Rome was one of the most important civilizations to ever existTheir victories and defeats shaped history in many ways then, as it does still today.

War re-enactors of 1st Century Roman soldiers.
War re-enactors of 1st Century Roman soldiers.
Photo from Wikimedia Commons

Roman civilization was built on war and conquest. Battles dictated much of their rise and their fall. Rome’s influence on the development of Western civilization is profound. Their influence can be seen in language, as well as culture and politics. Our world would likely be very different without Rome’s warlike nature.

Biased Roman historians often used history to teach lessons. As a result, much of these battles have become legendary. Despite this, these battles are some of the seminal moments in history. They affected the foundations of Europe and thus much of the world they colonized.

Battle of the Allia, traditionally c. 390

Sculpture of Brennus.
Sculpture of Brennus.
Photo from Wikimedia Commons.

We begin with a battle that is shrouded in some myth. The Battle of the Allia took place near where the Tiber and Allia Rivers meet outside of Rome. This legend makes it very difficult to tell what happened in the battle. This is because the best source historians have is the Roman historian Livy. He was writing over three centuries after the fact.

The battle was between Rome and the Gallic king Brennus. While these Gallic tribesmen have been portrayed as hordes, recent speculation has cast doubt on this view. Timothy Bridgman has speculated that they were mercenaries for Dionysius I, the tyrant king of Syracuse. This is impossible to prove but explains why they were in Italy.

The battle was a disaster for Rome. Brennus and his men sacked the city. While estimates of the devastation vary, they burned much of the city and killed many of its inhabitants. This had a huge effect on the Roman psyche. It led to widespread fear of Gallic invasion from the north.

This massive defeat led to many social changes. Rome had two classes of citizens, plebeians and patricians. The patricians were the elites and the plebeians were the commoners. Reforms after the battle led to their inclusion into Roman government and society, if they owned property. As a result, they became less like outsiders in Rome.

Battle of Cannae, 216 BCE

The Fields of Cannae, 2010.
The Fields of Cannae, 2010.
Photo from Wikimedia Commons.

Cannae is arguably the most famous battle in all of Roman history. It was Hannibal Barca’s masterpiece. It also is Rome’s greatest and most famous defeat. It is taught in classes on military strategy to this day.

The Carthaginians and Romans were engaged in the Second Punic War during this time. This was the war between the two great empires for Mediterranean supremacy. At this point, Hannibal has made his famous crossing of the Alps. He has won crushing victories at Lake Trasimene and the River Trebia.

In both battles, Hannibal forced the Romans into traps. The Romans did not consider these types of fights fair. As a result, they planned to meet Hannibal on an open plain. The traditional Roman figure for total army size is 86,000, but this is speculative. Hannibal ended up enveloping the Romans. This lead to the deaths of over 50,000 Roman soldiers (Goldsworthy, Chapter 5.)

Map of the Battle of Cannae.
Map of the Battle of Cannae.
Photo from Wikimedia Commons.

In the aftermath of the Battle of Cannae, Rome returned to the Fabian strategy. This was a defensive style of war introduced by Fabius Maximus, a dictator appointed in 217 BCE. It amounted to guerilla tactics like attacking foraging parties to wear Hannibal down. Rome did not engage Hannibal in the open field. The Second Punic War lasted for 15 more years and Rome eventually won.

Battle of Carrhae, 53 BCE

Bust of Marcus Licinius Crassus.
Bust of Marcus Licinius Crassus.
Photo from Wikimedia Commons.

In 53 BCE, Rome was under the command of the 1st Triumvirate. This was a partnership between three powerful men. These were Pompey, Julius Caesar, and Marcus Crassus. Pompey and Crassus were the main power players in this first alliance. Crassus was the wealthiest man in Rome with much influence.

Rome was also involved in wars with the Parthians. Parthia was a Mesopotamian Empire that covered much of the Middle East. In 54 BCE, Crassus led an invasion of Parthian lands. Roman historians do not paint Crassus’s military command positively. As a result, history has not been kind to his reputation.

The battle itself in what is today Southeastern Turkey, near the town of Harran. It was a complete rout in the favor of the Parthians. According to H.H. Scullard (through Frendo), the Romans lost 4,000 men killed. The Parthians also captured about 10,000 men. Only about 10,000 survived the battle.

The First Triumvirate. Left to right: Pompey, Crassus and Caesar.
The First Triumvirate. Left to right: Pompey, Crassus, and Caesar.
Photo from Wikimedia Commons

The most important result of the war though was the fact that Crassus was killed at the battle. This ended the First Triumvirate. It also led to a rivalry between Caesar and Pompey. This would eventually lead to a civil war that would lead to Caesar’s rise and the fall of the Republic.

Siege of Alesia, 52 BCE

A reconstruction of the lines of fortifications at Alesia.
A reconstruction of the lines of fortifications at Alesia.
Photo from Wikimedia Commons.

While Crassus was fighting the Parthians, Caesar was fighting the Gauls. The Gauls were a loose group of tribes in Western Europe. He was fighting a large-scale multi-tribe Gallic revolt led by Vercingetorix, chief of the Arverni tribe. By the year of the battle, Vercingetorix had allies from all corners of Gaul.

In 52 BCE, Vercingetorix was fortified in Alesia in modern France. Vercingetorix had far more men than Caesar did at the battle. Caesar turned this advantage against him. He built a set of fortifications around the Gallic ones to counter Vercingetorix. This both protected him from attack by Vercingetorix’s reinforcements and starved the Gauls into submission.

Alesia marked the end of Vercingetorix’s rebellion. At the end of the battle, he was handed over to Caesar as a prisoner of war. He would be kept as a prisoner of war and publicly strangled at Caesar’s triumph in 46 BCE. The wars would continue for a couple more years, but Alesia marked the effective end of Gallic resistance to Roman power. The Gallic Wars also cemented Caesar’s place in Roman politics.

Battle of Actium, 31 BCE

Statue of Augustus Caesar
Statue of Augustus Caesar
Photo from Wikimedia Commons

Cleopatra VII was one of the most amazing women in the ancient world. While we best know her today as a seductress, she was incredibly intelligent. According to the Roman historian Plutarch, she was fluent in many languages. She clearly took the time to try to understand her subjects as well. According to Plutarch, her beauty was “was in itself not altogether incomparable.” Contrary to her modern reputation, it was her charm and intelligence that drew people to her.

There was sweetness also in the tones of her voice; and her tongue, like an instrument of many strings, she could readily turn to whatever language she pleased, so that in her interviews with Barbarians she very seldom had need of an interpreter, but made her replies to most of them herself and unassisted, whether they were Ethiopians, Troglodytes, Hebrews, Arabians, Syrians, Medes or Parthians. Nay, it is said that she knew the speech of many other peoples also, although the kings of Egypt before her had not even made an effort to learn the native language, and some actually gave up their Macedonian dialect.

Plutarch, The Parallel Lives, Life of Antony

In 31 BCE, she had been involved with Marc Antony. This had tied her into a civil war and power struggle between Octavian and Antony. Octavian was Caesar’s grandnephew. He had been adopted as Caesar’s son in his will. This had positioned him as Caesar’s heir.

The naval Battle of Actium represents the end of this civil war. Antony and Cleopatra managed to escape the field but a large number of their forces surrendered. After the battle, Cleopatra and Antony would commit suicide. This cleared Octavian’s path to complete control.

The Battle of Actium was the last major battle of the Roman Republic. In the years that followed, Octavian, later nicknamed Augustus or “exalted one”, tightened his grip on the Roman government. He would become complete ruler of Rome, not long after the battle. He also officially labeled himself Princeps, meaning “first citizen”, a euphemism many Roman emperors used. This was to distance themselves from the hated kings of early Rome. This represented the beginning of the Roman Empire.

Battle of the Teutoberg Forest, 9 CE

The Teutoberg Forest, 2019.
The Teutoberg Forest, 2019.
Photo from Wikimedia Commons.

From a major Roman victory, we return to its biggest losses. In 9 CE, Germanic tribes crushed the Romans in a massive ambush. The German leader was a chieftain named Arminius. He was also a Roman officer. This allowed Arminius to act like a friend of Rome and drag Roman commander Publius Quinctilius Varus into a trap.

The effects of the battle were immense. It signaled the end of Rome’s attempts to subjugate Germania into the Roman empire. It also was responsible for setting the Roman border with Germania at the Rhine river. While the Romans did not end expanding east, it prevented them from expanding past the Rhine through German territory. The Rhine remains a dividing line between the East and West to this day.

There was no cohesive German sense of identity. It is more appropriate to say that disparate tribes came together against a common enemy. This somehow became seen, over 1800 years later by German nationalists, as the beginning of their nation. It was a major source of pride and propaganda.

Battle of the Milvian Bridge, 312 CE

The Milvian Bridge, 2014.
The Milvian Bridge, 2014.
Photo from Wikimedia Commons.

We now move into the later stages of the Roman Empire. By the year 312, the Roman Empire had split into two separate entities in the Western Empire and the Eastern (Byzantine) Empire. In 312, Rome was again in a state of civil war. This time the war was between Constantine and Maxentius.

The two armies would meet at the Milvian Bridge across the Tiber river. The Tiber is the main river that feeds into Rome. According to legend, Constantine had a vision before the battle of a Christogram, a symbol for Jesus with the Greek letters Chi-Rho. His vision also included the Latin phrase “in hoc signo vinces” or “in this sign, you will conquer.” He had his men paint the symbol on their shields and he won the day.

Constantine was incredibly influential for Roman and world history. He was the emperor who eventually converted the Roman Empire to Christianity. Christianity played a major cultural and political role in Europe for over a millennium afterward. The Church more than almost anything else shaped kingdoms and empires in the Middle Ages.

The Battle of Adrianople, 378 CE

Coin representation of Valens, Byzantine Emperor.
Coin representation of Valens, Byzantine Emperor.
Photo from Wikimedia Commons

In the 200s and 300s, Rome had a complicated relationship with the Gothic tribes. The Goths had been living for many years on Roman soil. However, they had been pushed back by invading Huns around this time. The Goths wanted a homeland in exchange for loyalty to the Roman Empire. They were led by a competent chief named Fritigern.

The Eastern Roman emperor, Valens, led the Byzantine army into battle himself. The battle was a disaster for Rome who lost between 10,000 and 20,000 This casualty figure included the emperor Valens himself. The Romans after a few more years of fighting allowed the Goths to settle on Roman land.

Adrianople represents the beginning of the end of the Western Roman Empire. Before that, the Romans had been able to crush most resistance to their hegemony from barbarian tribes. Rome was sacked only a little over 30 years after Adrianople in 410. In 476, Odoacer overthrew the final emperor of Rome, Romulus Augustulus. This marked the end of the Roman Empire.


The Roman Empire lasted for over a millennium. It forged the foundations of Western civilization in blood and conquest. Any of these battles going the other way may have changed history beyond recognition. Their influence still leaves faint echoes, even in the modern world.

Sources

  • Bradford, Alfred S. With Arrow, Sword, and Spear: a History of Warfare in the Ancient World. New York, NY: Greenwood Publishing Company, 2001.
  • Cornell, Tim. Beginnings of Rome: Italy and Rome from the Bronze Age to The Punic Wars (C.1000-264 Bc). Routledge, 1995.
  • Goldsworthy, Adrian Keith. Cannae: Hannibal’s Greatest Victory. New York, NY: Basic Books, 2019.
  • Inker, Peter A. Caesar’s Gallic Triumph: the Battle of Alesia 52 BC. Barnsley: Casemate Publishers, 2008.
  • Kershaw, Stephen P. The Enemies of Rome: the Barbarian Rebellion against the Roman Empire. New York, NY: Pegasus Books, 2020.
  • Murdoch, Adrian. Rome’s Greatest Defeat: Massacre in the Teutoburg Forest. Stroud, Gloucestershire, England: History Press, 2008.
  • O’Connell, Robert L. The Ghosts of Cannae: Hannibal and the Darkest Hour of the Roman Republic. New York, NY: Random House Publishing Group, 2010.
  • Sampson, Gareth. Defeat of Rome in the East: Crassus, the Parthians, and the Disastrous Battle of Carrhae, 53 BC. Philadelphia, PA: Casemate Publishers, 2008.
  • Wells, Peter S. The Battle That Stopped Rome: Emperor Augustus, Arminius, and the Slaughter of the Legions in the Teutoburg Forest. New York, NY: W.W. Norton, 2004.