Ancient Rome is one of the most studied areas in history and it is easy to see why. From its spectacular buildings, gun-barrel straight roads and incredible aqueducts to ongoing legacies in the form of law, politics and language, Rome has fascinated, engrossed and amazed not just historians, professional and amateur alike, but the everyday citizen almost from the moment the Western Roman Empire finally collapsed in the 5th Century.
If there is one aspect of Rome that has drawn more interest than all the others, it is probably the might of its army (and navy) and the incredible, centuries-long period of military success that made it one of the greatest empires in world history. The indomitable Roman Legion has a reputation as an unstoppable machine that conquered all before it, a reputation that endures to this day. However, history has proven that no military force is invincible and the Romans were no different. It is for this reason that the following list has been compiled.
It is worth noting that there are several notable defeats that are absent from this article. These ‘missing’ defeats include the rout at the Battle of the Allia that led to the Sack of Rome at the hands of the Gauls in 387 BC and the relatively bloodless but no less humiliating defeat at the Caudine Forks in 321 BC, where the Roman soldiers, upon surrendering, were forced to ‘pass under the yoke’. Both of these events had huge cultural impacts on Roman society. However, I have chosen to restrict this list to battles that occurred once Rome had established itself as a regional power and before the fall of the Western Roman Empire in 476 CE. The battles are also listed chronologically, rather than in order of significance.
I should also note that this is not a short article. It is no mere listicle. What follows are detailed descriptions of each battle, as I don’t really see the purpose of providing a list of battles with no details about what actually happened. You have been warned. So, without further ado, I give you Rome’s Greatest Defeats.
Battle of Drepana (249 BC)
It is perhaps a little ironic that for a state most famous for its mighty legions, the first of its greatest defeats was, in fact, a naval battle. In 249 BC, the Roman Republic was fifteen years into the First Punic War, the first of three such conflicts against Rome’s great Mediterranean rival, Carthage. The war was fought over the island of Sicily, which had great strategic value due to its proximity to the major East-West sea trade routes. Carthage was one of the great maritime powers of the ancient world and its navy was almost unmatched in size and experience at the time. In contrast, the Roman Republic was a traditionally land based power, with its citizen armies forming the overwhelming bulk of its military forces. In order to defeat the Carthaginians, the Romans were forced to construct a fleet capable of matching it with the most powerful navy in the Mediterranean from scratch.
In 249 BC, and after a string of naval victories, Roman Consul Publius Claudius Pulcher decided to launch a surprise night attack, with a fleet of around 120 warships, on the port of Drepana (modern Trapani), on the western tip of the island. However, while approaching the harbour, low visibility (it was a moonless night) caused the fleet to become scattered and disorganised in a long line along the coast. When the Punic (Carthaginian) scouts spotted the Roman fleet, the Carthaginian commander, Adherbal, sailed his own fleet, which was of a similar size, out of the harbour and around two small islands off the coast into the open sea. The Punic fleet, which had maintained its superiority in open sea manoeuvring, then turned on the Romans, trapping them against the Sicilian coast. The Romans, who had struggled to form into battle formations once the element of surprise was lost, were utterly defeated, with 93 ships either captured or sunk. The Carthaginians did not lose a single vessel.
According to the ancient historian Polybius, the defeat so demoralised the Romans that they did not construct another fleet for seven years. Ultimately, however, the Romans had the last laugh, with the First Punic War coming to an end in 241 BC after the decisive Roman victory at the naval Battle of the Aegates Islands.
Battle of the Trebia (218 BC)
As part of the treaty with Roman at the end of the First Punic War, Carthage lost its navy, necessitating a transition from a maritime to a land power. In the years following the end of the war, Carthage expanded into resource-rich Iberia (modern Spain). These campaigns saw the emergence of Hannibal Barca, one of the greatest military commanders in history.
By 218 BC, Carthage was once again at war with Rome (Second Punic War) and Hannibal initiated one of the most ambitious moves in ancient history. Deprived of a navy, Hannibal resolved to invade the Italian peninsula by land, marching his army (according to Polybius, numbering over 100,000 men, including 37 war elephants) along the Mediterranean coast. With the coastal road into Italy blocked by a Roman army, Hannibal proceeded to take his army over the French Alps, an unprecedented but costly feat. He lost almost two-thirds of his army during the crossing and the 26,000 men he led into the Po Valley were exhausted and malnourished. However, he had achieved his goal. The Romans were completely confounded by his sudden and unexpected appearance on Italian soil. To make matters worse for the Romans, Hannibal was quickly reinforced by the tribes of Cisalpine Gaul (Northern Italy), who had only very recently been conquered by the Romans and were resentful of Roman colonisation efforts in the region. After a victory at the cavalry battle of Ticinus, Hannibal met a main Roman army in the first major battle of the war on the banks of the river Trebia in the flat country near the town of Placenta (modern Placenza).
The Roman army, commanded by the Consul Tiberius Sempronius Longus, numbered around 42,000, comprised of some 38,000 infantry (including 20,000 Italian allies) and 4,000 cavalry. Hannibal’s host was of a similar size but included 11,000 cavalry and his war elephants. Suspecting that he could provoke Sempronius into advancing into a trap, Hannibal positioned a force of 1,000 infantry and 1,000 cavalry under his brother Mago in a concealed position further up the river under cover of night. Early the next morning, he then sent his Numidian cavalry (regarded as the finest cavalry in the world) to harass the Roman camp. Sempronius, impetuous and hungry for glory, took the bait and marched his army out to attack the Carthaginian host waiting on the opposite bank of the river. It was mid-December and the water of the Trebia was icy. By the time the Roman soldiers, who had not yet eaten their morning meal, had crossed the river, they were freezing cold and hungry. The Carthaginians, by contrast, had eaten a hearty meal and rubbed themselves with oil to keep warm. As the demoralised Roman infantry engaged his own men, Hannibal sprung his trap. The Punic cavalry and elephants routed the Roman cavalry on both flanks and, once they had passed his position, Mago launched his assault on the Roman rear. Under attack from all sides, the Roman and Italian infantry broke and ran, save for the Roman centre, the most experienced troops commanded by Sempronius himself. As their comrades were butchered all around them, these 10,000 men formed into a hollow square to protect all sides, fending off all attacks. They advanced against the Carthaginian centre and managed to break through while the bulk of the Punic forces focused on the broken Roman soldiers fleeing across the river. Sempronius did not turn to help them, instead marching his surviving men to safety. At the end of the day, some 26,000 Romans and Italians were dead. Hannibal lost less than 5,000 men.
Unfortunately for the Romans, the defeat at Trebia was just the first in a string of decisive Carthaginian victories that confirmed Hannibal’s position as one of the great commanders of all time.
Battle of Lake Trasimene (217 BC)
Six months after the battle at Trebia, Hannibal had advanced south into the region that is now modern Umbria. The Roman Senate had raised four new legions and, combined with Sempronius’ surviving force, sent the army under Consul Gaius Flaminius to block Hannibal’s advance on Rome.
In an attempt to provoke the Romans into a pitched battle (his speciality), Hannibal ravaged the countryside as he advanced, but Flaminius stubbornly refused to take the bait. Hannibal then decided to march into Apulia, the heel of the peninsula, in the hope that Flaminius would pursue him of his own accord. This time, Flaminius, as ambitious a glory hunter as Sempronius before him, could not resist and began a forced march in pursuit.
Meanwhile, Hannibal had found a location that was ideal for an ambush. Lake Trasimene was bordered on the northern side by heavily forested hills while the road passed along the lake’s edge. Aware that Flaminius was on his tail, Hannibal began preparation the impending engagement. He made camp on the lake’s edge, in full view of anyone on the lakeside road. Under the cover of darkness, he positioned his army, some 50,000 men, in the forested hills, concealed from view. Additionally, he sent men to light numerous campfires on some hills in the distance to give the impression he was camped further away than he was.
The next day, Flaminius, impetuous and keen to catch up to his adversary, marched his army along the lakeside. As soon as the entire Roman army, 30,000 men, was on the lakeside road, Hannibal gave the order to attack. His heavy infantry quickly descended to block the Roman advance along the road while the cavalry cut off the Roman escape route to the rear. The whole mass of the Carthaginian army then descended from the hills. The Romans were caught completely by surprise and were unable to form into battle array. Within a few hours, 15,000 Romans, including Flaminius himself, were dead, either slain or pushed into the lake to drown.
The Battle of Lake Trasimene is considered the largest, in terms of numbers involved, and perhaps the greatest ambuscade in military history, rivalled only by the disaster in the Teutoberg Forest. Unfortunately for the Romans, yet more misery awaited them at the hands of Hannibal Barca.
Battle of Cannae (216 BC)
In the aftermath of two massive defeats, the Roman Senate declared Quintus Fabius Maximus dictator, a temporary position with emergency powers invoked only in times of crisis. Seemingly having learnt from the foolishness of engaging Hannibal in pitched battle, the Romans adopted what became known as ‘Fabian Strategy’. They harassed Hannibal’s forces, destroying supplies and taking prisoners, but refused to give battle. In retaliation, Hannibal ravaged the Italian countryside, all except, it is said, for estates owned by Fabius himself. Despite this, the Romans did not give battle.
As his one year term came to an end, the Senate did not renew Fabius’ position. Instead, two new consuls were elected; Gaius Terentius Varro and Lucius Aemilius Paullus. Paullus was an experienced commander who believed the Romans needed to be more aggressive, but was wary of engaging Hannibal on his terms as had happened at Trebia and Trasimene. In contrast, Varro advocated engaging the Carthaginians in battle as soon as possible. To fight Hannibal, the Senate raised an unprecedented eight legions, which, along with the accompanying Italian allies, provided an army numbering almost 90,000 men, the largest army Rome had ever put into the field. Instead of having each consul furnished with their own army, both Varro and Paullus were to command the massive host. Since no army can have more than one commander and the consuls were equals, it was decided that they would alternate command of the army each day.
Hannibal awaited the Romans on the plain near the town of Cannae, his army numbering around 50,000. The day after the Romans arrived at Cannae, it was Varro’s turn as commander and he was determined to destroy the hated Carthaginians with overwhelming force.
Hannibal deployed his army in a crescent formation, with the outer curve facing the Roman lines. In the centre were his Iberians and Gauls while on the wings were his Punic heavy infantry, battle-hardened and cohesive. His flanks were protected by his cavalry. In contrast to this innovative disposition, Varro opted to deploy his colossal force into the traditional triple lines with cavalry on the flanks.
As the two armies advanced towards each other, the cavalry engaged in fierce combat on both wings. The mass of Roman infantry engaged the Carthaginian centre, which was commanded by Hannibal himself. The Iberian and Gaulish warriors fought ferociously but soon began to be pushed back. Encouraged by this, Varro urged his men to continue their advance, forcing the Carthaginians to give more and more ground. However, unbeknownst to the Romans, this was part of Hannibal’s carefully prepared stratagem. His Iberians and Gauls continued to give ground, drawing the Romans further in. The Punic infantry on the flanks remained stationary. Eventually, the mass of Roman soldiers was surrounded on three sides. It was then that Hannibal closed his trap. The Roman cavalry on both flanks was destroyed and the Carthaginian horse then turned on the rear of the Roman infantry. Assaulted on all sides, the Roman soldiers were packed so close together than they were unable to properly defend themselves. The rest of the battle was pure butchery. By the end of the day, over 50,000 Roman and Italian soldiers lay dead, a catastrophic loss of life in a single day. Thousands more were taken prisoner. Among the dead was Paullus and over 300 Romans of noble blood, who fought as cavalry (hence the social class known as the Equestrians). The scale of the defeat was scarcely imaginable.
The Battle of Cannae is the first known example of the battlefield manoeuvre known as double envelopment. It is considered a tactical masterpiece, one of the greatest victories in military history and is still studied at military academies to this day. It sealed Hannibal’s reputation as a great commander of all time.
However, as had occurred during the First Punic War, the Romans had the last laugh. Fourteen years later, the Romans returned the favour, landing an army in North Africa to threaten Carthage itself. It was at the Battle of Zama that Hannibal finally met his match in the form of the Roman general known to history as Scipio Africanus, himself among the greatest commanders of the ancient world.
Battle of Arausio (105 BC)
One hundred years after Hannibal crossed the Alps, the Italian peninsula was once again under threat of invasion from the north. The Cimbri were a Celtic or Germanic tribe that had migrated into Gaul, upsetting the balance of power and forcing some tribes, such as the Helvetii, into conflict with Rome. In order to protect Italy from invasion, the Senate dispatched an army to guard the mountain passes, under the command of proconsul Quintus Servilius Caepio. In 105 BC, the Senate reinforced Caepio’s army with a second force under the command of Gnaeus Mallius Maximus. The two armies, totalling 80,000 Romans with up to 40,000 Italian allies, were encamped on the Rhone River near Arausio. As Consul, Maximus technically outranked Caepio and thus should have held sole command of the combined army. However, Maximus had the problem of being both a novus homo (‘new man’: senatorial class but lacking patrician blood) and lacking in military experience. For these reasons, Caepio refused to serve under Maximus’ command and thus camped his force on the opposite side of the river.
First contact between the Romans and the Cimbri came in the form of a skirmish between picket groups. With the imminent arrival of the Cimbri horde, supposedly numbering almost 200,000, Maximus managed to convince Caepio to move his army back across the river, but Caepio still persisted with keeping the two armies separate, setting up camp in a location that was actually closer to the approaching Cimbri.
Upon arrival, the size of the Roman forces gathered against him initially gave King Boiorix pause. Instead of attacking, he opted to open negotiations with Maximus. Afraid the negotiations would be successful and Maximus would claim all the credit, Caepio launched a surprise attack on the Cimbri camp. However, the hasty nature of the attack and the ferocity of the Cimbrian defence meant that Caepio’s vastly outnumbered force was soon overwhelmed and, according to the ancient sources, annihilated to a man. Buoyed by the ease with which they had destroyed half the Roman army, the Cimbri then turned their attention to Maximus’ force, which was utterly destroyed. Remarkably few Romans or Italians survived the battle at all. In terms of numbers, it was the largest defeat Rome would ever suffer. The mountain passes were left completely unguarded.
However, by some stroke of fate, the Cimbri decided against crossing into Italy, instead deciding to make for the Pyrenees. When they returned three years later, they faced a reorganised, revitalised Roman army under the leadership of the formidable Gaius Marius, who proceeded to crush the Cimbrian allies, the Teutones and Ambrones, and then the Cimbri themselves in two successive battles. The so-called Marian Reforms enacted by Marius created the Roman legion in its essential, famous form.
Battle of Carrhae (53 BC)
By 53 BC, the Roman Republic was controlled by the First Triumvirate, an unofficial political alliance between Julius Caesar, Pompey Magnus and Licinius Crassus. Crassus was the wealthiest man in Roman history. However, military glory was something that Caesar and Pompey both possessed a great deal of, while Crassus did not. Eager to rectify this, in 53 BC Crassus decided to gain some glory for himself by invading Parthia (modern Iraq and Iran) without the approval of the Senate.
He used his immense wealth to raise seven legions, about 40,000 infantry and 4000 cavalry. Upon his arrival in Asia Minor, the King of Armenia and a Roman ally, Atravasdes, recommended that Crassus march through Armenia so as to avoid the desert and even offered him reinforcements of 16,000 cavalry and 30,000 infantry. However, Crassus, eager to capture the great cities of Mesopotamia, refused the offer and decided to take the direct route through the desert.
Determined to punish the Armenians, the Parthian king Orodes II took the bulk of his army into Armenia and sent his general Surena to harass and delay the Romans with 10,000 cavalry. This force was comprised of 9,000 horse archers and 1000 of the feared cataphracts, heavy cavalry with both man and horse covered in armour.
The Romans encountered the Parthian force on a flat desert plain near the town of Carrhae (modern Harran on the Turkey-Syria border). While some of his generals advised him to deploy in the traditional formation with infantry in the centre and cavalry on the wings, Crassus instead opted to form a massive hollow square, protecting the army from being outflanked but at a serious cost in mobility.
In response to this, Surena despatched his horse archers to
surround the Romans. The archers showered the Roman infantry with arrows, though they generally only inflicted non-fatal wounds to exposed limbs, thanks to the large Roman shields. Whenever the Romans attempted to drive the horse archers off, the Parthians were always able to retreat safely. Whenever the Romans formed the testudo formation to protect against the arrows, Surena sent in his cataphracts to engage them, causing panic and inflicting heavy casualties. When the Romans attempted to loosen their formation in order to effectively combat the cataphracts, they would merely retreat and the horse archers would start in again. This onslaught continued until nightfall. By then, 20,000 Romans lay dead, including Crassus and his son Publius, and 10,000 were captured. Perhaps most humiliating of all was the capture of a number of Legionary Eagles, a grave moral defeat for the Romans.
The Battle of Carrhae was the first major engagement in a series of conflicts between Rome and Parthia that would last for over two centuries and gave rise to the myth that Rome’s mighty legions could not effectively combat the traditionally horse-focused armies of Parthia.
Battle of the Teutoberg Forest (9 CE)
Possibly the most famous Roman defeat of all was the disaster in the Teutoberg Forest of what is now Germany. By 9 CE, Augustus had ruled the Roman Empire for 35 years and its borders extended from the English Channel to the upper reaches of the river Nile. The Rhine River represented the border of Roman territory in Central Europe. Beyond lay Germania, a place of tribes considered even more savage than those conquered by the great Julius Caesar in Gaul. In 6 CE, Publius Quinctilius Varus was appointed as governor of the province of Germania Inferior. A nobleman and experienced administrator, Varus had a reputation beyond the borders of the empire for utter ruthlessness and excessive cruelty. Under his command were three legions, with the accompanying auxiliary forces, with a total of around 30,000 men. In 9 CE, Varus was joined by Arminius, the son of the chieftain of the Cherusci who had been sent to Rome as a hostage years earlier. There he received a military education and was even accorded Equestrian rank. When he returned to Germania, he did so as an advisor to the Roman governor. However, Arminius never forgot who he was or where he came from and almost as soon as he arrived in Germania he began secretly building an alliance of Germanic tribes, including many that were traditional enemies. In addition, he was able to hold this fragile alliance together, in secret, until the opportune moment to strike.
In 9 CE, as he was returning with his army from his summer camp west of the Weser river to his winter quarters on the Rhine, Varus received reports of a local rebellion, reports that had been spread by Arminius. Varus decided to crush the uprising immediately by making a detour through the ‘troubled’ area. It was an area that was unfamiliar to the Romans and Arminius directed Varus along a line of march that he had previously identified as an ideal place for an ambuscade. Arminius then left the Roman column under the pretext of marshalling Germanic troops to support the Roman campaign. Once free of the Romans, he promptly led his warriors in a sweep through the Roman garrisons in the area.
As the Romans entered the Teutoberg Forest, they found the track to be narrow and muddy. The marching column quickly became perilously long, stretching for over 15 kilometres. It was here that Arminius sprung his trap. The Germanic host attacked the Romans from all sides, catching them on the march and completely unprepared. However, contrary to popular belief, the Roman force was not destroyed in a single engagement, but rather in a series of running battles over the course of several days. The result was the same though. The entire Roman host was annihilated. Varus and many other Roman officers committed suicide by falling on their swords. So ended the most infamous military disaster in Roman history.
The triumphant Germanic forces then swept through all Roman garrisons, outposts, towns and cities east of the Rhine, where the remaining legions in Germania were content to hold their position.
Augustus was said to be so shaken by news of the disaster that he famously shouted: “Varus, give me back my Legions!” The massacre in the Teutoberg brought an abrupt end to a period of military expansion that began in the aftermath of the Civil War 40 years earlier, with the border settling along the Rhine river.
However, the disaster was not the end of Roman operations across the Rhine. From 14-16 CE, the great Roman general Germanicus led extensive retaliatory campaigns into Germania that utterly crushed almost all of the tribes involved in the disaster in 9 CE and devastated the countryside. At the Battle of the Weser River, he obliterated the host of Arminius himself. He was even able to recover two of the lost Legionary Eagles. The third was recovered almost thirty years later during a raid across the Rhine.
Battle of Edessa (260 CE)
By the middle of the Third Century, the Roman Empire was a very different beast to what it had been in the First and Second Centuries. Indeed, by 260 CE the Empire was in the middle of what became known as the Crisis of the Third Century (230-284 CE), in which the empire nearly collapsed under the weight of invasions, civil wars, plagues and economic depression. During this period there were at least 26 individuals who claimed the title of Emperor. One of these was Valerian, who came to power in 253. In order to address the Empire’s myriad problems, Valerian gave his son Gallienus authority over the West while he himself dealt with the major threat from the East, the Sassanids.
The Sassanid Empire came into existence by subsuming the weakening Parthian Empire in the 2nd Century. And just as they inherited the formerly Parthian territory, the Sassanids also inherited the regional rivalry with the Roman Empire. At the time of Valerian’s ascension, the Sassanid king Shapur had conquered Armenia and had overrun the Roman province of Syria, including its capital at Antioch. However, by 257, Valerian had recovered the lost Roman territories. In 260, Shapur invaded Mesopotamia once again and Valerian marched to meet him outside the city of Edessa.
Details about the subsequent battle are remarkably scarce, especially considering the significance of the outcome. Roman sources simply state that the Roman army was decisively defeated and besieged, after which Valerian tried to negotiate but was captured instead. The Roman army then surrendered. It is from the accounts of Shapur himself that we get the only indication of the forces involved, with the Sassanid King of Kings claiming the Roman force numbered 70,000. If this is accurate, it can be assumed that the Sassanid host was of roughly equal or larger in size.
However, regardless of the lack of details of the battle, what is clear is that an army under the command of an Emperor (a fact that implies a sizeable host) was decisively defeated by the Sassanids, with the entire force either killed or captured, including Valerian himself. It is the first time in history that a Roman Emperor was captured by a foreign enemy and it plunged the Empire into chaos once more. It is for all these reasons that, even without any specifics about the battle itself, the Battle of Edessa ranks as one of Rome’s greatest defeats.
Battle of Adrianople (378 CE)
By the time of the Battle of Adrianople, the unified Roman Empire was a distant memory, with the final division between East and West occurring upon the death of Constantine the Great 50 years earlier. The Roman world was divided between two Empires; the Western Roman Empire with its capital in Rome and the Eastern Roman Empire centred around Constantinople.
Just as the unified empire was long gone, so too was the classic Roman legion of legend. The transition away from the traditional legion took place over centuries, as standing forces became smaller and there was an increasing reliance on barbarian allies known as foederati. By the reign of the Eastern Emperor Valens, the ‘legion’ denoted a unit of between 700 and 1000 men.
In 376 CE, the Goths, led by Fritigern, crossed the Danube into the Eastern Empire and quickly began terrorising the Balkans. Valens requested aid from his Western counterpart, Gratian, who dispatched his general Frigeridus and the captain of his guards, Richomeres. For two years there was fighting in the Balkans, but none of the encounters proved decisive. By 378, Valens was ready to take matters into his own hands.
It was agreed that Valens would bring reinforcements from Syria while Gratian himself would bring his forces from Gaul. Valens arrived at Adrianople (modern Edirne) in early August with between 20-30,000 men, drawn from the three field armies; the Army of Thrace and the 1st and 2nd Armies in the Imperial Presence. Gratian and his army had been delayed by a Germanic incursion and were still some distance from Adrianople.
Valens’ scouts confirmed that 10,000 Goths were approaching Adrianople from the north. However, unbeknownst to the Romans, this force was just the Gothic infantry. The cavalry, numbering around 5000 horsemen, had been dispersed to forage and raid the countryside. Gratian sent Richomeres to ask Valens to wait for him to arrive before engaging. However, Valens was keen to claim the ultimate prize for himself and ignored Gratian’s request and the advice of many of his officers. Confident in his numerically superior force, Valens set out on the morning of August 9 to confront the Goths. It took seven hours of marching over rough terrain for the Romans to reach the Gothic camp and by the time they arrived, the soldiers were tired and dehydrated.
The Goths were formed up in their traditional formation, with the wagons arranged in a circle and the women and children in the centre. The Roman assault began when some units began attacking before orders had been given to do so, forcing the whole army to engage before it was ready. As the infantry advanced, the Roman cavalry attacked the wagon circle but was driven off with ease. Just as the Roman infantry met their Gothic
counterparts, the Gothic cavalry returned from their foraging. They promptly routed the Roman cavalry and surrounded the infantry. Attacked from all sides, the Roman infantry soon collapsed under the pressure and the rout began. In the chaos, Valens was abandoned by his guards. His final fate is unknown as his body was never found. The killing continued until nightfall and by then some 15-20,000 Roman soldiers lay dead.
While not the crippling blow it is sometimes claimed to be, the defeat at Adrianople was certainly a significant blow to the late Empire. The core of the Eastern armies was wiped out and many of the empire’s most able officers and administrators were killed. It was the worst Roman defeat since Edessa 100 years earlier.
Battle of Cap Bon (468 CE)
The last of Rome’s great defeats was a joint operation between the Western and Eastern Roman Empires against the Vandal Kingdom of North Africa. The Vandals were an eastern Germanic tribe that had migrated into Western Europe, southwards through Spain before finally crossing into Africa where they conquered the Roman city of Carthage and established it as their capital. From their base in Carthage, the Vandals raided throughout the western Mediterranean, even sacking Rome itself in 455 CE.
In 468, a coalition was formed between the Western Emperor Anthemius, Eastern Emperor Leo and General Marcellinus with the purpose of punishing the Vandals for the sacking of Rome. Consisting of around 1,100 ships and over 100,000 men, it was one of the greatest military undertakings in pre-modern history. The expedition was under the command of the Eastern general Basilliscus, while Marcellinus attacked and took Sardinia and a third army under Heraclius of Edessa landed in Libya.
To combat this massive invasion force, the Vandal king Genseric had around 30,000 warriors. However, in addition to his land forces, Genseric also had under his command the huge Roman fleet, supposedly 800-1000 ships, based at Carthage, captured when the Vandals took the city.
When Basilliscus weighed anchor off Cap Bon, 40 miles from Carthage, both Sardinia and Libya had already been conquered. Apparently, in response to the size of the Roman force, Genseric asked Basilliscus to give him five days to draw up conditions for peace. However, Genseric then proceeded to gather his fleet and launched a surprise assault on the Roman armada. Genseric had filled many of his ships with combustibles and used them as fire ships. In the night, these ships were sent into the unsuspecting and apparently unguarded Roman fleet, causing chaos. Some of the Roman commanders attempted to save some ships from destruction but their efforts were blocked by the attacks of the remaining Vandal fleet. In the chaos, Basilliscus fled with a sizeable part of the Roman fleet. However, his lieutenant, Johannes stayed and fought. Upon seeing his ship was about to be captured, he refused to surrender. Instead, he leapt overboard and, in heavy armour, drowned himself. His final words were that he “would never come under the hands of dogs.” In the end, the Romans lost around 700 ships and up to 70,000 men. However, the Vandal triumph had come at significant cost, losing up to half their fighting forces.
The Battle of Cap Bon was the last major military operation undertaken by the Western Empire. Less than ten years later, in 476, the Germanic warlord Odoacer deposed Romulus Augustus, an act that is generally accepted as the official end of the Western Roman Empire. The Eastern Roman Empire endured for another 1000 years in the form of the Byzantine Empire.
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