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Top 5 Roman Generals

In terms of its prosperity, the Roman Empire’s history is unprecedented. Most scholars and historians consider it to be the “perfect empire” as it had a good military, strong government and stable economy. The Roman Empire is considered to be the first to have a professional military force and the fiercest of its time. Rome has a rich history that is decorated with amazing generals. 

5. Lucius Licinius Lucullus

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A  Roman general with such alliterative names deserves a place on this list. One of his feats that earned him a place was his defeat of the kings of two distant lands, and with virtually no support from Rome. One king, Mithridates VI, King of Pontus who is known in history as the king who attempted to commit suicide by poison – and failed.

Beginning his military career under Sulla, he gained his first notable victory in a naval battle at Tenedos. The naval fleet of Pontus was carrying three generals, who Lucullus chased down and captured during an amphibious assault after the generals sought to make a defense on an island. Lucullus’ two-pronged assault resulted in victory.

Later, the armies of Pontus and Armenia attacked the armies of Lucullus with poisoned arrows and flaming, napalm-like bombs from catapults. The armies of Armenia and Pontus were primarily professional soldiers, and used these formidable weapons against the armies of Lucullus. Amazingly, Lucullus defeated the combined forces and unforgiving terrain without suffering a single loss.

He continued his trek toward victory by conquering several towns, including one who attempted to slow up his advance by throwing beehives into the Roman sapping tunnels. His forward advances can be compared to the Blitzkriegs of Germany in World War II. The tactics used by Lucullus were studied for many years after his death. While many of the details of the battles were lost to history, Lucullus is considered to be among history’s greatest tacticians, including rivaling the great Alexander.

4. Marcus Claudius Marcellus

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Marcellus’ greatest military achievement was probably his long and difficult conquest of Syracuse, defeating Archimedes despite his best resistance. However, that victory is not what earned him a spot on this list. Neither does his death from a surprise ambush qualify him. In the end, Marcellus takes his spot on this list as the result of his military fighting style – fierce and daring – as he fought against Carthage’s most talented and skilled general, Hannibal.

From a broad perspective, Marcellus earned his place in history long before Hannibal was a thought in the mind of the Roman people. Part of his rise to fame was accomplishing the Spolia Opima. This was an honor bestowed on a general who defeated an enemy king in a one-on-one battle. The proof and prize was returning with the opposing king’s armor.

When Hannibal gained fame by accomplishing three decisive victories, it was up to Marcellus to defend the strategic city of Nora. He successfully did so three times in three years. All three large scale attacks by Hannibal were met with a strong and decisive defense.

After winning a series of smaller battles, Marcellus was given charge of the organization and oversight of the Siege on Syracuse. As the army of Marcellus began its siege, it was met by a creatively skilled Archimedes, whose defense consisted of enormous catapults able to sink an entire ship, and cranes that literally pulled ships up out of the sea. Yet Marcellus overcame the defenses of Syracuse and conquered the city, turning the tide of the war in favor of Rome.

3. Belisarius

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A superior tactician and creator of campaigns, Belisarius is often known as “the last of the Romans.” Early in Byzantine history, the Byzantines were considered to be as Roman as the Romans themselves. Earning his reputation during the reign of Justinian, he was largely responsible for regaining the territory of the Western Roman Empire.

Though renowned for his foreign military exploits, Belisarius demonstrated his loyalty to Rome by putting down the Nika Riots that threatened to collapse the capital city. War began as the Byzantines went to quell rebellions in Africa, controlled by Vandal armies. Though Belisarius responded quickly and took control of the land, he found himself completely surrounded by the enemy. Yet he would not fall into the trap set for him, escaped with his army, then defeated the surrounding forces by engaging in a number of small skirmishes.

Once Carthage was captured, he faced a Vandal army three times as large as his own forces. He easily defeated the combined armies, killing the brother of the king during the battle.

As the North African territory was retaken and under Roman control once again, Belisarius moved on to Italy. Sicily was the first encounter, resulting in an easy victory. He then continued and captured a number of Italian cities, many who welcomed the general as a liberator. Entering Rome, he did battle with the Goths, who considerably outnumbered Belisarius’ forces and began to siege the city. He repelled the attacks successfully despite the heavy odds against him.

Recalled to fight the armies in Syria, he was able to retake the land held by the Persians. He was unable to reacquire some of the largest Syrian strongholds, but nevertheless had a number of significant victories during the campaign. The result of the string of smaller victories was that Rome once again had control of the territory.

Belisarius then returned to Italy, where he received very little help from Rome. Shortly thereafter, falling out of favor with the emperor Justininan, he began his retirement. But he was soon returned to service when the Bulgarians had invaded the area across the Danube River. Though this appeared to be a major threat, Belisarius easily defeated the much larger Bulgarian army, and then returned home to continue his retirement. This battle where Belisarius faced significant opposition is recorded as a footnote in the life of Belisarius and history of Rome.

2. Publius Cornelius Scipio Africanus

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In a close competition for first place on this list, Scipio was involved in the First Punic War but was too young to command but was present in almost all of Hannibal’s early victories.

Under Hannibal, Scipio would learn from the best and honorable in the battle of Capua, an Italian city that rivaled Rome in many ways. His first command resulted in driving the Carthaginians out of Spain a feat that both his uncle and father had sought to do unsuccessfully.

Once in Spain, he quickly moved down the coast, conquering New Carthage, the most important Spanish city of the time. He employed to resources of a local farmer who had told him the location in a lagoon that had access to the city where the waters were low enough to walk through at a certain time of the day.

Later facing three different Carthaginian armies, Scipio enrolled the help of Spanish mercenaries – the same ones who were involved in the defeat and death of his uncle and father. Scipio defeated the first army he encountered so quickly the other two armies could not arrive in time to help. Coming upon Baecula, Scipio’s experienced and trained army was able to defeat an entrenched army fighting uphill all the way. He used small unit tactics that would easily defeat the enemy.

Moving on to Ilipa, Scipio chose to prevent the mercenaries from participating in battle as his own forces took the flanks. Encountering Hasdrubal, Scipio deviated from the standard use of heavy infantry in the middle of the attack and instead focused on using the flanks in a pincer-type strategy. The mercenaries were held back so as to cause Hasdrubal to hold back an attack in the center with the possibility of facing the mercenaries. The result was another easy win for Scipio. The tactics were complex for military strategy of the day, equal to many of Hannibal’s own.

At the Battle of Zama, Scipio defeated Hannibal with a modest army, though he did have the advantage of cavalry at his disposal. On the other hand, Hannibal had an experienced bunch of soldiers who fought with him during his Italian campaigns and as many as 80 war elephants. Scipio easily neutralized the war elephants and then resulted to what amounted to a tactical chess match with Hannibal. The match was close, but Scipio prevailed.

Finally, Scipio accompanied his younger brother to battle and was a key advisor in the battle of Magnesia. Despite being heavily outnumbered against an experienced Hellinic army, he emerged victorious. In the end, Scipio never lost a single battle, and is considered to be one of the best of ancient world generals, including the likes of Alexander.

1. Gaius Julius Caesar

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Few can argue against Caesar being the greatest of the Roman generals. At Helivtil at Bibricate, his first battle involved facing the entire tribe. Like Scipio, he was outnumbered, in this case 2 to 1, yet the victory was never in doubt.

Caesar conquered Britain and the region of the Rhine, perhaps solely to prove he was the world’s, and history’s, best general. Though there was no significant strategic value to these lands, they were examples of Caesar’s military and tactical skills.

Alesia was another example of Caesar’s superior military strategy. While heavily outnumbered on both sides of the siege line, he deployed his forces and was able to defeat the enemy using a significantly smaller force.

The Battle of Pharsalus illustrated Caesar’s concept of “less is more” when he created a 4th infantry line in the battle. Using this force, he changed the course of the infantry battle and then proceeded to outflank the enemy of Pompey’s considerably larger force. Though starving and having just come from a defeat, Caesar’s army dominated the opposing forces.

Though history portrays Caesar as the great general he was, it is worth noting that many times he did not deserve the loyalty of his troops. One example is when simply by calling his soldiers citizens of Rome, he regained their confidence and went on to victory.

Munda was to be Caesar’s last battle, and was more about his resolve and tenacity than his strategical skills. At age 50, and the battle well in hand, Caesar himself charged into battle and fought on until the battle was won. A slim margin of victory, yes, but another demonstration of why Caesar leads the Roman general rankings.

 

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Rick Mac
Student and author of History. The study of History is the beginning of wisdom.

2 thoughts on “Top 5 Roman Generals

  1. Nice to hear about great generals of Rome. I like to know more about Julius Caesar. Can you point out some books or any article related to his campaigns?.

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