The legions . . . dashed forward in wedge-shaped formation. The auxiliaries charged in the same way, and the cavalry with extended spears broke through what was powerful and in the way. The rest took flight, though escape was difficult . . .

The heavily outnumbered Roman army defeats the Boudican hordes in 61.

Despite the tales of epic defeats, the greatest prospect for many Roman soldiers was the chance to go on campaign, especially if that meant a war of conquest, with all the chances of glory and booty that might bring. It was also the most terrifying. This chapter traces some of Rome’s most remarkable warriors in republican and imperial times: artillery experts, those who committed acts of remarkable bravery in the heat of battle or who lived to tell the tale and dine off their heroic acts for the rest of their lives. These were the men who helped define Rome’s greatest military successes and slay the demons of past defeats. They also showed what superb training, discipline and well-maintained morale could achieve.

As Polybius described it, the Roman order of battle was almost impossible to break through. The Roman soldier could fight in it individually or collectively, with the result that a formation of troops could turn to offer a front in any direction. The individual soldier’s confidence was strengthened by the quality of his weapons. The result was, he said, that in battle the Romans were ‘very hard to beat’.

Josephus was staggered by the Roman war machine in action during the Jewish War, fascinated by the way the Romans never laid down their arms yet always thought and planned before they acted. As a huge admirer of the Romans, like Polybius he painted a very compelling and biased picture of an invincible force. He saw Vespasian, the future emperor, set out on campaign to invade Galilee and described how the legions went to war. The auxiliaries attached to the legions were sent out ahead to scout for ambushes and fight off any enemy attacks. Behind them came the legionaries, with a detail of ten men from every century carrying the unit’s equipment. Road engineers followed to take care of levelling the surface, straightening out bends and clearing trees. Behind them came the officers’ baggage train, guarded by Vespasian’s cavalry and his personal escort. The legion’s cavalry was next, followed by any artillery, the officers and their personal bodyguards, the standards and the legionaries’ personal servants and slaves, who brought their masters’ effects. At the back came the mercenaries who had joined that campaign, and finally a rear-guard to protect the rear of the column. The Roman army had reached this arrangement after centuries of experience that had also involved terrible defeats and lessons.

The great achievements were rarely commemorated at the site of battles or campaigns themselves, although to do so was not unique. Actium, unusually, had a monument at the location of the conflict. Trajan erected a memorial at Adamklissi (Tropaeum Traiani, ‘the Trophy of Trajan’) in Dacia in honour of his victory there in 107–8, while fragments of an inscription found in Jarrow church in Northumberland in Britain evidently once belonged to a huge monument built under Hadrian’s rule to commemorate the ‘dispersal [of the barbarians]’ and the construction of his Wall by ‘the Army of the Province’ of Britain. But more often Roman military successes were honoured with triumphal parades and monuments in Rome, the latter usually in the form of an arch, like those of Augustus, Claudius, Titus, Septimius Severus and Constantine I, or the columns of Trajan and Marcus Aurelius. Another stood at the port of Richborough in Britain, serving as a gateway to the province and commemorating the completion of its conquest in c. 85 under Domitian during the governorship of Agricola. There were many more in provincial cities throughout the Empire. Victories and conquest were a matter of Roman national prestige and the emperor’s standing with the mob was of the highest importance. Few ordinary people were ever likely to travel to the sites of former battles, so there was little point in going to great lengths to build monuments there.


No Roman general ever went to war without thinking about his celebrated forebears. In 202 BC, when Publius Cornelius Scipio was still only thirty-four years old, the fate of Rome hung in the balance. The Second Punic War had been dragging on since 218 BC. Scipio had carried a vast army across from Sicily to North Africa in 204 BC and had been slowly wearing the Carthaginians down ever since. The following year, a major defeat had cost the Carthaginians dear when Scipio attacked two of their camps near Utica. It was said that 40,000 men, taken completely by surprise and unarmed, had been killed and 5,000 captured, as well as six elephants. Scipio celebrated the victory by dedicating the captured arms to Vulcan and then ordering them burned.6 Polybius painted the picture of confusion, shouting, fear and raging fire caused by the assault and judged it to be ‘the most spectacular and daring’ of Scipio’s attacks.

The war, which Scipio had been ordered to bring to an end, was at this stage still far from over. During a storm shortly afterwards, a Carthaginian naval attack came close to wiping out his fleet. Sixty transports were seized by the Carthaginians and towed away. A little while later three Carthaginian triremes attacked a quinquereme carrying Roman envoys. Although the envoys were rescued, a large number of Roman troops on the quinquereme were killed. This renewed Roman determination to finish the Carthaginians off. When talks between Scipio and Hannibal broke down, fighting was inevitable. The stakes could not have been higher. Both Rome and Carthage were fighting for survival.

The battle opened with a Carthaginian charge, heavily reliant on Hannibal’s 80 elephants. This turned out to be a mistake. The animals were badly rattled by the noise of the Carthaginian trumpets, panicked and turned back to run into Hannibal’s Numidian cavalry. Some of the frightened elephants reached Roman lines, causing serious casualties before being forced off the battlefield by Roman javelins. Gaius Laelius, Scipio’s cavalry commander, took advantage of the opportunity to charge the Carthaginian cavalry and drive them into a retreat. Only then did the battle descend into close combat as the rival infantry forces advanced towards each other. Thanks to Roman discipline and organization, their infantry formations held and were backed up by their comrades, despite a vicious assault by Hannibal’s mercenaries. But the Carthaginian troops failed to support the mercenaries, who turned on the Carthaginians themselves. Only then did the Carthaginians start to show their mettle, fighting both mercenaries and Romans simultaneously, but the Romans managed to stand fast. Some of the Carthaginians fled from the battle, prevented by Hannibal from taking refuge with his veterans.

Thus far the battle’s confusion and the Carthaginians’ problems had been largely self-inflicted. The Romans had done well but had not yet managed to take control. Scipio was furthermore prevented from attacking because of the sheer number of corpses and the quantity of debris and abandoned weapons in the way. He had the wounded carried off before ordering his men to reorganize themselves into formation by treading their way over the dead bodies. It was effectively a second battle. Once they were in battle order they were able to advance on the Carthaginian infantry. The fighting proceeded inconclusively at first, since both sides were evenly matched; the attrition was only broken when the Roman cavalry returned from chasing away the Numidian horse and attacked Hannibal’s men from the rear. Many were killed as they fought, others as they tried to escape. It was a decisive moment. The Carthaginians lost 20,000, it was said, compared to 1,500 Romans. The exact figures were academic, and were unknown anyway. The point was the difference.

Hannibal had exhibited remarkable skill in how he had distributed his forces so as to counter the Romans’ advantage. He had hoped the elephants would disrupt the Roman formation and cause confusion from the outset, planning that the opening assault by mercenary infantry would exhaust the Romans before the main confrontation with his best and most experienced troops, who would have saved their energy. Until then Hannibal had been undefeated. Polybius believed that a Roman victory only came this time because Scipio’s conduct of the fight was better, yet his own description of the battle clearly described how luck had played a large part. There can be no question that it was a brilliant victory, one for which Scipio deservedly took credit. But whether it was really the result of his generalship, or of happenstance in the chaos of battle, is a moot point.

Regardless, the Battle of Zama ended Carthage’s role as a Mediterranean power and confirmed Rome’s primacy in the region. Not only did it earn Scipio immortality as one of the greatest Roman generals of all time but it also enhanced the reputation of the Roman army, as well as putting to bed the shame of Trasimene and Cannae. Scipio offered the Carthaginians remarkably moderate terms, based largely on the payment of reparations and the restriction on the numbers of their armed forces, though these had to be ratified by the Senate.

Of the ordinary men who fought that day none is known to us by name, and nor are the anonymous feats of any individual. Even the celebrated Republican veteran Spurius Ligustinus did not enlist until two years after the battle. In 201 BC, after settling the peace, Scipio took his men home via Sicily for a triumph in which many must have participated, and carrying epic quantities of booty. How he acquired the name Africanus had been lost to history by Livy’s time. Perhaps it was his men who gave it to him, or his friends, or even the mob – but he was the first Roman general to be named after a nation he had conquered, though none who came after, said Livy, were his equal. No wonder anecdotes about his skills, his views and his achievements were recounted for centuries.

There was an amusing postscript to Zama. Some years later, in 192 BC, Scipio Africanus and Hannibal met in the city of Ephesus, on the Ionian coast of Asia (Turkey). Scipio was there as a member of a diplomatic delegation investigating the Seleucid king Antiochus III, Hannibal as the king’s adviser. Allegedly they discussed generalship; Scipio asked Hannibal whom he regarded as the greatest general, privately hoping that Hannibal would name Scipio himself. Instead Hannibal gave first place to Alexander the Great and second to Pyrrhus. Scipio was sure Hannibal would name him third at least, but in fact Hannibal then named himself, citing his extraordinary march into Italy and the campaign that had followed. Scipio burst into laughter and asked Hannibal where he would have placed himself had he not been defeated at Zama. Hannibal said he would have been first, managing simultaneously to continue his self-flattery while implying that Scipio was greater than Alexander. The story is almost certainly fictional, but it added another to the range of tales and anecdotes about Scipio retold in later years.


A single soldier’s sharp eyes and quickness of wit could make all the difference at a crucial moment in a campaign. In the war against Jugurtha in North Africa (112–106 BC), the general Gaius Marius was engaged in the siege of a stronghold perched on a rocky outcrop that could only be approached from one direction down a narrow path. The track was far too narrow for siege engines to be moved up along it. On all the other sides there were steep precipices. The siege was starting to look impossible to maintain, not least because the stronghold was well stocked with food and even had a water supply from a spring. Marius began to believe he had made a serious mistake and considered giving up. But one of Marius’ soldiers, an anonymous Ligurian, was out looking for water. He was also picking up snails for food, had climbed higher and higher towards the fortress up one of the precipitous slopes until he found himself near the stronghold. He climbed a large oak tree to get a better view and realized that by working his way through the tree and the rocks he had solved the problem of the Roman assault. He climbed back down, noting the exact path and every obstacle along the way, and went to Marius to tell him he had found a way up.

Instead of dismissing advice from an ordinary soldier Marius realized this might be the break he needed. He sent some of his men to confirm what the Ligurian had said. Based on their reports he was convinced and sent five of his nimblest troops, who were also trumpeters, led by four centurions up the incline again with the Ligurian. The men, who had left their helmets and boots behind so they could see where they were going and be as agile as possible, followed the Ligurian up the hillside through the rocks. To make the climb easier they strapped their swords and spears to their backs, and used straps and staffs to help them up. The Ligurian led the way, sometimes carrying the men’s arms, and tying ropes to tree roots or rocks. When the trumpeters reached the rear of the fortress after their long and exhausting climb they found it undefended. No one inside had expected an attack from that direction.

In the meantime Marius was using long-range artillery to hit the fortress, but the defenders were not in the least concerned. They came out of the fortress accompanied by their women and children, who joined in as they taunted the Romans, convinced they were safe. At that moment the trumpeters at the rear of the fortress started up with their instruments. That was the signal to Marius to intensify his assault. The women and children fled at the sound of the trumpets, believing an attack from behind had taken place, and were soon followed by everyone else. The defence collapsed and Marius was able to press on and take the fortress, all thanks to the Ligurian.


Sometimes soldiers were confronted with terrifying prospects simply for the purpose of gratifying the conceits and ambitions of their commanding officers, generals or emperors. When in 55 BC Julius Caesar began the first of his two invasions of Britain, he was the first Roman to attempt to do so. He had 80 ships built to carry two legions over the Channel from Gaul, and another 18 to bring the cavalry, but when his force arrived off the coast of Britain they were faced with cliffs that could not possibly be scaled. The ships had to be sailed 7 miles (11 km) further on so they could land on a beach.

Well aware of what was happening, the Britons positioned cavalry and charioteers along the coast to prevent the Romans getting ashore. It was already difficult enough for the invaders. Caesar’s troop transports had to be beached in deep water, forcing the infantry to jump down into the water laden with their armour and weapons under a hail of missiles from the Britons. As a result the Romans became frightened and hesitant, not least because they had never experienced anything like it.

Caesar had to order his warships to move into position so his men could attack the Britons with artillery, arrows, and stones hurled from slings. ‘This movement proved of great service to our troops,’ he remembered. The Britons temporarily withdrew, but the Roman troops were still reluctant to risk all by jumping into the sea. Famously, at that moment ‘the aquilifer of Legio X, after praying to heaven to bless the legion by his deed, shouted, “leap down, soldiers, unless you want to betray your eagle to the enemy. It shall be told for certain that I did my duty to my nation and my general”.’ Caesar’s heroic aquilifer then jumped down from the beached transport into the foaming water and charged through the waves with his standard. The prospect of shame was too much for the others on the transport. They followed him, and one by one the men on the other transports followed suit.

Caesar went on to enjoy moderate success that year and the next, but the entire project had hung in the balance that day. His political career could have been destroyed by failure on that beach. The ignominy would have been too much to sustain, especially given the febrile politics of Rome at the time. One soldier had managed to turn the moment around in the nick of time.

At least Caesar’s standard-bearer had acted autonomously. Long before, in 386 BC, Marcus Furius Camillus, a military tribune, was also faced with his own troops holding back. He had physically to grab a signifer by the hand and lead him into the fray to get the others to follow, rather than be humiliated.