What was the worst defeat of the Roman army ever?

What was the worst defeat of the Roman army ever? Many say Teutoburg Forest or Cannae. But, we disagree.

In fact, we point to the Battle of Arausio.

Battle of Cannae

Varian Disaster : Battle of Teutoburg Forest

The Battle of Arausio was a battle fought between the Roman Republic and the tribes of Cimbri and Teutones roughly in the year 105 BC on October 6th.

It was a decisive battle fought near the present-day town of Orange and the Rhone River in the larger Cimbrian War between the Roman Republic and various tribes in Europe.

“The Battle of Teutoburg of AD 9 is often called ‘Rome’s greatest defeat’,” said historian and author Lindsay Powell. “But if the numbers of casualties recorded by Roman historian Livy are correct, then the ambush in Germania was relatively minor by comparison with the slaughter at Arausio in 105 BC. Indeed, the casualties suffered by the Roman army in Gaul were on a scale never matched again. Livy writes, “according to Valerius Antias, 80,000 soldiers and 40,000 servants and camp followers were killed near Arausio” (Periochae67.2).” 

Powell, who is also news editor of Ancient Warfare magazine, said: “The Battle of Arausio marked a turning point: Rome rebounded from the trauma. Just four years later at Vercellae in the foothills of the Alps, consul Marius led his army of fellow citizens and Italian allies to a decisive victory against the Cimbri. The invaders from Jutland would not trouble the Romans ever again.” 

The tribe of Cimbri was commanded by their then king Boiorix, and the Tetuoni commanded by their then king as well, Teutobod. The Roman armies were led by consul Gnaeus Mallius Maximus and proconsul Quintus Servilius Caepio. Publius Rutilius Rufus, a more experienced consul than Gnaeus Mallius Maximus, was supposed to be in command of the Roman Army present at the battle but chose to remain in Rome.

Prior to the battle, Roman forces numbered roughly 160,000 men, split under the commands of consul Gnaeus Mallius Maximus and proconsul Quintus Servilius Caepio.

Although Maximus outranked Caepio, Maximus was relatively inexperienced and was the first in his family to serve in the Roman senate and Caepio refused to take orders from him. When the Roman forces set up camp along the Rhone River, Maximus and Caepio were situated on either side of the river.

The forces of the Cimbri and Teutoni were roughly 200,000 men, outnumbering the Romans by a comfortable margin.

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The first contact between the two belligerents was a small skirmish between a small Roman scouting unit which was completely overwhelmed by a forward Cimbri force. This unit was completely annihilated. Following this event, proconsul Quintus Servilius Caepio decided to launch a poorly coordinated attack on the Cimbri camp, without the support or knowledge of consul Gnaeus Mallius Maximus.

This was a disaster for the Romans, as the assault was so hasty the Cimbri had no problem repelling the attack and winning an overwhelming victory over the Romans. Although Caepio was able to escape from the battle unscathed, his now undefended camps were completely ransacked by the Cimbri.

With new supplies from the Roman camp, the Cimbri continued their momentum and launched an attack on the remaining Roman forces led by Maixmus. This again was a resounding victory for the Cimbri, as infighting between the Roman ranks had severely weakened combat efficiency and morale. To make matters worse, the Rhone River made it difficult for any surviving Roman forces to retreat back to friendly territory.

In 107 BC the Tigurini humiliated the defeated Romans by making them crawl under the yoke (Marc-Charles-Gabriel Gleyre [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons)

Many agree that the blame for the loss can be directed towards proconsul Quintus Servilius Caepio, who foolishly attacked the much larger Cimbri force alone. Had Caepio coordinated with superior Maximus, the combined Roman force would have had a much better chance at securing a victory over the tribes.

However, it was known at the time that Maximus had been finding success in negotiations with the Cimbri, and Caepio did not want Maximus to take all the credit for a peaceful resolution of the situation. 

“The Women of the Teutones Defend the Wagon Fort” (1882) by Heinrich Leutemann

It is estimated that the Romans lost a majority of their initial forces before the Battle of Arausio, with some estimates suggesting a complete loss. On the other hand, the tribes united against the Roman empire only suffered 15,000 killed.

In conclusion, the Battle of Arausio is regarded as one of the worst military defeats in Roman history, and left the Alps undefended against the Cimbri threat. Luckily for the Romans, the Cimbri became preoccupied with fighting the Arverni tribe afterwards, allowing for a reorganization and revitalization of Roman military might. 

What was the worst defeat of the Roman army ever?