Aggressiveness, the quantitative component of pathogenicity, and its role in the adaptation of plant pathogens are still insufficiently investigated. Using mainly examples of biotrophic and necrotrophic fungal pathogens of cereals and Phytophthora infestans on potato, the empirical knowledge on the nature of aggressiveness components and their evolution in response to host and environment is reviewed. Means of measuring aggressiveness components are considered, as well as the sources of environmental variance in these traits. The adaptive potential of aggressiveness components is evaluated by reviewing evidence for their heritability, as well as for constraints on their evolution, including differential interactions between host and pathogen genotypes and trade-offs between components of pathogenicity. Adaptations of pathogen aggressiveness components to host and environment are analysed, showing that: (i) selection for aggressiveness in pathogen populations can be mediated by climatic parameters; (ii) global population changes or remarkable population structures may be explained by variation in aggressiveness; and (iii) selection for quantitative traits can influence pathogen evolution in agricultural pathosystems and can result in differential adaptation to host cultivars, sometimes leading to erosion of quantitative resistance. Possible links with concepts in evolutionary ecology are suggested.