Rome’s Victories were Significant
So were Rome’s Defeats
Battle of Carrhae (53 B.C.)
Just because you’re rich doesn’t mean that you’re smart enough to pour sand out of a boot…
Marcus Licinius Crassus might have been the wealthiest man in Rome, but there was one thing that Romans valued far beyond wealth – military fame and success. In that department, he was being outdone by his partners in the First Triumvirate, Gnaeus Pompeius Magnus and Gaius Julius Caesar. Crassus’ only notable victories were over Spartacus – he had only defeated slaves, which made those victories count for less.
Seeking something greater, Crassus secured a governorship over the province of Syria and intended to invade the Parthian Empire to the east, to gain more prestige and riches. The move was deeply unpopular even among the militaristic Romans.
When Crassus entered the Parthian territory, he went straight into the desert, probably hoping to mimic Alexander the Great. Unlike Alexander, he wasn’t as mindful of his water supplies and now found himself on terrain perfectly suited to the cavalry army of his enemy.
Crassus ordered his men to form a square. The Romans went on to get pounded by Parthian horse archers and smashed by their cataphracts. It was as close as any ancient battle got to shooting fish in a battle. According to Plutarch, 20,000 Romans had been killed and another 10,000 captured, while the Parthians only lost a few men. These figures are reasonable. Carrhae was one of the most lopsided battles in antiquity.
Crassus loved gold, so the Parthians forced his mouth open and poured molten gold into it.
Battle of Cannae (216 B.C.)
Hannibal’s masterpiece was arguably the greatest tactical feat of all time. Unfortunately for the Romans, it would be their worst tactical defeat.
Rome planned to catch Hannibal in open country and destroy him. Unfortunately for the Romans, Hannibal, with his smaller army, turned their strategy against them.
Gradually giving way in the front at Cannae, Hannibal’s crescent formation began to suck the Romans in. Before they knew it, they were enveloped on both flanks, while the crack Numidian cavalry, which had beaten the inferior Roman cavalry from the field, returned to encircle their enemy.
With the legionaries packed into a giant box, they had no room to move. Most of the men simply had to wait until it was their turn to die. The usually reliable Polybius gives casualty figures of 80,000 with 70,000 dead.
Hannibal wasn’t able to turn his tactical masterpiece into effective strategy, but Cannae was probably the single darkest day in Rome’s history, and indelibly left its stamp on the Roman man’s mind as the worst of his defeats.
Battle of Arausio (105 B.C.)
The Battle of Arausio against the Cimbri and Teutons was one of the worst tactical disasters that the Roman legions faced. According to ancient sources, the casualty count was comparable to that of Cannae.
The actual details of the battle have mostly been lost, but there was evidently dissent between the two Roman generals in the area, the proconsul Quintus Servilius Caepio and the serving consul, Gnaeus Mallius Maximus, who outranked him. The sources generally blame Caepio as being the more uncooperative of the two.
Caepio launched an attack uncoordinated with Maximus. With the Romans already being outnumbered before the battle even began, this attack was beaten back by the Cimbri. Having defeated one Roman army, the Cimbri advanced against Maximus and annihilated him. It was all the easier, given that Rome’s forces were camped on the Rhone River, leaving them nowhere to retreat. Only a few made it out. One of them was Quintus Sertorious, who would go on to be one of Rome’s greatest generals, said to have learned from the experience.
Arausio produced panic in Rome. Always leery of migrating tribes to the north, The Romans elected their best general, Gaius Marius, as consul, and, violating precedent, would keep doing so until the northern tribes had been completely defeated. In this way, the disaster at Arausio hastened the death of the Roman Republic, as it permitted unusual power to accumulate in the hands of one man.
Battle of Adrianople (378 A.D.)
This week we remember the anniversary of this battle.
The Roman Empire had experienced struggles in the third and fourth centuries, but it was still the strongest military force in the Western world. The Goths north of the Danube, fleeing the terrifying Huns, begged the Eastern Roman Emperor Valens for protection. He agreed, permitting them to come across the Danube into Roman territory, but they were badly mistreated and rebelled.
A confrontation between the two sides came in 378 when the Romans intercepted a Gothic march on the city of Adrianople. The Western Roman Emperor, Gratian, was moving to join Valens and his army, but jealous of his more popular nephew and believing that victory would be an easy feat, he decided against waiting. He wanted the glory for himself. Historically this always ends badly as it did at Adrianople.
Overeager units, intent on taking glory for themselves, attacked the Gothic infantry without orders. The uncoordinated attack left the Roman formations vulnerable, leaving them prey for the Gothic cavalry when they returned. Pressed on all sides, it was a slaughter. Most estimates put the casualty count in the 15-20,000 range, including Emperor Valens.
While these figures don’t approach the likes of Cannae or Arausio, the Battle of Adrianople was a turning point in history. Though its importance is overstated, it nevertheless showed the decline in Roman military effectiveness. The gap between Rome’s military and its “barbarian” opponents had closed. Instead, Rome was required to accommodate “barbarians” in its territory, and the Empire became more dependent on these “barbarians” for defense. Though these changes were ongoing before Adrianople, the disaster accelerated them, particularly in the Western Empire.
Battle of the Teutoburg Forest (9 A.D.)
In September of 9 AD, three of Rome’s best legions seemingly vanished in Germania without a trace. Very few of the men managed to straggle back across the Rhine into Gaul.
Varus, the governor of the new province of Germania, was led into an ambush by the Germanic chieftain Arminius (who had been trained by Rome), who guided the legionary column into the inhospitable Teutoburg Forest. The dense woods, steep ravines, and marshes meant that the Romans couldn’t deploy in the formations that made them successful and were massacred in detail.
When Augustus heard the news in Rome, he supposedly beat his head against the wall and screamed out “Quintilius Varus, give me back my legions!” He would do this again and again for years until he died.
All attempts to permanently expand the Empire east of the Rhine were halted. The Romans returned under Germanicus, conducting punitive expeditions, but they abandoned any attempt to turn Germania into a province, preferring instead to keep it as a tributary territory.
The Post-Constitutional Republic?
Some observers have described what we’re living in now as a “post-Constitutional America.” We still technically HAVE a Constitution, and we can go to Washington, DC, and look at it under glass at the U.S. National Archives, but it gets ignored by the government so often that it feels as if we might as well not have one at all. It often seems the only people reading the Constitution these days are the ones looking for loopholes.
DRJIM – When I saw this I thought, “Yeah, DRJIM”