Ancient Men of War: The 5 Most Effective Roman Commanders

Ancient Men of War: The 5 Most Effective Roman Commanders

William McLaughlin - April 22, 2017

Many armchair generals have a list of their favorite commanders packed away in the back of their mind somewhere. For Roman generals, we have dozens to hundreds of talented leaders, tacticians, strategists, and innovators to choose from.

This list attempts to rank the absolute best Roman commanders. These are men who stood out in centuries of Roman expansion and collapse as well as the proud Byzantine push back into the Mediterranean. Naval expertise counts, as well as inventions or reforms, but amazing tactical victories factor the most in this ranking.

Marcus Agrippa: The First Emperor’s Quiet Right-hand Man

We all know about Julius Caesar and we all should know about the first official Emperor of Rome, Octavian Augustus. But what about the lowborn Agrippa, who befriended Octavian at a young age, learned about warfare by fighting for Caesar at battles such as Munda, and was really responsible for the victories that brought Rome from a Republic to an Empire.

Ancient Men of War: The 5 Most Effective Roman Commanders
Battle of Actium. Wikipedia

Once he became Octavian’s top commander, Agrippa went on campaign in Gaul, winning great victories, crossing the Rhine (only the second to do so after Caesar) and earning a Triumph. All before he was thirty. Agrippa refused the glory of a Triumph, however, saying it would be disrespectful to do while Pompeian resistance still flourished in Sicily.

Soon, Agrippa was sent to finally crush the resistance that was led by Sextus Pompey, the last remaining threat of the long civil war. Sextus had a huge navy that he used to raid Italy and protect his base in Sicily.

Agrippa recruited a huge navy of his own and trained them in a secretly constructed inlet to keep safe from Sextus’ experienced raiding parties. During this extensive training, Agrippa developed the harpax, a ballista-fired grappling hook to catch and reel in enemy ships for hand-to-hand boarding actions rather than the standard ramming tactics. Agrippa also loaded his ships with extra marines, specifically trained for the ship-to-ship fighting the harpax would bring.

When his navy was ready, Agrippa sailed straight to Sextus’ base and fought a 600-ship battle. his innovative tactics worked perfectly against the Pompeian navy. Agrippa lost only three ships and captured or destroyed all but 17 of Sextus’ 300 ships, crushing Pompeian resistance.

At the better-known Battle of Actium, Agrippa went against Octavian’s wishes to attack Antony’s navy and decided to trap Antony and Cleopatra’s navy in a bay. Agrippa launched raids against Antony’s supply lines to starve his forces. Eventually, Antony and Cleopatra had to try to break out of the bay before their troops starved.

Agrippa’s crescent-shaped defensive formation gave Antony and Cleopatra no hope of victory. Agrippa’s victory was harder-fought than against Sextus, but still was a decisive victory. It directly led to the end of the civil wars and the Emperorship of Octavian Augustus.

Agrippa doesn’t get a lot of credit simply because he passed his glory to his lifelong friend. Octavian used the victories of Agrippa to bolster his own support enough to have the people of Rome accept him as Emperor. A single ruler system was despised by most Romans and Octavian couldn’t have convinced the people to accept him without the glory he gained through Agrippa.

Ancient Men of War: The 5 Most Effective Roman Commanders

Flavius Belisarius: The Last Great Roman Conqueror

Yes, the Byzantine Empire counts as Roman. The Byzantines called themselves Roman and didn’t for a second consider themselves anything else, despite not having control of Rome for themselves. As the Western Roman Empire fell and the Eastern Empire faced threats from all sides, Emperor Justinian I entrusted Belisarius to lead his armies.

After a successful campaign in Syria, Belisarius was able to negotiate a peace with the powerful Sassanid Empire. Upon his return to Constantinople, Belisarius witnessed the Nikka riots; over 30,000 spectators of a chariot race began riots that threatened to topple the empire.

Given command to stop the riots, Belisarius crushed the militant mob. Admittedly not the most impressive feat of generalship, but a unique test for any commander. Seeing his commander’s success, Justinian decided to send Belisarius on the difficult task of restoring the old empire.

Carthage and the area of modern Tunisia were the first target as a wealthy port city and a surprisingly massive center of agriculture. Belisarius invaded Africa and sought to take advantage of rebellions against the Vandal rulers there.

While on campaign, the Vandals organized a three-pronged attack at the battle of Ad Decimum to surround Belisarius, but the astute commander launched three separate counter-attacks and decisively defeated the Vandals before they could spring their trap.

Later in the African campaign at Tricamarum, Belisarius faced a Vandal army 3-4 times the size of his own. Rather than adopt a defensive position, Belisarius aggressively attacked, launching several powerful cavalry charges before closing with a determined infantry charge. This furious assault routed the Vandals and Belisarius would win North Africa for Justinian.

In his next campaign to retake Italy, Belisarius used a strategy of city hopping when faced with the numerically superior Ostrogoths. Darting around Italy, Belisarius was able to retake almost the entire Peninsula, showing a masterful grasp of siege assaults and defense.

Belisarius was eventually called back to deal with an incursion into Syria which he easily handled before retiring in Constantinople. Even in retirement, Belisarius was called upon once more to lead an army against a horde of Bulgars who threatened to besiege Constantinople. With a horribly outnumbered force, Belisarius defeated the Bulgars and pushed them out of Byzantine territory.

Belisarius’ gains were short-lived, but that shouldn’t affect his accomplishments of actually winning the territories that brought the Byzantine Empire to its greatest extent. Belisarius gave the Byzantines a taste of the Roman Empire’s former glory and was one of Rome’s last true conquerors.

Ancient Men of War: The 5 Most Effective Roman Commanders
Marius’ reforms gave the Legions a nickname of “Marius’ Mules” as each man carried his own supplies. Wikipedia

Gaius Marius: Great Reformer and Defender of Rome

Marius is more known for his military reforms than for his victories, and perhaps rightly so, but his victories really were extraordinarily important for the future success of Rome. Marius gained the Consulship in 107 BCE where he abolished the land ownership requirement for joining the Roman army.

This simple change on its own drastically changed the Roman army. Poor citizens joined in droves, hoping for steady pay and meals and a payoff of land ownership on their retirement. This also led to more professionalism as most recruits joined for decades at a time and were molded into capable forces that were almost an extension of their general’s mind.

On top of this change, Marius instituted countless other reforms. Now a standing army, the legions trained year-round and had standardized equipment, and looked to their generals for land-grants and other retirement benefits. These reforms did make legions more loyal to their generals than to Rome, leading to civil wars, but when pitted against foreign foes, the Roman armies dominated.

Marius gets his place on this list mostly due to his reforms, but he also has two victories that possibly saved Rome from an invasion that could have been deadlier than Hannibal’s lengthy invasion of the Second Punic War.

The Germanic tribes of the Cimbri and Teutones stormed out of the Jutland Peninsula around 113 BCE and eventually came into Roman-occupied Gaul. When Roman armies marched to stop them, they were soundly defeated. Eventually, the battle of Arausio saw the Romans lose 80,000 men in the worst defeat in Roman history and Marius was elected to put an end to the losses.

At Aquae Sextiae, Marius’ 40,000 men faced an army three times their size. Marius poked at the Teutons and made them attack the Roman position on a hill. After marching uphill to fight against a well-trained Roman army, the barbarians were then attacked from behind by a well-hidden Roman force and soundly defeated.

The next year, Marius would take on the Cimbri at Vercellae. Here, Marius decided to attack when the sun was facing the Romans, an unorthodox move. The result was that the sun caught the glittering metal of the Roman’s standardized equipment, namely their helmets, and blinded the horde of Cimbri. Cimbri prisoners said it seemed like heaven was on fire. This, combined with a flanking move similar to Hannibal’s at Cannae won the day against the Cimbri.

These Germanic tribes numbered in the hundreds of thousands and had won a string of defeats at the very doorstep of Italy. Fears of an invasion were very real until Marius stepped in and soundly defeated armies vastly larger than his own and saved the Republic.

Ancient Men of War: The 5 Most Effective Roman Commanders
Scipio is painted here returning the captured but untouched wife of a powerful tribal warlord, eventually gaining him as an ally. Wikipedia

Scipio Africanus: Tactical Innovator and Vanquisher of Hannibal

We already have a great list of Roman generals, but only Scipio has the claim of defeating a commander who could easily find himself in a top ten list of all-time greatest commanders. Scipio fought in a war that very easily could have ended with a subjugated Rome, but emerged with an extra name (Africanus) for the region he conquered.

The Second Punic War was the last war of the Republican era where the Romans had to fight for their very existence. Scipio brought Rome from the brink of defeat after Cannae, to the beginnings of an Empire.

Scipio was only 18 when Hannibal invaded Rome in 218 BCE, but he fought in at least two of the great Roman losses against Hannibal, including Cannae. When he was old enough, actually even younger than the required age, Scipio was elected Consul and went to Spain to take over his deceased father and uncle’s command.

Fighting against the same Carthaginians who killed his father, Scipio quickly took the offensive against one of the three full-sized armies in Spain. At the battle of Baecula, Scipio faced a fortified Carthaginian army on top of a hill and waiting for reinforcements. Scipio’s well-trained troops executed a series of pincer attacks and quickly surrounded groups of defenders while attacking uphill and eventually routing the whole army.

At Ilipa, Scipio refused his weaker center infantry and attacked with his elite Roman infantry on his wings. This froze the Carthaginian elite center in place while the Romans annihilated the weaker Carthaginian wings.

Finally, after a string of victories in Africa, from ambushes to nighttime assaults on enemy camps, Scipio’s success brought Hannibal back to Africa. Scipio had finally freed Rome from over a decade of Hannibal, but now faced a legendary commander on his home turf.

The 10,000 Roman survivors of Cannae had been living in disgrace for their defeat until they were recruited by Scipio to invade Africa. After 14 years of disgrace, these men finally had the chance to regain their honor by defeating Hannibal.

Scipio and Hannibal fought an epic chess-match of a battle at Zama. Scipio countered Hannibal’s elephants and routed Hannibal’s cavalry. Hannibal reformed his infantry line to envelope Scipio, but Scipio quickly matched the line and the titanic infantry struggle was finally won as Scipio’s cavalry returned to the fight with a devastating charge to Hannibal’s rear.

Not only did Scipio never lose a battle, he defeated several talented commanders, including one of the best generals of world history. Unlike Caesar or many of the other generals, Scipio won his greatest victories in his twenties and early thirties. Caesar was in his forties before he even started his first major campaign in Gaul.

Ancient Men of War: The 5 Most Effective Roman Commanders
One of the best depictions of Caesar shows the Gallic King Vercingetorix surrendering after a grueling war. Wikipedia

Gaius Julius Caesar: Conqueror of Romans, Barbarians, Greeks, and Egyptians

The only real way to argue against Caesar’s spot atop this list is to claim that he embellished immensely in his commentaries of his wars. While that is certainly a valid historical approach, we’re going to assume only minor exaggerations in Caesar’s writings, giving him a clear spot as the best general Rome ever had.

Most of us know that during the Gallic Wars, Caesar faced a fearsome foe in Vercingetorix, his name literally meaning “great warrior king”. At Alesia, he besieged a fortified city while fending off massive relief efforts and constructing a huge double wall of circumvallation.

Caesar faced huge hordes of migrating tribes such as the Helvetii and sent whole nations fleeing in defeat. He fought in bitter cold and rain, on land and at sea. He crossed the English Channel and the Rhine, all before starting his more famous civil war.

Even before facing Pompey, Caesar had to deal with the long-time ally of Rome, Massilia (modern Marseille). A Greek colony, Massilia had a long and proud history of boldly standing against barbarians and commanders such as Hannibal. Siding with Pompey would be their last bold decision as an independent state as Caesar quickly defeated their navy and sacked the city, incorporating it into official Roman territory.

Caesar’s best quality as a general had to be his ability to reverse his fortunes in the face of certain defeat. The Battle of Pharsalus is a perfect example. Face-to-face with his enemies in the civil war, Caesar found himself trapped in Greece with a starving and undersized army. Pompey had simply mirrored Caesar’s moves with an army twice the size and remained in a defensive position.

When Pompey was eventually pressured to take the fight to Caesar, the senators on Pompey’s side considered the battle won, but Caesar had other plans. Caesar counted on his veterans to hold their ground and execute a maneuver requiring a unique fourth line.

This fourth line interfered in the cavalry battle, routed Pompey’s far larger number of cavalry, and proceeded to crash into the raw recruits of Pompey’s force. A sure defeat was turned into a decisive victory and a major turning point in the war.

In Egypt, Caesar suffered in a city under siege when he decided to support Cleopatra’s claim as queen. In a civil war within a civil war, Caesar defeated Cleopatra’s rivals before heading off to Syria to fight a quick war against a Pontic king who thought he could snatch some territory while the Romans fought themselves. Caesar’s victory in battle and campaign here were over so quickly that he wrote a letter explaining his side trip as “I came, I saw, I conquered”.

Caesar even gets credit as a leader of men, getting his legionaries to sail and fight across the known world often far after their service times were up. When dealing with one mutiny, Caesar quashed it with one word, addressing the angry mob as “civilians” instead of his “comrades/soldiers”. The men instantly dropped the mutiny and begged Caesar to take them back.

Julius Caesar was even preparing to take on the Parthians in the Middle East before he was assassinated and probably would have been successful too. Caesar fought and won in almost every environment and against several different cultures throughout the Mediterranean and Britain, and was almost always outnumbered in battle. he fought on the front lines but also knew how to set up a tactical plan. His place at the top of the list is nearly indisputable.