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The 10 Most Badass Roman War Heroes

Because sometimes history is just freaking epic.

by
Spencer Klavan

Bio

August 11, 2014 - 10:00 am

Jean_Auguste_Dominique_Ingres_019

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.

10. Romulus

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)

Comic_History_of_Rome_Table_07_Flaminius_restoring_Liberty_to_Greece_at_the_Isthmian_Games

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

hannibal-and-scipio-severino-baraldi

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

roman_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)

5. P. Horatius Cocles

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 Scaevola vor Porsenna

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

172725_2925698

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

Spencer Klavan is a gentleman and a scholar. Or just a scholar, depending on who you ask. He studied Greek, Latin, and Theater at Yale, so when someone tapped him on the shoulder and whispered, "ahem, Mr. Klavan, were you planning on, you know, holding a paying job?" he broke out in a cold sweat and promptly applied for graduate school. A sucker for action movies, classic video games, and Ancient Greek hexameter, Spencer has big dreams about putting the gore, sex, and rock 'n roll back into ancient literature. He does this mostly in list form on PJM and at his blog, The Forum (check it out!). You can hit him up on Facebook and Twitter, and if you really want to get an earful, ask him about cross country running or the best recipes for hummus. Spencer will be pursuing a master's in Greek and Latin Literature at Oxford this fall.
Top Rated Comments   
'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.'

I other words, the unObama.
10 weeks ago
10 weeks ago Link To Comment
The story of Cincinnatus reminds us of George Washington.

King George III asked his American painter, Benjamin West, what Washington would do after winning independence. West replied, “They say he will return to his farm.”

“If he does that,” the incredulous monarch said, “he will be the greatest man in the world.”
10 weeks ago
10 weeks ago Link To Comment
You forgot 'The Old Woman'.
Gaius Marius.
" Roman general and statesman. He held the office of consul an unprecedented seven times during his career. He was also noted for his important reforms of Roman armies, authorizing recruitment of landless citizens, eliminating the manipular military formations, and reorganizing the structure of the legions into separate cohorts. Marius defeated the invading Germanic tribes (the Teutones, Ambrones, and the Cimbri), for which he was called "the third founder of Rome."
from wiki
10 weeks ago
10 weeks ago Link To Comment
All Comments   (31)
All Comments   (31)
Sort: Newest Oldest Top Rated
Fabius Maximus, "Cunctator" or "The Delayer." He stood against Hannibal when the latter was unbeatable. He understood that Roman's armies at that time could not defeat Hannibal in open combat, so he kept on the move, preventing the Carthaginian from consolidating his victories or recovering from his losses. While he saved Rome's position and prevented further victories by Carthage, buying time for Rome to rearm and re-equip, the Romans themselves did not appreciate his tactics, expecting their generals to charge straight in and whup some barbarian butt. The fact that several Roman generals had suffered massive defeats doing just that apparently was lost on the Romans, save for Fabius.

As one who put his personal glory second to the security and safety of his nation he deserves very high marks. That attitude was distinctly un-Roman, yet he saved Rome at a critical time.
6 weeks ago
6 weeks ago Link To Comment
Always been partial to one of the men referred to as "the last of the Romans": Flavius Aetius. The man who stopped Attila the Hun should be in there somewhere.
9 weeks ago
9 weeks ago Link To Comment
Scipio should be a LOT higher on that list. He could have successfully challenged Alexander, had they been contemporaries.
Julius Caesar belongs high on that list. He was a brave man and excellent commander.
You missed Aurelian entirely. He was an amazingly skilled commander, doing so much with so little.
Publius Fabius Maximus led the remnants of Rome's shattered army in Italy against Hannibal, never engaging him but keeping him moving, unsettled, unable to consolidate his victory. This weakened Hannibal while giving Rome time to regain its footing and properly train new troopers.
Then there was Gaius Marius, who organized Rome's first professional legions and defeated the invading hordes of Teutons and Cimbri.
10 weeks ago
10 weeks ago Link To Comment
Manlius needs to be remembered for more than his youthful bravado. His real character was shown by his making the greatest sacrifice a Roman could make as a mature man. We have nothing to compare to the position of the paterfamilias of the Roman Republic. Their authority was matched by their deep sense of pride and duty. Their family was everything.

The following is from the wiki on Titus Manlius Torrquatus (Consul 347 B.C.) regarding his final term as Dictator in 340.

"During the conduct of the war, Manlius and his co-consul, Publius Decius Mus, decided that the old military disciplines would be reinstated, and no man was allowed to leave his post, under penalty of death. Manlius's son, seeing an opportunity for glory, forgot this stricture, left his post with his friends, and defeated several Latin skirmishers in battle. Having the spoils brought to him, the father cried out in a loud voice and called the legion to assemble. Berating his son, he then handed him over for execution to the horror of all his men. Thus, "Manlian discipline.""

This article could be matched by another giving examples of women who exemplified Roman Virtue.
10 weeks ago
10 weeks ago Link To Comment
Although not a general, Cato the Elder should be included for his steadfast commitment to prosecuting the war against Carthage: Ceterum censeo Carthago esse delendum
10 weeks ago
10 weeks ago Link To Comment
How about Count Belisarius?
He won against the Persians.
He took back North Africa.
He took back most of the old Western lands.
He saved the Emperor during the Nika Revolt.
Any man who can use a 10:1 disadvantage and win ought to be pretty high up on 'Most Famous Generals' list, period.

Yet no one seems to even know of him.

Perhaps, given his circumstances and problems with Justinian being stingy with troops, the greatest general of all time for economy of force getting the most payback. You have to get to Gustavus Adolphus in the 17th century until you find someone who could do as well as Belisarius.
10 weeks ago
10 weeks ago Link To Comment
We view Roman and European History through such a Latin lens that practically nobody has heard of the leaders of the Eastern Empire. Had it not been for the Black Death, Belisarius might well have restored central authority in the West and History would have been written very differently.
9 weeks ago
9 weeks ago Link To Comment
What, no Mel Brooks' "We are running with Mucus" joke on the "lefty"?
10 weeks ago
10 weeks ago Link To Comment
No such list could be complete without Horatius.
10 weeks ago
10 weeks ago Link To Comment
I don't remember the fellow's name, but my Uncle Ted from Syracuse, New York, told me that in the early 19th century an itinerant American patriot (veteran of the Revolution?) had a hand in naming alot of the upstate New York towns after the great Greek and Roman legends and cities, which still pepper the area. Syracuse and Rome New York are the most obvious remnants. I grew up near Homer, but this article reminds me of Manlius, Cincinnatus and Pompey, NY the former two of which my little school of St. Mary's in Cortland, NY played Football back in the day. Other New York towns that may have come from the same fellow, or had a different source are Athens, Attica, Babylon, Bethlehem, Brutus, Cairo, Caledonia, Canaan, Carthage, Cicero, Corfu, Corinth, Delhi, Eden, Elma, Fabius, Fredonia, Goshen, Greece, Hector, Hemlock,, Ilion, Ithaca, Jericho, Jordan, Latham, Livonia, Lysander, Macedon, Malta, Marathon, Marcellus, Minerva, Mount Sinai, New Lebanon, Olean, Ovid, Palmyra, Phoenicia, Phoenix, Romulus, Sardinia, Savona, Scio, Scipio Center, Sodus, Troy, Utica, Vestal, and West Seneca. The other source for this trend I read, only recently, was the patriotic solidarity the early New Yorkers felt with the Greeks as they fought for independence from the Turks as the Erie Canal was being built, at a time when Greece was recognized as the Wellspring of Western Democracy that truly deserved to again be free. Amen.

I wish I knew the Name of that Johnny Appleseed of the Western Republic Spirit who namelessly spread his spirit around upstate New York.
10 weeks ago
10 weeks ago Link To Comment
According to this article http://yorkstaters.blogspot.com/2006/01/whats-in-name-no2-origins-of-classical.html it was either General Simson DeWitt or Robert Harpur, or both, working for or through the New York State Land Office who used the device of naming new settlements, or renaming existing settlements with classical place names to attract settlers or to promote classical republican/democratic principles in the post revolutionary period through 1850. The first place so named was Troy, NY renamed from the less mellifluous Vanderheyden. Fabius, Pompey, Aurelius, Manlius, Cicero and Solon followed thereafter. All in all it probably was not a bad idea and me and my school mates always had a grudging admiration for it.
10 weeks ago
10 weeks ago Link To Comment
'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.'

I other words, the unObama.
10 weeks ago
10 weeks ago Link To Comment
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