Top 4 Underrated Battles of Roman History

Photo Credits: By Janmad / Dejvid - CC BY-SA 3.0 ; By Sb2s3 - CC BY-SA 4.0
Photo Credits: By Janmad / Dejvid - CC BY-SA 3.0 ; By Sb2s3 - CC BY-SA 4.0

There is a long list of influential battles throughout Roman history: Zama, Pharsalus, Actium, Teutoburg, Adrianople and plenty more. These tend to get a major amount of focus, and rightly so, but there are some battles through Roman history that get a bit underrated. Here are some battles that don’t always get mentioned in the lists of most influential or decisive battles of Roman history

4. Milvian Bridge: Constantine Ensures that Christianity Reigns

Christianity in Europe has a very interesting history. It was almost wiped away a few times and had a long road to becoming an official state religion. Christianity did not initially hang on the outcome of the 4th-century civil wars but the future of the religion would be profoundly changed by the Battle of Milvian Bridge.

Yet another Roman civil war erupting in the early 4th century pitted Emperor Constantine against Maxentius. Constantine was essentially the Emperor, but the rebel Maxentius had a great deal of popular support. One of the armies sent against him actually defected entirely to Maxentius.

When Constantine finally invaded Italy to take care of Maxentius once and for all, Maxentius decided to make a stand in front of the Milvian Bridge across the Tiber. This was a bold strategy, but likely Maxentius was counting on being able to retreat across his constructed bridge and defend Rome if this battle didn’t pan out.

A heavily Christianized depiction of the battle
A heavily Christianized depiction of the battle

Constantine’s dream that led him to fight under God’s protection and have his army use the Chi-Rho design is heavily disputed but doesn’t detract from the importance of the battle. whatever the case, the soldiers did seem to paint the sign of Christ on their shields and subsequently gained the upper hand in the ensuing battle.

In addition to the Constantinian victory, the retreating forces of Maxentius collapsed the bridge and most of the army drowned or were trampled including Maxentius himself. This collapse completely crushed the rebellion and was seen then or soon after as a type of divine intervention.

History is often written by the winner, and the account of the war between Constantine and Maxentius is no different. Maxentius was portrayed as an evil tyrant and Constantine as a Christian saint, but it was not quite the case. What we do know is that Constantine allowed the growth of Christianity throughout the empire and the divine legend that grew out of the battle greatly helped to spread and solidify Christianity throughout the very effective network that was the Roman Empire.

3. Metaurus: Nero Saves Italy

The Second Punic War was perhaps the most decisive and influential war of Roman history, but one battle of the war often gets overlooked, especially because it features neither Hannibal nor Scipio. (in fairness, Metaurus does feature in multiple works on decisive battles, but this viewpoint seems to have fallen out in recent years)

Hannibal ran rampant through Italy from 218 to 203 BCE. He had enough men to win any field battle he set his mind to but had difficulty capturing the biggest Roman cities, such as Tarentum (all of it) and Rome. Hannibal was only supplied by sea once in fifteen years because the Romans had an iron grip on the Western Mediterranean.

When Scipio (later Africanus) wrapped up his conquest of Spain he let one of the Carthaginian armies slip away to the North. This army under Hannibal’s brother, Hasdrubal, entered Italy with about 30,000 men. This was a threating force by itself, but sure to be devastating if it was allowed to link up with Hannibal.

The long march around the formation possible saved Rome from an unstoppable Hannibal.
The long march around the formation possibly saved Rome from an unstoppable Hannibal. By Janmad / Dejvid – CC BY-SA 3.0

To prevent this a holding force was dispatched against Hasdrubal to the north while the Consul, Nero, who had been shadowing Hannibal, left a fragment of an army behind and raced to the north to join his fellow consul against Hasdrubal.

The battle lines went from a river to high and mostly impassable hills. In a picture perfect display of the flexibility of Roman combat, the Romans facing the hills decided to march all the way across the rear of their lines and crashed into the heavily contested fight near the river. Because of the extra Roman push, the Carthaginians were defeated and Hasdrubal was killed in battle.

Hannibal’s best hope for a total victory since his 216 masterpiece at Cannae was utterly destroyed. The Romans were able to keep Hannibal trapped in southern Italy with relatively few forces. The threat of Hannibal storming up to Rome was so low that the Romans were able to send Scipio to Rome where he was able to win a devastating string of victories that would permanently cement Rome as a major Mediterranean superpower.

Without the Roman victory at Metaurus, Hasdrubal would have taken out an army led by both Consuls while Hannibal would have time to figure out he was facing a shadow army and defeat them. Facing two fresh defeats and a massive army led by Carthage’s two best generals, the situation would have been quite dire for the Romans and may have led to a peace unfavorable to the Romans or even a history where Carthage grew to be the sole superpower.

2. Beneventum: Roman Culture Wins Out

The battle of Beneventum is the ultimate Pyrrhic victory, as it was one of a string of battles that helped coin the term. Pyrrhus had invaded Italy from Epirus just as the Romans were debuting their new manipular style of warfare. The battle was fairly inconclusive tactically, possibly a Roman victory possibly an Epirote victory, but an amazingly influential strategic victory for the Romans.

As the Romans grew in their early Republic there always loomed the very large Greek population of Southern Italy. This region was known as Magna Graecia, Greater Greece, and was championed by such great cities as Neapolis (Naples) and Tarentum. Greek culture was a powerful and imposing one, even the Romans and Macedonians who conquered Greece became quite infused with Greek culture.

The Romans faced a difficult phalanx and highly trained elephants, their victory/Pyrrhic loss gave them the confidence to push down Italy and fearlessly take on any enemy.
The Romans faced a difficult phalanx and highly trained elephants, their victory/Pyrrhic loss gave them the confidence to push down Southern Italy and fearlessly take on any enemy.

The Epirotes were quite Greek as well, and Pyrrhus fought on behalf of Greek cities in Italy. Had his invasion been more successful it is possible that Roman culture would have simply drowned under the weight of invading Greek culture. The battle of Beneventum was a grueling affair and also showed the Romans that they could fight and win against the most established and professional armies of the Mediterranean.

The confidence gained from the victory and the withdraw of Pyrrhus allowed Rome to conquer the rest of Italy fairly quickly and imposing their culture and blending with Greek culture rather than succumbing to it entirely. The discussion of culture and how it is shaped and how it may have progressed is difficult and why Beneventum is often examined as a Pyrrhic victory and not as one of the great cultural turning points in antiquity.

1. Egadi (Aegates) islands: Rich Roman Patriotism Changes The Balance of Mediterranean Power

Of all the battles in this list, chances are this is the only battle that you may have never even heard of. It’s not surprising, as the First Punic War is often discussed as being fought primarily at sea with the Romans winning, not much is often discussed about the actual sea battles and historical discussion often fast forwards to the Hannibal’s War.

The fact was that the First Punic War was one of the most devastating wars in all of antiquity in terms of lives lost. Naval combat was particularly devastating as whole crews were often killed if a ship was lost or captured and many people did not know how to swim. Storms occasionally wiped out whole fleets and crews; as many as 100,000 men lost in one storm.

The loss of expensive ships, trained marines, and hordes of rowers took a mighty toll on both Carthage and Rome. The war had dragged on for over twenty years and it seemed as Carthage would win as Rome simply could not afford to build any more ships.

At this point, the wealthy elite of Rome banded together and pledged the money to build one last fleet of about 200 ships. The Carthaginians had won the last major naval battle with almost no losses, so they held a large fleet of about 250 ships, though they were also at the end of their funds and manpower as well.

The large Carthaginian fleet was on their way to bring supplies and relieve the Carthaginians besieged in the Sicilian town of Lilybaeum. The Roman commander, Catulus decided to have his fleet discard their sails and anything that wasn’t absolutely vital before charging under oar-power straight at the larger Carthaginian fleet. In the ensuing battle, the lighter and more agile Roman ships bested the weighed-down Carthaginian ships and the Carthaginian navy was crushed. The Carthaginians were now trapped in Sicily with Carthage unable to fund or man another fleet.

With the victory, the Romans were able to set outrageously demanding terms for the peace. The terms cost the Carthaginians a huge amount of money and territory. The lost money soon caused their mercenaries to revolt, which led to a terribly brutal war for Carthage immediately after a long war of attrition with the Romans. The lopsided switch in the balance of power led to Rome dominating the sea between the wars and Carthage having to build up from nearly nothing. The Romans entered the Second Punic War from an almost unassailable position of power because they were able to field one more fleet and win one last battle in the First Punic War.

William Mclaughlin

William Mclaughlin is one of the authors writing for WAR HISTORY ONLINE