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Defeating a Giant – 5 Losses Suffered by the Roman Army

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Publius Cornelius Tacitus once stated that "War is beautiful to those who have never experienced it," which most who have experienced conflict would likely agree. In its heyday, the Roman military was the one of the largest and most powerful forces then seen in human history, expanding from the edges of Mesopotamia to the northern British Isles, to the northern coast of Africa. Despite the might and overwhelming force the legions could bring to bear, not every battle was a victory, and some losses caused significant shifts in the balance of the empire.

Battle of the Allia (390 BC)

This battle saw the defeat of the Roman army by the Gauls led by Brennus. The Gauls caught the Romans off guard and defeated them near the river Allia, just north of Rome. The defeat was so severe that the Gauls subsequently sacked Rome, an event that deeply humiliated the Romans and led to significant military reforms, including the construction of the Servian Wall around Rome.

Battle of Carrhae (53 BC)

In 53 BC, the Roman forces under Crassus faced the Parthians at Carrhae, which is currently in modern-day Turkey. Crassus, a member of the First Triumvirate and seeking military glory, underestimated the Parthian cavalry and tactics. The Parthians utilized their superior cavalry and archery skills to devastating effect, surrounding the Roman legions and employing a hit-and-run tactic that decimated the Roman forces. The defeat was humiliating not only because of the heavy losses but also due to Crassus' death and the capture of Roman Aquilae, or eagle standard. This battle exposed the vulnerability of Roman heavy infantry against more mobile and versatile cavalry forces.

Battle of the Teutoburg Forest (AD 9)

One of the most catastrophic defeats of the Roman Empire occurred in the Teutoburg Forest in AD 9, when three Roman legions, led by Publius Quinctilius Varus, were ambushed by Germanic tribes led by Arminius, a Germanic chieftain raised in Rome. As the Romans marched through the dense forest, they were attacked from all sides. The ambush resulted in the annihilation of about 20,000 Roman soldiers and the loss of the Roman standards, symbols of Roman authority. This defeat halted Roman expansion into Germania and marked the Rhine as the boundary of the Roman Empire.

Battle of Edessa (AD 260)

As if losing the Roman standards in battle wasn’t humiliation enough, the battle between the Romans and the Persians at Edessa resulted in the capture of the Roman Emperor Valerian by the Persian King Shapur I. This was the first time a Roman emperor was captured as a prisoner of war, which was a profound embarrassment for Rome and showcased the increasing threat posed by the Persian Empire. The defeat significantly weakened Roman prestige and marked a turning point in Roman-Persian relations.

Battle of Adrianople (AD 378)

The Battle of Adrianople was a disastrous defeat for the Romans against the Goths in AD 378. Emperor Valens decided to engage the Gothic rebels himself without waiting for reinforcements, believing his might to be untouchable. The Romans underestimated the Goths, who managed to surround and crush the Roman army using their cavalry. Valens was killed during the battle, and the defeat marked the beginning of the end for the Western Roman Empire. This battle underscored the growing power of barbarian groups within the empire and highlighted the strategic and tactical inflexibility of the Roman military.

There are many lessons to be learned from these battles, not the least of which is humility. As a wise man once told me, “When you start to believe your own bullshit, it’s time to get out of the game.” The other lesson? Don’t put yourself in a position to be surrounded. If only they had a few American commanders…

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