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 Roman Republic is believed to have been formed in 509 BC, and the first two consuls were Lucius Collatinus and Lucius Brutus. For the first two centuries of its existence, it expanded via alliance and conquest and controlled the Italian peninsula. Historians have tried to suggest that Rome’s expansion was not just due to a thirst for conquest.

Regardless of the reasons, Rome created one of the world’s great empires, but it didn’t enjoy unbridled success for centuries. As you will see below, it suffered its share of humiliations, but instead of being beaten down by military losses, Rome learned from its mistakes and its tactics evolved until its might eventually surpassed that of its rivals. In this article, I look at six crucial battles in the history of the Roman Republic. Some of them were complete failures, but these defeats helped shape Rome and allowed it to grow and prosper while its rivals fell. Actium is not included as I will be writing about that battle in detail at a later date.

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

1 – Battle of Allia River (390 BC)

There is a little confusion over the date of this battle. The traditional date is 390 BC, but Greek historian Polybius dates the Battle of Allia River in 387 or 386 BC. The fight took place between a number of Gallic tribes, led by Brennus (also the leader of the Senones), and the city-state of Rome, led by Quintus Sulpicius.

From 1000 BC onwards, Gallic tribes had gradually expanded from Central Europe into the West where they were tried to settle on the lush Mediterranean lands. They moved into the northern Italian plain and by 400 BC, they began to take land by force. In 391 BC, Brennus led his men into Etruria and laid siege to the town of Clusium. The town asked Rome for help, and the city sent the Fabii to Clusium to act as envoys. One of them murdered a Gallic chieftain, and when Rome refused to hand over the Fabii, the Gallic chiefs declared war.

The Romans believed they could easily defeat a group of barbarians and met the enemy at Allia River, about 11 miles from the city of Rome. As is normally the case with ancient battles, the numbers attributed to each army varies. The Romans apparently had anywhere from 15,000 to 24,000 men while the Gallic warriors had an army of 30,000 to 70,000. Although the Gauls only consisted of light infantry while the Romans had at least 6,000 heavy infantry, Brennus cleverly used his numerical advantage to extend the front of his army beyond that of the Romans.

This forced the Romans to take men from the center to counteract the lengthy Gallic lines. However, lack of men ensured their lines became extremely thin. Brennus used his best men to attack the inexperienced Roman reserves on his left flank, and the Gauls overpowered their adversaries. The rest of the Roman army started to get nervous, and this turned into full-on panic when the main Gallic army launched its attack. Brennus and his men quickly steamed through the Roman phalanx and achieved an extremely easy victory. Numerous retreating Romans drowned in the River Tiber. Up to two-thirds of the Roman army were killed or captured at Allia.

Within a few days, the Gauls marched to Rome and sacked the city. Some Romans held out on Capitoline Hill and eventually, with disease causing damage to the Gallic ranks, Brennus withdrew after receiving a huge ransom. The entire saga was a total humiliation for the Romans, and it had a profound impact on its military. A variety of reforms were implemented during the 4th Century BC Samnite Wars. For example, the phalanx was replaced by a more mobile unit while the famous scutum replaced the round shield. While Rome was to suffer more defeats, the loss at Allia River paved the way for the growth of the Republic and eventually, the Empire.

The Growth of a Republic: 6 Battles that Shaped Early Rome
Akon + Guff (Hannibal)

2 – Battle of Cannae (216 BC)

The Battle of Cannae was Rome’s biggest ever defeat regarding scale of casualties. Despite happening over 2,000 years ago with primitive weapons by today’s standards, Cannae remains one of the bloodiest battles in history. It was the greatest triumph of Hannibal, the famous Carthaginian general, and should have been a decisive blow in the Second Punic War. Instead, Rome learned a valuable lesson and showed tremendous resilience to recover and ultimately defeat its enemies.

Hannibal had started the Second Punic War with an attack on the city of Saguntum in southern Spain. Within a couple of years, the Roman had suffered heavy defeats at Trebia and Lake Trasimene and worse was to follow at Cannae in 216 BC. Hannibal had utterly confused the Romans with his cunning tactics to date, but instead of taking a step back to analyze the enemy, the angry Romans sent yet another army to its slaughter.

At the town of Cannae, two Roman consuls, Caius Terentius Varro and Lucius Aemilius Paulus led a force of 50,000-86,000 (depending on the source) against Hannibal’s army which had between 40,000 and 50,000 men. At this stage in history, the Romans still stubbornly believed that superior numbers could overwhelm the enemy and so they lined up in a ‘traditional’ formation with light infantry up top masking the heavier infantry with cavalry on the wings. Hannibal tricked the Romans by initially placing his light infantry in the front to conceal his heavier infantry which was set up in a crescent formation.

As the battle commenced, Hannibal’s light infantry suddenly fell back as the Romans came forward. The Romans believed this was a sign of success and marched headlong into the Carthaginian general’s trap. Hannibal’s infantry moved to both sides of the crescent and his cavalry charged at the enemy. As the battle unfolded, the Carthaginians were skillfully maneuvered so that their army surrounded the Romans.

It was a complete massacre as the Romans lost anywhere from 44,000 to 70,000 men. Few, if any, armies have ever suffered a bigger defeat in the history of warfare. Hannibal’s genius was confirmed at Cannae, but he was unable to press home his advantage. Publius Cornelius Scipio (aka, Scipio Africanus), was a survivor of Cannae and he used the knowledge gained during the battle to turn the tables on Hannibal 14 years later.

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.