5 of the bloodiest ancient battles that made their mark in history

4) Battle of Watling Street (61 AD) –


While our previous entry dealt with a major Roman defeat, the Battle of Watling Street demonstrated how Romans reserved the capacity to emerge victorious in spite of being woefully outnumbered. To that end, this battle was fought between the Roman forces under Suetonius (which combined Legio XIV Gemina with parts of the XX Valeria Victrix) and the Iceni rebels under Queen Boudicca. Now oddly enough, the very location of Watling Street varies according to different sources, with its approximation ranging from – an area between Londinium and Viroconium, Manduessedum (Mancetter) near Atherstone in Warwickshire, to a small site near Lactodorum (Towcester) in Northamptonshire.

As for the figures involved in this conflict, once again there is much confusion, with two primary sources on Boudicca’s revolt – Tacitus and Cassius Dio, giving variant numbers. According to Tacitus, the Romans fielded around 10,000 men while the Iceni forces brought forth 100,000 people to the battlefield (Cassius Dio gives this number as 230,000). Now in terms of logistics, such high numbers were surely impractical, especially when it came to the Iceni. So, modern historians consider the numbers to be inflated by the non-combatant tribal members of the Iceni (including women, children and elderly) as opposed to just warriors – who perhaps comprised less than half of the total Iceni people on the field. In any case, one thing is for certain – the Romans were still vastly outnumbered, while the battle in itself was one the largest ever fought on ancient Britain’s soil.

Finally, as for the tactics, this is where Tacitus provides a credible viewpoint. According to him – Suetonius “chose a position in a defile with a wood behind him. There could be no enemy, he knew, except at his front, where there was open country without cover for ambushes.” This ‘open country’ was even cordoned off by the overconfident Iceni forces, by placing carts at the rear-edge of the field – from where their womenfolk could see the men crushing their Roman foes. However, the narrow space in front of the Roman ranks actually worked against the high numbers of the Iceni forces, as the Roman soldiers discharged their potent javelins into the masses. Then they opted for an advanced wedge formation that cut through the puzzled Iceni ranks, while being aided at the flanks by the reserve Roman cavalry and auxiliary forces.

This aggressive Roman formation totally routed the perplexed Iceni, who were in turn trapped by their own carts at the edge of the field. As Tacitus wrote –

…the remaining Britons fled with difficulty since their ring of wagons blocked the outlets. The Romans did not spare even the women. Baggage animals too, transfixed with weapons, added to the heaps of dead.


Impact: Tacitus made it clear that Boudicca poisoned herself as a result of this terrible defeat. As for the more long term effect, the Romans would continue to strategically hold on to Britain till 410 AD without incurring any significant revolts from the native population. Their foothold on the island further led to the emergence of a specific Romano-British culture, of which King Arthur might have been a literary ‘by-product’.

5) Battle of Adrianople (378 AD) –


Often regarded as the worst Roman defeat since the Battle of Cannae, the Battle of Adrianople pretty much epitomized the 4th century nadir of the declining Roman Empire. Fought between the Romans led by Emperor Valens and the Gothic rebels (also consisted of Alans and local populace) led by Fritigern, the battlefield was situated around 8 miles north of the settlement of Adrianople (which is now Edirne in European part of Turkey).

The numbers involved in the battle once again traverse the confounding territory, with some sources putting the Roman forces at around 30,000 to 40,000 men (including many cavalry units). The Goths on the other hand fielded more men with estimations varying from 50,000 to 80,000 (and they also included cavalry forces). However, more recent evaluation of the conflict has pertained to significantly reduced numbers for both sides, with Romans perhaps fielding around 21,000 men and the Goths also bringing forth a similar (or slightly greater) number.

The commencement of the battle was fueled by the direct march of Valens’ army from Constantinople (now Istanbul) to the battlefield, without even waiting for the aid of Gratian, the Western Roman Emperor. Confident of their ability and numbers, the disciplined (albeit tired) Romans even made some headway against the Gothic infantry by taking advantage of an opportune time (when the Gothic cavalry was away on a raid). However, the battle line in itself became muddled with the large masses of soldiers clashing in a confused manner, as made clear by Ammianus Marcellinus

Our left wing had advanced actually up to the wagons, with the intent to push on still further if they were properly supported; but they were deserted by the rest of the cavalry, and so pressed upon by the superior numbers of the enemy, that they were overwhelmed and beaten down…. And by this time such clouds of dust arose that it was scarcely possible to see the sky, which resounded with horrible cries; and in consequence, the darts, which were bearing death on every side, reached their mark, and fell with deadly effect, because no one could see them beforehand so as to guard against them.

Amid this massive scope of commotion and turmoil, the Gothic cavalry made a surprising return to the battlefield, and struck the Romans along their right flank (while the remaining Gothic horsemen drove the already tired Roman cavalry forces from the left angle). In the ensuing chaotic retreat, the Romans are said to have lost at least two-thirds of their men, which probably also included Emperor Valens himself.


Impact: Ammianus surmised the battle as “the beginning of evils for the Roman empire then and thereafter.” As for the direct implication of the Gothic victory, the Goths were allowed to finally settle inside Roman frontiers as a recognized entity; who later fought and allied with the Romans over the next century. The loss of Roman soldiers also forced the Roman Empire to rely more on foederati levies (non-Roman mercenaries, including Goths), thus endowing them with crucial political influence in the coming years.


Other Sources: Adrianople AD 378 – Campaign 84 (Osprey Publishing) / De Imperatoribus Romanis Valens

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1 Comment on "5 of the bloodiest ancient battles that made their mark in history"

  1. Ricky Godsey | February 1, 2018 at 4:18 am |

    Gaugamela was a pretty big battle. Maybe the biggest and most decisive of the ancient world.

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