In This Chapter
● Men, women, and tribes who hated Rome and everything she stood for
● Wars, rebellions, double-crossing, and feminine wiles
This motley collection of characters all in their own way resisted the Romans. In a way, the very fact that they did as they did was a recognition of Rome’s power. If any one of them had succeeded, the history of the Roman Empire would have been very different. There’s no doubt this is only a selection of Rome’s greatest enemies. Like all major powers, Rome spent most of its existence facing opposition who viewed Rome with a mixture of awe, envy, and loathing.
Hannibal (247-182 BC)
The prize for Rome’s ultimate bogeyman goes to Hannibal of Carthage. His father Hamilcar made him swear lifelong hatred of the Romans, and his campaigning in Spain guaranteed Rome would go to war. Hannibal’s greatest years were during the Second Punic War (218-202 BC) when he led his army in an epic and legendary march across the Alps into Italy where he defeated the Romans at Trasimene and Cannae. He survived the war and remained in power in Carthage, but that only gave Rome the excuse to suspect what he was up to. He ended up fleeing to Antiochus III, but after Rome defeated Antiochus, too, Hannibal committed suicide. It was an ignominious end for a brilliant soldier whose fame and notoriety was so great that Carthage remained Rome’s nightmare, leading ultimately to the vicious and gratuitous Third Punic War. To read more about Hannibal, go to Chapter 13.
Antiochus 111 (242-187 BC)
Antiochus III ‘the Great’ of Syria succeeded his father Seleucus II in 223 BC, whose reign had been a series of misfortunes, including defeat by Egypt and by the Parthians. Antiochus was determined to rebuild the Seleucid kingdom of Syria and, by 206 BC, had taken Armenia and also brought Parthia under his control. The problem for any expansionist monarch like Antiochus is that coming up against Rome was almost inevitable. So his plan to divide up Egypt’s possessions with Philip V just put Rome on her guard, and when he invaded Thrace and then Greece, war ensured. It was probably Hannibal who urged Antiochus on to provoke Rome into war and also suggested that Antiochus invade Italy. Unfortunately for both of them, Antiochus was defeated at Thermopylae and Magnesia, as well as at sea, and the peace he was forced into in 188 BC destroyed the Seleucids’ chances of being a force to be reckoned with in the Mediterranean. Antiochus was killed in 187 BC while trying to seize the temple treasure of the eastern kingdom of Susiana so that he could pay the annual fine to Rome. You’ll find more about Antiochus’s antics in Chapter 13.
Mithridates VI, King of Pontus (120-63 BC)
Rome’s most relentless opponent in the East, Mithridates, was an admirer of Alexander the Great. When Mithridates V of Pontus (in Asia Minor) was murdered at Sinope, probably by his wife Laodice, Mithridates VI fled and had to hide out until he’d gathered the resources to come back. Mithridates captured Sinope, killed his brother, and slapped his mother into prison and took over the kingdom. He carried on his father’s work of expanding the kingdom, but he came up against Rome when he tried his luck in Cappadocia and war broke out. Unfortunately for the Romans, ripping off provincials made Mithridates a popular alternative - when the Romans got it wrong, they often created their own enemies. Mithridates was defeated by Sulla in 85 and thrown out of Greece, but by 81 was fighting the Romans again. War broke out once more in 74 when Rome tried to take Bithynia and lasted till 63 BC when Mithridates’s own oppressive treatment of his subjects generated a rebellion led by his own son Pharnaces. He was killed by a guard.
Spartacus (fl. 73-71 BC)
Spartacus was a Thracian slave who ended up in a gladiator school at Capua. He was educated and physically powerful. The revolt broke out thanks to the cruelty of the owner (lanista) of the school, Lentulus Batiatus, and Spartacus was elected one of the leaders. The slaves ran riot through Italy, defeating several Roman armies, one after another. But Spartacus found it impossible to persuade the slaves to flee Italy because they were more interested in pillage. He was finally cornered by Marcus Licinius Crassus in 71 BC and totally defeated, being killed then or amongst the survivors who were crucified. Pompey raced back from Spain to join in the hunt, which gave him the perfect excuse to keep his army together and also gain even more credit than he already had for protecting Rome.
The epic movie Spartacus (1960), starring Kirk Douglas as the rebel slave, Laurence Olivier as Crassus, and Peter Ustinov as Batiatus, is not only one of the greatest motion pictures set in the ancient world but also fairly authentic to the story and setting.
Cleopatra VII of Egypt (69-31 BC)
Unlike the other enemies of Rome in this list, Cleopatra played the Romans for fools rather than fighting them. She understood the Romans had colossal power and that the best thing was to harness it to her own interests. Celebrated for her looks and intelligence, Cleopatra made the most of them to beguile Julius Caesar and then Mark Antony. Caesar had become totally infatuated with the Egyptian queen even though she was only about 17 years old (he was 52). She bore him a son called Caesarion and later had children by Antony.
The affairs Cleopatra she had with both men is one of the great stories of the ancient world, and it’s no surprise it was the subject of one of the most famously expensive epic movies of all time: Cleopatra (1963), starring Rex Harrison (Caesar), Richard Burton (Antony), and Elizabeth Taylor as guess-who. There’s a lower-key and much funnier version called Caesar and Cleopatra (1945) starring Claude Rains as Caesar and Vivien Leigh as Cleopatra, based on the play by George Bernard Shaw. There’s an even lower-key version called Carry on Cleo (1964) but the less said about that, the better.
Vercingetorix (fl. 52 BC, d. 46 BC)
Vercingetorix led the Gauls in a revolt against Julius Caesar in 52 BC. It was six years into the war against the Gauls, and Vercingetorix presented Caesar with an unprecedented challenge: the united tribes of Gaul. Vercingetorix destroyed farms and villages to stop the Roman army getting supplies. The
Gauls had hilltop strongholds with fortifications that were strong enough to resist Caesar’s battering rams. His troops managed to burst into Avaricum (Bourges) and massacred almost 40,000 inhabitants, but Vercingetorix defeated Caesar at Gergovia which humiliated him and only helped spread the revolt. The climax came at the siege of Alesia (Alexia) where Caesar, vastly outnumbered, built massive siege works that separated the Alesians from a relief army. Alesia fell in the final battle, and Vercingetorix surrendered, being executed by Caesar in Rome in 46 BC. But he became a watchword for Gallic nationalism.
Christopher Lambert plays the hero in Vercingetorix, a French movie made in 2001, though the whole war is much more humorously commemorated in the Asterix the Gaul comic books and films created by Goscinny and Uderzo in 1959.
Caratacus (d. AD 43-51)
Caratacus led the resistance against the Roman invasion of Britain from the moment the Romans arrived in 43. Unlike most anti-Romans, he lasted a remarkably long time, considering the forces thrown against him. A prince of the Catuvellauni tribe, his domain was quickly overrun, so he escaped to the hills of Wales where he joined tribes together and held the Romans at bay in difficult upland country. He had the time of his life, giving the ancient world’s superpower a monumental runaround (sounds familiar, doesn’t it?). The Romans finally defeated him in a major battle, but Caratacus fled for sanctuary with a tribal queen called Cartimandua. Unfortunately for Caratacus, she handed him over to the Romans, and he was taken to Rome. Unlike Vercingetorix, however (see the preceding section), he was treated with respect by the emperor Claudius who pensioned him off. He spent his retirement in Rome, wondering why the Romans could possibly have been interested in conquering a remote and primitive place like Britain.
Boudica (d. AD 61)
In 60-61, Boudica led a destructive rebellion in Britain against Roman rule (see Chapter 16). Said to have been a powerful and impressive woman with a mane of red hair, she seems to have provided historians like Tacitus and Dio with a certain amount of suppressed erotic fascination at her dominatrix role in the uprising. Boudica and her family were the victims of oppressive Roman provincial administration. But what makes her really fascinating is how those historians portrayed Boudica as the exact opposite of Nero. It makes one wonder how true the picture is, but it tells us a huge amount about what Romans thought their rulers should be like. Nero was the effeminate man with none of the virtues a Roman leader should have, but Boudica was the masculine barbarian woman with all the virtues of leadership, bravery, and patriotism.
Boudica has been a frequent theme of television documentaries and dramatisations but oddly never a motion picture for cinema.
Simon Bar Cochba (fl. AD 132-135)
Bar Cochba’s name means ‘son of a star’. Because actual letters by him have been found, we now know his original name was Shim’on Ben Cosiba. He led the great Jewish revolt against the Romans in Palestine under Hadrian, the result of decades of resentment ever since the destruction of Jerusalem and the Temple in 70. Hadrian provoked the rebellion by banning circumcision and planning to build a new city on Jerusalem’s site. Bar Cochba created an independent Jewish state and was even thought by some to be the Jewish Messiah. Hadrian sent a general called Julius Severus, who’d been toughened up by campaigning in Britain, and he successfully put the revolt down. Dio says the war cost the destruction of 50 fortresses and 985 villages, and the lives of 580,000 men. The figures are probably exaggerated, but it’s clear it was a bloody war. When the revolt fell apart, some of the rebels hid out in Dead Sea Caves, but Bar Cochba was killed in a Roman attack on a place called Bethar. Jerusalem was replaced by a city called Aelia Capitolina.
The German tribes
As soon as Rome advanced north into Gaul and central Europe, she became exposed to the tribes of Germany. If you’ve seen Gladiator (2000), you’ll remember the vicious opening battle between Marcus Aurelius’s army in 180 and a horde of barbarian tribesmen. The Rhine marked the barrier, and throughout Rome’s imperial history, holding that frontier was a constant nightmare on which Rome’s very existence depended. The Germans started to become a real problem under Augustus, despite the efforts to integrate German tribal leaders. The catastrophe of AD 9 when three legions were lost
(see Chapter 16) was psychologically devastating for Rome. One of the tribes involved was the Chatti, who later took part in the Revolt of Civilis (69-70) (also in Chapter 16). Domitian (81-96) had to fortify the gap between the Rhine and Danube to hold the Chatti back. It was largely successful, but by Marcus Aurelius’s time (161-180), war had broken out on the frontier again (Chapter 17). Throughout the third and fourth centuries (Chapters 11,12 and 13), the fighting continued on and off. The Germans played their own part in the last days of the Roman Empire in the West, even annoying Valentinian I so much in 374 that he literally died of rage (Chapter 21).