Augustus was so alarmed that for several consecutive months he did not cut his beard or hair, and sometimes he bashed his head in the corridors, crying out, ‘Quinctilius Varus – bring the legions back!’
Augustus reacts to the catastrophic news that three legions under the command of Varus had been wiped out by the Germans.
The Second Punic War nearly saw Hannibal and his Carthaginians wipe out the Roman forces. The legendary defeats at Trasimene (217 BC) and Cannae (216 BC) haunted Roman memory. But they were not the only times Rome came near to complete destruction at the hands of an enemy on the battlefield.
Although there are innumerable tales of Roman military bravery, like that of Caesar’s centurions Lucius Vorenus and Titus Pullo, there are instances where Roman troops fell short of what was expected of them in the heat of battle. Some did not want to fight, particularly if they knew that the enemy was especially challenging. Others fought valiantly, but if they were defeated and lived to tell the tale they were treated by their countrymen as shameful failures. The stories recount some of Rome’s darkest days, and depict some of its most humiliated soldiers.
HISTORICAL DEFEATS: TRASIMENE AND CANNAE
The great Republican general Scipio Africanus had no time for ill-prepared commanding officers. One of his sayings was that bleating ‘in war the words “I had not expected [that]”’ disgraced whoever said them. Scipio firmly believed that any military campaign should only be conducted after exhaustive preparations and planning had been undertaken. One of the reasons he said this was because of some of the disasters under his predecessors’ leadership earlier in the Second Punic War. He added that one should only ever fight a battle with an enemy if an opportunity had arisen, or out of necessity.
A series of major defeats in the Second Punic War nearly destroyed Rome, yet the city’s ability to learn from catastrophes and come back fighting was absolutely fundamental to the development of the Roman army, its military skills and leadership. In 217 BC the Carthaginian general Hannibal was loose in Italy, roaming and laying waste at will, with the firm intention of provoking the Romans into action. He succeeded. The consul Gaius Flaminius was so outraged he ignored advice to wait for his fellow consul, Servilius Geminus, to arrive with his army. Flaminius completely misunderstood the depth of the threat as he marched along in the vicinity of Lake Trasimene early on the morning of 21 June. Believing Hannibal was some way off, he was horrified to find his army had been stopped by Hannibal’s African and Spanish troops. Hannibal had stationed them there with the express intention of blocking Flaminius’ men and trapping them between the lake and the mountains.
Flaminius had rushed straight into a trap. Livy claimed that Flaminius displayed admirable coolness under the circumstances and tried to rally the soldiers by telling them only their ‘brave exertions’ could save them. It made no difference to the outcome. The Romans saw the Africans and Spaniards before they realized there was an ambush waiting for them. They were also caught out by the morning mist they were marching through. Hannibal had sent his other troops up on to the high ground overlooking the road. Stationed above the mist, they could send visual signals to each other to coordinate the attack. The Romans had no idea where Hannibal’s men were until they heard the shouting but could not see anything; in the ‘din and confusion’ the centurions and tribunes were unable to issue any orders.
The Romans were attacked on all sides. They were still in marching formation and had had no chance to reorganize into battle order. According to Polybius, Flaminius was in a state of ‘the utmost dismay and dejection’ and had exhibited ‘a total lack of judgement’. When an Insubrian horseman called Ducarius recognized Flaminius as the general who had attacked Insubrian territory in 223 BC, he charged forward and killed him.
The fighting was not even over. Troops at the rear of the Roman column were pushed into the lake, where Hannibal’s cavalry killed them or they drowned. Only 6,000 Roman troops managed to escape and fight their way to higher ground, where they could see how disastrous the battle had been. They tried to hold out in a nearby village but were encircled by Hannibal and captured. Critically, the whole scenario had prevented the Roman army from operating in disciplined battle formation. ‘It was no ordered battle’, said Livy. Every man fought for himself in a frenzy that lasted three hours, apparently ignoring even an earthquake which coincided with the mayhem.
It was a ‘disaster memorable as few others have been in Roman history’, and it was impossible to pretend to the Roman people that it had been anything else. In fact it was almost the first time the general population had ever been told about a defeat. In the end a mere 10,000 Romans managed to struggle back to Rome in dribs and drabs. Meanwhile, 4,000 Roman cavalry under the command of Gaius Centenius which diverted to help out at Trasimene rode right into Hannibal’s hands and were lost too, half being killed and the other half captured.
To a beleaguered Rome the situation seemed catastrophic, but the senators kept their cool and spent days discussing what to do. The critical lessons were not to let a commanding officer act unilaterally, and not to allow an army to become trapped. The Roman army’s greatest skill was organization and discipline. Both had broken down at Trasimene, and one of the reasons was its reliance on recently raised and untrained recruits. The results were disastrous losses and Hannibal’s freedom to continue to roam Italy at will.
The solution, it was decided, was to confront Hannibal in overwhelming numbers and to make sure the men were fully trained and confident. Aemilius Paullus and Terentius Varro were elected as the consuls for 216 BC and placed in charge of the military preparations, Paullus dealing with recruitment and training. When Hannibal seized the town of Cannae, helping himself to Roman stores there, the scene was set for a major showdown. The Romans organized themselves into an exceptionally large army. Eight legions were formed, double the normal number. Each legion was also enlarged to 5,000 with 300 cavalry attached, adding a further 2,400 men to the 40,000-odd infantry. Another 40,000 allied infantry were raised, along with around 5,000 allied cavalry. The Roman army of 216 BC now numbered nearly 90,000 men, an extraordinary number for the time.
Unfortunately, the two consuls put their egos first and disagreed about what to do. Camped 5 miles (8 km) from the Carthaginians, Paullus wanted to avoid fighting there because the land was open and it would give Hannibal’s cavalry the opportunity to attack with impunity. That was what Hannibal himself wanted, said Livy, because ‘in a cavalry action . . . he was invincible’. Varro, who was much less experienced, did not concur. It was, noted Polybius, ‘the most dangerous situation which could happen’. The normal practice was for the consuls to take overall command on alternate days, which would not matter if they were cooperating. But they were not, and they adopted different tactics in an enthusiastic display of incompetence. Varro took advantage of his prerogative the next day to order the men to break camp and advance. Hannibal, who must have been stunned at his good fortune, capitalized on the unexpected opportunity and attacked, but the Romans managed to fight back and hold off the Carthaginians until night fell. The following day Paullus took over and told the army to pitch camp by the river Aufidus, but decided to split his force, ordering one-third to guard a ford over a mile away on the opposite bank so it could protect foraging parties.
What followed was a series of inconclusive encounters, the news leaving the people in Rome half mad with nerves. On 2 August Varro once more took overall command. He led the army over the river without even bothering to tell Paullus and placed them in battle formation, egged on by the troops who were desperate to fight. The main body in the middle was the infantry under the command of Geminus Servilius, with Roman cavalry on the right and allied cavalry on the left. Hannibal brought his 40,000 infantry and 10,000 cavalry out to face the Romans in a similar configuration. The only significant difference was that he ordered his centre forward to create a ‘crescent-shaped bulge’ so that they could start the battle. He had also ensured that the Romans were facing into the sun and the dust, whipped up by the wind that was common there.
The fighting only became truly vicious when the cavalry met each other on the Roman right, beside the river. The area was so small that they dismounted in the congestion and started fighting hand to hand. The Roman cavalry gave way, many being killed; Varro was one of those who fled, along with 70 surviving Roman cavalry, adding ignominy to his stupidity in the lead-up to the battle. The Roman infantry made much better headway against Hannibal’s Celts, but they had inevitably advanced into a trap. It was precisely what Hannibal had planned all along. His African troops, arranged on either side of the Celts, enveloped the Romans. Meanwhile the allied cavalry on the Roman left fell back; Hannibal’s brother Hasdrubal was able to leave them and support the Africans in the heart of the infantry battle.
In the melee Paullus tried to rally the troops but lost his horse. A tribune called Gnaeus Lentulus rode up and offered his own horse, he said, to the ‘only man without guilt in the disaster of this day’. It would save him and allow him to avoid the shame of a consul’s death. Paullus declined, telling him to go to Rome and warn the Senate to fortify the city, and leave him to die among his soldiers. At that moment Paullus was killed in a rain of enemy missiles and Lentulus escaped. Gradually the Carthaginians whittled down the Roman army by working inwards from the outside, systematically killing the Romans as they went.
Hannibal captured 10,000 Roman infantry, all of whom had been left by Paullus in the camp as a reserve. About 3,000 more fled from the battlefield, as did 300 allied cavalry. Polybius was appalled at how Varro managed to escape too, commenting that his flight from the battlefield only matched the disaster of his tenure of office. The rest, numbering allegedly about 70,000, were believed dead. In contrast, Hannibal lost about 5,700 men in total – less than 10 per cent of the Roman losses. These at least were the figures recorded by Polybius. Livy suggested something more like 50,000. Like all such details they were rounded and probably exaggerated to some degree. Nonetheless, it is clear the battle was a catastrophe for Rome and a relatively cheap victory for Hannibal. Livy described the Roman army as having been ‘annihilated in a massacre’, the terrible news being passed from house to house in the city. The lesson was a hard one for Rome. The decisive factor had been Hannibal’s cavalry, proving that it was better to have fewer infantry than the enemy and more cavalry.
A few days later another Roman army was wiped out by Celts in Gallia Cisalpina. The only thing that could be said in the Romans’ favour was that when the news of these hair-raising disasters reached Rome, the Senate held its nerve. As Polybius noted, ‘through the special virtues and their ability to keep their heads’, the Romans were eventually able to fight back. Their ultimate victory in a war they were to win a decade later would leave them ‘masters of the whole world’.
The events of 216 BC remained in Roman consciousness long afterwards. Cannae was remembered as an occasion ‘when the survival of the Republic hung on the loyalty of our allies’. By imperial times a story had grown up that Varro had suffered such a terrible defeat at Trasimene because he had insulted Juno. As aedile in charge of the games he had installed an exceptionally good-looking young male actor in Jupiter’s carriage to hold the necessary religious accessories. It was a clear allusion to Jupiter’s cup bearer Ganymede, with whom Jupiter had fallen in love. Therefore, it was alleged, Juno had been infuriated by Varro’s insensitivity and had made sure he was defeated. When the tale was recalled in later years sacrifices had to be made to make amends for Varro’s contempt for Juno’s sensibilities. The point is not whether the story was true or not, or even whether the Romans believed it, but rather the notion that battles or campaigns were susceptible to the whims of deities in response to the actions of men.
The eventual Roman victory in the Second Punic War was won at astronomical cost. Trasimene and Cannae reinforced the Roman sense of destiny that they had prevailed and overcome enormous adversity. The nature of the evidence we have tells us little or nothing about the individual soldiers involved. They are absent from the record. What we do know is that in the longer run the families they left behind were often dispossessed of their land by the greedy Roman aristocracy. Even the survivors all too often came home to find their peasant farms had been stolen and absorbed into vast senatorial estates run by slaves, leading to a political crisis in 133 BC. It was the ensuing crisis in the Roman Republic that began slowly to pave the way for the age of the emperors and the establishment of a professional standing army.
The surviving Roman forces from Cannae who made their way back to Rome were not thought worthy of compassion. In Roman eyes they had failed ignominiously. It would have been far better had they died in battle. Instead they were punished by being sent to Sicily and forced to live as if they were still on campaign for as long as the Second Punic War lasted. In 212 BC the remnants of the army defeated at Cannae appealed to the general commanding in Sicily, Marcus Claudius Marcellus, to take their concerns to the Senate. In their letter they found an oblique way of implying that the fault for the defeat clearly lay with their leaders and reminded him that the officers had proceeded to pursue normal careers, some even becoming provincial governors. They drew attention to the lenient treatment meted out to other defeated Roman armies and begged for the chance to overturn their disgrace. Marcellus agreed to send the letter on to the Senate, but the appeal was rejected.
In 205 BC Scipio, who was assembling a new army in Sicily to mount an invasion of Africa to destroy Carthage, took a different view. The soldiers themselves believed that under Scipio they could redeem themselves:
Those who were left of the soldiers who had fought at Cannae felt convinced that under Scipio, and no other general, they would be enabled, by exerting themselves in the cause of the state, to put an end to their ignominious service. Scipio was far from feeling contempt for that description of soldiers, inasmuch as he knew that the defeat sustained at Cannae was not attributable to their cowardice, and that there were no soldiers in the Roman army who had served so long, or were so experienced not only in the various kinds of battles, but in assaulting towns also. The legions which had fought at Cannae were the V and VI. After declaring that he would take these with him into Africa, he inspected them man by man. Leaving those whom he considered unfit for service, he substituted for them those whom he had brought from Sicily, filling up those legions so that each might contain 6,200 infantry and 300 cavalry.
The Cannae survivors had finally exonerated themselves, but it had been a long time coming.
HUMILIATION – THE SPARTACUS WAR
The slave revolt led by Spartacus in 73 BC presented Rome’s army with an unprecedented challenge, and it came about because of the grievances of a man who had once fought for Rome. The Thracian Spartacus had reputedly once been a soldier in the Roman army – glossed over in the famous motion picture about his life. Having somehow been enslaved, he was eventually sold for gladiatorial training at the school run by the lanista Lentulus Batiatus at Capua. Spartacus’ military training as well as his intelligence stood him in good stead when, according to Appian, he decided to lead a rebellion by overcoming the training school guards. Plutarch’s version has 200 gladiators planning to escape, with 78 managing to do so and subsequently electing Spartacus as leader. (Given the chaos there must have been at the time, it is hardly surprising the accounts do not tally precisely, not only at this point but also throughout.) Spartacus and his band of rebels headed for the slopes of Vesuvius, having been joined as they went by runaway slaves and even some free peasants. Any loot or booty gathered along the way was shared out equally, an egalitarian gesture which soon encouraged many others to join them.
A slave rebellion was something that terrified the Romans. Two major revolts had erupted in Sicily in 135 BC and 104 BC and had proved extremely dangerous and difficult to crush. There were so many slaves that there was a real risk they would realize that by working together they could easily overcome their masters. Despite that, no one in Rome appreciated quite how dangerous Spartacus’ rebellion was. Arrogance and complacency set the Romans on the route to another military disaster. A couple of scratch forces rather than proper armies were thrown together and sent after the rebels, who beat them off easily. Spartacus’ army was now thought to number 70,000, and thanks to his experience he was able to oversee the manufacture of weapons and military training. Only then did the Senate dispatch a proper consular army of two legions.
To begin with they successfully defeated a force of 30,000 fighting under another gladiator leader called Crixus, who was among 20,000 men killed. Spartacus decided to lead his slave army north through Italy but was cut off by one of the consuls, while the other blocked his retreat. Since the consular army cannot have numbered more than about 10–12,000 men, however, splitting them was a bad move. Spartacus attacked the two halves of the Roman army in separate engagements and defeated both with a force that had now grown to 120,000, the consuls fleeing in separate directions. Plutarch adds that Spartacus headed on towards Gaul, defeating Cassius, the governor of Gallia Cisalpina, and an army of 10,000. Spartacus ordered the execution of 300 Roman prisoners as a sacrifice in honour of Crixus. Next he marched on Rome, killing all his remaining prisoners and his pack animals so that he could advance as fast as possible. By now the consuls had regrouped and together tried to block Spartacus. He defeated them again.
The fact that a trained Roman army was being overcome time after time by a slave contingent led by a former slave who had once fought for the Romans himself was a devastating and terrifying humiliation for the Roman military. Spartacus was also smart enough to understand that his force, for all its size, lacked the equipment and training to take Rome. Instead he captured the city of Thurii, where he only allowed merchants to bring in iron and brass so his men could manufacture more arms. Another victory over a Roman army followed.