The Persian Onslaught II

Sculpture at Naqsh-e Rostam, Iran, depicting the triumph of King Shapur I over the Roman Emperor Valerian.

The Goths Were Coming …

Six centuries earlier Spartans and their allies had stood at Thermopylae and blocked the Persian advance into Greece. Ephialtes, the Greek traitor, had treacherously led the Persian troops along a goat-track that brought them directly behind the Spartan force. In 267 and 268 Goths on the shores of the Black Sea saw a way to avoid the entrenched legionary defences of the frontiers; they resolved to seize hundreds of ships and boats and use the seaways as a means to strike at the heart of the Roman Empire. This had never been done before. The first raiders beached their ships near Heraclea in northern Turkey and they began a campaign of plunder and destruction. Emperor Gallienus directed Odaenathus to halt his Persian war and to divert his army to Heraclea – the Goths had to be stopped. The Palmyrene lord did as he was asked but fell victim to aristocratic in-fighting. Odaenathus was murdered by one of his own kinsmen as part of some on-going domestic quarrel.

Early in 268 the adventurous Goths raided sites in the Balkans, they attacked Byzantium (with little success) and were able to sack the ancient cities of Corinth, Athens and Sparta. Although Gallienus managed to intercept the Goths and bring them to battle, little is known of the scale of his success. Greece represented the settled heartland of the Roman Empire, free from strife or terror. Gothic attacks on this scale and in this manner represented a new and terrifying form of warfare that the emperor and his legions had probably never imagined and had not planned for.

At a place called Nessus, probably in Macedonia, Gallienus engaged a Gothic army and slew 3,000 of them. This battle was not decisive and the emperor was forced to abandon his Balkan campaign to face yet another usurper – Aureolus had turned traitor once again. Declaring his support for Postumus and the Gallic empire, Aureolus marched on Italy with the imperial throne in his sights. With his Dalmatian cavalry Gallienus intercepted and defeated Aureolus’ advance troops at Pontirolo in the north of Italy. Soon he had the rebel general besieged at Mediolanum (modern day Milan). During the siege, which lasted throughout the summer of 268, the emperor’s senior officers seem to have begun conspiring against him. They waited until he was riding without his bodyguard, surrounded him and cut him down. His murder was not welcomed by the troops who complained bitterly that they had been robbed of a useful and indispensable emperor, a man who was ‘courageous and competent.’ Claudius, the commander of the cavalry wing, assumed the throne in his place.

At the moment that Gallienus met his end, the empire had never looked in a more precarious position. Gothic war bands were inside the borders and sacking prosperous Roman cities, the western provinces had seceded to create their own Gallic Empire and in the east, with Odaenathus dead, his widow Zenobia had taken control of Palmyra and its army. She was about to pursue her own interests, not those of Rome and was soon to carve away the eastern provinces to create an independent Palmyrene empire.

Little mention has been made of the plague which swept the cities intermittently, nor have the effects of rampant inflation been discussed, which caused misery and suffering for the citizens of even the most peaceful of regions. The year 268 truly marks the lowest point in Rome’s history. Only a miracle could save the empire, that or an emperor of immense skill who could stitch the empire back together, drive out the barbarians and outfight and outlast the usurpers whose existence had become perhaps the only certainty of the third century.

Later Roman writers had few good things to say about Gallienus, repeating stories of his lecherousness and effeminacy and playing down his boundless energy, the victories that probably saved the total collapse of the empire, and his military reforms. Doubtless this slander was due to Gallienus’ decision to prevent senators from serving as temporary military commanders. Instead he recruited tough and experienced officers who lacked titles, wealth and honours, but who came from a background of professional soldiering. Since many historians came from the senatorial class that was now barred from military service, there may have been some revenge to be had by blackening Gallienus’ name.

Dura Europus

‘Dura … a foundation of the Macedonians, called Europos by the Greeks

Isidore of Charax, Parthian Stations

In February 2012, French archaeologist Michael Landolt revealed the gruesome yet fascinating details of the First World War trench system that he had been digging. Located near Carspach in French Alsace, the timber-built underground shelter contained the bodies of 34 German soldiers who had all been killed when a French shell exploded above, causing the tunnels to collapse. The end came so quickly and the mud entombed the shelter’s contents so thoroughly, that the grim scene was perfectly preserved ready for Landolt’s diggers to unearth almost a century later.

Many of the soldiers were found in the positions they had been in at the very moment of the collapse, prompting some to liken the scene to Pompeii. Some of the skeletal remains were discovered sitting upright on a bench, whilst another was still laying where he died in his bed. One man was curled up in a foetal position at the bottom of a flight of stairs where he had been thrown by the blast. Along with the bodies were found a number of poignant personal artefacts including spectacles, wallets, pipes and wine bottles as well as the more utilitarian kit one would expect in a trench, such as rifles, ammunition, helmets and boots. However, although this montage represented a tiny part of a vast battle-front, its victims were known and could be identified. A nearby war memorial records their names and the date of their deaths.

Dura Europus, also likened to Pompeii, was a Syrian city located on the banks of the Euphrates river. In 255 or 256 it was besieged by the Persians and despite fierce Roman resistance its defences were breached. The military garrison as well as the civilian population were almost certainly deported to Persia. Other than the ruins of the fortifications, the buildings within them and the treasure trove of recovered artefacts, no record of this great event in the city’s history survives. For the men and women struggling to defend Dura the siege was a momentous occasion; hundreds, perhaps thousands, of lives would have been lost in the struggle.

Once the city had fallen the Roman Empire ignored the loss and did not bother to repopulate the abandoned city. No mention is made of the siege in either Roman or Persian records. What a contrast to that single trench collapse at Carspach. Of course the Romans had no reason to crow about the defeat, many cities had fallen, Dura was but one more and Roman writers were always keen to avoid documenting defeats. The battle of Barballisos (252), for example, had been a crucial military confrontation involving tens of thousands of troops on both sides, yet because it was a humiliating defeat it received barely a mention in the annals.

Pompeii of the Syrian Desert

During the late 1920s and 1930s, a number of archaeologists, beginning with James Henry Breasted, worked at the site. Much of the later work was conducted by French and American teams and led first by Franz Cumont and later by Michael Rostovtzeff. It was Rostovtzeff who described Dura whimsically as ‘the Pompeii of the Syrian Desert’, a description which was ridiculed by his contemporaries because of the barren and forbidding appearance of the desert fortress.

The city was important. It was built on an escarpment 90 m above the right bank of the Euphrates river and sat on the river frontier between Persia and Roman Syria, near the modern Syrian village of Salhiyé. One trade route snaked along the river bank all the way from Antioch to Ctesiphon, the Sassanid capital, another ran north to south from the great caravan city of Persian-aligned Hatra to the oasis town of Roman-aligned Palmyra. Once owned by the Parthians, it had been wrestled from them by the forces of Marcus Aurelius in 165 and had remained a Roman frontier town for almost a century.

A wealth of military equipment was discovered inside the ruined city, everything from sword blades to arrowheads, helmet fragments to horse armour. The dry desert conditions proved conducive to preservation and fragments of textiles, leather and wood were recovered by archaeologists during the 1930s. Finds are today scattered across several museums; most of the finds are held by Yale University Art Gallery, while the rest are found in the Damascus National Museum and the Royal Ontario Museum, Canada. Two pieces rest with the Louvre, in Paris.

For the study of the Roman military during the third century, the remains of Dura provide an invaluable treasure trove of information. Much of the assemblage resembles that of finds on the British, Rhine and Danubian frontiers, albeit in greater quantity. But Dura stands out for the unique survivals unknown anywhere else; papyrus documents give us the duty rosters of a garrison unit (cohors XX Palmyrenorum) and a fascinating wall painting depicts members of this actual unit attending a religious ceremony with their commander, Terentius. Other, equally stunning wall paintings survived on the walls of the synagogue at Dura, bringing us some of the colour and vibrancy of Roman life. A large number of intact Roman shields were also discovered, a find not equalled anywhere else in the Roman Empire. Some still displayed their painted faces and together they provide a unique insight into Roman shield design.

Who Defended Dura Europus?

‘Dura Europus’ is a modern name, reflecting the city’s complex past. Originally established by Greek-speakers, the city was known as Europos. Only later, when the fortress was built upon the escarpment to defend the site did the locals then refer to it instead as Dura (‘fortress’ in the local Semitic dialect).

Because of the city’s crucial location and its distance from the Syrian governor and his legions, a regional commander called the dux ripae (commander of the river frontier) operated from Dura in the 240s and 250s. Under his command were both the forces stationed along the frontier as well as the garrison at Dura Europus. In the 240s this garrison had been cohors XX Palmyrenorum but it is unlikely to have still been in residence during the Persian siege.

A dramatic break occurred in the military garrison in 253 with Persians briefly taking control of the city. However, no signs of conflict were detected, leading archaeologists to conclude that the Roman garrison (the cohors XX) must have fled. Roman control was restored sometime in 254 as Valerian’s expeditionary force began to aggressively engage Shapur’s units that were dispersed throughout Syria.

A detachment of Legio IV Scythica was certainly present at around this time (a papyrus records a divorce of one of its legionaries in 254). Troops from nearby Palmyra are also likely to have been stationed in the city, supported no doubt by vexillations taken from legions brought to Syria by Valerian in 254. A fair estimate of the garrison strength ranges from 500 (a bare minimum) to 2,000 (the maximum based on available billets).6

The Siege

Soon all the massed forces of the enemy were assaulting the city far more furiously than before … we moved five of the lighter [ballista] to positions opposite the tower. These kept up a rapid fire of wooden projectiles, some of which transfixed two men at once.

Ammianus Marcellinus, at the siege of Amida, 19.5

The city sits on an escarpment above the river Euphrates which runs east of the site. To the north and south are dry, desert gulleys (wadis) which provide a steep-sided defence. Only the westward side of the city is easily accessible, nevertheless the entire circuit of Dura was fortified with a substantial wall, reinforced by eleven towers and a strongly fortified central gateway.

In 255 or 256 a Persian army approached from the west and must have been challenged by Roman forces; scale horse-armour was discovered west of the wall with an arrowhead stuck in it. The main gate came under intensive attack and it is likely that once this failed, two simultaneous assaults were made on the western wall. One was directed at Tower 14, the second was focused on Tower 19. A siege tunnel was dug that began some 40 m west of Tower 19. The aim was to undermine the fortifications and then to set fire to the tunnel props, this would collapse not only the tunnel but also the tower and wall above it.

The tunnel reached beneath the tower and eventually side galleries were dug beneath the adjacent walls. The resulting spoil was heaped up as a defensive barrier around the mine entrance. In those last few days the Persian army would have waited expectantly for the tunnel to be completed, the troops watching basket after basket of earth come out of the tunnel. Within the city the legionaries must have seen the spoil heap growing larger and understood its meaning, they may even have heard the clink of iron tools below the walls. A counter-mine was hastily dug from inside the city to intercept the Persian tunnel and allow Roman soldiers to kill or drive off the Persian miners. The counter-mine was a success and hand-to-hand fighting took place. The bodies excavated from the tunnels indicate that spatha, javelins and oval shields were carried into the mines and that armour and cloaks were worn but that helmets were left behind. The Niederbieber-type helmet, with its deep neck guard, could not be used in a crouch position. The tunnel was around 1.6 m high and wide. Crowded with armed men in the dark, lit only by a couple of oil lamps or burning torches, it is hard to imagine the claustrophobic conditions and the terror of imminent combat as the iron picks broke through into a void. Persians would have been heard shouting warnings, there would be the flickering of enemy lamps and then hand-to-hand fighting once Persian soldiers were rushed down into the tunnel.

We know that the legionaries lost the fight, between sixteen and eighteen dead or wounded were left behind in the tunnel, they may have been overwhelmed by numbers or simply fled in fear from the confused mêlée and the prospect of being trapped in the dark to be butchered by the Persians. The tunnel must have been fired soon after and the Roman counter-mine was hastily blocked up by the panicked Roman defenders, terrified now that the Persians would use the Roman counter-mine to get inside Dura. Within the counter-mine the Persians were equally worried about a second Roman attack and they piled up the Roman dead into a heap against the face of the blocking wall.

One of the skeletons discovered by French excavators within this gruesome scene of tumbled bones, skulls and corroded military equipment, was Persian. He had been facing the city when he was wounded or killed and he fell on his back. Some attempt had been made by his comrades to drag him back to safety. His ringmail shirt was pulled up about his neck as if a couple of rescuers had grabbed an arm each and a fistful of ringmail in their attempt to get him back to their own lines. Why was he left behind with the Roman dead? Perhaps the order to fire the mine had been given, perhaps they suddenly realised the soldier was dead. Much like the First World War skeletons discovered in the bunker at Alsace, those uncovered at Dura represent the final moments of some awful subterranean tragedy, a moment in a war that lasted several years, frozen in time for a later generation to wonder at and attempt to piece together.

Persian sappers set the counter-mine on fire then set about firing their own mine underneath Tower 19. Due to extensive reinforcement within the city, the walls did not fall forward and neither did Tower 19, instead both dropped vertically into the gap created by the collapsed tunnels. No breach in the wall occurred and the attack here was abandoned. The huge number of catapult and arrowheads found in the vicinity testify, however, to the ferocious missile exchanges going on throughout the mining attempt.

Attention probably shifted to Tower 14 and the southern end of the desert wall where another siege mine had also been excavated. The mine was fired and Tower 14 collapsed, rendering it useless as a Roman catapult platform. With this threat gone the Persian army then constructed a siege ramp from debris, rocks and soil that would allow its troops to march right up to the Roman ramparts. At the same time a tunnel was dug beneath the siege ramp to lead underneath the walls. Much wider than the mine of Tower 19, this tunnel was probably intended to allow Persian assault troops into the city when the grand attack began. It failed because the defenders again dug a counter-mine and this time successfully captured the Persian tunnel. It was then used to create sabotage tunnels inside the siege ramp which caused parts of it to collapse. At this point the mining seems to have stopped. It may be that the Persians were able to take back their attack tunnel and use the Roman counter-mine to get inside Dura, seizing the city for themselves. There is no evidence of fighting and it could be that the inhabitants surrendered once the enemy gained entry. The stones are mute. No written records exist to explain the sequence of events or the dramatic outcome. Everything has had to be pieced together by archaeologists and historians living centuries after the fact.

The weeks or months of resistance and furious digging were at an end, the city was looted and everyone in it herded together and led east into Persia. Evidence suggests that many thousands of Roman captives lived out their lives in Iran during this period, building bridges and cities and perhaps even carving the famous Naqsh-e Rustam relief that commemorates Shapur’s victory over the Roman general Valerian.

1 thought on “The Persian Onslaught II

  1. Pingback: The Persian Onslaught II – Glyn Hnutu-healh: History, Alchemy, and Me

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