Rome and Asymmetrical Warfare

Zach – Its been at least a good ten minutes since anyone here’s mentioned “Romans” so today’s topic is a lesson in asymmetrical warfare in the Roman Empire. “Asymmetrical Warfare” means: Asymmetric warfare is war between belligerents whose relative military power differs significantly, or whose strategy or tactics differ significantly.

Sometimes the winner isn't as obvious as it appears.

Sometimes the winner isn’t as obvious as it appears.


Anna – But first, let’s introduce our panelists. As always, I, Anna Komemne, Byzantine princess and first woman historian is the co-host. Next we have Hua Mulan, Ancient Chinese woman soldier. Then we have General Cornwallis, head of British forces during the American Revolutionary War. Next we have Saint Olga of Kiev, first Russian convert to Christianity and expert in blood soaked revenge. And lastly…and I do mean lastly, we have Gaspar Correia, conquistador and “historian.”
Olga – Thank you, thank you. Is good to be here, dah? Pretty little Olga likes to talk about peoples beating up peoples.
Gaspar – So, we’re talking about Romans?
Zach – You didn’t do the research, did you?
Gaspar – Oh, I did a TON of research.
Anna – (Glares at Gaspar) Clearly.
Zach – So, let’s get into it, shall we? In 106 BC. there was a Numidian king named Jugurtha. He slaughtered his brothers who were heirs of his father’s kingdom and took control over all of Numidia. His father saw that he was too popular and sent him off to fight with their Roman allies in Spain, hoping he’d get killed. But it turned out that he rocked at it and came back a war hero. After assassinating one of his brothers, he began waging war on the other. But his brother, Adherbal was kind of a weakling and ran to Rome to beg for protection. Jugurtha followed him to Rome and bribed the Senate to give him the good half of the kingdom in exchange for peace. The Senate agreed.
Mulan – Bribing senators? That’s utterly impossible! Was that too much sarcasm?
Gaspar – A bit.
Anna – But, like all barbarian warlords he didn’t keep his word and once he returned to Numidia he started waring against his brother again. He went in and slaughtered his brother and his people without mercy. The Romans were angered about this betrayal of their trust and declared war on Jugurtha.
Cornwallis – Bad form, old boy. I’ve always found it unwise to anger an empire greater than your own. The Roman Senate sent a Consul by the name of Lucius Bestia to Norther Africa to stamp this barbarian king out.
Gaspar – Bestia. That’s an awesome name.
Zach – Gaspar has a solid point there.
(Mulan nods approvingly)
Cornwallis – This Jugurtha chap has a rather different army than the Romans. His army consists mainly of light skirmishers and light cavalry, perfect for nomadic hit and run tactics.
Light to no armor.  Bows and spears thrown from a distance.  They seldom got into close combat.

Light to no armor. Bows and spears thrown from a distance. They seldom got into close combat.


The only thing protecting these guys was a tiny leather shield and a T-shirt.  It meant they could run around a whole lot, but don't expect much in a stand up fight.

The only thing protecting these guys was a tiny leather shield and a T-shirt. It meant they could run around a whole lot, but don’t expect much in a stand up fight.


Mulan – The Roman Republic had a very different theory of warfare. They specialized in mass formations of heavy infantry with archers supporting them and little cavalry to scout and guard the flanks.
They had a long way to go until they understood "style."  They copied the Samnites a great deal who taught the Romans how to fight.  This was mixed with Classic Greek Phalanx type of formations.

They had a long way to go until they understood “style.” They copied the Samnites a great deal who taught the Romans how to fight. This was mixed with Classic Greek Phalanx type of formations.


This is what the Roman army would look like in battle. No, hiding behind rocks and bushes.  No hit and run ambushes for them.

This is what the Roman army would look like in battle. No, hiding behind rocks and bushes. No hit and run ambushes for them.


Mulan – As you can see, there is a vast difference between the two armies. The Romans have a ‘dress-right-dress’ high speed-low drag proffesional killing machine and the Numidians have a bunch of scantily clad runners that can shoot and run away before a fight breaks out.
Zach – You’re not a fan of Barbarians, are you.
Mulan – I was trying not to be biased but I spent my adult life fighting filthy barbarians.
Cornwallis – No, no, I fully understand.
Olga – I like Numidians. Why stand up to big army that can kill you? If you get into fair fight, you did something wrong. Stab in back is better.
Anna – I find it most dishonorable.
Zach – So, Rome invades Numidia with their giant, slow army and find a local populace that doesn’t like them and help hide and support Jugurtha. Wait…this sounds very familiar. Rome moves further into Numidia as the invasion progresses and Jugurtha is constantly harassing the Roman army. They attack at night, raid supply lines and then fall back into the mountains when the heat gets turned up. When the heat got too much, Jugurtha offered peace with a large gift for Bestia and Bestia returned with Rome claiming victory.
Anna – But the Senate was less than enthused. They accused him of being bribed. Meanwhile back in Numidia, Jurgurtha continued his war, breaking his promise yet again.
Mulan – See! Stinking barbarians.
Olga – Ha! Foolish Romans.
Cornwallis – The Senate then sent another Consul named Postumius Spurius Albinus. He brought fresh troops and supplies. But he found the situation more difficult than the old chap imagined. Whenever he advanced on Jurgutha, the king would retreat and everything the Romans relaxed, the Numidians would attack. It was most frustrating. To top it off, Jurgutha would make promises and treaties every time he was in danger and each time the Romans would stop the war and negotiate. And each time Jurgutha broke his promises and attacked when the Romans weren’t prepared.
Olga – Romans not being noble, they being stupid.
Zach – Eventually Albinus got sick of it and left to go chill in Italy and eat some gelato while he left his brother in charge. His brother, Aulus in charge. Aulus was described as a “Coneited ignoramus.” That’s probably not the kind of person you want in charge of your army, but that’s what happens when politics decides who leads an army. Aulus gets the bright idea to attack one of Jugurtha’s fortresses that’s completely surrounded by swamp. So he moves his lumbering army into the swam and waits. Jugurtha retreats into the countryside, pretending to be afraid. While Aulus was wading through muck trying to find the Numidian army, Jugurtha bribes a bunch of Aulus’s army to switch sides. Then they launch a surprise attack against the now undefended Roman camp and force Aulus to surrender.
Gaspar – Jugurtha accomplished this daring feat thanks to “stealth suits” made with powdered unicorn horn and Atlantean technology. These invisible warriors made it past the magical sentry ballistas the Romans had around their camp. See, I did my homework.
A numidia "Shadow Warrior" in his Atlantean stealth suit.

A numidia “Shadow Warrior” in his Atlantean stealth suit.


Anna – Why do we keep him around?
Zach – He buys the pizza most of the time.
Gaspar – I have trunks of plundered gold. I can afford it.
Mulan – The romans, sick of Jugurtha’s crap, move in with this new invasion. But the new consul, Quintus Caecilius Metellus learned from his predecessors. He used far more light troops such as slingers, archers and light cavalry to advance slowly. When they got to towns they found smiling officials ready to help them. He didn’t trust any of them. He could not be bribed or fooled. A very professional soldier. I like that.
You offer me money?  And you think this gives you power over me? I will see your Numidia turn to ashes.  And then yo

You offer me money? And you think this gives you power over me? I will see your Numidia turn to ashes. And then you have my permission to die.


Cornwallis – Yes, Metellus keeps a stiff upper lip and takes his army out into the plains to chase this wily barbarian king. Jugurtha tries to trick Metellus into an ambush several times, but Metellus advances slowly and constantly prepared to fight. Finally Jugurtha gives in and brings his own army to bare. He brings his light infantry and light cavalry into combat with Rome’s heavy infantry and heavy cavalry. They would move in, unleash darts and then run away before the Romans could counter attack. The Romans largely ignored it and continued to advance on Jugurtha’s capital. By nightfall, Jugurtha’s army was exhausted and they fell back into the hills. Metellus saw an opportunity and sent his heavy infantry in to attack the Numidians at night. The Numidian army ended up retreating and it was a huge disaster for Jugurtha. Quite a shame.
Zach – Metellus continued to advance while Jugurtha harassed them. Metellus ignored him and marched straight for the capital. Once Jugurtha realized their goal, he raced to catch up. Metellus surrounded the city and began the attack. The archers and slingers covered the ladders as they were brought up to the wall. Jugurtha attacked the Roman camp and the Metellus sent his second in command, Marius, to defend the camp. When Marius arrived he saw that the Numidians were scattered and disorganized as they were looting the camp. He fell on them and slaughtered them. The next day Jugurtha could see that his city was ready to fall, so he launched an all out attack and actually drove the Romans away from his city. With winter coming along, Metellus withdrew his army to garrison the towns and cities they already held.
Anna – This may be surprising, but Jugurtha once again used deceit and surprise to attack the Romans. Metellus, tired of the war, tried to negotiate peace with Jugurtha but Jugurtha instead raised a fresh army and renewed the war. During a festival where the Romans were busy partying, Jugurtha surprised them and killed them as they were drunk.
Olga – And then he burned their houses down, yes?
Anna – No, those were his peoples’ houses. He didn’t want to burn them.
Olga – Shame, shame.
Mulan – Metellus, this old soldier had had enough. He gathered some Numidian allies of his and marched on Jugurtha’s capital. Once he arrived he put his Numidians in the front and when the people of the city saw the Numidians, they threw open the gates because they thought it was Jugurtha. Metellus then proceeded to slaughter everyone in the city.
Anna – Rather barbaric for a civilized Roman.
Zach – Those were the rules of warfare back then. If a city resists, then its fair game for slaughter.
Mulan – I believe such things should not be done by civilized societies. I forbade my armies from looting.
Zach – That’s because you’re awesome.
Mulan – I am awesome. Remember that.
Cornwallis – After Metellus’ victory, he began to pacify the country one town at a time. He built trust and friendship with the people and showed them the advantages of friendship with the Romans. This had the effect of isolating Jugurtha to the hills and swamplands. One by one Metellus took all of Jugurtha’s strongholds and cities. It took a long time, but he was meticulous and didn’t rush it.
Mission accomplished! Gaspar's photo of the Roman Army entering a Numidian city.

Mission accomplished! Gaspar’s photo of the Roman Army entering a Numidian city.


Zach – Metellus, tired of winning all the time, retired back to Rome to work on his pizza recipe. Marius was now in charge. He continued the whole urban pacification and Jugurtha grew so desperate he launched another assault on the Roman position. Remember, he was great with hit and run, but not great with field battles. Marius was hard pressed to defend his camp, but he scoffed at the barbarian and had his army pretend to run away to just behind a nearby hill. Jugurtha didn’t follow and assumed the Romans were running all the way back to Alexandria. They made camp in the Roman camp and began eating and drinking to celebrate their vicotory. Marius waited until dawn and then charged down the hill where the Numidians were still passed out from a night of drinking forties and loud music from their ghetto blasters. The Romans caught them completely by surprise and probably (some of them at least) with their pants down. Jugurtha, showing just how great a general he was, miraculously organized his army in time to avoid being completely destroyed. He attacked the Roman lines again and again; from the front, the rear and sides. Nothing worked. The heavy infantry acted as a wall he couldn’t break through. Jugurtha managed to escape but lost most of his army.
Anna – Jugurtha’s second in command, Bochus, was tired of getting his fanny paddled and asked the Romans to negotiate a peace treaty. My fellow Romans were tired of this and demanded only one thing. If he wanted peace, he had to bring Jugurtha to them in chains.
"Negotiations are over."

“Negotiations are over.”


Zach – Bochus then invited Jugurtha to a party where he surprised the king, killed his bodyguard and took him captive. He promptly turned him over to the Romans. The Romans were known for a great deal, but forgiveness was never one of them. They took Jugurtha, the barbarian king who led them around the desert for ten years and threw him in prison where they starved him to death.
Anna – That wasn’t very merciful.
Mulan – Got what he deserved.
Olga – So sad.
Gaspar – But Jugurtha came back as a Litch, an undead sorcerer and over the centuries was a continuous plague on the Roman Empire.
Anna – So, why did it take the Romans ten years?
Zach – The problem was that they had completely different forms of warfare. The Romans moved in slowly with a ponderous army, and waited for Jugurtha to face them in open battle. They simply weren’t equipped mentally or equipment wise to deal with an insurgency. Like how America thought the way to defeat an insurgency was to drive up and down the highways and get blown up by bombs, the Romans thought they could walk in and intimidate the Numidians. Turns out neither of those tactics worked. In a set piece field battle, the Romans like the Americans, will win against a lighter force. But finding people that are hiding among a hostile populace? Not easy.
Mulan – Then, how does one defeat an insurgency? I fought barbarians, but they were always invading china.
Zach – You make the populace feel it would be better for them to support you instead of the insurgency. The Romans did this by offering citizenship, roads, medicine, theaters, circuses and tax exemptions. There’s no real easy answer but the Romans finally won because they began playing the game like Numidians did and city by city, pacified the country.
That's right, Numidians.  Mess with the bull, you get the horns!  You can't run with the big dogs.

That’s right, Numidians. Mess with the bull, you get the horns! You can’t run with the big dogs.

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3 comments on “Rome and Asymmetrical Warfare

  1. paulgenesse says:

    Great post, Zach. So well done.

  2. Came back as a lich, eh? Would you happen to be a fan of Turtledove’s Videssos novels?

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