5 Lesser-Known Roman Battles that Changed the World

The history of Rome is filled with wars. While not so well known, these five Roman battles helped to create the great ancient power.

Nov 2, 2021By Vedran Bileta, MA in Late Antique, Byzantine, and Early Modern History, BA in History
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The Battle of the Huns in the Catalan fields, Wilhelm von Kaulbach, 1837, State Gallery Stuttgart; with Artist’s Impression of the Battle of Munda, via Zen.Yanex.ru

 

Ancient Rome was one of the most powerful states in antiquity. From its humble beginnings, the city on the Tiber became a vast empire, stretching from England to Egypt, from Spain to Syria. The Mediterranean Sea was a Roman lake, a place where trade and commerce could flourish, boosting the economy of the empire. However, the price for success was a steep one. From its very inception, Rome had to fight to survive and expand. This constant struggle for power was embedded in the city’s foundational myth: the fight between Romulus and Remus, setting a precedent for the Roman battles to come.

 

Roman military might and organization, and its famous legions, became an integral part of ancient Rome’s success story. Many Roman battles waged against their numerous foes (both external and internal) passed into legend. Yet, for every famous Roman battle, there are several less-famous ones. While these engagements are more obscure, their outcomes nonetheless changed the ancient world. Here is a curated list of five lesser-known Roman battles, from the time of the Roman Republic to the Late Roman Empire.

 

1. The Battle of the Metaurus: The Romans Crush Hannibal’s Italian Ambitions

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Battle on the banks of the river, probably the Battle of the Metaurus (207 BCE), Paolo Ucello, ca. 1397-1475, via Sotheby’s

 

By 207 BCE, the Second Punic War was at its apex. Hannibal Barca was still undefeated, his army ravaging southern Italy, while the Romans were powerless to stop him. The disasters of Trebia, Trasimene, and most importantly, the massacre at Cannae, were still fresh in Roman minds. Yet, Hannibal understood that without the help from Carthage, his Italian campaign would be stalled and ultimately doomed to failure. While Carthage was reluctant to send more men and supplies, Hannibal’s brother Hasdrubal set off from Barca’s controlled Spain with a large army. The Romans, fearing that the arrival of reinforcements would renew Hannibal’s offensive, were determined to stop Hasdrubal.

 

In March 207 BCE, Hasdrubal crossed the Alps, entering Northern Italy. However, his progress was halted at Placentia, as the city refused to open its gates. Rome exploited the situation and raised two armies to prevent the joining of Hannibal and Hasdrubal’s forces. The Romans succeeded. At the Roman Battle of Metaurus, Nero annihilated Hasdrubal’s army. Hasdrubal himself was killed at the end of the battle, during a heroic but suicidal charge. His severed head was sent to his brother. Hasdrubal’s defeat at Metaurus was a pivotal moment in this most gruesome of Roman battles, one that turned the tide of the war. From then on, Rome was on the offensive, bringing the conflict to Barcid Spain. Hannibal’s dwindling forces remained powerless in Italy until Carthage recalled him to confront Scipio Africanus.

 

2. Battle of Munda: Caesar’s Last Victory

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Artist’s Impression of the Battle of Munda, showing Julius Caesar leading his favorite 10th Legion, via Zen.Yanex.ru

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The Civil War between Julius Caesar and Pompey the Great saw some of the bloodiest Roman battles of the Late Republic. The four-year-long war resulted in huge losses of Roman manpower. The death of Pompey in 48 BCE brought the conflict closer to an end, but there was still one last battle to be fought if Caesar wanted to restore peace and stability to the Republic. Pompey’s forces were now led by his sons, Gnaeus and Sextus, while Caesar personally assumed command of his legions. In 45 BCE, the opposing armies met on the plains of Munda in southern Spain, the last refuge of the Pompeian faction. It was here that the battle for the fate of ancient Rome took place.

 

For the Pompeians, the Battle of Munda was the last attempt to turn the tide of war in their favor. They held the high ground, commanding a well-defended hilltop position. The Pompeian forces also had an advantage in numbers — thirteen legions against Caesar’s eight. But the crafty general had one trump card. Caesar’s legions were veterans of many wars, experienced and well-trained soldiers loyal to their commander.  During the battle that raged for eight grueling hours, Caesar himself entered the fray, bolstering the morale of his troops. The combination of quality, discipline, and great leadership won the day. After Munda, Julius Caesar was the sole ruler of Rome. Yet, Munda was to be his last victory. A year later, Caesar’s assassination plunged the Republic into another civil war, preparing the stage for the rise of the Roman Empire.

 

3. Battle of Watling Street: Boudica’s End

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Roman Bronze Cavalry Helmet, 1st century CE, the British Museum; with the  Fulham Sword, early 1st century CE, the British Museum; and Iron Spearhead, 1st century CE, the British Museum

 

The unusually named Roman battle that took place in 61 CE, took place at a pivotal moment in the Roman occupation of Britain. The revolt of Boudica — the famous warrior queen of the Iceni — shook Roman Britain. The Iceni and their allies destroyed several Roman towns (including the capital Londinium), while thousands of Roman civilians met a violent end. For a new province that was being colonized, the revolt signified a big blow. It was paramount to defeat the rebel queen and her forces. The task fell to Gaius Suetonius Paulinus, who in a short time amassed under his command an army of almost ten thousand men. While this was not a small number, Paulinus had to confront a much larger hostile force.

 

The Romans took a stand at an unknown location, somewhere along the Roman road known as Watling Street. Although heavily outnumbered, Paulinus’ troops had a clear advantage in armor, weapons, and discipline. In addition, well-trained Roman soldiers fared much better in close combat than Boudica’s warriors. To counter the mass attacks of the Britons, the Romans marched in a wedge-shaped formation, cutting the enemy to pieces. Once the Britons were in disarray, Paulinus ordered a cavalry charge. As the Britons retreated, the ring of wagons belonging to their families prevented their escape, and they were massacred. Queen Boudica fled the battlefield but died soon afterward, poisoning herself or succumbing to illness. The victory at Watling Street secured Roman Britain, allowing emperor Nero to continue colonization. Despite minor revolts in the north, Britain would remain under imperial control until the early 5th century CE.

 

4. Battle of Ctesiphon: Emperor Julian’s Failed Gamble

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Julian II near Ctesiphon, from Manuscript Copy of Gregory Nazianzen’s Orations, ca.  879-882 CE, via the French National Library

 

From the first forays in the East, ancient Rome had to pay special attention to its greatest nemesis, the Persian Empire. Persia was the place where a successful commander could gain immense prestige and glory. Or, as Crassus learned the hard way, it could bring humiliation and death to a would-be conqueror. For Emperor Julian, the Persian campaign started well. Upon entering the hostile territory, the Roman troops found almost no opposition. Cities and forts fell into Roman hands, only to be sacked and razed to the ground. Two months after entering Persia, in May 363, Julian’s ancient blitzkrieg reached the ultimate prize — the Sassanid capital of Ctesiphon.

 

There, in front of the ancient city’s walls, Julian’s legions waged one of the most unusual Roman battles. The Battle of Ctesiphon began with the Romans accomplishing a daring night-crossing of the Tigris River under heavy enemy fire. What followed was a pitched battle in which Julian’s troops confronted the Sassanid army. Yet, the mail-clad clibanarii and mighty war-elephants could not defeat the well-disciplined Roman legions. Julian, too, joined the fray, riding through the friendly lines, encouraging his troops. In the end, the Romans won, while the Persians retreated behind the city walls. However, the emperor failed to exploit his victory. Several days after the Romans departed from Ctesiphon, Julian met his end in the Roman battle against the Sassanid main army. What should have been a Roman triumph ended as a catastrophe: the loss of a Roman emperor, prestige, and territory.

 

5. The Battle of Chalons: Rome Halts the Huns

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The Battle of the Huns in the Catalan fields, Wilhelm von Kaulbach, 1837, State Gallery Stuttgart

 

By the mid-fifth century, ancient Rome was in grave peril. Its outer boundaries were repeatedly breached while barbarian invaders carved out their own kingdoms within the imperial lands of the Roman West. Meanwhile, the legions were often employed to fight fellow Romans in a struggle for domination over the rapidly shrinking Empire. Despite the mounting difficulties, Rome could still fight and defeat its opponent. But at an increasingly high cost, in both manpower and resources. When the Huns led by Attila crossed the Rhine and invaded Roman Gaul in 451, the Western Roman Empire found itself at its darkest hour.

 

As the Roman army was unable to confront the Hunnic threat on its own, its commander, Flavius Aetius, made a deal with the devil. Yesterday’s enemy, the barbarians in Gaul, became Rome’s vital ally against Attila. The opposing armies met near Chalons, on the Catalaunian Plains. It was here that a mixed Roman-barbarian coalition, under Aetius’ command, halted Attila’s advance. Although the battle ended indecisively, for Aetius it was a clear victory. Not only that the fighting drained the forces of his barbarian “allies,” and Attila himself withdrew after the battle, allowing the Romans to restore control over the province, if only for few more years. Chalons was the last victorious Roman battle in the West. Two decades later, in 476, the Western Roman Empire ceased to exist. Yet, this was not the end. In the East, the Byzantine Empire would last a thousand more years, preserving the legacy of ancient Rome.



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By Vedran BiletaMA in Late Antique, Byzantine, and Early Modern History, BA in HistoryVedran is a doctoral researcher, based in Budapest. His main interest is Ancient History, in particular the Late Roman period. When not spending time with the military elites of the Late Roman West, he is sharing his passion for history with those willing to listen. In his free time, Vedran is wargaming and discussing Star Trek.