10 Important People From Ancient Rome

By Kate Boland on May 7 2020 in History

Bronze statue of emperor Julius Caesar, the dome of Saints Luca and Martina Church in the background. Image credit: Di Gregorio Giulio/Shutterstock.com
Bronze statue of emperor Julius Caesar, the dome of Saints Luca and Martina Church in the background. Image credit: Di Gregorio Giulio/Shutterstock.com
  • One of the most important women in Roman history, Octavia was sister to Augustus, wife of Marc Antony, and ancestral grandmother to Emperors Claudius, Caligula, and Nero.
  • Historians believe the city of Ancient Rome may have been home to up to 1 million people during its peak.
  • The name Caesar has become a synonym for

From amphitheaters to aqueducts remnants of Ancient Rome can be found throughout modern day Europe. Even more important and impressive than its monuments, however, are the men and women who brought about the greatest Empire in human history and it's remarkable innovations. From poetry to politics, tactical brilliance to one of the most tragic of love stories of all time, read on to learn more about 10 influential people in Ancient Rome.

10. The Founders

Sculpture of the mythical she-wolf suckling the infant twins Romulus and Remus. Rome, Italy. Image credit: Davide Zanin/Shutterstock.com
Sculpture of the mythical she-wolf suckling the infant twins Romulus and Remus. Rome, Italy. Image credit: Davide Zanin/Shutterstock.com

It’s doubtful Rome’s founders ever really existed. Legendary twins Romulus and Remus were set adrift on the Tiber River as infants by a rival king. A she-wolf, sent on behalf of their god-of-war father, Mars, rescued the boys who grew up to found the legendary city before a falling out led Romulus to kill Remus. The twins weren’t just divine on their father’s side, however. Their mother, Rhea Silvia, was the daughter of a king descended from the mythical Trojan hero Aeneas. The demigod son of Venus, Aenas rescued Trojans and led them to Italy after the Trojan War. Many wealthy Romans claimed they descended from this divine family tree which gave them the right to rule, including Julius Caesar and the Julian family. 

9. Octavia (69 BC - 11 BC)

Virgil reading Aeneid, Book VI, to Augustus and Octavia, by Taillasson. Image credit: National Gallery/Public domain
Virgil reading Aeneid, Book VI, to Augustus and Octavia, by Taillasson. Image credit: National Gallery/Public domain

List the great names of Roman history - Caesar, Augustus, Antony, even Cleopatra - and Octavia is between them all. Niece of Julius Caesar, she married his foe, Marcellus, to unite the rivals. Her brother, Octavian, became Emperor Augustus after Caesar’s death and following a civil war wherein she again married - this time to Marc Antony - to keep the peace. Antony famously left her for Queen Cleopatra, but even after his disastrous war against Augustus and subsequent suicide, Octavia took in his and Cleopatra’s children and raised them as her own, proving herself a model of compassion for generations. Octavia’s line runs throughout history. She is the grandmother, great-grandmother, and great-great grandmother of the Roman rulers Claudius, Caligula, Agrippina, and Nero.

8. Trajan (53 - 117 AD)

Statue of Trajan, posing in military garb, in front of the Amphitheater of Colonia Ulpia Traiana in the Xanten Archaeological Park. Image credit: Hartmann Linge/Wikimedia.org
Statue of Trajan, posing in military garb, in front of the Amphitheater of Colonia Ulpia Traiana in the Xanten Archaeological Park. Image credit: Hartmann Linge/Wikimedia.org

While Caesar and Augustus are known for their victories, Trajan was the most successful military leader by any measure. He expanded the Empire’s borders like no other, conquering parts of Hungary, Ukraine, and Romania. He marched his army to the Persian Gulf, constructing architectural wonders of still existat bridges, canals and roads as he went. Considered one of the five ‘good emperors’, Trajan brought wealth in the form of taxes from his expanded empire, relative peace, and, up to that point, unmatched prosperity through trade.

7. Hadrian (76 - 138 AD)

Sculpture of Hadrianus in Venice. Image credit: Livioandronico2013/Wikimedia.org
Sculpture of Hadrianus in Venice. Image credit: Livioandronico2013/Wikimedia.org

Visitors to northern Britain today can still touch a part of Rome’s vast reaching empire. Hadrian’s Wall stretched coast to coast across Rome’s westernmost border, running 73 miles across the width of Britain. It was not the only mighty fortification built by the emperor. Hadrian travelled to nearly every province under his rule, constructing monuments, infrastructure, and great works of architecture including fortifications along the Rhine and Danube rivers and rebuilding the magnificent domed roof of the Pantheon.

6. Livy (54 BC - 12 AD)

Sculpture of Titus Livius Patavinus (Livy) outside the Austrian Parliament in Vienna, Austria. Image credit: Kizel Cotiw-an/Shutterstock.com
Sculpture of Titus Livius Patavinus (Livy) outside the Austrian Parliament in Vienna, Austria. Image credit: Kizel Cotiw-an/Shutterstock.com

Much of what we know about daily Roman life comes to us from one of its historians, Livy. One of history’s earliest best-sellers, Livy has influenced future writers for two thousand years. Despite having no formal connections to Rome’s politics or politicians, Livy wrote 142 books detailing the lives, losses, and loves of the Romans. It is this everyman perspective that has made Livy such a noted source throughout the ages, recording everyday occurrences along with great battles and the reactions of the citizens, not just the major political players of the day. 

5. Virgil (70 BC - 19 BC)

Virgil Reading the Aeneid to Augustus, Octavia, and Livia by Jean-Baptiste Wicar, Art Institute of Chicago. Image credit: Jean-Baptiste Wicar/Public domain
Virgil Reading the Aeneid to Augustus, Octavia, and Livia by Jean-Baptiste Wicar, Art Institute of Chicago. Image credit: Jean-Baptiste Wicar/Public domain

Like Livy, the writer Virgil has inspired two millennia of poets and novelists including Dante, who reimagined the Roman as the narrator’s guide in his own classic work, The Divine Comedy. Virgil was Rome’s favorite and most famous poet, penning the Latin epic the Aeneid about the heroism of Prince Aeneas as he traveled from Troy to Carthage - now modern day Tunisia - and finally to Italy where his descendents would go on to found and rule the Roman Empire.

4. Marc Antony (83 BC - 30 BC)

Giant statue of Marc Antony and his horse up the steps leading to the Palatino in Rome. Image credit: Todd Taulman Photography/Shutterstock.com
Giant statue of Marc Antony and his horse up the steps leading to the Palatino in Rome. Image credit: Todd Taulman Photography/Shutterstock.com

History can offer few men more dynamic than Marc Antony. His military career began in Egypt, and soon he became Julius Caesar's right hand man in many successful campaigns. When his mentor was murdered, Antony was the de facto Roman ruler, forming an uneasy alliance with Caesar’s nephew, Octavian, and marrying his sister in the bargain. When he returned to Egypt, however, he quickly rekindled his romance with the Pharaoh Queen Cleopatra, fathered two children, fought, and lost, the Battle of Actium against Octavian, and ultimately took his own life when he mistakenly learned of his lover’s death.

3. Marcus Aurelius (121 –180 AD)

Statue of the emperor Marco Aurelio at the Capitoline Hill in Rome, Italy. Image credit: Anticiclo/Shutterstock.com
Statue of the emperor Marco Aurelio at the Capitoline Hill in Rome, Italy. Image credit: Anticiclo/Shutterstock.com

Considered the last of the five 'good emperors', Aurelius was a philosopher and statesman. A capable ruler in a crisis, he oversaw Rome through flooding of the Tiber, reformed currency to avoid economic crisis, conquered the Parthian Empire and Germanic tribes, and ardently believed in law, fairness, and freedom of speech even when it criticised the empire. His greatest talent was his writing - in fact in 2002 Aurelius 12-volume book Meditations once again hit the bestseller list, nearly two thousand years after it was written.

2. Augustus (63 BC – 14 AD)

Bronze statue of Emperor Augustus. Image credit: Fabiomax/Shutterstock.com
Bronze statue of Emperor Augustus. Image credit: Fabiomax/Shutterstock.com

Rome as we know it truly began with Augustus, its first emperor, whose influence and Pax Romana would stretch on for another 200 years. The adopted son and great-nephew of Julius Caesar, Augustus, once called Octavian, was everything a great emperor needed to be - brilliant, cunning, and either compassionate or cruel as the situation demanded. He conquered Egypt, the Dalmatian coast, as well as parts of Spain, Germany, and Africa on roads he built and still exist today. His citizens enjoyed a police force, firefighters, local government, and well-cared for military veterans. Ensuring time would not forget him, Augustus gave the world a new calendar and a month named in his honor, August.

1. Gaius Julius Caesar (100-44 BC)

The Senators and "Brutes" attacking Julius Caesar in the "Temple" {Temple of Caesar} in 44 BC. Image credit: Karl von Piloty/Public domain
The Senators and "Brutes" attacking Julius Caesar in the "Temple" {Temple of Caesar} in 44 BC. Image credit: Karl von Piloty/Public domain

Neither its richest citizen, nor its most successful politician, Julius Caesar is still clearly the most famous of all Romans. His name is synonymous with emperor - both tsar/csar in Russia and Kaiser in Germany are derived from his name- and his life, conquests, words, and even murder were immortalized by William Shakespeare. Under Caesar, Rome’s reach extended to the Rhine River and English Channel. His military might, wealth, and popularity made him a threat to the oligarchy of the Senate who ordered him to disband his army and return to Rome. His refusal led first to civil war, then his victory, followed quickly by his dictatorship of the Roman Republic. Despite making several positive advances including an economic reform that resulted in his image printed on new coins, Caesar’s jealous enemies conspired against him and he was murdered on the senate floor by several of his former allies.

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