Russian APC/IFV Design Overview

A typical example of a Soviet styled wheeled APC is the BTR-80. The BTR-80 is a 30,000 pound (13.6 tonne) 8×8 wheeled APC which is approximately 25 feet (7.7 meters) long, 9.5 feet (2.9 meters) wide and 8 feet (2.4 meters) high. Operated by a crew of three with a driver, commander and gunner the vehicle also transport 7 infantry troops. The driver and commander are situated to the forward of the vehicle while the gunner is positioned in a roof mounted seat beneath the main weapon. Two of the troops are located forward of the driver and commander, while the other five sit on bench style seats in the back of the vehicle. The troops are provided with firing ports. The rear positioned troops enter and exit the vehicle through side doors that are split. The upper door swings to the side and the lower half descends downward, thereby acting as a stepping surface. This approach is supposed to let troops exit the vehicle while it is in motion, with the side of the vehicle having the doorway oriented away from enemy fire.

The BTR-80 is powered by a 260 hp V-8 turbocharged diesel engine which provides a power-to-weight ratio of 17 hp/ton. This is a significant improvement over the dual gasoline engines that powered the earlier BTR-60 and BTR-70. Able to attain road speeds of up to 55 mph (90 km/hr) and having an operational range of 370 miles (600 kms) with on-board fuel the vehicle is also fully amphibious with a water speed of 6.2 mph (10 km/hr). The vehicle is powered through the water through hydrojets. The vehicle is able to navigate a gradient of 60% and climb a vertical step of 1.6 feet (0.5 meters).

A large number of variants of the BTR-80 have been produced to meet various operational needs and customer requirements. The more common of these are noted below:

• BTR-80 – standard Armored Personnel Carrier (APC) produced in 1986.

• BTR-80M – enhanced version available in 1993 with improved engine and tires.

• BTR-82 – further enhanced version available in 2009 with increased armor, addition of spall liner, improved night vision equipment and a 300 hp engine.

• 2S23 – a fire support version of the vehicle, mounting a 120 mm mortar rifled gun.

• BTR-80A – An Infantry Fighting Vehicle version introduced in 1994 and equipped with the remotely operated 2A72 30 mm auto-cannon in the turret and provided with 300 rounds of ammunition.

• BTR-82AM – A Naval Infantry (Marines) version of the BTR-82A.

• BTR-82A – Further enhanced IFV introduced in 2009 that has been well received by Russian troops battling in Ukraine. Weapon system has a FCS and improved night vision optics. Includes increased armor, addition of spall liner to the vehicle interior, GLONASS navigation system and a 300 hp engine. The vehicle is also able to accommodate 8 dismounts.

A typical example of a Soviet styled tracked vehicle is the BMP-1. BMP-1 – Modernized by the Belarusian 140th Repair Workshop from Barysaw in Belarus during major repairs between the 1970s and 2000s (decade). The modernization package included the pintle-mounted 9P135M-1 ATGM launcher capable of firing SACLOS guided 9M113 “Konkurs” (AT-5 Spandrel), 9M113M “Konkurs-M” (AT-5B Spandrel B), 9M111 “Fagot” (AT-4 Spigot) and 9M111-2 “Fagot” (AT-4B Spigot B) ATGMs as well as a new electronic pulsed infrared jam-resistant weapon system.

Armored Personnel Carriers became common during World War II, originally introduced by the German army to rapidly transport troops along the battlefield front. Capable of transport under conditions that regular trucks could not traverse, this provided tactical mobility to support the Blitzkrieg (lighting war) form of war. The Infantry Fighting Vehicle, essentially an APC styled vehicle with enhanced armor and armaments, was introduced during the 1960s by the Soviet Union. Its role was to provide fire support to dismounts and to engage lighted armored vehicles.

A weakness of APCs and IFVs is that they could not be armored sufficiently to protect against RPGs and ATGMs. Therefore modern warfare techniques rely heavily upon mobility, with tanks, IFVs and APCs advancing quickly upon enemy units. Supported by artillery and infantry to suppress the deployment of shaped-charged warhead equipped weapons, the armored vehicle are expected to overwhelm the enemy before they can effectively deploy their RPGs and ATGMs. This method of rapid mobile combat, known as maneuver warfare, was designed to engage in a successful full-scale conventional confrontation, as combat in Europe might unfold.

Modern warfare however has tended toward descending into asymmetric warfare and urban combat, with Armored Fighting Vehicles (AFVs) often operating from isolated or stationary positions. This once again left them vulnerable to attack by infantry armed with RPGs and man-portable ATGMs. As Russians incurred heavy losses in the insurgent warfare experienced in their Afghanistan War and in Grozny during the 1st and 2nd Chechen Wars, they painfully came to recognize these vulnerabilities. Many Russian IFVs and APCs were destroyed by poorly trained but well-motivated infantry armed with relatively simple and inexpensive RPGs, ironically typically of Russian origin.

Multiple approaches were devised to overcome these vulnerabilities. These included having infantry outside the vehicle as it moved through cities to provide it protection, positioning troops at the vehicle front to operate defensive weapons, increasing the firepower available to the vehicle crew to destroy hostile enemy before they could deploy their weapons, installing lighter versions of ERA on these vehicles (the heavy tank versions of ERA damage the thin skinned IFVs and APCs) and to develop softkill and hardkill APS systems. The other approach is simply to provide APCs and IFVs with the same level of protection provided to MBTs (i.e., use tank chassis as APC/IFV chassis). Though the light-weight aspect of these vehicles is sacrificed by this approach, their survivability in insurgent and urban warfare is significantly improved. This has resulted for example in the development of the T-15 from the T-14. The Israelis are also taking this approach, developing the heavily armored Namer from the Merkava.

Soviet and Russian IFVs and APCs share regularities in their design approach, reflective of their military encounters, with designs evolving to meet the challenges presented by emerging technologies and tactics. Much like their Western counterparts, the Soviets field both wheeled and tracked APCs and IFVs that can be produced as a ‘Family of Vehicles’. Similar to the West, Soviet/Russian IFVs tend to be more heavily armored than their APCs. The IFVs ALSO tend to be tracked, permitting them the ability to maintain pace with MBTs, which their principal role is to support. For APCs however the Russians has long shown a preference for wheeled vehicles, with the West only absorbing the long established Russian approach in the 1990s. The Russians also have a strong preference for building APCs and IFVs that can ‘swim’, able to traverse rivers they encounter during an advance. While Western vehicles tend to stress higher armor levels, and therefore greater weight, the Russians keep their vehicle light enough to permit swim capabilities.

Until recently the Soviets in general have shown less interest in protecting their crews and providing for their comfort than their Western counterparts, focusing more on keeping their vehicles small, mobile and fast. Where Western vehicles tend to be taller and larger, providing more space for the occupants, Russian APCs and IFVs tend to be very low and flat by comparison, minimizing both the silhouette and vehicle weight. They also tend to be wider, and have wider tracks or wheels. Combining these features provides for optimized vehicle mobility, making them fast, able to traverse steep banks (low Center of Gravity) and able to navigate mud and snow.

The disadvantage of this approach is that the vehicle crew and dismounts (transported troops) have to operate is very cramped conditions. Therefore crews become exhausted more quickly, have more difficulty operating equipment and suffer higher casualties when the vehicle armor is breached due to slow and difficult vehicle egress. To counter these restrictions the Soviets have actually devised some rather novel innovations to improve the conditions for the crew and dismounts, and to improve overall vehicle performance.

Where older models of Russian APCs and IFVs have the transported troops enter and exit the vehicle from highly constrictive side doors, newer designs provide troops access through large doors and folding roofs at the vehicle rear. And where the loading rate of the main weapon was often only a quarter of that achievable on the more open spaced Western vehicles, integrated autoloaders has provided Soviets vehicles reload rates equal to or better than those achieved by their Western counterparts.

Another novel feature devised by the Soviets was to place the engine of their IFVs in the rear of the vehicle, providing it greater protection, similar to MBTs (IFVs and APCs more often place the engine at the vehicle front, to the right of the driver). By placing the engine low in the vehicle, troops are able to enter the vehicle over the rear mounted engine. This also permits the driver to be positioned in the center of the front of the vehicle, also similar to typical MBT design. The Soviets then place a soldier on either side of the driver, each operating as a machine gunner or grenade launcher operator. Similar to some WWII tanks, in which a weapons operator sat alongside the vehicle driver, this approach provides substantially greater firepower that can be directed at infantry to protect the vehicle from attack by RPGs and ATGMs.

Much like Western vehicles the Soviets fabricate their vehicle hulls from welded ballistic aluminum and/or ballistic steel, providing all around 360 degree protection to lower calibre threats. The vehicles possess highly sloped frontal glacis plates as well as sloped sidewalls, the oblique surfaces more effectively deflecting incoming rounds. While this reduces space availability for crew and troops, it does enhance vehicle overall survivability. With their low vehicle profile, Soviet APCs and IFVs are also more challenging to hit than their higher standing Western counterparts.

The Soviet approach to increasing the protection on their vehicles beyond the inherent capabilities of the hull have historically been more progressive than Western thinking. In many ways the Soviets have led the way in innovative armor developments, with the West later duplicating their advancements. Having led the way in developing ATGMs, the Soviets foresaw a need to counter such weapons, and so were first to develop ceramic armor solutions. As well the Soviets led the way in the development of ERA, electronic countermeasures (soft kill dazzlers and jammers) and hardkill Active Protection Systems. They also remain the only military to have integrated ERA directly into hull designs, and have APS as a standard system on their AFVs.

The Soviets also tend to more heavily arm their IFVs than equivalent Western vehicles. This includes deployment of multiple guns installed on a single turret, such as the dual 100 mm gun / 30 mm autocannon on the BMP-3 and BMD-4. Their main weapons also tend to be more multi-functional in terms of ammunition that can be fired than Western vehicles, often able to fire ATGMs as well as the standard KE and/or HE-I rounds. This provides them greater firepower and an extended maximum effective combat range. Additionally most modern Russian IFVs can be armed with various turret mounted ATGM systems. Vehicle protection is enhanced by offering firing ports to troops and positioning soldiers at the front of the vehicle to operate machine guns and grenade launchers. This set-up is particularly effective in suppressing infantry units trying to engage the vehicle.

Perhaps the most defining aspect of Soviet/Russian APC and IFV design, similar to their MBTs, is low cost and simple design. Soviet experiences in World War II convinced them that to defend their nation and to overwhelm and invader, they must be able to produce huge numbers of armored vehicles. This necessitates that the vehicles be inexpensive and fast to build. Where Western vehicles are built to a high quality standard and utilizes expensive components and advanced technologies, Soviet experience recognizes that armed forces are expended rapidly once conflicts erupt and must be able to be rapidly replaced. Therefore the fabrication quality of Soviet armored vehicles tends to be poor compared to Western vehicles and the use of sophisticated technologies is generally restricted.

A negative result of this approach has been that the Soviets fell behind significantly in the advancement of integrated computerised systems and sensor technologies. While this lack of sophistication was not disadvantageous is the early cold-war period, computerised capabilities and advanced sensors have become critical in modern AFVs, as they are essential for operating the Fire Control Systems that permit cannon to accurate fire on the move, for providing night fighting capabilities through use of thermal imaging, and for the guidance of advanced munitions.

Recognizing that in a modern ultra high-tech environment that an overly simplified AFV will not survive for long, and that replacing lost vehicle with more low quality units won’t suffice to win a battle anymore, the most recent generation of Russian designed vehicles, the T-14 and T-15, are making a clean break with traditional Soviet design. A new emphasis is being placed on crew and troop survivability, and inclusion of high tech equipment and capabilities. However, due to the relative distance that the Soviets have fallen behind in these aspects, they are actually reliant on Chinese and French computers and sensors to equip their latest generation of vehicles until they are able to catch up and develop these components within Russia.


Russia and Invasion

The “Battle on the Ice”

Winters in northern Russia are long, and the surface of Lake Chudskoe was still frozen when the Russian force marched out to meet the Germans, along with their Finnish allies, on April 5, 1242. In a scene made famous for modern filmgoers by the director Sergei Eisenstein, the invaders rushed at the defending Russians, who suddenly surprised them by closing ranks around the enemy and attacking them from the rear. The Russians scored a huge victory in the “Battle on the Ice,” which became a legendary event in Russian history.

Two years later, Alexander drove off a Lithuanian invading force, and though he soon left Novgorod, the people there had become so dependent on his defense that they asked him to come back as their prince. With Novgorod now in the lead among Russian states, Alexander was the effective ruler of Russia.

Prospects for a strong, well-defended Russian state had died with the collapse of Kiev. Andrei Bogolyubsky, a grandson of Vladimir Monomakh and architect of this latest defeat, transferred the center of power to his own principality of Vladimir-Suzdal in central Russia. About this time, a small settlement with the Finnish name of “Moskva” was established along the southern border of the principality. Prince Andrei then attempted to put down the last remaining challenge, Novgorod, the northern merchant city that had been autonomous since 1136.

According to the Novgorodian Chronicle, miraculous intercession saved the city: “There were only 400 men of Novgorod against 7,000 soldiers from Suzdal, but God helped the Novgorodians, and the Suzdalians suffered 1,300 casualties, while Novgorod lost only fifteen men. . . .” After several months had passed, Andrei Bogolyubsky’s troops returned, this time strengthened by soldiers from a number of other principalities. The Chronicle continues:

But the people of Novgorod were firmly behind their leader, Prince Roman, and their posadnik [mayor] Yakun. And so they built fortifications about the city. On Sunday [Prince Andrei’s emissaries] came to Novgorod to negotiate, and these negotiations lasted three days. On the fourth day, Wednesday, February 25th . . . the Suzdalians attacked the city and fought the entire day. Only toward evening did Prince Roman, who was still very young, and the troops of Novgorod manage to defeat the army of Suzdal with the help of the holy cross, the Holy Virgin, and the prayers of . . . Bishop Elias. Many Suzdalians were massacred, many were taken prisoner, while the remainder escaped only with great difficulty. And the price of Suzdalian prisoners fell to two nogatas [a coin of small value].

The political situation among Russia’s princes gradually evolved into a balance of minor powers. Kiev’s last claim to dominance – its special relationship with the seat of Orthodoxy – dissolved with Constantinople’s fall to the crusaders of the Latin Church in 1204.

This decline of the Kievan state and the fragmentation of Russian land into numerous warring principalities, none capable of leading a united defense, coincided with the climactic last westward drive of Asiatic hordes, led by the Mongols. Through military and economic vassalage, they were able to halt Russia’s struggle toward nationhood for nearly 200 years.

Early in the thirteenth century, the scattered tribes of the Mongolian desert – a mixture of Mongol, Alan, and Turkic peoples – were united into a single fighting army that drove across the Eurasian plain, following the paths of so many other Asian incursions, and threatened to change the course of Christendom.

The leader who organized and led the nomads in their great conquest of Asia was Temujin. He had been a minor chieftain whose success in a series of intertribal wars on the vast steppe region of northern Mongolia had united first his clan, then his tribe, and finally the majority of tribes – including the Mongols. A kuriltai, or great assembly of chieftains, in 1206 had proclaimed him not just the “Supreme Khan” but the “Genghis Khan,” meaning the “all-encompassing lord.” Thenceforth his authority was understood to derive from “the Eternal Blue Sky,” as the Mongols called their god.

Genghis Khan ruled over a people of extraordinary hardihood and ferocity. The Mongols were tent-dwelling nomads whose horses were their constant companions. Mongol boys learned to ride almost from birth, and at the age of three, they began handling the bow and arrow, which was the main weapon in hunting and in war. Their small sturdy horses were, like their riders, capable of feats of great endurance. Unlike Western horses, Mongol ponies were highly self-sufficient, requiring no special hay or fodder and able to find enough food even under the snow cover. The Mongols took care of their horses, which were readily rounded up in herds of 10,000 or more, allowing them regular periods of rest; and on campaigns, each warrior was followed by as many as twenty remounts. Their horses gave them the mobility to strike suddenly and unexpectedly against their enemies. Furthermore, the Mongols were more skilled in war than earlier nomad hordes, and they were undeterred by forest lands.

The Mongol nation numbered only 1 million people at the time of the empire’s greatest extent. Within the empire, Turks and other nomadic tribes were far more numerous, serving mainly in the lower ranks of the armies. (The hordes that swept across Russia, under the minority rule of Mongols, were predominantly Turkic and were generally known as Tatars, derived from the European name for all the peoples east of the Dnieper.) The authority of Genghis and of his law commanded unquestioning obedience. The Great Yasa, compiled principally by Genghis, was the written code of Mongol custom and law, laying down strict rules of conduct in all areas of public life – international law, internal administration, the military, criminal law, civil and commercial law. With few exceptions, offenses were punishable by death. This was the sentence for serious breaches of military efficiency and discipline, for possessing a stolen horse without being able to pay the fine, for gluttony, for hiding a runaway slave or prisoner and preventing his or her recapture, for urinating into water or inside a tent. Persons of royal rank enjoyed no exemption from the law, except to the extent that they received a “bloodless” execution by being put inside a carpet or rug and then clubbed to death, for to spill a man’s blood was to drain away his soul.

The functioning of the military state was set forth mainly in the Yasa’s Statute of Bound Service, which imposed the duty of life service on all subjects, women as well as men. Every man was bound to the position or task to which he was appointed. Desertion carried the summary punishment of death. The Army Statute, which organized the Mongol armies in units of ten, was explicit:

The fighting men are to be conscripted from men who are twenty years old and upwards. There shall be a captain to every ten, and a captain to every hundred, and a captain to every thousand, and a captain to every ten thousand. . . . No man of any thousand, or hundred, or ten in which he hath been counted shall depart to another place; if he doth he shall be killed and also the captain who received him.

Even in the far-off khanates, which the Mongols eventually established, the Great Yasa was known and revered much as the Magna Charta, of about the same time, was regarded in England. It provided the legal foundation of the Great Khan’s power and the means to administer the immense Mongol-Tatar Empire from the remote capital, which he established at Karakorum.

In 1215, Genghis Khan captured Yenching (modern Peking) and northern China; he went on to subdue Korea and Turkistan, and to raid Persia and northern India. The famous tuq, or standard, of Genghis – a pole surmounted by nine white yak’s tails that was always carried into battle when the Great Khan was present – had become an object of divine significance to the Mongols and of dread to their prey.

After taking Turkistan, gateway to Europe, Genghis Khan sent a detachment of horsemen to reconnoiter the lands farther to the west. In 1223, this force advanced south to the Caspian Sea and north into the Caucasus, finally invading the territory of the Cumans, a Turkic people settled in the region of the lower Volga. The khans of the Cumans called on the Russian princes to help them. “Today the Tatars have seized our land,” they declared. “Tomorrow they will take yours.” Heeding their call for aid, Prince Mstislav of Galicia and a few lesser princes marched with their troops to rescue their neighbor. In the battle on the banks of the Kalka River, at the northeastern end of the Sea of Azov, the Cumans and their allies suffered disastrous defeat. Few escaped with their lives, though Mstislav and two other captured princes were saved for special treatment.

Chivalry required that enemies of high rank be executed “bloodlessly” – according to the same rules as Mongol chieftains – so another expedient was devised. The vanquished were laid on the ground and covered with boards, upon which the Mongol officers sat for their victory banquet. The Russians were crushed to death.

Apparently satisfied with their foray, the conquerors vanished from southern Russia as suddenly and as mysteriously as they had appeared. “We do not know whence these evil Tatars came upon us, nor whither they have betaken themselves again; only God knows,” wrote a chronicler. Most historians attribute their departure to political changes in Mongolia.

Genghis Khan died in 1227 while on a military campaign against a Tibetan tribe. Since his eldest son and heir, Juji, had died earlier, Genghis Khan’s son Ogadai was chosen to rule in Karakorum as Chief Khan. However, Genghis directed that the administration of the empire was to be divided among all his sons, each receiving a vast ulus, or regional khanate, a portion of the empire’s troops, and the income of that area over which they ruled.

Juji’s original share was to have been the khanate of Kip-chak – the region west of the Irtysh River and the Aral Sea – most of which was still unconquered. It was left to his son, Batu, to complete the mission. In 1236, Batu, with the blessing of Ogadai, led a strong army westward. The Mongols advanced by way of the Caspian Gate and then northwestward. They took Bulgary, the capital of the Volga Bulgars, and making their way through the forests around Penza and Tambov, they reached the principality of Ryazan. The northern winter had already closed in, but Batu’s forces, some 50,000 strong, were accustomed to harsh conditions. The snow-covered frozen lakes and riverbeds served as highways for their mounts.

The Russians were in no position to defend themselves. Kievan Rus was in decline, and the newer principalities, like Vladimir-Suzdal, had not yet developed the strength to withstand such foes as the Mongols. Under siege for five days, the town of Ryazan fell on December 21, 1237. A chronicler described the ferocity of the Mongols:

The prince with his mother, wife, sons, the boyars and inhabitants, without regard to age or sex, were slaughtered with the savage cruelty of Mongol revenge; some were impaled or had nails or splinters of wood driven under their finger nails. Priests were roasted alive and nuns and maidens were ravished in the churches before their relatives. No eye remained open to weep for the dead.

Similar stories were repeated wherever the Mongols ranged. The invaders believed that their Great Khan was directed by God to conquer and rule the world. Resistance to his will was resistance to the will of God and must be punished by death. It was a simple principle, and the Mongols applied it ruthlessly.

By February 1238, fourteen towns had fallen to their fury. The whole principality of Vladimir-Suzdal had been devastated. They then advanced into the territory of Novgorod. They were some sixty miles from the city itself when suddenly they turned south and Novgorod was spared. The dense forests and extensive morasses had become almost impassable in the early thaw, and Batu decided to return with his warriors to the steppes, occupied then by the Pechenegs. On their way south, they laid siege to the town of Kozelsk, which resisted bravely for seven weeks. The Mongols were so infuriated by this delay that on taking the town, they butchered all that they found alive, citizens and animals alike. The blood was so deep in the streets, according to the chronicler, that children drowned before they could be slain.

During 1239, Batu allowed his men to rest in the Azov region, but in the following year, he resumed his westward advance. His horsemen devastated the cities of Pereyaslavl and Chernigov. They then sent envoys to Kiev, demanding the submission of the city. Unwisely, the governor had the envoys put to death. Kiev was now doomed. At the beginning of December 1240, Batu’s troops surrounded the city and after a few days of siege, took it by storm. The carnage that followed was fearful. Six years later, John of Plano Carpini, sent by Pope Innocent IV as his envoy to the Great Khan of Karakorum, passed through Kiev. He wrote that “we found an innumerable multitude of men’s skulls and bones, lying upon the Earth,” and he could count only 200 houses standing in what had been a vast and magnificent city, larger than any city in Western Europe.

The Mongols pressed farther westward and then divided into three armies. One advanced into Poland; the central army, commanded by Batu, invaded Hungary; the third army moved along the Carpathian Mountains into southern Hungary. The Mongols were intent on punishing King Bela of Hungary because he had granted asylum to the khan of the Cumans and 200,000 of his men, women, and children who had fled westward in 1238. Batu had sent warnings, which Béla had ignored. Now the Mongols overran the whole of Hungary, while the northern army laid waste Poland, Lithuania, and East Prussia. They were poised to conquer the rest of Europe, when suddenly, in the spring of 1242, couriers brought news that the Great Khan Ogadai was dead. Batu withdrew his armies, wishing to devote all of his energies to gathering support as Ogadai’s successor. Western Europe was thus spared the Mongol devastation, which, had it spread to the Atlantic, would have had an incalculable impact on the history of Europe and of the world.

Ogadai had ruined his health, as he frankly admitted, by continued indulgence in wine and women. Sensing death approaching, the khan appointed his favorite grandson as successor. But Ogadai’s widow, acting as regent until the boy was old enough to rule, plotted secretly to procure the election of her own son, Kuyuk, although this was strongly opposed by Batu and many other Mongol leaders.

Batu had established his headquarters at Sarai, some sixty-five miles north of Astrakhan on the lower Volga. It was little more than a city of tents, for the khan of the Kipchaks remained a nomad at heart, but the splendor of his court became legendary among the princes of his realm. Batu’s Golden Horde (from the Tatar altūn ordū) also impressed John of Plano Carpini, who wrote:

Batu lives with considerable magnificence, having door-keepers and all officials just like their Emperor. He even sits raised up as if on a throne with one of his wives. . . . He has large and very beautiful tents of linen which used to belong to the King of Hungary. . . . drinks are placed in gold and silver vessels. Neither Batu nor any other Tatar prince ever drinks, especially in public, without there being singing and guitar-playing for them.

Though Batu owed allegiance to the Great Khan, he now refused to visit Karakorum and to pay homage to Kuyuk. The Golden Horde remained a province of the Mongol-Tatar Empire, but Batu and his successors thenceforth administered the khanate with a large measure of independence, particularly in its relations with Russia.

The Russian princes paid their tributes directly to Sarai. The terror and destruction wrought by the Tatar invasion had left the Russians stupefied and brought their national life to a standstill. Decades passed before they began to recover, for the Mongol yoke lay heavy on them. In certain regions, mainly in western Ukraine, the Mongols took over the administration from the Russian princes and ruled directly; in other regions they set up their own officials alongside the Russians and exercised direct supervision. In most parts of Russia, however, the khan allowed the local Russian princes to administer as before.

Before the Mongol invasions, a distinctly Russian system of landholding and agricultural production had emerged. Feudalism, as it was known in Western Europe, had not yet taken hold; with vast areas of Russia still open to settlement, only the slaves were legally held to the acreage on which they were born. Land was organized rather loosely in the hands of four principal classes. First came the grand princes and lesser nobility, Russia’s proliferating royal family. Beginning sometime in the tenth or eleventh century, the princes turned from plunder and the collection of tributes to the land as the primary producer of wealth. Yaroslav’s decision to divide Kievan Rus into five portions, one for each of his sons, can be taken as the formal beginning of the appanage system, by which titles and estates passed from generation to generation.

Ranking below the appanage princes, and coming somewhat later to land ownership, was the class of boyars, who were roughly equivalent to the barons and knights of Europe. The boyars were an outgrowth of the Varangian druzhina, the prince’s retinue, made up of a mixture of Scandinavian and native Slavic leaders whose lands were secured by conquest, colonization, or outright princely gift. In the tradition of adventurers, the boyars were free to shift allegiance from one prince to another as it suited their own interests. Initially, no contract, either formal or by custom, held the boyar in vassalage to the prince, nor did a change of loyalty affect his title to his land. Service was not a condition of ownership, and land passed from father to son.

The Church formed the third and still later developing class of landlords, its right to tenure and administration independent of the princes established by Byzantine precedent. Church lands were acquired either by colonization in unclaimed lands or by donations from princes, often in exchange for the prayers of the Church.

The fourth and most elusive of definition was the peasant majority. Conditions varied from one principality to another, depending on local custom and the power of the prince. Prior to the development of boyars’ estates, a peasant held the land by virtue of having wrested it from the wilderness. This he usually accomplished as a member of a commune – a gathering of a few family units, itself an outgrowth of the more primitive Slavic tribal family. The peasant was technically a free man and remained so until the reign of Alexei, in the middle of the seventeenth century, though the intervening centuries brought an accumulation of legislation that would progressively limit his right to exercise this freedom. With the growing power of the various landlord classes, however, peasants living in the more settled areas of Russia were put under obligations, the most common being obrok, quitrent or payment in kind for land use, and barshchina, payment in contracted days of labor on the owner’s estate. Only the kholopy, or “slaves,” a motley assortment of prisoners and indebted poor, were entirely excluded from landholding during the period of Mongol domination.

The khans of the Golden Horde were interested in the conquered lands only as a source of revenue and troops, and so were content to allow the continuation of this political structure. The appanage princes had to acknowledge that they were the khan’s vassals and that they recognized the overall suzerainty of the Great Khan of Karakorum. They could hold their positions only upon receiving the khan’s yarlyk, or patent to rule; often, they first had to journey to Sarai to prostrate themselves before him. On occasion, they even went to Mongolia to make their obeisances. Moreover, they had to refer to the khan for resolution of major disputes with other princes and to justify themselves against any serious charges, competing with each another for the khan’s recognition with gifts, promises to increase their payments of tribute, and mutual denunciations.

Prompt action was taken in each newly conquered country to promote a census of the population, for the purpose of assessing the amount of tax to be levied and the number of recruits owed to the army. Mongol officials were appointed to collect and to enroll recruits. Delays in making payments to the tax collector, or producing men, or rebellion of any kind were punished with extreme ferocity.

Nevertheless, driven beyond endurance by Mongol demands, the Russians sometimes rebelled. No fewer than forty-eight Mongol-Tatar raids took place during the period of the domination of the Golden Horde, and some of these expeditions had the purpose of suppressing the Russian uprisings. Gradually, however, the khan’s grip on his vassal states relaxed. Early in the fourteenth century, Russian princes were allowed to collect taxes on behalf of the Horde, and the tax collectors and other officials were withdrawn. The Russian lands once again became autonomous, though they continued to acknowledge the suzerainty of the khan. However, internal rivalries, much like those that had fractured the Russian principalities, were weakening the Golden Horde, which was ceasing to display the bold confidence of conquerors. In the fourteenth and early fifteenth centuries, the khan’s direct rule came to be limited to the middle and lower Volga, the Don, and the steppelands as far west as the Dnieper.

The impact of the Mongol invasion and occupation on Russia’s social and cultural fortunes was largely negative, halting progress and introducing a number of harsh customs. The Mongols probably left their mark in such evil practices as flogging, torture, and mutilation, the seclusion of women of the upper classes in the terem, or the women’s quarters, the cringing servility of inferiors, and the arrogant superiority and often brutality of seniors toward them. But evidence that the invaders made any enduring, positive impression is slight. Historians S. M. Solovyev and V. O. Klyuchevsky argued that Russia had embraced Orthodox Christianity and the political ideas of Byzantium two centuries before the coming of the Mongols, and its development was too deeply rooted in Byzantine soil to be greatly changed. Further, the Mongol conception of the Great Khan’s absolute power was, in practice, close to the Byzantine theory of the divine authority of the emperor, and, indeed, the Mongol and Byzantine concepts might well have merged in the minds of the Russian princes.

Only the Orthodox Church flourished. The religion of the Mongols was a primitive Shamanism in which the seer and medicine man, the shaman, acted as the intermediary with the spirit world. He made known the will of Tengri, the great god who ruled over all the spirits in heaven. This form of worship could readily accommodate many faiths, and the Mongols showed a tolerance toward other religions, which Christian churches would have done well to emulate. The Mongols were familiar with Nestorian Christianity, a heretical sect for which Nestorius, patriarch of Constantinople, was deposed in the fifth century, and certain clans had embraced Nestorianism. Though the Great Khan, after considering Buddhism, Christianity, and Judaism, had finally in the fourteenth century decided to adopt Islam as the faith of the Mongols, they continued to show a generous tolerance toward the Christians.

The Russian Orthodox Church, in fact, enjoyed a privileged position throughout the period of the Mongol yoke. All Christians were guaranteed freedom of worship. The extensive lands owned by the Church were protected and exempt from all taxes, and the labor on Church estates was not liable to recruitment into the khan’s armies. Metropolitans, bishops, and other senior clerical appointments were confirmed by the yarlyk, but this assertion of the khan’s authority apparently involved no interference by the Mongols in Church affairs.

Under this protection, the Church grew in strength. Its influence among the people deepened, for it fostered a sense of unity during these dark times. Both the black, or monastic, clergy and the white clergy, which ministered to the secular world and was permitted to marry, shared in this proselytizing role. Moreover, the Church preserved the Byzantine political heritage, especially the theory of the divine nature of the secular power. In accordance with this tradition, the support that the Church gave to the emerging grand princes of Moscow was to be of importance in bringing the country under Moscow’s rule.

The Orthodox Church was also strengthened, by virtue of being unchallenged by other ideas and influences. Kievan Rus had maintained regular contact with the countries to the south and west. By the great trade routes, Russian merchants had brought news of the arts and cultures, as well as the merchandise, of these foreign lands. But the Mongol occupation had isolated the Russians almost completely. The great ferment of ideas in the West, leading to the Renaissance, the Reformation, the explorations, and the scientific discoveries, did not touch them. The Orthodox Church encouraged their natural conservatism and inculcated the idea of spiritual and cultural self-sufficiency among them. Indeed, this isolation, which was to contribute notably to Russia’s backwardness in the coming centuries, was to be one of the most disastrous results of Mongol domination.

Only the remote, northern republic of Novgorod had managed to escape the devastation of Batu’s westward advance in 1238. The city, standing on the banks of the Volkhov River, three miles to the north of Lake Ilmen, in a region of lakes, rivers, and marshes, had built up a commercial empire “from the Varangians to the Greeks,” as they described it. “Lord Novgorod the Great,” the Novgorodtsi’s title for their republic, had been one of the first centers of Russian civilization. Beginning with Prince Oleg’s rule in the last years of the ninth century, it had acknowledged the primacy of Kiev; but as the power and prestige of “the mother of Russian cities” declined, Novgorod had asserted anew its independence. In 1136, its citizens had rallied and promptly expelled the Kiev-appointed prince who, they complained, had shown no care for the common people, had tried to use the city as a means to his own advancement, and had been both indecisive and cowardly in battle. The city concentrated its efforts on commerce, especially its connections with the Hanseatic trading ports of the Baltic, avoiding most of the internecine strife that had wracked the other principalities. “Lord Novgorod” showed the same pragmatism in dealings with the khan.

The Novgorodian Chronicle relates that their prince, Alexander Nevsky, son of Yaroslav I of Vladimir, had recognized the futility of opposition and had directed his people to render tribute. In the year 1259, “the Prince rode down from the [palace] and the accursed Tatars with him. . . . And the accursed ones began to ride through the streets, writing down the Christian houses; because for our sins God has brought wild beasts out of the desert to eat the flesh of the strong, and to drink the blood of the Boyars.”

Nevsky also made frequent journeys of homage to the khan of the Golden Horde, at least once to distant Karakorum, and had won the trust of the Mongols. But a further reason, which was perhaps of overriding importance in gaining the khan’s favor, was that Mongol policy stimulated Baltic trade, for international commerce was the source of the Golden Horde’s prosperity. While Kiev lay in ruins, Novgorod’s trade in the Baltic, and south by the river road to the Caspian Sea, continued to flourish, and the people – 100,000 in its heyday – to prosper. Confident in their wealth and power, the citizens asked arrogantly: “Who can stand against God and Great Novgorod?”

Novgorod was unique in claiming the right to choose its own prince; it allowed him only limited authority, in effect keeping him as titular head of state with certain judicial and military functions. The real power emanated from the veche – an unwieldy but relatively democratic assembly of male citizens – and its more select, more operative council of notables, which such day-to-day business as taxation, legislation, and commercial controls. Participation in the veche was by class – groups of boyars, merchants, artisans, and the poorer people – with the aristocratic element generally dominant by virtue of its close ties with the council. Conflicts within the assembly were often violent – a unanimous vote was required to pass any decision – and meetings broke up in disorder. Nevertheless, they managed to elect their posadnik, or mayor, and tysyatsky, or commander of the troops. The veche also nominated the archbishop, who played an influential part in the secular affairs of the republic. Both council and veche had existed in Kievan Rus as advisory institutions, but in Novgorod, they represented an impressive, if short-lived, experiment in genuine democratic government.

Prince Alexander was one who seems to have enjoyed the good will of his electors. He had an equally successful record in dealing with the armed threat from the West. While the Russian lands were falling under Mongol-Tatar occupation, powerful forces were putting pressure upon the Western principalities. In 1240, Alexander routed the Swedes on the banks of the Neva River, thereby gaining for himself the name “Nevsky” and for the Novgorodtsi an outlet to the Baltic. Two German military religious orders, whose conquests were directed at the extension of Roman Catholicism among the pagan Letts and Livonians of the Baltic, were also major threats. First to be organized were the Teutonic Knights, an army of noblemen that had come into existence as a hospital order during the third crusade. Beginning in the thirteenth century, they took over lands roughly equivalent to later-day Prussia. At this time, a second order, the Livonian Knights, was founded by the bishop of the Baltic city of Riga. The two united in 1237, and five years later, they marched on Novgorod. They were met on the frozen Lake Peipus, near Pskov, and defeated in the Battle on Ice, thus halting for a time the German drive eastward.

The Knights continued, however, to harass the pagan Letts and Lithuanians, who were forced to reach out in the only direction left them: eastward toward their weakened neighbor Russia. The Mongols had ravaged Lithuania in 1258, but had then withdrawn and not returned. The Lithuanians had recovered quickly, and not long afterward, under their great military leader Gedimin the Conqueror (1316-41), they succeeded in occupying most of west and southwest Russia, including Kiev. Though technically it now lay outside the sphere of Russia proper, this new “grand princedom of Lithuania and Russia” would rival the strongest all-Russian principality for decades to come. Olgierd, the son and successor of Gedimin, eventually defeated Novgorod in 1346, thereafter subduing the sister city of Pskov, expelling the Tatars from southwest Russia, and taking the Crimea.

Meanwhile, Moscow was growing from an insignificant settlement into the matrix and capital of the nation. Of this dramatic and unexpected development in Russia’s history, a Muscovite would write in the seventeenth century: “What man could have divined that Moscow would become a great realm?” The chronicle relates that, in 1147, Prince Yury Dolgoruky of Vladimir-Suzdal sent a message to his ally, Prince Svyatoslav of Novgorod-Seversk: “Come to me, brother, in Moscow! Be my guest in Moscow!” It is not certain that the town was then on its present site. Prince Yury founded the town of Moscow nine years later by building wooden walls around the high ground between the Moskva River and its tributary, the Neglinnaya, and thus created the first kremlin, or fortress. It soon became the seat of a family of minor princes under the hegemony of Vladimir-Suzdal. In 1238, the Mongols destroyed Moscow and the surrounding territory. About 1283, Daniel, son of Alexander Nevsky, acquired the principality and became the first of a regular line of Muscovite rulers. The rise of Moscow had begun.

Among Moscow’s neighbors, Tver, Vladimir-Suzdal, Ryazan, and Novgorod were more powerful and seemed stronger contenders for leadership of the nation, but Moscow had important advantages. It stood in the region of the upper Volga and Oka rivers, at the center of the system of waterways extending over the whole of European Russia. Tver shared this advantage to some extent, but Moscow was at the hub. This was a position of tremendous importance for trade and even more for defense. Moscow enjoyed greater security from attacks by Mongols and other enemies. As a refuge and a center of trade, the new city attracted boyars, merchants, and peasants from every principality, all of whom added to its wealth and power.

Another important factor in Moscow’s development was the ability of its rulers. They do not emerge as individuals from the shadowed distance of history, but all were careful stewards of their principality – enterprising, ruthless, and tenacious. They acquired new lands and power by treaty, trickery, purchase, and as a last resort, by force. In a century and a half, their principality would grow from some 500 to more than 15,000 square miles.

Ivan I, called Kalita, or Moneybag, who ruled from 1328 to 1342, was the first of the great “collectors of the Russian land.” Like his grandfather Alexander Nevsky, he was scrupulously subservient to the Golden Horde. His reward was to obtain the khan’s assent to his assuming the title of grand prince and also to the removal of the seat of the metropolitan of all Russia from Vladimir to Moscow, an event of paramount importance to Moscow’s later claims of supreme authority.

Ivan I strengthened his city by erecting new walls around it, He built the Cathedral of the Assumption and other churches in stone. The merchant quarter, the kitai gorod, expanded rapidly as trade revived. Terrible fires destroyed large areas of the city, but houses were quickly replaced, and Moscow continued to grow.

Ivan I was succeeded by Simeon the Proud, who died twelve years later in a plague that devastated Moscow. He was, in turn, succeeded by his brother, Ivan II, a man whose principal contribution to Russian history seems to have been fathering Dmitry Donskoy, who became grand prince of Moscow in 1363. Under Prince Dmitry’s reign, Moscow took advantage of the waning power of the Golden Horde to extend its influence over less powerful principalities. Generous gifts to Mamai, the khan of the Golden Horde, put an end to Dmitry’s most serious competitor, Prince Mikhail of Tver; Dmitry’s patent was confirmed and Mikhail’s claims to the throne ignored for several years. Then, with Moscow’s power growing at an alarming rate, Mamai reversed his earlier grant and sent an army against Moscow in 1380.

Dmitry was well prepared. He had rebuilt the Kremlin walls in stone, adding battlements, towers, and iron gates. He had secured by treaty the promise of support troops from other principalities. He had introduced firearms on a limited scale. Dmitry won enduring fame by launching the first counterattack against the dreaded Mongol enemy. The heroic battle of Kulikovo, fought on the banks of the river Don (hence Dmitry’s surname “Donskoy”) ended with the Russians inflicting a major defeat on the Golden Horde. The news was greeted with great rejoicing in Moscow, though the Russians had lost nearly half of their men in the struggle. It inspired all Russians with a new spirit of independence. The battle was not decisive, however, and it brought retribution. In 1382, the Mongols, this time led by the Khan Tokhtamysh, laid siege to Moscow. For three days and nights, they made furious attacks on the city, but they could not breach the stone walls. The khan then gained entry by offering to discuss peace terms. Once inside the city, his warriors began to slaughter the people – “until their arms wearied and their swords became blunt.” Recording these events, the chronicler lamented that “until then the city of Moscow had been large and wonderful to look at, crowded as she was with people, filled with wealth and glory . . . and now all at once all of her beauty perished and her glory disappeared. Nothing could be seen but smoking ruins and bare earth and heaps of corpses.” More than 20,000 victims were buried. With extraordinary vitality, however, Moscow soon was revived, and within a few years had been restored to its former power.

In the reign of Dmitry’s son, Vasily I, Moscow was threatened with an attack by Tamerlane, the Turkic conqueror who had, by a feat of historical revisionism, claimed to be a descendant of Genghis Khan. In 1395, following his successful campaign against his rivals, the doubting Tokhtamysh and the Golden Horde, Tamerlane advanced from the south to within 200 miles of Moscow, but then turned aside, apparently convinced that another siege would be too costly to his own troops. The city was saved, the people said, because of the miraculous intervention of the icon of Our Lady of Vladimir.

Though the Tatars would continue to be a major factor in Muscovite history for another half century, the balance of power was shifting to the Lithuanian front. Ladislas Jagello, son of the Lithuanian grand duke who had brought parts of western Russia under his suzerainty, ascended the Lithuanian throne in 1377. During the Jagello era, which his reign inaugurated, the prince conceived a dynastic union with his former enemy, Poland, through marriage to Jadwiga, heiress to that throne. Jagello thus became sovereign of the federated states of Poland and Lithuania, the latter under the vassal rule of his cousin. Husband and wife shared an ambition to control a still larger portion of Russia. Jagello’s conversion to Roman Catholicism, which was part of the marriage treaty, made this imperial plan all the more dangerous to Muscovite security. With Smolensk’s fall to the Lithuanians in 1404, almost all of the lands on the right bank of the Dnieper were brought under dynastically-united Polish and Lithuanian rule.

Only a matter as crucial to all Slavic peoples as the defeat of the Teutonic Knights held them in a brief state of peace. In 1410, the combined Polish and Lithuanian forces met the German forces at Tannenberg. Their grand master, many of their officers, and a devastating number of knights fell in the bloody clash. The eastward drive of the German Knights was effectively halted for all time, but the Polish and Lithuanian drives received new impetus.

The reign of Vasily I ended in 1425. His son and successor, Vasily II, ascended the Muscovite throne against strong opposition from a powerful boyar faction; the first twenty-five years of his long reign were largely devoted to suppressing these rivals, a feat achieved only after he had himself been blinded. Events outside of Muscovy would be of more lasting significance: The Golden Horde was losing large parts of its territory to the breakaway khanates of Crimea and Kazan, and the Ottoman Turks were threatening the very existence of the Greek Orthodox Church. In a desperate move to defend itself from total destruction, the Eastern clergy had sought help in Rome, at the price of recognizing the supremacy of the pope. Moscow was represented at the Council of Florence, which met in 1439, by the Russian Metropolitan Isadore. Acting on his own initiative, Isadore committed Russian Orthodoxy to the bargain. Upon his return, he was deposed and arrested, and Moscow formally severed its ties with Byzantium. When Constantinople, the capital of Eastern Orthodoxy, fell to the Turks in 1453, no Russian was surprised. It was God’s retribution to the duplicitous Greeks. Holy Russia would find its own way.

Marcomannic Wars

Roman Emperor Marcus Aurelius [Marcus Aurelius Antoninus Augustus; 26 April 121 – 17 March 180] believed that the barbarian groups beyond the Rhine and the Danube had been allowed too much freedom of action while three of the regional legions had been fighting in the east. Indeed, both archaeological evidence and the scant literary sources suggest that the balance of tribal power beyond the middle Danube and in Bohemia had changed dramatically around this time, though for reasons that remain obscure. Relative imperial neglect probably played a part, allowing unexpected and undesirable violence to break out. Authorised warfare between tribal clients was a healthy part of Roman policy as it created a managed instability that prevented any one group from becoming too powerful and channelled the excess energy of martial societies away from Rome and towards one another. But unauthorised warfare beyond the northern frontier was something different: without sufficient Roman oversight or surveillance, it might rapidly flare up into something more threatening. Defeated war bands, occasionally whole tribes, might try to seek refuge in the empire, and while that was often a desirable way of bringing new farmers and soldiers into the empire, it only worked when such population movements could be controlled.

Nowadays Rome’s European frontiers, with their ‘Germanic’ barbarians, loom disproportionately large in the historical imagination, both popular and scholarly: the frontier is often imagined as a breakwater against which barbarian tides lapped endlessly across centuries until the dam burst and the empire fell. In fact, the political dynamics on the Rhine and Danube frontiers were similar to those in Africa, Arabia, Britain and wherever the socially more complex and technologically more sophisticated empire confronted tribal groups whose power structures rarely stayed stable for long. For those neighbours, the empire was a juggernaut towering on the horizon. Roman actions, and fear of Roman actions, shaped the decisions of barbarian elites everywhere, even those at three or four removes from the frontier itself. The churning landscape just beyond the European and African frontiers was as much a product of Rome as the barbarians: even the smallest Roman expedition could wipe out whole sections of a population, lay waste to years’ worth of seed grain and stockpiled wealth and render a group’s homeland uninhabitable. When the empire was distracted, it presented an opportunity. Not to correct the immeasurable disparity in power, that could never happen; rather to seize momentarily a small piece of Roman prosperity, accessible along well-built roads leading deep into the imperial provinces. To do so was worth the inevitable and often devastating response. We have no idea what was happening beyond the Danube frontier when some of its garrison legions were detached to the Parthian War. But the return of the legions either directly provoked a violent response or triggered an outbreak of intertribal violence that drove a medium-sized barbarian army into Pannonia.

Marcus’s response was determinedly punitive. Iallius Bassus, who had been with Lucius on the eastern campaigns, was made governor of Pannonia Superior, traditionally the most senior command on the Rhine–Danube frontier. At the same time, a man named Tiberius Claudius Pompeianus first enters the historical record as the governor of Pannonia Inferior. Pompeianus is a remarkable example of the way in which the oligarchic elite that dominated imperial government could open itself to conspicuous talent. Pompeianus was the son of a minor equestrian official from Antioch in Syria, a part of the Hellenistic east that had as yet launched very few of its native sons into the international elite of equestrian, let alone senatorial, government. On his personal merits alone, however, Pompeianus would go on to enter the senate, becoming a special friend of Marcus, marrying into the imperial family and remaining a central figure in Roman politics for the rest of the century.

Pannonia Inferior was Pompeianus’s first significant command, and both he and Bassus would experience very heavy fighting. Late in 166 or early in 167, several thousand Langobardi and Obii invaded Pannonia Superior. They had come from a region well beyond the immediate frontier zone, which was settled with Marcomanni opposite Pannonia in the modern Czech Republic, Quadi opposite the Danube bend, and the Sarmatian Iazyges in the land between the Danube and the Carpathians. These distant invaders were rapidly annihilated by Bassus, but the prospect of reprisals frightened the client kings closer by. Eleven of the middle Danubian tribes chose as their spokesman the Marcomannic king Ballomarius and he sued for peace before Bassus. Ballomarius protested his own and his fellow clients’ loyalty to the emperor and dismissed the actions of the Langobardi and Obii as a freak aberration. The plague had detained Marcus at Rome, so Bassus concluded a provisional peace and waited until his emperor was ready.

In spring 168, Marcus began a personal inspection of the Danube frontier. No one doubted that this was a preamble to war. Lucius would accompany the expedition as well, in part because the troops knew him from the Parthian War, and the project’s scale can be judged by the number of important men involved. Furius Victorinus, the experienced guard prefect who had accompanied Lucius to the east, now went north with both emperors, but he and many of his guardsmen would die, probably of plague, en route to the frontier. He was replaced by M. Bassaeus Rufus, previously prefect of the vigiles (the urban security force of Rome) and briefly prefect of Egypt. The other guard prefect, M. Macrinius Vindex, came, too, which suggests that Rome was left ungarrisoned in the emperors’ absence. Marcus’s other trusted generals – Aufidius Victorinus, Dasumius Tullius Tuscus, Pontius Laelianus, the last two of whom had both served stints on the Danube frontier – were with him, not with specific portfolios but as comites Augusti, companions of the emperor.

Our sources are confused and two centuries of modern scholarship have yet to produce a fully satisfactory chronology of what we call the Marcomannic Wars and what Marcus referred to as his expeditio Germanica. The frontier of Pannonia Superior had not been settled by the treaty of Ballomarius and Bassus, and by 168 a Marcomannic king (perhaps, but not necessarily, Ballomarius) had been killed in battle there. The tribal leaders asked Roman permission to choose his successor and Lucius argued that this was success enough: why not call off the whole campaign and spare themselves the expense and the danger? Marcus demurred, planning to spend winter outside Rome for the first time since becoming emperor, choosing instead the Adriatic hub of Aquileia which was equidistant from the capital and the frontier. In the end, sickness in the ranks proved so bad that Marcus acceded to Lucius’s wishes and agreed to return to Rome. But having got his way, Lucius proved unlucky: just days after leaving Aquileia, he had a stroke and died at Altinum. Marcus returned to Rome with his adoptive brother’s body. He was now sole emperor, as Antoninus Pius had always intended.

There was little time for grief, but Marcus had his brother deified as duty required. Lucius’s death left Marcus’s 19-year-old daughter Lucilla the widow of a divus. She may already have begun to show the ambition and ruthlessness that would define her later career, or Marcus may have felt that a marriageable princess was too tempting a target for court intrigue. Regardless, he scandalised senatorial opinion by marrying Lucilla off again before the mourning period for Lucius was over. Worse still, she was given not to a senatorial grandee, but to the equestrian marshal Ti. Claudius Pompeianus. Marcus had good reasons for this decision. Only one of his daughters was ever given an aristocratic husband, lest it lead to a dynastic challenge to the heir apparent, Lucius Commodus (he became the emperor’s only surviving son after the youngest, Annius Verus, died in summer 169). Pompeianus proved a loyal supporter of the dynasty, as well as an important patron for other equestrians. Most significant of these was Helvius Pertinax, the equestrian son of a freedman, who was adlected into the senate without ever having set foot in the senate house, or serving in the qualifying posts of quaestor, aedile or praetor. That he would eventually become emperor, even if only briefly, illustrates some of the social change that was overtaking Roman society, not least under the combined pressure of plague and war and the indiscriminate death toll they took on the traditional elites.

The marriage of Lucilla to Pompeianus – which both she and her mother Faustina had vigorously opposed – was not the only scandal of 169. New legions had to be raised for the Marcommanic campaigns and, in order to finance them, Marcus auctioned off property from the imperial household. The event was proverbial in antiquity, and has become a handy shorthand for imperial crisis in the modern scholarship, but it was a gesture of neither ostentatious self-sacrifice nor personal frugality. It was, rather, the only way to generate fresh revenue without raising taxes at a time when a badly depleted population might not be able to pay them. Fresh soldiers were in such short supply that Marcus authorised the recruitment of gladiators into the legions, an unprecedented action which drove up the price of public games across the empire and fell so heavily on local magistrates that Marcus soon enacted price-capping measures.

These varied financial expedients were ultimately successful and by late 169 Marcus was ready to return to Pannonia. Faustina stayed in Rome with the young and sickly heir to the throne, Lucius Commodus. Pompeianus came with Marcus as his chief counsellor, which meant that Lucilla did, too, as did many veteran commanders of the eastern wars: Pontius Laelianus, Dasumius Tullius Tuscus, Claudius Fronto. Where they over-wintered is unclear, perhaps at either Singidunum or Sirmium (respectively Belgrade and Sremska Mitrovica in modern Serbia), both now coming to prominence as major imperial cities. Indeed, Marcus’s Danubian wars mark a transition in the history of the Balkan provinces, previously cultural backwaters but thereafter increasingly urbanised and studded with wealthy farms and villas that would make the region central to imperial history in the coming centuries: as our story continues, a much longer list of Balkan towns – Mursa, Naissus, Poetovio, Serdica, Viminacium, Nicopolis ad Istrum – will join Sirmium and Singidunum in these pages.

Marcus himself led the major offensive of 170, pushing deep into Marcomannic territory. It was a fiasco: imperial propaganda was capable of turning a trivial skirmish into a towering victory, but now there is not so much as a whiff of success in the sources. Instead, the campaign triggered a massive barbarian invasion of Italy. Aquileia was besieged and the North Italian plain penetrated. This was an early harbinger of later history – Italy had to be defended at the Alps or, better still, just beyond them. If Alpine defences failed, the peninsula was effectively ungarrisoned and helpless. In 170, the Balkans also experienced heavy damage. The Costoboci, a tribe whose name is otherwise barely known, made it all the way to the province of Achaea, indeed as far as Attica, where they violated the shrine of the Eleusinian mysteries. The invaders’ numbers, their divisions, their routes, all are unrecoverable, but they did more than ravage crops and kidnap farmers, which the government usually tolerated as an acceptable loss. Instead, there was a lot of hard fighting against Roman forces, with conspicuous and high-level deaths: in 170, the governor of Moesia Superior, whose name is not preserved, was either killed or cashiered for incompetence. His command was given to the governor of Dacia, the experienced Claudius Fronto, who himself fell in battle before the year was out. The emperor’s own army got cut off beyond the Danube, and a special fleet command, under Valerius Maximianus, was needed to carry supplies to Marcus and his troops.

Meanwhile, Claudius Pompeianus, with Helvius Pertinax as his chief lieutenant, began to clear northern Italy of its unwanted guests. Fighting at the frontier continued in 171, when Marcus was headquartered at Carnuntum near modern Vienna. A barbarian army that Pompeianus had chased out of Italy was now trapped at the Danube crossing and destroyed. Marcus divided the plunder he retrieved among the provincials, and these victories, though small, contained the damage well enough to allow a return to the traditional policy of setting one group of barbarians against another. That seemed to work. As the end of the campaigning season approached in autumn 171, Marcus received various embassies at Carnuntum. The Quadi made peace, offering to supply the Roman army and agreeing to prevent the passage of either the Marcomanni or the Iazyges (their western and eastern neighbours, respectively) through their territory. Other defeated barbarians were allowed into imperial territory and settled deep in the interior provinces. It was all starting to look like a return to frontier business as usual, welcome because there was now trouble elsewhere: the Mauri who had caused trouble under Antoninus Pius were again raiding across the straits of Gibraltar into Spain, which required an emergency arrangement combining the imperial province of Hispania Tarraconensis with the ungarrisoned senatorial province of Baetica under a single military commander.

In the next year, 172, the value of Marcus’s Quadic treaty became clear. With the middle Danube bend and the Dacian fronts calm, Marcus was able to launch a second invasion beyond the river, focused solely on the Marcomanni in what is now Bohemia. It was another arduous campaign, during which one of the praetorian prefects, Macrinius Vindex, was killed in battle. But Marcus had gained the confidence of his troops and they began to attribute to him a supernatural ability to call down aid from the gods. In one case, he was said to have summoned a thunderbolt to destroy a barbarian war engine, an event duly commemorated on coins; in another, he (or rather his favourite, the Egyptian magician Arnouphis) had apparently summoned a rainstorm to revive his parched and exhausted troops: they proceeded to win a victory against all odds. Both miracles are depicted on Marcus’s column in the Piazza Colonna at Rome, and coins seem to credit Mercury for the miraculous victory. The scale of actual military achievement may not have been equal to the propaganda triumphs, though both Marcus and the caesar Commodus had taken the victory title Germanicus before the start of 173. Commodus may have been at the front with his father, which would mean that most of the imperial family, including Faustina, Lucilla and her husband Pompeianus, were at Carnuntum late in 172. In the following year, Faustina was hailed as mater castrorum, mother of the camps, a sign that the soldiers regarded her as a protecting patron. Not long afterwards, the rest of the family also joined Marcus and Faustina on the Danube: Fadilla, now married to Lucius Verus’s nephew Plautius Quintillus; and Cornificia, married to Petronius Sura Mamertinus, grandson of Pius’s praetorian prefect Mamertinus. And then bad news came from the east.

In 172, while Marcus was proclaiming success on the Danube front, there was either a fully fledged uprising or an outbreak of intensive banditry in the Egyptian delta. At the same time, the Parthians attempted to bring Armenia back under the tutelage of Ctesiphon, no doubt emboldened by the detachment of some imperial troops from Cappadocia to the Danube. But the scale of the Danubian war meant Marcus could not give the east the attention it needed, and there was no longer a Lucius Verus available to serve as the face of the imperial dynasty. Avidius Cassius, the long-serving governor of Syria and a native Syrian himself, was granted extraordinary imperium in the east, of the kind that no one outside the imperial family had possessed since the days of Augustus’s trusted lieutenant Agrippa a century and a half before. In practical terms, Cassius had become Marcus’s plenipotentiary east of the Bosporus and the suppression of Lower Egypt was his first task.

Meanwhile, Marcus passed most of the campaigning season of 173 beyond the Danube, possibly reaching as far as the headwaters of the Vistula. The Quadi were certainly one target, perhaps because they had broken their oath not to help the Marcomanni. In the following year, he turned against the Iazyges beyond the Danube bend, in the Great Hungarian plain between the river and the Carpathians, or, in Roman terms, between Pannonia and Dacia. He did well enough to refuse the Iazyges the peace terms they sought, preferring to continue the fighting in 175. That year brought something far worse than another round of frontier warfare: Avidius Cassius, perhaps the most reliable man Marcus had, revolted and claimed the imperial title.


Marcus still expected to die soon, and he was unsettled by what he saw on the frontiers. The Mauri in Tingitania remained uncontrollable: a group had again crossed into Baetica to raid and had even laid siege to the town of Singilia Barba (modern Antequera in Málaga province). Meanwhile, the Danube was again calling and, though Marcus would take personal charge of the campaign, he wanted Commodus to gain the experience of real war. To shore up the dynasty before they set out, he married Commodus to Bruttia Crispina, the descendant of a leading Hadrianic aristocrat; her father, Bruttius Praesens, already a prominent man when he was made consul in 153, was designated as consul for the second time for 180. In August 178, the emperors left for the Danube front. Old Pompeianus went with them as always, and now Commodus’s father-in-law Bruttius did, too. Both guard prefects, Tarruttienus Paternus and Tigidius Perennis, accompanied the expedition and both would keep their posts into the next reign. Helvius Pertinax was made governor of Dacia, to support the flank of the main army, and Paternus was put in charge of the field army; the campaign proper was launched in 179 into Quadic territory at the Danube bend. Modern scholars are divided over whether Marcus intended to conquer and hold a new province of Marcomannia beyond the Danube, but the sources, written and archaeological, reveal dozens of Roman forts throughout what is now Slovakia and the Czech Republic, and it is certainly possible to discern in them a prelude to occupation and provincialisation.

At the start of the next year’s campaigning season, however, Marcus fell gravely ill yet again. It may be that he had finally succumbed to the plague, but he had never been particularly robust, so we cannot be sure. Nor are we sure quite where he was when this final sickness overtook him – perhaps near Sirmium. He summoned Commodus, commended him to the counsel of his own senior advisers and begged him to continue the war effort whether or not he was personally inclined to do so. The old emperor then proceeded to starve himself, perhaps hoping that this would cure his illness, perhaps trying to hasten death. After seven days, on 17 March 180, he knew he was dying. When the duty tribune asked him for the day’s watchword, which it was the emperor’s task to set, Marcus sent the man to Commodus: ‘Go to the rising sun,’ he said, ‘for I am now setting.’

Commodus’s first decision as sole emperor, so far as we can tell, was to conclude a treaty with the Marcomanni and the Quadi. This left intact the old line of the Danube frontier, scotching any plans Marcus might have had for imperial expansion, and it brought to the region a peace that endured for half a century. The terms were very much in Rome’s favour. The defeated tribes were required to supply the empire with an annual tribute of grain and to collectively contribute more than 20,000 soldiers to the Roman army. They would be posted to distant auxiliary units and kept away from their homeland to break down any lingering sense of tribal identity they might have. Back home, both the Marcomanni and the Quadi were partially disarmed and forbidden to attack their neighbours – the Iazyges, the Buri and the Vandals – without Roman permission. They were also forbidden to make use of the Danube islands and even of a strip of land on their own, left bank of the river. Large-scale political meetings could take place only when a Roman centurion was present to supervise.

In many ways, Commodus’s decision to end his father’s war was wise. It restored the old imperial preference for client kingships in regions not worth the effort of conquest and it made sure those clients would be dependent upon Rome for their hold on internal power. An unintended, but ultimately more lasting, consequence was the efflorescence of civilian life and Roman civil society in the Danubian provinces, which had developed very quickly thanks to two decades of wartime investment in the region’s infrastructure. Thus it is not true, as many have argued, that Marcus’s worthless son threw away the chance to create a great trans-Danubian province as his father had planned. There is no definitive evidence that Marcus was planning to extend the frontiers into central Europe, and the return to the pre-war status quo was both strategically sound and tactically sensible. What is more, however much Marcus’s trusted old adviser Claudius Pompeianus, brother-in-law to the new emperor, might argue against the return to Rome, Commodus would have to present himself to the people to be acclaimed by them and the senate. Delay would breed their resentment, while the military’s dynasticism would keep the frontiers quiet for a time. As soon as the treaty was concluded, Commodus presented himself at Rome as the son of the deified Marcus and the bringer of peace through conquest. He celebrated a formal triumph on 22 October 180.

Marcomannic Wars

Roman Presence in Hibernia

There is some evidence of possible exploratory expeditions during the time of Gnaeus Julius Agricola, although the interpretation of this is a matter of debate amongst historians. In places like Drumanagh (interpreted by some historians to be the site of a possible Roman fort or temporary camp) and Lambay island, some Roman military-related finds may be evidence for some form of Roman presence. The most commonly advanced interpretation is that any military presence was to provide security for traders, possibly in the form of an annual market where Romano-British and Irish met to trade. Other interpretations, however, suggest these may be merely Roman trading outposts, or native Irish settlements which traded with Roman Britain. Later, during the collapse of Roman authority in the 4th and 5th centuries, Irish tribes raided Britain and may have brought back Roman knowledge of classical civilization.

Ireland had never been conquered by the Romans and she somehow remained aloof from the changes that radically altered British society. It was Julius Caesar who invented the myth of Hibernia, a land of winter into whose mists civilized men dared not venture. There may have been a self-serving element to this, the future emperor of the Romans justifying his own reluctance to embark on a potentially costly conquest. And while there is no evidence of any large Roman military operation against Ireland, there were plenty of traders willing to ignore the grim warnings and visit Ireland’s east coast. Harbours grew up to service the boats that carried Irish leather to clothe the Roman legions. The Irish cattle barons of the plains became rich in the process. As Ned Kelly, keeper of antiquities at the National Museum of Ireland, told me: ‘The cattle barons start getting notions of grandeur and they become the important provincial kings of early medieval Ireland. You have the establishment of dynasties at that time, and they continued in power for hundreds of years afterwards. They were looking to model themselves on the Roman emperors.’

The traffic in goods and ideas was a two-way process and the greatest Roman export to Ireland was spiritual. The faith that would come to be seen as an indivisible part of Irish identity was carried across the seas from Roman Britain, where it had become the state religion on the orders of the Emperor Constantine. Through the efforts of saints such as Patrick, Declan of the Decies and a host of others, the Roman faith was spread through the island, creating monastic centres around which faith and commerce could thrive, and where an aesthetic revolution would take place. Scholars came from the continent to be educated at the great monastery of Clonmacnoise in County Westmeath.

In AD 79 Agricola turned his attention to the north, advancing on both the western and eastern sides of Britain, laying out a series of roads and forts aimed at suppressing any resistance. He then offered reasonable peace terms to win over hostile tribesmen. Succeeding campaigns took him as far north as the Tay estuary by AD 81 and a series of forts were laid out along the Forth–Clyde isthmus. In doing this Agricola was intent on subduing the more northerly tribes, the Votadini, Selgovae and Novantae. His tactics were again to lay out a network of roads and forts. He tried to win over the tribes but his efforts had little success and he was forced to rely on military control.

About this time Agricola contemplated an expedition to Ireland, urged on by the arrival of an exiled Irish prince. Tacitus said that Agricola remarked that Ireland could be reduced and held by a single legion or a few auxiliaries. Given the warlike nature of the Irish tribes this would have been improbable and Agricola’s reputation was saved by the fact that such an invasion was never undertaken. Roman troops were never based in Ireland although a 16-hectare (40-acre) fortified promontory at Drumanagh near Dublin has been claimed to be a Roman fort. It could equally well have been a trading settlement. Other Roman finds in Ireland also indicate that there was some trade between the two areas.

In his biography of Agricola, the historian Tacitus writes:

“In the fifth campaign, Agricola, crossing over in the first ship, subdued, by frequent and successful engagements, several nations till then unknown; and stationed troops in that part of Britain which is opposite to Ireland, rather with a view to future advantage, than from any apprehension of danger from that quarter. For the possession of Ireland, situated between Britain and Spain, and lying commodiously to the Gallic sea, would have formed a very beneficial connection between the most powerful parts of the empire. This island is less than Britain, but larger than those of our sea. Its soil, climate, and the manners and dispositions of its inhabitants, are little different from those of Britain. Its ports and harbors are better known, from the concourse of merchants for the purposes of commerce. Agricola had received into his protection one of its petty kings, who had been expelled by a domestic sedition; and detained him, under the semblance of friendship, till an occasion should offer of making use of him. I have frequently heard him assert, that a single legion and a few auxiliaries would be sufficient entirely to conquer Ireland and keep it in subjection; and that such an event would also have contributed to restrain the Britons, by awing them with the prospect of the Roman arms all around them, and, as it were, banishing liberty from their sight.”

During the republic the Romans had created an efficient fighting machine, which resulted in the inexorable expansion of Rome until the second century ad. The Emperor Augustus, aware of the power of this force, began a series of reforms which created a professionally paid army, loyal to the emperor, and provided an officer class drawn from the senatorial and equestrian orders, following a career structure (cursus honorum) that included holding successive military and civil appointments. The underlying assumption was that Rome’s military might was superior to any opposing force, both in her fighting techniques and by the fact that Rome was destined to rule the known world.

The Romans were a practical people. Military superiority was achieved by adapting and changing tactics, and by utilizing the manpower of other areas. Thus men from the provinces were enrolled into the army either individually or in tribal groups, some keeping their own methods of fighting so that in the auxiliary forces provincial customs and habits were accepted. Cavalry units especially were recruited from such sources and provided an essential complement to the legions, which were almost entirely composed of infantry. Native forces were recruited as professional troops and this subtly began to alter the relationship between the military and the civilian. This could be both a strength and weakness as it was uncertain where loyalties would lie. This polyglot force had to be moulded into one serving emperor and empire. In addition, it was relatively unusual for ordinary soldiers to change units and, if a unit stayed too long in one area, the men might become embedded in the community. Legion XX was established at Chester about AD 87. Although vexillations were sent to build the Hadrian and Antonine Walls and to keep order in the north, the legion remained at Chester until probably the fourth century AD. Some of the wall garrisons remained in place for many years.

The Roman military force at its greatest in Britain has been estimated to be between 50,000 and 55,000 men. Aulus Plautius had arrived with 20,000 legionaries and auxiliary soldiers with nominal strengths of 500 or 1,000 men. But legions and auxiliary forces were brought into or removed from Britain as circumstances demanded. The largest number of troops was stationed on Hadrian’s Wall, and the Wall itself and the associated military zone contained perhaps 20,000 men. The number of troops stationed in Britain indicates that the province had to keep one of the largest provincial garrisons, probably the result of the hostility of its Celtic inhabitants and the fact that the Romans never succeeded in conquering the whole island. Hostile tribes in Scotland were never entirely subdued, although finds of Roman artefacts suggest that there may have been interaction between Romans and natives. Nor did the Romans conquer Ireland, which might have prevented later Irish raids on the western shore areas.

Hibernia Romana? Ireland & the Roman empire

How “Great” Was Alexander?

For all practical purposes Alexander’s empire died with Alexander. His only brother was feeble-minded, and his only heir was a baby. Neither was in any position to assert authority. But practical considerations aside, Alexander moved quickly to become a symbol of conquest. He gave a semblance of legitimacy to anyone who might desire conquest, regardless of how inherently wrong that conquest might be. He was a pioneer in bringing Europe and Asia together into discourse and commerce.

It appears as though he did this empirically, administering the Persian Empire peacefully while he moved beyond its borders into India. Perhaps he would have undertaken some systematic reorganization of his empire, stretching all the way from Macedonia to northern India, but he did not have time to do this.

Alexander’s effort to create a world state and empire were less successful. Within a decade of his death, his kingdom, loosely organized as it was, split apart. His successors, who were his generals, carved out territories for themselves. Cassander took Macedonia; Seleucid took most of Asia Minor, Syria, Iraq, and Iran; Ptolemy took over Egypt. In Egypt Ptolemy—who wrote an account of Alexander’s military campaigns— established a dynasty that endured until 30 BC, ending only with the defeat of Mark Antony and Cleopatra by Julius Caesar’s grandnephew Octavius (later Augustus Caesar) at the Battle of Actium.

Experts on Alexander’s life are divided on some issues concerning events, and how to separate fact from legend. A man such as Alexander obviously is going to be the stuff of legends; it is inevitable. As was the case with both the Greek and the Roman aristocrats, Alexander was, by our standards, a cruel man. His army suffered 50 percent mortality. The mayhem he inflicted on his enemies in battle reached catastrophic proportions. A safe estimate is that half a million soldiers and sailors were wiped out among his enemies. The losses in his own armed forces during a decade of battle were in the neighborhood of 25,000. Eventually he could not rely on reinforcements from Macedonia (it had been stripped clean) or even on southern Greek mercenaries. At the time of his death at least 40 percent of his army consisted of Persian soldiers.

In addition to this mayhem against military forces, Alexander sold probably 500,000 people, at least half of them women and children, into slavery. This was the common fate of defeated cities in Greek and Roman times. It was the law of war. If a city fell, especially if it dared to resist, the inhabitants were sold into slavery. It had been that way for Alexander’s father, Philip, and it was the same for Alexander, but on a grander scale.

Alexander was hard not only on his enemies. His treatment of his own generals and other officials was draconian. His best general, Parmenion, was executed or assassinated at Alexander’s behest because Alexander became suspicious of Parmenion’s complicity in a plot involving the general’s son. There exist stories regarding the removal and execution of courtiers and officials for what seem to us fully pardonable offenses. The two Persian officers who had killed their emperor were themselves hunted down and murdered in turn—Alexander said he was the emperor’s successor and sought revenge on his killers. Alexander murdered one of his best friends and drinking companions by his own hand after the latter had taunted and annoyed him. At least in this case, Alexander is said to have shown great remorse.

Like most men of his time, Alexander considered life cheap. He made his way across Asia trailing blood. Charity and mercy were not behavioral qualities of the gods of ancient Greece, nor was Alexander inclined in that direction. Besides this lack of divine models, Alexander had a very quick temper: Anyone who crossed him he sought to cut down immediately.

At the other side of the moral ledger, Alexander was a very brave man. He personally led his troops and amazed even his enemies with his almost superhuman feats. He suffered at least four major wounds, coming close to death on two occasions. He shared rations with his soldiers, and at times of water scarcity in the army he refused sustenance. We are told that Alexander did not condone rape, but looting was intermittently allowed in addition to his soldiers’ very high pay. One story is told that on the final march through the Makran, one of his soldiers found some good water and brought it personally to Alexander in his helmet. Alexander thanked him but then dumped it on the ground, saying that if his men could not have water, neither would he.

He led his soldiers across deserts and over mountains, into places no one else would dare go. Coming up against elephants for the first time in northern India, he was in no way fearful, but plunged ahead as he had always done.

Also, Alexander was lavish in rewarding his soldiers and sailors, especially those who had accompanied him initially from Greece.

Alexander was very courageous and a charismatic leader of men, but was he a great general? The resounding answer has been yes. In fact, a recent book makes him out to have been a model corporate executive:

The life and personality of Alexander were highly complex… . These distinct beads in the necklace of Alexander’s life are posited around real issues we confront today: How do we develop and train professionals? How do we think about basic issues in strategy such as where, when, and how to compete? How do we handle leadership transitions? How do leaders assert authority in their “First Hundred Days”? Why do leaders single out myths? What are the many styles of leadership a single person can possess in this] quiver and which to choose where and when? How should we be thinking about convergence of cultures and divergence of social mores as we seek to expand the footprint of our influence? How does one think about what to carry and what not to carry on a campaign? What role does strategic deception play in competitive situations? Why is a leader’s legacy such a delicately balanced equation that often totters on the verge of falling off a pedestal? These are the questions we focus on as we study the life of Alexander.

As a matter of fact, Alexander would not have made a good modern corporate executive. He was too headstrong, too impetuous, too intuitive. He was a general, a military leader. He judiciously managed his regiments, knowing when to engage in frontal assaults and when to use flanking movements. Again he was similar to Napoleon, except that Alexander always personally led his army from its front rank.

It was in the skillful use of infantry that Alexander’s armies excelled. This was the key to Alexander’s success—the skill and discipline of his infantry and the wielding otsarissas. It required a great deal of training and much discipline to make these long pikes effective. The Romans later would use their infantry in much the same way and conquer the world.

One of the first accounts honoring Alexander after his death comes from a Roman source of a supposed conversation between Scipio Africanus (who destroyed Carthage) and Hannibal in Ephesus. Africanus asked who Hannibal thought had been the greatest general, and Hannibal replied that it was King Alexander of Macedon, because with a small force he had defeated armies of immense proportions and penetrated to the ends of the earth, which human beings had never expected to visit.

The Romans were the first to honor Alexander by imitation. Bosworth tells us:

Pompey, whose very name (Magnus) evoked the Macedonian conqueror, notoriously modelled himself upon Alexander from his boyhood, adopted Alexander’s mannerisms and patently saw himself recreating his conquests in the east. The same applied to Trajan, who sacrificed to Alexander in Babylon, and in conscious imitation, sailed down the Euphrates to the ocean, reporting in his dispatches that he had gone further than the Macedonian king. With Caracalla imitation became a mania, to the extent that he recreated a phalanx of Pompey’s opponent Julius Caesar was often compared to Alexander, first by Plutarch, and later by others. Although Caesar’s conquests were more political in nature, he used Alexander’s mixture of infantry and cavalry to great advantage. A story is told that once when Caesar was in Spain and at leisure, he was reading a history of Alexander. He was lost in thought and then burst into tears. When his companions asked him what was wrong, he answered, “Do you not think it is a matter for sorrow that while Alexander, at my age, was already king of so many peoples, I have as yet achieved no brilliant success?”

Mark Antony could not have avoided thinking of Alexander as he married the last of the Ptolemaic pharaohs, Cleopatra. He named his son, fathered on her, Alexander. Octavius (Augustus Caesar) visited Alexander’s grave after he defeated Mark Antony and Cleopatra and entered Alexandria as a hero. Caligula supposedly removed Alexander’s armor from his tomb and wore it for state occasions.

Truth to tell, however, Alexander was fortunate against his enemy—the Persian emperor, Darius III, was a reluctant soldier. He fled from the field of the two great battles that Alexander fought against him, disheartening and dismaying his troops. Darius was slow to react when Alexander conquered Asia Minor and Egypt, and encountered the great Alexandrian threat only along the eastern frontier of Asia Minor. He could have put in the field an army of at least 100,000 but never did so. Darius III eschewed a scorched-earth policy that would have left Alexander’s troops very hungry. He failed to protect his vast treasury in Babylon and Persepolis, allowing it to fall into Alexander’s hands.

With a relatively small army, although highly disciplined and for the time well armed, Alexander showed that he was a superb field commander who could maximize his resources. Against the Romans the result possibly would have been different. In fact, the famous Roman historian Livy, writing in the late first century BC, was positive that Alexander could not have defeated the Romans. He declared:

“{At] the outset I do not deny that Alexander was an outstanding leader. His reputation, however, was boosted by the fact that he was acting alone, and also that he died in his youth as his career was taking flight and when he had experienced no reversal of fortune.”

He goes on to say that the Roman Senate and its generals would have been much harder to defeat than was the effete Darius. Italy would have been a different proposition completely. Because success changed him, Livy goes on to say, Alexander would have come to Italy more a Darius than an Alexander, and brought an army that had forgotten Macedon and was already lapsing into Persian ways. Alexander had a violent temper, killed many of his friends while in the throes of drunkenness, and made ridiculous exaggerations about his parentage. A young man would have had no success against a nation already seasoned by 400 years of warfare. It is not difficult to see where Livy’s sympathies lay.

It is one of the ironies of ancient history that a writer who lived five hundred years after Alexander should be regarded as a trustworthy and well-informed source, while a contemporary of Alexander should be regarded as “better at oratory than history” (Cicero’s comment) and as an untrustworthy romantic fantasist. The former writer was Arrian, who wrote in Asia Minor in the mid—second century AD. The latter biographer is Cleitarchus, who wrote around 310 BC and produced a work twelve volumes long, of which only fragments survive. Cleitarchus wrote most of his work in Egypt. He never met Alexander or accompanied him on military campaigns, but he was, after all, a contemporary. So much for the distinction between “original sources” and “secondary sources.”

Arrian’s work is a pastiche of many fragmentary sources, none of which have survived in undiluted or complete form, with the exception of Plutarch. Arrian insists that he had all the accounts of Alexander laid out before him and could pick and choose what was reliable. In case you wonder why nearly all the biographies of Alexander are fragmentary, it is because of the Roman school system. Certain ancient accounts were deemed classic, were used in the schools, and were widely available. Others were buried under the sands of time.

Arrian’s major interest and competence were in military history. He made use of Callisthenes, who was Alexander’s private historiographer and a nephew of Aristotle. Callisthenes’s long and very detailed account, highly favorable to Alexander, ends abruptly in 327 BC, when Callisthenes was executed for complicity in a plot against his employer.

Another writer who accompanied Alexander for the entire duration of his campaigns was the Macedonian general Ptolemy, who composed a multivolume work that was available to Arrian. Ptolemy, after Alexander’s death, became the founder of a dynasty that held the throne of the pharaohs for nearly three hundred years. He also hijacked much of the correspondence and other documents of Alexander’s reign.

Among other writers consulted by Arrian were Astrolobus, an officer who served in Alexander’s army; and Nearchus, an admiral who is believed to have exaggerated his own importance. The geographer Strabo, Curtius, and Diodorus tried to write substantial biographies, but only small fragments of these are available to us. All these writers as funneled through Arrian can be said to make up the “courtly tradition,” the sober canon of Alexandrian studies.

The contemporary writer who founded the “vulgate,” or popular tradition, was Cleitarchus. Much of his work survives, although he tells us many dubious and romantic stories. He pays attention to Alexander’s sex life, which is more than was done by the hard-bitten veteran soldiers who wrote Alexander’s early biographies. Cleitarchus stands at the beginning of a long line of romance writers on Alexander who reached their apogee in the thirteenth century AD. By then we read fantasized tales such as the one about Alexander exploring the sea in a glass submarine.

Leaning toward the classical equivalent of the courtly tradition, but with an eye to the vulgate version, is Plutarch’s Parallel Lives. Plutarch was a professional writer who wrote around AD ioo. Paralleling Alexander and Julius Caesar, Plutarch takes pains to draw Alexander’s character, and his is a finished, sophisticated work. The text of Plutarch’s life of Alexander is (for once) fully extant.

Modern scholars are in sharp disagreement about the authenticity of The Royal Journals, an official diary of the king’s reign, or presumed to be such. For the most part the entries are sparse as well as fragmentary, although statistics regarding the size of Alexander’s army have been much mulled over. The Royal Journals, however, contain long, graphic accounts of Alexander’s death.

The modern biographies are five in number: W W Tarn (1948); Robin Lane Fox (1973); N. G. L. Hammond (1980); A. B. Bosworth (1977); and Peter Green (1991). Tarn is notorious for claiming that Alexander was not a homosexual and that the king clearly propounded the brotherhood of man, an ideal derived from the Stoic philosophers. This was a cosmopolitan ideal in which ethnic separatism would give way to the social and cultural bringing together of Asia and Europe.

Every biographer since has claimed that this thesis is an anachronism or at least much overdrawn.

Bosworth and Hammond are good on military and administrative matters, although no modern biographer has seen fit to give the modern equivalents for the place-names along Alexander’s route of conquest. It turns out that half of Alexander’s fighting occurred in present-day Afghanistan, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, and Pakistan.

This leaves Fox and Green, who have written the best— although quite different—profiles of Alexander. Fox wrote a prose epic. In Fox’s view Alexander could do no wrong until he began to deteriorate in his last year. Fox’s biography of Alexander is immensely detailed. Green is much more subdued and well balanced. All things considered, his is probably the best modern biography. But you must not miss the fun of reading Fox’s Homeric epic, showered with prizes when it was first published. The fascination and awe with which Alexander was held are well communicated by Fox.

Curiously, two heavily illustrated books were published that aim to trace the complete route of Alexander’s campaigns, one by Fox in 1980, and another by Michael Wood in 1997. Two books on the subject are redundant. One reads much about the authors’ enduring scorching deserts, freezing mountains, cars breaking down, and sharing the humble food of tribesmen— who are, of course, always kind, peaceful, and generous. Fox’s book covering this painful trail was subsidized by a foundation grant. Wood is not an academic, but that does not mean he is not a scholar. He was subsidized by the BBC, which went along for the ride and filmed In the Footsteps of Alexander the Great for a BBC production with Wood as anchor and producer.

It is unfortunate that Fox and Wood could not find each other on the island of England and combine forces. Fox’s book is sharp on art; Wood’s book is more anthropological in nature, but both trace substantially the same fearsome journey. After reading Fox and Wood it is hard to avoid the impression that Alexander was half mad to follow these obscure and perilous routes.

If you take out a map of Central Asia and follow Alexander’s route through Tajikistan, Afghanistan, and Pakistan, it is evident that Alexander could have avoided some of the mountainous and desert routes he traversed with his army. It seems that Alexander undertook this very arduous journey through these lands because he wanted to test himself as a great military leader who could journey to the end of the earth as well as establish an empire. It was a trial for his soldiers, too— whether they would follow him up cold mountains and through hot deserts. He saw the trip as more of an expedition than a conquest.

The impact of Alexander on the Mediterranean world has always been a subject for debate. A century after his death, Hellenistic Greek (koine) had replaced Aramaic as the international language of merchants, government officials, and intellectuals.

Even though under his successors the empire had split into three parts, Alexander’s perpetual founding of cities named Alexandria in Egypt and Central Asia played a role in this Greek impact.

The populations of these outposts were Greek and Macedonian veterans buttressed by a polyglot merchant class. The only one of these seven Alexandrias that became a large and thriving city was the one in Egypt, which exceeded by far the old Egyptian capital of Memphis. In terms of both linguistic and economic interchange, the other Alexandrias had but a modest role to play.

Though Athens and Sparta remained independent, both city-states were much enfeebled and fell easy prey to Rome’s rising power. Rome also conquered Egypt and Asia Minor. Yet something lingered from Alexander’s effort at political unification. Bringing various parts of the Mediterranean world together set the policy and model for Rome. In a way the Rome of the Caesars was a continuation of Alexander’s effort to create a world state.

To what extent the successor states to Alexander’s were hellenized—that is, received the imprint of Greek culture—is a matter of dispute. On a positive note, one can point to a mastery of koine by an elite of higher government officials and merchants. As late as the Roman imperial era, wealthy Romans constantly kept a Greek slave, their paedogogus, so that their children were bilingual in both Greek and Latin. Greek nursemaids ensured that the babies learned Greek even before Latin. One can point also to the spread of Greek sculpture and painting to every corner of the states ruled by Alexander’s successors.

The ubiquity of Greek philosophy, especially Stoicism, among the aristocratic and intellectual classes indicates a cultural valorization occurring among the elite. Stoicism prescribed the joining of the human mind with the rational ordering of nature. In practice this meant not falling prey to passion and violence but holding oneself in restraint and calmness so as to be able to understand the rationality of the universe.

Yet according to Peter Green in From Alexander to Actium (1990), Alexander’s effort to bridge Asia and Europe had only modest success. Linguistically, only a very small part of the population in Egypt and Asia learned Greek. These were bureaucrats and wealthy merchants. Cleopatra VII {the Cleopatra) was the only ruler of Egypt after Alexander’s conquest who could converse in demotic (colloquial) Egyptian. Green compares the British impact on India and the post-Alexandrian Hellenic impact on Asia and Egypt and sees in both a very narrow band of smug elitists.

This view probably does a disservice to both hellenization and anglicization. After all, this narrow ribbon of uppermiddle-class society was important in India, Asia, and Egypt, even though they comprised a very small part of the population. Green deems these classes of bureaucrats and merchants to be “boot-lickers” who greedily sought wealth and power, but this does not seem a judicious assessment of their social value, whether in Hellenistic society or postcolonial India.

Green has another point to make. It was the Romans, rather than Alexander and his Hellenistic successors, who did more to integrate the Mediterranean world. But it was Alexander, vague as his ideals and policies were, who initially broke down the isolation of Egypt-Asia from the Greek world. Even if the Greeks’ own appreciation for cultural colonialism was modest, Alexander’s achievements were a major step in that development.

Many things changed, however, with the rise of Islam in the seventh and eighth centuries AD. A process of linguistic dehellenization occurred. Arabic, not Greek, then became the common language of the eastern Mediterranean and has remained so to the present day.

Yet the advent of the Arab language in the eastern Mediterranean did not signify the obliteration of Hellenistic Greek culture. The impress of hellenization ran too deep for that. Greek philosophy, science, and medicine were translated into Arabic, and Greek ideas continued to exercise a strong influence for half a millennium of Islam.

It was only in the fourteenth century, with the rise of militant forms of Islam in North Africa, that cultural dehellenization profoundly altered the mind-set of the Arabic world. Deep into the Muslim and Arabic centuries, the impact of Alexander’s empire continued to hold sway.

The Byzantine Greek emperor (the hasileus), after AD 312 until Byzantium’s demise in 1453, imitated the Alexandrian mode. He too wore a diadem, sat on an elevated throne, and mandatedproskynesis from his subjects.

Hymns were sung by courtiers of the Byzantine emperor associating the imperial majesty of the basileus with divine authority. A courtiers’ manual written down in tenth-century Byzantium carefully prescribed the duties and privileges of each Byzantine government official within this framework of the divine authority of the emperor.

The Russian Romanov dynasty down into the twentieth century was structured along Byzantine lines. Constantinople was the “second Rome”; Moscow the “third Rome.” So Alexander’s assumption of Persian traditions of kingship echoed down the centuries. Though Alexander lived to embrace the Persian traditions of kingship for only a decade, the consequences for the Western world were far-reaching.

Byzantine culture influenced the pattern of kingship for all kings in Western Europe during the early Middle Ages, except for an innovation (probably drawn from the Spanish Visigothic kings) by the Franco-German Carolingian emperors of AD 800 and subsequently. This involved the ceremony of anointing by which monarchs at their coronation are blessed with holy oil, the same way in which a bishop is anointed. This symbolizes that the king has been elevated to a God-given status.

The coronation ceremony of Queen Elizabeth II of Britain in 1953 demonstrated that this age-old tradition still continued. She sat on an elevated throne before which lesser mortals bowed and curtsied. Before she was actually crowned, she was given an anointing of holy oil on the palms of her hands, her breast, and her forehead.

Alexander’s legacy influenced later European royal families regarding the rituals of kingship. But Alexander taught them more than rituals; he taught the functioning and temperament of kingship. We have become used to the politics and institutions of what are, in effect, democratic republics. It is hard to think back to the advantages of kingship. But a strong king like Alexander could make lightning decisions, and the elaborate levels of bureaucracy, lobbyists, and political parties could be overborne by a king’s early wise decision.

The temperament of kingship requires all focus to be placed on the king and his family. All eyes look upward; all hopes and expectations are concentrated on the king and the royal dynasty. No event is more important than the birth of a male heir to the throne, since on the shoulders of this infant will be cast the expectations of the next generation in society. Society could always hope that the royal lottery of a dynastic childbirth could give the people another heroic monarch, another world conqueror.

Since 1750 we have analyzed the defects and weaknesses of monarchy. For long centuries the Alexandrian political system was regarded as somewhat risky, but on the whole socially advantageous. Alexander added a special veneer to kingship. He lost at least a third of his army, but he made kingship glamorous by the force of his charisma and personal style.

This was not left to spontaneous chance. Alexander’s royal propagandists worked long and skillfully to communicate the glory and anticipations of the return of the “great king,” whether in orations or histories. His sculptors, painters, and coin minters were adept at creating an irrefutably thick culture of dynasty. Art was an important form of state propaganda. The statues and friezes—and the coinage—of Alexander, widely distributed throughout his empire, were consciously intended to have a positive, comforting impact on society.

Alexander had his court artists develop a new style that we call Hellenistic art. It was grandiose, disproportional, exaggerated, propagandistic, even grotesque. It was not classicism, but it had a very strong influence on Roman art and became the genre in which sculpture, architecture, and painting were executed for half a millennium after Alexander.

Hellenistic style is meant to impress the conscious mind and to evoke awe in the subconscious. The sparse, clean lines of the Classical Era were superseded by the heaviness and ornamentation of an imperial style.

In these qualities Hellenistic art resembles another moment in imperial history—the colonial style of the British Empire in the first two decades of the twentieth century.

Examples of Hellenistic art were ornamental metal elephants, gargantuan statues symbolizing winged victory, and lighthouses twenty stories high at the entrance to harbors. There was a direct relationship between these exemplars and Alexander’s military and political ambitions. So it was with British imperial and colonial art in the early twentieth century. Hotels then were designed as fortresses and office buildings had lavish rotundas, yet what must not be forgotten was the tremendous skill of the Hellenistic and British architects and sculptors. It was an art of excess, but its craftsmanship was phenomenal and was endlessly reproduced.

The era of classical style in art endured for barely a century from about 450 to 350 BC. The theme of classical art was adoration of the human body and buildings that accommodated the body but in a restrained and proportional way. Classical art sought to avoid hubris. This classical restraint is what distinguishes the sculptures and friezes on the Athenian Parthenon that Lord Elgin had moved to the British Museum.

The lore of Alexander achieved great renown in medieval Europe, particularly in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries. A literature of romance and fantasy circulated among the courts and cathedrals of Western Europe. But there is one point of social echo in this Alexandrian romantic literature. The medieval writers intuited that Alexander made extensive use of armored cavalry. Knights on horseback were for long years the key ingredient of medieval armies.

The immensely popular Alexandrian romances in the thirteenth century replaced the genre of the “matter of France” (Charlemagne and his knights). By 1300 the Alexandrian genre had been largely supplanted by the “matter of Britain” (King Arthur and his knights).

Aside from their recognition of the connection between Alexander’s use of cavalry and medieval armored knights, there is another echo from Alexander’s life that fascinated the writers of the Middle Ages—Alexander’s involvement with India. By 1200 the spice trade with India via Saudi Arabia added exotic necessary ingredients to the plain and simple European diet. India was known as the source of the spices now demanded by European cuisine and delicate palates. So Alexander’s invasion of India was an additional fascinating dimension of his life that appealed to Europeans’ imaginations— and to their stomachs.

The Alexandrian romances of the Middle Ages reflect a whole new type of literature that developed in the Hellenistic world. Critics now believe that the the novel was ultimately a product of Hellenistic culture. The romantic image of Alexander was itself a prime subject of these anticipations of the novelistic form.

The key to the life and behavior of the historical Alexander the Great lies in his belonging to a pre-Christian, thoroughly pagan world. He remained culturally and psychologically committed to an archaic Homeric time of heroic behavior.

Alexander belonged to an age of gods and heroes. It was a harsh, pitiless world of unremediated severity and cruelty, in which the laws of war, by which whole populations could be wiped out or sold into slavery, prevailed. It was a superstitious ambience requiring that the gods be propitiated, but these divinities were lacking in any ethical consciousness.

It was a world in which women were abused and prostitution was commonly acceptable. It was a moment in time when pedophilic abuse passed without comment. Falling-down drunkenness was similarly viewed as manly and socially acceptable.

This culture produced Alexander, a man of incomparable heroism, who gloried in his physical strength and his battle-ready glamour. Overall the time was marked by a reckless, harsh ethos embedded in savage cruelty. This was Alexander’s world, and he strutted on its stage as a colossus.

People today, because of better nutrition in childhood, are on average taller than at the time of Alexander the Great. But otherwise, biologically and psychologically, humans today and in Alexander’s time are identical. We are wired the same way. Oedipal rebellion against a mother or father still affects growing up.

The difference between us and people of Alexander’s day, particularly the Greeks, so often held up to us as role models, lies in the vastly different value system, not in biology or psychology. Nurture is as important as nature. The culture in which we grow up makes all the difference in our adult attitudes toward the value and sanctity of life.

In this cultural screening process it was Christianity that was most critical. Alexander was born into a pagan, pre-Christian world. His behavior was conditioned along certain lines—heroism, courage, strength, superstition, bisexuality intoxication, cruelty. He bestrode Europe and Asia like a supernatural figure, and that is why his fame has not only endured but also become magnified and embellished by fantasy.

But he belonged to an archaic world. Christianity has screened us from that world and conditioned us to view life differently.

In 1974 a young Oxford don, Fox, tried to persuade us that Alexander was a kind of contemporary of ours. Except for Alexander’s decline in the last year of his life, Fox attempted to posit this Macedonian prince, this idolizer of Achilles, as someone functioning within our own frame of values and therefore a thoroughly admirable person with whom we can identify.

In 1986 Fox wrote another book, Pagans and Christians, in which he dissected the differences in worldview of populations in the Roman Empire. Something critical has happened here; a cultural and religious line—Christianity—has been crossed.

How would Fox apply the lessons of Pagans and Christians to his first, early book on Alexander the Great? He could not apply them, for his epic, monumentally sympathetic account of the glorious Alexander could not have been written if the significance of the huge cultural upheaval of Christianity had been applied back to Alexander.

Fox’s work of 1974 on Alexander dates from a period when Oxford was still basking in the postwar glow of Greek antiquity derived from Victorian times. Pagans and Christians appears to demand judgment on Alexander, which would be very unfair, because he is discovered to be a thoroughly pagan and pre-Christian personality.

In AD 312, the new Roman emperor, Constantine I, professed himself to be a Christian and set about supporting the church’s bishops. In 313 Constantine issued an Edict of Toleration for other religions. But in AD 395, Emperor Theodosius I canceled this act of toleration. The Roman Empire would thenceforth be a Christian state, and the temples of the pagan gods were closed.

These events, dictated by emperors, changed the world-view. They separated the now Christian Roman Empire from the Greek world of pagan antiquity. The birth of Christianity and its wide acceptance in the Western world brought about a vast cultural and political revolution.

Alexander the Great was the supreme exemplar of that old pagan world. He worshipped at the shrines of Zeus and other gods and even began to believe that Zeus was his father. Alexander represented himself as the image of the Homeric hero Achilles and brandished what he claimed was Achilles’ magical shield.

Alexander emphasized the attributes of courage and strength. Under the laws of war he leveled cities and sold their inhabitants into slavery. He was merciless, even to those he cared for. He risked the dismay of his Companions, and when, in a drunken stupor, he killed one of his best friends, his act ultimately led to an assassination attempt against him. He had a lifelong gay lover; he consorted with whores; he was a drunkard.

The Athenian tragedians warned against arrogance, and Plato and Aristotle sought the refinements of reason. But these qualifications to the spirit of paganism did not seem to affect Alexander, although Aristotle had been his tutor in his early years. He sought glory on the battlefield, stole the Persian emperor’s treasury, and disported himself like a Homeric hero, all without conscience. In his lifetime he caused the deaths of half a million of his enemies’ soldiers and accepted with apparent equanimity the loss of at least 25,000 of his own battle-hardened soldiers.

In time the church would educate heroic kings in an alternative ethic, never completely but at least partially. Christian kings, however, still yearned for the image of Alexander the Great. They sensed that at the dawn of recorded history there was a superhero with pagan values. And so, in spite of the application of another value system, Alexander remained, for the Middle Ages, a model king.

Alexander was, however, transformed in the European imagination. Stories about his life took on the gloss of Christian chivalry and courtliness. Twelfth-century romances sought to combine antique heroism with an up-to-date Christian sentimentality. The result was a species of magic realism or fantasy which had no connection to the real Alexander. Thus is history re-created from one era to another.

An image of a gruff and maniacal but brilliantly competent and self-assured personality imprints itself over time. Poets come along and re-create that image and gloss it over. The image takes on accoutrements of romanticization and idealism that depart from the natural, original, prosaic image and become intermixed in a new genre. Then some don—Le Fox— creates a new image of unexcelled glory.

To paraphrase L. P. Hartley (in his novel of 1953, The Go-Between), antiquity was another country; they did things differently there. The Victorians were enamored of the Greeks and viewed them, especially the Athenians, as idealistic and compassionate people. After a hundred years of scholarship, we know better.

We would find the ancient Greeks a strange people indeed. They were courageous and bold to a fault, but they were also heartless and cruel. They slaughtered one another in trivial wars. They were superstitious and fanatical. They knew they were vulnerable, but an inner demon drove them into battle. With only swords, shields, and pikes to fight with, they inflicted catastrophic and terrible cutting wounds on one another.

The Greeks had little in the way of machinery, except to besiege cities. Yet they unflinchingly slaughtered one another in the name of honor. The strong man prevailed. All others were left for dead on the battlefield. The Greeks directed their strength and energy into making war. Then they sat around their campfires and recited stories about the heroes of old.

Because the Greeks had talented poets and artists, they were able to create from their bellicose and unpitying society an imaginative culture that impressed itself upon many later generations. The Romans were much like the Greeks, but the Romans established a peaceful empire built on the concept of law and order. They built aqueducts to bring water into their cities and built roads to carry their civilization to the ends of their empire. The Greeks had only heroes, who with a sense of honor laid waste to their cities and engaged in perpetual conflict unto death.

Alexander will always remain in the minds of most people as “great.” Even those who have not studied his life extensively have heard of his exploits in battle, his skill in military organization, and himself as a young man who accomplished great things before his untimely death. Regardless of his flaws, and they were many, he is seen as great because of who he was, not necessarily for what he did.

Italian Submarines Operating Outside the Mediterranean

The Barbarigo, seen here in the Garonne estuary returning to Bordeaux after an Atlantic patrol, was the most successful submarine of the Marcello class, sinking seven ships totalling 39,300 grt. With LtCdr. Enzo Grossi in command, the Barbarigo attacked two groups of enemy warships, one off Brazil in May and one off Freetown in October 1942 respectively. Both attacks took place at night, and in each case one US battleship was reported as sunk, thus giving a big boost to Italian wartime propaganda. Actually, the ships attacked by the Barbarigo were much smaller and none was sunk. The two events won LtCdr. Grossi important decorations and awards, but he was stripped of them after the war, sparking numerous controversies which lasted for many years after the end of the Second World War. The Barbarigo was sunk by enemy aircraft in the Bay of Biscay, probably between 17 and 19 June 1943.

An armed guard of the Reggimento San Marco saluting the submarine Da Vinci entering the ‘Betasom’ lock on 31 October 1940, at the end of her first Atlantic mission.

Submarines in the Atlantic

The Comando Gruppo Sommergibili Atlantico (Atlantic Submarine Command) was established at Bordeaux, France on 1 September 1940. This was a direct consequence, following the treaty signed in Berlin by Italy and Germany on 22 May 1939, of the operational agreements between the Kriegsmarine and the Regia Marina to conduct a naval war against Great Britain that would include action against merchant shipping in the Atlantic.

The Regia Marina’s choice for an independent submarine base on the French Atlantic coast (excluding of course ports and bases already being used by the Germans), fell on the river port of Bordeaux, located on the Garonne, about 50 miles upstream from its mouth on the Bay of Biscay, originating from the confluence of the Garonne and Dordogne in the wide estuary of the Gironde. From the letter ‘B’ (Beta in the naval phonetic alphabet and also the initial letter of ‘Bordeaux’) the code name ‘Betasom’ – i.e. ‘Bordeaux – Comando sommergibili’ – was derived and it became both the official and the common term for the Italian Atlantic submarine base.

Repair, supply and command facilities were soon established on one of the tidal basins south of Bordeaux, as well as accommodation for the boats’ crews; the requisitioned French liner De Grasse (18,435 grt) and the German passenger ship Usaramo (7,775 grt) were berthed on the Garonne river near the lock, to be used as tenders and barracks ships, with medical facilities and an infirmary for 24 patients aboard the De Grasse. Two hundred and twenty-five men of the Battaglione San Marco provided security for the base, and there were also German army units stationed in the surrounding area.

Rear Admiral Angelo Parona was the first CinC of ‘Betasom’, with Capt. Aldo Cocchia as Chief of Staff; Cocchia was replaced in April 1941 by Capt. Romolo Polacchini who, at the end of 1941, relieved Adm. Parona as CinC; on 2 December 1942 – upon his promotion to Rear Admiral – Polacchini was relieved by Capt. Enzo Grossi, who held the post until 8 September 1943, later choosing to collaborate with the Germans.

The first boat to arrive at ‘Betasom’ was the Malaspina on 4 September 1940, at the end of her first Atlantic patrol just four days after the establishment of the base. A few days later the Barbarigo also arrived, and before the end of September four more boats (Dandolo, Marconi, Finzi and Bagnolini) followed. By the end of October, there were eighteen Italian submarines at Bordeaux as in the meanwhile twelve more boats (Emo, Tarantini, Torelli, Faà di Bruno, Otaria, Baracca, Giuliani, Glauco, Calvi, Tazzoli, Argo and Da Vinci) had arrived. Before the end of the year, nine further boats reached Bordeaux: four in November (Veniero, Nani, Cappellini and Morosini) and five (Marcello, Bianchi, Brin, Velella and Mocenigo) in December. Almost all of the boats based in Bordeaux up to the end of 1940 were originally part of the Gruppi sommergibili of La Spezia and Naples, and only four had come from Taranto.

In March 1941, the submarines Guglielmotti, Archimede, Ferraris and Perla, which had fled from Massawa in Italian East Africa after the evacuation of that base, arrived in Bordeaux; almost two years later on 20 February 1943 the Cagni also arrived in Bordeaux, after leaving La Maddalena on 6 October 1942 and thus having conducted an unbelievably long voyage (136 days) that brought her to patrol the western African coast before steaming northbound to Bordeaux.

Altogether, thirty-two Italian boats operated in the Atlantic between 1940 and 1943, of which sixteen were lost as shown in the following list:

1940: Tarantini, Faà di Bruno and Nani.

1941: Marcello, Glauco, Bianchi, Baracca, Malaspina, Ferraris, Marconi.

1942: Calvi and Morosini.

1943: Archimede, Tazzoli, Da Vinci and Barbarigo.

Of the sixteen remaining boats, on 8 September 1943 the Cagni was in the southern Indian Ocean, and made for the Allied port of Durban, South Africa; prior to that, other submarines had returned to the Mediterranean and only seven boats were in Bordeaux as of mid-1943: Cappellini, Tazzoli, Giuliani, Barbarigo, Finzi, Bagnolini and Torelli. All were scheduled to be converted into transport submarines to ferry strategic materials to and from the Far East and, in fact, three one-way transport missions were carried out successfully. Tazzoli and Barbarigo were sunk on their first missions, while Cappellini, Giuliani and Torelli managed to reach Singapore between July and August 1943; after the Armistice they were seized by the Japanese, and later handed over to the Kriegsmarine. The Giuliani was lost in 1944, while the Cappellini and Torelli came under Japanese control after May 1945 and were scrapped after the war. The two last transport boats – Bagnolini and Finzi – were being overhauled at Bordeaux when the Armistice was proclaimed, and were thus seized by the Germans. Altogether, the thirty-two submarines of the Regia Marina operating in the Atlantic between 1940 and 1943 sank 101 Allied merchant ships totalling 568,573 grt; an additional four freighters (35,765 grt) were damaged. The most successful submarine was the Da Vinci, with sixteen ships totalling over 120,000 grt, and other boats sank from one to seven ships each; only four submarines (Faà di Bruno, Glauco, Marcello and Velella) sank no ships at all.

The Red Sea

The Red Sea and the eastern Indian Ocean were the most important of the Regia Marina’s subsidiary theatres of operations in the Second World War, as the Italians had maintained a naval presence there since the end of the nineteenth century. On 10 June 1940 the first-line naval assets in the area consisted of six destroyers, eight submarines, four torpedo boats, the colonial sloop Eritrea, five MAS and other smaller vessels based at Massawa.

Three submarines (Macallé, Torricelli and Galvani) were lost and one captured (Galilei) by the end of June; some success was scored against British shipping in the Red Sea, but on 20 September 1940 the destroyer Nullo was lost in action with enemy ships. By early 1941 the British offensive against Italian Somaliland had begun, and Chisimaio was evacuated on 12 February; in early March, the four surviving submarines (Perla, Ferraris, Archimede and Guglielmotti) sailed for Bordeaux via the Cape of Good Hope and, between 1 and 4 April, the three Leone class destroyers, as well as the Manin and Battisti, were all lost. On 16 April 1941, the gun batteries on the Dahlahc Islands, off Massawa, surrendered and the Italian presence in East Africa swiftly came to an end: the Amba Alagi area fell on 27 May, Assab on 11 June and the last Italian stronghold, Gondar, fell on 27 November 1941.

Four ‘CB’ type midget submarines at Sevastopol in July 1942, moored at one of the quays of the large Soviet naval base there that was now under Axis control.

The Black Sea

Following the Axis offensive against the USSR, between late April and May 1942 the first MAS of the Regia Marina began to arrive at Foros in the Crimea, soon followed by some ‘CB’-type midget submarines and other surface assault craft. After the fall of Sevastopol, on 3 August 1942 MAS 568 torpedoed and seriously damaged the Soviet cruiser Molotov but, as the Axis situation on the Eastern Front deteriorated, all Italian naval activity came to an end in May 1943, and the remaining MAS and ‘CB’ were handed over to the Kriegsmarine. Finally, it should be remembered that four MAS (’526-’529) were transferred to the Baltic to operate on Lake Ladoga in support of the Axis forces engaged in the siege of Leningrad between April and November 1942.

Polish Armoured Divisions Post 1939 Part I

In 1941, the Polish-Soviet military convention permitted the formation of the `Polish Army in Russia’ under General Wladyslaw Anders. This decision launched one of the epic odysseys of modern warfare, worthy of Xenophon’s `Ten Thousand’. Polish refugees and deportees who had withstood the rigours of Stalin’s Arctic camps or of Siberian exile drifted into the collecting centres at Buzuluk on the Volga and at Yangi-Yul in Uzbekistan, and in March 1942, after endless obstructions by the Soviet authorities, crossed into British-controlled Persia. From there, the civilians were transferred to safety in India or Africa; the young men and women of military age were sent to Palestine for training. Many Polish Jews (Corporal Begin among them) opted to stay in Palestine, eventually to fight their British protectors and to launch the state of Israel. But the merger of the main body of Anders’s Army with Kopan’ski’s Brigade produced the `Second Corps’ which moved on to Cairo and joined the British Army in North Africa. In the next three years, fighting in the ranks of Montgomery’s Eighth Army, the Second Corps covered itself with glory-at Tobruk (1942), at Monte Cassino (1944), and at Bologna (1945).

Meanwhile, the Polish `First Corps’ of General Marian Kukiel was stationed in Scotland. At first, an excess of officers and too few men caused difficulties; and the island of Bute (known to the Poles as `the island of snakes’) was incongruously designated as a Polish political detention district. Later, through re-equipment and recruitment, five full divisions emerged. The Polish Parachute Brigade, under BrigadierGeneral Sosabowski, took part in the ill-fated landings at Arnhem. The First Polish Armoured Division of General Maczek played a crucial role at the Falaise Gap in the break-out from the Normandy beaches, and ended the War accepting the surrender of Wilhelmshaven.

No one can question the fact that the Polish Armed Forces, in total some 228,000 men under arms by 1945, set an outstanding example of duty and sacrifice in the Allied defeat of Nazi Germany. No Pole who loves his country can fail to honour their memory.

The unfortunate German-Polish War did not put an end to the Polish armoured forces. Many Polish soldiers having escaped to France, one ‘brigade polonaise’, with two battalions of R-35 tanks, was raised with them from April 1940 onwards. They fought gallantly during the French disaster and a number of them were, once again, evacuated to England. They formed, via an Army Tank Brigade and a reborn 10th Cavalry Brigade, the nucleus of an armoured division. Created in the spring of 1942, with Covenanter then Crusader III tanks, and later with Cromwell and Sherman tanks, the 1st Free Polish Armoured Division fought in Normandy, Belgium, Holland and Germany. Another Polish armoured brigade, formed in 1943 from personnel saved from Russian camps, had been engaged on the Italian front and later expanded into the 2nd Polish Armoured Division (2nd Warszawska Armoured Division). Both units were demobilised after the war.

Polish Soldiers

Some 100,000 Polish soldiers managed to evade capture and escaped through Romania, Hungary, and the Baltic states. Many eventually made their way to France and joined the Polish government-in-exile, which was headed by General Władysław Sikorski. Meanwhile, as early as May 1939, Polish and French officials had discussed the feasibility of forming military units manned by some of the half million Polish immigrants then living in France. By May 1940, the reconstituted Polish army in France had some 84,500 troops organized into two infantry divisions and a mechanized brigade. In addition, the Podhale Rifle Brigade fought in Norway and at Narvik, and the independent Carpathian Rifle Brigade was formed in the Middle East.

During the 1940 France Campaign, the Polish 1st Grenadier Division was destroyed fighting in Lorraine. The 2nd Rifle Division escaped into Switzerland, and its soldiers were interned there for the remainder of the war. Only some 30 percent of the Polish army managed to escape to Britain, where it again reconstituted and formed the Polish I Corps. That unit eventually consisted of the 1st Armored Division, the 4th Infantry Division, and the 1st Independent Parachute Brigade. The parachute brigade’s most celebrated battle was its doomed jump into Arnhem to support the British there in Operation MARKET-GARDEN in September 1944.

1st Armored Division History

The Polish 1st Armoured Division (Polish 1 Dywizja Pancerna) was an Allied military unit during World War II, created in February 1942 at Duns in Scotland. At its peak it numbered approximately 16,000 soldiers. It was commanded by General Stanisław Maczek.

The division was formed as part of the I Polish Corps In the early stages the division was stationed in Scotland and guarded approximately 200 kilometres of British coast.


By the end of July 1944 the division had been transferred to Normandy. The final elements arrived on August 1 and the unit was attached to the First Canadian Army. It entered combat on August 8 during Operation Totalize. The division twice suffered serious bombings by Allied aircraft which accidentally bombed friendly troops, but yet it achieved a victory against the Wehrmacht in the battles for Mont Ormel, and the town of Chambois. This series of offensive and defensive operations came to be known as the Battle of Falaise in which a large number of German Wehrmacht and SS divisions were trapped in the Falaise pocket and subsequently destroyed. Maczek’s division had the crucial role of closing the pocket at the escape route of those German divisions, hence the fighting was absolutely desperate and the 2nd Polish Armoured Regiment, 24th Polish Lancers and 10th Dragoons supported by the 8th and 9th Infantry Battalions took the brunt of German attacks trying to break free from the pocket. Surrounded and running out of ammunition they withstood incessant attacks from multiple fleeing panzer divisions for 48 hours until they were relieved.

Falaise pocket

In accordance with the 1943 directive of the Combined Chiefs of Staff, the 1st Polish Armoured Division was not used in Operation Overlord but held in reserve. The division had struggled to reach its full establishment, and in 1943 Sosnokowski had stripped the infantry regiments in Scotland to fill it. On 1 August, the strength of the 1st Armoured Division was 13,000 officers and men, equipped with 381 tanks, 473 artillery pieces and 3,050 vehicles. 56 Its commander was General Maczek, who had led an armoured unit in Poland in September 1939 and in France in 1940. The insignia of the division was the helmet and Husaria eagle wings, which had been worn on the shoulders of the Polish soldiers who, under King Jan Sobieski, had stopped the Turks at the gates of Vienna in 1683 and saved Christendom in Europe. The division was nicknamed `The Black Devils’. On 1 August, the day on which the Warsaw Uprising was launched, the 1st Armoured Division crossed the Channel. It was placed under the 1st Canadian Army, commanded by Lieutenant-General Henry Crerar, and its objective was to assist in trapping the bulk of the German armies at Falaise.

Operation Totalise was the name given to the drive by the II Canadian Armoured Division, commanded by Lieutenant-General Guy Simonds, and the 1st Polish Armoured Division towards Falaise to cut off the German retreat to the Seine. It was launched on 7 August and began disastrously when the American bombers dropped their bombs on the Polish and Canadian front lines, killing 315 men. Attempts on the ground to alert the bombers to their error by throwing yellow smoke grenades came to nothing because the Americans were using yellow flares to mark their target.

A Canadian Spitfire pilot, after vainly trying to divert the first two waves of Fortresses that were bombing the gun lines, deliberately shot down the leader of the third wave to the accompaniment of tumultuous applause from the scattered, frightened soldiery below. The crew baled out.

Operation Totalise failed in the face of fierce resistance by the SS Hitlerjugend Panzer Division.

On 13 August, Operation Tractable opened with an attack by the Canadians towards Falaise and a drive by the Poles on the left flank towards Thun. Again American bombers bombed the allied positions, this time in the rear, causing 391 casualties. The Poles succeeded in breaking through the German defences and, on 15 August, the Polish reconnaissance regiment, the 10th Mounted Rifles, reached and secured a crossing over the river Dives near Jort. Further south the American army had reached Argentan. A Polish participant, Ryszard Zolski, recalled the tempo of the battles:

Falaise will be remembered as the most murderous battlefield of the invasion, where the might of the German Army clashed with the armies of America, England, Canada and Poland – where the Germans were determined to fight – not counting the cost, even to the last man. My God, how they fought – bravely and with determination, until at the end, hardly recognisable as human at all, only tattered remnants of clothing, flesh of men and horses, jumbled up with smashed armour, tanks and the like. Attack from the air, bombing, rockets, machine guns, together with our artillery, grenades and armour of every sort, finally annihilated their mighty army, and halted their retreat. Falaise – one of the most costly battles of the war, both in men and armament.

Maczek now split his limited forces: on 17 August he ordered the 24th Lancers, 10th Mounted Rifles and 2nd Armoured Regiment to advance towards Chambois, while the remainder of the division occupied a vital piece of high ground, Mont Ormel, also known as Hill 262 and `The Mace’.

The Poles had mixed fortunes on the road to Chambois, when the 2nd Armoured Regiment ended up in Les Chameaux, a few miles from Chambois, because their French guide had become disorientated in the dark. It was fortuitous because at Les Chameaux the Poles found and destroyed the rearguard of the 2nd Panzer Division before turning towards their target. On the way when they encountered a German motorised column in the dark:

The Germans halt their units and allow our column to pass. They even post a German soldier to regulate the traffic. He should be able to discern the American Shermans and those large white stars on the tanks and on my carriers. But it is still totally black. We just ride in front of the German column.

The 2nd Tactical Air Force flew sortie after sortie as Chambois `was delivered to the flames . . . The roads leading to it and the side streets were jammed with German armour already alight or smouldering, enemy corpses and a host of wounded soldiers.’ The Poles took so many prisoners that they struggled to spare enough men to guard them. On 19 August, the Poles linked up with the 90th United States Infantry Division. Lieutenant George Godrey noted of the Poles: `They were excellent fighters and very cold-blooded.’

The main body of the Poles was on `The Mace’, so nicknamed by Maczek because of its shape. This high, wooded escarpment overlooked the Chambois-Vimoutiers road along which the German forces were trying to escape eastwards under allied artillery fire. The Polish force expected an early reinforcement by the Canadian 4th Armoured Division under Major-General George Kitching, as they were rapidly running out of food and ammunition, despite receiving a limited resupply by a parachute drop, and they asked the Canadians to speed up their relief. Kitching, however, refused to do so and was sacked by Simonds. Then on 20 August, elements of Der Führer Regiment of the 2nd SS Panzer Division and of the 9th SS Panzer Division Der Hohenstaufen mounted an assault directly on the Mace: `Every combination of tactics was used: conventional infantry assaults, combined panzer and grenadier, unsupported Panther attacks, savage bombardments or no barrage at all.’ Second Lieutenant Tadeusz Krzyzaniak commented on the fighting:

Where are we? Where are they? In fact I know very well. THEY are in front of us, WE behind. At the same time, THEY are behind us, WE in front. Then it’s the opposite. Everywhere explosions, and everywhere blood: the blood of horses, the blood of others, and my blood.

All day the battle raged, with high casualties among both the attacking SS formations and the Polish defenders. Finally, on 21 August, the Canadians reached the beleaguered Poles and Ed Borowicz noted their reaction:

On the top of Hill 262 stands Lieut. Col Nowaczynski, the battalion commander, with the commander of the Canadian tanks, staring in silence at the battlefield. Over the khaki uniforms, at the emerald-blue lance pennons of the dead soldiers of the 8th Battalion, the disfigured faces, jutting jaws and teeth in deathly smiles, human parts – torsos, legs, bloodied stretchers, pieces of an anti-tank gun, and nearby a barrel of a broken mortar in the convulsive grip of a dead gunner. In the middle of a few blackened, smoking Shermans, on their turrets hangs a leaning torso, half scorched hands lying listlessly.

Tomasz Potworowski and a friend visited the scene a few days later and observed: `Already by then the Canadian sappers charged with clearing the mess had erected a sign on the “Mace” which read: “A Polish Battlefield.” Polish losses up to 22 August were 325 killed and 1,116 wounded or missing: this was 10 per cent of the division’s strength. Sosnkowski telegraphed his troops from London: `Your sacrifices will enable the rights of Poland to be established on an indestructible foundation.’ The Germans left behind 50,000 dead and 200,000 taken prisoner in the Falaise Pocket.