military The Most Important Battles in Ancient Roman History

Aaron Edwards
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List Rules Vote up the most interesting battles from ancient Rome.

The Romans had one of the largest and longest-lasting civilizations in the history of the world. Stretching from Britain all the way to Africa and the Middle East, Rome truly wasn't built in a day. Instead, it was built over centuries of military conquest and constant vigilance. A beast as large as Rome must be constantly fed with an influx of new riches and slaves to keep the economy going, which is why capturing new territory was so essential. The most important battles in ancient Rome weren't just for glory, they were key to the continued survival of the society as a whole.

Whether it be subjugating the Gauls, defending against Germanic tribes, or winning a civil war, the Romans lived for combat and victory. Near the end of the Empire's existence, they lost more battles than they won - however, even in their final days, they were a force to be reckoned with. Read on below to learn about some of their most fascinating conflicts. 
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Battle of the Trebia (218 BCE)


Battle of the Trebia is listed (or ranked) 1 on the list The Most Important Battles in Ancient Roman History
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Hannibal has gone down in history as Rome's greatest adversary, and this battle was the start of that reputation. The Carthaginian commander positioned himself on the far side of a freezing cold river, which the Roman army had to cross in order to attack. The Roman soldiers were so tired, wet, and cold by the time they reached the other side, they were easily slaughtered by Hannibal's forces.  see more on Battle of the Trebia
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Battle of Cannae (216 BCE)


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Seen by many as the single greatest military defeat in Rome's history, the Battle of Cannae was also Hannibal's greatest triumph. Rome sent a massive army against him, dwarfing his forces with sheer numbers. When the Romans attacked, Hannibal's center of infantry immediately retreated. When the Romans pressed, the center held its ground while Hannibal's spearmen hit the Romans on each flank. A cavalry charge from the rear had the Roman army completely enveloped, thus their numbers counted for nothing.  see more on Battle of Cannae
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Battle of Lake Trasimene (217 BCE)


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Hannibal set his sights on an army commanded by the new Roman consul Flaminius. Hannibal positioned himself so the Romans were pursuing his forces until they thought they had him cornered at Lake Trasimene. The Romans charged, only to realize hidden infantry were now blocking off their line of retreat. Hannibal's cavalry then charged the Roman's only exposed flank. With three of their sides full of enemies and a lake behind them, the Romans were surrounded and massacred see more on Battle of Lake Trasimene
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Battle of Ilipa (206 BCE)


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While many Romans were dealing with Hannibal in Italy, their star general Publius Cornelius Scipio was hunting down Hannibal's brother's forces in Spain. Scipio had been using the same formation for many battles, but when Carthaginian reinforcements attacked, he inverted his deployment to lure the Carthaginian opposing army in and surround them. Scipio used Hannibal's own tactic at Cannae to destroy the very reinforcements he was counting on, which meant Hannibal was stranded in Italy with a battle-weary force.  see more on Battle of Ilipa

Battle of Pharsalus is listed (or ranked) 5 on the list The Most Important Battles in Ancient Roman History
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The Battle of Pharsalus was a decisive battle between Caesar and Pompey in their civil war. Badly outnumbered and under-supplied, Caesar was at a massive disadvantage. They fought with a river on one flank, so Pompey tried to charge cavalry into Caesar's exposed flank, but Caesar destroyed them with hidden javelin throwers. After Pompey's cavalry was destroyed, he routed and fled for Egypt.  see more on Battle of Pharsalus

Battle of Actium is listed (or ranked) 6 on the list The Most Important Battles in Ancient Roman History
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A naval battle between Octavian forces and those of Mark Antony and Cleopatra, the Battle of Actium was also immortalized by Shakespeare. When Octavian gained the upper hand early, Cleopatra fled and Antony broke away from his men to follow her. The remaining troops under Antony's command surrendered to Octavian. This was the final true battle between Octavian and Mark Antony, setting the stage for Octavian's dominion over all of Rome.  see more on Battle of Actium

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The Battle of Alesia was the crown jewel of Caesar's campaign in Gaul. Caesar had the Gauls held up in a hilltop fortress he couldn't storm, so he surrounded them and starved them out. When Caesar heard Gallic cavalry reinforcements were on their way, he built a wall to block them off. When they did attack, the Gauls inside their fortress stormed out. Caught between two armies, Caesar attacked the cavalry from the rear and destroyed them. The rest of the Gauls surrendered and their territory became part of Rome. 

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The Battle of Adrianople (378 CE)


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By the 300s CE, Rome was beginning to crumble under the weight of political strife and external pressures. The Germanic Visigoth tribes saw blood in the water and pressed against the frontiers of Rome. The Visigoth leader Fritigern attacked a major Roman force led by Emperor Valens before Roman reinforcements could arrive. The barbarian horsemen mowed down the Roman infantry until their army was defeated with 40,000 lost. It marked the start of a deep Germanic incursion into Roman soil.