Grim Determination and Tactical Flexibility: The Methodology of Roman Victory.

By Pat Lowinger

de Crayer, Gaspar, 1584-1669; Triumph of Scipio Africanus

Gaspar de Crayer’s Triumph of Scipio Africanus (17th century). The Courtauld Gallery, United Kingdom.

In the summer of 264 BC, Rome and Carthage squared off against each other for control of the island of Sicily.  This conflict, which would later be called the First Punic War, would last for over two decades during which time both sides would experience both victory and defeat.  In 256 BC, Rome invaded North Africa in an attempt to capture the city of Carthage.  Despite some early successes, Rome suffered a humiliating defeat at the Battle of Tunis in 255 BC.[1]  Rome quickly replaced it lost legions and continued the war until the final defeat of Carthaginian fleet at the Battle of the Aegates Islands in 241 BC.  The war-weary Carthaginians capitulated and negotiations between the two belligerents resulted in a peace treaty which left Rome as the sole master of Sicily.[2]

Two decades later Rome and Carthage would again find themselves at war.  This time Carthage was able to gain the tactical initiative as the army of Hannibal Barca famously crossed the Alps into Northern Italy.  By the end of August 216 BC Rome had lost no less than 100,000 men in its defense of Italy.[3]  Despite these losses Rome was able obtain notable victories in Iberia.  After a decade of fighting, Hannibal was unable to maintain his army in Italy.   In 203 BC Hannibal returned from a war torn Southern Italy to North Africa.  Undaunted, a Roman fleet pursued the Carthaginian forces.  On October 19th, 202 BC the Romans crushed Hannibal’s army at Zama which ended the Second Punic War.[4]  In analyzing Rome’s success over Carthage in the First and Second Punic Wars two key elements play a continuous and instrumental role in Rome’s ultimate victory; the tactical flexibility of the Roman maniple and the resilience displayed by the Romans themselves in the face of catastrophic defeat(s).

The Roman Maniple                              


4th century BC painted tomb frieze of Samnite warriors at Paestum, Italy.

The precise genesis of the maniple and manipular legion is most likely to have occurred following Rome’s various wars with the Samnites. The First, Second and Third Samnite Wars (343-290 BC) proved to be very costly to Rome and illustrated the weaknesses of large and tactically inflexible units.  The Samnites and other various Italian Hill Tribes were known to have fought in small(er) units designed to allow for tactical flexibility. In the words of Christopher Mackay, “the people who occupied the heartland of the Oscan territory were called Samnites.  In the Late Republic, they were considered a model of pristine valor… The Romans found the Samnites difficult opponents and suffered a number of major defeats at their hands.”[5] It also corresponded with the abandonment of the earlier (and heavier) hoplon in favor of the lighter scutum.

Polybius describes the organization of the manipular legion as it was constituted in 264 BC, “The Romans possess four legions in all which consist of full citizens, as distinct from the units provided by the allies.  Each of legions is enrolled annually and comprises 4,000 infantry and 300 cavalry.”[6] Each maniple consisting of sixty men were well known to each other; they trained and fought together and regarded each other as commanipulares (brothers in arms).  The main strength and advantage of the manipular system was that it allowed for these smaller units to array for battle, engage the enemy, replace (retire) exhausted or damaged units and keep fresh troops in contact with the enemy.  This style of combat was the antithesis of the phalanx utilized by the Greeks and Carthaginians- which relied upon maintaining uniform depth and placed the most experienced troops in prolonged contact with the enemy.[7]  The manipular system instead placed the Hastati in contact with the enemy first, with the Principes and Triarii forming the second and third battle lines respectively.[8]  Thus the most experienced troops (the Triarii) were kept in reserve or used to fill in weakening sections of the battle line.  In the worst cases, such as Asculum (279 BC)[9], this tactical flexibility allowed large numbers of manipular units to disengage, while a few (presumably sacrificial) units remained in contact with an overwhelming enemy.  This allowed for the preservation of the army even in defeat- rather than having the entire army overwhelmed and destroyed.  It was the highly mobile (and self-initiating) nature of the maniple that allowed for ‘lanes’ to be adopted at the Zama (202 BC) which allowed most of Carthage’s elephant corps to pass through the Roman lines unengaged.[10] It was the inherent tactical flexibility of the manipular system which was credited with the Roman victories at Cynoscephalae (197 BC) and Pydna (168 BC)[11].


The Roman military during the Republic was raised from its citizenry.   Who in general viewed military service as a privilege[12], rather than an obligation.[13]   One key characteristic of this enthusiastic military service was the seemingly inexhaustible ability of Rome to replace fallen troops or vanquished legions.  While this is certainly not the case Rome was able to replace fallen legions rather quickly in order to maintain effective fighting forces, the most extreme example being against Hannibal’s army in Italy.  Per Goldsworthy, “The determination of the Roman people under the leadership of the Senate to continue the war in spite of the catastrophe at Cannae was a source of immense pride to later generations of Romans.”[14] This isn’t to imply that Rome’s resources weren’t severely strained; in fact they were as attested to by the loosening of property requirements for service as well as the levying 8,000 freed slaves (volones) and 6,000 criminals and debtors.[15]  In addition, manpower wasn’t the only resource in short supply- Rome was forced to equip many of these new (penal) legions with equipment captured from previous conflicts with the Gauls.

While the reaction to Cannae may be the most dramatic example of Roman resilience, it is not the only one.  During the First Punic War the Romans were hard pressed to meet the naval superiority of Carthage and rather than accept this imbalance of power Rome undertook the monumental task of constructing a fleet of 120 warships.[16] Another fine example of Roman resolve was the successful implementation of the Fabian Strategy during the Second Punic War which was characterized not only by the methodical shadowing of Hannibal’s forces in Italy, but the adoption of a scorched earth policy throughout Southern Italy.[17]  The hardships of war were not only borne by the Roman military, but also the civilian populations of Rome and its allies.  The grim determination and willingness of the Romans to sacrifice so much in terms of blood and treasure to achieve victory was an integral part of Roman society during the Mid Republic.



Silver denarius dated to c. 238 AD.  The coin bears the word virtus as testimony to the Roman ideal regarding civic duty.

During the era of the First and Second Punic Wars, the Roman maniple was arguably the best and most flexible troop formation in the known world.  The tactically flexible nature of the formation gave it not only an inherent strength in offense, but valuable defensive capabilities.  When measured against the known properties of the phalanx utilized by many Carthaginian troops and mercenaries, the maniple was clearly superior in nearly every aspect.  In addition, when forced to fight in the rugged terrain of Iberia and Northern Italy, the maniple could adopt a loose-order formation, which allowed the Roman army to fight effectively in nearly every type of terrain.

While the evaluation of the weapons, tactics and quality of the Roman military can be accomplished with some degree of certainty against those of its enemies, another key strength of the Rome is somewhat intangible- its resolve.  How far will a society go to win a war?  When is the cost in blood and treasure too great?  In the case of Rome during the First and Second Punic Wars it appears that Roman society was unwilling to yield or accept defeat- regardless of the cost.  In war, Rome’s virtus and disciplinia proved to be as important as the tactics of its generals.


[1] Goldsworthy, Adrian Keith. The Fall of Carthage: The Punic Wars, 265-146 BC. (London: Cassell, 2003), 90.

[2] Polybius, Ian Scott-Kilvert, and Frank W. Walbank. The Rise of the Roman Empire. (Harmondsworth: Penguin Books, 1982), 108.

[3] Goldsworthy, The Fall of Carthage: The Punic Wars, 265-146 BC, 217.

[4] Patavinus, Titus Livius. Livy: The War with Hannibal. Translated by Aubrey Sélincourt. (England: Penguin Books, 1965), 664.

[5] Mackay, Christopher S. Ancient Rome: A Military and Political History. (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004), 41-42.

[6]Polybius, The Rise of the Roman Empire, 57.

[7] Lendon, J. E. Soldiers and Ghosts: A History of Battle in Classical Antiquity.( New Haven: Yale University Press, 2005), 178-181.

[8] Ibid., 180.

[9] The Battle of Asculum took place during Rome’s war with Pyrrhus of Epirus but illustrates the maniple’s ability to withdraw in the face of a superior foe and avoid complete destruction.

[10] Polybius, The Rise of the Roman Empire, 475.

[11] The Battles of Cynoscephalae and Pydna took place during the Second and Third Macedonian Wars respectively- but serve as excellent examples of manipular operations in rugged and uneven terrain when engaged with Macedonian phalanx.

[12] J.E. Lendon describes this civic sense of duty arising out of the Roman concepts of virtus and disciplinia.

[13] Lendon, Soldiers and Ghosts: A History of Battle in Classical Antiquity, 176-178.

[14] Goldsworthy, The Fall of Carthage: The Punic Wars, 265-146 BC, 218.

[15] Ibid., 219.

[16] Polybius, The Rise of the Roman Empire, 62.

[17] Ibid., 255-257.

About Patrick Lowinger

Patrick Lowinger holds a M.A. in Ancient and Classical History from American Military University (AMU) and B.S. in Microbiology (1993) from California State University, Long Beach.
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