Ancient 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.
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 the year 753BC. The column to the right (“ans”) shows the number of years each of these ancient Roman leaders ruled.
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 Anthony, Cleopatra (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.
Roughly around the year 0 Rome was becoming an Empire as Augustus nominated himself “Imperator” – a military commander title – after he defeated Marc Anthony and Cleopatra in a bloody civil war. 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 Rome and as a consequence, much that is known is due to myth and archeological findings. 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.
We 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…
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 Cincinnatus for his apparent lack of desire for power. Cincinnatus worked his fields on 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 of Mark 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.
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.
Read on for a conclusion on the subject of ancient Roman leaders, as well as a quick sketch of the influential Gracchi family who influenced some much of Rome’s military and political development.