The Growth of a Republic: 6 Battles that Shaped Early Rome
The Growth of a Republic: 6 Battles that Shaped Early Rome

The Growth of a Republic: 6 Battles that Shaped Early Rome

Patrick Lynch - December 6, 2016

The Growth of a Republic: 6 Battles that Shaped Early Rome
Alchetron (Battle of Zama)

3 – Battle of Zama (202 BC)

Cannae was probably the nadir of Roman military activity, but the Republic survived and learned from the humiliation. Its leaders realized that trying to fight Hannibal in open field battles was pointless and reverted to the Fabian strategy of avoiding pitched battles and using guerilla-style hit and run tactics to frustrate and confuse the enemy. The Romans managed to slowly but surely rebuild their army and in 209 BC, Scipio Africanus led the fight back by taking New Carthage in Spain at the Battle of Cartagena. It was a turning point in Roman military strategy as Scipio used cunning rather than brute force to take the fortress.

Scipio believed that if he attacked Carthage itself, Hannibal would be forced to come home and defend his people. As a result, Scipio invaded North Africa and took the city of Utica in 203 BC after a siege. As Scipio had hoped, Hannibal was recalled, and they faced off at Zama near Carthage. Both armies had approximately 40,000 men and Hannibal was able to field 80 war elephants.

In a complete reversal of Cannae, it was the Roman commander who employed trickery to his advantage. Scipio arranged his men in columns with the gaps masked by light infantry. This gave the appearance that the Romans had lined up in a similar fashion to their enemy. Hannibal sent his elephants into battle, but Scipio ordered his light infantry to move into the columns, so the elephants harmlessly passed through the gaps.

The Roman cavalry got behind Carthaginian lines, and its infantry advanced. Ultimately, Hannibal’s force became trapped as the enemy cavalry were at its rear and the Roman infantry was at the front. Up to 20,000 Carthaginians died at Zama and although Hannibal escaped, he told his Senate that the war was lost and advised them to sue for peace. As well as ending the Second Punic War, Zama marked the real beginning of the Roman expansion.

The Growth of a Republic: 6 Battles that Shaped Early Rome
Flickr -Creative Assembly

4 – Battle of Pydna (168 BC)

When some Greek-city states appealed for help after being attacked by Philip V of Macedon, Rome intervened and began a trio of Macedonian Wars. The First Macedonian War started in 214 BC when Rome was in the midst of the Second Punic War. Philip aligned himself with Hannibal, but the Romans were only interested in keeping Macedon at bay while it dealt with the Carthaginians. The first war ended with the Treaty of Phoenice in 205 BC. The Second Macedonian War began in 200 BC and ended in 196 BC after Philip suffered a heavy defeat at Cynoscephalae in 197 BC.

Rome began to wield some influence in the Adriatic during the Second Century BC, so when King Perseus of Macedon began making alliances with Germanic tribes and goaded the Romans into war, they obliged and thus began the Third Macedonian War in 171 BC. After inflicting several minor defeats on the Romans, Perseus inexplicably held back and adopted a more defensive strategy. This enabled Rome to regroup, and it appointed Scipio Africanus’ brother-in-law, Lucius Aemilius Paullus, as the new commander of the forces against the Macedonians.

Paullus landed in Greece in pursuit of Perseus and wisely gave his men time to recover before meeting the enemy at Pydna. The Romans were outnumbered; they had 25,000 soldiers against a 44,000 strong Macedonian force. Perseus made a cataclysmic blunder by not cutting off Roman supply lines when he had the chance; this would have forced the Romans to retreat or starve. Instead, the Romans were ready and confident of victory having seen a lunar eclipse on the eve of the battle. In contrast, the Macedonians saw it as a sign of evil and a sure sign of defeat.

Perseus attacked first and enjoyed initial success but soon, his army marched on broken ground and slowed down. Paullus had 34 elephants at his disposal and used them to attack the enemy left flank which collapsed. The Romans entered the gap and initiated hand-to-hand combat. Perseus fled the battlefield with his cavalry, and the rest of his army collapsed almost immediately. Over 20,000 Macedonians were killed or captured in a battle that lasted little over an hour.

The Romans pursued Perseus and caught him on the island of Samothrace. They plundered Pydna, Athens, and Corinth and brought the Third Macedonian War to an end. During previous wars, Rome made no territorial gains, but after Pydna, the Senate changed tactics and decided to occupy Macedon and Greece. Rome had a taste for conquest and the skill to achieve it.

The Growth of a Republic: 6 Battles that Shaped Early Rome (Simon Merrells as Crassus)

5 – Battle of Carrhae (53 BC)

The Battle of Carrhae resulted in one of the most embarrassing defeats in Roman history; the humiliation was down to the arrogance of one man, Marcus Licinius Crassus. He was a member of the First Triumvirate along with Gnaeus Pompeius Magnus (Pompey) and Julius Caesar and was among the wealthiest men in Rome. Not satisfied with his already lofty status, Crassus wanted to match the military triumphs of Caesar and Pompey, so he embarked on an ill-advised invasion of Parthia.

Perhaps he was still angry at the events of 71 BC when Pompey swooped in at the last minute to take the glory for putting down the slave rebellion led by Spartacus. Whatever the reason, he decided to take on the Parthian Empire even though it was not an enemy of Rome. In fact, Sulla and Pompey had negotiated with them on relatively friendly terms in the past. In the mind of Crassus, Parthia was near enough and large enough to be a future threat, so he launched his invasion against public opinion and the wishes of the Senate. In the end, he needed Pompey to fight his corner and support from his rival allowed him to get the campaign off the ground.

He landed in Syria in 54 BC and expected help from Armenian King Artavasdes, but no reinforcements arrived. Crassus and his army were stranded; worse still, he received word that a Parthian army was ready to attack. Near the town of Carrhae in 53 BC, Crassus’ army of around 40,000 men met the enemy with consisted of 10,000 horse archers and 1,000 heavy cavalry.

Despite the numerical advantage, Crassus had no knowledge of how the Parthians fought and ended up using a basic formation which was completely annihilated by the enemy’s incessant arrows. The Parthian general, Surena, cleverly brought 1,000 camels with his army which were used to provide his archers with a steady supply of missiles. Crassus ordered a cavalry charge which was quickly halted by thousands of arrows, and the Parthians continued to fire on the exposed Roman infantry. By now, the Romans were so close that it was almost impossible for the skilled archers to miss.

Crassus sent his son Publius on a desperate counterattack with 6,500 men. They initially had success as the Parthians retreated; unfortunately for the Romans, it was just a trick as the enemy countered with a larger force that surrounded and destroyed the Romans. Crassus retreated to the town of Carrhae, and the Parthians laid siege. Crassus managed to escape but knowing all was lost, he went to Surena’s camp and surrendered. The Parthian general was in no mood for mercy and reportedly had Crassus killed on the spot. With one of the First Triumvirate out of the picture, there were only two men left. That proved to be one too many as the Roman Republic came close to the end.

The Growth of a Republic: 6 Battles that Shaped Early Rome
Flickr (Statue of Julius Caesar at the Louvre)

6 – Battle of Pharsalus (48 BC)

The Battle of Pharsalus took place between the two remaining members of the First Triumvirate, Julius Caesar, and Pompey. In 49 BC, Julius Caesar engaged in a Civil War against the Roman Senate after it refused to allow him to run for consul. It began on 10 January when Caesar crossed the Rubicon River which was an action forbidden to a general. Even today, the phrase ‘Crossing the Rubicon’ means going past the point of no return.

Pompey fought for the Senate against his rival and 18 months into the war; Caesar was in a desperate situation. After suffering defeat at the Battle of Dyrrhachium in July 48 BC, Caesar had to march inland in an attempt to find suitable ground to beat his rival. Pompey failed to capitalize on his victory and allowed his opponent to escape. Caesar ended up in Pharsalus, Greece where one of the most famous battles in Roman history took place.

Pompey finally caught up with Caesar and the two armies were on opposite sides of the river. Caesar had 22,000 men and was short on provisions whereas Pompey had a strong army of approximately 45,000. Even so, Pompey wanted to wait because he knew the enemy army would eventually starve. However, he foolishly listened to his officers and senators who pressurized him into destroying Caesar once and for all.

When Pompey attacked, he focused on his rival’s right wing yet Caesar anticipated this tactic and fortified this part of his army with 2,000 of his best legionnaires. When Pompey’s men broke through the first line, they were stunned to find more enemies waiting for them. They panicked and retreated; the Legionnaires then outflanked Pompey’s left wing and Caesar’s Third Division attacked. This onslaught caused Pompey’s forces to disperse, and he fled to Larissa. Approximately 24,000 men surrendered, and Caesar’s army reportedly lost just 250 men in the battle.

Pompey was murdered in Egypt by an officer of King Ptolemy XIII. The Civil War raged on for three more years, and Caesar emerged victorious after the Battle of Munda in 45 BC. He didn’t live long to enjoy his triumph as he was murdered on 15th March 44 BC, the Ides of March. The Roman Republic didn’t last much longer, and a couple of years after the Battle of Actium in 31 BC, Octavian became the first leader of the Roman Empire.