Ancient Roman Leaders

Roman leaders in early RomeAncient Roman leaders is a difficult task to manage with precision, both because the term “Romans” can refer to a huge time span and range of concepts of Roman society and also because the term “leader” can refer to a vast range of different leader types, including rulers, senators, military leaders, leaders of the people and so on.

Even in their own time, the Romans had a shifting definition of what might be considered a Roman leader:

  • shifting from a local clan chief
  • to one of the 7 Roman kings (see image left)
  • to an elected Roman consul during the Republic (two were elected each year),
  • military generals,
  • temporary dictators (until Caesar had himself nominated perpetual dictator).

If we really wanted to understand Roman leaders we would also have to consider Roman women: Women not only bore great influence on roman leadership and society but at times actually took an enormous share of power, such as Fulvia wife of Mark AnthonyCleopatra (to whom Caesar erected a statue in the Forum), Agrippina who murdered her husband Claudius and was in turn murdered by her own son Nero.

The following page provides access to lists of ancient Roman leaders as well as making a brief effort at placing them in their historical context for those who have little knowledge of Roman history. A very good detailed summary of Roman leaders of all types and through the ages may be had from our timeline of ancient rome.

It is worthwhile to begin by remembering that the “Roman Empire” actually began as a kingdom in the 8th century BC and that after a few centuries and the expulsion of King Tarquin the Proud, Rome became a Republic.

The image to the left is from an 18th century French chronology of world history. It shows Latin kings followed by kings of Rome from its foundation in 753BC. The column to the right (“ans”) shows the number of years each king ruled.

By around the year 0 Rome was becoming an Empire. The Empire eventually grew so large as to be unmanageable and was eventually split into two halves: west and east.

The western part eventually fell to a succession of barbarian invasions around the 8th century AD. The Roman empire of the east with capital at Constantinople held firm until the Renaissance when the Turks managed to breach its walls with modern cannons.

There are no contemporary written records of the earliest history of the city and as a consequence much that is known is due to myth and archeological findings such as, for example, frescoes in Etruscan tombs which happen to make reference to leaders and events of the time.

It therefore follows that the earliest figures are shrouded in mystery which the Romans themselves loved to elaborate on. A good example of this is how emperor Augustus had Virgil write the epic poem ‘Aeneid’ as part of his own propaganda and in so doing built on the legends of the early founding of Rome to promote himself and his successors as descending from the gods. This wasn’t an unknown political ploy of course as others before him, such as Julius Caesar had built on their own descendency from deities such as Venus and others. In fact it didn’t take long before the emperors directly associated themselves to deities in themselves much in the manner of Eastern leaders.

Roman toga Praetexta with purple stripeWe provide a more detailed yet succinct history of ancient Rome on a separate page. A general list of the most significant ancient Roman leaders including kings, consuls, dictators and emperors follows….

Brief list of ancient Roman leaders

  • Aeneas – forefather of Rome’s founders. Himself son of Venus. He came to Latium as a refugee of the Trojan war.
  • Romulus – founder of Rome
  • The seven kings of Rome (of which the first was Romulus himself)
  • The kings were followed by the Roman Republican period and an extremely long list of consuls which I will endeavour to include when time permits. There were two Consuls at any one time so that no-one should have absolute power but in times of extreme danger a dictator could be nominated for a period of 6 months. The most famous of these is Cincinnatus (519 BC). George Washington is sometimes compared to him for his lack of desire for power. Cincinnatus worked his fields in a small farm, went and did his stint to save Rome from the enemy (as nominated Dictator) and then returned the vestiges of power to go back to his plough.
  • A variety of famous generals became involved in various phases of Rome’s expansion across Italy and then across the Mediterranean but most particularly with the Punic wars against Carthage.
    A mythical example is the rather moralistic tale of general Coriolanus: he reputedly led Roman troops against the Volscians (a population south of Rome) in the 5th century BC and subdued them. He himself subsequently fell into disgrace with the Romans, probably due to the numerous enemies he had. He therefore  turned against Rome by joining those he had conquered and successfully led their troops against Rome. He may well have been an excuse for the defeats Rome suffered against the Volscians.
  • A further example but rather better recorded is the Scipio family, which provided a good number of military leaders of great fame and success (including against Hannibal).
    Cicero (see below) wrote a rather interesting “Dream of Scipio”. An allegorical vision or dream in which Scipio Aemilianus Africanus meets his grandfather Scipio Africanus who had defeated the Carthaginian Hannibal.
  • The Gracchi brothers both held important government positions, forced significant reforms and got killed by the rich for them.
  • Cicero is rather unique in a number of ways. Most interestingly he was not a general but rather an acclaimed jurist, politician and writer/philosopher (you might roll it all into one by calling him an Orator). He became Consul, prevented the Catiline coup-d’etat, was acclaimed father of the nation but was eventually assassinated and beheaded by one of his clients at the behest ofMark Anthony and his wife Fulvia. Fulvia is said to have enjoyed holding his severed head on her lap, forcing his mouth open and sticking hair pins into his tongue. Wow.
  • The civil wars during the Roman republic produced a good number of leaders such as MariusSullaPompey the Great and Julius Caesar.

Image of a Roman Emperor wearing a Chlamys and holding the orb of power.Roman leaders from the end of the Republic and start of the Empire….

  • Caesar’s death was followed by a further fight for power between the likes of Anthony and Cleopatra versus Octavian (aka Emperor Augustus)
  • A good number of Emperors including but not limited to: TiberiusCaligulaClaudiusNeroVespasian, Domitian, TrajanHadrian , Marcus Aurelius, Commodus, Elagabalus (noteworthy for his litentiousness and sex change), Aurelian, Diocletian, Constantine, Romulus Augustulus (last emperor of the Western Empire).
  • A full list of Roman emperors is given separately.
  • Of the Eastern Empire we readily remember Valentinian, Justinian (he reorganised and shored up Roman law into what was used in much of the civilised world thereafter), Theodosius.

This is clearly not an exhaustive list at all. It hardly looks beyond the obvious. For example it may be interesting to consider Saints Peter and Paul, Paul was a Roman citizen, both became powerful preachers (Roman leaders ?) of Christianity.

This page is in continued construction but you can get a good list of ancient roman leaders accompanied by notes by going to the ancient rome timeline.

Want more about ancient Roman leaders? Roman Leaders forum.

Ancient Roman Leaders: Bibliography

A simplified genealogy of the Scipio family – great Roman leaders! – is given below.

Genealogy of the Scipio Family in Ancient Rome (gens Cornelia)

The Scipios formed a lengthy family tree which entwined itself with other great names of Roman history such as the Gracchi. The diagram above is a simplified version of the full family tree but sufficient to show the extent of Roman leadership within a single family: consuls and military leaders famous for their endeavours in the Punic wars which gave Rome supremacy of the Mediterranean, all the way through to defenders of plebeian rights (tribunes of the people) eventually assassinated for their revolutionary endeavours.

Their “revolutionary” reforms, particularly free grain for the poor, eventually became standard practice thanks to the example first given by Julius Caesar and eventually carried through by all the Emperors who followed him.

Concluding Remarks about Ancient Roman Leaders

It is interesting to note that the genealogy of the gens Cornelia shown above touches on leading figures of ancient Rome which span the entire period between the conquest of Italy, the wars with Carthage, domination of the Mediterranean almost reaching the final  crisis of the republic and the social wars of 90-80BC. Why is this interesting? Because if we consider aspects such as roman inventions, the roman economy, and even look at provincial cities such as ancient Pompeii, we will note that this period was both convulsed with civil strife yet at the same time a period of great socio-economic growth and wealth.

It is poignant to compare this group of Roman leaders with the Caesars and Julio-Claudian dynasty which ruled the Roman empire over a century later – the different, orientalising, approach to leadership exercised by emperors such as Caligula and perhaps most memorable in Nero’s model of rule and leadership. The plebeain masses came to hold less sway in daily politics and fortunes of the empire. The role of some Roman women such as Livia and Agrippina the younger played fundamental roles in establishing the rights to rule and the Roman army (increasingly full of plebeians) took an increasing role in establishing imperial nominees.

This was the period when the balance of Roman society really began to shift and even the definition of Romans was changing. With hindsight we can see there was still with some growth to come and the empire was still to reach its greatest extension but some of the aspects and symptoms of the fall of the Roman empire already beginning to manifest themselves. Few Roman leaders were truly able to reverse the ongoing process of decline.

Leaders and Caesars of Ancient Rome in chronological order: | ancient Roman kings | Tarquin | Marius | Sulla | Rome Julius Caesar | Augustus |The 12 Caesars | Emperor Tiberius |  Caligula | Emperor Claudius | Emperor Nero | Emperor Vespasian | Hadrian | Roman Emperor Trajan | Rome’s Five Good Emperors | Emperor Constantine | Emperor Justinian | Other emperors of Ancient Rome |

You might also have a look at what it was to be emperor or “imperator”. A list of Roman emperors.  A general look at famous Romans such as Scaevola “the left handed”.

Interesting external links about ancient Roman leaders

An interesting look at the value of hereditary leadership in ancient Rome

Thought provoking essay comparing Ancient Roman leaders, the Empire, the US and Barack Obama



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