Before Ancient Rome was a titanic empire, it was a collection of huts, a tribe of outlaws, and a few unshakable ideals — courage, virtue, and duty. The defense of those ideals inspired some of the greatest war stories and acts of heroism ever written down. Here are the 10 most badass heroes, ranked in ascending order, from Rome’s legendary history and historical legends.
The legendary founder who gave his name to Rome also carved out the city’s place in blisteringly hostile territory. Etruscans to the North, Samnites to the East, and Latins to the South: Italy was no safe place for a little village made of mud and bricks to stake its claim. Romulus led his ragtag team of rejects and outlaws against the peninsula’s fiercest tribal armies, saving Rome from being annexed or enslaved. But he had an erratic, unheroic temper that kept him from making it higher on this list — legend has it he murdered his brother in a violent rage.
(Livy 1; Dionysius, Roman Antiquities 1-2)
9. T. Quinctius Flamininus
Flamininus was a reluctant conqueror, and even though his military feats weren’t showstoppers, his integrity was unshakeable. He was in command of Rome’s armies while the republic was expanding east into Greece, and his duty to Rome forced him to break the back of Greek rule where it posed a threat. But he fiercely admired the nobility of Greek culture, and he hated watching the Greeks become slaves even when Rome was the one enslaving them. So in 196 BC, in an unprecedented move, he gave up Rome’s control and declared Greece a free territory. He was a class act.
(Plutarch, Flamininus; Polybius, Histories 18)
8. App. Claudius Caecus
Caecus was the Yoda of Rome — an old, blind (Caecus means “sightless”), battle-scarred vet who put young soldiers to shame. He was called into the senate in a moment of crisis, when Pyrrhus of Epirus had worn down so many Roman armies that the senators were ready to surrender. Caecus delivered a speech so uncompromisingly defiant that it not only goaded the Romans back into action but went down as the first piece of written prose in Latin. “Each man,” he declared, “is architect of his own fate” — and with those words he became the architect of Rome’s.
(Summaries of Livy, bk. 13)
7. P. Scipio Africanus
Scipio stood for Rome when no one else would. The year was 216 BC, and Rome was inches from being wiped off the map. Hannibal, a Carthaginian military juggernaut with legendary tactical skill and unmatched charisma, had torn mercilessly through Roman ranks at Cannae. Skilled soldiers were slaughtered in the tens of thousands. When Scipio heard his superiors contemplating surrender he “declared that anyone who wanted to save the Republic would go with him that instant, fully armed.” Fourteen blood-soaked years of war later, Scipio had done the impossible, defeating the general who had seemed poised to obliterate Rome.
(Livy 22.53; Polybius, Histories 10)
6. L. Junius Brutus
It’s not the Brutus you think it is. Brutus the assassin of Caesar got his name from Brutus the tyrant hunter, who exiled Rome’s last king and ushered in a free republic. Brutus liked to play dumb and harmless, carrying a wooden cane with gold in the center to remind himself to keep his brains and charisma under wraps so he wouldn’t attract the king’s jealousy. But when the king’s son violently raped a noblewoman, Brutus was so enraged at the injustice that he broke his silence and marshaled a revolution to drive the monarchy out of Rome for good.
(Livy 1.58-60; Dionysius, Roman Antiquities 4.70-85)
Back before Rome was much more than a Podunk town, the Etruscan warlord Lars Porsena marshaled massive armies to bring the city to its knees. Horatius was guarding the Sulpician bridge, the weak point in the Roman defense. While the rest of the Romans turned tail, legend has it Horatius stood his ground and almost singlehandedly beat back the Etruscan horde, while shouting at his men to dismantle the bridge. Then at the last minute before the bridge crumbled into the river, Horatius leapt off and swam to safety, leaving the Etruscans to drown and saving Rome.
(Livy 2.10; Dionysius, Roman Antiquities 5.23-4)
4. T. Manlius Torquatus
Manlius was the David who slew Rome’s Goliath. During one of Rome’s many wars with Gaul, a Gallic soldier stopped the fighting and challenged the Romans to hand-to-hand combat. The Gaul was a giant among men, bigger and stronger than anyone on the field — an utter berserker. A hush fell over the army as the Romans shuffled their feet, but Manlius had the stones to break the silence. Relying “more on guts than on skill,” Manlius managed to knock the Gaul off balance, slip under his shield, and run him through, winning a huge upset for Rome.
(Livy 7.10; Aulus Gellius, Attic Nights 9.13)
3. P. Mucius Scaevola
Mucius knew no fear. While Rome was locked in a battle for its life with the Etruscans, Mucius volunteered to go undercover into enemy territory and assassinate their king. But his cover was blown, and the Etruscans sentenced him to be burned alive. Mucius stared them down, announced “look how worthless the body is to men who have their eyes on glory,” and thrust his right hand into the fire to burn it off himself, intimidating the Etruscans so badly they released him. His nickname, Scaevola, means “lefty” — and nobody messed with him when they heard how he got it.
(Livy 2.12-3; Dionysius, Roman Antiquities 27-30)
2. M. Atilius Regulus
Now this was a man who kept his word. When Rome was already battered and broken from war with the Carthaginians, Regulus was taken hostage. But Carthage sent him back to Rome alone to plead for peace, making him swear that he would come back to captivity afterwards. Rome was desperate for an end to the unrelenting casualties of the war, but when Regulus addressed the senate he defied Carthage and insisted that Rome keep up the fight. Then, knowing it meant death but true to his word, he returned to the Carthaginians, who executed him. He was unbreakably honest.
(Summaries of Livy, bk. 18)
1. L. Quinctius Cincinnatus
It’s a tough call, but Cincinnatus has to take the trophy. Who can top him? An unbeatable general and a legendary model (for Rome and, later, America) of what it means to be a citizen of a free republic. When the Sabines threatened the city gates, the quiet farmer Cincinnatus was “Rome’s only hope,” appointed dictator in a last-ditch attempt to defend the walls. Cincinnatus rallied the troops, tore devastatingly through the Sabine army, then, ready to lead but never hungry for power, famously gave up his title and went back to his plow. Incorruptible.
(Livy 3.26-9, Dionysius, Roman Antiquities 10.17-9)
I’ve left out some big names. Runners-up include Pompey the Great (arguably not so great), Nisus and Euryalus (technically not Roman), Julius Caesar (not a hero), Mark Antony (too wishy-washy), and Sulla (“controversial” is putting it lightly). What do you think? Do any of those also-rans deserve a spot? What about people who didn’t even get honorable mention? Who should be unseated to make room? Does my blatant bias for the republic over the empire get you riled up? Whatcha gonna do about it? Sound off in the comments.
images via Wikimedia Commons, Artic.edu, artachive.com, fineartamerica.com