Reconstruction of a Greek sambuca
With the mainland of Asia Minor securely in his possession, Mithridates VI moved on to the Greek islands of the Aegean. It is probable that at this point he was still working on the principle that the first stages of the coming campaign would be fought at sea, and that therefore he might as well make the Romans fight for any naval bases they could use as a springboard for attacking Asia Minor proper.
Cos was his first target, and a lucrative one too. The Ptolemies of Egypt, like any good Hellenistic royal family, were wracked by internecine in-fighting. The mother of the current monarch had stashed her insurance policy, in the form of a grandson and a large dollop of the royal treasure on Cos. Mithridates was received on that island with the same enthusiasm which made many of his conquests simple triumphal processions into whatever place he was occupying. The Ptolemaic princeling was adopted into the Pontic royal household, and the Ptolemaic gold, rare art and precious stones were adopted into the bulging coffers of the Pontic treasury (Mithridates also helped himself to some money which the Jews had left there fore safe-keeping). The people of Cos distinguished themselves by insisting that they should honour the sanctuary sought by the Romans on the island, who thus escaped the general massacre of their fellow-countrymen on the mainland. By then Mithridates had moved on to Mytilene on the island of Lesbos, which cheerfully surrendered without a fight.
The next target was Rhodes, now the lone outpost of Roman power. To here the Roman provincial governor, Lucius Cassius, had already found his way, and now was grimly marshalling a defence. The surviving Italians and Romans were gathered here, and they assisted the Rhodians in strengthening the walls and harbours, and in constructing and carefully positioning catapults and other siege weapons. When word came that Mithridates was on his way, the Rhodians destroyed those houses that were outside their walls, and braced themselves for the assault.
The city, however, was not relying on a purely passive defence. Rhodes had been the dominant sea power in the region until the Romans (probably to their present regret) had jealously ordered the reduction of the fleet. National pride demanded that the islanders put up at least a show of resistance at sea, and accordingly their fleet sailed out to meet that of Pontus.
The ships of the two opposing fleets would have been much alike, for the art of shipbuilding was shared among Hellenistic artisans across the eastern Mediterranean. Warships were based on the trireme, which as the name implies (tri – ‘three’; reme- ‘oars’) had three banks of oars. Under the Ptolemaic and Seleucid kings, warships had reached a level of sophistication that was not to be re-attained for centuries. The trireme remained the basic fleet vessel, but larger ships, including quinquiremes and even ‘sixteeners’, now existed. Despite the names, it is unlikely that these referred to extra banks of oars, but instead to different arrangements of the rowers who propelled these ships in battle.
Accustomed to the gentle tides of the Mediterranean, ancient warships were not particularly seaworthy. Some ships had complete decks, and were known as cataphract (covered over) ships, and even a basic trireme had a gangway running down the middle and a platform at the back for the captain and the steering oarsman. It was their habit to remain near the coast, and run for shore when faced with inclement weather (it has been estimated that swells more than a metre high would get a trireme into severe difficulty). Even ships built mostly out of pine tended to have oak keels, and ancillary keels on the sides so that these keels could support the weight of the ships when they were run up the sand onto a beach, which was the usual method of parking a ship in the absence of a harbour.
Under sail, a warship was a slow and cumbersome beast capable of making an average speed of two knots on a typical journey. Sails were useless in combat, and usually left ashore. Battle speed was provided by rowers who could get their machines up to seven knots. The more skilled a crew the faster the ship could go, and the better it could manoeuvre. This was important, because warships had a huge and cumbersome ram on the front just below the waterline, and every captain’s dream was to hit an enemy dead amidships with the ram, thus finishing the combat with a single blow. Cruising down the side of an enemy ship, snapping its oars and causing chaos among the rowers within, was generally considered a satisfactory prelude, but both manoeuvres required the attacking ship to get into the right position in the first place, so sailing ability was at least as important as the size and number of the ships in the fleet.
Pontus, blessed by the abundant forests on the southern seaboard of the Black Sea, had a huge number of vessels, some three hundred warships and a host of minor craft and transports as well. The abundance of timber meant that these ships were triremes and above, whilst the wealth of Pontus meant that such a fleet could be sustained for long periods. Maintaining an ancient fleet was not cheap. Even a basic trireme had a crew of between two and three hundred men, and for most of antiquity rowing was a skilled art. The slave ship with rowers sweating under the lash belonged to a later era –Mithridates’ rowers expected to be paid, and at times like these good rowers came at a premium.
From the first encounter it became plain that the contest at sea would be between Rhodian naval experience and the Pontic advantages of larger and more numerous ships. Fortunately, Appian has given us a good description of what followed, and it is from his report that this account of events is largely drawn.
Mithridates was in personal charge of the Pontic attack, having made one of the quinquiremes his flagship. On seeing the Rhodian fleet moving out to meet him, he ordered his fleet to extend its line of battle, and for the ships on the wings to row faster. However, the Rhodian sailors were canny enough to understand the meaning of the manoeuvre and backed off quickly enough to avoid being surrounded. The opposing ships slowly approached the main harbour of Rhodes. Eventually, unable to discern any weakness in the Pontic line, the Greeks fell back into the harbour itself, though keeping themselves and their ships ready for any opportunity which presented itself.
This was probably all that Mithridates has wanted at this point, for with the Rhodian fleet safely penned in, it was safe for him to order his highly-vulnerable transports to take to sea with his main force of assault infantry. In the meantime he set up camp near the city, and set his forces to probing the defences and skirmishing with the Rhodians on the walls.
At this point there occurred one of those opportunities the Rhodian fleet had been waiting for. Secure in the belief that the enemy warships were safely caged by the Pontic fleet, a royal supply ship came close enough to the harbour for a fast bireme to streak out and capture it. The indignant Pontic fleet hurried to retrieve the situation, but they were met with Rhodian ships that reinforced their own side as fast as the Pontics could arrive. As Appian reports:
A severe engagement followed. Both in his fury and in the size of his fleet, Mithridates was superior to his opponents, but the Rhodians circled skilfully and rammed his ships to such effect that the battle ended with the Rhodians retiring into harbour with a captured trireme in tow and other spoils besides.
Soon after, the Pontic forces got their revenge by bagging a Rhodian quinquireme. They kept this minor triumph to themselves, perhaps in the hope that the Rhodians would venture out to find their missing ship. When, in due course, a search party of six ships emerged from the harbour, Mithridates sent twenty-six ships after them, perhaps trusting that odds of over four to one would more than compensate for any lack of seamanship. Maybe in daylight this would have been the case, but the wily Rhodian admiral used the superior speed of his ships to avoid action until sunset. Then, when the Pontic ships wearied of their fruitless chase and turned in disgust to rejoin the main fleet, the Rhodians suddenly wheeled and hit them hard from behind.
In the near-total chaos which followed, the Rhodians sank two Pontic ships, scattered others, and slipped back into port almost unscathed. Not so Mithridates, who had sent his ship scurrying to and fro trying to organize the fleet against this sudden attack. In the darkness and confusion an allied ship from Chios slammed into the side of his flagship. The incident shook both Mithridates’ confidence in his navy and his confidence in the loyalty of his allies, for though he made light of the incident at the time, a festering suspicion began to take root regarding the loyalty of the Greeks in general and the Chians in particular.
After these alarms and excursions, the morale of the Rhodian fleet was sky-high, and that of the Pontics at a correspondingly low ebb. Therefore when the large and vulnerable Pontic troop transports appeared on the horizon, the Rhodian fleet raced out to meet them, exactly as Mithridates had feared. The transports had arrived sooner than planned, and in considerable disorder, as they had been swept to Rhodes on the back of a strong storm – something which Mithridates might have expected as it was getting late in the sailing season.
Before they had time to pull themselves together, the Rhodians were in among them, burning some ships, ramming others and taking hundreds of Mithridates’ men prisoner. The overwhelming weight of the Pontic fleet eventually brought order to the chaos, and the Rhodians, who knew exactly how far to push their luck, retired into harbour whilst they were still well ahead.
Despite enduring this further setback, Mithridates now at least had his army, albeit a somewhat bruised and shaken one. With the persistence which was later to become legendary, he pushed on. He constructed a sambucca for an assault on the harbour. As far as can be established, the sambucca was a sort of pontoon built between two ships on which a siege tower was mounted. Other soldiers were given ladders and ordered to make their assault from smaller boats. Meanwhile, a further attack would take place on the landward side, where deserters had shown the king a suitable spot for attack. The plan was to hit the Rhodians at night, attacking from both land and sea, and to swarm over the walls before the enemy could coordinate a defence. The signal for the attack was to be a fire lit on nearby Mount Atabyrius.
Unfortunately, a fire was also the signal which the Rhodians had decided upon as a warning of attack. When they perceived the Pontics sneaking upon them, the Rhodians lit their warning fire, whereupon the Pontic army rushed forward noisily, assuming they had been given the signal to attack. Since no-one was properly in position, and the Rhodians were thoroughly alerted anyway, Mithridates sensibly pulled his army back before it was committed. It took until the next morning to get everything sorted out. Though the assault went ahead anyway for form’s sake, there was no chance of the Rhodians being even slightly surprised, and they rebuffed the landward attack with ease.
The sambucca was a problem for the defenders though. By their nature, city walls are remarkably static, whilst being mounted on a ship gave the Pontic siege tower considerable mobility. Armed with a formidable array of siege weapons, the sambucca was backed up by a mass of soldiers in small boats, who stood ready to defend the tower against a sally, and being equipped with their ladders, these soldiers were equally ready to follow up any breach the sambucca might make in the Rhodian defences. The chosen site of the sambucca‘s assault was against the temple of Isis, which was apparently built into the walls. Later the Rhodians were to swear that the goddess took the Pontic assault personally, and herself appeared on the walls to heave a massive fireball at the attackers. Evidently this did the trick. Either that, or the rough seas left over from the storm meant that the pontoon supporting the tower was none too stable, and the sambucca started to collapse under its own weight as it approached the walls and encountered the higher waves near shore. Either way, Mithridates’ assault collapsed as comprehensively as his floating siege tower.
This was the last straw. Leaving a flotilla to keep the Rhodian fleet out of mischief, Mithridates returned home. He had found personal command of his army a none-too-encouraging experience, and he was determined, for the present at least, to return to his core competencies of raising troops and money. This task had become particularly pressing, for a new vista of opportunity had suddenly opened up in Greece.