Top 10 Roman Generals (Byzantine allowed)

Sep 2019
How did Monaeses do against Antony? I know only a little about his Parthian campaign.
Plutarch mentions him a few times in Life of Antony:

"Monaeses, a man of distinction and power, who came in flight to Antony. Antony likened the fortunes of the fugitive to those of Themistocles, compared his own abundant resources and magnanimity to those of the Persian kings, and gave him three cities, Larissa, Arethusa, and Hierapolis, which used to be called Bambycé. But when the Parthian king made an offer of friendship to Monaeses, Antony gladly sent Monaeses back to him, determined to receive Phraates with a prospect of peace, and demanding back the standards captured in the campaign of Crassus, together with such of his men as still survived. "
Oct 2018
And now, an update:

Julius Caesar (15 appearances)
Scipio Africanus (14)
Sulla (12)
Aurelian (11)
Constantine I (11)
Belisarius (11)
Marius (9)
Trajan (8)
Lucullus (5)
Pompey (4)
Septimius Severus (4)
Aetius (4)
Narses (4)
Heraclius (4)
Marcellus (3)
Agrippa (3)
Stilicho (3)
Paullus Macedonicus (2)
Labienus (2)
Antony (2)
Tiberius (2)
Basil II (2)
Camillus (1)
Duilius (1)
Fabius Maximus (1)
Flamininus (1)
Germanicus (1)
Maximinus Thrax (1)
Odainath (1)
Claudius Gothicus (1)
Galerius (1)
Ricimer (1)
Theodoric the Great (1)
Constantine V (1)
John Tzimiskes (1)
George Maniakes (1)

The collective top 20 (actually 22):
1. Julius Caesar
2. Scipio Africanus
3. Sulla
4. Aurelian
4. Constantine I
4. Belisarius
7. Marius
8. Trajan
9. Lucullus
10. Pompey
10. Septimius Severus
10. Aetius
10. Narses
10. Heraclius
15. Marcellus
15. Agrippa
15. Stilicho
18. Paullus Macedonicus
18. Labienus
18. Antony
18. Tiberius
18. Basil II
An updated version of the period-specific list:

Early Republic (1)

Middle Republic (22)
Fabius Maximus
Marcellus 3
Scipio Africanus 14
Paullus Macedonicus 2

Late Republic (47)
Marius 9
Sulla 12
Pompey 4
Lucullus 5
Caesar 15
Labienus 2

Early Empire (8)
Antony 2
Agrippa 3
Tiberius 2

High Empire (12)
Trajan 8
Septimius Severus 4

Late Empire (26)
Maximinus Thrax
Claudius Gothicus
Aurelian 11
Constantine I 11

Early Byzantium (28)
Stilicho 3
Aetius 4
Theodoric the Great
Belisarius 11
Narses 4
Heraclius 4

Middle Byzantium (5)
Constantine V
John Tzimiskes
Basil II 2
George Maniakes
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Lord Oda Nobunaga

Ad Honorem
Jan 2015
Ontario, Canada
How did Monaeses do against Antony? I know only a little about his Parthian campaign.
Notice how it is implied that Monaeses was already a man of some renown. When he went back to Parthia, he told Phraates IV of Antony's plans which sort of ruined Antony's campaign. Although one also assumes that Antony changed his route of advance from Mesopotamia to Media Atropatene. Since it appears that the Parthians struggled in deploying their troops in Media Atropatene. Antony had actually marched from Antioch to Zeugma, and it must have seemed that from Zeugma he would undoubtedly cross the Euphrates and head towards Ctesiphon.

From what is recorded Antony crossed through the mountains into Media Atropatene. It is debated whether he actually went through Armenia or if he cut directly across, underneath Lake Van. But it seems that this caught the Parthians off guard, probably expecting an invasion through Mesopotamia against Ctesiphon. Monaeses went ahead to Media Atropatene with a contingent while Phraates IV organized the rest of the forces. Antony had two columns; his main force advanced towards the city of Phraaspa, while his other column included some legionaries with Artavasdes II and his Armenian contingent, also guarding the siege engines. When the Parthians attacked, Artavasdes II and his cavalry fled, the Romans were encircled and surrendered and the siege engines were destroyed. This was a heavy blow to Antony's campaign because now he lacked the Armenian auxiliaries which could have been used to fight the Parthians, but also the loss of his siege engines which he planned on using to reduce Phraaspa, the loss of a legion or two was unfortunate as well (supposedly 10,000 Romans). Antony continued into Atropatene and began a siege of Phraaspa, deciding to build dual walls as Caesar had done at Alesia. It seems that at about this point the main force showed up under Phraates IV. But this resulted in the Parthians cutting Antony's lines and running low on supplies, Antony had to carry out sortees and foraging missions. At some point the garrison in Phraaspa sallied out and burned the siege engines which Antony was building. It appears that Antony won the engagements around Phraaspa but was running out of supplies and so he decided to carry out a fighting retreat into Armenia, or else face the winter in Media Atropatene. Then the next year he invaded Armenia to punish Artavasdes II for deserting, and rapidly conquering it he incorporated Armenia into his territories. Then when Antony returned to Alexandria he staged a triumph and had the Armenian prisoners paraded through the streets, possibly Artavasdes II and his sons being executed as well. He then carried out the Donations of Alexandria in which he named his son Alexander Helios as the King of Armenia and Parthia. For some reason Artavasdes I of Media Atropatene decided to side with Antony and was sent, I believe one legion in exchange for some of his cavalry. Later during and after Actium, the Parthians invaded Media Atropatene and Armenia.

Much of the war was an attrition conflict in which the Romans besieged Phraaspa and the Parthians waited them out and carried out raids. There were minor engagements around Phraaspa which Antony won (for instance one battle in which the Legionaries charged the Parthian cavalry). Because of the mountains and winter, and cut off supply lines, with Phraaspa showing no signs of giving in, Antony opted to withdraw across the mountains into the Armenia region, making a fighting retreat against Parthian attacks. Supposedly Antony invaded with 100,000 men but that is doubtful since he never received the 20,000 Legionaries from Octavian. Also included were about 12,000 Armenians, over 20,000 auxilia from the Caucasus tribes, 10,000 cavalry from Gaul and Hispania and 60,000 Legionaries. Allegedly Antony lost over 30,000 men (24,000 during the retreat alone, 10,000 when Artavasdes II withdrew, and further troops during the siege and engagements). Certainly the parallel to Napoleon in Russia or Alexander in India is an apt comparison. Still I must say, that I don't believe these figures given for Antony's forces. The losses might be accurate.
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May 2015
villa of Lucullus
To my thinking, there are two essential elements that go into "military greatness" - showcased ability, and scale of accomplishment. Pompey exemplifies the latter quality.

If his career is evaluated on a case-by-case basis, it is possible to mount a fairly devastating critique. He fought against outnumbered and inferior Marian rebels at the start of his career, was repeatedly out-generaled by Sertorius, and wrongly stole glory that rightfully belonged to Metellus, Crassus, and Lucullus. But that sort of fades away when his achievements are considered as a unified whole.

In the grand scheme of Graeco-Roman history, Pompey was the architect of Rome's imperial rule in the East, the man who transformed the Mediterranean from a hot-bed of insurrection into a peaceful lake of Roman commerce, and one of the most prolific military commanders of the late Republic era. His personal prestige was so enormous that it sustained the cause of his trouble-making sons for years after his own defeat and murder. He obviously commanded the respect and admiration of those who served under him, was personally courageous as a soldier, and was one of the all time greats at the art of combining speed, meticulous planning, and preponderance of force into an overwhelming military juggernaut. He was the only man who could boast of being besieged twice by Julius Caesar, and emerged with his forces intact on both occasions.

If Roman military history is conceived as a landscape, Pompey cast a longer shadow on it than all but a handful of other famous generals.
I'm not sure I understand the argument being put forward. I don't see what those things have to do with actual generalship.
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Duke Valentino

Ad Honorem
Jul 2017
I don’t believe Pompey is really lacking in adequate demonstrations of ability on tactical, operational and strategic levels.
Oct 2018
In certain respects they seem quite similar really. Both ended becoming the go-to problem-solver generals of their respective periods. Both won victories over enemies who had thoroughly chastized previous Roman armies. Both then became eclipsed by perhaps even more brilliant generals, namely Sulla and Constantine (although Constantine didn't actually do a whole lot in terms of foreign wars). I respect Marius for his role in the Roman army's professionalization, although his contributions appear to be exaggerated at times. For example, other Roman generals had already worked out that, in crisis situations, that it might be a good idea to look beyond the property-based levy (thus Gracchus' slave army in the Second Punic War) or lower the property-based qualifications, and I recall reading that the attribution to Marius of the creation of the cohorts is without evidence, and that the 'Marius' mules' practice had already been established before he came along. He did a good job using siege warfare against Jugurtha, but he was also building on the gains already made by Metellus, and Jugurtha's final defeat was accomplished through diplomacy/treachery. He defeated the Teutons and Cimbri, who were clearly no slouches if their victories are anything to go by, but it should also be borne in mind that both Jugurtha and the northern barbarians benefited off of the corruption and/or incompetence of other Roman generals, thus e.g. the successful bribery efforts of Jugurtha and the travesty that was the Roman conduct at Arausio. Marius also had the talented Sulla commanding his right-wing at Vercellae, whose cavalry played the decisive role in winning the battle while the left-wing under Marius marched into a dust-cloud and became disoriented. That said, Marius clearly was a great general. I'm not trying to take that away from him.

With the difference in source detail between 100's BC and the Tetrarchic period, I have to go with gut feeling a bit, as is indeed unavoidable when we're trying to take account of all the periods of Roman history regardless of different levels of detail and also very different historical situations. I have respect for Galerius for various reasons. He worked his way up through the ranks from humble beginnings - not like an aristocratic 'new man' in the Republican sense, but a non-senatorial career soldier. Like Marius, he helped bring Rome out of crisis, and in a military sense (as opposed to a political sense - thus e.g. Diocletian) he perhaps played the biggest role in ending the 3rd Century Crisis on the frontiers (as opposed to the issue of civil wars and usurpations) with the possible exception of Aurelian for his victories over the Alemanni and Goths, not only because he defeated quite a few enemies, but because one of those victories, the victory over Narseh of Persia, was the most decisive victory over the Sassanid Persians won by a Roman until the late sixth century. His victory over the Persians chastized them for decades, and his gains became a source of great upset on the part of the Persians. What's more, we're talking about the Sassanid Persians, who had spent the mid-third century brutalizing the Roman east, Rome's armies and the empire's sense of pride. Galerius' victory was a bright and beautiful moment for the Romans. Yes, Carus beforehand had sacked Ctesiphon when the Persians were distracted with internal rebellions and a dynastic civil war, but Carus did not win any major battle in the field, and he died soon after the sacking, necessitating the army's withdrawal. It was not nearly as satisfying as what Galerius accomplished. Narseh wanted and was ready for war when he took on Galerius. He had mustered a very large army, invaded, and yet proceeded to lose his army and his camp to Galerius. Galerius' capture of his wives, sisters and daughers became the Roman equivalent of Shapur's capture of Valerian, and Galerius' counter-invasion into Adiabene, Media and Persian Mesopotamia sent the Persian king into a lengthy flight. His victory thus showed the Romans and the Persians that the former were back on track; they were indeed the martial superiors of the Persians. And yet the Sassanids were tough. They fought with more determination and aggression than the Parthians did. They defeated more Roman armies and took more Roman cities and fortresses than the Parthians did. They used horse-archers, elite cataphracts and war elephants. And like Marius, Galerius knew how to give the northern barbarians a good-hiding as well. Numerous barbarian captives were brought into the empire by Galerius, and the cities received notices of victories over Sarmatians, Marcomanni and Carpi. He also restored Roman control over its Red Sea ports when he defeated the Nobates, Blemmyes and Thebaid rebels.
I have two further things I'd like to share. I've been looking again at the career of Galerius, and it's clear from the sources that he ended two major multi-year wars against the Carpi and Sarmatians respectively. Secondly, Constantine served as a tribune under Galerius in the Balkans and in the East and is meant to have been spending time with him in order to learn the military arts. It is thus plausible that Galerius' mentorship is part of the reason that Constantine proved to be such a great commander himself.
Oct 2018
Actually, one more interesting thing about Galerius is the claim that in the lead-up to his major victory over Narseh in Armenia he personally scouted the Persian camp. Leadbetter (2009: Galerius and the Will of Diocletian, pp. 91-93) argues that this indeed happened:

'By winter 297, Galerius was in position at Satala in the Cappadocian uplands with an army of 25,000 men. The relative paucity of this force reflects the haste with which Galerius was compelled to break off the process of raising and training it and bring it into action. It must nevertheless have been reinforced by the Armenian royal army. ... The Persians themselves were consolidating their rule in Armenia. The
Great King and his household were firmly established. ... Perhaps the Persians considered themselves sufficiently secure, complacent at an easy victory. They were certainly taken by surprise by Galerius’ counter-offensive. Galerius himself had much to do with that surprise, as Festus reports (Festus, Breviarium; Eutr. 9.28.1):

in Armenia maiore ipse imperator cum duobus equitibus exploravit hostes.

(in Armenia Maior, the emperor reconnoitred the enemy himself, along with two horsemen.)

This might be considered folklore if it did not originate from a sober, if laconic source. Moreover there is independent attestation from the Armenian writer P’awstos, who fills out gaps in a surprising and intriguing fashion (P’awstos 3.21). In his narrative, Galerius chose two Armenian nobles (Andovk and Arshavir) who were known to him and, disguising themselves as peasants – marketgardeners selling vegetables – they gained entry to the Persian camp and spied out its weaknesses. In particular, they noted that the royal enclosure was not strongly guarded and therefore particularly vulnerable. One might be tempted to reject this tale as folkloric invention but it occurs in two entirely separate historical traditions with little possibility of interdependence (Synesius tells the more plausible story of an unnamed emperor exploring the Persian camp, while disguised as an ambassador (de regno 17))

P’awstos continues that, on the emperor’s return to his own camp, he roused his army and fell upon the Persians, aiming for the royal enclosure. Ammianus adds the detail of a favourable portent (23.5.11). P’awstos’ account is entirely plausible. The Persians were completely surprised. In a letter to Constantius II half a century later, Shapur II complained (Ammianus 17.5.6):

Ideoque Armeniam recuperare cum Mesopotamia debeo, avo meo composita fraude praereptam.

(And so I am under obligation to recover Armenia, along with Mesopotamia, both of which were torn from my grandfather by a trick.)

The defeat rankled years later, not least because it was achieved by subterfuge rather than a set-piece battle. It was a most effective ploy. According to P’awstos, the Romans raided the Persian camp soon after dawn, taking it totally unawares. A number of Persian grandees were captured but, most significantly, the household of the Great King, including his wives and concubines, fell into Roman hands. The camp was looted and Narseh’s queen, Arsane, captured, as were others of the Great King’s women. The Great King himself escaped and fled to Persia proper (Eutropius 9. 25.1; also Zonaras 12. 31; Amm. Marc. 22.4.8; P’awstos 3.21; see Malalas XII, 307 for the name; Lactantius describes it as an ambush (de mort. pers. 9.7)).'

Whether or not we are persuaded by Leadbetter's argument that Galerius did personally scout the camp, it's interesting to see this argument be made.
Sep 2019
Lucius Scipio Asiaticus might be worth considering. Overshadowed by Africanus, he crushed the Seleucid army at Magnesia and pushed them back to the Taurus Mountains. I'm unsure about top 10 but maybe top 20?
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Oct 2018
Lucius Scipio Asiaticus might be worth considering. Overshadowed by Africanus, he crushed the Seleucid army at Magnesia and pushed them back to the Taurus Mountains. I'm unsure about top 10 but maybe top 20?
His victory was certainly very important, but if I recall correctly, in Livy's account isn't it Eumenes of Pergamon who effectively wins that battle?