This article is an edited transcript from Empire State: How the Roman Military Built an Empire with Simon Elliott on Dan Snow’s History Hit, first broadcast 1 October 2017. You can listen to the full episode below or for free on Acast.
The Roman Empire was not made up of superhumans. Throughout the lifespan of this powerful empire, the Romans lost numerous battles against various foes – Pyrrhus, Hannibal and Mithridates VI of Pontus to name but a few of Rome’s most famous adversaries.
Yet despite these setbacks, the Romans forged a vast empire that controlled most of western Europe and the Mediterranean. It was one of the most effective fighting machines ever created. So how were the Romans able to overcome these military setbacks and achieve such extraordinary success?
Resilience and grit
A number of examples all prove the one simple case that the Romans didn’t know how to lose in the long run. You can look at the defeats at a tactical level of battles such as Cannae against Hannibal, you can look at various engagements in the eastern Mediterranean, or examples like Teutoburg Forest where Varus lost his three legions – but the Romans always came back.
What most opponents of Rome, particularly the Principate of Rome (from the age of Augustus through to the Diocletian reformation in the late 3rd century), didn’t tend to realise was that even if they won a tactical victory, the Romans themselves had one objective in these engagements and they pursued it relentlessly until they won.
It’s no better illustrated than if you look at the late Republican engagements against the Hellenistic world. There, you have these Hellenistic armies of Macedon and the Seleucid Empire fighting the Romans and realising at certain stages during battles that they may have lost and trying to surrender.
But the Romans kept on killing them because they had this relentless obsession with achieving their goals. So basically, the bottom line is the Romans always came back. If you beat them once they still came back.
The reason why the Romans had such high resilience and grit is because of Roman society itself and especially, the desires of its nobility.
During Rome’s great age of conquest in the late Republic and early empire, a lot of it was initially driven by the opportunistic achievements of Roman nobility leading their military forces to obtain huge amounts of wealth and huge amounts of territory.
It was their desires for these things that led the Romans not only to conquer the Hellenistic world but also to defeat the Carthaginian Empire and various other foes. Furthermore, there was also a grit within the higher levels of Roman society.
Elites were not just taught to be warriors, but to be lawyers and to attack people through law and defend themselves in legal situations.
For the Romans, it was therefore all about winning. It was all about resilience and grit and winning and always coming back to achieve their objective. The ultimate failure for a Roman leader military or political or otherwise wasn’t to actually lose the battle, but to lose the war.
The Romans thus wouldn’t call the war over until they’d won the war even though they may have lost one or two battles. They always came back.