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Crisis of Roman military in middle of 2nd century BCE

This post is also available in: Polish (polski)

The history of ancient Rome is widely associated with the successes of the invincible legions that crushed the armies of the enemies of the Empire. In such situations, many people think of Caesar’s exploits under Alesia, Scipio under Zama or Marius under Vercellae. This very simplified image of ancient Rome does not take into account the broad context of the history of Roman military. Few people remember that the Roman state also experienced in its history moments of crisis in many areas, including military aspects.

The victories of the Romans in the wars waged at the turn of the third and second century BCE made them the undisputed hegemons of the Mediterranean. After defeating Carthage in the First and Second Punic Wars, the Sons of Wilycze became lords of Sicily, Sardinia, Spain and subjugated the lands of the homeland of Hannibal in the war. In the east, the senate, by interfering with the conflict of Greek states, became a card dealer in Hellas policy.

Roman soldier

Numerous wars waged against the Puńczyk, Spanish tribes, Gauls or Hellenistic monarchies allowed the Roman elite to gain valuable experience in the field of diplomacy and warfare. Roman leaders were able to draw conclusions from military defeats at Trebia, Lake Trasimeno and near Cannae, which allowed them to avoid mistakes in military operations in the future. They also knew how to use the military experience of their enemies. Roman legionaries and officers, hardened by heavy fights with Hannibal’s powerful army, had no problem in wars with the Hellenistic armies of Macedonia and the Seleucid kingdom. This situation began to change as the territorial growth of the Empire and the passage of time since the turbulent events of the third century. Experienced in fighting veterans were leaving, and the power in the state was taken over by representatives of the young generation, not remembering the war. It was necessary to train recruits and educate new commanding staff, which was additionally hindered by the lack of intensive warfare in the second quarter of the second century BC. The soldiers themselves, convinced of the size of their state and the power of the Roman weapon, became mistaken in their unlimited military capabilities. This neglect of the opponent and overconfidence were soon to take revenge on the Romans.

Spanish campaigns

The disastrous effects of this thinking came to light during the campaigns against the Spanish tribes. An additional problem for the Romans was the economic and political situation of the Iberian Peninsula in the 2nd century BCE, which was hindered by population growth. After defeating Carthage, the peninsula’s population lost an important source of income, which was the mercenary service of the Punic forces. This led to unrest among the landless people and, consequently, to a series of robberies in the provinces. What’s more, the Iberian tribes were organized differently than the Gauls, and there were internal divisions among them, which the Romans themselves painfully learned. And when some members of the tribe concluded a treaty with Rome, the other part treated the Republic as an enemy. However, what caused the biggest concern over Tiber was the series of defeats of the Roman army in Spain. In 155 peoples from the western part of the Iberian Peninsula, Louisiana launched several powerful attacks on the territory of the Roman province of Distant Spain (Hispania Ulterior).

Spanish warriors.

Each success drove them even more boldness and resulted in actions even more dangerous for the Romans. A year later, one of the Roman armies suffered a severe defeat, and its commander died in battle. In 153, a tribe from the north of the peninsula, the Bells decided to expand the area of ​​their capital, Segeda, and include in its reach the inhabitants of a neighboring tribe, the Arewaks. This alarmed the Roman Senate, who feared attacks from this center on the area of ​​Closer Spain (Hispania Citerior). A consular army of Quintus Fulvius Nobilior with 30,000 soldiers was sent against the tribe. The Bells left unfinished work on the expansion of the city and fled from the Romans to the lands of the Arewaks, who took them in. Without waiting for the enemy’s attack, the combined forces of the warriors of both tribes dragged the Nobilior column into an ambush in a densely overgrown forest. At first, the fight was even, but the Spanish were the scales that laid the dead 6,000 Romans. The unfortunate consul was still trying to conquer Numansia, the capital of the Arewaks, but things took him as unsuccessful. One of the war elephants of the Romans, hit with a stone on the head, panicked, pulling other thick-skinned creatures with him. Raging animals began to tramat the ranks of the legionaries positioned behind them, which encouraged the defenders of Numantia to counterattack and determined the pogrom of the Roman army. 4,000 Roman corpses remained on the battlefield. When the senate ordered another consul, L. Licinius Lukullus, to march to Spain, the stories of Celtyber cruelty effectively discouraged citizens of all classes from taking part in this expedition. There was a widespread belief about the nuisance of fighting in Spain and small profits in the war against the local peoples. As a result, very few Roman conscripts came to the meeting point. Although several young senators decided to serve in the army rank of tribune, the others simulated the disease to hide their cowardice. Lukullus also had problems with staffing senior officers. According to the message from Polibius, only the attitude of P. Cornelius Scipio Emilianus embarrassed many Romans and forced them to take part in the expedition.

While Rome’s previous defeats in Spain were more likely to fail in the fight against the barbarian tribes, Lucullus’s campaign covered Rome with even greater disgrace. The commander himself was extremely hungry for victories and loot, which would allow him to pay off his debts. These motives prompted him to make a controversial decision to attack several centers of the Wakcej tribe under the pretext of supporting the Arewak tribe. As if that wasn’t enough, Lukullus accepted the capitulation of the city of Kauka, after which his soldiers slaughtered all adult men in the city walls. Both this massacre and unwarranted aggression against Wakce’s caused indignation among members of the Senate. The Roman ethos allowed the use of terror against the enemy, but only in situations where such acts were politically favorable and in accordance with the laws of war. The exploits of Lukullus were considered a violation of the principle of Roman credibility (fides) towards other peoples, which was unacceptable to conservative senators. At the same time, a similar incident took place in the distant Spain, where another Roman commander, Sulpicjus Galba, promised the Louisians in exchange for surrendering to the allocation of land. Naive members of the tribe agreed to the proposal, but the unbelievable Roman ordered to disarm them, divide them with their families into three groups and kill them. Where did this mindless cruelty from legion commanders come from? In the case of Galba’s behavior, one can point to the relations of the Romans with the Lusitans to date, who not only defeated the legions, but also after the conclusion of treaties with the Roman state returned to a plundering lifestyle. This, as well as other cases of brutality of consuls could also be the result of a short period of command (year) and awareness of the fall of the Roman army. In view of these circumstances, the legion commanders wanted to quickly end their campaigns by intimidating the enemy.


One of the few survivors of the slaughter of Louisiana, Viriatus headed the uprising against the Romans. He gathered a group of warriors around him and began an effective fight. First, he ambushed the army of Praetor Vetilius, who lost 4,000 people and his commander fell. This victory earned him many supporters among tribes who did not want to be exposed to the attacks of his warriors. F. Maximus Emilianus, commanded against untrained soldiers, sent against him, was afraid of bold actions and did not achieve great success on the battlefield. In 142 BCE, his successor proved to be a better commander and won several bastions of insurgents. His actions were brutal, however, and he suffered a heavy defeat at the hands of Viriatus. The protracted war with the Louisiana was another stain on the honor of the Roman army, which was only removed by bribing the assassins who turned out to be people from the surroundings of the Chief of Louisiana. The successes of Viriatus inspired the Arewaks, who only after the intervention of Quintus Cecilius Metellus laid down their weapons, with the exception of the city of Numantia and a few other cities. The real catastrophe occurred in 137 BCE, when the senate appointed Hostiusius Mancinus as commander of the expedition against the Numantines. The consul, after several lost skirmishes against the city walls, scared by a potential alliance of the besieged with neighboring tribes, abandoned the siege. During the retreat, his army was surrounded by enemy warriors who forced humiliating surrender on her.

For this act, Mancinus himself was ordered by the senate to the Numantians. You can also find out about the low combat value of the Roman army of this period by reading further descriptions of the course of the fight for Numance. When the head of the Roman army became famous for the capture of Carthage Scipio Emilianus, he gave up a direct attack on the city, despite the number of advantage over the siege several times. The cautious leader was aware of the poor morale of his soldiers. The city fell only after it was tightly surrounded by a belt of fortifications in 133 BC

Third Punic War

The crisis of the functioning of the Roman army was most clearly revealed during the Third Punic War. The Roman army, poorly commanded, demoralized and poorly trained, could not cope with the defenders of Carthage who resisted for 3 years! Initially, the consuls decided to hit the city from two sides – Censorinus from the sea, and Manilius through a narrow isthmus from the land side. Both were sure that they would not encounter much resistance in conquering the city, and they did not even build fortified camps. To their surprise, the Carthaginians fiercely resisted and were even armed! Siege machines that they wanted to ram the city walls were destroyed during the defenders’ night trip. This was because the Romans recklessly left their parking spaces unguarded. When legionaries managed to break into the city after breaking the wall, they were pushed away, losing many people. Only the attitude of Scipio Emilianus saved them from disaster. The besiegers were also exposed to the Carthaginian army field, operating in the back room and hampering siege operations.

Ruins of Carthage

Appian describes an attack against a group of soldiers sent for the construction of siege machines, which resulted in the loss of 500 people to the Romans. Also ships of the Roman fleet attacking from the sea were effectively destroyed by defenders. All these failures did not affect the mentality of legionaries, who still could not appreciate the opponent. The weakness of the legions only encouraged the defenders to take bolder actions. It came to the point that the latter attacked Manilius’s camp even several times. The same fate was met by a specially constructed port intended to be the place of unloading supplies from Rome. Carelessness characterized the Romans also during their field trips for food and forage. Non-compliance with the precautionary principles during processions and stops, legionaries easily fell victim to horse attacks by Punic partisans. In addition, the Romans facilitated their cooperation with besieged Carthaginians by treating the local people badly. The battle with the Carthaginian army units at Nepheris at the end of 149 BCE ended in defeat. Roman commanders did not recognize the location and forces of the enemy. In vain, Scipio advised against fighting in such adverse circumstances – the Roman column had to go uphill. However, the other tribunes regarding him enviously laughed at him. Manilius, however, decided to pursue Carthaginian troops, for which only the command of the enemy was waiting. However, when the Romans decided to turn back, during crossing the river they were attacked by Carthaginian cavalry. Also during the retreat, weakened and decimated by fighting, they again became the object of the attack of the enemy riders who knew the area. The change in the position of consuls did not improve the situation of besieges.

It was only the appointment of the commander of the whole expedition distinguished in fighting Scipio Emilianus led to a breakthrough in battle. It was he who was tasked to reverse the fate of the war, which took a negative turn for the Romans. Already in the first days of his office Emilianus realized how deplorable the army was. There was laziness, greed and lack of discipline among the legionaries. Demoralized soldiers organized the plundering expeditions themselves without the knowledge of the commanders. There were also quarrels, fights and even killings among the legionaries. The fragment of speech he addressed to them testifies thoroughly to the morale of the Roman army during this period:

Therefore why should I tell you what I am ashamed to speak of? You are more like robbers than soldiers. You are runaways instead of guardians of the camp. You are more like hucksters than conquerors. You are in quest of luxuries in the midst of war and before the victory is won.

Appian, Roman history, 24.116


Numerous victories of the Roman arms over the powers of the Mediterranean basin in the third and second centuries over Tiber convinced the greatness of their own state. There was a widespread conviction among the Roman elites about the strength of their empire and its limitless possibilities of influencing world politics. Along with these phenomena, the boldness and possessiveness of the Romans also rose towards distant countries. This can be demonstrated by the attitude of the Roman mission to Antiochus IV in 167 BCE described by Polibius. However, this neglect of the opponent affected the poor assessment of the legions’ combat capabilities. When there were no people like Scipio or Fabius Maksimus, and the old generation of veterans was slowly dying out, new people, deprived of the opportunity to participate in intense military operations, could not meet even weaker opponents on the battlefield. It took more time for commanders like Marius, Sulla or Caesar.

Author: Marcin Bąk
  • Appian, Roman history, Księgi I-XII
  • Appian, Wars in Iberia, The Roman History
  • Goldsworthy A., In the name of Rome. The men who won the Roman Empire, London 2004
  • Goldsworthy A., Roman warfare, London 2007
  • Nowaczyk B., Kartagina 149-146 p.n.e., Warszawa 2008

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