17. Themistocles had to browbeat his allies into standing up to fight
In 480 BC, the Persians under King Xerxes overcame a Spartan force at Thermopylae, then advanced on Athens. Many Athenians wanted to fight the Persian army, but Themistocles convinced them it would be futile. Supported by a vague prophecy from the Oracle of Delphi, whom Themistocles bribed, he argued that Athens should put its faith not in the city walls, but in her “wooden walls” – Athens’ ships. Thus, when the Persians arrived, they found a nearly deserted Athens, whose citizens had been evacuated to the nearby island of Salamis. Seizing Athens, the Persians razed its walls, and put the city to the torch.
The Persians then assembled their navy of about 600 to 800 warships on the beaches south of Athens, near the island of Salamis to the west. An allied Greek navy of about 375 warships, mostly Athenian, awaited them, guarding the eastern entrance of a strait separating Salamis from the Greek mainland. The Greek navy was under the nominal command of the Spartan Eurybiades, but in practice, its true commander was the Athenian Themistocles. Athens’ Greek allies wavered, and called for a retreat from Salamis. Themistocles convinced them to stay by threatening that the Athenians would defect to the Persians if the allies refused to fight.
16. A wily warrior who forced his reluctant allies to fight
As it became clear that the commitment of Athens’ Greek allies was shaky, Themistocles decided to force a battle as soon as possible. So he sent king Xerxes a secret message, claiming friendship, and informing him that the Greeks were demoralized. To bag them, Themistocles advised, the Persians should send a naval detachment to block the western exit of the strait, then attack from the east. The bottled-up Greeks would then either surrender, or put up a poor show. Either way, Xerxes would emerge victorious.
Xerxes followed Themistocles’ advice, and the Greeks went into a panic upon awaking the next day to discover that the Persians had bottled them up in the strait. Themistocles calmed them down, and devised a plan whereby the Greeks retreated far up into the narrows. The Persians fought a battle with their ships on an east-west line facing Salamis. That would have allowed them to attack the Greeks on a broad front, and take advantage of their numerical superiority to overlap and envelop their foes. Themistocles demonstrated his chops as a warrior with a counterplan that thwarted the Persians, then crushed them.
15. Themistocles turned his enemy’s numerical advantage into a disadvantage
Themistocles drew the Persians into a battle whose lines ran north-south, along the Strait of Salamis’ narrow width. That negated the Persian numerical superiority at the point of contact. It also drew the maximum number of Persian ships into restricted waters. By getting the Persians to cram their huge navy into a tight space, Themistocles turned the Persians’ numerical advantage into a disadvantage. Persian ships found themselves packed in an ever tighter space, fouling each other and unable to properly maneuver. Simultaneously, more and more Persian captains, eager to impress Xerxes who was watching the battle from a nearby hilltop, rushed in, adding their ships to the growing jam.
To add to the Persians’ woes, the waters off Salamis were tricky, and while the Greeks knew their secrets, the Persians did not. All those factors combined to bring about a decisive Greek victory, in which the Greeks lost about 40 ships, while the Persians lost about 300. Casualties were even more lopsided than the ship losses, as many Greeks who ended up in the water swam to the safety of nearby Salamis. Persians, by contrast, were either shot by arrows as they neared Salamis, or were slaughtered as soon as they reached shore.
14. The warrior who won history’s most consequential battle
No other battle in history, had it gone the other way, would have resulted in as radically different a world as would have occurred if the Greeks had lost the Battle of Salamis. Western history is rooted in Greek civilization, especially Athens’ contribution to that civilization. The height of Athenian culture and civilization, featuring an explosion in the arts, literature, philosophy, and democracy, occurred in the decades following the victory at Salamis. If the Greeks had lost, Greece would have become a Persian satrapy. There would have been no independent Hellenic civilization to eventually seed that of the West.
Instead of drawing upon Greek civilization, Western history might have become an extension of Persian civilization and culture. The ripple effects might have included no Christianity as a major religion. Christianity only became a world religion after it escaped its Jewish roots, and fused the teachings of Jesus with the Hellenism of the Roman East. A knock-on effect of that would have been no Islam as a major religion. There had been a significant Christian presence in Arabia for centuries before Islam, exerting considerable influence upon the locals. Indeed, many viewed Islam in its earliest days as just another Christian heresy, because of the significant overlap between it and Christianity.
13. Despite saving Athens, the Athenians ostracized and exiled this warrior
The Battle of Salamis, engineered by Themistocles, was the decisive Greek victory that turned the war around and saved the Greek mainland from the Persians. Persia’s King Xerxes, who until then had personally commanded the campaign, hurriedly took ship and returned home. However, there was still some mopping up left to do. King Xerxes left behind a formidable army under a relative to continue the campaign, but it was defeated and destroyed the following year at the Battle of Plataea.
When the Athenians returned to their destroyed city, their Spartan allies asked them not to rebuild the city’s walls as a sign of good faith. Themistocles led a delegation to Sparta to negotiate and dragged out the negotiations while the Athenians feverishly rebuilt their walls. By the time the Spartans caught on, the walls had already been erected. Afterward, Themistocles’ political fortunes declined. Despite having saved Athens, his city screwed him over. Not given to gratitude for long, the Athenians ostracized and exiled him some years after Salamis. Nimbly, he went to Persia, and ended his days governing some Greek cities in Asia Minor on behalf of the Persian king.
Publius Cornelius Scipio Africanus (236 BC – 183 BC) got the “Africanus” honorific because of his military victories in Africa. A formidable warrior, he was one of the Roman Republic’s greatest generals and strategists, best known for his conquest of Carthage’s territories in Iberia during the Second Punic War (218 – 201 BC). He closed the war strong, capping it off by defeating Hannibal on his home turf at the Battle of Zama in 202 BC to end the conflict with a Roman victory.
Scipio’s first mention in the historic record dates to 218 BC, when he led a cavalry charge that saved his father, one of that year’s consuls, from encirclement by Carthaginians. He survived the disaster at Cannae two years later, when Hannibal nearly wiped out a Roman army 87,000 strong. Scipio was one of the few Roman officers to keep their wits about them and cut their way to safety with 10,000 men – the sole survivors, who formed the nucleus of a reconstituted Roman army.
11. In his first campaign as a Commander, Scipio transformed the war’s strategic picture
In 211 BC, Scipio’s father and uncle were defeated and killed fighting Hannibal’s brother in Hispania. In elections for a new proconsul to lead an army to avenge that defeat, Scipio was the only Roman willing to seek the position, which others eschewed as a death sentence. Only 25 at the time, Scipio was underage to be elected a magistrate, so a special law was enacted to give him command. He opened the campaign and established his credentials as a warrior of note with a surprise attack in 209 BC, that captured New Carthage (modern Cartagena), the Carthaginian seat of power in Hispania.
Scipio’s capture of New Carthage changed the strategic picture and the course of the war. At a stroke, he secured ample supplies, as well as a great harbor and base for further operations. He then campaigned across Hispania, winning a series of victories. By 206 BC, he had wrested all of Hispania from the Carthaginians. Scipio then returned to Rome as its most successful general to date, and was elected consul in 205 BC. By then, Hannibal was isolated in southern Italy, cut off from supplies and reinforcements. Then Scipio transformed the war with another bold stroke.
10. This warrior saved Rome from its greatest peril to date, only to be rewarded with persecution and prosecutions
Instead of going after Hannibal in southern Italy, Scipio decided to go directly after Carthage. Dismissing the Carthaginian warrior and genius commander who had so tormented Rome, Scipio boldly took the war to the enemy’s homeland by invading North Africa in 204 BC. The Carthaginians recalled Hannibal from Italy to take command of their armies at home, setting the stage for a climactic showdown between Rome’s and Carthage’s greatest generals. It came at the Battle of Zama in 202 BC, in which Scipio won a complete victory that ended the Second Punic War.
Scipio returned to Rome and a hero’s welcome. However, while he was widely celebrated and lionized by the general public, he was hated by fellow patricians. Jealous of his accomplishments, and resenting his high status as the Republic’s foremost warrior, Scipio’s enemies went about tearing him down. They persecuted him with trumped-up charges of treason, bribery, and general corruption in order to sully his reputation. The ingratitude left Scipio disillusioned and bitter, and led to his withdrawal from public life. He retired to his estates in Campania, where he remained until his death in 183 BC.
Before Julius Caesar secured his reputation as Ancient Rome’s most formidable military commander and most famous warrior, there was Gaius Marius (157 – 86 BC), a formidable warrior and a general who saved Rome from extinction. He was also a statesman who headed the populares, Rome’s political faction that leant towards the rising middle and lower classes. Marius was elected consul an unprecedented seven times, and was the first general to illustrate that political support and power could be secured from the votes of veterans.
Marius was not an aristocrat, but a plebeian from an equestrian or knightly family. He joined the Roman Republic’s political power structure as Novus homo, or “new man” – a term for those who were the first of their family to serve in the Senate. Marius owed his rise to his talents as a soldier against the backdrop of the Numidian War in North Africa, which was being bungled by incompetent aristocratic commanders. Marius rode the criticism of the war’s mishandling to get elected to his first consulship in 107 BC. He took command and swiftly secured victory.
8. The Warrior who revolutionized the Roman Legions
Gaius Marius initiated revolutionary military changes that came to be known as the “Marian Reforms”. The Germanic Cimbri and Teuton tribes had crossed the Alps, entered southern Gaul, and threatened Italy. They wiped out two Roman armies sent to meet them – sending Rome and Italy, always fearful of barbarians since an invasion by Gauls had sacked Rome and devastated Italy in 387 BC, into a panic. To meet the crisis, Marius opened the ranks of the Roman legions, hitherto restricted to propertied citizens who could afford to arm and equip themselves, to all citizens.
Until then, Roman legionaries supplied their own arms and armor, and were not paid salaries. As a result, the legions were restricted to the financially comfortable. That kept out a vast manpower pool of Rome’s poor, whom Marius turned to and tapped to fill the Republic’s depleted military ranks. Instead of relying solely on those who could afford to equip themselves, Marius opened the legions to all Romans, including the poorest. Henceforth, the government would furnish legionaries with their weapons and armor, and pay them salaries.
7. Gaius Marius’ reforms had unforeseen effects that transformed Rome
An unforeseen knock-on effect of Gaius Marius’ military reforms was the way in which they transformed the character of the Roman army. Until then, the Roman Republic’s military had been a middle-class and patrician institution of unpaid amateurs. The Marian Reforms transformed it into a professional army for whose legionaries’ military service became a career. They came to look to their generals, not the government in Rome, for rewards during service, and for severance pay and retirement benefits upon their discharge.
Marius’ reforms and his competence as a warrior and general enabled him to win the war against Numidia. They also allowed him to raise and train an army that crushed the Germanic Cimbri and Teutons, and removed their threat to Rome by 101 BC. That made Marius Rome’s most popular politician. By 100 BC, he had been elected consul six times. With the barbarian threat removed, however, Marius’ limitations as a politician, which had been masked by his brilliance as a warrior, emerged. With the emergency over, Marius’ political star dimmed as Rome’s traditional power brokers reasserted themselves.
In 91 BC, the Social War between Rome and her Italian allies broke out. Marius was recalled to service, but had to quit because of poor health. Sulla, a former subordinate, prosecuted the war to a successful conclusion. The rise of Sulla’s star while that of Marius fell led to friction and jealousy. It broke into the open in 88 BC. That year, Sulla was elected consul, and was appointed by the Senate to command a war against Pontus. Marius got a tribune to call a popular assembly that overrode the Senate and gave command to Marius, instead. That was technically legal, but highly unusual and controversial.
Sulla surprised Marius and everybody by marching on Rome – a first in Roman history – and forcing Marius and his supporters to flee. Sulla entered Rome, where he got the Senate to pass a death sentence against the Marians, then marched off to the war against Pontus in 87 BC. When he left, Marius, who by then had raised an army in North Africa, returned to Rome. He executed about a dozen leading Sullans, and displayed their heads on pikes in the Forum. Marius was then elected consul for a seventh time, but died just 17 days into his term, in 86 BC.
5. The Great Roman Warrior eclipsed by Julius Caesar
Gnaeus Pompeius Magnus, better known as Pompey or Pompey the Great (106 – 48 BC), was one of the greatest statesmen and generals of the Roman Republic’s final decades. Pompey was first Julius Caesar’s son-in-law and partner in the First Triumvirate that divided up and ruled Rome, then his rival, and finally his enemy. His career, as well as the ups and downs of his relationship with Caesar, were pivotal in the transformation of the Roman Republic into the Roman Empire.
Pompey was born into a family that had only recently joined the senatorial ranks. However, it was a powerful and incredibly wealthy family, with vast holdings in Picenum in central Italy. Pompey’s father, who had a reputation for double-dealing, greed, and ruthlessness, was a general who became consul in 89 BC. An ally of Sulla, he was killed during the civil war against the Marians in 87 BC. As a result, a then-nineteen-year-old Pompey inherited his father’s vast wealth and, more importantly, his legions.
When Sulla returned to Italy from the war against Pontus, Pompey joined him with three legions to march on and seize of Rome. Sulla then sent him to recapture Sicily and Africa from the Marians, which he accomplished in two lightning campaigns by 81 BC. Pompey then executed the captured Marians and was named Magnus, or “the Great” by his troops. After Sulla’s retirement, Pompey menaced the Senate into appointing him commander of the war against the final Marian remnants in Hispania, which he eventually won after considerable effort by 71 BC.
Pompey returned to Italy with his army, ostensibly to help put down Spartacus’ slave revolt, but in reality to guarantee his election to the consulship in 70 BC. In 67 BC, he was given authority throughout the Mediterranean to settle a piracy problem that had grown out of control. He did so in a brilliant campaign that lasted only three months. Pompey was then appointed to command a war against Pontus, and was granted authority to settle the entire Eastern Mediterranean. He accomplished that by annexing some kingdoms into the Roman Republic, and reducing others to client states.
3. Pompey and Caesar were allies, before they fell out
Pompey’s settlement of the Eastern Mediterranean’s affairs was his greatest achievement. With few modifications, it lasted for over 500 years. He returned to Italy in 62 BC with a reputation as Rome’s greatest warrior and general. Pompey sought land upon which to settle his veterans, and legislation to ratify his settlement of the east. However, he was thwarted by political chaos in Rome. Pompey finally accomplished his goals after forming a Triumvirate with Julius Caesar and Marcus Licinius Crassus to divide Rome’s power amongst themselves, sealing the deal by marrying Caesar’s daughter.
After Crassus died in 53 BC, followed by Pompey’s wife and Caesar’s daughter soon thereafter, the remaining Triumvirs drifted apart, and finally went to war in 49 BC. Caesar invaded Italy that year, forcing Pompey and the conservative optimates to flee to Greece, where they raised an army. Caesar followed, and Rome’s two greatest generals finally met at the Battle of Pharsalus in 48 BC. Caesar proved greater, and Pompey’s army was crushed. Fleeing, he sailed to Egypt, where he was inveigled to come ashore, only to get assassinated and have his head chopped off as soon as his feet touched Egyptian soil.
Flavius Aetius (391 – 454) was the last great general and warrior of the Western Roman Empire. Born into a military family, he spent part of his youth as a hostage of the barbarian Visigoths, and later the Huns. Living amongst the barbarians gave Aetius valuable insider knowledge and insights, which came in handy later as he fought to prevent Attila the Hun from overrunning Western Europe. Attila ruled a multi-tribal empire dominated by the Huns, that spanned Eastern and Central Europe. During his reign, 434-453, he earned the moniker “The Scourge of God” for his depredations.
Attila terrified the civilized world, invaded Persia, terrorized the Eastern and Western Roman Empires, plundered the Balkans, and extorted vast sums of gold from the Romans. He crossed the Danube in 440, plundered the Balkans, and destroyed two Roman armies. The Roman emperor admitted defeat, and Attila extorted from him a treaty that paid 2000 kilograms of gold up front, plus an annual tribute of 700 kilograms of gold each year. In 447, Attila returned to the Balkans, which he ravaged until he reached the walls of Constantinople, before recoiling.
1. As a reward for Saving Rome, Aetius was murdered by his Emperor
In 450, the Western Roman Emperor’s sister sought to escape a betrothal to an old aristocrat whom she disliked. So she begged Attila’s help, and sent him her engagement ring. Attila interpreted that as a marriage proposal, accepted, and asked for half of the Western Roman Empire as dowry. When the Romans balked, Attila invaded, visiting his usual depredations. Aetius was put in charge of organizing the resistance. By then, the Western Roman Empire was a shell of its former self, and lacked the military means to stand up to the Huns on its own. So Aetius formed an alliance with the barbarian Visigoths.
Aetius promised the Visigoths a homeland in southwestern France in exchange for fighting off the Huns alongside the Romans. At the climactic battle of the Catalaunian Plains in 451, Aetius and the Visigoths defeated Attila and beat back his invasion. Aetius’ success aroused the jealousy of the Western Roman Emperor Valentinian III, who felt intimidated by his formidable general. On September 21st, 454, Aetius was delivering a report to the emperor when Valentinian leaped up from his throne, and out of the blue, accused the general of drunken depravities. Then, before the startled Aetius knew what was happening, the emperor and a co-conspirator hacked the general to death with a sword.
Where Did We Find This Stuff? Some Sources and Further Reading