probably due to the over-population of Gaul and scarcity of resources there.
Brennus depicted on the figurehead of the French battleship Brennus. (Med/CC BY SA 3.0)
Brennus and his men were originally busy in the siege of Clusium, a city to the North of Rome, when some Romans meddled in their affairs. The sparks flew fast and Brennus soon moved against Rome. He and his men travelled towards the imperial city and met the Roman army near the River Allia.
The ensuing battle saw the Roman army routed by the Gauls (c. 390 BC). Brennus soon sieged the Capitoline Hill, after sacking the city, where he demanded a thousand pounds in gold when called in for negotiations to end the siege. During the measurement of the same, legend has it that he famously said ‘Vae Victis’ which means ‘Woe to the vanquished,’ the expression having survived the sands of time ever since. Though it might not have been said by Brennus at all.
The Commander of the Gaul’s was finally defeated and probably killed by an army commanded by Marcus Furius Camillus, now hailed as the second founder of ancient Rome after the legendary Romulus. Brennus’s name would survive generations and be uttered in awe and fear henceforth.
Viriathus of the Lusitanians
The famous historian Theodor Mommsen has compared Viriathus in his works with the Homeric heroes of mythology. This Celtic-Iberian warrior belonged to the Lusitani tribe of Hispania in Roman times. Their tribe controlled areas that corresponded to present-day Portugal.
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Viriathus belonged to a very humble background. When he was young, he was a shepherd and passed through his life in simple terms. It is not known now when he acquired the qualities that made him a remarkable warrior later on. But his almost nomadic life in the hills and the wild terrains must have made him physically strong.
The Lusitani tribe clashed with the Romans on and off starting from the 3rd century BC, when Rome started capturing these areas as an extension of their subjugation of Carthage, which controlled some parts of Southern Hispania/Iberia at that time. Due to the misrule of Rome in the subsequent years, the Lusitani rose in revolt in c. 194 BC. In his youth, Viriathus was part of a large group of people who surrendered to Rome in c. 150 BC in exchange for peace.
But they were betrayed and the whole group of Lusitanians, including women and children, were massacred. Viriathus escaped it somehow and to avenge this cruelty, he gathered many tribes against Rome later on. He successfully commanded his troops to many victories against Rome between c. 147 BC to 139 BC. Unfortunately, he was murdered by three of his friends from his army who were bribed by Rome. Viriathus is now widely celebrated in Portugal as one of their enduring symbols of pride and valor.
‘The death of Viriatus, Chief of the Lusitanians’ by José de Madrazo. (Public Domain)
Jugurtha of Numidia
Jugurtha had served in the Roman army in his youth and knew everything about their weaknesses and strengths. The ancient kingdom of Numidia was located in North Africa in a region which would currently be equivalent to some parts of Western Algeria and some minor parts of Eastern Tunisia. Jugurtha rose to power and became the king by killing his two step-brothers, the murder of one of them called ‘Adherbal’ being deeply resented in Rome. Jugurtha had massacred the city of Cirta, the capital of Adherbal in c. 112 BC, which brought him into direct conflict with Rome.
Rome had sent the commander Lucius Calpurnius Bestia to Numidia in c. 111 BC. Though Bestia made numerous gains in the subsequent battles, he couldn’t conclusively end the war and brought Jugurtha to surrender. But soon Jugurtha resorted to his cunning ways and bribed Bestia to return to Rome, leaving a token force in Numidia.
He then bribed the remaining forces too, and when summoned to Rome, successfully bribed people there and came back without any harm to himself. So, in c. 110 BC, Rome sent Postumius Albinus to finish off Jugurtha. But even Albinus, or his brother Aulus, couldn’t make much headway and they were driven out of Africa. In c. 109 BC, Quintus Caecilius Metellus Numedicus started his campaigns in Numidia and made several signs of progress.
Framed miniature of King Jugurtha paraded through Rome as a prisoner (left), while King Boctus makes peace with the Romans (right). (Public Domain)
But in c. 107 BC he was replaced by the famous Gaius Marius, who came back from Rome after being selected as a consul there. Jugurtha was finally betrayed by his son-in-law and brought to Rome in chains, where he died in c. 104 BC in a Roman prison. Thus ended the life of one of the most cunning enemies of ancient Rome.
Ambiorix of the Eburones
In Belgium, Ambiorix is now considered a national hero who valiantly fought Caesar’s forces of ancient Rome in the famous Gallic Wars of c. 54/53 BC. Ambiorix would have remained an obscure figure had Julius Caesar not mentioned him glowingly in his accounts of his Gallic Wars. The name of Ambiorix probably means ‘Protector King’ - and true to his name, he was in all probability a joint king of his tribe with another person by the name of Cativolcus.
During Caesar’s campaigns in Gaul and Belgica, a minor tribe by the name of Eburones surprisingly rose in revolt. Ambiorix in the course of this war had deceived the Romans into believing that he meant them no harm, while ambushing them to massacres after assuring them of safe passages. He did it numerous times before Caesar came to the rescue of one of his units.
The Gauls were significant enemies of Rome. (Massimo Todaro /Adobe Stock)
He in turn deceived Ambiorix by his superior tactics and forced him to flee. Ambiorix survived, and together with some of his bodyguards, escaped into the ancient German lands. After that, nothing more was heard about this strong and valiant enemy of Rome who fought a much superior force with his limited means.
Arminius of the Cherusci
In the course of ancient Roman history, this magnificent empire had been much troubled by the incursions of several Germanic tribes from time to time, but none so humiliating as the devastation that the Roman army suffered at the Battle of the Teutoburg Forest in 9 AD. The man who was responsible for this Roman defeat was Arminius of the German Cherusci tribe, who is now hailed as a German national hero and called Hermann.
Arminius or Hermann was probably brought up in the city of Rome, where he was interred as a hostage from some war booty. He grew up to be an able soldier in the Roman army and was given charge of some units comprising soldiers derived from his original native lands. But when he was sent to Germania to join forces with the Governor there - Publius Quinctilius Varus, he somehow felt the call of his native lands and rose in revolt against the Romans by gathering the other tribes.
He ambushed Varus and completely destroyed the three legions of the Roman army in the Battle of the Teutoburg Forest. This had far-reaching consequences. This defeat was considered Rome’s greatest humiliation and subsequently weakened the Western Roman Empire. Unfortunately, Arminius was assassinated by his own people in c. 21 AD, who probably became jealous of his growing influence over a liberated Germania.
Germanic warriors storm the field, ‘Varusschlacht,’ 1909. (Public Domain)
Vercingetorix of the Arverni
Another charismatic leader from Gaul who gave the ancient Roman army much trouble was Vercingetorix of the Arverni tribe. Vercingetorix was born to Celtillus, the leader of the powerful Arverni tribe of Gaul. When he grew up and was made the leader of his tribe in c. 52 BC, he united the other Gallic tribes and rose in revolt against Julius Caesar, who was campaigning in Gaul at that time to further his prestige with the Roman senate.
Initially, the Gauls were themselves recruited by the Romans to check the incursion of the Germanic tribes into Gaul. But soon Caesar began to impose Roman laws into that land, which insulted the Gallic tribes. When Vercingetorix united the Gauls, not many had joined him and hence he adopted a policy of scorched earth and hiding behind natural fortifications.
But when Caesar massacred the town of Avaricum, Vercingetorix’s forces doubled in search of revenge. At the battle of Gergovia, their capital, the Gallic forces defeated the Romans due to their superior cavalry. Hence, Caesar, being the astute general that he was, soon recruited German cavalries in his army as mercenary soldiers. Finally, at the Battle of Alesia, Vercingetorix was defeated and he surrendered personally by riding down to Caesar’s camp.
Boudicca of the Iceni
This British Queen of the Celtic Iceni tribe rose in revolt against Rome when she was grossly mistreated by the Roman Army in c. 60/61 AD. Boudicca, sometimes spelt as Boadicea, was probably born into royalty and grew up at a place called Camulodunum - which is now Colchester.
Boudicca was married to Prasutagus, the king of the Iceni tribe. With him, she had two daughters. The Iceni tribe inhabited an area that would be equivalent to the present-day county of Norfolk, together with some other areas of the adjoining counties.
When the Roman Empire conquered south of the British Isles in c. 43 AD, Prasutagus was allowed to rule as an independent ally of Rome. He left his kingdom to his two daughters and to the Roman Emperor in his will. However, when Prasutagus died, Rome totally annexed his kingdom - and while doing so, they publicly flogged Boudicca and raped her two daughters.
But the Queen was not to give in so easily. She rose in revolt with her armies and massacred some 70 to 80 thousand Roman soldiers while desecrating several Roman strongholds. However, the Roman Governor Gaius Suetonius Paulinus soon regrouped his army and defeated the forces of Boudicca. The brave queen then probably ended her life by taking poison. Today, she is a national hero in her country and a symbol of courage and fortitude.
Boadicea monument in London. (Claudio Divizia /Adobe Stock)
Genseric of the Vandals
It is not without reason that the word vandalism entered our popular lexicon from the tribe of the Vandals - whose senseless destruction and plunder of Rome had far-reaching effects in world history. This vandalism of Rome was done in 455 AD under a leader called Genseric or Gaiseric. He remained one of the fiercest enemies of Rome.
Gaiseric was born to the Vandal King Godigisel. The Vandals were a Germanic tribe who primarily inhabited present-day Southern Poland, but would go on to establish their strongholds in the Iberian Peninsula and Northern Africa. Gaiseric ruled for a long time and his reign saw the Vandals becoming one of the major powers of the Mediterranean world.
In 455 AD, he took his huge force from Carthage over to Italy, then systematically seized and plundered Rome, and stripped it off all its riches. It is now quite obvious that Rome was not able to endure that sacking, and the Western Roman Empire went into steady decline after this incident.
Alaric of the Visigoths
Alaric I was a leader of a Germanic tribe called the Visigoths. The Visigoths, along with the other Germanic tribe called the Ostrogoths, played a huge rule in ancient European history. Alaric was initially a soldier in the Roman army who helped Rome in defeating the Franks and some other enemies. However, Alaric and the other soldiers of his tribe received little recognition or honor from Rome, despite losing a large number of their comrades in battles.
Alaric rose to power as the leader of his tribe probably in c. 395 AD, following the Roman Emperor Theodosius’s death. The Roman Emperor’s two incompetent sons divided the empire then into the Eastern and Western halves. However, general Flavius Stilicho originally controlled the Western half.
Alaric took advantage of this East-West divide and started raiding the Roman territories of the Balkans and Greece. Soon, as tensions rose between the Western Roman Empire and the Goths, Alaric sacked Rome in 410 AD, an incident of epic proportion. However, Alaric soon died after this and one of the most significant enemies of Rome probably met his end due to a fever - not in battle.
Shapur I of Persia
No other enemy of Rome had humiliated this imperial behemoth the way ‘Shapur I’ of Persia did - by not only capturing a Roman Emperor and keeping him in captivity, but also using him as the very pedestal to climb up onto his horse every day. Shapur the Great was one of the most powerful rulers of Persia and was born to King Ardeshir I, the founder of the Sassanian Empire.
The Humiliation of the Emperor Valerian by the Persian King Shapur. (Public Domain)
Shapur I expanded his empire far and wide, and looking at the political turmoil of Rome at that time, he raided their territories several times in the 3rd century AD. In one of his campaigns against Rome, he became the first foreign ruler to capture a Roman Emperor in a battle. The unfortunate one in this regard was the Roman Emperor Valerian. Shapur using him as a footstool to climb onto his horse remained an ultimate humiliation that an emperor of such a huge realm had to endure. Hence, Shapur I was quite unique among all the enemies of Rome.
Those are the stories of some of the fiercest warriors to trouble the Roman Empire time and again. The Romans clearly were not invincible, but their resources were such that they were often able to just keep coming back at their more substantial opponents.
Top Image: Rome made a lot of enemies in its bid to rule the known world, and some put up quite a resistance. Source: Luis Louro / Adobe Stock
Philip Matyszak - The Enemies of Rome: From Hannibal to Attila the Hun.
Edward Gibbon - The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire.