Hellenistic Military Developments III


In the Classical period, particularly in the fifth century, the premier warship was the trireme. A long, sleek, light ship, it was rowed by 170 oarsmen and staffed by 30 marines, archers, and sailors (with a helmsman) to make a total ship’s crew of 200. It was equipped with a bronze ram on the prow to punch a hole in enemy ships or smash through their oars. There are still some questions about the interior arrangement, but most historians of ancient naval warfare believe that the “three” in trieres refers to three banks of oars manned by one oarsman each and staggered one on top of the other. In recent years, a full-scale replica of an ancient trireme has been constructed and put to trial tests in the Aegean Sea with crews of volunteer rowers. The top speed in these trials has been around nine knots. The Olympias now sits in dry dock in the Peiraieus harbor of Athens.

In the fourth century, Greeks began to experiment with larger, heavier ships. Dionysios I of Syracuse is credited with having introduced a “four” and “five,” that is, a quadrireme and quinquereme (Diod. 14.42.2-3). In the naval records of Athens, quadriremes appear as early as 330/29, quinqueremes not until 325/4. In the Athenaion Politeia (46.1), Aristotle assumes the existence of both triremes and quadriremes, but there is no mention of quinqueremes at the Athenian naval facilities in the Peiraieus. On the eve of the Lamian War (323-322), the Athens voted for the preparation of 40 quadriremes and 200 triremes (Diod. 18.10.2; revised text). At the battle of Salamis in Cyprus in 306, the Athenians contributed 30 quadriremes to Demetrios Poliorketes’ forces. It is probable that the new “five” simply added two extra oarsmen to the three-bank (trireme) configuration, but that the “four” was reduced to two banks of oars manned by two rowers each, thus forty-four oars on each side. In rapid succession at the end of the fourth century, naval architects began to build bigger and bigger ships, the largest one actually used in battle being a “ten.” The greater size facilitated a larger complement of fighting soldiers on the decks along with platforms for artillery (more on this follows). Boarding became as important as ramming, as the heavier warships relinquished speed and mobility for fighting and fire power. The trireme survived in the arsenal of Rhodes, a formidable Hellenistic naval power, and eventually formed the core of the imperial fleet of Rome.

The new look of naval warfare in the Hellenistic period can best be illustrated by one of our best-documented naval battles: at Salamis on Cyprus in 306 between Demetrios Poliorketes and Ptolemy I Soter. Ptolemy had 140 (or 150) warships, the largest being quinqueremes, the smallest quadriremes. Demetrios, leaving ten of his quinqueremes to continue the siege of Salamis, sailed out to meet Ptolemy with a fleet mostly composed of quinqueremes, the largest of the rest including “sevens.” In fact, his own flagship was a “seven.” Having equipped his ships with bolt and stone-throwing artillery, Demetrios advanced rapidly on Ptolemy’s lines, hurling arrows and stones as they came within range and then javelins and arrows as they drew closer. The rams then struck home. General melee ensued, men leaping aboard the other ships and engaged in hand-to-hand combat. By all accounts, Demetrios fought bravely on his flagship and drove back Ptolemy’s lines. On the other wing, Ptolemy had defeated those opposing him with his heaviest ships, the quinqueremes, but the rest of his forces were in flight or destroyed. This great victory inspired Antigonos and Demetrios Poliorketes to proclaim themselves “kings.” The rest of the Successors followed suit within the year.

Demetrios continued to up-size his ships. He had a “thirteen” in 301 (Plut. Demetr. 31.1; 32.2) and later “fifteens” and “sixteens” (Plut. Demetr. 20.4; 43.3-4). Plutarch characterized Demetrios’ vessels as genuine warships (Demetr. 43.5), but the same cannot be said for the gargantuan ship of Ptolemy IV Philopator in the late third century – the “forty.” Plutarch dismisses this ship for what it was, an expensive toy, intended purely as a cipher for royal power, not war (Demetr. 43.4). It is a perfect example of gigantism and self-indulgence, paradigmatic of the Hellenistic kings. Athenaios (5.203e-204d) tells us that it was 420 ft long, 57 ft wide, 72 ft high, and manned by 4,000 rowers, 400 sailors, and 2,850 soldiers. This amounts to over 7,000 men, far greater than the crew numbers for a modern aircraft carrier! As far as we know, it never saw military action.

A monster grain ship was built at about the same time in Syracuse. Again, Athenaios provides a detailed description (5.206d-209e). It was a “twenty” commissioned by Hieron II, tyrant of Syracuse, and built by the genius engineer, Archimedes (who had to invent a windlass to launch it). It required enough timber to build sixty quadriremes! The officers’ cabin could hold fifteen couches, and like a modern cruise ship, it had a gymnasium, promenade, and a library. In spite of these (and other) creature comforts, it was still a warship, complete with eight towers (pyrgoi) for artillery and a parapet for a catapult (lithobolos) that could hurl a 180 lb stone or a bolt of 18 ft long! It had an effective range of 600 ft and was invented by Archimedes himself. The ship was also equipped with other clever and nasty machines of war attached to the masts. Appropriately, it was named “Syracusia.” There was only one problem, however; it was too big to safely dock at harbors around the Mediterranean, so Hieron decided to offer it as a gift (along with grain) to Ptolemy (III) – and renamed it “Alexandris.” It was pulled up on shore at Alexandria and presumably never moved again.

It is worth noting briefly that the term cataphract came to be applied to a covered warship, with decks and sidescreens to protect the rowers. This seems to be an inevitable development in the age of heavier ships, greater numbers of fighting men on board for close fighting, and artillery. The astonishing variety of warships is a hallmark of the Hellenistic world; for example, the grand fleet of Ptolemy II Philadelphos included 2 “thirties,” 1 “twenty,” 4 “thirteens,” 2 “twelves,” 14 “elevens,” 30 “nines,” 37 “sevens,” 5 “sixes,” and 17 “fives” (Athenaios 5.203d). The number of quadriremes and lower were twice this amount. His struggles with the Macedonian king Antigonos Gonatas over control of the Aegean in the mid-third century and the maintenance of his far-flung thalassocracy in Asia Minor and the eastern Mediterranean demanded naval supremacy. His financial resources, as with the other Hellenistic kings, made it all possible. The Greek city-states simply could not compete at this level.


Without much exaggeration, the only truly novel military arm in the armies of the Hellenistic world was the war elephant. It did not appear in the armies of the Archaic or Classical Greek city-states. It belonged to the world of the Far East, to India (or later the continent of Africa), and it is not surprising that the most enthusiastic co-opters of this beast were the Seleukids, who had the most immediate access to them. Seleukos I Nikator kept 500 of them at Apameia (Strabo 16.2.10; C752). The Seleukids even put the symbol of the elephant on their coins. The association between elephants and the Seleukid kingdom even made its way into Roman comedy, when the braggart mercenary captain Pyrgopolynices, recruiting for a certain King Seleukos in Ephesos, boasts of his martial achievements by claiming to have defeated an elephant in India by striking it on the foreleg with his fist (Miles Gloriosus 24-30)! The military use of elephants in Hellenistic warfare was confined to the period from the death of Alexander to the battle of Magnesia(190/89).68 Alexander had first fought them in the army of Poros at the Hydaspes River in 326. In the campaigns of Eumenes and Antigonos Monophthalmos in 317-316, both combatants fielded elephants, and at Ipsos in 301, Seleukos’ large elephant corps screened off Demetrios’ cavalry, victorious over Seleukos’ son, Antiochos, from returning from their pursuit in time to save his father. This proved to be the decisive turning point of the battle.

In 280, at the battle of the Siris River in southern Italy, Pyrrhos chased off the Roman cavalry, their horses terrified by his twenty elephants. A similar result is documented only five years later in Asia Minor. In 277, a large force of Gauls invaded the territories of the Seleukids. Antiochos I responded with a hastily organized army, including sixteen elephants, some peltasts, and light-armed troops, and met the Gauls at an unknown site in 275. Facing him were 20,000 Gallic cavalry, 80 scythed chariots, and 160 two-horse chariots. Deploying eight of his elephants in the center to deal with the chariots, he positioned the other eight on the wings to attack the cavalry. According to our principal account, neither the Gauls nor their horses had seen an elephant, and terrified by the sight and sounds of the charging beasts, fell back in panic on their own infantry lines before they had even engaged. It was utter chaos, as chariots ripped apart their own troops with their cutting scythes. The elephants trampled those who could not flee. It became known as the “Elephant Victory.” Antiochos decorated the war trophy with a carved elephant.

These two episodes demonstrate that elephants carried tremendous shock value when encountered for the first time, but they could also be neutralized by a well-disciplined and experienced army. Alexander the Great commanded such an army at the Hydaspes, and the Romans were not slow to adapt. At the final battle with Pyrrhos at Beneventum in 275, they pelted his elephants with javelins and drove them back into their own ranks. This sealed the victory and persuaded Pyrrhos of Epiros to seek adventures closer to home (Plut. Pyrrhos 25.2-5).

Polybios provides us with a vivid account of elephants in combat and the comparative fighting abilities of the Indian elephant versus the African (5.79-86.6). The Seleukid king, Antiochos III, invaded Egypt and met the forces of Ptolemy IV Philopator at Raphia in 217.74 Antiochos fielded 102 Indian elephants, and Ptolemy had 73 of African origin. Both kings initiated the battle with their elephants (5.84.1). Some of Ptolemy’s elephants fought bravely against the much larger Indian elephants of Antiochos, head to head, tusk to tusk, pushing to force the opponent to give ground. Those who turned to flee were gored. Most of Ptolemy’s elephants, however, could not stand the smell and trumpeting of the Indian elephants, nor their superior size and strength, and fled without engaging (5.84.2-7). This reaction threw them back on their own ranks in confusion. Polybios comments dismissively about the lack of fighting spirit of the African elephant, but considering the numerical superiority of Antiochos’ elephant corps and their greater physical size, his comments seem unfair. In spite of the victory of Antiochos’ elephants, he still lost the battle. Polybios reports that Antiochos lost five elephants, Ptolemy, sixteen; most of the rest were captured (5.86.6). This battle has also become famous for Ptolemy’s use of 20,000 native Egyptian troops, rather than Greeks or Macedonians, who were trained in Macedonian phalanx tactics (Polyb. 5.82.4). This marks a turning point in Ptolemaic history.

The last significant elephant force appearing in a Hellenistic army is at the battle of Magnesia-ad-Sipylum in 190/89 between Antiochos III and Rome. Antiochos had a force of fifty-four elephants, the Romans, only sixteen. The Seleukid king also fielded scythed chariots and camels with Arab archers. It was an incredibly diverse and mixed ethnic force (characteristic of Hellenistic armies generally), outnumbering the Romans and their Pergamene allies, but still it failed to achieve victory. The Roman legions again showed their superiority over the Macedonian phalanx. The elephants apparently played no critical role in the outcome in spite of their great size, head armor, and towers manned by a driver and four soldiers (37.40.4). In fact, Livy remarks that the Romans were accustomed to fighting elephants in their African wars, either by stepping aside and hurling their spears from the side, or by approaching perilously close they hamstrung them with their swords (37.42.5). The Romans had learned well since the Pyrrhic wars. Even in flight from the field, Antiochos’ troops suffered from deadly and disorderly encounters with their own elephants, chariots, and camels (37.43.9; App. Syriaca. 35). Fifteen of his elephants were captured.

The mention of scythed chariots deserves a few words. There had been war chariots in Greece during the Mycenaean period, and they do appear as swift vehicles of transport to and from the battlefield in the Homeric epics. They were also used in processions and panhellenic contests for the elite in the Archaic and Classical periods, but as a weapon of war they did not survive the Bronze Age. They were well suited to the flat, open plains of Egypt and the Near East, but not to the rocky and mountainous terrain that typifies most of Greece. In the end, the high cost of maintenance made them showy symbols of centralized royal authority, not of city-states. Present in the Persian armies that faced Alexander, the war chariot was embraced by Seleukos I (Plut. Demetr. 48.2) and by his successors into the second century. We have already encountered them in the army of the Gauls in 275, and they were still being deployed by Mithridates VI of Pontos in the first century. The second century Panathenaia of Athens lists the “war chariot” as a festival event (armati polemisterioi), with King Eumenes II of Pergamon winning in 170/69, and two Athenians – both attested as cavalry commanders in the contemporary Theseia – in 166/5 and 162/1 respectively.

Arguably, the war chariot ought to have been more effective on the battlefield, but Alexander had shown how to neutralize them at the battle of Gaugamela. It is perhaps telling that, at the battle of Magnesia, Antiochos had expected his chariots to create panic in the Roman lines, but just the opposite occurred. Eumenes forced the scythed chariots, positioned in the front ranks of Antiochos’ army, to flee by sending his cavalry, his swift Cretan archers, his light armed slingers, and his light infantry to attack the horses in open formations and shower them with missiles from all sides. Eumenes’ mobile troops easily avoided the panicked and disorderly charges of the scythed chariots. They fell back on their own cataphracts. This action was the first step toward victory for the Romans. The panicked flight of the chariots incited the auxiliaries stationed next to them to flee, and this exposed the whole line, particularly the cataphracts, to the attack of the Roman cavalry (Livy 37.41.6-42.42.1-4).

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