Greatest Roman victory and greatest Roman defeat (753 BC - 1453)

sparky

Ad Honorem
Jan 2017
4,995
Sydney
the rot had been setting in for a long time ,
the level of the officer corps was uneven ,
while there still were good ones , military service was seen as one step up on the cursus
at worst some generals were hungry for a triumph and would do objectionable things to get one
there were problem with raising levies for the armies ,
in fact the plebs were already accepted by 150 BC and the Cohort was used as a tactical unit
 
Sep 2013
624
Ontario, Canada
Adrianople 324 is an unusual choice. Can you please elaborate why you chose Constantine's victory over Licinius?
For one, sheer numbers, it exceeded the combatants present at Alesia, and two, for what was at stake for the victorious side. Ultimately it resulted in the Roman Empire having another thousand years of life within the bulwark of the city Constantine eventually designated as the new capital. But most of all third, for the general ability that Constantine displayed in order to achieve his victory, for he was outnumbered and in a weaker position than his entrenched opponent to start. It involved fording a river, sneaking some forces into superior position, and has been compared to Alexander the Great's victory when he crossed the river Jhelum at Hydaspes.
 
Jul 2019
43
london
They suffered a massive defeat under a commander called Varus in the Teutoburg Forest in modern day Germany in 9AD. They lost 3 entire legions which were never reconstituted in memory of the disaster.

When news of the defeat reached Rome, Emporer Augustus was said to have become depressed, to have led his hair grow long, and to have sometimes hit his head against a door post shouting "Quintilius Varus give me back my legions."
 
Oct 2018
1,523
Sydney
It occurred to me that, despite starting this thread, I never offered my nominations.

For greatest victory I will go with Illipa 206 BC. There have been many great arguments put forth for different battles. I appreciate the point made by jalidi about Adrianople 324, which encourages the counterfactual of how durable would the eastern empire have been without the founding of Constantinople. I also especially liked Spike117's argument for Alesia, whereby in numerous respects Alesia represented the Roman army at its best (I also respected his similar but inverted argument for Adrianople 378 as the worst defeat). But I'm going to go with the battles of the Second Punic War, since it was this war above all others that contributed to Roman supremacy in the Mediterranean and gave it the beginnings of super-power status. The toss-up for me is between The Metaurus, Illipa and Zama. It has been argued that Nero's victory at the Metaurus turned the tides of the war, thus its inclusion in Creasy's The Fifteen Decisive Battles of the World, and certainly it meant that Hannibal's army was not reinforced by that of his brother. Hannibal, after this battle, effectively gave up on the war. He confined himself to Bruttium and did rather little for several years until he was recalled to defend Africa. He has been described as acting like a minor princeling during this period. But then again, I question to what degree Hannibal actually still had a chance of winning the war in 207 BC. Indeed, did he ever really stand a chance at actually winning the war? Then there is Scipio's victory at Zama. A decisive victory in the field over Hannibal is one hell of an impressive feat. Then again, Polybius claims that the battle hung in the balance until Scipio's Numidian cavalry returned to the battlefield and hit the Carthaginian veterans in the rear. This makes sense. After all, Hannibal was obviously an impressive commander himself, and even perhaps after his prime (which may have been the case at Zama) one would not expect him to have gone down easily. So there is no shame in a victory over Hannibal having hung in the balance. But I'm not sure I'm ready to give such an apparently close-run thing as Zama the honour of greatest victory. At Illipa, Scipio is perhaps at his tactically most brilliant. The enemy commanders certainly were no Hannibals: Mago Barca and Hasdrubal, Son of Gisco. Regardless, Scipio took a page or two out of Hannibal's book and adapted his tactics to devastating effect. In short, he tricked the Carthaginian army with how he organized his battle lines - he habituated them into thinking that his centre would be the strongest part of his formation, and then did the opposite. He then withheld his deliberately weakened centre and used his strengthened flanks to attack the weaker Carthaginian flanks on both front and sides. In doing so, his infantry also displayed a flexibility that had not been seen before, a testament to Scipio's training of his veteran troops. And of course, the battle led to the final collapse of Carthaginian Spain, a key source of precious metal wealth, taxes and military manpower for Carthage.
 
Last edited:
Oct 2018
1,523
Sydney
As for their greatest defeat I will nominate Arausio 105 BC. I acknowledge the point brought up several times in this thread, that whereas Rome bounced back from Lake Trasimene, Cannae, Carrhae and Teutoberg Forest, the defeats at Adrianople, Manzikert and at Constantinople in 1204 had negative longer-term effects (although I also acknowledge that the negative effects of Adrianople and Manzikert have been exaggerated, and that the empire of the Komnenoi, which followed Manzikert, regardless represents a period of greatness). But perhaps one could argue that the 'greatest defeat' is the one that gave Rome the opportunity to best demonstrate her trademark ability to bounce back. If this is the case, Cannae would indeed be a strong candidate, since a) Rome got their arses kicked in one of the most tactically brilliant victories ever won, and b) Rome just got back up and kept going when other powers of the ancient world would have given up (it did after all come after two other major defeats at the Trebia and Lake Trasimene, and Rome had even bent the rules for military deployment in mustering their army at Cannae, only to see it be destroyed). Regardless, I'm actually going to go with Arausio, a) because it really was such an embarrassing battlefield performance, b) because it apparently led to more Roman deaths than any other battle in the field, c) it contributed to the declining confidence of the Roman people in the Senate (a key development on the road towards Caesar and Augustus), and d) because Rome got back up and broke their constitutional rules to give Marius five consecutive consulship, whereby Marius would continue his crucial military reforms (also a key development on the road towards Caesar and Augustus).

The Cimbrian War was already an embarrassing affair even before Arausio. The Cimbri and Teutons, who had been migrating through Noricum, had upset an ally of Rome. Rome sent a consul north to threaten them to leave the territory of this ally. The Cimbri knew of Roman military strength and agreed to leave, but the consul had actually set up an ambush, since he wanted military glory. The Cimbri discovered the trap and responded by attacking the Romans, defeating them in the devastating Battle of Noreia (112 BC), which saw the loss of 24,000 Romans. The consul Carbo was exiled for the defeat. There then followed three more Roman defeats, at one of which (Burdigala) the consul and around 10,000 men were killed, and the remainder forced to leave the field 'under the yoke'.

In 105 BC a proconsul and a consul marched their two consular-sized armies (in total, c. 80,000 men!) against the Cimbri and their allies, now located in Narbonese Gaul. The proconsul Caepio refused to accept the superior authority of the consul Maximus, and with only great difficulty Maximus persuaded Caepio to camp near his vicinity on the same side of the Rhone. Regardless, Caepio set up camp separately from his fellow Roman. In fact, he encamped his army closer to the enemy than to Maximus's army. Now, on some level this was perhaps smart, since 80,000 troops in one place was perhaps unwieldy (I note that the similar-sized Roman army at Cannae also set up two camps). However, it's clear that Caepio had little attention of cooperating with or subordinating himself to the consul Maximus.

Meanwhile, Maximus began negotiations with the enemy kings Boiorix and Teutobod. These kings were happy to do so, since 80,000 Roman troops were arrayed against them. However, Caepio feared that Maximus would win all the credit by ending the conflict through negotiations, and so he launched a precipitous, rushed attack on the Cimbrian/Teuton position, his army attacking in a piecemeal fashion (I suppose not unlike what happened at Crecy in that sense). The attack was an absolute disaster. Caepio's army was butchered, and the Cimbri counter-attacked, capturing Caepio's camp. Buoyed by their unexpected victory and feeling betrayed by an attack amidst negotiations, the Cimbri and Teutons turned their forces against Maximus. Maximus had set up his camp poorly, such that the Rhone was to his army's rear and his army had little means of escape. Seeing their comrades butchered en masse and their camp overrun, the soldiers of Maximus looked on in terror as the forces of the Cimbrian horde began to march against them. In what followed, Maximus' army was escape was likewise slaughtered, and their camp overrun.

Livy claims that 80,000 Roman soldiers were killed that day, and many of the camp-followers must have been killed as well, what with both camps being stormed. Caepio and Maximus both managed to escape, but upon returning to Rome were assaulted with a multitude of punitive litigations, and were both exiled. Caepio subsequently committed suicide. In their place came Marius.
 
Last edited:
Oct 2018
1,523
Sydney
Actually, in post 15 I gave a special mention to Mylae (260 BC) and Ecnomus (256 BC), and I'm now changing my vote for greatest victory from Ilipa to Ecnomus. It may seem unusual to give that title to a naval battle when we're discussing Rome, but Ecnomus was one of the largest naval battles in ancient history, and somehow Rome, a land-based power so far confined to Italy and with little naval experience at this time, defeated Carthage, one of the greatest maritime powers. It speaks to Roman boldness, determination and ingenuity, finding a way to play to their land-based strengths, but at sea, through their use of a recent invention, the corvus, to fight land battles at sea; all of this at a time when their empire was, as a result of this war, just beginning to expand beyond Italy. Indeed, it allowed Rome, at this time fighting over Sicily, to invade Africa and thus open a second, albeit short-lived theatre of war. And if the Second Punic War was a key moment in the beginnings of Rome as a super-power, so was the First Punic War.

To quote the Greek historian Polybius (1.63.4-7): '(The First Punic War) had lasted without a break for twenty-four years and is the longest, most unintermittent, and greatest war we know of. Apart from all the other battles and armaments, the total naval forces engaged were, as I mentioned above, on one occasion more than five hundred quinqueremes and on a subsequent one very nearly seven hundred. Moreover the Romans lost in this war about seven hundred quinqueremes, inclusive of those that perished in the shipwrecks, and the Carthaginians about five hundred. So that those who marvel at the great sea-battles and great fleets of an Antigonus, a Ptolemy, or a Demetrius would, if I mistake not, on inquiring into the history of this war, be much astonished at the huge scale of operations. Again, if we take into consideration the difference between quinqueremes and the triremes in which the Persians fought against the Greeks and the Athenians and Lacedaemonians against each other, we shall find that no forces of such magnitude ever met at sea.'
 
Last edited:
Oct 2018
1,523
Sydney
For those interested, the votes so far are as follows:

Greatest victory:
Cape Ecnomus 256 BC (1)
The Metaurus 207 BC (2)
Ilipa 206 BC (1)
Zama 202 BC (1)
Tigranocerta 69 BC (1)
Alesia 52 BC (1)
Pharsalus 48 BC (1)
Adrianople 324 (1)
Constantinople 717-18 (1)

Greatest defeat:
Cannae 216 BC (3)
Noreia 112 BC (1)
Arausio 105 BC (2)
Pharsalus 48 BC (1)
Teutoburg Forest 9 (1)
Edessa 260 (1)
Adrianople 378 (2)
Rome 455 (1)
Cape Bon 468 (1)
Manzikert 1071 (1)
Constantinople 1204 (1)
Constantinople 1453 (1)
 
May 2018
861
Michigan
It occurred to me that, despite starting this thread, I never offered my nominations.

For greatest victory I will go with Illipa 206 BC. There have been many great arguments put forth for different battles. I appreciate the point made by jalidi about Adrianople 324, which encourages the counterfactual of how durable would the eastern empire have been without the founding of Constantinople. I also especially liked Spike117's argument for Alesia, whereby in numerous respects Alesia represented the Roman army at its best (I also respected his similar but inverted argument for Adrianople 378 as the worst defeat). But I'm going to go with the battles of the Second Punic War, since it was this war above all others that contributed to Roman supremacy in the Mediterranean and gave it the beginnings of super-power status. The toss-up for me is between The Metaurus, Illipa and Zama. It has been argued that Nero's victory at the Metaurus turned the tides of the war, thus its inclusion in Creasy's The Fifteen Decisive Battles of the World, and certainly it meant that Hannibal's army was not reinforced by that of his brother. Hannibal, after this battle, effectively gave up on the war. He confined himself to Bruttium and did rather little for several years until he was recalled to defend Africa. He has been described as acting like a minor princeling during this period. But then again, I question to what degree Hannibal actually still had a chance of winning the war in 207 BC. Indeed, did he ever really stand a chance at actually winning the war? Then there is Scipio's victory at Zama. A decisive victory in the field over Hannibal is one hell of an impressive feat. Then again, Polybius claims that the battle hung in the balance until Scipio's Numidian cavalry returned to the battlefield and hit the Carthaginian veterans in the rear. This makes sense. After all, Hannibal was obviously an impressive commander himself, and even perhaps after his prime (which may have been the case at Zama) one would not expect him to have gone down easily. So there is no shame in a victory over Hannibal having hung in the balance. But I'm not sure I'm ready to give such an apparently close-run thing as Zama the honour of greatest victory. At Illipa, Scipio is perhaps at his tactically most brilliant. The enemy commanders certainly were no Hannibals: Mago Barca and Hasdrubal, Son of Gisco. Regardless, Scipio took a page or two out of Hannibal's book and adapted his tactics to devastating effect. In short, he tricked the Carthaginian army with how he organized his battle lines - he habituated them into thinking that his centre would be the strongest part of his formation, and then did the opposite. He then withheld his deliberately weakened centre and used his strengthened flanks to attack the weaker Carthaginian flanks on both front and sides. In doing so, his infantry also displayed a flexibility that had not been seen before, a testament to Scipio's training of his veteran troops. And of course, the battle led to the final collapse of Carthaginian Spain, a key source of precious metal wealth, taxes and military manpower for Carthage.
Not only is Ilipia impressive as a Roman victory, but within the overall scope of military history itself, I am more impressed by Scipio's performance at Ilipa than Napoleon at Austerlitz or Wellington at Assaye, both cases where the losing side held a vast numerical superiority. Unfortunately, Livy and Polybius disagree as to the size of the Carthaginian Army, but roughly agree on the size of the Roman Army.

However, Scipio's before-battle preparations and deceptions illustrate the importance of pre-battle tactics and maximinzing every advantage (such as depriving the Carthaginians/Mercs of food by forming for battle so early).
 
Oct 2018
1,523
Sydney
Not only is Ilipia impressive as a Roman victory, but within the overall scope of military history itself, I am more impressed by Scipio's performance at Ilipa than Napoleon at Austerlitz or Wellington at Assaye, both cases where the losing side held a vast numerical superiority. Unfortunately, Livy and Polybius disagree as to the size of the Carthaginian Army, but roughly agree on the size of the Roman Army.

However, Scipio's before-battle preparations and deceptions illustrate the importance of pre-battle tactics and maximinzing every advantage (such as depriving the Carthaginians/Mercs of food by forming for battle so early).
Oh yes, I forgot about the food-factor. Iphicrates and Hannibal had also used this tactic: denying the enemy breakfast.
 
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May 2018
861
Michigan
Honestly, for greatest defeat, I'd have to say there are two:

Cannae, only because of the scale of the defeat. It is probably the defeat that the Romans would say, for centuries things to the effect of, "We had another Cannae" or "The city was as afraid as it was just after Cannae." Culturally, they probably viewed it as their worst defeat at least until the end of the Republican era.

Adrianople (378) was probably the the worst defeat for Rome in practical terms. Just as Scipio "shattered Carthaginian invincibility" or Archduke Charles gave Napoleon his first real battlefield defeat, Adrianople shattered the image of Roman power, and the Eastern Empire probably lost more credibility than Varro and Paullus did after Cannae. IIRC, the Western Roman Emperor basically had to intervene to save the situation.