Given the vital nature of warfare to the Roman world, it is no surprise that so many of the most crucial points in Roman history took place on the battlefield. From crushing defeats to epic victories, Rome’s story was often forged in the blood and chaos of battle.
Today, a number of these decisive battles can still be accurately located and visited, while others can be traced to a general region. There’s a host of top battlefields to visit and among the very best are Alesia, Trasimene and Trebbia. Other popular sites tend to include the Cannae, Pharsalus and Carrhae battlefields.
Boasting one of the most advanced armies of the ancient world, the legions of Rome were the foundation from which Roman power expanded. Indeed, in the imperial age it was the army who often held ultimate power, long after the sway of senators or the people had diminished.
To discover the history of Rome’s most important battles, visit these 7 historic sites.
1. Cannae Battlefield
Cannae Battlefield marks the site of the famous Battle of Cannae, fought in 216 BC between Hannibal of Carthage and a huge Roman army led by Consuls Varro and Paullus. It stands as Hannibal’s greatest victory and Rome’s greatest defeat. One historian has compared the result to an atomic bomb: 80,000 men died that day, possibly the most casualties ever in a single battle. This defeat brought Rome closer to total collapse than at any time during its history.
The site has one monument to the battle of Cannae within the archaeological site of Cannae di Battaglia which itself is a village from the middle ages. There is a single column which commemorates the battle. If you stand at this column and look north over the countryside, this is the area where most historians feel the battle was fought. The entrance to the site has some relevant information and memorabilia.
2. Trebbia Battlefield
Trebbia Battlefield marks the location of the Battle of Trebbia, the first significant clash of the Second Punic War. Fought in 218 BC, it was a resounding defeat for the Roman armies under the consuls Scipio and Longus and a major victory for the great Carthaginian general Hannibal.
The exact location of Trebbia Battlefield on the river is not known, however it is thought to be somewhere north of Rivergaro. Visitors to the area will find numerous references to Hannibal and his passing, including a Hannibal-themed winery. A model of a war elephant also stands as a monument to the battle.
Alesia is an archaeological site on Mount Auxois in the Côte-d’Or. There, Roman emperor Julius Caesar won his decisive victory over the Gauls in 52 BC. At Alesia, Caesar met and defeated one of his most formidable adversaries, the Gaulish Chieftain, Vercingetorix, leader of the Gauls’ uprising against the Romans. Whilst Caesar was successful, he only won after a long assault, the Siege of Alesia.
The remains which have been uncovered in Alesia show that it became a prosperous Gallo-Roman city by the 1st century AD. Visitors to the Alesia archaeological site can see the ruins of several houses as well as public buildings and areas such as a theatre, a Roman basilica and shops, all centred on a forum.
4. Carrhae Battlefield
Carrhae Battlefield, near the modern town of Harran in Turkey, was the setting for one of the most crushing Roman defeats, inflicted at the hands of the Parthians. The battle took place in May 53 BC and was the culmination of a Roman invasion of Parthia, led by Triumvir Marcus Licinius Crassus. Leading his army directly into Parthian territory, Crassus was defeated. His forces were bested and Crassus himself was killed during the ensuing negotiations.
There is no precise location for Carrhae Battlefield, but it is thought to have been sited to the east of ancient Carrhae, now the modern city of Harran.
5. Philippi Battlefield
Philippi Battlefield in modern Greece is the location of one of the most important engagements in Roman history, where Mark Antony and Octavian defeated the forces of those who had assassinated Julius Caesar – notably Marcus Junius Brutus and Gaius Cassius Longinus.
Today, the battlefield of Philippi is believed to be located outside the modern town of Krinides in north-west Greece. It’s now an important archaeological site, known as Philippoi. It contains the impressive remains of the ancient city which thrived in the area both before and after the battle.
6. Trasimene Battlefield
Trasimene Battlefield marks the site of the Battle of Trasimene, fought in 217 BC between Hannibal of Carthage and the Consul Flaminius of Rome. It was one of the major battles of the Second Punic War and a crushing defeat for Rome.
Today there are picture boards describing the events of the battle all along the former coast of Lake. The route winds passes Sanguineto (named after the battle literally meaning ‘running with blood’) and on to Tuoro. There are many Roman and Hanniballic references in the area, such as streets named after the historical figures involved in the Second Punic War.
7. Pharsalus Battlefield
Pharsalus Battlefield was the setting for one of the most decisive and important battles of ancient Rome – the defeat of Pompey the Great by Julius Caesar. It was a battle which Caesar won against the odds and it all but confirmed his position as ruler of Rome, a key moment in the transition from Republic to Empire.
The exact location of Pharsalus Battlefield has been the subject of much debate. No one location is universally accepted as the battle site. As such, there are no monuments to the battle at its most accepted location. So, visitors to the area, which is just outside the modern Greek city of Farsala, will have to make their own minds up about where the battle took place.