Very Early Warships

The Greek Armada sails to the city of Troy in Warner Bros. Pictures' epic action adventure "Troy," starring Brad Pitt, Eric Bana and Orlando Bloom. PHOTOGRAPHS TO BE USED SOLELY FOR ADVERTISING, PROMOTION, PUBLICITY OR REVIEWS OF THIS SPECIFIC MOTION PICTURE AND TO REMAIN THE PROPERTY OF THE STUDIO. NOT FOR SALE OR REDISTRIBUTION.

Piracy was an ancient custom in the eastern Mediterranean. But none of this normally involved fighting at sea. Pirates rarely pursued merchants on the open sea because all ships carried both sails and oars and were therefore difficult to catch. (Pure sailing ships did not appear until the late sixth century BC.) The standard piratical procedure was doubtless that described in the Odyssey: the raiders beached their boats in the vicinity of a coastal town and then captured the place by land. Raiders could also blockade harbours by intercepting ships at the harbour mouth, and we hear of Levantine ports in the Bronze Age being blockaded in wartime, but as no ship could stay out to sea for very long this strategy required prior control of the coast so that the port could be besieged by land and sea simultaneously. In all these cases it would obviously have been desirable to cut off and board enemy ships at sea, but for the reason already mentioned this was difficult to do. The relief at Medinet Habu shows Egyptian ships intercepting the invading Philistines; but that was in the mouth of the Nile, and even there the feat must have required good timing.

None of the ships in the Medinet Habu relief have rams, so this device did not exist around 1200 BC. But the evidence of Greek vase paintings shows that by around 800 BC the practice of fixing bronze rams to the prows of ships so that they could be used as weapons against other ships had become standard in the Mediterranean. Owing to the lack of pictorial records from the intervening centuries we cannot say with certainty when or where this device was invented, but it seems likely that it appeared within a century or so after 1200 BC, for much of the sacking of cities at that time was the work of coastal raiders, and there was urgent need for some method of coastal defence. It is unlikely to have been invented by the raiders, as it is not in the interest of pirates to sink their prey; but after coastguards had rams, pirates of course acquired them too. The likeliest inventors of ramming were the Phoenicians, the leading seafarers of the time.

The standard warship of the early Iron Age was the penteconter, a 100-foot galley propelled by fifty oarsmen, twenty-five on each side; the word ‘warship’ is somewhat misleading, as there was no distinction between ships of war and merchant vessels, and the penteconters were equally useful for transporting trade goods (which were of small bulk at this time) and protecting them. In such ships the Phoenicians, followed by the Greeks, opened up the whole of the western Mediterranean to trade and colonization. Originally penteconters were built with only one bank of oars. The next step was the bireme, a shorter and more seaworthy vessel with its fifty oars arranged in two superimposed banks. This was in use by 700 Be; an Assyrian relief of that date shows the king of Tyre embarking in a bireme.

None of this amounted to much ‘sea power’ in the modern sense of that term; it was more like coastal power. We do not hear of sea battles before the seventh century, not even between Phoenician cities, and no big battles until the sixth, which suggests the fifty-oared galleys were for defensive purposes, to guard harbours and repel pirates. It is doubtful there were any naval tactics, which would require concerted action by a number of galleys. Real sea power had to await the invention of the trireme, a highly specialized ship with 170 oars in three banks, with more than three times the propulsive power of a penteconter, and useful for nothing but warfare. These expensive technological marvels were probably beyond the reach of a city state. They did not become common until the late sixth century, when the Persian Empire became a Mediterranean power, and the Persian king Cambyses, according to Herodotus, became the first man to aspire to command of the sea.


Blockade (Strategy), 1500 to the Present


The Blockade of Toulon, 1810-14: Pellew’s Action, 5 November 1813, Thomas Luny, 1830, National Maritime Museum.


Battle of Port Royal: Harper’s Weekly, November 30, 1861 »


Isolation by a warring nation of a particular enemy area. The employment of naval blockades in war has been practiced since the beginning of recorded maritime history. The first known instances of a blockade took place during the Greek Peloponnesian War in the fifth century b.c. Warships patrolled the coastline of an enemy in order to trap an opposing fleet within its harbors and disrupt maritime commerce. Blockaders might hope that this would force the enemy fleet out to fight.

The maritime nations of Europe were aware of this ancient strategy, but it did not assume critical importance until the eighteenth century. Great Britain was the first naval power to implement a systematic blockade where squadrons of ships were devoted to a permanent blockade of an enemy’s coasts. In the Seven Years’ War (1756–1763), the Royal Navy sealed major French ports by sailing within visual range of French territory. This strategy became known as a close blockade and had the same objectives as that employed by the ancient Greeks. It bottled up the French fleet in its ports, with the chance that it might come out to fight, and it caused economic dislocation through the seizure of ships trying to sail through the blockade to trade with France. Captains who captured these vessels were usually entitled to keep them and their cargoes for prize money. The effects of the first systematic blockade in history were a clear indication of the operation’s worth. By bottling up the French fleet, the blockade cut off needed reinforcements and supplies for the French forces fighting in Canada. The blockade also damaged France’s economy through the loss of maritime trade.

The British employed the blockade a second time in the American Revolution (1775–1783). This operation was also a close blockade, where British forces sealed off the entrances to the major colonial ports. Unlike the blockade during the Seven Years’ War, its goal was not bottling up a battle fleet, as that of the colonies was nonexistent. The purpose was to cut off colonial maritime commerce and prevent the coastal transport of supplies in order to cripple American armed forces. This blockade forced the Americans to rely only on overland transport for supply, disrupted colonial trade, and caused some measure of hardship to the civilian population, which in turn hurt morale.

As the empires and trade of the western European powers expanded, so did their dependence on goods from overseas. This growing need made the military and economic goals of blockade equally important. The critical nature of both of these aspects of blockade was made evident in the French Revolutionary and Napoléonic Wars (1792–1815). When the British entered the war, the Royal Navy employed a close blockade of the important French ports to bottle up the French fleet. Many of the war’s major naval engagements resulted from French fleets trying to break through the blockade. British victories in these and other battles gave the British supremacy of the sea and consequently removed any threat of invasion against Britain.

The economic dislocation caused by the blockade also contributed to the defeat of France. Napoléon spread the effects of the blockade from France to other European states when he forced them to adhere to his Continental System, which was a trade embargo against Britain that began in 1806. The economic hardship caused by this system led to Russia’s withdrawal from the system in December 1810 and a vow from Napoléon to punish Tsar Alexander I. This culminated in Napoléon’s disastrous 1812 campaign into Russia.

The growing economic importance of blockades was also evident in the War of 1812. Here the British mounted another close blockade, with the same strategic goals as in Europe. It bottled up the U.S. Navy’s ships and caused great economic distress. By 1814 U.S. merchant trade was but 17 percent of its prewar 1811 level.

The economic strategic effects of blockades in this age were particularly devastating because there were no internationally accepted rules that governed the scope of operations. Maritime laws in the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries were the product of commerce agreements between individual nations and did not represent a unified body of opinion. Attempts to create a more uniform code for laws that governed the use of blockades failed. An example is the 1780 League of Armed Neutrality comprising Russia, Denmark, and Sweden. Maritime powers such as Britain and France opposed this course, which led Catherine the Great of Russia to call the attempt the “Armed Nullity.”

Action taken during the 1854–1856 Crimean War resulted in the beginning of changes in this state of affairs. The British and French naval blockade of Russia damaged the maritime trade of the United States, which by this time was a force in world power politics. The Americans championed the principle of freedom of the seas, meaning the ability to conduct trade with any country in peace or war without interference. In 1854 the British tried to placate the United States by surrendering some rights in wartime, particularly the right to capture enemy property in neutral ships. This action led to the 1856 Declaration of Paris, the first attempt to place limits on blockades through the use of international law.

This legislation did little to alter any aspect of blockades in the years immediately following its adoption. The U.S. Civil War (1861–1865) was the first test of the new maritime laws. On 19 April 1861, President Abraham Lincoln proclaimed a naval blockade of the entire Confederate coast. It was a close blockade and its methods violated all the stipulations of the Declaration of Paris. The United States, however, had not signed the Declaration of Paris, as it prohibited the use of privateers. The Americans had relied on privateers in time of war because of their small number of purpose-built warships. As in past blockades, this Civil War operation proved crushing to the enemy and was one of the most effective weapons in the Union arsenal.

The Union violation of the Declaration of Paris did not result in a new conference to discuss further laws to restrict the strategic goals of blockades. The importance of the Civil War blockade lay in technological innovation that foreshadowed future changes. In the Civil War the first successful submarine, the CSS H. L. Hunley, which sank a Union blockader in February 1864, was deployed. In the future, technological advances would challenge the use of close blockades in wartime.

In the meantime, blockade strategy remained largely the same as it had been in the eighteenth century, ignoring to varying degrees the Declaration of Paris. The Russo-Japanese War (1904–1905), however, was the catalyst for additions to international law. Both belligerents engaged in war on the other’s trade, which included the Japanese blockade of Port Arthur and Russian blockades of Chinese ports supplying the Japanese. But the Russian operation proved the more onerous to neutral commerce. Great Britain, whose trade had been most affected, became a champion for the protection of neutral rights in wartime and called for new conferences on the subject. The 1907 Second Hague Peace Conference did little to change existing legislation, but the 1909 Declaration of London altered completely the employment of blockades and undermined the strategic goals of blockades. Future belligerents could only capture enemy merchant ships, an aim inadequate to justify the operation. If a state’s merchant fleet was seized, it could simply redirect its trade through neutral nations.

The British, despite being the principal advocate of the declaration, increasingly doubted the use of blockades in the years that followed. Not only did the new legislation render an effective blockade impossible, but the traditional strategy of its deployment was no longer viable because of technological advances. By the twentieth century, the modern submarine had appeared, armed with the torpedo. In addition, other technological advances, such as improved coastal artillery and mines, diminished the possibility of a successful close blockade. A blockaded power that possessed these weapons could easily inflict great damage on a battle fleet lying just off its shores.

The growth of international law and technological change produced new blockade strategies in World War I (1914–1918). The British blockade of Germany took both of these factors into account, although the British increasingly ignored international law because of the need for greater effectiveness. They initially set up a system whereby ships would be stopped, searched, and, if necessary, sent into one of many ports for examination of their cargoes. The force that performed this task was no longer a close blockade, but a distant one deployed at the passages through which neutral commerce had to pass to reach its destination.

Lacking superiority at sea, the Germans used the new technology of the submarine and torpedo to introduce yet another blockade strategy. On 1 February 1915, the Germans declared a war zone around the British Isles; any ship that entered it would be subject to attack without warning. This strategy did produce significant results for the Germans, but in the end it proved disastrous to their war effort. Both blockades contravened international law, but the German blockade led to the loss of neutral lives. When Germany resumed unrestricted submarine warfare, the United States responded by declaring war in April 1917.

Very little changed in the employment of blockades during World War II. In fact, the blockade strategies largely mirrored those of World War I. The British employed a distant blockade of Germany that observed to some degree the authority of international law. The Germans again employed a submarine blockade of Britain and developed it further. Technological improvements in submarine designs between the wars allowed a widening of the war zone to include the entire Atlantic Ocean.

The Germans may have been the creators of the submarine blockade strategy, but the most successful use of it came in the Pacific theater with the U.S. submarine campaign against Japan. At the beginning of the war, the Japanese possessed six million tons of merchant shipping. They built an additional two million during the war. The American submarine blockade accounted for five million tons of the eight million tons sunk during the war, thus economically starving Japan.

The use of blockades has continued in the postwar years and has changed substantially from past uses. In terms of deployment, blockades now vary between close and distant ones based on the situation. The U.S. naval blockade of Cuba during the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis employed a combination of both strategies. The same situation held true for the U.S. blockade of the Democratic Republic of Vietnam (North Vietnam) during the Vietnam War (1964–1975). These endeavors also used a combination of submarines and surface vessels instead of only one or the other.

International law and neutral rights also altered blockades with the creation of the United Nations in 1946. Postwar blockades have seen many more restrictions on their use, and in the recent past they have had more of a diplomatic than a military function.

The most recent naval blockade reveals how far the operation has evolved and once again brings into question its future use. In the Gulf War (1990–1991), the navies of the coalition against Iraq deployed a blockade of the Persian Gulf and the Red Sea. It had little effect on Iraqi wartime operations. International law made the blockade more humane because it allowed goods with a civilian use to pass into Iraq, and any violation risked condemnation by the United Nations. But this produced the same problem that forced the British to remove these restrictions during World War I in order to make their blockade effective. Blockades, in the age of total war, are directed at civilian and soldier alike to cripple a country’s war effort. Limited blockades cannot accomplish the strategic goals of the endeavor: the total destruction of the civilian and government sectors of a country’s economy in order to cripple its capacity to wage war.


Cable, James. The Political Influence of Naval Force in History. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1998.

Hampshire, Cecil A. The Blockaders. London: William Kimber, 1980.

Harding, Richard. Sea Power and Naval Warfare, 1650-1830. Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 1999.

Jane, Fred T. The British Battle-Fleet: Its Inception and Growth throughout the Centuries. London: S. W. Partridge and Co., 1912.


How Britain Won the War of 1812: The Royal Navy’s Blockades of the United States, 1812-1815 by Brian Arthur

Barthélemy Louis Joseph Schérer


Barthelemy L Joseph Schérer. Portrait by J.Baptiste Paulin


A French Revolutionary general, tactician, and war minister, Schérer was victorious at Loano in 1795 and laid the basis for Bonaparte’s first Italian campaign. Born in Alsace, Schérer volunteered for the Austrian Army in 1760 as an infantry kadett (cadet). Wounded at Torgau that November, he rose to lieutenant by 1764. After serving as an aide-de-camp (ADC) from 1770, he resigned in 1775, but joined the French Army as a captain in the Strasbourg Provincial Artillery regiment in April 1780. Permitted to join the Dutch Army in February 1785, he was appointed a major in the Maillebois Legion before becoming an ADC to the Dutch chief of staff from February 1789. Despite promotion to lieutenant colonel, he resigned in March 1790 and rejoined the French Army. Appointed a captain in the 82nd Infantry regiment in January 1792, he was employed as an ADC by General Jean Etienne de Prez de Crassier in the Armée du Midi from May and then by Prince Eugene de Beauharnais in the Armée du Rhin, where he was promoted to chef de bataillon and made a staff adjutant général in July 1793.

Promoted to général de brigade that September, Schérer advanced to général de division in January 1794. Transferred to the Armée du Nord in April, he participated in the victory at Mont Palisel on 1 July, before commanding a division in the Armée de Sambre-et-Meuse, which took Landrecies, Quesnoy, Valenciennes, and Condé during July and August. Commanding a division, Schérer led the right wing in the victory at Spiremont on 18 September. He led the Armée d’Italie from November 1794 to May 1795, when he took command of the Armée des Pyrénées Orientales (Eastern Pyrenees). After victory over the Spanish at the river Fluvia on 15 June, he was reappointed commander of the Armée d’Italie in September. His autumn advance brought victory against the Austro-Piedmontese army at Loano on 23-29 November. He resigned, but was only relieved by Bonaparte in March 1796, following which he was appointed inspector of cavalry in the Armée d’Intérieur in June and in the Armée du Rhin-et-Moselle from February 1797. During his tenure as minister of war (July 1797-February 1799), he was widely accused of corruption and drunkenness, until he returned to the Armée d’Italie in March 1799. He was victorious at Pastrengo on 26 March, but was defeated in April by the Austrians at Verona and Magnano. On 26 April, defeat by Field Marshal Alexander Suvorov on the Adige River brought his retirement.

His army instructions, drafted over the winter of 1795-1796, formed the basis of Bonaparte’s system in 1796. Following General Jean-Baptiste Kléber, he emphasized attacks in massed battalion columns with bayonets lowered. In line, the infantry would fight in two ranks, supported by small flank columns. Schérer was the first French general to establish a formalized military espionage system, directed by an adjoint (assistant staff officer).

References and further reading Griffith, Paddy. 1998. The Art of War in Revolutionary France, 1789-1802. London: Greenhill. Six, Georges. 1937. Les générals de la Révolution et l’Empire. Paris: Bordas.



Japanese forces bombarding Wanping, 1937.


Marco Polo Bridge 1937.

Japanese called this the “China Incident” (“Shina jihen”). Shots were fired out of the dark at Japanese troops of the North China Garrison Army near the Lugouqiao-or Lugou, or Marco Polo-bridge over a tributary of the Hai River. It is not known who fi red at the Japanese. Speculation includes Chinese Communist provocateurs, Chinese Nationalist troops, or perhaps no one at all: it is possible local Japanese troops made up the incident from whole cloth. Japanese troops in the area were part of an international garrison based in the city by right of servitude under certain “unequal treaties” imposed on China many years earlier. They were allowed to maneuver under terms of the Boxer Protocol (1901), under which Japan kept troops in northern China. One Japanese private went missing for two hours, but otherwise no one was hurt. Imperial General Headquarters nonetheless determined to take advantage: an apology was demanded and the Chinese were instructed to withdraw from other key bridges, opening the road to potential conquest of Beijing and Hebei (Hopei) province. The Chinese garrison refused to move.

Japanese and Chinese troops clashed the next morning as a local squabble escalated into a Sino-Japanese crisis. The Japanese Army decided to follow the aggressive lead of its local commander and fight for full control of northern China. The initial Japanese attack was repulsed. China formally apologized in an effort to defuse the crisis. In private, Jiang Jieshi confided to his diary on July 8 that China would no longer accept humiliation at the hands of Japan, and moved to fully mobilize his forces. The mood among the Guandong Army regiments commanded by General Renya Mutaguchi was also bellicose, an attitude echoed throughout Imperial General Headquarters in Tokyo. Japanese leaders were aware of the Yezhovshchina blood purge of the Red Army then underway and thought that Moscow’s terrible distraction was Tokyo’s great opportunity. Guandong officers and others in the North China Garrison Army had long hoped for a pretext for war, and this incident provided it. Tokyo sent reinforcements to the Guandong Army from Korea and three fresh divisions arrived from Japan on July 25. Two days later the Japanese attacked in force. They quickly overran the ancient Marco Polo (Lugouqiao) bridge and surrounding territory. Thus began the Sino-Japanese War (1937-1945).


In one of a series of border incidents that marked the mid-1930s, Japanese and Chinese troops clashed at Marco Polo Bridge (Lugouqiao), about ten miles west of Beijing, during the night of 7 July 1937. There was nothing particularly unusual about the circumstances, not even that they led to a series of clashes around Beijing. Neither Nanjing nor Tokyo wanted a large-scale war, in spite of the creation of the Second United Front a few months earlier. But the Chinese were determined not to give up this important railway junction. While Japanese naval officers and diplomats feared that the Kanto- Army’s actions might threaten war with Russia, even the army did not foresee that they would snowball into a full-scale Japanese invasion and the beginning of World War II in Asia (known as the Anti- Japanese Resistance War in China).

How had this happened? At the beginning of July, Chinese troops around the Marco Polo Bridge decided to strengthen their defenses. On 7 July the Japanese conducted night maneuvers around the bridge, firing blank cartridges. The Chinese returned fire briefly, and no one was hurt. A missing Japanese soldier at roll call the next morning, however, prompted the Japanese to begin an attack (though the man returned after twenty minutes). The Chinese successfully repulsed the Japanese. Over the next few days feints and counter feints on the ground produced inflammatory statements from Tokyo and Nanjing: demands for apologies, complaints about insults, and references to sacred territories. On 17 July, Chiang Kai-shek declared:

China is a weak country, and if, unfortunately, we should reach the limit of our endurance, then there remains only one thing to do, namely, to throw the last ounce of our national energy into a struggle for the independent existence of our nation… If we allow one more inch of our territory to be lost, then we would be committing an unpardonable offense against our race.

By the end of the month, calculated feints had been replaced by continuous, fierce fighting, and the Beijing-Tianjin corridor had fallen to the Japanese. Japan’s massive invasion of China in the second half of 1937 was not thoroughly planned, but it was the logical result of an unstable situation. What Japan persisted in calling the “China incident” years into the Sino-Japanese War quickly turned into a quagmire. At first, events seemed to be falling Japan’s way. Japan’s best hope was that quick victories might pressure the Nanjing regime into accommodation with Japan. World opinion was sympathetic to China, but China was isolated. Yet the Nationalists would not surrender.




Fulk Nerra’s fortress strategy greatly expanded Anjou. He constructed a network of castles, fortified houses, and towns no more than a day’s march apart, to surround and isolate his enemies. The map shows the defensive beginnings and later offensive momentum which this strategy of conquest generated.

For over half a century, from 980 to around 1030, Fulk Nerra dominated his county by means of a fortress strategy. At first this was defensive. His greatest competitor was Odo I, count of Blois, and ruler of the important city of Tours. Odo also controlled Saumur, so cutting off Angevin contact with the Touraine. In 992-94, Fulk constructed Langeais to secure a route south from Angers. He also drew upon his father’s alliance with Bouchard of Vendome to outflank Tours. His prime aim was to establish lines of communication with his southern fortresses of Loudun, Loches, and the Vienne valley. There was a risk that Fulk’s vassals might transfer their allegiance to the count of Blois to preserve their lands; their defenders could submit to a besieger without penalty – only if they held out would they suffer massacre. So, Fulk’s fortifications acted as staging posts, both defensible refuges and bases for supporting advances. They needed to be within a day’s march of one another; no more than 20 miles (32 km) apart.

The sudden death of Odo in 996 allowed Fulk to take the initiative. He seized control of the Loire valley from Montsoreau to Amboise; but he had overreached himself. The new king of France, Robert, married Bertha of Blois and recaptured the city. Fulk learnt his lesson and was a most scrupulous vassal thereafter. He worked instead on developing a secure route through the northern Touraine to Amboise, constructing and rebuilding castles a day’s march apart at Semblançay, Chateau-la-Valliere, and Bauge. Once again this was defensive, while the fortification of a domus (house) at Morand to harass communications between Tours and Chateau Renault was aggressive.

South of the Loire, Fulk was strong in the valleys of the Indre and Vienne, but lacked a good link from Angers to Vihiers above the Layon. The situation was worsened by the defection of his previous ally, viscount Aimeri of Thouars, in 994. Needing a link to Loudun, Fulk began by fortifying Passavant and Montglan, a little further east. Montreuil-Bellay was only constructed c. 1030, after the fall of Saumur. Its castellan, Berlaius, and his garrison of caballarii (mounted warriors) were tasked with protecting the area from attacks by the men of Thouars.

Meanwhile, following the loss of Tours in 997, Fulk began to encircle the city, building Montbazon in the same year. The castle also operated against the Blesois communications between Tours and lIe-Bouchard and, in co-ordination with the garrison of Langeais, against Chinon. Soon after 1000, Fulk established a castle southeast of Tours at Montresor. Montrichard was constructed c. 1005 to increase the pressure on St Aignan, a castle captured later and used as a base for further penetration of the Cher valley. Odo II’s campaigns to recover St Aignan led to his defeat by Fulk at the battle of Pontlevoy in 1016.

In the west, Fulk used his vassals effectively, with Renaud controlling Champtoceaux c. 998, and Drogo in Chateaupanne c. 1006. Montjean was constructed shordy afterwards. St Florent-le-Vieil completed the defence of the Loire in the 1030s. Pushing south, Montrevault was established at the same time and later, in the 1020s, Montfaucon and La Tour Landry stood against hostile Thouars. Mirebeau, built c. 1000, protected the southern march from attack from Poitiers. Fulk’s influence may have spread even further south, supporting the lord of Parthenay in constructing that castle (c. 1012) and later an outpost at Germond (1026). The strength of William V, count of Aquitaine, meant that it was advisable to use a less direct strategy than that employed against the count of Blois.

In the north, Fulk built upon the position established by his father at Sable. Chateau-Gontier, on the Mayenne, and Chateau du Loir were constructed after 1005 against Le Mans. Most of the castles were built in the 1010s and 1020s, establishing a deep frontier, or limes, along the river Loir. It is possible to identify several strategic groupings of castles in a similar fashion, defending Fulk’s territories. Of course, these did not form a rigid defensive line, rather a flexible defence-in-depth against the chevauchee. In 1026 and 1027, Odo II of Blois penetrated as far as Saumur, which had fallen to Fulk in the former year – but to no avail.

Castle garrisons were not intended to challenge an invading force, rather to harass it. Unless the attacker wished to commit his forces to siege, and risk being surprised by a relief force, he could achieve little. Fulk avoided battle and preferred to develop a strategic stranglehold through his fortifications. The final result, although not in his lifetime, was the conquest of Tours in 1044, after a half-century of pressure.

Gothic-Sarmatian War (332-334)



PRINCIPAL COMBATANTS: Sarmatians and Byzantine Empire vs. Goths and allied Germanic tribes; subsequently, Sarmatians vs. Byzantine Empire

PRINCIPAL THEATER(S): Dacia (approximately modern Romania)

MAJOR ISSUES AND OBJECTIVES: The Sarmatians secured the aid of the Byzantine Empire in resisting invasion by the Goths and their allies; when the Sarmatians betrayed the Byzantine alliance, the Byzantines withdrew aid and encouraged the Goths’ conquest.

OUTCOME: The Sarmatians were destroyed as a people; some 300,000 were permitted to resettle within the Eastern Roman Empire; the Goths became foederati of the Byzantine Empire.

Goths and other Germanic “barbarian” tribes made frequent incursions into the territory of the Sarmatians, a people living in Dacia (approximately the region of modern Romania). The Sarmatians shared with the Scythians, a closely related people, a heritage of horsemanship and skill at arms. By the fifth century B. C. E., they had also proved themselves superb administrators, coming to control- and to govern well-all the lands between the Ural Mountains and the Don River. By the fourth century B. C. E., they crossed the Don and conquered the Scythians, and during the first century C. E., the Sarmatians became a powerful threat to the Roman Empire.

Although closely allied with several Germanic tribes, the Sarmatians were themselves overwhelmed by the Goths during the third century C. E., and their territory was reduced to Dacia (Romania) and the lower Danube region. Even so contracted, the Sarmatians were continually harassed and menaced by the Goths and therefore reluctantly requested military aid from Constantine I the Great (c. 285-337), emperor of the Eastern Roman Empire (Byzantium). Constantine dispatched an army under the command of his son. Operating in concert with the Sarmatians, the force attacked the Goths and Gothic allies during 332-33. In the midst of this action, however, the Sarmatians turned against their Byzantine allies by making forays against the Roman Empire. Outraged by the betrayal, Constantine threw his support behind the Goths. He urged them to act even more aggressively against the Sarmatians, as he withdrew Roman aid. Without this aid, the Sarmatians were instantly overwhelmed by the Gothic hordes.

In a curious act of magnanimity, Constantine permitted some 300,000 Sarmatian refugees to resettle within the Eastern Roman Empire. As for the Goths, they responded to the Christianizing efforts of the Byzantine bishop Ulfilas, and embraced membership in the Byzantine federation. In exchange for their good behavior, the Goths received Byzantine subsidies.

Further reading: Edward Gibbon, Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, 7 vols., ed. by J. B. Bury (New York: Modern Library, 1995); Peter Heather, The Goths (London: Blackwell, 1996); John Julius Norwich, Byzantium: The Early Centuries (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2003).

The Sepoy Mutiny


The storming of the Kashmir Gate in 1857 during the Siege of Delhi by British forces was one of the great feat-of-arms of the bloody conflict.

In 1818 the last of the Peshwa’s Maratha force was finally defeated by the company’s Sepoy army. The British Raj thereafter emerged as India’s “New Mughal” paramount power, virtually unchallenged by any indigenous competitors until the “Mutiny” of 1857. By the time India’s once powerful monarchs, its padishahs, maharajas, rajas, nizams, and nawābs, awoke to realize what had become of their vast continental domain-“stolen” from them by a Christian band of British merchants, reducing the greatest of them to suppliants and beggars in their own capitals-it was too late to recapture the powers they had lost. In desperation, an uneasy triple alliance of the last Mughal emperor’s Delhi courtiers and garrison, the “mutinied” Sepoy Bengal Muslim troops loyal to their ousted Muslim nawāb of Oudh, and Hindu dependents of the pensioner Peshwa of Pune living in a castle outside Cawnpore, sought with insufficient coordination to drive the foreign “usurpers” out of India. But by that time Britain was fully aware of India’s unique value to its global prestige and power.

What became known to the British as the “Sepoy Mutiny” started when the rumor spread that new guns issued to the Indian troops used bullets that were greased with cow and pig fat, a mixture contaminating to both Hindu and Muslim soldiers. The soldiers believed this to be an attempt to pollute them so they would abandon their religions and accept Christianity. Whatever the causes, on 10 May 1857, soldiers at Meerut murdered their officers, marched to Delhi 30 miles (48 km) away, and proclaimed the aged Mughal emperor their leader. Indian nationalist historians later called these events the beginning of the “First War of Independence.” Whatever its name, the war was fought with tenacity and great brutality on both sides; in the end the British won because of superior military equipment and discipline, as well as unified leadership.

Also called the Sepoy Rebellion, the Great Mutiny, and the First Indian War of Independence, this was an uprising against the British colonial regime in India begun by Indian troops-called sipahi, anglicized to sepoys-in service to the British East India Company.

By the middle of the 19th century, the East India Company controlled the region of modern India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Burma (Myanmar), and Ceylon (Sri Lanka). The Great Mogul emperor of India was now no more than a figurehead; the real government was contained within a British civil and military administration and the British controlled army numbering 160,000 men, of whom only 24,000 were British. The rest were native troops in the British service. Over the years, friction developed between the native troops and their East India Company employers. The British refused to respect Indian religious and cultural traditions. In an atmosphere of growing discontent there arose a rumor among the sepoys late in 1856 that the cartridges for the newly issued Lee-Enfield rifles were greased with the fat of cows and pigs. Cows are sacred to Hindus and must not be eaten, whereas pigs are regarded by Muslims as unclean-and must not be eaten. Prior to loading a rifle of the period, it was necessary to bite off the end of the paper cartridge; for the Hindu or Muslim soldier, doing so meant coming into contact with cow or pig and was, therefore, a grave pollution. In the Bengal army, some soldiers refused to use the new cartridges, but a full-scale mutiny broke out in Meerut, northeast of Delhi, where 85 men of the third light cavalry refused to use the cartridges on April 23, 1857. Convicted of mutiny, they were sentenced to imprisonment, publicly fettered, and ceremonially stripped of their military insignia. This served only to incite further rebellion. Members of the 11th and 20th infantry regiments revolted on May 10, freeing their imprisoned comrades-and many civilian prisoners as well. Following this, they rioted, killing 40 British officers and civilians in Meerut. From here, they marched to Delhi, where other Indian regiments joined the mutiny. In the city, the sepoys slaughtered many more British soldiers and civilians and restored to power the aged Mogul emperor, Muhammad Bahadur Shah (1775-1862).

News of the rebellion exploded throughout the subcontinent. Regiments throughout the Bengal army mutinied, and north and central India generally rose up against British rule. At first, the British were overwhelmed and at a loss for a response. In the Punjab, British commanders disarmed the sepoys and assembled a small army to advance on Delhi. The force took up a position outside the city. In Kolkata, the British contained the rebellion and managed to retain control of the Ganges River and communications lines as far upriver as Allahabad. In central India, several thousand British troops fought many pitched battles against the forces of local princes and Rani (Queen) Lakshmibai (c. 1830-58) of Jhansi, all of whom had joined the uprising.

In the central Ganges River valley, Oudh, recently annexed by the British, became an area of intense rebellion. On May 30, 1857, rebels besieged Europeans along with loyal Indians at the British Residency in Oudh’s capital, Lucknow. Shortly after this, the British garrison at Cawnpore (Kanpur) came under siege through June 27, when the survivors negotiated with the rebel leader, Nana Sahib (c. 1821-c. 1858), for safe passage. Despite this, they were attacked while evacuating to boats on the Ganges River. Most of the British soldiers were killed. Some 200 British women and children, captured, were subsequently slain in prison. In retaliation, the British forces authorized a brutal pogrom of similar atrocities directed against Indian combatants and noncombatants alike.

In the meantime, outside the walls of Delhi, inconclusive battles were fought until the British army was sufficiently reinforced to attack the city on September 15. After five days of bitter fighting, the British retook Delhi. On September 25, a relief column reached the Lucknow residency, but it was pinned down there through late November, when a second relief force arrived, broke the siege, and evacuated the survivors. When the British returned to Oudh in February 1858, it was with an army of more than 30,000 men, including Nepalese troops. Lucknow fell to the British on March 23, 1858, and the rebel forces in north India dispersed. The rebel fort at Jhansi capitulated in April, and the rani was subsequently killed in battle. With this, the mutiny, for all practical purposes, ended; however, sporadic fighting continued into the next year, as British forces engaged small rebel forces. Early in the year, rebel leader Nana Sahib’s leading general, Tantia Topi (1819-59), was captured, and, with his execution in April 1859, the revolt was completely ended.

The War of 1858 was won by British Crown troops, with the aid of sturdy Sikh soldiers of the Punjab, and Nepalese Gurkhas, who thereafter remained the most trusted “native” recruits to the army of Britain’s Crown Raj, which replaced the discredited old company Raj on 2 August 1858.

There were a number of results from the uprising that had long-range consequences. One was that most English rulers now believed that Indians were “disloyal” and could not be trusted. For many Indians, the success of the English in putting down the uprisings showed that the English were too powerful to be defeated by recourse to revolutionary violence. These points are debatable, but what is not debatable is the fate of the British East India Company as the ruler of India. In debates in the House of Commons in 1858 there was almost unanimity in blaming the uprisings on the mismanagement of the company, and its role as the government of India was abolished. Henceforth, government would be vested in the British Crown. Queen Victoria issued a proclamation declaring that she desired no extension of territory, promising freedom for all religions without any interference by government, and ensuring Indians the right to serve the government in all capacities. None of these promises were carried out completely, but the proclamation was received by educated Indians as a sign of hope for the future. After more than a century of involvement in ruling India, change and progress had made the company irrelevant.

Second Breitenfeld, (November 2, 1642)



Lennart Torstenson’s military campaign in 1642.


Torstensson’s War (1643-1645).

In 1643 Christian IV of Denmark contemplated re-entering the German war, this time in alliance with the Habsburgs. As that would seriously jeopardize the Swedish strategic position Oxenstierna decided to pre-empt: he recalled Lennart Torstensson and the main Swedish Army from Moravia and sent them into Jutland (December 22, 1643). The Danes fell back, as was their usual military practice under Christian, and Jutland fell to the Swedes. In addition, Swedish and Dutch warships pounded and threatened Danish coastal towns and the Dutch and Swedes defied the Sound Tolls. Christian agreed to an armistice in November 1644, and a humiliating peace at Br_omsebro (1645). He lost Gotland, O” sel, and the bishoprics of Verden and Bremen. The losses were confirmed in the Peace of Westphalia in 1648.

Second Breitenfeld

Swedish Field Marshal Lennart Torstensson besieged Leipzig with 20,000 men, intent on pushing Saxony out of the Thirty Years’ War (1618-1648). Arrival of a larger Imperial force, under Archduke Leopold Wilhelm, brother of Ferdinand III, and Piccolomini, lifted the siege. Leopold then vigorously pursued Torstensson as he withdrew six miles to Breitenfeld. The battle began with an Imperial artillery bombardment intended to cover a cavalry charge on the left. But the Swedish cavalry did not wait to be killed by whirling chain or solid shot: it charged, catching the Imperial horse in the flank. As Leopold’s cavalry fled in broken disorder, Torstensson wheeled left to attack enemy infantry pressing hard on the Swedish infantry at the center. These Imperials also wilted, leaving only cavalry on Leopold’s right and that, too, was soon engulfed by the Swedes. Those Imperial troops who did not die or fall wounded, or spur their horses to flight, soon surrendered. About 5,000 Imperials were killed and an equal number taken prisoner. Swedish losses were light. Imperial fortunes never recovered from this defeat, the military nadir for the Habsburg cause in the Thirty Years’ War.

Lennart Torstensson, (1603-1651).

Swedish artillery general, then field marshal. A companion of Gustavus Adolphus from youth, he served in the king’s wars in Livonia and Poland in the 1620s. He spent two years of military study in the Netherlands, 1624-1625, under Maurits of Nassau. He was closely involved in the reform and standardization of Swedish artillery by Gustavus. Torstensson accompanied the king into Germany in 1630 in command of the field artillery. His batteries fought exceedingly well at First Breitenfeld (1631). He provided a smoke screen that allowed the army to cross the River Lech under enemy fire at Rain (1632). He was captured at Alte Feste (1632) during a failed attack on Albrecht von Wallenstein’s camp. He was held for a year then ransomed by Sweden and exchanged. He was subordinate to Johann Bane’r at Wittstock (October 4, 1636) but took full command of the Swedish Army at Second Breitenfeld (1642). He spent most of 1642 overrunning Saxony, Bohemia, and Moravia. He marched the army across Germany in 1643 in order to invade Jutland in a pre-emptive campaign against Denmark sometimes called Torstensson’s War. In 1645 he moved against Prague, winning decisively at Jankov and knocking Bavaria out of the war but failing to take the well-defended city. His many years in the saddle took their toll: he resigned in ill-health in 1646 and died five years later.