5 Greatest Defeats in Roman History

In the long, unrivaled Roman history of warfare, it’s fascinating to appreciate that on a small but significant number of occasions, Rome actually suffered some tremendous and near total defeats.

Jul 15, 2021By Colin J Campbell, MLitt in Ancient History, BA Ancient History & Civilization
5 greatest defeats roman history

 

Throughout Roman history, the Latin capacity for war was truly astounding. Strategic, relentless, methodical, scientific almost. No ancient state had an appetite for warfare that matched Rome. Celts, Germans, Egyptians, Macedonians, Greeks, Persians, Parthians, Carthaginians, and many more. All knew defeat at the hands of Rome. Rome possessed the resources and pathological will to make war almost relentlessly over its 800-year history. It’s exactly because of this well-celebrated facet of Roman history and culture that we can learn more a lot about Rome through its defeats. Let’s look across Roman history at five of Rome’s most significant defeats.

 

1. The Battle of the Allia: 390 BCE

leon davent weighing gold sword brennus roman history
The Weighing of the Gold with the Sword of Brennus Thrown In, by Leon Davent, 1545-47, via the British Museum

 

“Woe to the vanquished!”
[Livy, History, 5.48.8]

 

This was the insufferably arrogant exclamation of the Gallic Chieftain Brennus in response to the defeated Romans who were forced to beg for peace. That Brennus was even cheating while weighing the gold bounty, brought even more humiliation to the once-proud Romans. Throwing his sword onto the counterweight, Brennus’s message was crude: a defeated people, have no recourse to justice. A harsh reality had been forced upon Rome; the city that would rise from humiliation to brutally subjugate most of the ancient known world.

 

The city’s near annihilation in c. 390 BCE at the hands of marauding Gauls, would have a profoundly formative impact on Roman history and development. This was early in Rome’s history, long before the relatively young city had even achieved regional dominance. A large force of marauding Gauls of the Senones tribe, 30,000+ strong under Chieftain Brennus, invaded the Italian peninsula. They were met by a levy of Roman citizen-soldiers of around 15,000 men under Quintus Sulpicius.

 

Many parts of the ancient world were subject to the trans-migration and raiding of tribal peoples. On this occasion, the Romans opened hostility by coming to the aid of their Etruscan neighbor, Clusium, that was being menaced by the Gauls. After one of the Roman ambassadors illegally killed a Gallic chieftain, the barbarians were enraged. The scene was set for one of the most disastrous showdowns in Roman history. 

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A fearsome Gallic host marched on Rome with shocking speed and fought the Romans near Rome, at the place where the river Allia met the Tiber. The Gauls were made up of fierce light-armed tribal warriors. These were large powerful men who often fought semi-naked.

 

The Romans, drawn up in tightly formed phalanxes of citizen-levies, thinned out their lines to avoid being outflanked. The Gauls scattered the Roman right wing, made up of inexperienced reserves, who had been sent to guard the flank in the hills. These men broke bringing panic to the whole Roman line. A disintegrating Roman army now found itself trapped by the river Tiber. Many, whom the enemy did not kill, drowned. Roman arms broke easily at the Allia, giving the Gauls a total and relatively easy victory.

 

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Depiction of the Gallic Warrior Chief Brennus, via Wikimedia Commons

 

With this army broken, the road was left open to the capital. This resulted in the first sacking of the great city in Roman history. Only the fortified Capitoline hill resisted the Gallic onslaught, holding out in a siege. Sacking the city, the Gauls could not seize the great Capitoline hill. Neither could the besieged Romans gain back their city. A legendary story about the hallowed geese of Rome saved the defenders from a night attack. The Romans eventually paid the humiliating bounty of 1000lbs of gold to reclaim their capital. A major event in Roman history had just played out.

 

The Romans survived and eventually corrected their fortunes under their celebrated commander and ‘second founder of Rome,’ Marcus Furius Camillus. This Gallic invasion defined the Roman psyche towards Northern tribal peoples for centuries. A deep scar on Rome’s sense of security – marked by fear and humiliation – spurned Roman arms ever onward. To some extent, Roman geopolitical expansionism would ever-after include the notion of defensiveness: often seeking and attacking far-flung enemies that could become a threat in the future.

 

This was also the start of centuries of Roman conflict with the Northern Celts, the Gauls in particular. Though Rome eventually developed systems and tactics to triumph over the less disciplined Northern tribes, a prejudicial mixture of fear and disdain for gold-loving, barbarous Celts (and Germans), would persist in Roman history. Almost 800 years would pass until the final fall of Rome when enemies were allowed to violate the mighty capital again.

 

2. The Battle of Cannae: 216 BCE

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Overview of the Battle of Cannae, via Realm of History

 

“Such is the story of Cannae, a defeat no less famous than the defeat of the Allia; for the enormous losses involved, it was the more dreadful of the two, though less serious in its results as Hannibal did not follow up his victory.”
[Livy, History of Rome, 22.50]

 

Perhaps the greatest defeat in Roman history came in 216 BCE, as Rome was struggling against Carthage to become a Mediterranean superpower. The Carthaginian general Hannibal delivered a masterclass of strategy and tactics, proving himself one of the ancient world’s most gifted commanders. Hannibal had a mixed force consisting of 40,000 infantry and 10,000 horses. His army included a coalition of troops of African, Spanish, Gallic, and Balearic warriors.

 

Hannibal faced two Roman consuls leading a massive citizen army of legionaries, as well as Latin and Italian allies. An unprecedented force of two consular armies (8 legions) and allies totaling c. 86,000 men. This was one of the biggest armies in Roman history.

 

Cannae was a major battle of the Second Punic War, a series of conflicts between Rome and Carthage, for hegemony over the Western Mediterranean.  Hannibal’s Carthaginian army traveled from its province in Spain, traversing the Alps and bringing the fight into Rome’s very backyard. There they were least expected.

 

This audacious invasion of Italy starting in 218 BCE brought a series of Roman defeats, such as the one in Trebia in 218 BCE and Lake Trasimene in 217 BCE. Thus, the Romans felt that they really had to win in Cannae, and they put everything they could into it.

 

The battle itself saw Hannibal’s famous envelopment tactic. The Roman center had densely weighted columns of heavy infantry. The weaker cavalry was on the wings.

 

Conversely, Hannibal had a lighter front of Celts in his center, flanked by heavier African infantry. They had been ordered to give ground and draw the Romans in between the heavy infantry: collapsing from a convex to concave front.

 

Battle opened with the Roman cavalry on the right being scattered by the Carthaginian cavalry, made up of Spanish and Celtic horsemen. The cavalry on the Roman left initially fought a series of skirmishes with the highly mobile Numidian cavalry.

 

As the main battlelines met, the Carthaginian center gave ground (as it had been ordered to do), drawing the Roman troops into the middle. Meanwhile, the cavalry that had scattered the Roman right, crossed the field to help their companions defeat the Roman cavalry on the left.

 

With both cavalry wings now gone, the Romans were in trouble. The Roman infantry advancing with weight was now drawn into an encirclement as the Carthaginian center continued to be driven back as the wings held their ground. Roman impetus – which seemed successful – was therefore driving the Romans into the middle of a trap.

 

When fully drawn into their retreating center, the Carthaginian wings folded shut around the Roman flanks. The victorious Carthaginian cavalry now also regrouped and closed on the Roman rear. The trap was truly sprung. Roman history was about to record its worst ever massacre.

 

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Bronze bust of Hannibal Barca, possibly owned by Napoleon, Jeff Glasel, c. 1815, University of Saskatchewan

 

Pressed like sardines in a can, Roman forces were utterly defeated, losing both consuls and the cream of Roman arms before the battle’s end. Cannae was a masterclass in strategic warfare. The Romans, more than anything, were outclassed by the superior generalship and genius of Hannibal.

 

Cannae was a disaster unmatched across nearly 800 years of Roman history. A massive Roman force was defeated at a ratio of almost 10 – 1, with reports that less than 7000 of the entire Roman army escaped the field. 10,000 Romans left to guard their defensive camp were also captured. Overall, some historians have estimated Roman losses to constitute up to 20% of their total fighting manpower. Carthaginian losses are estimated to be around 8000 men. However, this was not the fall of Rome. Despite Hannibal’s dominance in the field, he was unable or unwilling to siege Rome in the immediate aftermath of Cannae.

 

“… no one man has been blessed with all Gods gifts. You know, Hannibal, how to win a fight; you do not know how to use your victory.”
[Livy, History 22.51]

 

Rome’s tenacity in sustaining such staggering losses and staying in the war was remarkable. Over the years to follow, that resilience would weather the storm and slowly blunt Carthaginian forces. Far from home in a hostile land. Hannibal would win battles, but Rome would win the war.

 

3. Battle of Carrhae: 53 BCE 

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Map of The Parthian Empire, 1st Century BCE, via Encyclopedia Britannica

 

“Do you think that you are marching through Campania?’ … ‘Are you longing for the fountains and streams there, and the shady places, and the baths and the taverns? Oh, no, you must remember that the country you are going through is the borderland between Assyria and Arabia.’
[Plutarch, Life of Crassus, 21] 

 

The battle of Carrhae took place in 53 BCE at the height of the Roman Republic. The Triumvir Marcus Licinius Crassus, the richest man in Rome, led seven legions of c. 34,000 men, as well as over 4,000 cavalry and 4,000+ auxiliary troops. He was joined by his son, the capable commander Publius Crassus.  Surena, a leading Parthian noble with a much smaller force of c.10,000 men, faced the Romans. He commanded c. 9,000 light horse archers and 1,000 heavily armored horsemen (cataphracts).

 

Crassus was part of the first Triumvirate with Julius Caesar and Pompey. He used his Syrian provincial command to seek glory and power through conquest. Taking advantage of an internal dynastic dispute within Parthia, Crassus saw an opportunity for conquest and personal glory. Leading a major Roman force beyond the Euphrates river, Crassus was lured out into the desert. His force was almost completely annihilated by the much smaller but highly mobile Parthian army’s superior tactics. 

 

Engaging the Parthians East of Carrhae, the Romans moved in a massive column designed to protect their flanks. Surena had disguised his heavy cavalry by covering their armor in garments and this also led the Romans into overconfidence. Eventually shedding their robes to show their armor, the Parthian cataphracts were able to pin down the Romans under the threat of a charge. While doing this, the Parthians unleashed their highly skilled horse archers, enveloping the Roman flanks and harrying on all sides. Any Roman unit that sought to break from the column and drive off the Parthians was easily cut off. The Parthians delivered death from their powerful composite bows and lethal barbed arrows. The Romans were without water and under relentless, withering attack.

 

roma legion roman history
A Roman Legion as depicted on Trajan’s Column, Marco Dente, 16th century, via the Met Museum

 

The sheer speed and maneuverability of the Parthian horse archers, who could shoot arrows as they advance or retreated, meant that any attempt to close with them was useless. The Romans had no immediate answer to these tactics.

 

For a day, the Romans suffered loss without return until realizing that the Parthians had brought up significant reserves of arrows. Crassus was forced to act. Sending forward his son Publius and a force of 4,000 cavalry and picked infantry, the Romans sought to break the encirclement. Unfortunately, this played right into the hands of the Parthians, who feigned retreat, drawing an over-eager Publius far from the Roman lines. When it was too late, the Parthians turned, again surrounding the Romans on all sides.

 

“nor did death come to [the Romans] either easily or quickly. In the convulsion and agony of their pain they would writhe as the arrows struck them; they would break off in their wounds and then lacerate and disfigure their own bodies by trying to tear out by force the barbed arrow heads that had pierced through their veins and muscles. Many died in this way, and even the survivors were in no state to fight. when Publius called on them to attack the enemy’s armored cavalry, they showed him hands pinioned to their shields, feet nailed through into the ground, so that they were incapable of either running away or defending themselves.
[Plutarch, Life of Crassus, 25]

 

Publius’ break-out force died to the last man on a lone hillside. Think Custer’s Last Stand and you’re getting close. In true Roman fashion, the son of Crassus killed himself to avoid the disgrace of capture. Meanwhile, Crassus and his main body, still harried by archers, were impotent to help. He would ultimately witness the Parthians parade the head of his son Publius around the field, proving that a bad day can always get worse.

 

Forced to make a night retreat and abandon the wounded, only about 15,000 Romans even made it back to Carrhae. However, their forces were strung out and scattered. From there, fragmented groups sought to make their way back to the west. With a shattered army, Crassus was tricked into negotiations with Surena, in which he was betrayed and murdered. The head and hand of Rome’s richest man were sent as trophies to King Ordoes. Very few of Crassus’s soldiers would ever make it back to safety. Roman history listed another defeat on its otherwise impressive scoresheet.

 

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Bust of Marcus Licinius Crassus, via Wikimedia Commons

 

The first real test of their powerful Parthian neighbor in the war resulted in Rome’s major defeat. It would not be the last. Parthia was a powerful adversary and although Rome was in no way inferior to her Eastern enemy, she had been squarely beaten. She had also reached the natural limits of her Mediterranean power base. Strategically, the Romans had been bested, and it was clear that Roman legionaries, despite being preeminent in face-to-face combat, could not hope to close with and overcome highly mobile and skilled horse archers. This was a new kind of fighting that Rome had yet to adapt to.

 

The death of Crassus changed Roman politics forever and had a direct bearing on the Roman Civil War that would follow between Caesar and Pompey. Had Crassus been alive, trouble might well have come anyway, but the dynamics and its effect on Roman history were now very different.

 

4. Battle of the Teutoburg Forrest: 9 CE

Fury of the Germans
The Fury of the Goths, Paul Ivanowitz, via Handelsblatt

 

The defeat at Teutoburg came in 9 CE in the early Principate, when Rome had ceased being a Republic and was under the rule of its first founding Emperor, Augustus. The Roman general Publius Quinctilius Varus was campaigning in Germania with three legions and auxiliaries of c. 20,000 men. There, he was met by a confederation of tribes that revolted under the defecting leader Arminius. He was a prince of the Cherusci tribe, who were friends and allies of Rome. He had long been embedded into Roman culture, first as a young political hostage and then a trained soldier in Rome’s auxiliary forces.

 

The Roman incursion into Germania had been underway for many years. Consolidating their grip over several campaigns, the Romans were in the advanced stages of turning these wild tribal lands (between the Rhine and the Elbe) into a settled frontier province. All seemed to be going well. However, resentment amongst the Germanic tribes was given a tantalizing window of opportunity when Rome was compelled to withdraw 8 of its usual 11 frontier legions to put down a revolt in Illyricum in 6CE.

 

The Teutoburg Forrest was one of the most shocking defeats in Roman history. In 9 CE, Varus returned from a successful season across the Rhine when reports came in of uprising and disorder amongst the tribes.

 

As part of a concerted plot to draw the Romans into a trap, Varus was encouraged and persuaded by Arminius to lead his army through unknown terrain to put down a supposed revolt in the west of the region. Warned by some of his Germanic retainers that this was a trap, Varus ignored warnings and retained faith in his ally Arminius. Under the direction of Germanic guides, Varus led his legions to the west as Arminius detached from the army to gather his local auxiliaries.

 

gehrts arminius thusnelda painting
Arminius says goodbye to Thusnelda, Johannes Gehrts, 1884, via Museum-Digital

 

Unfortunately for Varus, Arminius was actually joining a coalition of disgruntled German tribes. Tribes that were bent on revenge against the hated Roman invader. Marching in column formation through heavily forested terrain, the Roman army was dangerously strung out. We are told that Varus was negligent in the use of recognizance. Bad weather and muddy, blocked trackways made Roman progress even harder. Things were about to get much worse.

 

Taken in ambush all along their lines, the Romans were attacked on both sides by ferocious Germanic warriors who unleashed javelins and missiles. Hit and run attacks did damage and made Roman progress almost impossible. Unable to draw up in-depth and in very difficult terrain, the Romans could not deploy the massed weight of their legionaries.

 

Even though they made it to more open ground and established a defensive camp, the Romans were in a perilous situation, badly mauled, and with many wounded. Leaving the baggage and the wounded the next day they marched on, desperate to escape the trap. Yet the deadly skirmishing attacks persisted. Sending their remaining cavalry away to seek aid, Varus was shattered to soon learn that this force too had been ambushed and destroyed. No help was coming for Varus. Despairing of his situation and his disgrace, Varus took his own life, rather than be captured. Still, this did not stop Arminius from taking the head from his corpse as a trophy.

 

Though a couple of brave contingents sought to break out of their ambush, it was to no avail. With their road barred, the remaining Roman troops were overcome in a desperate last stand. Of the Roman soldiers and officers taken, many chose suicide, rather than suffer the bloody and ritualistic sacrifices of pagan tribesmen. Death was preferable to capture.

 

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Silhouette of Arminius, via Der Spiegel

 

Very few stragglers ever made it back to tell the blood-curdling tale. This was a humiliation for the new imperial system under Augustus that had known a period of relative peace and success. Back in Rome, there was even a brief period of panic as frenzied citizens rather hysterically and naively believed that they were about to be invaded; remember Rome’s latent fear of Northern barbarians. However, the fall of Rome was not meant to be yet. Popular history has it that an inconsolable Augustus hit his head against the wall on news of Teutoburg and wailed:

 

“Oh, Quintillius Varus! Give me back my Legions”
[Suetonius, 23]

 

The battle was a major defeat of Rome. Nevertheless, the northern frontier was soon re-stabilized. Indeed, Roman forces would go on to campaign and defeat Arminius and the Germanic tribes in the years to come, though the dream of a settled Germanic province would never again be realized. The limits of Rome’s northern dominance had been reached.

 

5. The Battle of Adrianople: 378 CE: The Prelude to the Fall of Rome

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Overview of the Battle of Adrianople, 378 BCE, via Proto Thema

 

“Our men were too closely packed to have any hope of escape, so they resolved to die like heroes, faced the enemy swords, and struck back at their assailants. On both sides helmets and breastplates were split in pieces by blows from the battle axe. you might see a lion-hearted savage who had been hamstrung or who had lost his right hand being wounded in the side, grinding his clenched teeth and casting defiant glances around in the very throes of death. In this mutual slaughter so many were laid low that the field was covered with the bodies of the slain, while the groans of the dying and severely winded filled all who heard them with abject fear.”
[Ammianus Marcellinus, Later Roman Empire, 13.1.]

 

The battle of Adrianople in 378 CE would come at a very different time when the Empire had already split into an eastern and western sphere. In this battle, the Germanic Ostrogoth and Visigoth tribes under the leadership of the Thervingian chieftain Fritigern fought against the Eastern Roman emperor Valens (r. 364-378 CE).

 

A long period of westward migration from the Huns forced the Goths to petition the eastern empire to cross the Danube in 376 CE and settle in the Danube region. Seeing the potential to settle them as allies who could act as a buffer to the troubled frontier, Valens (emperor of the east) allowed the settlement. However, Roman maladministration and malice towards these new tribal peoples led to a major revolt. Too late, the Romans discovered they had very much let the fox into the chicken coop. Several battles preceded Adrianople which, although not decisive, disrupted much of the region of Thrace. By 378CE, Valens decided to lead an army himself. Having requested support from the West under Gratian (his nephew, the western Roman emperor), Valens moved his forces from the Eastern frontiers to meet the Goths for a showdown.

 

Hearing that the Goths under Fritigern were not as numerous as feared (c. 10,000), Valens rejected waiting for his nephew in a bid to win glory for himself. It was an unfortunate decision as Valens’s forces had failed to spot further tribal contingents (Gruthingi and Alans) that were also in the area. Dismissing some Gothic peace negotiations, the Emperor was determined to fight for glory.

 

valens coin roman history
Coin Profile of Emperor Valens, 364-378 CE, via finds.org.uk

 

In sweltering summer heat and rough terrain, the Romans marched north and located Fritigern’s forces drawn up on a high ridge before their laager (camp) of wagons. Undertaking several hours of negotiations, the Romans stood to arms in the sweltering heat; and this is never a good strategy.

 

A body of Roman horse archers probed too close to the Goths and triggered the Goths’ attack which drove them back. This coincided with the surprising arrival of the Gothic allies, c. 10,000 Gruthingi and Alan cavalry. This force came in on the Roman left and compounded the flight of the Roman horse.

 

Seeing his moment, Fritigern sent his main battle line down the hill onto the Roman lines, which – after long delays – were not ready for battle. As the main battlelines closed for close combat, the mass Roman cavalry now charged and made it almost to the Gothic laager though others panicked and fled, leading to an eventual disintegration of the Roman cavalry wing.

 

This left the main Roman battle-line vulnerable to the arriving Gruethingi and Alan cavalry that started rolling up the Roman left. The Romans were pressed together with many of their auxiliaries fleeing the field. Gothic missiles did great damage. Valens was cut off with even elements of his elite troops and bodyguard fleeing the field.

 

Roman forces numbering over 10,000 were utterly routed with many falling in the field. Valens himself was said to be wounded and either died on the field or made a last stand with his companions somewhere nearby. An estimated two-thirds of the eastern Roman army fell at Adrianople. These men could not be easily replaced, as the Roman empire fought for survival along many of its frontiers. This was a disastrous defeat in Roman history.

 

Unlike other defeats, Adrianople had a linked effect on the fall of the Roman Empire in the west. Although that collapse would not come immediately, the battle is seen as the initial unraveling point. For the first time in many centuries, a major barbarian people moved through the frontiers of the Empire and outfought the Romans in their own backyard. Although the empire would stabilize, the battle was the first in a sequence of disasters that eventually culminated in the sacking of Rome by the Visigoths in 410 CE. An event from which the western Roman empire would never recover. The battle, therefore, had tremendous significance in Roman history. Juxtaposed with the Allia in 380 BCE, it took the best part of 800 years for a northern tribal (barbarian) people to eventually lead to the fall of Rome.

 

Defeats In Roman History: Conclusion 

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Fragmentary Head of a Roman Soldier c. 200 CE, via Met Museum

 

So, we can see that Roman history reveals some amazing Roman defeats. To echo the celebrated piece of Scandinavian soccer commentary, it’s fair to say: “Romulus, Remus, Lucretia, Cato, Caesar, Crassus, Augustus your boys took a hell of a beating.” 

 

Through strategy, tactics, arms, and terrain, Rome was occasionally outmatched by a variety of enemies. Though this is manifestly true, we should not overplay it. Roman history shows us nothing if it does not show us a people that were victorious in war. Culturally as well as militarily, Rome’s great defeats in her earlier history were formative to the Roman psyche and drove the mighty empire forward in its desire to conquer. Through most of her major defeats, Rome survived, learned, and adapted. However, play the odds enough, and even the fall of Rome, at some point, is inevitable.



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By Colin J CampbellMLitt in Ancient History, BA Ancient History & CivilizationColin J Campbell is a contributing writer and researcher, living in Melbourne, Australia. He currently writes across a wide range of creative non-fiction topics. He has strong interest in writing, visuals and sounds. Originally from Scotland, Colin studied Ancient History and Civilizations before completing an MLitt (distinction) in Roman history from the University of Newcastle. Focusing on ‘Slave, Bandit and Pirate Disorders’ within Roman Italy, he developed interests in the personal security habits of Romans. Colin also has expert knowledge in a wide range of topics that include military, politics, architecture, society and social issues.