The Romans took part in thousands of battles during their reign as the greatest empire of the time. Some battles were significant some not so. Here we take a look at some legendary battles involving the Romans some triumphant and some where the Romans actually lost!
Third Servile War 73-71 BC
The Third Servile War began when a group of gladiators escaped and started a rebellion. This rebellion was led by the legendary Spartacus who has long been the subject of books, films and documentaries over the years. The gladiators soon grew in number from the seventy eight who escaped to over one hundred and twenty thousand men some of who were slaves that had escaped their captors.
The Gladiator War as this was soon to be named was the final slave rebellion fought against the mighty Romans. Their number included women and children too, while this huge mass of people would travel through Italy raiding and attacking villages with little resistance offered in return. This makeshift army was split into two factions one led by Spartacus and the other led by Crixus. Spartacus led his army across the Alps to freedom, while Crixus held back preferring to loot and pillage as they travelled.
The Gladiator Army were victorious in many cases defeating the Pretorian Guard in 73 BC much to the chagrin of the Roman senate. The senate, which was becoming increasingly anxious about the rebellion, sat up and took notice sending two consular armies to deal with the upstarts. Crixus engaged the Romans at Mount Garganus and was annihilated by their superior might, while Spartacus continued to head north.
Spartacus and his army were eventually surrounded by Gneaus Cornelius Lentulus on the one side and Gellius on the other. The two planned to destroy Spartacus and his army as he had nowhere left to go but forward into Lentulus. The Romans grossly underestimated Spartacus as he firstly destroyed Lentulus then turned about and did the same to Gellius. The Gladiator Army continued north engaging Cassius Longinus, who was the Proconsular Governor of Cisalpine Gaul and once again Spartacus and his army were the victors.
Spartacus decided to exact his revenge on the captured Roman soldiers by making them fight one another as gladiators to the death. Some six hundred Romans fought giving Spartacus a modicum of satisfaction as he had forced the men to take up the role he had once been forced into himself. Spartacus wished to push further north to freedom but many of his followers including Germanics and Gauls wanted to stay in Italy to take advantage of their victory. This decision was to be their downfall as Spartacus turned south towards Rome making camp in the mountains close to Thurii.
Pompey Takes Command
The Romans appointed a new commander to take on the force in the guise of Marcus Licinius Crassus who now had ten legions under his command. Many of the Roman soldiers feared the Gladiator Army to such an extent that they would desert their army. Crassus dealt with desertion in his own inimitable fashion as he ordered "decimation" be the punishment to discourage desertion. This terrible punishment involved every tenth soldier being beaten to death by his fellow soldiers.
Crassus first attacked a break off group from Spartacus's army killing some ten thousand men, while Crassus then headed for the main body of the Gladiator Army. Spartacus took to his heels aiming for Rhegium across the water from Sicily although he was unsuccessful in his bid to reach Sicily. Crassus managed to trap the slave army by digging trenches along the toe of Italy but the senate was fast becoming impatient wanting the rebellion to be crushed once and for all so appointed General Pompey to finish the job.
Spartacus still hoped he may break through the siege to get to Sicily and he did break through at some point but suffered heavy losses with some twelve thousand men perishing. He then headed for Brundisium but was met by the legions of Marcus Licinius Lucullus and in 71 BC a huge battle ensued. The Rebels were outnumbered and suffered heavy losses with Spartacus himself one of the casualties although his body was never found.
The Romans meted a terrible punishment to over six thousand survivors who were crucified along the Appian Way from Rome to Capua as a warning to all would be rebels. Pompey duly dealt with any stragglers that survived and claimed complete victory over the Gladiator Army which you can find more about at romagladiatori.com. Pompey was named "Victor" while Crassus gained the lesser adulation of an "ovation" making rivalry between the two leaders even worse. Both men would however move on to bigger and better things keeping their rivalry at bay somewhat.
The Battle of Trebia 218 BC
The Battle of Trebia was the first major engagement of the Second Punic War that tested the Romans. Hannibal of Carthage faced the Roman Army head on, while this was one battle the Romans lost miserably! Hannibal and his army were camped across the River Trebia while the Romans camped on the other side under the command of Tiberius Sempronius Longus.
Hannibal commanded twenty thousand infantry and ten thousand cavalry, while Longus had thirty six thousand infantry and four thousand cavalry. Hannibal had battled across the Alps defeating Scipio in November 218 BC. Following this small defeat many Gauls and Ligurians joined Hannibal's army swelling their numbers to approximately forty thousand.
The Romans then placed Longus in charge of the operation hoping to dig in their position in Placentia. Hannibal was alarmed that the two forces would combine and he was right as Longus reached Scipio on the banks of the Trebia River taking overall control of all the combined forces. Longus was the more impetuous of the two Romans and went about engaging Hannibal and his troops even though Scipio had not regained his strength following the previous battle.
Hannibal wanted to engage Longus as soon as possible as he knew of the inherent differences that defined the two Roman leaders. As darkness fell Hannibal ordered two thousand men under the command of Mago his brother south to take up positions flanking both armies. The next morning a number of Hannibal's cavalry crossed the river in order to stir up the Romans. They plotted to draw the Romans toward Mago and his troops in order that they could launch an unexpected attack on the Romans.
Longus sent his whole army to engage Hannibal's men, while Hannibal retaliated by sending his infantry forward plus cavalry and elephants on the flanks. The Carthaginian army soon pushed back the Romans as they were much greater in number anyway. The Roman cavalry was completely committed and this left the Roman infantry very exposed on the flanks. While the Romans were totally engaged it was time for Mago to make his surprise attack from the rear meaning the Romans were surrounded in every way. They began to retreat and fled across the river in panic. Many thousands were killed trying to flee with the Romans suffering many more casualties than the Carthaginians. This was Hannibal's first victory against the Romans but would not be his last, while following many more battles Hannibal did eventually concede victory to the Romans at the Battle of Zama in 202 BC.
The Siege of Alesia 52 BC
This famous battle marked the end of the Gallic Wars and reinforced Rome's dominance over Gaul. It was Julius Caesar's defining moment being acknowledged as one of his finest victories. Vercingetorix the leader of the Gauls was under siege in the fortress of Alesia along with a large garrison of soldiers and Caesar decided his best tactic was to starve them out rather than engage them as the Gauls had far more troops than the Romans.
Caesar was determined to bring the Gauls to heel and gain control over the region. Vercingetorix had been laying swathe to the land pillaging and fighting anyone in his path therefore when it came to the attention of Caesar he mobilized his depleted army to march across the snowy Alps to capture Vercingetorix and defeat his army. With his five legions Caesar fought raids against the Gauls progressing toward Vercingetorix, while Vercingetorix on hearing that Caesar was close by holed up with his army and people in the Fortress at Alesia.
Caesar ordered the construction of eleven miles of walls, ditches, watchtowers and traps known as circumvallation to imprison Vercingetorix who in return ordered attacks to halt the constructions completion. The circumvallation took just three weeks to complete surrounding Vercingetorix and his forces. Caesar then began to construct an outer wall called the contravallation that faced outwards and was thirteen miles long. Caesar took up position between the two walls hoping that any help that may be raised would not get through before he was victorious.
Supplies were getting low for Vercingetorix and his army was speaking of surrender when help came in the guise of Commius who attacked Caesar from the outside as Vercingetorix attacked from inside. Commius did manage to penetrate the outer wall somewhat but the arrival of Mark Antony and his army soon filled the gap. The inner attack by Vercingetorix was also defeated, while Vercingetorix was down but not out and subsequently launched an attack with sixty thousand men led by Vercassivellaunus.
Counter attacks led by Caesar followed, while his men were further rallied by their leader's bravery as he insisted on leading from the front. Ultimately Caesar prevailed and Vercingetorix surrendered. The Gauls suffered huge casualties rising to hundreds of thousands compared to the Romans twelve thousand. Caesar was hailed a hero with the Roman senate declaring thanksgiving for the great victory in the form of a twenty day celebration.