For over a thousand years the mighty Roman military machine was feared throughout the known world. The Roman Empire spanned one of the largest political territories in history and was second to only the Ancient Chinese Empire in duration.
Such power, expansion and military conquest does not come without significant struggles, including numerous losses. Julius Caesar famously said, Veni, Vidi, Vici or ‘I came, I saw, I conquered’, but that was not always the case.
What follows is a list of some of Rome’s greatest enemies, who lead mighty forces in battle against the army of the Roman Republic and Empire, sometimes triumphing.
1. Pyrrhus of Epirus (319 – 272 BC)
Pyrrhus was king of Epirus and Macedon and a distant relative of Alexander the Great. The Pyrrhic War (280 – 275 BC) saw him defeat the Romans in battle, but at such cost he wasn’t able to capitalise. When they met, both Hannibal and Scipio named Pyrrhus as one of the greatest generals of their age.
2. Arminius (19 BC – 19 AD)
In his short life, Arminius was both a Roman and one of the Empire’s greatest opponents. A successful career in the Roman military ended in disgust at Roman oppression and revolt. He lured his former military colleagues into a brilliant ambush in the Teutoburger Forest, wiping out three legions and stopping Rome’s expansion at the Rhine.
3. King Shapur I (210 – 272 AD)
Persia was one power Rome could not defeat. Shapur strengthened Persia, as the Sasanian Empire, and then pushed the Romans back west in three great victories. In 252 AD he sacked Antioch, Rome’s eastern capital, and in 260 AD captured the Emperor Valerian, who was to die a prisoner. Shapur had the dead emperor stuffed.
4. Alaric the Goth (360 – 410 AD)
Alaric is most famous for the 410 AD sacking of Rome, yet what he wanted above all was to be accepted into the Empire. The Visigoths he ruled had come into Roman territory by agreement in 376 AD. In 378 AD they inflicted a crushing defeat, killing Emperor Valens at Hadrianople.
He was never defeated by the Romans, usually fighting in response to what he saw as broken promises for settlement lands and rights. Even the sacking of Rome was reluctant and restrained – he sat outside the city for nearly two years.
5. Hannibal of Carthage
Perhaps Rome’s greatest enemy of all and a constant thorn in the side of the burgeoning power throughout his life, Hannibal bested the Romans on multiple occasions.
His attack on Saguntum in what is now northern Spain, lead to the start of the Second Punic War. The most legendary of Hannibal’s achievements, however, was his crossing from Hispania through both the Pyrenees and the Alps with a massive army – including elephants, which must have terrorised his foes – to invade northern Italy in 218 BC and subsequently defeat the Roman Army.
Though he never brought Rome down wholesale, victories such as the one above and a near coup de grâce at Cannae gave Hannibal a legendary status in Roman society, leading to the use of the phrase Hannibal ad portas or ‘Hannibal at the gates’, used to signify a coming crisis as well as to scare children into behaving.