The Battle of Raphia in 217BC was fought in the Fourth Syrian War between Ptolemaic Egypt and the Seleucid Empire. Control of Syria and its extremely useful Mediterranean coast changed hands many times in the space of a century. As Successors to, and masters of portions of, Alexander’s empire, the Ptolemaic and Seleucid dynasties could not cede control of Syria to the other party: it would have been a sign of weakness. This brought them into conflict time and time again, and, in June 217BC, the two mightiest Greek-style armies ever seen led by King Ptolemy IV Philopator, and King Antiochus III the Great, clashed at Raphia. After days of skirmishing, the battle proper began with a charge of war elephants from both sides. Antiochus drove off the Ptolemaic cavalry and pursued them, thinking the battle was won. By the time he returned to the field his own centre had broken and was in disarray. His troops fled, and the battle was lost. Ptolemy IV’s victory was not without problems. He did retain control of much of Syria but the cost weakened his position at home. His Egyptian veterans rebelled and established a separate kingdom in the southern part of Upper Egypt. The secessionists, and the rebel 35th ruling dynasty, were finally crushed in 185BC. In keeping with Egyptian tradition, the victorious Greek-dominated government destroyed any mention of the rebels that they could find.
By the summer of 216BC, Hannibal had won two major victories against Rome and occupied the town of Cannae. With Fabius Maximus’ strategy of cutting the Carthaginian supply lines and refusing open battle losing favour with the Roman Senate, it was now the lot of Lucius Paullus and Gaius Varro to secure victory. As command alternated daily between the two consuls, progress was sporadic. Overconfident, Varro chose to arrange his eight legions in a deep rather than wide deployment, matching Hannibal’s crescent formation, believing Hannibal had limited room to manoeuvre and that his greater numbers would break the Carthaginian lines. Hannibal was, in fact, using the Aufidus River to secure his left flank, while the Carthaginian cavalry there, under Hasdrubal, routed their opposing numbers. Hasdrubal then chased off the remaining Roman cavalry being harried on the right. Hannibal now ordered his centre to withdraw, inverting the crescent and luring the Romans forward. His African infantry stood and held the wings. Varro’s decision to deploy in depth was his downfall, as the Roman infantry found themselves hemmed in and enveloped in a pincer movement as they ploughed forward to keep in contact with the "retreating" crescent. Hannibal won a devastating victory against a numerically superior foe, and some accounts suggest that as many as 70,000 Romans died.
Following his decisive victory in Iberia, Scipio was elected consul of Rome, enabling him to attack Carthage itself and force Hannibal from Italy to defend his home soil. Assembling a mixed army of fresh volunteers and the remnants of the legions defeated at Cannae, Scipio landed in Africa in 203BC. He immediately defeated Hasdrubal Gisco at the Battle of the Great Plains with the help of the defected Numidian king, Massinissa. A desperate Carthaginian senate tried to reach a peace treaty, but the terms were considered unfavourable, a Roman fleet was soon attacked off the African coast, and the war was back on. Although many of Hannibal’s Numidian veterans remained loyal, it was the bolstering of the Roman cavalry with the same fine Numidian horsemen Hannibal had used so effectively in Italy that made the difference when he met Scipio just outside Zama Regia. This time, Hannibal had a full complement of elephants, but his army was severely depleted after so long on campaign and had to be reinforced with a large local levy, who lacked both the skill and discipline of his veterans. To make matters worse, Scipio had a plan to defeat the beasts; his cavalry blew their horns, disorientating some of the elephants and disrupting Hannibal’s left-wing, and his infantry carried out an elaborate manoeuvre, side-stepping the remaining elephants so they passed through channels in their ranks. From there, they were dealt with by fast-moving skirmishers. It was a move worthy of Hannibal himself. Scipio’s cavalry took advantage of the situation and charged into their opposite numbers, driving them from the field. As his cavalry had always out-matched the Romans, Hannibal thought they would do so again. In the ensuing melee the Carthaginian mercenaries and levy were routed, leaving Scipio’s legion facing Hannibal’s highly-experienced veterans. The resultant push of spear points proved indecisive until the victorious Roman cavalry returned, charging into the back of Hannibal’s infantry and sealing Scipio’s victory. This time, the war was over. Although Hannibal escaped, Carthage capitulated to highly unfavourable terms that prevented any further expansion and gave Rome the premise to wipe them out by the middle of the 3rd century BC.
Although considered one of the pivotal battles that proved the superiority of the Roman legions over the Hellenistic phalanx, the Battle of Pydna is also a classic example of poor decision-making and generalship. The Macedonian king, Perseus, renewed the agreement with Rome signed by his father, Philip V, following his defeat at Cynoscephalae but then began to rebuild Macedon’s once-great empire through political marriages and continual interference in his neighbours’ internal politics. This angered the Romans, and, along with reports from diplomats and pro-Roman rivals that Perseus was no ‘friend of Rome’, led to war in 171BC.
Despite his initial strategic advantage over the Romans, Perseus squandered opportunities to prepare for the coming conflict. By failing to ensure the mountain passes into his territory were adequately defended, he missed an opportunity to trap the Roman army without the means to re-supply themselves. Although the large Macedonian army defeated its Roman counterpart during initial skirmishes at Callicinus, things changed when the Romans pushed through their defences and captured the important religious city of Dion following Macedon’s inexplicable withdrawal from the region. The acquisition of Dion won Rome an important propaganda victory as well as a strategic one, it being the site of Alexander’s sacrifices before embarking on his legendary invasion of the Persian Empire. Although it is clear from this sequence of events that Perseus was a weak general, what happened next highlighted his diplomatic failings also. Returning to Macedon, he missed valuable opportunities to broker alliances that would’ve assured his army a massive numerical advantage over the Roman expeditionary force and stopped them dead in their tracks. As things stood, clever manoeuvres by the Romans eventually led to a pitched battle on the plain to the south of the strategically useful port of Pydna.
Although success in the battle’s skirmishing phase made it look like Perseus would prevail against the Roman invaders, two specific mistakes led to the total defeat of his army - one that, on paper at least, appeared to be the superior. Firstly, the unwieldy phalanx faltered as the Romans made an orderly retreat to higher, more uneven ground. The Macedonians struggled to hold their lengthy battle line, allowing the Romans to exploit the gaps that soon appeared. Once the phalanx was broken up, the Romans defeated the relatively lightly-armoured phalangites in melee with their more heavily-armoured, sword-armed troops. The second mistake was the lack of action by the Macedonian Companion cavalry. Perseus himself was supposed to lead the right-wing but sustained an injury during the early stages of the battle. Once he retired from the field, the Companions neither charged nor made any attempt to relieve the phalangites. What followed was a slow slaughter as much of Perseus’ army routed from the field and his elite, 3000-strong royal guard fought bravely to the very last man. From an army of almost 40,000, around 32,000 Macedonian troops were killed or captured.
Although the main thrust of the battle took just one hour, the Romans pursued the routers until nightfall. Shortly after the battle, Perseus was forced to surrender to the Roman general, Paulus, who had him paraded through Rome as part of his triumphal procession. Although the defeated king was allowed to live, Macedon was dismantled – first into four republics, then later into a single Roman province. As a result of its defeat at Pydna Macedon never again regained a position of power in the ancient world.
Commencing 149-148BC, the Siege of Carthage was the defining action of the Third Punic War between Rome and Carthage. With the city refusing to surrender, the Carthaginians held out for over two years. The Roman forces, led by Manius Manilius, initially suffered losses at the hands of Hasdrubal and, following Manius’ failure, Scipio Aemilianus was appointed consul and charged with taking Carthage. Under Roman law, he was technically too young for the job. His first action was to defeat Diogenes’ army holding Nepheris by blockading the harbour of Carthage, cutting off their supplies, and forcing them into the field. With Nepheris crushed, Scipio intensified the main siege. In the final assault, Tiberius Gracchus, Scipio’s military tribune and brother-in-law, was the first over the wall. After hours of bitter fighting in the streets, houses and temples, the Carthaginians surrendered. The surviving population was enslaved, and Carthage levelled. Hasdrubal himself begged for mercy. His wife, unable to face such shame, killed herself and their sons. For his service, Scipio was greatly rewarded, and during his triumph was able to add "Africanus" to his name. Unusually, Hasdrubal was displayed rather than killed, possibly because of the greater humiliation involved. Despite his bravery at Carthage, Tiberius’ military fortunes waned during the Numantine War, but his later actions as a plebeian tribune earned him the favour of the common people.
By 52BC, Julius Caesar had won a succession of victories in his Gallic Wars, defeating several tribes and cowing others. However, with the end of his expedient political alliance with Pompey and Crassus, Caesar’s political enemies began to circle. Refused reinforcements by Rome, he faced rebellion as the Gallic tribes united under Vercingetorix of the Arverni. As Roman citizens and merchants were put to the sword across Gaul, Caesar swiftly mobilised his legions in pursuit of Vercingetorix. Harried by Caesar’s Germanic cavalry, Vercingetorix decided to regroup at the fort of Alesia. As success in an all-out assault was unlikely, Caesar laid siege to the fort to starve out the 80,000 Gauls within, ordering the circumvallation of Alesia by 18km of ditches and high fortifications. Gallic cavalry harassed the Romans during the construction, enabling a small contingent of the defenders to escape. With the possibility of the dispatch of a relief force, Caesar ordered the contravallation of the siege; another line of fortifications 21km long to protect the besiegers. With the arrival of over 100,000 Gauls to relieve the siege, the morale of Vercingetorix’s starving host was lifted. But in the days that followed, Caesar’s embattled legions repulsed all attempts to break in or out. On the final day of battle, Caesar rode amongst his legions offering encouragement, before ordering his cavalry to charge the rear of the Gallic relief force. This bold move routed the Gauls utterly, and, as they were slaughtered in retreat, Vercingetorix and his surviving allies surrendered.
The Battle of the Nile in 47BC was a clash between the armies of Julius Caesar and Ptolemy XIII, the younger brother and husband of Cleopatra VII. Ptolemy had enraged Caesar in 48BC by executing Pompey the Great who had fled to Egypt; Pompey may have been a rival, but he was a Roman and Caesar’s son-in-law. Over the following months, relations went from bad to worse. In Alexandria Caesar tried to broker a peace between Ptolemy and Cleopatra. Ptolemy’s troops were trying to isolate the Romans, and were gaining the upper hand. When Caesar heard that reinforcements were nearby he marched away from Alexandria in the hope of uniting his forces. He was successful and turned on Ptolemy’s Egyptian army. The two armies, with roughly comparable forces, met on the banks of the Nile and, in true Roman style, Caesar launched the first attack. After fierce fighting the Egyptians broke and many of them fled, including Ptolemy. According to some accounts he drowned when his ship capsized on the Nile; regardless of the details, he was safely dead and no longer a problem. Caesar had brought Egypt within the Roman sphere of influence and gained the personal gratitude of Egypt’s newly-undisputed ruler, Cleopatra.
One of Rome’s most bitter defeats, Teutoburg was the culmination of years of rebellion and politicking among the Germanic tribes. In all, three legions, the XVII, XVIII, and XIX, under Publius Quinctilius Varus, were lost when they walked into an ambush set by Arminius, a "trusted friend" of Rome. A chieftain of the Cherusci and an advisor to Varus, Arminius had been taken as a hostage to Rome, and later schooled in Roman military tactics. On the narrow and muddy forest tracks he directed them to take, beset by storms, the legions became strung out and easy prey for the waiting German warriors. Trying to regain control and impetus, Varus did manage to rally his legions and fortify a night camp, before breaking out the next morning. The escape was costly and, after a gruelling night march, the final slaughter saw the Romans squeezed between woodland and bogs on a narrow spit of land. Varus’ senior officer, Numonius Vala, fled with the remaining cavalry, and was cut down. Varus himself committed suicide. With three legions slaughtered, Roman forts and towns east of the Rhine were overrun. The shame of this defeat meant that the three lost legion numbers were never used again.