We always think of the Roman Empire as being completely invincible. But the Romans lost a few battles and some of them pretty disastrously. There were at least two occasions when Roman emperors were killed and one where the emperor was captured and then executed.
Take for example the Battle of Carrhae in the dying years of the Roman Republic. This was a time when three men – the so-called Triumvirs – shared control of Rome. They were Julius Caesar, Pompey and Crassus. The latter was an obscenely wealthy senator who also famously crushed the slave revolt of Spartacus.
But in 53BC he overreached himself in a bid for glory by attempting to invade the Parthian Empire with its base in modern Iran. He marched a vast army through the deserts of the Middle East being drawn deliberately deep into Parthian territory. The enemy cut down the legions with an astonishing number of arrows that showered down ceaselessly. Here is an amazing computerised depiction of the battle.
Some of you will have watched Barbarians on Netflix. This is a loose retelling of how several Germanic tribes wiped out three legions under the control of a Roman general called Publius Quinctilius Varus under the first Roman emperor, Augustus.
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Like Crassus, Varus was guilty of overreach and hubris. He also ignored good advice when deciding to launch punitive raids against the so-called ‘barbarians’. At this stage of history the military balance favoured the Roman Empire overwhelmingly. But the terrain didn’t. Roman armies just weren’t cut out for fighting in dense forests and that proved to be their undoing.
And then if we go to the closing centuries of the Roman Empire, we come to the disastrous Battle of Adrianople in the year 378. The empire was now ruled by two co-emperors with Valens in charge of the eastern half with his capital at Constantinople.
He’d been moderately successful in repelling the Persian based Sassanian Empire in the east but then faced demands from a huge mass of Goths north of the Danube river to be admitted into the empire.
Now, this wasn’t unusual. The Romans had often allowed in tribes from outside the empire but they were disarmed on entry and settled on Roman terms. However, Valens was busy on the Sassanian border and the local governor simple didn’t have the troops to enforce the required conditions.
This led to an uncontrolled influx of armed Goths into Roman territory. The rest, as you might say, was history. By the time Valens marched his armies up to meet the Goths, the whole thing had spun wildly out of control. The resulting battle of Adrianople saw the Romans defeated and the emperor possibly burned alive after taking refuge in a barn.