Weird History

The 13 Most Formidable Enemies The Roman Empire Ever Faced  

Carly Silver
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Sure, there were lots of rebels in ancient Rome (Spartacus, anyone?), but the most fascinating people the Romans fought were leaders of rival foreign nations. These weren't just ancient Roman rebels, but monarchs, chieftains, and genius generals in their own right. 

The Senate might have thought of some of these rulers as ancient Romans who rebelled, but the truth, more often than not, was that these individuals fought to achieve or keep their people independent from Roman conquest. Take, for example, Boudica, the famed British queen who slaughtered invading Romans and destroyed London.

And then there were Rome's rivals for control of trade, like Carthage. You might know Hannibal as a cannibal, but before he was a Lecter, he was a genius general who brought a ton of elephants into Italy to slaughter Romans. Hardly rebels from ancient Rome, but a kick-ass ruler in his own right.

Cleopatra is listed (or ranked) 1 on the list The 13 Most Formidable Enemies The Roman Empire Ever Faced
Photo: John William Waterhouse/Public Domain

Cleopatra VII, the final pharaoh of Egypt's Ptolemaic Dynasty, had a long, complicated relationship with Rome. Her dad, Ptolemy XII, was ousted from power, but Roman allies restored him to power. So when Cleo herself came to the throne, she knew to court the most powerful empire in the Mediterranean.

First, she made Julius Caesar fall for her - or convinced him to at least have sex with her, since they had a bouncing baby boy together. Caesar killed her brother-husband and helped her secure her power; Cleo later followed him to Rome (talk about peer pressure). After his death, she took up with his number one supporter, Mark Antony, who gave her three kids. 

Cleopatra and Mark Antony opposed Caesar's heir/great-nephew, Octavian, who seized power in Rome. The conflict came to a head at the Battle of Actium on September 2, 31 BCE, after which Octavian became Rome's head honcho; he eventually became the first emperor, Augustus.

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Hannibal is listed (or ranked) 2 on the list The 13 Most Formidable Enemies The Roman Empire Ever Faced
Photo: Nicolas Poussin/Public Domain

In the third century BCE, the two greatest powers of the Mediterranean basin - Rome and Carthage - squared off in three separate Punic Wars. The soldiers of Carthage, located in north Africa, were led in battle by the brilliant general Hannibal. After Rome won the First Punic War, Hannibal consolidated power in Carthage's colonies in Iberia and went HAM on one of Rome's Spanish towns, kicking off the Second Punic War.

Hannibal got a giant force together, including almost 40 war elephants, and marched across the Alps into Italy. He eventually won a stunning victory at Cannae against the Roman legions, but was forced to go home after the Romans invaded Carthage itself. The Roman general Scipio won another big battle near Carthage, leaving the Carthaginians with only their North African lands....

Hannibal wasn't into it, but he was forced into exile and hung out with the Syrians, then the people of Pergamum in Asia Minor (where he threw buckets of snakes at his enemies). Eventually, Hannibal got super-paranoid and, afraid his enemies were coming for him, poisoned himself where he was hanging out in Turkey.

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Zenobia is listed (or ranked) 3 on the list The 13 Most Formidable Enemies The Roman Empire Ever Faced
Photo: Herbert Schmalz/Public Domain

One of the great cities of ancient Syria was the trade center of Palmyra. Sadly destroyed in large part by ISIS, it also played host to the great Arab queen Zenobia, who rebelled against Roman tyranny. First acting as regent to her kid in the third century CE, Zenobia eventually seized power on her own. Although her hubby was once a Roman client king, Zenobia struck out on her own and opposed the Romans. She claimed to be descended from none other than Cleopatra VII, a political lightning rod.

Zenobia conquered Egypt (her ancestral homeland?) in 269 and moved into Asia Minor. The Roman emperor Aurelian got in her way two years later, taking over the key cities of modern Ankara and Emesa in Syria. Aurelian and Zenobia - who led her own troops into battle - exchanged letters, but she remained defiant (after all, she declared herself empress, so she had to live up to the title). Sadly, Palmyra fell, too, and Aurelian captured Zenobia, who either was part of his imperial triumph in 274 in Rome or starved herself to death.

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Attila the Hun is listed (or ranked) 4 on the list The 13 Most Formidable Enemies The Roman Empire Ever Faced
Photo: Mór Than/Public Domain

Attila, leader of the Hun confederation of nomadic tribes in Eastern Europe-Asia, was known as "the Scourge of Rome" for the destruction he brought on the late Roman Empire. The tribes began moving westward into the Roman Empire in the mid-fifth century CE, forcing Rome to bribe them in gold so they wouldn't attack. The amount of money required to keep the tribes at bay went up each year, and Attila eventually broke one of his treaties, invading and sacking Roman lands in the 450s.

Attila was pretty ambitious - he murdered his brother to get the throne and headed to Gaul to win an imperial princess as his wife - but he was a rather humble man. A lot of his men accumulated riches as he ravaged the lands Rome conquered centuries before; he himself took a lot of ladies as his own... to his downfall. Attila died of a nasty nosebleed in 453 after one hell of a wedding night.

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