Cyrus and the Achaemenids

Around 559 BCE a Persian prince called Cyrus (modern Persian Kurosh), claiming descent from the royal house of Persia and from its progenitor Achaemenes, became king of Anshan on the death of his father. Persia and Anshan at that time were still subject to the Median Empire, but Cyrus led a revolt against the Median king Astyages, and in 549 captured the Median capital, Ecbatana (modern Hamadan). Cyrus reversed the relationship between Media and Persia, making himself king of Persia, making Media the junior partner, and Persia the centre of the Empire. But he did not stop there. He went on to conquer Lydia, in Asia Minor, taking possession of the treasury of King Croesus, legendary for his wealth throughout antiquity. He also conquered the remaining territories of Asia Minor, and also Phoenicia, Judaea and Babylonia, creating an enormous empire that stretched from the Greek cities on the eastern coast of the Aegean to the banks of the river Indus—in extent perhaps the greatest empire the world had seen up to that time.

But without romanticising him unduly, and although it took on much of the culture of previous Elamite, Assyrian and Babylonian empires (notably in its written script and monumental iconography), it seems that Cyrus aspired to rule an empire different from others that had preceded it in the region. Portentous inscriptions recording the military glory of Kings and the supposed favour of their terrible war-gods were a commonplace in the Middle East in the centuries preceding Cyrus’s accession. In the nineteenth century an eight-sided clay object (known since as the Taylor Prism after the man who found it) measuring about 15 inches long by 5.5 inches in diameter, covered in cuneiform script, was found near Mosul. When the characters were eventually deciphered, it was found to record eight campaigns of the Assyrian king Sennacherib (705 BCE–681 BCE). An excerpt reads:

Sennacherib, the great king… king of the world, king of Assyria, king of the four quarters… guardian of right, lover of justice, who lends support, who comes to the aid of the needy, who performs pious acts, perfect hero, mighty man, first among all princes, the flame who consumes those who do not submit, who strikes the wicked with the thunderbolt; the god Assur, the great mountain, has entrusted an unrivaled kinship to me… has made powerful my weapons… he has brought the black-headed people in submission at my feet; and mighty kings feared my warfare…

In the course of my campaign, Beth-Dagon, Joppa, Banaibarka, Asuru, cities of Sidka, who had not speedily bowed in submission at my feet, I besieged, I conquered, I carried off their spoils… I approached Ekron and slew the governors and nobles who had rebelled, and hung their bodies on stakes around the city…

As for Hezekiah the Jew, who did not submit to my yoke: 46 of his strong, walled cities… by means of ramps and by bringing up siege-engines… I besieged and took them. 200,150 people, great and small, male and female, horses, mules, asses, camels, cattle and sheep without number, I brought away from them and counted as spoil…

The way that the pharaohs of Egypt celebrated their rule and their victories was similar, and although Hezekiah, the king of Jerusalem, appears on the Taylor Prism as a victim, some parts of the Bible describing the Israelites and their God smiting their enemies do not read very differently.

By contrast, another not dissimilar clay object, about nine inches by four inches, also discovered in the nineteenth century and covered in cuneiform script, tells a rather different story. The Cyrus cylinder, now in the British Museum, was found where it had been deliberately placed under the foundations of the city wall of Babylon, and has been described as a charter of human rights for the ancient world. This is an exaggeration and a misrepresentation, but the message of the cylinder, particularly when combined with what is known of Cyrus’s religious policy from the books of Ezra and Isaiah, is nonetheless remarkable. The kingly preamble from the cylinder is fairly conventional:

I am Cyrus, king of the world, great king, rightful king, king of Babylon, king of Sumer and Akkad, king of the four quarters (of the earth), son of Cambyses, great king, king of Anshan, grandson of Cyrus, great king, king of Anshan, descendant of Teispes, great king, king of Anshan, of a family that always exercised kingship…

but it continues, describing the favour shown to Cyrus by the Babylonian god Marduk:

When I entered Babylon as a friend and when I established the seat of the government in the palace of the ruler under jubilation and rejoicing, Marduk, the great lord, induced the magnanimous inhabitants of Babylon to love me, and I was daily endeavouring to worship him. My numerous troops walked around in Babylon in peace, I did not allow anybody to terrorize any place of the country of Sumer and Akkad. I strove for peace in Babylon and in all his other sacred cities…

and concludes:

As to the region… as far as Assur and Susa, Agade, Eshnunna, the towns of Zamban, Me-Turnu, Der as well as the region of the Gutians, I returned to these sanctuaries on the other side of the Tigris, the sanctuaries of which had been ruins for a long time, the images which used to live therein and established for them permanent sanctuaries. I also gathered all their former inhabitants and returned to them their habitations. Furthermore, I resettled upon the command of Marduk, the great lord, all the gods of Sumer and Akkad whom Nabonidus had brought into Babylon to the anger of the lord of the gods, unharmed, in their former chapels, the places that make them happy.

Like the proud declarations of Sennacherib, this is propaganda, but it is propaganda of a different kind, presenting Cyrus in a different light, and according to a different scale of values. Cyrus chose to present himself showing respect to the Babylonian deity, Marduk, and declared that he had returned to other towns and territories the holy images that previous Babylonian kings had confiscated. Perhaps it would have been different if Cyrus had conquered Babylon by force, rather than marching into it unopposed (in 539 BCE) after its inhabitants revolted against the last Babylonian king, Nabonidus. Cyrus was a ruthless, ambitious man; no-one ever conquered an empire without those characteristics in full measure. But we know that Cyrus permitted freedom of worship to the Jews too. He and his successors permitted them to return home from exile and to rebuild the temple in Jerusalem (being accorded in the Jewish scriptures a unique status among gentile monarchs in return).

The logic of statecraft alone might have suggested that it would be more sustainable in the long run to let subjects conduct their own affairs and worship as they pleased, but that policy had to be acceptable to the Iranian elite also, including the priests, the Magi, and (leaving aside the question of Cyrus’s own personal beliefs, which remain unclear) it is reasonable to see in the policy some of the spirit of moral earnestness and justice that pervaded the religion of Zoroaster. The presence of those values in the background helps to explain why the Cyrus cylinder is couched in such different terms from the militaristic thunder and arrogance of Sennacherib. The old answer was terror and a big stick, but the Persian Empire would be run in a more devolved, permissive spirit. Once again, an encounter with complexity, acceptance of that complexity, and a response. This was something new.

Unfortunately, according to Herodotus, Cyrus did not end his life as gloriously as he had lived it. Having conquered in the west, he turned to campaign east of the Caspian, and according to one version was defeated and killed in battle by Queen Tomyris of the Massagetae, another Iranian tribe who fought mainly on horseback, like the Scythians.

The Massagetae are interesting because they appear to have maintained some ancient Iranian customs that may shed some light on the status of women in Persian society under the Achaemenids. There are signs in Herodotus (Book 1:216) that the Massagetae showed some features of a matrilineal, polyandrous society, in which women might have a number of husbands or sexual partners (but men only one). Patricia Crone has suggested that this feature may resurface in the apparent holding of women in common practised later by the Mazdakites in the fifth century AD and the Khorramites after the Islamic conquest, which might indicate an underlying folk tradition. Mazdaism certainly permitted a practice whereby an impotent man could give his wife temporarily to another in order to obtain a child (it also sanctioned the marriage of close relatives). But in general the custom of Persian society seems to have limited the status of women, following practices elsewhere in the Middle East. Royal and noble women may have been able to own property in their own right and even, on occasion, to exert some political influence; but this seems to have been an exception associated with high status rather than indicative of practices prevalent in society more widely.

Cyrus’s body was brought back to Persia, to Pasargadae, his capital, to rest in a tomb there that can still be seen (though its contents have long since disappeared). The tomb is massively simple rather than grandiose; a sepulchre the size of a small house on a raised, stepped plinth. This tomb burial has raised some questions about the religion of Cyrus and the other Achaemenid kings (many of his successors were placed in tombs of a different type—rock tombs half-way up a cliff-face). Tomb burial was anathema to later Zoroastrians, who held it to be sacrilege to pollute the earth with dead bodies. Instead they exposed the dead on so-called Towers of Silence to be consumed by birds and animals. Could the Achaemenid kings really have been Zoroastrians if they permitted tomb burial?

Some have explained the inconsistency by suggesting that different classes of Iranian society followed different beliefs; effectively different religions. As we have seen, there probably was some considerable plurality of belief within the broad flow of Mazdaism at this time. But it seems more likely that the plurality was socially vertical rather than horizon-tal—in other words, a question of geography and tribe rather than social class. Perhaps an earlier, pre-Zoroastrian tradition of burial still lingered and the elevated position of all the royal tombs was a kind of compromise. Half-way between heaven and earth: itself a strong metaphor. Around the tomb of Cyrus lay a paradise; a garden watered by irrigation channels (our word paradise comes, via Greek, from the Old Persian paradaida, meaning a walled garden). Magian priests watched over the tomb and sacrificed a horse to Cyrus’ memory each month.

Cyrus had been a conqueror, but a conqueror with an imaginative vision. He was at least as remarkable a man as the other conqueror, Alexander, whose career marks the end of the Achaemenid period, as that of Cyrus marks the beginning. Maybe as a youth Cyrus had a Mazdaean tutor as remarkable as Aristotle, who taught Alexander.

Religious Revolt

Cyrus was succeeded by his son Cambyses (Kambojiya), who extended the empire by conquering Egypt, but in a short time gained a reputation for harshness. He died unexpectedly in 522 BCE, according to one source by suicide, after he had been given news of a revolt in the Persian heartlands of the empire.

An account of what happened next appears on an extraordinary rock relief carving at Bisitun, in western Iran, about twenty miles from Kermanshah, above the main road to Hamadan. According to the text of the carving (executed in Old Persian, Elamite and Babylonian) the revolt was led by a Magian priest, Gaumata, who claimed falsely to be Cambyses’s younger brother, Bardiya. Herodotus gives a similar version, saying that Cambyses had murdered the true Bardiya some years earlier. The revolt led by Gaumata seems to have drawn force from social and fiscal grievances, because one of his measures to gain popularity was to order a three-year remission of taxes—another to end military conscription. Pressure had built up over the decades of costly foreign wars under Cyrus and Cambyses. But Gaumata also showed strong religious enthusiasm or intolerance, because he destroyed the temples of sects he did not approve of.

An Iranian revolution, led by a charismatic cleric, seizing power from an oppressive monarch, asserting religious orthodoxy, attacking false believers, and drawing support from economic grievances—in the sixth century BCE. How modern that sounds. But within a few months, Gaumata was dead, killed by Darius (Daryavaush) and a small group of Persian confederates (a killing that sounds more like an assassination than anything else). The carving at Bisitun was made at Darius’s orders, and it presents his version of events, as put together after he had made himself king and the revolt had finally been put down. The carving itself says that copies of the same text were made and distributed throughout the empire. And what a revolt it had been—Babylon revolted twice, and Darius declared that he fought nineteen battles in a single year. It was really a series of revolts, affecting all but a few of the eastern provinces of the empire. The Bisitun carving illustrates this by showing a row of defeated captives, each representing a different people or territory. Whatever the true nature of the rebellion and its origins, it was no simple palace coup, affecting only a few members of the elite. It was just the first of several religious revolutions, or attempted revolutions, in Iran’s history, and it was no pushover.

Bisitun was chosen for Darius’s grand rock-carving because it was a high place, perhaps already associated with the sacred, close by where he and his companions had killed Bardiya/Gaumata. The site at Bisitun is a museum of Iranian history in itself. Aside from the Darius rock relief, there are caves that were used by Neanderthals 40,000 years ago or more, and by others generations later. Among other relics and monuments, there is a rock carving of a reclining Hercules from the Seleucid period, a Parthian carving depicting fire worship, a Sassanian bridge, some remains of a building from the Mongol period, a seventeenth-century caravanserai, and not far away, some fortifications apparently dating from the time of Nader Shah in the eighteenth century.

Many historians have been suspicious about the story of the false Bardiya. The Bisitun carving is a contemporary source, but it is plainly a self-serving account to justify Darius’s accession. It is confirmed by Herodotus and other Greek writers, but they all wrote later and would naturally have accepted the official version of events, if other dissenting accounts had been stamped out. Darius was not a natural successor to the throne. He was descended from a junior branch of the Achaemenid royal family, and even in that line he was not pre-eminent—his father was still living. Could a Magian priest have successfully impersonated a royal prince some three or four years after the real man’s death? Is it not rather suspect that Darius also discredited other opponents by alleging that they were impostors?

If the story was a fabrication, Darius was certainly brazen in the presentation of his case. In the Bisitun inscriptions, the rebel leaders are called ‘liar kings’, and Darius declares, appealing to religious feeling and Mazdaean beliefs about arta and druj:

[…] you, whosoever shall be king hereafter, be on your guard very much against Falsehood. The man who shall be a follower of Falsehood—punish him severely […]


[…] Ahura Mazda brought me aid and the other gods who are, because I was not disloyal, I was no follower of Falsehood, I was no evil-doer, neither I nor my family, I acted according to righteousness, neither to the powerless nor to the powerful, did I do wrong…

and again:

This is what I have done, by the grace of Ahura Mazda have I always acted. Whosoever shall read this inscription hereafter, let that which I have done be believed. You must not hold it to be lies.

Perhaps Darius protested a little too much. Another inscription in Darius’s words, from another site, reads:

By the favour of Ahura Mazda I am of such a sort that I am a friend to right, I am not a friend to wrong. It is not my desire that the weak man should have wrong done to him by the mighty; nor is it my desire that the mighty man should have wrong done to him by the weak. What is right, that is my desire. I am not a friend to the man who is a lie-follower […] As a horseman I am a good horseman. As a bowman I am a good bowman both afoot and on horseback…

The latter part of this text, though telescoped here from the original, echoes the famous formula from Herodotus and other Greek writers, that Persian youths were brought up to ride a horse, to shoot a bow, and to tell the truth. Darius was pressing every button to stimulate the approval of his subjects. Even if one doubts the story of Darius’s accession, the evidence from Bisitun and his other inscriptions of his self-justification and the use of religion by both sides in the intensive fighting that followed the death of Cambyses nonetheless stands. It is a powerful testimony to the force of the Mazdaean religion at this time. Even the suppressors of the religious revolution had to justify their actions in religious terms. Although Darius by the end reigned supreme, the inscriptions give a strong sense that he himself was nonetheless subject to a powerful structure of ideas about justice, truth and lies, right and wrong, that was distinctively Iranian, and Mazdaean.

The Empire Refounded

Darius’s efforts to justify and dignify his rule did not end there. He built an enormous palace in his Persian homeland, at what the Greeks later called Persepolis (‘city of the Persians’)—thus starting afresh, away from the previous capital of Cyrus at Pasargadae. Persepolis is so big that a modern visitor walking over the site, wandering bemused between the sections of fallen columns and the massive double-headed column capitals that crashed to the ground when the palace burned, may find it difficult to orientate himself and make sense of it. The magnificence of the palace served as a further prop to the majesty of Darius, and the legitimacy of his rule; but helped in turn to create a lasting tradition, a mystique of magnificent kingship that might not have come about but for the initial doubts over his accession. A dedicatory inscription at Persepolis played again on the old theme:

May Ahura Mazda protect this land from hostile armies, from famine, and from the Lie.

The motif of tribute and submission is also repeated from Bisitun: row upon row of figures representing subjects from all over the empire are shown queuing up to present themselves, frozen forever in stone relief. The purpose of the huge palace complex at Persepolis is not entirely clear. It may be that it was intended as a place for celebrations and ceremonial at the spring equinox, the Persian New Year (Noruz—celebrated on and after 21 March each year today as then). The rows of tribute-bearers depicted in the sculpture suggest that it may have been the place for annual demonstrations of homage and loyalty from the provinces. Whatever the grandeur of Persepolis, it was not the main, permanent capital of the empire. That was at Susa, the old capital of Elam. This again shows the syncretism of the Persian regime. Cyrus had been closely connected with the royal family of the Medes, and the Medes had a privileged position, with the Persians, as partners at the head of the Empire. But Elam too was important and central: its capital, its language, in administration and monumental inscriptions. This was an empire that always, for preference, flowed around and absorbed powerful rivals: its first instinct, unlike other imperial powers, was not to confront, batter into defeat, and force submission. The guiding principles of Cyrus persisted under Darius and at least some later Achaemenid rulers.

Darius’s reign saw the Achaemenid empire in effect re-founded. It could have gone under altogether in the rebellions that followed the death of Cambyses. Darius maintained Cyrus’s tradition of tolerance, permitting a plurality of gods to be worshipped as before; and maintained also the related principle of devolved government. The provinces were ruled by satraps, governors who returned a tribute to the centre but ruled as viceroys (two other officials looked after military matters and fiscal administration in each province, to avoid too much power being concentrated in any one pair of hands). The satraps often inherited office from predecessors within the same family, and ruled their provinces according to pre-existing laws, customs and traditions. They were, in effect, provincial kings; Darius was a King of Kings (Shahanshah in modern Persian). The empire did not attempt as a matter of policy to Persianise as the Roman empire, for example, later sought to Romanise.

The certainties of religion, the principle of sublime justice they underpinned, and the magnificent prestige of kingship were the bonds that held together this otherwise diffuse constellation of peoples, languages and cultures. A complex empire, accepted as such, and a controlling principle. The system established by Darius worked, proved resilient, and endured.

Tablets discovered in excavations at Persepolis show the complexity and administrative sophistication of the system Darius established. Although some payments were made in silver and Darius established a standard gold coinage, much of the system operated by payments in kind; assessed, allocated and receipted for from the centre. State officials and servants were paid in fixed quantities of wine, grain or animals; but even members of the royal family received payments in the same way. Officials in Persepolis gave orders for the levying of taxes in kind in other locations, and then gave orders for payments in kind to be made from the proceeds, in the same locations. Messengers and couriers were given tablets to produce at post-stations along the royal highways, so that they could get food and lodging for themselves and their animals. These tablets recording payments in kind cover only a relatively limited period, from 509 to 494 BCE. But there are several thousand of them, and it has been estimated that they cover supplies to more than 15,000 different people in more than 100 different places.

It is significant that the tablets were written mainly in Elamite, not in Persian. It is known from other sources that the main language of administration in the Empire was neither Persian nor Elamite, but Aramaic, the Semitic lingua franca of Mesopotamia, Syria and Palestine. The Bisitun inscription states directly that the form of written Persian used there was new, developed at Darius’s own orders for that specific purpose. It is possible that he and the other Achaemenid kings discouraged any record of events other than their own monumental inscriptions, but these are all strong echoes of that Iranian distaste for writing that we encountered earlier in Mazdaism, and it may go some way to explain an apparent anomaly—the lack of Persian historical writing for the Achaemenid period. It is possible that the histories once existed, and that there were poems written down and all sorts of other literature which have since been simply lost. But later Persian literary culture was strongly associated with a class of scribes, and the fact that the scribes in the Achaemenid system wrote their accounts and official records in other languages suggests that the literature was not there either. There was no Persian history of the Achaemenid Empire because the Persian ruling classes either (like the Magi) regarded writing as wicked or (the kings and nobles) associated it with inferior subject peoples; or both. To ride, to shoot the bow, to tell the truth; but not to write it. That said, no histories as such have survived from the Egyptian, Hittite or Assyrian empires either—it is more correct, in the context of the fifth century BCE, to call the innovation of history writing by the Greeks the anomaly.

To ourselves, at our great remove of time, awash with written materials every moment of our working lives, dominated by the getting and spending of money, a human system that was largely non-literate and operating for the most part on the basis of payments in kind, not cash, even if it be a great empire capable of stunning monuments and great sculptural art, seems primitive. But the history of human development is not simply linear. It is not quite right to see the oral tradition of sophisticated cultures like that of Mazdaism as unreliable, flawed or backward, something we have gone beyond. The Persians were not stupidly trying, with the wrong tools, to do something we can now, with the right tools, do incomparably better. They were doing something different, and had evolved complex and subtle ways of doing it very well indeed, which our culture has forgotten. To try to grasp the reality of that we have to step aside a little from our usual categories of thought, for all the apparent familiarity of Mazdaean concepts like angels, the day of judgement, heaven and hell, and moral choice. The Achaemenid Empire was an Empire of the Mind, but a different kind of Mind.

The Empire and the Greeks

In general Darius’s reign was one of restoration and consolidation of previous territorial expansion rather than wars of conquest like those that had been pursued by Cyrus and Cambyses. But Darius campaigned into Europe in 512 BCE, conquering Thrace and Macedonia, and toward the end of his life, after a revolt by the Ionian Greeks of the Aegean coast of Asia Minor, his subordinates fought a war with the Athenian Greeks that ended with a Persian defeat at the battle of Marathon in 490 BCE. This ushered in what the Greeks called the Persian wars, the shadow of which has affected our view of the Achaemenid Empire, and perhaps Persia and Iran and the Orient generally, ever since. From a Persian perspective, the more serious event was a revolt in Egypt in 486 BCE. Before he could deal with this, Darius died.

The standard Greek view of the Persians and their empire was complex, and not a little contradictory. They regarded the Persians, as they regarded most non-Greeks, as barbarians (the term barbarian itself is thought to come from a disparaging imitation of Persian speech—‘ba-ba’), and therefore ignorant and backward. They were aware that the Persians had a great, powerful, wealthy empire. But for them it was run on tyrannical principles, and was redolent of vulgar ostentation and decadence. The Persians were therefore both backward and decadent—at which point we may be irresistibly reminded (via the judgement of that supreme chauvinist, Clemenceau, that ‘America is the only nation in history that miraculously has gone directly from barbarism to degeneration without the usual interval of civilisation’) of the contemporary French view of the United States. Perhaps the view of the Greeks also was better explained in terms of a simple resentment or jealousy that the Persians rather than the Greeks were running such a large part of the known world.

This in itself is a caricature of the Greek view of the Persians, and cannot have been, for example, Plato’s attitude or the attitude (openly, at any rate) of the many Greeks who worked for or were allies of the Persians at various times. The Greeks were also an imperialistic, or at least a colonising culture, of pioneering Indo-European origin. Perhaps, as at other times and in other places, the hostility between the Persians and the Greeks had as much to do with similarity as with difference. But in contrast to the Persians the Greeks were not a single unified power, being composed of a multiplicity of rival city-states, and their influence was maritime rather than land-based. Greeks had established colonies along almost all parts of the Mediterranean littoral that had not previously been colonised by the Phoenicians (including the places that later became Tarragona in Spain, Marseilles in France, Cyrenaica in Libya and large parts of Sicily and southern Italy), and had done the same on the coast of the Black Sea. Unlike the Persians again, their spread was based on physical settlement by Greeks, rather than the control of indigenous peoples from afar.

Just as Persians appear in the plays of the great Greek playwrights, and on Greek vases, there are examples to show the presence of the Greeks in the minds of the Persians. As well as vases that show a Greek spearing a falling or recumbent Persian, there are engraved cylinder seals showing a Persian stabbing a Greek or filling him with arrows. But it is fair to say that at least initially, the Persians were more present to the Greeks than the Greeks to the Persians. Persian power controlled important Greek cities like Miletus and Phocaea in Asia Minor, only a few hours’ rowing away from Athens and Corinth—as well as Chalcidice and Macedonia on the European side of the Bosphorus. In Persepolis, Susa and Hamadan by contrast, Greece would have seemed half a world away; and events in other parts of the empire, like Egypt, Babylonia and Bactria for example, equally or rather more pressing.

Darius was succeeded by his son, Xerxes (Khashayarsha). The set-piece of Xerxes’s reign in the historical record was the great expedition to punish Athens and her allies for their support of the Ionian revolt, but at least as important for Xerxes himself would have been his successful reassertion of authority in Egypt and Babylon, where he crushed a rebellion and destroyed the temple of Marduk that Cyrus had restored. Xerxes is believed (on the authority of Herodotus) to have taken as many as two million men with him to attack Athens in 480 BCE. His troops wiped out the rearguard of Spartans and others at Thermopylae (when Xerxes asked them to surrender, demanding that they lay down their weapons, the Spartans replied ‘come and get them’), killing the Spartan king Leonidas there in a protracted struggle that left many of the Persian troops dead. Xerxes’s men then took Athens, his hardy soldiers scaling the Acropolis from the rear and burning it, but his fleet was defeated at Salamis, leaving his armies overextended and vulnerable. He withdrew to Sardis, his base in Asia Minor, and his forces suffered further, final defeats the following year at Plataea and Mycale (479 BC). Among other effects of the Persian defeat was the loss of influence on Macedon and Thrace on the European side of the Bosphorus, permitting the subsequent rise of Macedon.

Xerxes’s son Artaxerxes (Artakhshathra) succeeded him in 465 BCE, and reigned until 424 BCE. The building work at Persepolis continued through the reigns of both, and it was under these two kings that many of the Jews of Babylonia returned to Jerusalem, under the leadership of Ezra and Nehemiah. The latter was Artaxerxes’ court cupbearer in Susa, and both returned eventually to the Persian court after their efforts to rebuild Jerusalem. The books of Ezra and Nehemiah give a different picture of the Persian monarchy to contrast with the less flattering image in the Greek accounts.

The wars that continued between the Persians and the Greeks ended at least for a time with the peace of Callias in 449 BCE, but thereafter the Persians supported Sparta against Athens in the terribly destructive Peloponnesian wars, which exhausted the older Greek city-states and prepared the way for the hegemony of Macedon. At the death of Artaxerxes palace intrigues caused the deaths by murder of several kings or pretenders in succession. In the reign of Artaxerxes II (404-359 BCE) there were further wars with the Greeks, and a sustained Egyptian revolt that kept that satrapy independent until Persian rule was restored under Artaxerxes III in 343 BCE. Palace intrigue and murder had already claimed the lives of several of the Achaemenid kings, but a particularly lethal round of events orchestrated by the vizier or chief minister Bagoas caused the deaths of both Artaxerxes III and his son Arses, bringing Darius III to the throne in 336 BCE.

The Iranians must have changed their way of life considerably over the two centuries between the reigns of Cyrus and Darius III. One indicator of social change (as is often the case) was the constitution of their armies. At the time of Xerxes’ invasion of Greece and before, large numbers of Medes and Persians fought on foot, but by the time of Darius III the armies were dominated by large numbers of horsemen and the previous Assyrian-style big units of spear-and-bow armed infantry (and shield-bearers—sparabara) seem to have disappeared (though there were Greek mercenary infantry, and Persian infantry called Cardaces who may have been young men in training for the cavalry). The impression is that the wealth of empire had enabled the Iranian military classes to distribute themselves across the empire and supply themselves with horses, changing the nature of Persian warfare (though there seems also to have been a deliberate policy of military garrisoning and military colonies, notably in Asia Minor). According to Herodotus, Cyrus had warned that if the Persians descended to live in the rich lands of the plain (he probably had Babylonia particularly in mind) they would become soft and incapable of defending their empire. It is too neat to suggest that this is precisely what happened—it may be somewhat the contrary, that by the time of Darius III taxes had risen too high and the Iranians, having had their expectations raised, had become impoverished and demoralised. But whatever their exact nature, fundamental changes had taken place, and Iran had already moved closer to the social and military patterns of the later Parthian and Sassanid empires.


The British War in Iraq 2003 Part I

Alliances are compromises in self-interest. Some alliances are less self-interested than others. The Anglo-American alliance is one of the least. The United States and the United Kingdom have been allies since 1941 and, with understandable ups and downs, have been good friends ever since. It is a unique friendship. In 1941 Britain, battered by Hitler’s and Hirohito’s attacks as it was, still thought of itself as a great world power. Sixty years later, with America the only superpower, that illusion has withered. The British now realistically regard themselves as a power of the second rank. Nevertheless they take, with reason, great pride in the competence of their armed forces. The Royal Navy, the army, the Royal Air Force, greatly diminished in size though they are since they struggled to victory in the Second World War, remain military instruments of exceptional quality. They have retained the ability to motivate the young men and women they recruit to the highest level of achievement, with results that are admired by the nation and its friends and feared by its foes. Wherever they are deployed, and for whatever purpose, British forces succeed in their mission. In none of the dozens of small wars they have fought since 1945 have they been defeated. To many of the countries in which they have operated they have brought the benefits of restored peace and security.

The United States military has come to appreciate the qualities of the British forces with growing enthusiasm ever since the termination of the Cold War in 1989. Until the fall of the Berlin Wall, which inaugurated the collapse of the Soviet Union and its client Warsaw Pact states, America was able to count on many allies in the Western world. As the Soviet threat fell away, most of its Cold War allies proved fair-weather friends. Self-interest reasserted its influence. The financial costs of sustaining forces of comparable quality to those of the United States seemed a burden better shed. It became more alluring to pursue policies that diverged from those that had assured collective security before the spectre of Communism. In 1990, when the United States called for a coalition to oppose Saddam Hussein’s illegal annexation of Kuwait, most of its Cold War allies, and some newfound Middle Eastern friends, responded. When in the crisis of 2002–03, America again appealed for support against Saddam, the ranks suddenly thinned. At the roll-call before hostilities commenced, only three countries came up to the mark: Australia, Britain and Poland, though it made a token contribution. The Australians, with skeletal armed resources, could only offer special operations troops and some ships and air support. The British, however, responded as they had done in 1990. They offered, besides sizeable naval and air components, a whole division of ground troops. They had done the same in 1990 but then that British contribution was matched by France and Syria, outmatched by Egypt and dwarfed by the Americans, who provided no less than eight divisions. In 2003 Britain’s division amounted to almost a third of the coalition force deployed and was appreciated by the Americans as much for the military contribution it represented as for the moral commitment its presence displayed.

The division had the same title as in 1990–91, the 1st (UK) Armoured Division, but was an unorthodox formation, the result of its having been hastily improvised from units in Britain and Germany. Its core was 7 Armoured Brigade, the ‘Desert Rats’, which had fought in the First Gulf War, but the rest of the division was not made up of other armoured and mechanized brigades, as would have been normal, but of two elements of Britain’s rapid reaction forces, 16 Air Assault Brigade and 3 Commando Brigade. The air assault brigade consisted of 1st and 3rd Battalions the Parachute Regiment and the 1st Battalion Royal Irish Regiment; its commanding officer, Lieutenant-Colonel Tim Collins, would become famous by making an inspiring eve-of-battle speech to his troops which President George W. Bush had displayed on a wall in the Oval Office at the White House. The air assault brigade’s artillery was provided by 7 Regiment Royal Horse Artillery, and armoured reconnaissance by the Household Cavalry Regiment. The commando brigade comprised only two of its normal three units, 40 and 42 Royal Marine Commando; 45 Commando was not deployed. A Commando is equivalent in size to an infantry battalion but on lighter scales of equipment and without tracked transport. The Commando brigade had, however, brought its organic gunner unit, 29 Commando Regiment Royal Artillery.

The 1st (UK) Armoured Division also had attached to it for Operation Iraqi Freedom (Operation Telic to the British, who avoid descriptive codenames) parts of 20 Armoured Brigade and a number of individual units, allotted as required. Whilst the Desert Rats officially comprised the 1st Battalion Black Watch, the 1st Battalion Royal Regiment of Fusiliers, 2nd Royal Tank Regiment and the Royal Scots Dragoon Guards, the last two tank regiments, also at the division’s disposal were the Queen’s Dragoon Guards and the Queen’s Royal Lancers, also armour, and four infantry battalions, 1st Light Infantry, 1st Black Watch, 1st Irish Guards and 1st Duke of Wellington’s Regiment; the latter was brigaded with the Commandos for the assault on the Fao peninsula. Additional batteries of Royal Artillery provided fire support and the Royal Engineers the essential combat engineering skills. Signals, transport and maintenance were provided by the Royal Corps of Signals, Royal Logistic Corps and Royal Electrical and Mechanical Engineers.

American army regiments, formerly transient organizations, have in recent years deliberately sought to create permanent identities for themselves, the high command having recognized that tradition is an important factor in fostering regimental morale. It seems to work. The parachute regiments in the 500 series, for example, take enormous pride in their histories, which began in Normandy, and they remain among the most effective and self-confident in the US infantry. The US Marine Corps has preserved its long-established regiments as a matter of policy, with highly beneficial effects on Corps morale. In both cases the Americans have been influenced by British example. British regiments glory in their antiquity: the oldest, the Royal Scots, dates from the early seventeenth century and is older than many of the key institutions of British public life, such as the Bank of England and, indeed, the reigning House of Windsor. By some mysterious chemistry, antiquity does not condemn regiments to senility, but seems to work as an elixir of youth. The long histories of the more senior seem to challenge fresh generations of soldiers to match the standards of courage set by their predecessors in battles long ago and challenge younger regiments to emulate them. Thus to the Royal Scots Dragoon Guards the regiment’s capture of an eagle standard from the enemy at Waterloo is a triumph which demands repetition; while the Irish Guards, a comparatively young regiment founded only in 1900, is constantly in competition with the Grenadiers, the personal guard established by Charles II at his restoration to the throne in 1660.

When the British go to war, therefore, commanders do not waste nervous energy in concern over their soldiers’ morale. They know that, given efficient subordinates and services of supply, they will fight with spirit and effect. The regimental system ensures that. High morale and self-confidence describe the mood of the 1st (UK) Armoured Division as it deployed for the second time in little over a decade to the head of the Gulf in 2003. The Gulf is one of the British army’s historic campaigning areas. It had fought and won an eventually victorious, if difficult, campaign there in the First World War. It had put down a pro-Nazi rising in Iraq in 1941. It had fought again victoriously in 1991, beside its American comrades-in-arms, in whom it had confidence. It expected that the new campaign would have the same outcome.

General Franks allotted the British a special and separate task from that of his American formations. He correctly recognized that the American divisions, with their unmatched capacity to cover ground and to resupply themselves while doing so, were the best suited to make the long-distance strike up the central valley to Baghdad. He equally recognized that the British, with their long experience of pacification operations and their historic connections with the Gulf region, would be better suited to tackling the problem of taking and holding Basra. Iraq’s second city had never fully acceded to the Ba’athist system. Its Shi’a population resented control by the Sunni of the central region. On the other hand, through its commercial association with the British, which went back as far as the days of the East India Company, it was used to their presence as traders and, indirectly, to their political and naval influence over the Gulf waters at their doorstep. General Franks’s calculation that the British were the best qualified of the contingents at his disposal to deploy to the Shatt el-Arab and Basra was therefore well judged.

The attack in the south was nevertheless to begin as a joint American-British operation. The decision was taken in December 2002, while the attack on Iraq was in the planning stage, to assign a US Marine Corps formation, 15 Marine Expeditionary Unit (15 MEU), to 3 Commando Brigade. Essentially a strong infantry battalion, with attached helicopter squadrons, 15 MEU combined with the commanders to land on the Fao peninsula and seize the oil facilities, while other elements of the force, reinforced by US Navy SEAL units, landed on the oil platforms twenty-five miles offshore, the points where oil pumped from the land was transferred to tankers. At the outset 40 Commando succeeded in securing two key oil installations near the town of al Fao. When its position was judged precarious, it was reinforced by 42 Commando, flown in by USMC helicopters. The operation was supported by fire from batteries of the Royal Artillery and ships offshore, the frigates Marlborough and Chatham; another Royal Navy frigate and one from the Royal Australian Navy were also involved. After securing the wellhead facilities, 3 Commando Brigade and 15 MEU proceeded up the Fao peninsula, to take Umm Qasr and Zubayr. Coalition casualties incurred in the whole operation were light, while at least thirty Iraqis were killed and 230 made prisoner.

The American Marines commented in an after-action account on the excellence of the co-operation arranged with the British. The two corps have a long association, train together frequently and cross-post personnel to each other as a matter of course. For once it is not a cliché of alliance-speak to say that they enjoy each other’s company. It is easy for them to do so, for they are similar in ethos and even in appearance; ceremonially, in dark-blue uniforms and white-topped caps, they are almost indistinguishable and in recent years the Royal Marines have adopted a semi-formal dress, greenish in hue, which closely resembles its USMC equivalent. Their rank structure, based on the primacy of long-serving senior sergeants, is similar and so is the training, with this difference: all Royal Marines have to complete the gruelling commando course, which commands high prestige in USMC eyes. The commando green beret, gained also by US Marines who successfully survive the course, is highly prized and is eagerly sought in barter for USMC kit when the two corps operate together.

The commander of the 15 MEU reported after the joint operation that co-operation had gone well from the start, when it had passed through the berm, the military sand bank on the Iraqi border, via gaps blown in it by the commando squadron of Royal Engineers, a joint task they had rehearsed together. The USMC reconnaissance unit was supported in the preliminary stage by fire called down from 29 Commando Regiment Royal Artillery. Once inside Iraq, 15 MEU was opposed by the 45th Brigade of the Iraqi 11th Infantry Division but it soon melted away as its conscript soldiers deserted the ranks. Their place was taken by fighters in civilian clothes who waved white flags but continued to deliver sniper fire without surrendering. The marines pressed on though, to seize Umm Qasr and then, after ninety-six hours of combat with the enemy, to take the Iraqi naval base of Zubayr where they were relieved by British commandos. They then departed the battle zone by helicopter to join 1st Marine Expeditionary Force fighting on the road to Baghdad.

The British marines, in their own report, paid generous tribute to the assistance received from their American comrades. The Americans provided helicopter transport, which the British lacked, as well as a great deal of electronic reconnaissance and surveillance, which the British also lacked the equipment to acquire. The information ‘philosophy’ of the two corps is, moreover, strikingly different. The British operate a traditional ‘top-down’ network, by which superiors inform subordinates of what is judged necessary. The Americans operate a ‘flat’ system, through a commonly available website to which all who have clearance have access. As the two corps are likely to co-operate more rather than less in the future a switch to the American system seems eventually essential. It will, however, need expensive re-equipment, a programme from which the Ministry of Defence will shrink, since it has only just completed a costly programme of radio purchase; it will also be important, as the Americans themselves recognize, to avoid increasing reliance on a system that threatens information overload. The British, in American eyes, work with too little information, the Americans, in the British view, with too much. No mastermind has yet suggested an effective compromise.

With the completion of the operation to secure the Fao peninsula, and the departure of 15 MEU to join the 1st Marine Expeditionary Force, taking with it G Battery, Royal Horse Artillery, which continued to provide it with fire support as far north as Nasiriyah, the thrust of the campaign in the south changed focus. Important results had been achieved. The Fao peninsula, the mouth of the Shatt el-Arab and the platforms and terminals at the head of the Gulf were essential to the export and distribution of oil from Iraq’s southern fields. They had also been highly vulnerable to sabotage by Saddam’s officials. In the event, only a handful had been set alight, while the essential pumping and separation plants had been captured undamaged. The Fao operation had been an outright success. The task following was to repeat it in Basra, which had a population of one million people.

The British War in Iraq 2003 Part II

It had not originally been intended that the British should be responsible for securing Basra. When planning began at Central Command for Operation Iraqi Freedom in the spring of 2002, the only task allotted the British, and that to 3 Commando Brigade, was the seizure of the Fao peninsula by amphibious assault, while other British forces participated in the drive north to Baghdad. While the Americans wanted the British to participate, their military participation, as opposed to their presence for political reasons, was not judged essential. It was thought, probably correctly, that the United States had sufficient available force to liberate Iraq without allied assistance. By June, however, the plan changed. The moving force seems to have been General David McKiernan, nominated as the general commander (CFLCC – Combined Force Land Component Commander), who knew the British well from his involvement with NATO’s Allied Rapid Reaction Corps (ARRC) in Germany, liked them and was liked in return. He now offered the British not only a part in but control of operations in northern Iraq, through the ARRC, which has a British commander.

His proposal then encountered political objections. The northern operation, to include not only the British but also the American 4th Infantry Division, could only be mounted with the consent of the Turkish government, which would have to approve its transit from Mediterranean ports and airfields to and across the Iraqi border. Even before the Turks began to make general difficulties, they were expressing particular objection to admitting British troops to their territory. The Americans found the Turkish attitude difficult to understand. The British planners involved, through consultation with the Foreign Office, were able to offer what seemed a persuasive explanation. The Turks are deeply sensitive to British involvement in their internal affairs. In 1919, after the First World War, in which they had been enemies, the British installed an army of occupation in western Turkey, the Army of the Black Sea. It had only been removed by armed confrontation. Throughout their administration of the League of Nations mandate for Iraq, the British had managed the affairs of Iraqi Kurdistan in a manner the Turks found hostile to their national interest. Most important, in 1932, the British had argued for and successfully achieved the award of the Mosul region, with its rich oil fields, to its client kingdom of Iraq by the Treaty of Lausanne. Turkey’s attitude in 2002 may have been tit-for-tat. It may have expressed some deeper-seated suspicion of British motives. Whatever the explanation, the Turks were immovable. Even before they had made it clear that they would not allow American troops to traverse their territory, they had definitively excluded any British. As a result, an alternative front of operation for the British complement had to be found. On 28 December 2002, the British told the Americans that they would deploy the bulk of their forces to Kuwait and take part in operations in the south.

That left time short. While the political crisis between Saddam and the West dragged out, with the Iraqis seeking to demonstrate that there was no justification for the taking of military measures against them, and with the Americans and British insisting the opposite, planning at Central Command went on. British planning had suddenly to accelerate. Though no deadline had yet been set, it was prudent to suppose that an invasion of Iraq would occur, without a satisfactory political settlement, by early spring. The Americans were speaking of March. That left only ten weeks for a deployment, a far shorter period than had been available before the First Gulf War of 1991. Fortunately there had been an extended exercise in Oman earlier in 2002, which had revealed certain necessary measures to be taken, including that to ‘desertize’ the Challenger tanks. The exercise had also left one of the units of 3 Commando Brigade in the area. Hastily the Ministry of Defence began to reinforce, sending ships and aircraft and speeding the dispatch of ground forces. Ever since the Falklands crisis of 1982, when Britain had had to assemble a long-range expeditionary force at a few days’ notice, the planning organization had been honing its skills of improvisation. Now, in a hurry, another Commando was sent out to join its sister unit; 16 Air Assault Brigade, which was not encumbered by armour requiring heavy lift, was despatched, and 7 Armoured Brigade, the most experienced and readily deployable major formation on hand, was shipped from Germany. By February Britain had the makings of a respectable intervention force in place. No other European country could have achieved the same results in the time available, not the French and certainly not the Germans. British troops, though few in number and less technically advanced than the American, had once again demonstrated their formidable readiness to respond to a challenge and competence to meet it.

Their competence was particularly suited to the problems presented by the need to isolate, enter and subdue the resistance in Basra. The British cannot match the Americans at the highest level of modern military performance. Shortage of funds deprives them of state-of-the-art equipment in the fields of target acquisition, reconnaissance, surveillance and intercommunication. In certain military tasks, however, they are without equal. Special operations is one, as American emulation of the SAS demonstrates. Counter-insurgency is another. Thirty years of engagement with the Irish Republican Army, in the grimy streets of Northern Ireland’s cities, has taught the British, down to the level of the youngest soldier, the essential skills of personal survival in the environment of urban warfare and of dominance over those who wage it. Every man covering another on patrol, watching the upper window, skirting the suspicious vehicle, stopping to question the solitary male: these are the methods the British army knows backwards. Painfully acquired, they have resulted in a superb mastery of the technique of control of the streets. The army has created an artificial urban training ground where these skills can be taught. As a result they have become expert at reading the geography of an urban area – which are the likely ambush points, where bombs are likely to be planted, what observation point must be entered and occupied – and have used their mastery of urban geography to dominate. Irish Republicans hate those they call ‘Crown forces’ for their professionalism, since it has blocked their ambition to control the Northern Irish cities themselves. As the entry into Basra was to prove, the British army’s mastery of the methods of urban warfare is transferable. What had worked in Belfast could be made to work also in Basra, against another set of urban terrorists, with a different motivation from the Irish Republican though equally as nasty.

Basra’s inhabitants occupy an area about two kilometres (1.24 miles) square, with a sprawl of suburbs on the southern side. The eastern boundary of the built-up area is formed by the Shatt el-Arab, the confluence of the Tigris and Euphrates. The old city, a warren of narrow streets, is not, however, on the water. The modern city has grown up to enclose it. There are a number of tall buildings but they are few and scattered; nothing in Basra resembles the government quarter in Baghdad, with its complex of towers and ultra-modern buildings. It is a shabby, traditional Middle Eastern town, overgrown by the influx of population and bewildering to an outsider who does not know its street pattern at first hand.

Fortunately, in the years since the First Gulf War, the British intelligence services had done a great deal to set up a comprehensive network in Basra, in the expectation that, if trouble with Saddam continued, the largest concentration of Shi’a in the country could be turned against him; it would certainly yield useful information if properly exploited. It was greatly to the advantage of the British that, despite their withdrawal from empire in the 1960s and ’70s, they had never fully lost touch with the region. Their long association with the Indian subcontinent and with the Gulf principalities provided a bedrock of familiarity with the political and ethnic realities; their commercial involvement in Iraq, particularly through the oil industry, sustained personal contacts; and the British services’ provision of equipment and training programmes to the Gulf principalities’ armed forces kept in being a body of local experts who knew the terrain and the tribes and, above all, spoke the local language. Knowledge of Arabic was a not uncommon language skill in the British army, particularly in its Special Forces and Intelligence Corps.

After the British parted company with the US Marine Corps on 23 March, their conventional ground forces were quite well prepared to undertake the isolation and capture of Basra; 7 Armoured Brigade took over the positions vacated by the 7th Marine Regiment, 16 Air Assault Brigade those of 5th Marines. They did not, however, immediately close up to the city, but remained at a distance, forming a cordon outside the built-up area to put it under surveillance, prevent the passage of reinforcements into the city and monitor the inhabitants leaving. Each flank of the cordon rested on the river, the opposite bank of which was held by 3 Commando Brigade, while the cordon itself, about twenty miles long in circuit and crossing all the roads into the city on the west bank, was maintained at a distance of about two miles from the outskirts. The plan formed by Major General Robin Brims, the 1st (UK) Armoured Division commander, was at first to wait and watch and to gather as much information as possible from fugitives about points of resistance, whereabouts of armed bodies of fighters and the identity of leaders, military and political. Despite the efforts of the Ba’ath organization to control the population, fugitives soon began to trickle out, progressively in larger and larger groups. They sought safety, but also food and water, and were ready to talk to the British, who spread the word by mouth and printed leaflet that they had come to stay, would protect civilians and could be trusted. Meanwhile SAS and SBS teams penetrated the built-up area under cover, to reconnoitre and make touch with intelligence contacts in the city.

General Brims was resolved not to provoke a fight for the city until he was certain that it could be won quickly and easily, without causing serious damage or heavy loss of life, particularly civilian life. The policy was particularly necessary in view of the hostile attitude of much of the British media, the BBC foremost, to the war against Saddam; unlike their American counterparts, who generally supported the war and their President, home-based British journalists – not those travelling with the troops – regarded it as a neo-colonialist undertaking, doubted official justifications for its launch, particularly that Saddam possessed weapons of mass destruction, and were eager to report anything that smacked of atrocity. Ali Hassan al-Majid, ‘Chemical Ali’, the senior Ba’athist in the city, was for his part anxious to keep the population within the city bounds and hoped to provoke a bout of street fighting in the narrow byways that would feed Western media prejudice. He also hoped that the British forces would suffer heavy casualties, with a consequently bad effect on British public opinion at home.

‘Chemical Ali’s’ capacity to achieve the effects he desired was, however, severely limited by the means available to him. He was personally intensely unpopular with the Shi’a population, which he had slaughtered in large numbers after the Basra uprising of 1991. His Ba’ath party organization was thinly spread in a city where it had always been regarded as an instrument of Sunni dominance. He had, finally, only the sketchiest military apparatus with which to operate. The 11th Division, the local formation of Iraq’s so-called regular army, had already largely dissolved. Those soldiers who remained could be made to fight only by terror methods, which provoked farther desertions. As a result, those who would do his will were either local Ba’athists, all too aware of the fate that awaited them if the fight for the city was lost, and fedayeen sent from Baghdad by Qusay Hussein, Saddam’s son. Many were foreigners; few had any training beyond a sketchy course in firing the Kalashnikov assault rifle and the RPG-7 grenade launcher. Of the skills at which the British infantry excelled – marksmanship, mutual support and massing firepower when attacked – they had no knowledge whatsoever.

Between 23 and 31 March the siege of Basra took the form of a stand-off, with ‘Chemical Ali’ trying to tempt the British inside and the British refusing to move major units downtown. They waited and watched, gathering intelligence and interrogating fugitives. Small units infiltrated the city, SAS and Royal Marine Commando SBS teams, patrols from the regular units and individual snipers, who chose fire positions and observed. The Iraqis tried to provoke a fight, by launching sorties with tanks and armoured vehicles and by mortaring the British lines. Sometimes they overreached themselves. On the night of 26–27 March a column of Iraqi tanks headed out into open country. At daylight it was intercepted by the Royal Scots Dragoon Guards, who destroyed all fifteen tanks at no loss to themselves. The Iraqi tanks involved were Soviet T-55s, when built after the Second World War excellent fighting vehicles but, by the twenty-first century, museum pieces. The British Challengers, with their 120mm guns, could destroy them at ranges too great for their own guns to reach.

By 31 March the British were becoming more aggressive. General Brims decided that his intelligence picture was sufficiently clear for him to begin infiltrating larger units into the city. One task given them was to attack Ba’ath party leaders, whom snipers were able to identify by their habit of using cell phones on the streets and visibly issuing orders to people around them. Engaging at several hundred yards, with an updated version of the bolt-action Lee-Enfield rifle, in use in the British army for over a century, they achieved a dominant psychological effect. Major Ben Farrell, a company commander in 1st Irish Guards, described the technique to The Daily Telegraph: ‘Our snipers are working in pairs’ (one man used the rifle, the other a telescope), ‘infiltrating the enemy’s territory to give us very good observation of what is going on inside Basra and to shoot the enemy as well when the opportunity arises.… They don’t kill large numbers but the psychological effect and the denial of freedom of movement to the enemy is vast.’ An Irish Guards sniper later described to a Daily Telegraph reporter how their missions worked. ‘It’s a bit scary going into buildings because they haven’t been cleared and we don’t know if they have left any booby-traps for us. But once we are here they don’t know where we are and it feels OK. We can report back what is going on – to call in air strikes or direct artillery – and if they are within range of our rifles we will shoot them.’

This sort of operation – targeting armed terrorists acting singly or in small groups, without causing harm to the civilian population – is one at which British troops excel. They have learnt the skills in many terrorist-ridden environments, including Beirut and Sierra Leone as well as Northern Ireland, over the last thirty years and more.

British technique paid off in Basra, in what could be viewed as a repetition of the success of Operation Motorman against the Irish Republican Army in Londonderry in 1972. There the IRA had seized control of a large area of the city, proclaimed it to be ‘Free Derry’ and denied entry to the security forces. Anxious to avoid both the widening of disorder and a bad press, the army did not intervene. Over several months, however, it constructed a detailed intelligence plot and secretly rehearsed a plan to retake ‘Free Derry’ without provoking a costly fight in the narrow streets. When ready, it struck. Early one morning, columns of military vehicles penetrated ‘Free Derry’ from several directions simultaneously and within a few hours had reoccupied the whole area and re-imposed civil order, without provoking armed resistance. Motorman was the indirect inspiration of the operation to take Basra.

Because Basra is much larger than Londonderry, with a far greater population, its capture could not be staged as a single coup. Having assembled an intelligence picture of where the Ba’ath power structure was located and how it worked, 1st (UK) Armoured Division began in early April to launch raids into the city, down the main roads leading into it, by columns of Warrior fighting vehicles. The Warrior is well adapted to such tasks. Relatively well-armoured and well-armed, with a 30mm cannon in its turret, and capable of speeds of 50 miles per hour or more, the Warrior has the capacity to make quick penetrations of a position and speedy withdrawals. For several days the Warriors raided in and out, destroying identified Ba’athist positions and adding to the divisional staff’s stock of intelligence. Such intelligence, amplified by information gathered by the SAS, SBS and Secret Intelligence Service teams, allowed point attacks to be launched by artillery outside the city and by the coalition air forces. Among the successes achieved was the destruction of a building in which the Basra Ba’ath leadership was meeting, causing many fatalities, and another attack on what was believed to be the headquarters of ‘Chemical Ali’ on 5 April. It was later found to have been based on false intelligence but it was for a time believed by the population to have been successful and so helped to weaken Ba’athist control.

Finally, on 6 April, General Brims launched a full-scale assault. The city was now ringed with British units, the 1st Royal Regiment of Fusiliers to the northwest, the 3rd Battalion Parachute Regiment to the west, the Black Watch with the 1st Royal Tank Regiment to the southwest, the Royal Scots Dragoon Guards to the south and the Royal Marines across the river, but with amphibious capability, to the east. The original plan was that, after the units had launched simultaneous but individual drives down the streets leading to the centre, they should withdraw and wait the night outside before repeating the procedure. The initial penetration, however, went better than expected: in an uninhabited factory complex, where there was no risk of causing civilian casualties, it proved possible to call in helicopter gunship strikes directed by Air-Naval-Gunfire Company (ANGLICO) liaison teams of US Marines allotted to the British armoured division. The firepower deployed inflicted heavy losses on Ba’athists and fedayeen defending the complex.

Such was the early success achieved by his forces that General Brims decided to persist. They were organized in ‘battle groups’, an improvised formation much favoured by the British and viable in a small army where everyone knows everyone else. General Brims’s battle groups consisted typically of one or two companies of infantry mounted in Warrior armoured vehicles and a squadron of Challenger tanks. One battle group, which had cleared out the factory complex, was switched to attack the area of the College of Literature, a university campus occupied by 300 fedayeen, mostly non-Iraqi Islamic terrorists from other Arab countries, including Morocco, Algeria and Syria. Reducing the resistance of the fedayeen, who lacked military skills but were eager to fight to the last, took four hours, in a battle in which the British troops could not call on fire support, because of the danger of causing civilian casualties, but had to depend on their own infantry skills.

By the evening of 6 April the British were largely in control of Basra and 7 Armoured Brigade, the core of 1st (UK) Armoured Division, set up its headquarters on the university campus. The next morning, 7 April, 16 Air Assault Brigade, with two parachute battalions and the 1st Royal Irish Regiment under command, entered the narrow streets of the old city where armoured vehicles could operate only with difficulty, and set about chasing the remnants of the Ba’ath and the fedayeen out of the area. It proved that there was little to do. Saddam’s régime recognized that it was beaten and its representatives were leaving the city.

On 8 April the British began to adopt a postwar mode. Anxious to reassure the Shi’a population that they had come to stay, they took off their helmets and flak jackets, dismounted from their armoured vehicles and began to mingle with the crowds. Soon afterwards General Brims withdrew his armoured vehicles from the city centre altogether, leaving his soldiers to patrol on foot, with orders to smile, chat and restore the appearance of normality. It was an acknowledgement that the war in the south was over. The struggle to win ‘hearts and minds’ – a concept familiar to British soldiers in fifty years of disengagement from distant and foreign lands – was about to begin.

The British campaign had been an undoubted success. They had secured all their objectives – the Fao peninsula, the Shatt el-Arab, the oil terminals, Iraq’s second city – quickly and at minimal cost. British loss of life was slight. They had also conducted their war in a fashion that appeared to leave them, as the representatives of the coalition, on good terms with the southern population of defeated Iraq. The inhabitants of Basra made it clear, to the British soldiers who took possession of their city, that they were glad to be rid both of the representatives of Saddam’s régime and of the foreign fighters who supported it. If a new Iraq were to be created from the ruins of the old, Basra seemed the most promising point at which to start.

Bombed Up Fw 190 inTunisia

Many fighter versions of the Fw 190 but the earliest examples to be tested with bomb-carrying equipment appear to have been two from a second batch of preproduction aircraft – WNr. 0022, coded SB+IB, and WNr. 0023, coded SB+IC. They flew test flights with either a 500kg bomb or 300 litre drop tank fitted beneath their fuselages up to June 30, 1941. This This basic bomb-carrying configuration was given the designation A-0/U4. Another prototype was used to test different arrangements of SC 50 bombs carried either beneath the fuselage or under the wings.

The first attempt to create a dedicated Schlachtflugzeug (ground-attack aircraft) was the Fw 190 A-3/U3, devised in May 1942. The /U3 denoted Umrüstbausatz (Umbau for short), a kit of parts that could be fitted to any standard Fw 190 fighter immediately following its manufacture at the factory.

The Fw 190 A-3/U3 had extra armour plates fitted around and beneath the engine, on the sides of the fuselage and on the undercarriage doors. A variety of different armament options were proposed, ranging from bombs to under-wing cannon pods but just 12 aircraft received these modifications.

Next came the A-4/U3, featuring the same armour and weapon options as its predecessor. In addition, the A-3/U3’s centreline ETC 501 bomb rack featured the ER-4 adapter, which allowed the Fw 190 A-4/U3 to carry a set of four SC 50 bombs. Again, only a handful, perhaps a dozen, are believed to have been made.

Next came another small-run type, the A-5/U3. This had two ETC 50 racks under each wing and a hefty total armour weight of 794lb. The A-5/U3 was scheduled for limited production in December 1942 with the ultimate goal of using it as the pattern aircraft for the full production Fw 190 F ground-attack aircraft, scheduled to enter production in June 1943.

Although the successes of the Jabo raids had been relatively insignificant, the Germans resolved to intensify them as 1942 drew to a close.

It was decided that a new sort of unit should be established to specialise in these attacks – the Schnellkampfgeschwader or `fast bomber wing’. SKG 10 was to have three Gruppen, each comprising four Staffeln, compared to the more usual three.

Since existing Fw 190 pilots were all needed elsewhere, SKG 10 would be manned by former Bf 110 pilots drawn from the Zerstörer Gruppen or `heavy fighter groups’.

Meanwhile, the first Fw 190 unit had arrived in North Africa – III./ZG 2. Heavy losses inflicted by the British in the theatre had prompted Göring to promise that 40 of the new Focke-Wulf Fw 190 fighter-bombers would be transferred there to help.

III./ZG 2 arrived in Tunisia, having flown there via Italy and Sicily, in early to mid- November and flew its first mission against Bone harbour, held by the Allies, on November 12 and numerous clashes with enemy ground forces and Spitfires ensued. Five days later, II./JG 2 began to join III./ZG 2 at Sidi Ahmed. Its pilots were soon battling P- 38 Lightnings of the 14th Fighter Group and B-17s of the Twelfth Air Force.

In December 1942, it was decided that III./ZG 2 would be renamed III./SKG 10 to become the third Gruppe of the new Geschwader, though it continued its bombing operations in North Africa – attacking Allied ground targets ranging from ships to tanks and motor vehicles and supporting German ground forces.

In March of the following year, a third Fw 190-equipped unit moved to North Africa, II./Schl. G 2. In April, III./SKG 10 was issued with the Fw 190A-5/U8, the predecessor of the Fw 190G, but was deeply unimpressed with it, regarding the twin under-wing 300 litre drop tanks as perilously vulnerable to ground fire.

However, it then began to receive the Fw 190F predecessor, the A-5/U3s with added armour protection, and found that these were much better suited to the fighter-bomber role. Intense fighting followed, with hundreds of sorties being flown against advancing British forces but to no avail. All of the Luftwaffe’s surviving Fw 190s in North Africa were evacuated on May 8, 1943.


As the first of the Fw 190s entered service with the ground-attack arm, two new Hsl29-equipped units were raised for operations in the Middle East and the first, 4/Sch. G 2, alternatively known as the Schlacht und Panzer-fliegerstaffel ‘Afrika’, left Poland on 2 November with fourteen aircraft. At the end of the first week’s operations from Staraset, however, only two aircraft survived and the unit’s personnel, evacuated to southern Italy, were refitting at Bari when, in February 1943, the Jabo-Staffeln of JG 27 and JG 53 were amalgamated and equipped with Hs 129s to form 8/Sch. G 2. This unit was more successful than its predecessor but could make no substantial or distinctive contribution to the Tunisian fighting. Based at the large airfield at El Aouina, 8/Sch. G 2 joined the Ju87s of St. G 3 and the Fw 190s of III/SKG 10 (formed on 20 December by redesignating III/ZG 2). During the British October-November offensive from El Alamein, St. G 3 lost approximately 125 aircraft during 960 sorties mounted in support of the Afrika Korps against troop columns, tank concentrations and troop transport generally. Thereafter the number of Stuka sorties dropped, mainly due to low serviceability and the vital necessity of avoiding losses in view of the overall situation. Also, increasing use was now being made of the Fw 190s in the ground-attack role and between 11 November and 11 February, III/SKG 10 claimed 449 vehicles destroyed and a further 196 damaged during 51 operations undertaken in a vain effort to stem the Allied advance. In January, however, III/SKG 10 lost about half of the 30 Fw 190s transferred to Gabes when the airfield was heavily bombed by the RAF, and further losses occurred from extremely accurate AA when the unit attacked the airfield and harbour at Bone. From 10 November, battered Luftwaffe units encountered a new hazard when RAF Beaufighters from Malta made numerous night and day raids against the airfield at El Aouina, destroying hangars and setting workshops and parked aircraft alight. As the Allies closed in on the remaining Axis units in Tunisia, III/St. G 3 was badly shot up over El Guetter by newly-arrived American Spitfires on 3 April and had to be finally withdrawn to Sicily. The remaining Fw 190s could not redress a hopeless situation and on 12 May the North African campaign came to an end with the final surrender of German and Italian troops.


Review  Focke Wulf Fw 190 in North Africa

Andrew Arthy & Morten Jessen

Published by Classic Publication in 2004

176 pages

111 photos

15 colour profiles (incl. 2 plan view)

9 x 12″


ISBN: 1903223458

For someone with a special interest in the operational history of Germany’s superb radial-engined fighter of WWII, the Focke-Wulf Fw 190, the brief period this fighter spent in the North-African theatre of operations has always been a bit mysterious to me. Very little has been written on this subject and it seems that even fewer photos were available. And those that were available tended to be re-published countless times. Who haven’t seen the classic shots of Fw 190A-5 KM+EY?

I was therefore pleasantly surprised when I read on Andrew Arthy’s Fw 190 website that a book on this subject was forthcoming. At first opportunity I bought it.

Let me start by concluding that this is a masterpiece of aviation writing! As a scientist I am very, very pleased to see the academic approach taken by the authors when writing this book. By this I mean that not only is the research conducted thorough and extensive but it is also presented in the best possible manner, at least in this reviewer’s opinion. The authors use footnotes extensively throughout their work and this is conveniently placed below each page. I would strongly urge all aviation authors to use this system as it is very easy to find the required reference and a great aid in one’s own research. Fortunately, it seems to be a trend in aviation writing of late.

The authors present their work in a chronological day-to day manner, another approach I must admit I am inclined to favour! The book is broken down into ten chapters, five appendices, a reference section (in addition to the aforementioned footnotes) and thankfully a personnel index. The chapter breakdown is as follows:

  1. The early desert war – brief introduction to Luftwaffe operations in North-Africa, tactics and command structure.
  2. Erprobungskommando 19 – brief chapter on the first Fw 190 unit in North-Africa (all of which was news to me)
  3. III./ZG 2 in North Africa – chronological war diary November-December 1942
  4. II./JG 2 in Tunisia – chronological war diary November-December 1942
  5. III./SKG 10 – chronological war diary December 1942 – February 1943
  6. A successful period for II./JG 2 – chronological war diary January – February 1943
  7. Kasserine – 14. – 24. February 1943, the famous battle described
  8. II./JG 2 leaves North-Africa – chronological war diary Late February – March 1943
  9. Axis reversals – chronological war diary Late February – March 1943
  10. The final days – April – May 1943

Even if emphasis is on Fw 190 operations the allied perspective is not forgotten and combat reports and war stories from several participating American and British are presented. Together with the German view these are an interesting documentation of an air war that has often been overlooked in the past. At the end of each chapter the authors present their “conclusions”, an assessment of the Fw 190 units’ significance and achievements during the time period just described. An interesting way to end each chapter, I think! There are also a few bibliographies in the book, like that of Kurt Bühligen and Erich Rudorffer. Interspersed among the text are various small tables, like summaries of Fw 190 claims or losses for a given period or of unit commanders.

Moving on to the aircraft profiles all that is needed to say is that they are by Claes Sundin! Everyone with an interest in aviation art knows what that means. The profiles included in the book are some of the very best I have seen, indeed some of the best from Sundin’s hand, even if I am not entirely partial due to my interest in the Fw 190. Naturally the emphasis is on the Fw 190 (12 of the 15 profiles are devoted to the fw 190, including the two plan views) but there are one of a Bf 109G-4/R-6 (Franz Schiess’ Black 1, probably thrown in for the Bf 109 guys!), an American Spitfire V and a French P-40F. Sundin has also made three maps in colour of the areas of operations.

A crucial aspect of any Luftwaffe book, at least it is the one aspect I tend to consider the most, is the choice of photos. I am sure that the authors have done their utmost to find new photos and there were several here that were new to me. Of course there are old “friends” like the abovementioned shots of KM-EY, but they have also managed to find a few new ones of this machine that I have not seen before. There are not really any big surprises as far as photographs are concerned, although the Gruppeemblem of III./SKG 10 was one that I have not seen in print before. Furthermore, I find the shots of White 1/White E fascinating, especially since this machine apparently belonged to Eprobungskommando 19, the first fw 190 unit in North-Africa who only carried out non-operational tests. There are also four pages (appendix V) devoted solely to presenting more photographs, including many of KM+EY and four of a captured Fw 190A-4 with strange red-white-blue tricolor markings painted over the German national insignia.

If I have to find a negative point with this book it is that the photos are far to small for my comfort. At least some of them are deserving of much more space than they have been allocated. The majority of the photographs are only approximately 9×6 cm or smaller and that is not enough. I have been told that this is the choice of the editor and not the authors. Good thing that the profiles span an entire page and are reproduced with excellent clarity.

The appendices include the obligatory claims and loss lists but also a section on Jabo escort missions and, for modellers, a section on camouflage and markings. Perhaps surprisingly for many, the majority of the Fw 190s depicted in the book did not carry tropical camouflage, but the regular greys. Finally, there’s a list of Fw 190s captured in Tunisia.

This then, is my impression of this work. If it is not clear already let me say it again, this book is excellent, it represents marvellous scholarship and is obviously the result of a passion for the chosen subject and I can only look forward to any future titles from these authors.

Kjetil Aakra


Over the millennium of its existence, the Byzantines faced a vast array of peoples who threatened its territory and people. Several of these proved militarily superior and dealt heavy defeats on the empire. In the end, however, the Byzantines generally gained the upper hand, often through decades or even centuries of defense, stabilization, assimilation, and counterattack. The Byzantines learned a great deal from their enemies; indeed the ability to adapt to the challenges posed by opponents was one of the great pillars of Byzantine military success.


The Gothic tribal confederacies posed the most serious challenge to the late antique Roman state of any Germanic group. The Goths comprised coalitions of tribal groups, mostly from the east Germanic peoples who by the third century A.D. inhabited a vast swathe of territory from the Oder and Vistula rivers to the southern steppes of Russia, the Crimea, and the Carpathian basin. East Germanic peoples had posed a significant threat to the eastern provinces of the Roman state from the third century. In 267, Goths and Heruls burst through the Danubian defenses and ravaged Thrace and much of the Balkans, sacking Athens before the emperor Claudius Gothicus dealt them a stinging defeat in 269. Following their defeat by the Huns, large groups of Goths migrated south to the Danube where they were admitted as suppliants to Roman territory. Their provisioning was bungled due to corruption, and an underdeveloped transportation response led to starvation among the Goths and rebellion that culminated in the armed confrontation at Adrianople. At the end of the sixth century, after its recovery from the Goths, the empire had to concede the loss of most of Italy to the newly arrived Lombard confederation, whose grip on the peninsula spread throughout the seventh century. The Byzantines also entered sporadic conflicts with the Franks from the sixth century and even fought against Charlemagne (801–10) for control of the Istrian and Dalmatian coasts.


The Goths were organized in decimal units with major groupings of “hundreds” (hundafaþs) as were their Germanic relatives, the Anglo-Saxons and their Roman neighbors, whose centurions were well known to the eastern Goths. Gothic mercenaries served in the Roman army throughout the late third century, and by the time of the emperor Constantine, Gothic elements were settled in Transdanubia. By the fourth century Gothic military organization had evolved at least in part under the influence of Roman practice. Gothic tribal raiders crossed into Roman territory and proved a sufficient nuisance to attract the interest of Constantine, who waged multiple campaigns against them. By now the Goths probably included and coexisted alongside elements of several ethnic Iranians (Sarmatians), Slavs, Romano-Dacians, and Getae. The remains of a commonly articulated material culture from the second through fifth centuries (the Chernyakhov culture) indicate broad contact and exchanges; such adaptations were not always peaceful and the transferal of knowledge from one people to another certainly included warfare. According to Maurice, the “fair-haired races,” especially the Lombards, grouped themselves not into numerically ordered units but according to kin group.

Methods of Warfare

The Goths fought as both cavalry and infantry. Until the last few decades, historians have viewed the Goths as primarily a cavalry army and attributed to this their shattering victory over the infantry legions in 378 at Adrianople. Their numbers were probably never as numerous as some Roman authors would have us suppose—Heather estimates that in sixth century Italy and Gaul there were about 15,000 Gothic elite males.1 When the Gothic king Theodoric reigned over the united Gothic territories in Spain, Gaul, and Italy, his Gothic subjects numbered about 200,000 people. However, although we have few contemporary sources, the majority of Goths seem to have often fought as infantry spearmen and swordsmen. Certainly the Goths served in large numbers in the legions as infantry. At Adrianople the Goths had perhaps 5,000 cavalry and probably twice as many infantry. According to Vegetius, the Goths possessed numerous archers, who fought on foot. In the sixth century, Prokopios provided a clearer picture of the Gothic army, which fielded a large cavalry component who fought in massed formations as lancers, while the infantry seem to have been mainly skirmishers armed with javelins and archers. Other infantry fought as spearmen and swordsmen equipped with a spatha and carrying shields. Given the high casualty rate caused by Roman archery among the Goths, it is doubtful that they were more heavily armored than their Roman foes. In fact, the Goths closely resembled their late Roman counterparts.

Byzantine Adaptation

Since after Adrianople the empire was too weak to destroy the Gothic confederacies, the Romans sought to neutralize them by treaty. The emperor Theodosius recruited numerous Goths into the Roman army, as an expedient means to replenish the devastated ranks of the eastern field forces, but also as a way to weaken the Goths, whose presence in the Balkans created a state of emergency. Theodosius recruited numerous Gothic federates who fought loyally for him and of whose lives the Roman high command was apparently none too careful—a contemporary panegyrist acclaims the emperor for using barbarian to fight barbarian, thus bleeding both of them. Nonetheless the Goths formed a sizable but not dominant portion of the eastern field army. By 400 A.D. the Gothic warlord Gainas dominated imperial politics in the capital of Constantinople, but his unpopular policies led to his downfall and a riot of citizens who trapped and massacred 7,000 of his Gothic troops. The Gainas affair marked the apogee of Gothic influence in the imperial center; the Romans countered Germanic elements in the army by recruiting Isaurian highlanders from Asia Minor. Finally, the last major elements not assimilated or settled within the Roman Balkans or Asia Minor were sent to Italy under Theodoric the Amal. Justinian renewed the Gothic conflict, invading Italy and conquering it. In 554 the Roman general defeated a Frankish-Alemanni force at Volturnus through his combined arms approach—horse archery again proved a major Roman tactical advantage over the Frankish infantry force. Though the Byzantines lost most of Italy to the Lombards in the later sixth and early seventh centuries, they created the exarchate of Ravenna with several dukes under its control to check the Lombard advance. The exarch held joint civil and military power and, as viceroy of the emperor, was free to respond to crisis without direct orders from Constantinople. These reorganizations helped the Byzantines maintain territory in portions of Italy until 1071.


The most sophisticated, rich, and militarily threatening power that the Romans faced in the early part of their existence was the empire of Sasanian Persia. Founded after victory in a civil war in 226 A.D., the Sasanian dynasty ruled territory stretching from Central Asia to the Persian Gulf and Mesopotamia. Their propaganda declared dynastic ties to the Achaemenid Persian Empire destroyed by Alexander the Great and consequently the rights to the former Persian territories of Asia Minor, Egypt, and the Mediterranean coast. While the Sasanians acted on these grand claims on only one occasion, during the mighty conflict that raged with Rome in 603–28, clashes over strategic borderlands and satellite peoples were frequent. The frequency and intensity of these conflicts rose from a simmer to a steady boil by the sixth century, culminating in the Persian conquest of most of the Roman east in the following century.


The Sasanian shah Kosrow I (531–79) reformed the Persian military and in doing so created several Roman-style structures. Kosrow divided the empire into four army districts in which he stationed army corps under the command of four spahbeds (field marshals). Along the border, the king established margraves, marzbans, who administered sensitive border districts and commanded the frontier forces stationed there. The Eran-ambaragbed, “minister of the magazines of empire,” was, like his Roman counterpart, the praetorian prefect, in charge of arming and equipping the troops. The general (gund-salar) led individual field armies on campaign; sometimes under the authority of the spahbed. By the sixth century the army was largely professionally recruited and paid; there was a professional infantry commander in charge of standing guard units, but in the sixth century the Persians apparently continued to rely on conscripts for a large portion of their rank-and-file infantry. Mailed cavalry units and the royal guard formed the crack troops of the empire; these were generally drawn from the Persian nobility or from aristocratic allied families, such as the Hephthalites and Armenians, with whom the Persians had close contacts.

Methods of Warfare

The proportion of infantry to cavalry in the Sasanian army is unknown, but the Persians relied to a large degree on heavy horsemen, who could both shoot the bow and strike with heavy lances. The Persians favored direct massed cavalry assaults to break up enemy formations; the shock of their horsemen proved decisive against the Romans on several occasions. Normally the Sasanians drew up their forces in three cavalry lines. The Sasanians occasionally employed elephants in combat, but though they made a great psychological impression, they were not an important part of their military. The left of the Persian line was traditionally manned by left-handed archers and lancers who could thus strike effectively across the face of the enemy formation (right-handed mounted archers especially had difficulty shooting to their right). The left of the host formed the defensive anchor, whose role was to avoid enemy flanking maneuvers and to support the offensive right of the formation, where were stationed the best noble cavalry. The Sasanian right typically tried to outflank the enemy left, though the heavily armed kataphracts, covered from head to toe in mail and bearing lances, could be used in frontal assaults on infantry and cavalry groups. Behind the center line of regular cavalry were stationed the infantry formation, which supported the cavalry and sheltered retreating horsemen in case their attacks failed. In addition to their archery and horsemanship, the Sasanians were outstanding siege engineers. From the fourth through seventh centuries they seized some of the best defended and most powerfully built Roman fortress cities.

Byzantine Adaptation

The Sasanians and Byzantines knew one another well and there was considerable exchange of military knowledge and practice across the frontiers. Militarily, each side came to resemble the other. In early twentieth-century excavations at Dura Europus, a Roman frontier city on the middle Euphrates taken by Sasanian assault in the year 256 archaeologists discovered the remains of at least nineteen Romans and one Sasanian attacker. The Sasanian wore chain mail, carried a jade-hilted sword, and wore a pointed ridge-type helmet with a prominent center piece whose rivets joined the two lobes of the helmet together. Such gear was typical in Roman armies by the third century. In 533 at the battle of Dara, Belisarios countered Sasanian superiority by limiting their cavalry and playing to their psychological sense of superiority. In subsequent battles he used the Sasanians’ wariness of his stratagems to force their withdrawal by aggressive posturing. The Persians, used to the traps and feigned retreats of their nomad enemies, could be made too cautious by aggressive maneuvers. They could be thwarted by the commander’s well-chosen battlefield that cut off the Persians’ ability to place their weaker elements on protective rough ground. The poor soldiers among the Sasanians did not fight with spear and shield, but seem to have been mainly skirmishers and archers. They were therefore susceptible to Roman cavalry charges delivered over level ground. The Romans thus relied on strategems, strategic maneuver, tactical coordination, and discipline to defeat the Persians. When Roman commanders selected the battlefield, they were able to neutralize or defeat these stubborn eastern opponents.


Throughout its existence, the empire confronted a vast array of steppe nomad military powers. The Byzantines fought major wars against the Huns, Bulgars, Avars, Khazars, Hungarians, Pechenegs, and Cumans and numerous minor conflicts with a host of other groups. Nomads were generally bent on plunder of imperial territory and rarely sought to settle on lands south of the Danube, only a small portion of which were suitable for the transient, cattle-herding life of pastoralists. However, both the Huns and Avars posed existential threats to the empire, as they sought to dominate the lands south of the Danube and to destroy the Roman power that contained them north of the river. Nomadic confederations formed under charismatic leadership or during periods of environmental or physical stress. Maurice stressed in the Strategikon that nomads typically fought in kin-based tribal or extended family groupings, and this contributed to the nature of their tactics.


Nomadic society was based on nuclear families and wider, extended kinship ties. Like other tribal societies, blood relation or imagined genealogical connections helped to smooth political dealings and allow for larger groupings or “super tribes” that made massive nomadic military enterprise possible. The Huns under Attila formed an effective monarchy and Maurice stressed that the Avars, unlike many nomads, possessed a kingship. Undoubtedly the power of the central figures within a hierarchy during the Hunnic and Avar episodes of Byzantine history bolstered the barbarians’ military effectiveness. After they settled north of the Danube in the late sixth century, the Avars conquered and coopted elements among the Bulgars, Slavs, and Hunnic and Germanic peoples in Transdanubia. The Byzantines portray a grim fate for those whom the Avars conquered, especially the Slavs who served as hard laborers and pressed soldiers during the siege of Constantinople in 626. According to Maurice, the Avars arranged themselves by tribe or kin group while on the march. Their social structure made them vulnerable to desertions and divisions within the ranks, which the Byzantines sought to exploit.

Methods of Warfare

Steppe nomads fought primarily as lightly armed horse archers. Speed and surprise were cornerstones of their strategic and tactical success. Their ability to swarm and the firepower they brought to bear could break up enemy formations and drive the enemy from the field. In the fourth century, when the Romans had little experience dealing with the tactical swarming attacks, war cries, strange appearance, and mobile horse archery of the Huns, these nomads struck terror into the hearts of many soldiers and won numerous victories across the length of the empire. In addition to horse archers, the Huns and Avars deployed heavier lancers who bore a resemblance to the Sasanian hybrid cavalry, armed with bow, sword, and lance. The Strategikon notes that the Avars carried a lance strapped on their back which freed them to operate their bows. In addition to the lance and bow, Avar warriors carried swords; they seem to have been more heavily armed than their Hun predecessors, as Maurice noted that they wore chain mail coats. The Avars wore long coats of mail or lamellar split at the crotch, with panels on each side to protect the leg. The famous Nagyszentmiklós Treasure includes a gold plate depicting what is probably an Avar or Bulgar warrior wearing such a coiffed mail coat, splinted greaves, helmet, and carrying a pennoned lance.

Byzantine Adaptation

The Byzantines relied on diplomatic means to buy off and deflect Hun designs on imperial territory. The defensive posture of the empire throughout the fifth century precluded decisive confrontations against a superior enemy in the open field, and the massive defenses of Constantinople shielded the eastern territories from Hun penetration and conquest, though most of their European possessions were ravaged and slipped from Byzantine control. Although our sources provide no insight into the exact mechanisms of the adoption of steppe nomad tactics and equipment, the Byzantines recruited Hunnic horse archers into their armies and probably from these and deserters derived the knowledge of horseback archery. By the sixth century, the hybrid horse archer and lancer cavalry among the armies of Justinian were the most important tactical elements within the Roman army. The Byzantines adopted the stirrup from the Avars and this provided Roman cavalry with a more stable fighting platform. Maurice’s Strategikon notes that the thonged Avar lance and Avar-type tents and riding cloaks were also adopted directly from their steppe enemies. Lamellar cavalry armor also became more prominent in the panoply of Roman soldiers in the sixth and seventh centuries and this, too, indicates that the Byzantines borrowed extensively from nomads. The use of the feigned retreat, while known to classical armies, was a common steppe nomad tactic that the Byzantines perfected under steppe influence and employed throughout their history. The adoption of nomadic equipment, tactics, and strategy were among the most important adaptations of the Byzantine army and proved critical to the long-term survival of the empire.



By the time of the rise of Islam in the early seventh century, the Romans possessed extensive military experience with the Arabs. Arab scouts and light troops had served as guides and auxiliaries almost from the beginning of Roman rule in the Near East. By the sixth century, the Roman system of paying subsidies to allied tribal confederations to maintain law and order along the frontier from the Red Sea to the Euphrates was integral to the governance of the eastern provinces. The powerful Christian tribal confederation of Ghassan, which included both settled and tribal elements, largely managed the eastern periphery of the empire, and despite the general hostility of Greek-speaking elites to their Arab allies, these clients were both effective and reliable. Ghassanid auxiliaries defeated their Persian-sponsored counterparts and provided valuable light cavalry raiders and skirmishers to the eastern field armies on campaign in Syria and Mesopotamia. At the Battle of Yarmuk in 636 the Ghassanids fought alongside their Roman masters and though many subsequently converted to Islam and remained in Syria, a sizable group migrated to Roman territory. The Muslim Arab victors at Yarmuk overran the whole of Syria, Mesopotamia, and eventually wrested Egypt, Libya and North Africa from Roman control. Muslim Arab attempts to conquer Constantinople and thereby destroy the remnants of the Roman Empire unfolded in the epochal sieges of the seventh and early eighth centuries in which the empire emerged battered but intact. With the overthrow of the Umayyad dynasty and shift of the locus of Muslim government to Mesopotamia, the threat to the existence of the Roman state diminished, and as the Abbasid caliphate unraveled politically, the Byzantines mounted a sustained counterattack to recover lost territories in the east.


Arab armies of the conquest were organized along tribal lines, though it is uncertain if these were grouped into units of 10–15 soldiers called ‘arifs known from just after the conquests. Muslim Arab armies were recruited mainly from Arabic-speaking family and tribal groupings. But soldiers were also raised from among Byzantine and Sasanian deserters, as well as non-Arab clients (mawali) dependent on regional Arab lords. Larger tribal groups fought under the banners of their tribal sheikhs in army groups of varying strength, usually numbering 2,000–4,000 men. On rare occasions, as at Yarmuk, combined commands could field as many as 30,000 or 40,000 soldiers. In 661, the Battle of Siffin was fought between the Syrian forces under Mu ‘awiya and the Iraqi Arabs led by the Prophet’s cousin and son-in-law ‘Ali, said to have comprised 150,000 and 130,000 men, respectively; these numbers are inconceivable and could probably safely each be reduced by a factor of ten. During the Umayyad era, when the Syrian army provided the main prop to the caliph’s authority, armies of 6,000 Syrian troops are commonly mentioned and these may represent standard field force groupings, not dissimilar in size and equipment from their Byzantine neighbors. In 838, the caliph al-Mu ‘tasim (d. 842) led an army of up to 80,000 men against Amorium, a number that represented a large force and among the largest the Byzantines ever confronted.

Methods of Warfare

Although the commonly held perception of early Muslim armies today is of swift-moving horsemen mounted on Arabian chargers, the armies of the conquest era were mainly infantry forces fighting as spearmen and archers. Arab archery was particularly deadly to both the Byzantine and Persian forces encountered during the first campaigns of the conquest. Early Muslim armies generally lacked heavy cavalry, and they eagerly accepted the Sasanian horse who deserted to their ranks following the initial encounters in Mesopotamia. Infantry continued to form an important part of Arab armies up to the end of their military encounters with the Byzantines. Nikephoros Phokas noted that the Arab raiders who penetrated the Byzantine borderlands included a mix of cavalry and infantry; like their Roman counterparts, the infantry formed a foulkon, a dense mass of infantry spearmen, and supported the cavalry who formed the major offensive wing of Arab armies. Regular Arab cavalry fought primarily as lancers, while missile support was provided by foot archers. The Arabs never mastered horseback archery and instead relied on Turkic troops to provide mobile fire. The light cavalry encountered by the Byzantines in their reconquest of northern Syria and Mesopotamia were Bedouin light horse riding swift Arabian mounts. Nikephoros advised to keep them at bay with archery rather than chase them, since even the best Byzantine horses, encumbered as they were with heavily equipped fighting men, would not be able to catch them and the danger of being cut off and overwhelmed was a persistent peril of pursuit. Well led and generally possessing superior numbers, training, and equipment, the Arab armies of the early medieval period repeatedly exposed Byzantine weaknesses. Decisive engagements nearly always ended with Arab victories; only when the empire recovered somewhat economically and demographically while the caliphate began to fragment did the initiative return to the Romans.

Byzantine Adaptation

Given the asymetrical nature of the encounter between the Byzantines and Arabs after the initial clashes of the early and mid-seventh century, Byzantine commanders responded in the only way they could, via a strategy of defense coupled with limited, punitive raids to keep the enemy from settling in the strategic Anatolian highlands and to maintain the appearance of Byzantine power among the populations of the border lands. Imperial troops, seriously degraded through the loss of many men in the defeats in Syria and Egypt, underpaid, poorly equipped, and scattered throughout the provinces, were scarcely a match for caliphal field armies. The Byzantines often found themselves paying tribute to convince the Arabs not to attack them—a humiliating concession that drained both the fisc and morale. But the sieges of 674–78 and 717–18 revealed that without achieving naval dominance the Arabs had to conquer the Anatolian plateau if they were to achieve their objective of outright conquest of the Christian empire. Yet, due to their organization of the themes, whose armies could shadow and harass Muslim raiding columns and sometimes defeat them, the Romans made penetration of their territory hazardous. Stubborn Byzantine forces, although no match for grand caliphal campaign armies, often held their own against raiding columns and themselves raided exposed regions when Arab field forces were engaged elsewhere. By the tenth century, the centuries of incessant warfare had helped to create a warrior caste among the frontiersmen of the eastern marchlands who would remake the Byzantine army based on their experiences fighting the Arabs. Their combined arms approach and their use of psychological terror, scorched earth, and incremental advancement of imperial territory by sieges marked the apogee of the practice of Byzantine arms in the medieval east.


The Turkic Bulgars appeared in the sixth century, first as a rump of the so-called Old Bulgarian Empire, the Kutrigurs, defeated by Belisarios outside Constantinople in 559, settled north of the Danube and were absorbed by the Avars. Following the collapse of Avar power in the eighth century, new Bulgar arrivals and existing elites in Transdanubia gradually formed the Bulgar khanate, which adopted Slavic language and customs. Given their cultural origins in the Eurasian steppe, it is unsurprising that throughout the medieval period the Bulgarian social elite fought mostly as heavy armed cavalry lancers. Bulgaria formed the most important state to the north of the empire. Though there were long stretches of peace between the two peoples and even alliance, Byzantine-Bulgar relations were strained by their fundamental conflicting goals—both empires sought to dominate the Balkans and each considered the presence of the other unacceptable. Thus the Bulgars sought to capture Constantinople or subjugate the Byzantines militarily, while the latter sought to contain or even annex Bulgaria outright.


Initially the Bulgars organized themselves along the lines of most steppe empires, with “inner” and “outer” tribes whose power relationships were articulated through marriage alliances, genealogies, and material exchange. Beneath the outer tribes in the pecking order were subject groups like Slavs, Greeks, and the mélange of Avar, Hunnic, and Germanic remnants that rendered the rich cultural matrix of the Danube basin. The khan stood at the pinnacle of an increasingly sophisticated hierarchy that developed under steppe and Byzantine influence. Senior “inner” nobles, called boilas (often Anglicized as “boyar”), and junior “outer” nobles, bagains, formed the elite of the Bulgar state and provided both the military leadership and elite troops of the khanate. The Bulgars matched their Byzantine foe with a strong hierarchical military organization with the khan in overall command while his leading generals, the tarqan, commanded his administrative regional center and presumably took the center of the battle line as well. The targan’s subordinates included komites (sing. komes), after Byzantine usage, who commanded the wings of the army. The highest-ranking Bulgar nobles were heavily equipped cavalry with barded mounts and relied on heavy household cavalry and lighter armed horse archers as did their steppe nomad ancestors.

Methods of Warfare

The Bulgars employed mass conscription to fill out the ranks for their armies. Fear was the main tool used to compel men to enlist and show up equipped for the occasion. Khan Boris Michael (d. 907) ordered that men who arrived for muster without proper equipment or unprepared for campaign were to be executed, as were those who deserted before or during battle. The rank and file included many Slavs who fought as light infantry, carrying shields and javelins. Bulgar cavalry resembled both their Byzantine enemy and other steppe nomads. The Bulgars were expert in their use of terrain, relying on ambush and surprise in their confrontation with the enemy. They demonstrated a high level of strategic planning, strong discipline, and military cohesion, and on numerous occasions were able to confront and defeat imperial field armies, as they did at Varbica in 811 when they trapped a large force led by the emperor Nikephoros I and destroyed it by hemming the Byzantines against a wooden palisade and surrounding it. The emperor himself was killed and his heir mortally wounded. The Bulgars were intimately acquainted with Byzantine military strategy and tactics and, unlike the fragmented Arab emirates to the east, formed a more unified foe unbowed by the shock of repeated defeats.

Byzantine Adaptation

The Byzantines dealt with the Bulgars via a full range of economic, diplomatic, and military strategies. Trade was limited by treaty to designated zones and monitored by imperial officials. Spies were maintained at the Bulgar court at Pliska; the Bulgar khan Telerig (768–77) tricked the emperor into revealing the identity of Byzantine agents among the Bulgars by the ruse of his promised defection, then slaughtered those in the pay of the empire. Byzantine failures against the Bulgars were often due to weakness in strategic and battlefield intelligence that resulted in the surprise of imperial field forces. Experienced and cautious commanders found warfare in Bulgaria perilous. Thus, in the ongoing dispute over control of lands in Thrace and Mesembria on the Black Sea coast, the emperor Nikephoros II Phokas mounted a brief campaign in which he found the the Bulgars’ skillful use of the mountainous terrain and difficulties of supply and communication hard to overcome. Nikephoros therefore induced Sviatoslav I of Kiev to invade Bulgaria; the Rus’ captured scores of Bulgarian towns and fortresses and overwhelmed Bulgar resistance, which led to a direct confrontation between the Rus’ and their new Bulgar subjects and Byzantium. John I Tzimiskes’s defeat of the Rus’ at Dorostolon in 971 opened the way for Byzantine annexation of Bulgaria. The subjugation of Bulgaria took decades, however, with persistent and arduous campaigning by the emperor Basil II, who reduced each quarter of the Bulgar state through sieges and attrition, finally grinding down Bulgar resistance. Bulgaria provided another test for Byzantine strategies of attritive warfare: imperial forces used sieges, scorched earth, and incremental capture-and-hold methods to gradually expand their bases of operations and finally wear out a formidable, skillful, and disciplined opponent. Although the empire possessed a dominant position in Bulgaria by the death of Basil II in 1025, serious resistance continued to the death of the Bulgarian tsar Peter II in 1041. Byzantine control of Bulgaria, won over decades of bitter warfare, lasted for nearly a century and a half.


The Normans arrived in the Byzantine world not as enemies, but as valued mercenaries esteemed for their martial prowess. The settlement of Scandinavian raiders created the duchy of Normandy, when the region was ceded to their war leader Rollo (d. ca. 931) by the Carolingian king Charles the Simple (898–922). Rollo’s descendants mingled with the local French population to create the Normans, a people thoroughly Christian, doggedly militaristic, and unfailingly expansionistic. Norman soldiers entered Italy around the start of the eleventh century where they served as mercenaries for various Lombard princes. By the 1050s large numbers of “Franks,” as the Byzantines called them, had served as mercenaries in Byzantine armies from Syria to Bulgaria, and Normans served as part of the standing garrison of Asia Minor. In the 1040s the Normans began the conquest of south Italy, establishing several counties in the south and finally invading and conquering Sicily from the petty Muslim dynasts there by 1091. Since the late 1050s the Normans had challenged Roman interests in Italy and Robert Guiscard led a Norman invasion of the Byzantine Balkans in 1081. In the ensuing conflict the Normans defeated Alexios I Komnenos, who expelled them only with great difficulty. Two more major Norman invasions followed over the next century, and the Norman kingdom of Sicily remained a threat to imperial ambitions in the west and to the imperial core until the Hauteville Norman dynasty failed in 1194. By this time all hope for the Byzantine recovery of south Italy and Sicily had vanished, thanks to Norman power.


The Normans served under captains who rose to prominence due to birth or their fortunes in war. Minor nobility like Tancred of Hauteville, who founded the dynasty that would conquer much of Italy and Sicily, was a minor baron in Normandy and probably the descendant of Scandinavian settlers. The warriors who carved out territory within Byzantine Anatolia seem to have been either petty aristocrats or simply successful soldiers. One such Norman was Hervé Frankopoulos, who in 1057 led 300 Franks east in search of plunder and territory. After initial successes around Lake Van, he was delivered to the emperor and eventually pardoned. Thus, Norman companies were of no fixed numbers, and it seems that each baron recruited men according to his wealth and status. Norman lords in Italy raised the core of their army from men to whom they distributed lands and wealth in exchange for permanent military service. Lords were required to provide fixed numbers of troops, either knights or infantry sergeants. Other Normans served for pay and plunder, including conquered lands to be distributed after successful occupation of enemy territory. The Normans that the Byzantines encountered were a fluid group—some fought for the empire and then against it; their interests were pay and personal advancement rather than any particular ethnic allegiance. In this the Normans who warred against the Byzantines resembled the later free companies of the late medieval period—variable in numbers, generally following a capable, experienced, and charismatic commander, and exceptionally opportunistic. As a warlord’s success grew, so did his resources. Thus Robert Guiscard rose from the leader of a band of Norman robbers to be Count and then Duke of Apulia and Calabria; in 1084, following his defeat of Alexios at Dyrrachium, Guiscard marched on Rome with thousands of infantry and more than 2,000 knights, a far cry from the scores or hundreds with which he began his career.

Methods of Warfare

The bulk of the Norman fighting forces were infantry, but they formed a largely defensive force that operated in support of the cavalry. Norman infantry fought generally as spearmen—the Bayeux Tapestry shows many Normans on foot wearing the nasal helm and mail hauberks, but it is unlikely that the majority were so armed. Most were probably unarmored and relied on shields for protection like most of their counterparts throughout Europe. Light infantry archers fought with little or no armor, and missile troops played a role in their Balkan campaigns as well—the Byzantine commander George Palaiologos suffered an arrow wound to his head in battle at Dyrrachium in 1082, but generally the Byzantines relied on superior Turkish archery in order to unhorse the Normans and immobilize the knights. Norman knights wore heavy mail hauberks and mail chausses with in-pointed mail foot guards, which Anna Komnene noted slowed the Norman cavalry down when they were unhorsed. These mounted men carried lances and swords. The weight of their mail made them relatively safe from the archery of the day. Norman knights usually decided the course of battle; it was the shock cavalry charge delivered by the Norman knight that delivered victory in battle after battle. Unlike the Turks and Pechenegs with whom the empire regularly contended and whose weaponry was lighter and who relied on mobility, hit-and-run tactics, and feigned retreat, the Normans preferred close combat. They fought in dense, well-ordered ranks and exhibited exemplary discipline. In an era when infantry were generally of questionable quality, most foot soldiers throughout Europe and the Middle East could not stare down a Norman frontal cavalry charge. Norman horsemen punched holes in opposing formations and spread panic and disorder that their supporting troops exploited. By the end of the eleventh century, Norman prowess on the battlefield yielded them possessions from Syria to Scotland.

Byzantine Adaptation

The Byzantines avidly recruited Normans into their armies. Though critics have unfairly blamed the medieval Romans for not adapting their warfare in light of the new western techniques and technologies to which they were exposed, fully equipped and well-trained kataphraktoi could match the skill and shock power of the Norman knight. What the Byzantines of the Komnenoi era lacked were the disciplined heavy infantry of the Macedonian period and combined arms approach of mounted and dismounted archery that could blunt enemy attack and cover infantry and cavalry tactical operations. Alexios I relied on Turkish and steppe nomad auxiliaries and patchwork field armies assembled from mercenaries drawn from the empire’s neighbors. As with other intractable foes, the Byzantines relied on a combination of defense and offense—the Normans were contained in the Balkans allowing space for an imperial recovery and the time to muster new forces following the heavy defeat late in 1081 of the Roman army at Dyrrachium on the Adriatic. Alexios allied with southern Italian nobles and the German emperor Henry IV (1084–1105) who menaced the Norman flanks. The death of Robert Guiscard in 1085 removed the most serious threat to Byzantine rule since the seventh century, but Guiscard’s son, the redoubtable Bohemund, renewed war against the empire in 1107–8. Alexios had learned from his twenty years of dealing with the Norman adversary and returned to the traditional Byzantine strategies of defense, containment, and attrition. The Byzantines relied on their Venetian allies to provide naval squadrons on the Adriatic that interfered with Norman shipping and resupply, and Alexios’s forces blocked the passes around Dyrrachium; the emperor forbade his commanders to engage in a large-scale confrontation with the Normans. In the skirmishes and running battles against Norman scouting and foraging parties Byzantine archers shot the enemy mounts from beneath their riders and then cut down the beleaguered knights. Hunger, disease, and lack of money undid Bohemund, who was forced to sign a humiliating treaty and return to Italy. Thus the ages-old Byzantine principles of indirect warfare proved triumphant against a stubborn and superior enemy.

Battle of Slankamen

August 19, 1691

The battles with the Turk were not just a success for the Habsburgs but for much of Christian Europe, aside from France. 7 On 5 March 1684, Pope Innocent XI had sponsored a new and highly effective Holy League for a war that was to last until final victory, and no party was to make a separate peace with the Ottomans. Even the Czar of Muscovy was invited to join. This alliance was to produce immediate, concerted action – the Habsburgs in Hungary, the Poles in lands north of the Dniester and the Venetians in the Adriatic, the Mediterranean, and in Greece. 8 The strategic concept – squeezing the Ottomans on every side – put decisive pressure on the Turks. The decade of active campaigning seasons after the occupation of Buda was marked by a series of extraordinary victories in the field. The common name now given to this period of war in Austrian history is the `Age of Heroes’ (Heldenzeitalter): the heroes included Charles of Lorraine, `Türkenlouis’ – Ludwig Wilhelm of Baden, Guido von Starhemberg (cousin of Rüdiger), Florimond de Mercy, and many others who had made their names in the east, but later also fought with equal success against the armies of France in Western Europe during the War of the Spanish Succession. Thereafter, with the exception of the spare figure of Prince Eugene of Savoy, the greatest hero of all, they grew old and fat, died or retired, and Austria stultified. There had been a string of six miraculous victories, which people could recite like a litany. The first, of course, was the salvation of Vienna by King John Sobieski of Poland. The second was Charles of Lorraine storming Buda in 1686 with the old pasha lying dead by the gate. The third was the Battle of Nagyharsany in 1687, often called `the second Mohacs’, the capstone to Charles of Lorraine’s triumphs; the memory of Suleiman I destroying the old Kingdom of Hungary at Mohacs in 1526 had finally been redeemed. The fourth victory was the Elector Max Emmanuel of Bavaria’s who captured Belgrade, the city of battles, in 1688; the Turks recaptured it the following year. `Türkenlouis’ destroyed the Turkish army at the Battle of Slankamen in 1691. In the sixth battle at Zenta in 1697 Prince Eugene of Savoy humiliated the Sultan Mustafa, who fled from the battlefield in panic, leaving the River Tisza filled with the Ottoman dead. Fourteen campaigning seasons finally brought a settlement, and in a little pavilion by the town of Karlowitz near Belgrade peace was signed in 1699.

These victories were the more remarkable because they were gained with limited resources. The renewal of war in the west against France meant that the Habsburgs, like the Ottomans, were now fighting two enemies at once. So at Slankamen, forty miles north of Belgrade, on 19 August 1691 Ludwig Wilhelm of Baden had only twenty thousand men against a much larger Ottoman army, led by another vigorous Köprülü, Fazil Mustafa Pasha. `Türkenlouis’ won, in part because the Ottomans lacked the vital Tartar component of their army, which was still travelling south, and partly because his small but battle-hardened regiments could respond precisely and effectively to his command. But perhaps most important of all was a lucky chance of war. A stray bullet killed the Ottoman commander and his army immediately disintegrated, abandoned all its artillery and even the army war chest, and fled back towards the safety of Belgrade. Had the reverse happened, and `Türkenlouis’ ended his days on the battlefield, his small force would not have fallen apart. Another senior officer would have assumed command and carried on the battle, while planning the withdrawal. This fragility was inherent in the Ottoman system: an Ottoman army without its head was no more than a rabble. But as the Habsburg army dwindled in numbers (mostly through sickness) and lacked men, food and money, it was soon just as demoralised. One Englishman said that the army protecting the bridge at Osijek `look generally like dead men’

The Campaign

At the outbreak of the Nine Years War, caused partly by Louis XIV’s mounting anxiety at Habsburg gains in the Balkans. The withdrawal of the Kreistruppen and most of the other Germans reduced the imperialist to barely 24,000 effectives and undoubtedly robbed Leopold of the best chance to extend his conquests. It was only thanks to the continuing chaos in the Ottoman empire that any further advance was possible. The margrave of Baden-Baden, the new field commander, pushed south seizing Nis (Nish) in Serbia in September 1689. Marshal Piccolomini was then detached southwards into Bosnia and Albania, while Baden captured Vidin in northwestern Bulgaria. Piccolomini was welcomed by the Serbian and Albanian Christians but had to abandon Skopje because of the plague. He succumbed on 9 November, robbing the imperialists of an able negotiator, skilled at striking deals with local leaders. By January 1690 the imperialist position was beginning to crumble when 2,200 men were lost at Kacanik, representing nearly a third of the force in Bosnia and a sizeable proportion of the now much-reduced army. To sustain the momentum, Leopold issued his famous declaration to the Balkan Christians guaranteeing them religious freedom and preservation of their privileges if they accepted him as hereditary ruler. The response was disappointing. The Bulgarian Catholics had been massacred after the failure of the Ciporvci rising and the Macedonians who rebelled in 1689 met a similar fate. The faltering Habsburg advance discouraged others from attempting the same. Meanwhile, the sultan had recovered control of his army and proclaiming Thököly prince of Transylvania, he sent 16,000 troops to overrun that country in August 1690. To counterattack Baden turned north with 18,000, defeating Thököly by September. It proved a pyrrhic victory. In his absence the Ottomans invaded Serbia with 80,000 men, recapturing all the towns along the lower Danube, including Belgrade guarding the entrance to the Hungarian Plain. The rapid loss of this great city was a major strategic and psychological blow, triggering a wave of refugees from the areas south of the Danube.

By now, Leopold’s western allies had become concerned that Austria had become too deeply embroiled in the Balkans to prosecute the war on the Rhine with the necessary vigour. However, the Anglo-Dutch-sponsored peace talks broke down in 1691 because both sides still believed they could win an outright victory. Determined to succeed, Leopold did just what William III feared and recalled all but five and a half regiments from his force on the Rhine. New treaties were concluded with Brandenburg and Bavaria to obtain additional assistance, and Baden advanced to defeat the 120,000-strong Ottoman army at Slankamen on 19 August 1691. Fought in almost unbearable heat, the action proved costly to both sides, Baden losing 7,000 to the 20,000 of his opponents. By the end of the year Baden’s army had fallen to only 14,000 effectives, but the victory stabilized the Hungarian front and secured the imperial recovery in Transylvania.


The clash between the two forces took place on the west side of the Danube, opposite the outlet of the Tisa. Both armies deployed near Zemun, but the superior Ottoman army at first didn’t attack for two days. Then Baden-Baden tried to provoke the attack, by withdrawing slowly to a fortified position near Slankamen. The Ottomans followed and surrounded the Imperial Army. By August 19, the heat, disease and desertion had reduced both armies to 33,000 and 50,000 able men. On that day the Ottoman cavalry finally attacked.

These were unorganized charges, however; although huge, the Ottoman forces were poorly armed and no match for the firepower of Louis of Baden’s German-Austrian infantry and field guns. Additionally, the Ottomans’ supply system was incapable of waging a long war on the empty expanses of the Pannonian plain. Initially the Ottomans were at an advantage, as they advanced and burned 800 supply wagons of the Imperial Army. Louis of Baden, in a desperate situation, broke out of his position, besieged by the Ottomans, and turned their flanks with his cavalry, inflicting fearful carnage. After a hard battle, the 20,000-man Imperial Army with 10,000 Serbian militia led by Jovan Monasterlija was victorious over the larger Ottoman force. The death of Grand Vizier Köprülü Fazıl Mustafa Pasha during mid-battle caused the Ottoman morale to drop and the army to disperse and retreat.

Without adequate forces, Baden could do little more than hold the line and he was soon transferred to the Rhine for a similar holding operation against the French. The stalemate was sustained in the Balkans by the arrival of more German auxiliaries in 1692-6. Attempts to take Belgrade (1693), Peterwardein (1694) and Timisoara (1696) ended in failure, while the Turks continued to inflict minor defeats on isolated imperial detachments. Though the commanders were repeatedly blamed for the setbacks, the real problem was insufficient manpower.

A very rare broadside with Ottoman script showing the Battle of Slankamen was made in the series of large separately published maps by the Turkish War Office the late Hamidian period as a part of intellectual propaganda to revive patriotic sentiment.

Louis-Guillaume (Ludwig-Wilhelm), Margrave of Baden (1655-1707), born in Paris, was an Imperial field commander with a long military career and well-established reputation in fighting the Ottomans in southeastern Europe. He earned the nickname `Turkenlouis’ and won a significant victory at Slankamen in 1691. Baden captured the fortress of Landau in Alsace from the French in 1702, but was subsequently defeated at Friedlingen by Villars, a victory which earned the French commander his marshal’s baton. Although overly proud and sensitive, and difficult to deal with, Baden was brave enough, and his assistance was crucial to the success of Marlborough’s attack on the Schellenberg, where the Margrave was shot in the foot, a wound that refused to heal properly.

His assignment in August 1704 to lay siege to Ingolstadt on the Danube excluded him from the victory at Blenheim, and it is often said that this was deliberate policy on the part of Marlborough and Eugene to keep Baden out of the way. This seems improbable as the fortress was an important place, the possession of which would have been crucial if Marlborough had not been able to bring the French and Bavarians to battle and win so decisively. Accordingly, the margrave’s task was not a trivial one, and it is unlikely that Marlborough and Eugene foresaw the chance of decisive action on the plain of Höchstädt quite that clearly and so far in advance, or that they would lightly give up a numerical advantage of almost 15,000 troops in order to sideline their colleague. Baden’s failure to rendezvous with Marlborough in 1705 led to the abandonment of the Moselle campaign (which was languishing anyway), but the margrave was undoubtedly a sick man, with a festering wound. His lameness, however, did not prevent his showing Marlborough around the ornate gardens of his home on one occasion. Baden died three years later, a disappointed man, snubbed and ignored by the emperor in Vienna to whose family he had rendered long and loyal service.

During the second half of the seventeenth century, the highest level of command came to be that of Generalleutnant who was the acting commander-in-chief. After the Thirty Years War this position was held successively by Ottavio Piccolomini (1648–56), Raimondo Montecuccoli (1664–80), Charles V Duke of Lorraine (1680–90), Ludwig Wilhelm von Baden-Baden (1691–1707) and Eugene of Savoy (from 1708 until his death in 1736).

The most important battles of the “Türkenlouis” – LUDWIG WILHELM VON BADEN-BADEN

In the French-Dutch War (1672-1678)

1676: Siege of Philippsburg

In the Great Turkish War (1683-1699)

1683: Battle of Kahlenberg near Vienna

1683: Battle of Pressburg (Slovakia)

1684: siege of Gran (Hungary)

1684: 1st Siege of Buda (Hungary)

1686: 2nd Siege of Buda

1687: Battle of Mohács (Hungary)

1688: Battle of Derventa (Bosnia)

1688: 1st Siege of Belgrade (Serbia)

1689: Battle of Nissa (Serbia)

1690: 2nd Siege of Belgrade

1691: Battle of Slankamen (Serbia)

In the War of Spanish Succession (1701-1714)

1702: Battle of Friedlingen (Baden-Württemberg)

1704: Battle of Schellenberg (Bavaria)

1705: Battle of Pfaffenhofen (Bavaria)