THE BYZANTINE ARMY AT WAR: THE VANDAL WAR

Artist conception of Vandal and Alan warriors in North Africa.

In 406 the East Germanic Vandals and their tribal confederates, including Germanic Suebi and Iranian Alans, crossed the Rhine. After an initial defeat at the hands of the Franks, the Vandals enlisted Alan support and smashed their way into Gaul, plundering the countryside mercilessly as they advanced into the south. In the early 420s Roman pressure forced the Vandals into southern Spain where the newcomers faced a Roman-Gothic alliance; this threat the Vandals managed to defeat, but there could be no peace. Under their fearless and brilliant war leader Geiseric (428–77), whose fall from a horse had made him lame, the Vandals sought shelter across the Mediterranean; their long exodus led as many as 80,000 of them to Africa where, they believed, they could shelter themselves from Roman counterattack. They commandeered ships and ferried themselves across the straits to Tangiers, in the Roman province of Mauretania Tingitana.

There the local dux had few men to oppose Geiseric, who swept him aside and, after a year’s plundering march, in 410 reached the city of Hippo Regius (modern Annaba in Algeria). There one of the great luminaries of Christian history lay dying: Augustine of Hippo, bishop of the city and church father. The Vandals stormed the city and spread death and sorrow, but Augustine was spared the final horror; he died on August 28, 430, about a year before the Vandals returned and finally overcame the city. By then Vandal aggression had prompted a large-scale imperial counteroffensive led by count Boniface. In 431 an imperial expedition from the east led by the generalissimo Aspar joined forces with Boniface but suffered defeat and had to withdraw in tatters. The future eastern emperor Marcian (d. 457) served in the expedition and fell into Vandal hands. He helped broker the resulting peace, which recognized Vandal possession of much of Roman Numidia, the lands of what is now eastern Algeria. The Romans licked their wounds but could in no way accept barbarians in possession of one of the most productive cornlands and who threatened the richest group of provinces of the whole of the Roman west. In 442 the emperor Theodosius II dispatched a powerful force from the east with the aim of dislodging the Vandals. It too was defeated and in 444 the Romans were forced to recognize Vandal control over the provinces of Byzacena, Proconsularis, and Numidia, the regions today comprising eastern Algeria and Tunisia—rich districts with vast farmland and numerous cities. In 455 the Vandals sacked Rome, the second time the great city had suffered sack in fifty years, having been plundered by Alaric in 410. The eastern emperor Marcian had his own problems to deal with, namely the Huns, and therefore sent no retaliatory expedition.

Instead, Constantinople finally responded in 461 in conjunction with the capable western emperor, Majorian (457–61), but Majorian’s crossing to Africa from Spain was frustrated by traitors in his midst who burned the expeditionary ships and undid the western efforts. By this time the Vandals had established a powerful fleet and turned to piracy; they threatened the Mediterranean coastlands as far as Constantinople itself. In 468 the emperor Leo I launched another massive attack against Vandal North Africa under the command of his brother-in-law Basiliskos; Prokopios records that the expedition cost the staggering sum of 130,000 lbs. of gold. The expedition began promisingly enough. Leo sent the commander Marcellinus to Sardinia, which was easily captured, while another army under Heraclius advanced to Tripolis (modern Tripoli) and captured it. Basiliskos, however, landed somewhere near modern Hammam Lif, about 27 miles from Carthage. There he received envoys from Geiseric who begged him to wait while the Vandals took counsel among themselves and determined the course of negotiations. While Basiliskos hesitated, the Vandals assembled their fleet and launched a surprise attack using fire ships and burned most of the anchored Roman fleet to cinders. As his ship was overwhelmed, Basiliskos leaped into the sea in full armor and committed suicide.

The stain on Roman honor from the Basiliskos affair was deep; rumors abounded of his incompetence, corruption, or outright collusion with the enemy. The waste of treasure and the loss of life was so severe that the eastern empire made no more effort to dislodge the Vandals and to recover Africa. As the fifth century deepened and the Hunnic threat receded, the east settled into an uneasy relationship with the former imperial territories of North Africa, trading and exchanging diplomatic contacts, but never allowing the Vandals to think that Africa was rightly theirs. The emperor Zeno established an “endless peace” with the Vandal foe, binding them with oaths to cease aggression against Roman territory. Upon the death of Geiseric, his eldest son Huneric (477–84) ruled over the Vandals; he is remembered as a cruel persecutor of Catholics in favor of the heretical form of Christianity, Arianism, practiced by the Vandals and Alans. Huneric’s son with his wife Eudoxia, the daughter of the former western emperor Valentinian III, was Hilderic, who claimed power in Africa in 523. Under Hilderic, relations with Constantinople warmed considerably. Hilderic himself had a personal bond with Justinian from the time the latter was a rising talent and force behind the throne of his uncle, the emperor Justin (518–27), and in a policy designed to appease local Africans and the empire, Catholics were left unmolested; many Vandals converted to the orthodox form of Christianity. The Vandal nobility found their situation threatened, as one of the key components of their identity, Arianism, was under attack; assimilation and disintegration, they reasoned, were sure to follow. When, in 530, Hilderic’s younger cousin Gelimer overthrew the aged Vandal king it was with the support of the majority of the elites. Hilderic died in prison as Justinian monitored events from Constantinople with dismay. Roman diplomatic attempts to restore Hilderic failed. But Justinian was unable to act because war with Persia had commenced and his forces were tied down in Syria. By 532, Justinian sealed peace with Persia, freeing his forces and their young general Belisarios, the victor in 530 over the Persian army at Dara, to move west.

On the heels of the signing of the peace with Persia in 532, Justinian announced to his inner circle his intentions to invade the Vandal kingdom. According to a contemporary witness and one in a position to know, the general Belisarios’s secretary Prokopios, the news was met with dread. Commanders feared being selected to lead the attack, lest they suffer the fate of prior expeditions, while the emperor’s tax collectors and administrators recalled the ruinous expense of Leo’s campaign that cost vast amounts of blood and treasure. Allegedly the most vocal opponent was the praetorian prefect John the Cappadocian, who warned the emperor of the great distances involved and the impossibility of attacking Africa while Sicily and Italy were in the hands of the Ostrogoths. Eventually, we are told, a priest from the east advised Justinian that in a dream he foresaw Justinian fulfilling his duty as protector of the Christians in Africa, and that God himself would join the Roman side in the war. Whatever the internal debates and the role of faith, there was certainly a religious element to Roman propaganda; Catholic bishops stirred the pot by relating tales of Vandal atrocities against the faithful. Justinian overcame whatever logistical and military misgivings he possessed through belief in the righteousness of his cause.

It could not have been lost on the high command in Constantinople that Justinian’s plan of attack was identical to Leo’s, which was operationally sound. Imperial agents responded to (or more likely incited) a rebellion by the Vandal governor of Sardinia with an embassy that drew him to the Roman side. Justinian supported another revolt, this one by the governor of Tripolitania, Prudentius, whose Roman name suggests he was not the Vandal official in charge there. Prudentius used his own troops, probably domestic bodyguards, armed householders, and Moors, to seize Tripoli. He then sent word to Justinian requesting aid and the emperor obliged with the dispatch of a force of unknown size under the tribune Tattimuth. These forces secured Tripoli while the main expeditionary army mustered in Constantinople.

The forces gathered were impressive but not overwhelming. Belisarios was in overall command of 15,000 men and men attached to his household officered most of the 5,000 cavalry. John, a native of Dyrrachium in Illyria, commanded the 10,000 infantry. Foederati included 400 Heruls, Germanic warriors who had migrated to the Danubian region from Scandinavia by the third century. Six hundred “Massagetae” Huns served—these were all mounted archers and they were to play a critical role in the tactics of the campaign. Five hundred ships carried 30,000 sailors and crewmen and 15,000 soldiers and mounts. Ninety-two warships manned by 2,000 marines protected the flotilla, the largest seen in eastern waters in at least a century. The ability of the Romans to maintain secrecy was astonishing, for strategic surprise was difficult to achieve in antiquity; merchants, spies, and travelers spread news quickly. Gelimer was clearly oblivious to the existence of the main Roman fleet; apparently an attack in force was inconceivable to him and he saw the Roman ambitions confined to nibbles at the edge of his kingdom. The Vandal king sent his brother Tzazon with 5,000 Vandal horse and 120 fast ships to attack the rebels and their Roman allies in Sardinia.

It had been seven decades since the Romans had launched such a large-scale expedition into western waters, and the lack of logistical experience told. John the Cappadocian economized on the biscuit; instead of being baked twice, the bread was placed near the furnaces of a bathhouse in the capital; by the time the fleet reached Methone in the Peloponnese, the bread was rotten and 500 soldiers died from poisoning. The water was also contaminated toward the end of the voyage and sickened some. After these difficulties, the fleet landed in Sicily near Mount Aetna. In 533 the island was under the control of the Ostrogothic kingdom of Italy, and through diplomatic exchanges the Ostrogoths had been made aware of the Roman intentions of landing there to procure supplies and use the island as a convenient springboard for the invasion. Prokopios reports the psychological effect of the unknown on the general and his men; no one knew the strength or battle worthiness of their foe, which caused considerable fear among the men and affected morale. More terrifying, though, was the prospect of fighting at sea, of which the vast majority of the army had no experience. The Vandal reputation as a naval power weighed heavily on them. In Sicily, Belisarios therefore dispatched Prokopios and other spies to Syracuse in the southeast of the island to gather intelligence about the disposition of the Vandal navy and about favorable landing spots on the African coast. In Syracuse, Prokopios met a childhood acquaintance from Palestine, a merchant, whose servant had just returned from Carthage; this man informed Prokopios that the Vandal navy had sailed for Sardinia and that Gelimer was not in Carthage, but staying four days’ distance. Upon receiving this news, Belisarios embarked his men at once and sailed, past Malta and Gozzo, and anchored unopposed at Caput Vada (today Ras Kaboudia in east-central Tunisia). There the high command debated the wisdom of landing four days’ march or more from Carthage in unfamiliar terrain where lack of provisions and water and exposure to enemy attack would make the advance on the Vandal perilous. Belisarios reminded his commanders that the soldiers had openly spoken of their fear of a naval engagement and that they were likely to flee if they were opposed at sea. His view carried the day and they disembarked. The journey had taken three months, rendering it all the more remarkable that news of the Roman expedition failed to reach Gelimer.

The cautious Belisarios followed Roman operational protocol; the troops established a fortified, entrenched camp. The general ordered that the dromons, the light, fast war galleys that had provided the fleet escort, anchor in a circle around the troop carriers. He assigned archers to stand watch onboard the ships in case of enemy attack. When soldiers foraged in local farmers’ orchards the next day, they were severely punished and Belisarios admonished the army that they were not to antagonize the Romano-African population, whom he hoped would side with him against their Vandal overlords.

The army advanced up the coastal road from the east toward Carthage. Belisarios stationed one of his boukellarioi, John, ahead with a picked cavalry force. Ahead on the army’s left rode the 600 Hun horse archers. The army moved 80 stadia (about 8 miles) each day. About 35 miles from Carthage, the armies made contact; in the evening when Belisarios and his men bivouacked within a pleasure park belonging to the Vandal king, Vandal and Roman scouts skirmished and each retired to their own camps. The Byzantines, crossing to the south of Cape Bon, lost sight of their fleet, which had to swing far to the north to round the cape. Belisarios ordered his admirals to wait about 20 miles distant from the army and not to proceed to Carthage where a Vandal naval response might be expected.

Gelimer had, in fact, been shadowing the Byzantine force for some time, tracking them on the way to Carthage where Vandal forces were mustering. The king sent his nephew Gibamund and 2,000 Vandal cavalry ahead on the left flank of the Roman army. Gelimer’s strategy was to hem the Romans between his forces to the rear, those of Gibamund on the left, and reinforcements from Carthage under Ammatas, Gelimer’s brother. The plan was therefore to envelop and destroy the Roman forces. Without the 5,000 Vandal troops sent to Sardinia, the Vandal and Roman armies were probably about equal in strength. Around noon, Ammatas arrived at Ad Decimum, named from its location at the tenth milestone from Carthage. In his haste, Ammatas left Carthage without his full complement of soldiers and arrived too early by the Vandals’ coordinated attack plan. His men encountered John’s boukellarioi elite cavalry. Outnumbered, the Vandals fought valiantly; Prokopios states that Ammatas himself killed twelve men before he fell. When their commander perished, the Vandals fled to the northwest back toward Carthage. Along their route they encountered penny packets of their countrymen advancing toward Ad Decimum; the retreating elements of Ammatas’s forces panicked these men who fled with them, pursued by John to the gates of the city. John’s men cut down the fleeing Vandals in great number, bloody work far out of proportion to his own numbers. About four miles to the southeast, the flanking attack of the 2,000 Vandal cavalry under Gibamund encountered the Hunnic flank guard of Belisarios. Though they were outnumbered nearly four to one, the 600 Huns had the advantage of tactical surprise, mobility, and firepower. The Vandals had never experienced steppe horse archers; terrified by the reputation and the sight of them, Gibamund and his forces panicked and ran; the Huns thus decimated the second prong of Gelimer’s attack.

Belisarios had still not been informed of his lieutenant’s success when at the end of the day his men constructed the normal entrenched and palisaded camp. Inside he left the baggage and 10,000 Roman infantry, taking with him his cavalry force and boukellarioi with the hopes of skirmishing with the enemy to determine their strength and capabilities. He sent the four hundred Herul foederati as a vanguard; these men encountered Gelimer’s scouts and a violent clash ensued. The Heruls mounted a hill and saw the body of the Vandal army approaching. They sent riders to Belisarios, who pushed forward with the main army—Prokopios does not tell us, but it seems that this could only have been the cavalry wing, since only they were drawn up for action. The Vandals drove the Heruls from the hill and seized the high point of the battlefield. The Heruls fled to another portion of the vanguard, the boukellarioi of Belisarios, who, rather than hold fast, fled in panic.

Gelimer made the error of descending the hill; at the bottom he found the corpses of the Vandals slain by John’s forces, including Ammatus. Upon seeing his dead brother, Gelimer lost his wits and the Vandal host began to disintegrate. Though Prokopios does not mention it, there was more in play; the string of corpses on the road to Carthage informed the king that his encirclement plan had failed and he now faced a possible Roman encirclement. He could not be certain that a Roman force did not bar the way to Carthage. Thus, as Belisarios’s host approached, the Vandal decision to retreat to the southwest toward Numidia was not as senseless as Prokopios claimed. The fighting, which could not have amounted to much more than running skirmishing as the Vandals withdrew, ended at nightfall .

The next day Belisarios entered Carthage in order; there was no resistance. The general billeted his soldiers without incident; the discipline and good behavior of the soldiers was so exemplary that Prokopios remarked that they purchased their lunch in the marketplace the day of their entry to the city. Belisarios immediately started repairs on the dilapidated city walls and sent scouts to ascertain the whereabouts and disposition of Gelimer’s forces. Not much later his men intercepted messengers who arrived from Sardinia bearing news of the defeat of the rebel governor at the hands of the Vandal general Tzazon. Gelimer and the Vandal army, which remained intact, were encamped on the plain of Bulla Regia, four days’ march south of Carthage. The king sent messengers to Tzazon in Sardinia, and the Vandal army there returned and made an uncontested landing west of Carthage and marched overland to Bulla Regia where the two forces unified. Belisarios’s failure to intercept and destroy this element of the Vandal force when it landed was a major blunder that Prokopios passes over in silence.

Once Gelimer and Tzazon unified their forces, they moved on Carthage, cut the main aqueduct, and guarded the roads out of the city. They also opened negotiations with the Huns in Roman service, whom they enticed to desert, and they attempted to recruit fifth columnists in the city to help their cause.

The two armies encamped opposite one another at Tricamarum, about 14 1/2 miles south of Carthage. The Vandals opened the engagement, advancing at lunch time when the Romans were at their meal. The two forces drew up against one another, with a small brook running between the front lines. Four thousand five hundred Roman cavalry arrayed themselves in three divisions along the front; the general John stationed himself in the center, and Belisarios came up behind him with 500 household guards. The Vandals and their Moorish allies formed around Tzazon’s 5,000 Vandal horsemen in the center of the host. The two armies stared one another down, but since the Vandals did not take the initiative, Belisarios ordered John forward with picked cavalry drawn from the Roman center. They crossed the stream and attacked the Vandal center, but Tzazon and his men repulsed them, and the Romans retreated. The Vandals showed good discipline in their pursuit, refusing to cross the stream where the Roman force awaited them. John returned to the Roman lines, selected more cavalry, and launched a second frontal assault. This, too, the Vandals repulsed. John retired and regrouped and Belisarios committed most of his elite units to a third attack on the center. John’s heroic final charge locked the center in a sharp fight. Tzazon fell in the fighting and the Vandal center broke and fled, joined by the wings of the army as the Romans began a general advance. The Romans surrounded the Vandal palisade, inside which they took shelter along with their baggage and families. In the clash that opened the battle of Tricamarum in mid- December 533, the Romans counted 50 dead, the Vandals about 800.

As Belisarios’s infantry arrived on the battlefield, Gelimer understood that the Vandals could not withstand an assault on the camp by 10,000 fresh Roman infantry. Instead of an ordered retreat, though, the Vandal king fled on horseback alone. When the rest of the encampment learned of his departure, panic swept the Vandals, who ran away in chaos. The Romans plundered the camp and pursued the broken force throughout the night, enslaving the women and children and killing the males. In the orgy of plunder and captive taking, the cohesion of the Roman army dissolved completely; Belisarios watched helplessly as the men scattered and lost all discipline, enticed by the richest booty they had ever encountered. When morning came, Belisarios rallied his men, dispatched a small force of 200 to pursue Gelimer, and continued to round up the Vandal male captives. The disintegration of the Vandals was clearly complete, since the leader offered a general amnesty to the enemy and sent his men to Carthage to prepare for his arrival. The initial pursuit of Gelimer failed, and Belisarios himself led forces to intercept the king, whose existence still threatened a Vandal uprising and Moorish alliances against the Roman occupiers. The general reached Hippo Regius where he learned Gelimer had taken shelter on a nearby mountain among Moorish allies. Belisarios sent his Herul foederati under their commander Pharas to guard the mountain throughout the winter and starve out Gelimer and his followers.

Belisarios garrisoned the land and sent a force to Sardinia which submitted to Roman control and sent another unit to Caesarea in Mauretania (modern Cherchell in Algeria). In addition, the general ordered forces to the fortress of Septem on the straits of Gibraltar and seized it, along with the Balearic Islands. Finally he sent a detachment to Tripolitania to strengthen the army of Prudentius and Tattimuth to ward off Moorish and Vandal activity there. Late in the winter, facing deprivation and surrounded by the Heruls, Gelimer negotiated his surrender and was taken to Carthage where Belisarios received him and sent him to Constantinople.

Roman victory was total. The Vandal campaign ended with a spectacular recovery of the rich province of Byzacium and the riches of the African cities and countryside the Vandals had held for nearly a century. Prokopios is reserved in his praise for his general, Belisarios, and for the performance of the Roman army as a whole, laying the blame for Vandal defeat at the feet of Gelimer and the power of Fortune, rather than crediting the professionalism or skill of the army commanders and rank and file. The Romans clearly made several blunders—chief among these the failure to intercept Tzazon’s reinforcing column, and Belisarios’s inability to maintain discipline in the ranks upon the plundering of the Vandal encampment at Tricamarum. On balance, though, the army and the state had performed well enough. The work of imperial agents in outlying regions of Tripolitania and Sardinia distracted the Vandals and led them to disperse their forces. Experienced Roman soldiers who had just returned from years of hard fighting against the Persians proved superior to their Vandal enemy in hand-to-hand fighting. Indeed, they had proved capable of meeting and destroying much larger enemy contingents. Belisarios’s leadership, maintenance of morale, and (apart from the Tricarmarum incident) excellent discipline accompanied his cautious, measured operational decisions that conserved and protected his forces. Roman losses were minimal in a campaign that extended imperial boundaries by more than 50,000 square kilometers (19,300 square miles) and more than a quarter million subjects. The empire held its African possessions for more than a century until they were swept under the rising Arab Muslim tide in the mid-seventh century.

The Byzantine Recovery of Africa I

The Byzantine Recovery of Africa II

The Celts in Asia Minor, Third Century BC to Fourth Century AD

The Celts in Asia Minor, showing the principal areas of settlement and the sites of the major conflicts.

The Celts who crossed the narrow strip of water between Europe and Asia were a varied group comprising three separate tribes, the Tolistobogii, the Tectosages, and the Trocmi. They had separated from the main force which attacked Delphi and were led by Leonorios and Lutorios. What is particularly interesting is that half their total number of 20,000 were non-combatants—the women, the children, and the aged. This suggests that, unlike the warriors who chose to follow Brennos on his raid, the groups who stayed with Leonorios and Lutorios were migrant populations in search of new land to settle.

In Asia Minor the various Celtic groups were referred to collectively as Galatians and their history was recorded in the lost books of Demetrios of Byzantium, which probably served as the source used by Polybius and Livy. Nicomedes employed the Celts in his conflict with Antiochos I, settling them in disputed territory between his own kingdom of Bithynia and that ruled by Antiochos. The period of instability which followed culminated in the defeat of the Celts in 275–274 bc in the famous ‘Elephant Battle’ in which Antiochos used elephants to overwhelm his enemy. Thereafter the Celts were moved to a barren highland area flanking the Halys. From here, for the next forty-five years or so, they became a scourge to the surrounding cities, organizing frequent raids from their home base particularly against the rich Hellenized cities, where plunder or bribes could easily be had. According to Livy, each of the three Galatian tribes had their own territory to raid: the Tolistobogii raided Aeolis, the Trocmi focused on the Hellespont, while the Tectosages regarded inland Asia Minor as their sphere of activity. Eventually an alliance with Mithridates I of Pontus encouraged them to move to a new land around Ancyra (Ankara).

From the middle of the third century the Celtic raids against the cities of the Aegean coastal area began to intensify, and Eumenes I of Pergamum (263–241 bc), now the prime power in the west, decided to buy them off. His successor, Attalus I (241–197 bc), however, chose instead to stand his ground, eventually winning a decisive battle at the Springs of Kaikos about 233 bc. It was to celebrate this victory that a monument was erected on the acropolis of Pergamum, some statues of which survive in Roman copies, the most famous being the Dying Gaul.

In the latter part of the third century Celts were used extensively as mercenaries in the armies of the Seleucid and Ptolemaic rulers, though from the fragmentary accounts that survive they appear to have been unruly and somewhat unreliable. One group who became demoralized at an eclipse of the moon had to be sent back with their wives and children to the Hellespont in case they had decided to change sides. The incident is interesting, because it shows that fresh groups of mercenaries were still arriving from Europe. It was during this period that Celtic warriors were in action as far afield as Egypt. In 218 Attalus II employed a Celtic tribe from Europe, the Aigosages, to take part in his campaigns in Aeolis and Phrygia, and afterwards gave them land on the borders of Phrygia, from where, at their own initiative, they began to carry out extensive raids until the entire tribe was slaughtered by Prusias of Bithynia in 217.

In 191 bc the Romans were drawn into the political turmoil of Asia Minor as allies of Pergamum against the Seleucid king Antiochos III. At Magnesia, in 190, the Seleucid army, together with its Galatian mercenaries, was soundly defeated by a combined Roman and Pergamene force, and the next year the new Roman commander Cn. Manlius Vulso set out for central Anatolia to deal with the Galatians in their home territory. In preparation for the onslaught the Tolistobogii and the fighting men of the Trocmi rallied at Mount Olympus, three days’ travel west of Ancyra, while the Tectosages and the families of the Trocmi made for Mount Magaba just east of Ancyra. In a lightning strike Manlius defeated first the Tolistobogii and the Trocmi, selling those he captured—40,000 men, women, and children—as slaves. He then moved quickly on to defeat the Tectosages. In the peace which was concluded, the Galatians agreed to stop all raids in the western parts of Asia Minor. Apart from an abortive attempt by Ortiagon, the Tolistobogian chief, to unite Galatia in a war on Pergamum, comparative peace prevailed, the Romans ensuring that the Galatians remained free from Pergamene control. However, in 167 the Galatian attacks began again and Eumenes II was forced to engage in vigorous campaigns against them. Two years later a new peace treaty was agreed.

The Pergamene victory was widely celebrated. At Pergamum a great sculptured frieze was added to the altar of Zeus, while on the Athenian acropolis a victory monument was dedicated by the Pergamenes proclaiming, in sculptured allegory, that the rulers of Pergamum, like the Greeks, were the saviours of the civilized world.

Thereafter raiding, so necessary for the maintenance of Celtic society, was deflected away from the territory controlled by the western powers towards other states. Cappadocia was first to suffer and later Pontus, but gradually the Celtic communities—known universally as the Galatians—absorbed the ways of Greece and Rome and of their Asiatic neighbours. When, in the middle of the first century ad, the Christian apostle Paul wrote his letter to the Galatians, he treated them no differently from any other community in the now Roman world.

A sense of ethnic identity, perhaps earlier fostered by the practice of raiding, is implied by the widespread use of the name ‘Galatian’, which reflects the deep-rooted strength of Celtic traditions. An even more impressive reminder of this is the persistence of their language. When, in the fourth century ad, St Jerome offered the observation that the language used by the Galatians around Ancyra was similar to that he had heard among the Treveri at Trier, he was recognizing, though perhaps with the hindsight of a historian, the Celtic ancestry of both people.

The Galatians

The Galatians of Asia Minor provide an interesting example of Celtic communities retaining their ethnic integrity after the initial settlement in the early third century bc. Yet they appear to have adopted the material culture of their new homeland with little or no reference to that of their roots.

The history of the Galatians has been outlined above (Chapter 6), and need not be repeated here. Suffice it to say that the historical view records the movement of some 20,000 people, only half of whom were fighting men, into Asia Minor in 278–277 bc under the leadership of Leonorios and Lutorios. They came, we are told, at the invitation of King Nicomedes of Bithynia to serve the king in his conflicts with his neighbours. After fifty years or so as mercenaries in the service of different factions and as raiders in their own right, they were eventually settled in Phrygia in the vicinity of Ancyra.

Livy, no doubt following Polybius, gives an account of the migrants at the time of their arrival. They were divided into three tribal groups, the Tolistobogii, the Trocmi, and the Tectosages, all speaking the same language, with each of them laying claim to a territory over which to rampage and raid. It was in this mobile phase of their occupation that they provided mercenary services for any Hellenistic potentate willing to employ them. After a major defeat in about 232 bc, the Celtic peoples were compelled to concentrate in Phrygia. The Tectosages were already in the Ancyra region and the other two tribes were settled nearby. An agreement with the Pergamene king, Attalus, recognized the Celts’ right to the land they now occupied in return for an agreement to cease raiding the Pergamene kingdom and other spheres of Pergamene interest. In reality this left only the lands to the east as legitimate for exploitation and it was probably at this time that some territorial expansion took place east of the river Halys. The agreement with Attalus marks the point at which Galatia—the land of the Galatae—became a recognized territory, and we can henceforth speak of the inhabitants as Galatians.

The Galatians by this time must have become ethnically mixed. The elite lineages may well have been descended from the original migrant families of two generations past, but the indigenous population of Phrygia will now have been absorbed, if only in a subservient position, into the Galatian state.

The social structure of the Galatians seems to have remained little changed from its earlier form. According to Strabo, each of the three tribes was divided into four parts, which were called tetrarchies, and each had its own overall leader, a tetrarch, to whom a judge, a war leader, and two subordinate commanders were answerable. A council, representing the twelve tetrarchies and composed of 300 men, met at Drunemeton. Among its duties was to pass judgement on murder cases. The system has interesting similarities to the organization of the Celtic Gauls described by Caesar. There is the same separation of leadership between a civil and a military leader and the recognition of a distinct judicial class. A supreme council was also a feature of Gaulish society. Originally the Gaulish council met once a year under some form of Druidic authority in the territory of the Carnutes, but Augustus refounded it as the Consilium Galliarum and required it to meet at Lugdunum on 1 August at the Altar of Rome and Augustus. The name of the meeting place of the Galatians’ council—Drunemeton—also implies a religious focus, since nemeton is a Celtic word for a sacred place and is suggestive of a controlling religious authority.

How long this essentially Celtic system of social organization lasted among the Galatians is unrecorded. Strabo, writing about the turn of the millennium, specifically mentions that in his time power had passed first to three rulers, then to two, and finally to one, in contrast to ‘the organization of Galatia long ago’. This may have been, in part, a result of Roman encouragement or duress, but there are clear signs of change earlier. In 189 bc we learn that Ortagion, a chief of the Tolistobogii, wanted to unite the Galatians under his leadership, but his attempts met with little success and a few years later a number of social units are mentioned each with its own chief.

A century later the old system of tetrarchs still appears to have been in force. The glimpse is provided by a treacherous incident orchestrated by Mithridates IV. In 88 bc, in a bid to take control of Asia Minor, he effectively destroyed Galatian opposition by inviting the Galatian chiefs to meet him at Pergamum. Of the sixty who turned up all but one were massacred. Those who did not attend were picked off in individual attacks, only three tetrarchs managing to survive.

The massacre of the tetrarchs may well have been the deciding factor in bringing about far-reaching changes in the old social order. Not only did it greatly weaken the ruling elite, but it showed that divided leadership was ineffective in dealing with the problems of the rapidly changing world. The incident drove the Galatians to the Roman side, and it was in the interests of the Roman state to encourage a more unified leadership.

Very little is known of Galatian ritual or religion. The existence of Drunemeton is a hint that there were sacred locations, presided over, perhaps, by a Druidic priesthood, but there is no direct evidence of this. What is clear is that the indigenous cults were assimilated by the Celts. Such was the case of the worship of the Mother Goddess at Pessinus. In the late second century bc the high priest, known by the ritual name of Attis, was a Celt whose brother Aiorix bore a characteristically Celtic name. A later, Roman, inscription implies that half the college of priests at the temple were probably of Celtic birth. The sanctuary at Pessinus was, however, a thoroughly Hellenized place. Strabo refers to it as having been built by the Pergamene kings ‘in a manner befitting a holy place with a sanctuary and also with porticoes of white marble’. In spite of their acceptance of native cults and practices, the Galatians could revert to a more typically barbarous practice, as they did in 165 bc when, following the conclusion of a war with Eumenes, the most important of the prisoners were sacrificed to the gods, while the less favoured were dispatched by spearing. In this incident we may be witnessing a resurgence of the Celtic belief in the need to sacrifice the spoils of war to the deities.

The fighting practices of the Galatians were, as we have seen, vividly depicted by Pergamene artists in an array of victory monuments. Their fierceness and ferocity in battle were legendary. In 189 bc a Roman army, under the command of Cn. Manlius Vulso, moved against the Tolistobogii and Trocmi and won a decisive victory at Olympus near Pessinus. Livy gives a detailed account of the engagement, using the occasion to provide his reader with a series of familiar stereotypes about the Celt as a fighting man (Hist. 38. 19–30). Thus from the mouth of the commander, in his set-piece pre-battle oration, comes direct reference to incidents from the Celtic invasion of Italy in the fourth century. That Livy should emphasize the comparison in this way shows, at the very least, that he was acutely aware of the similarities of the two peoples, even though he may have overstressed or oversimplified them. Yet even allowing for these potential distortions, several interesting points emerge. The Galatians, it appears, were still using the rather archaic type of Celtic shield, ‘long, but not wide enough for the size of their bodies and … flat in surface’, and they still adopted the practice of fighting naked, a point lovingly described by Livy: ‘Their wounds were plain to see because they fight naked and their bodies are plump and white since they are never exposed except in battle.’ There is no reason to suppose that these observations were not specific to the event. Together they show that behaviour in battle had changed little, in spite of nearly a century of acclimatization in Asia Minor. Yet, Livy could report the Roman commander as saying: ‘The Gauls here are by now degenerate, a mixed race, truly described by their name Gallogrecians.’

In his brief review of Galatian territory, Strabo (Geog. 12. 5) makes no mention of towns. The Trocmi, he says, have ‘three walled garrisons’, Tavium, Mithridatium, and Danala; the Tectosages command the fortress of Ancyra; while the fortresses of the Tolistobogii are Blucium and Peïum, the former being the royal residence of king Deïotarus and the latter where he kept his treasure. Strabo’s use of ‘fortress’ is clearly intended to imply that these sites were not towns in the classical sense. He does, however, say that Tavium was ‘the emporium of the people in that part of the country’ and he uses the same word in describing Pessinus in the border region to the west of Galatia. By ‘emporium’ he was presumably seeking to stress the market functions of the two places. If we can accept Strabo’s distinctions, the implication is of an essentially non-urban society focused on a series of fortified enclosures and with an economy articulated at a few trading centres, at least one of them sited at a major shrine. The towns of the Phrygian indigenes were left to decay but by the time of the Roman annexation in 25 bc, Ancyra, Pessinus, and Tavium were sufficiently important to become the capitals of the three tribes.

Several Galatian fortresses have been located. Blucium has been tentatively identified, and the fortifications partially excavated, at Karalar, 35 kilometres north-west of Ankara. A nearby tomb with a funerary inscription showing it to have belonged to King Deïotarus (son of the king of the same name who was an ally of Rome) provided some assurance of the identification. Peïum, the second of the Tolistobogii strongholds mentioned by Strabo, is thought to lie in the meander of the river Girmir at Tabanliog˘lu Kale. The deeply incised river provides the site with more than adequate protection on three sides, while the neck of the promontory is defended by a wall protected by multi-angular bastions built in fine Hellenistic masonry. The strength of the defences would be entirely appropriate to a fortress guarding the king’s treasure. The quality of the architecture of Peïum (if correctly identified) is a reminder that the Galatian elite were well able to use Hellenistic building techniques, even if their fortified sites were typical Celtic hillforts in size and location.

The material culture of the Galatians has not been extensively studied, but sufficient is known to suggest that indigenous styles and technologies were adopted from the beginning. Distinctive items of La Tène metalwork are at present limited to a few bracelets and some twenty or so brooches from the whole of Asia Minor. While a few of these items were found, as would be expected, in Galatia and on the Aegean coast, the densest concentration lies in the south-east of the country in Cappadocia, a pattern which might suggest that Celtic raiding parties ranged over a wider territory than might be supposed from the classical sources

The Galatians provide a fascinating example of a Celtic people who maintained a high degree of ethnic identity over several centuries, even though they must have represented a minority in their territory. Their persistence as a recognizably Celtic people is the result of elite dominance. As a powerful warlike group, thrown together by migration and periods of mercenary service, they were able to maintain their identity without recourse to the material symbols of their ethnicity.

GAULS OF THE EAST: PART 1 –  BANDITS OF THE BALKANS

HELLENISED GALATIANS OF ASIA MINOR

The Praetorian Guard (180–235) III

In 216 Caracalla started a war against the Parthians, then ruled by Artabanus V. By 217 the campaign had gone from indifferently to worse, but a most peculiar incident was to lead to Caracalla’s demise. An African prophet had put it about that the praetorian prefect Macrinus, who had already reached the heights of consular status, was destined to become emperor along with his son Diadumenian. The news reached the prefect of Rome, Flavius Maternianus, who promptly alerted Caracalla. This was not a trivial incident. At the time such prophecies, along with signs and portents, could carry enormous currency, especially with the notoriously superstitious members of the Severan dynasty. The letter was delayed en route to Caracalla because it was sent first to Julia Domna in Antioch in Syria, where she was administering his affairs. Meanwhile, Macrinus (who was with Caracalla) was alerted by the censor in Rome, Ulpius Julianus, and realized that if he did not act then it was inevitable that Caracalla would try to have him killed. Macrinus organized three co-conspirators. Two of them, Aurelianus Nemesianus and Aurelianus Apollinaris, were brothers and praetorian tribunes. The third was a disaffected evocatus called Julius Martialis who was nursing a grudge against Caracalla for not promoting him to the praetorian centurionate. Clearly then, the conspiracy was largely a praetorian one, though others were involved such as Aelius Triccianus, prefect of the II legion Parthica and Marcius Agrippa, commander of the fleet.

On 8 April 217, Caracalla dismounted from his horse, momentarily dropping his guard while he relieved himself. It was not the sort of lapse of concentration a despot like him could afford. Spotting his chance, Martialis began the attack but was killed by one of Caracalla’s Scythian personal bodyguards. At that moment Nemesianus and Apollinaris pretended to come forward to help the emperor but seized the opportunity to kill him. The Scythians formed part of an eclectic band of freedmen and enslaved bodyguards whom Caracalla had employed in preference to the praetorians, something that had no doubt caused further grievance; though, as it had turned out, Caracalla’s suspicions were well founded. Two days of chaos followed as the disorientated soldiers fumbled about wondering what to do. They were agitated at the prospect of Artabanus, who was approaching with a large force in an attempt to take advantage of a peace treaty. The soldiers decided to ask Oclatinius Adventus if he would be emperor. He declined on the grounds that he was too old, though it must also have been apparent that his origins were humbler even than those of Macrinus. The soldiers turned to Macrinus and offered him the position of emperor, largely because there was no one else suitable to hand and time was running out. Macrinus accepted and rallied the troops to face Artabanus, who still believed he was fighting Caracalla against whom he wanted revenge for the war. As a result the fighting went on relentlessly for two days until Macrinus realized that Artabanus was fighting under a misapprehension and sent him a letter, offering a negotiated peace. Artabanus accepted and the war ended.

Meanwhile, the news of Caracalla’s death reached Julia Domna in Antioch, who was mostly annoyed that his demise would mean a return to private life for her. Macrinus, however, allowed her to continue to enjoy the protection of a detachment of praetorians, the privilege that Nero had withdrawn from Agrippina over 150 years previously. For a while, some of the praetorians considered mutinying and supporting her bid to become sole ruler in her own right, which would have made her the first autonomous empress in Roman history. The scheme came to nothing because Macrinus forced her to leave Antioch. She died not long afterwards, either from suicide or breast cancer. The fate of her praetorian detachment is not known. Julia Domna left a grieving sister, Julia Maesa. Maesa had so enjoyed life at the imperial court during Julia Domna’s reign that she was determined not to let an upstart praetorian prefect bring about the end of the Severan dynasty.

The new emperor Macrinus was from Caesarea (Cherchell) in Mauretania Caesariensis (Algeria). The senate welcomed him on the basis that anyone was better than Caracalla. He was an enthusiastic, if not always well-informed, supporter of the law, serving as Plautianus’ assistant as a result but escaping execution by association. From that position he acted as curator of the Via Flaminia under Severus, then as a procurator under Caracalla, before finally being made praetorian prefect. His ascent was a product of a curiously egalitarian aspect of the Roman world. It really was possible to rise from total obscurity to the most important posts in the Empire out of a combination of luck and ability, though this did not necessarily lead to acceptance, as Macrinus was to discover. He is the first of the praetorian prefects whose appearance is well and reliably known to us thanks to his coinage struck at Rome and mints across the Eastern Empire. Despite the brevity of the reign, his coins are still relatively common. They depict a mature and hardened man with a full beard, but without any of the studied brutality so characteristic of Caracalla’s late coin portraiture. This is in spite of the Historia Augusta’s judgement of Macrinus as ‘arrogant and bloodthirsty’, and description of a litany of the vicious punishments he meted out such as burning adulterers alive. Herodian’s description of life in Rome under Macrinus as a time of security and freedom, despite Macrinus’ other shortcomings, is a considerable contrast and more balanced.

Macrinus had achieved something that no other praetorian prefect, or indeed equestrian, had ever achieved. He declared himself emperor and took the name Marcus Opellius Severus Macrinus Augustus without waiting for the senate to vote him any titles. This was a crucial breach of protocol. His son, Diadumenian, was declared Caesar and thus his successor. Macrinus, who decided to continue with the Parthian war, was initially welcomed by the army. He fixed praetorian pay at a rate set by Severus. Nevertheless, Macrinus had problems from the outset and they were linked to his rank. His elevation of Oclatinius Adventus to the position of senator, consul and prefect of the city, incurred particular censure; it looked as if Macrinus was attempting to divert attention from his own lowly origins while promoting someone even less suitable to the status of senator. Macrinus’ judgement was also called into question with his appointment of Ulpius Julianus and Julianus Nestor to the praetorian prefecture. Neither of these two had the right military or administrative skills. Their main credentials were principally their assistance of Caracalla in his decadent pursuits.

In spite of Caracalla’s expenditure on the war, no one in Rome immediately dared declare him to have been a public enemy out of fear of how the praetorians might react. This did not stop other denunciations of his deeds, destruction of his statues or punishment of his associates. Macrinus benefited because most people were consequently prepared to overlook his modest origins, at least for the moment. This did not last: before the year was out Macrinus and Diadumenian were regarded as no longer having any meaningful existence. After settling the Parthian war, Macrinus found he had made an enemy of the army. They were resentful at having had to go to war, at a pay cut and withdrawal of exemption from duties. Macrinus also ordered that while existing soldiers would continue to enjoy privileges granted by Caracalla, new recruits would serve on terms established by Severus. Naturally enough, that simply alienated any new recruits. The peace negotiated with Artabanus V had included handing back property and paying 200 million sestertii as an indemnity. This hardly constituted a glorious triumph over Rome’s enemies.

Julia Maesa could see that the window of opportunity had opened, and she passed immediately through it. When Julia Domna died she had been ordered by Macrinus to return home (the women came from Syria). Maesa had two daughters, Julia Soaemias and Julia Mamaea, by a former consul, Julius Avitus. These younger women each had a son, Varius Avitus Bassianus (Elagabalus) and Gessius Bassianus Alexianus (Severus Alexander) respectively. Both boys were brought up in the worship of the sun god, Heliogabalus, the central cult object of which was a huge conical black stone. The elder boy acted as a priest, being known by the derived name of Elagabalus as a result. He was extremely popular with the military garrison at nearby Emesa, and a rumour had started to circulate amongst the troops that he was really the son of Caracalla. This was compounded by the belief that Maesa was extremely wealthy (which she was) and that if the soldiers made Elagabalus emperor then they would benefit from handouts. Maesa was delighted at the prospect of being able to return to court life and agreed, though she seems to have either been assisted or led by someone called Publius Valerius Comazon (also known as Eutychianus), said to have been a dancer who had performed in Rome. The women and their sons were taken to Raphaneae in Phoenicia where Elagabalus was declared emperor on 16 May 218. Macrinus’ praetorian prefect Ulpius Julianus was nearby and, despite his shortcomings, rallied to the moment, initially killing a daughter of Mamaea and the daughter’s husband before organizing a scratch force, presumably of praetorians, and attacking the fortress at Raphaneae.

Unfortunately, Julianus’ scratch squad was inconveniently beguiled into transferring their support to Elagabalus, whom the soldiers were displaying on the fortress walls. Julianus was either killed at the scene or made his escape and was killed later. When the news reached Macrinus he removed his court to Apamea, tried to appoint his ten-year-old son Diadumenian emperor and offer 20,000 sestertii (5,000 denarii) to every soldier, as well as reversing all the previous pay and ration cuts he had imposed on them. The cash offer was the same as the discharge grant for praetorians set originally by Augustus. Macrinus laid on an extravagant dinner to show that he was celebrating his son’s elevation, only for one of the rebel soldiers to turn up with the wrapped-up decapitated head of Julianus disguised as the head of Elagabalus. The head was unwrapped, revealing the horrible truth, and Macrinus realized he would have to flee. As events spiralled out of control for Macrinus he promoted Julius Basilianus, prefect of Egypt, to the praetorian prefecture in place of the unfortunate Julianus.84 Macrinus was defeated on 8 June 218 by a force under Gannys, the eunuch of Maesa’s other grandson, Varius Avitus, and Comazon. Macrinus had his praetorians with him, whom he had ordered to abandon their scale armour and grooved shields so that they would be more lightly equipped and could move faster in battle. This single reference is one of the few detailed clues that exist about praetorian equipment. According to Herodian, the praetorians, notable for their height and for being hand picked, fought exceptionally well, even though Macrinus had already fled the scene.

Macrinus tried to make his escape by heading north, but was caught and killed by a centurion called Marcianus Taurus at Calchedon in Bithynia. Diadumenian, who had been sent by his father to Artabanus V, was also caught and killed en route. Macrinus, sometime prefect of the Praetorian Guard, had reigned as an emperor of Rome for three days shy of fourteen months. Dio’s acerbic conclusion was that if Macrinus had been content with his station and supported the elevation of a senator (Dio’s bias is obvious here) then Macrinus might have enjoyed considerable esteem; however, there must be some truth in the idea that in the context of the era a man such as Macrinus simply lacked the status necessary to advance beyond the prefecture and expect to survive.

Elagabalus paid out 2,000 sestertii (500 denarii) each to the soldiers in Antioch and prepared for the journey to Rome. He styled himself Marcus Aurelius Antoninus in a further manifestation of the Severan policy of fabricating dynastic continuity from the Antonines, though he is invariably known to history as Elagabalus. He and his court began their slow progress to Rome, wintering between 218 and 219 at Nicomedia. Elagabalus, still only fourteen or fifteen, was already a fanatical follower of his cult, dressing in extravagant costumes and going about accompanied by flute and drums. Maesa was alarmed by this, comprehending immediately how it would alienate the Roman people. Elagabalus refused to tone himself down and resorted to the bizarre solution of sending ahead to Rome a huge painting of himself ‘in action’ as a priest. When he arrived he demanded that his god take precedence over all others, and forced the entire senatorial and equestrian orders to participate in his ceremonies, with military prefects amongst those obliged to carry the entrails of sacrificial victims.

Comazon had now been appointed praetorian prefect, a promotion that turned out to be one in a series of unprecedented stages in his meteoric rise, much to Dio’s disgust. Comazon, who had no professional experience and was considered something of a clown, as well as having been a stage dancer, went on to be consul three times, and then prefect of Rome. Comazon exploited his influence to pursue personal feuds. He had been punished by Claudius Attalus, governor of Thrace, for some earlier misdemeanour committed while he was serving there. Comazon, now in his exalted position, secured the execution of Attalus, though this was only one of a number of killings ordered by Elagabalus.

In or around 219 Elagabalus married Cornelia Paula. He celebrated the occasion with a payout to the senate and the equestrians, a dinner costing 600 sestertii per head for the people, and a gift of 400 sestertii to the soldiers, presumably his praetorians. It was clearly an attempt to present Elagabalus as normal and counteract the mounting scurrilous stories about the emperor’s promiscuous homosexuality, conducted in the passive role. Elagabalus divorced the unfortunate Cornelia Paula soon afterwards and moved on to Aquilia Severa, one of the Vestal Virgins, which caused even more offence than his previous activities. Elagabalus’ behaviour unsettled the praetorians, something that the peculiar young emperor was himself well aware of. Under pressure from his grandmother and mother to placate them, he adopted his cousin, Bassianus Alexianus, who was renamed Severus Alexander, as his heir. Elagabalus was praised by the senate but observed that although the senate, the people and the legions loved him, the Praetorian Guard did not, regardless of how much he gave them. It seems that even the praetorians had their limits.

Severus Alexander, who appears to have been a far gentler and more conventional boy, enjoyed the protection of his mother and grandmother, as well as that of the praetorians. Elagabalus bitterly resented the fact that Alexander’s mother was clearly preparing him for succession as an educated and more appropriate emperor. It was also obvious that the praetorians preferred Alexander and, given that their prefect was allegedly a dancer, this is hardly surprising. Elagabalus turned against his cousin and tried to have him killed. Mamaea took the precaution of paying a secret donative to the praetorians to smooth her son’s path to power; it was an astute investment. Elagabalus pulled his cousin out of public appearances and put it about that Alexander was dying in order to test the water. He also appears to have ordered the praetorians to deny Alexander the title ‘Caesar’, which denoted his status as heir, and to plaster mud over any inscriptions naming Alexander that were displayed in the Castra Praetoria. The mud smearing was done but the praetorians were furious and upset.

The angry praetorians then set out to find Alexander, Mamaea and Maesa, and took them back to the camp for their own protection. Next, a band of praetorians went off looking for the emperor in the Gardens of Spes Vetus, where he was getting ready for a chariot race. Elagabalus heard them coming and sent one of his praetorian prefects (whose name is not known) to calm down the Castra Praetoria where most of the Guard still was under the command of a tribune called Aristomachus. The other, an otherwise unknown individual called Antiochianus, was told to calm down the praetorians in the Gardens. The praetorians in the camp told the anonymous prefect that their price for backing down was Elagabalus handing over his hangers-on and starting to live in a suitable manner for an emperor. They also demanded that the prefects guard Alexander. This must be the occasion to which Herodian was referring when he described how the praetorians refused to turn up to guard the emperor, locking themselves into the Castra Praetoria. Elagabalus had to go to the Castra Praetoria with Alexander to prove that all was well, suffering the soldiers’ far more preferential greeting of Alexander, and also hand over some of his more nefarious associates.

Elagabalus ignored the danger he was in. He demanded back his lover, the former Carian slave and charioteer Hierocles, to whom he regarded himself married, and refused to appear in public with Alexander. Maesa and Soaemias told him that his life was in danger from the praetorians but he ordered the senate to leave the city. In Dio’s account this was followed by an irate Elagabalus haranguing the praetorians in the camp sacellum, followed by a second visit to the camp to reassure the praetorians all was well. This episode was accompanied by the unseemly sight of his mother Julia Soaemias and her sister Julia Mamaea competing to win over the praetorians to their respective sons. Soaemias lost. According to the Historia Augusta, the praetorians had had enough after Elagabalus told the senate to leave. They killed Elagabalus’ associates, then found the emperor in a latrine where they murdered him before throwing his body in the river. In Dio’s version, on 11 March 222 Soaemias and Elagabalus were murdered by praetorians in the Castra Praetoria, along with all their attendants. Their decapitated and stripped bodies were dragged around Rome. The victims also involved members of the court, including the praetorian prefects Comazon and Antiochianus.

The transfer of power was immediate. Severus Alexander was acclaimed emperor there and then by the praetorians. Alexander also appointed two praetorian prefects, Flavianus and Geminius Chrestus, explicitly because they were soldiers who had experience in both military affairs and civilian administration. But, apparently at the behest of his mother Mamaea he also appointed Gnaeus Domitius Annius Ulpianus, a celebrated jurist (now usually known as Ulpian), to be a praetorian prefect and to oversee them, which infuriated Flavianus and Chrestus. Ulpian’s legal knowledge and other skills made him ideal to take care of everyday government and also plan for the future. Ulpian had previously been exiled by Elagabalus. He did not last long this time round. In 223 or 224 a dispute broke out between the Praetorian Guard and the people of Rome. It led to a three-day running street battle in the city. The Guard was outnumbered and resorted to setting fire to buildings to force the people to back down and agree to peace. Somewhere along the line Ulpian or Mamaea had Flavianus and Chrestus killed, apparently either because they were conspiring against him or simply to remove them. The whole story is confused and difficult to unravel but it is clear there was enormous tension between Ulpian and the praetorians. It is apparent that Ulpian had been made prefect as soon as Alexander became emperor and was also held in enormous trust, being the only person permitted to see Alexander on his own. Ulpian was later killed by some of the Guard, who had been put up to the job by a freedman of Caracalla called Epagathus. They had already complained to Ulpian because they had heard that Cassius Dio (the historian), governor of Pannonia, had imposed a strict regime on the garrison there and were worried that something similar might happen to them. However, it must also be the case that Ulpian had no relevant experience of commanding troops. His death may have occurred as soon as 223, not 228 when his replacement is known to have been installed. By 229 Dio, who was consul that year, was under threat from the praetorians and he moved on health grounds to his home in Bithynia for his own safety. With Dio’s death at some point during the reign of Severus Alexander, the principal source for the period is lost. Alexander subsequently appointed another jurist, Julius Paulus, to the praetorian prefecture in 228. During this time some praetorians decided to make a dedication to Asclepius in his conflated form with a local Thracian god called Sindrinus (or Zimidrenus). They all came from Philoppolis in Thrace and proclaimed this fact at the beginning of the dedication, which named each man, his cohort and rank. The text invokes an image of a Guard made up of various subgroups of soldiers who clearly maintained their provincial ethnic identities and affiliations. It was a far cry from the early days of the Guard and its largely Italian nature.

Severus Alexander was the last of the Severan dynasty. He had become emperor at around the age of fourteen but it was inevitably the case that he would seek to become more independent, especially once his grandmother died around 224. Alexander is depicted by Herodian as a benign and merciful ruler, but one who grew increasingly frustrated by his mother’s behaviour. She took opportunities to confiscate other people’s property, ostensibly so that she could bankroll a payout to the army on her son’s behalf, but in reality so that she could add to her private fortune. Given the instability of the previous eleven years, it was remarkable that Alexander survived until 235. From the outset, much of the real power was in the hands of his mother Mamaea and his grandmother Maesa.

Mamaea and Maesa organized the creation of a council of sixteen senior senators to guide Alexander. It was an initiative that anticipated arrangements adopted for medieval monarchs who acceded while still minors. Herodian even observed that the new structure represented a significant change in the form of the principate. This meant that senior appointments, such as the prefects of the Guard, were made only with senatorial approval, even though Alexander made the initial choice. This on one occasion included a candidate who had declined, Alexander arguing that it was better to give the job to a man who was not interested in office for its own sake. Holding the prefecture under Alexander became an automatic qualification for senatorial status, unless the incumbent was already a senator (the prefecture had been opened up to senators as well by now), but Alexander had a serious purpose in mind. He objected to the way in which promotion had become merely the established method of removing a praetorian prefect from his post; he wanted his praetorian prefects to be senators so that they held an appropriate rank for passing a judgement on a senator.

Alexander was married to a woman called Sallustia Barbia Orbiana but Mamaea, unwilling to share the position of empress, had her daughter-in-law removed from the palace. This so disgusted the girl’s father that he took her to the Castra Praetoria for protection and accused Mamaea of insulting his daughter. This was a miscalculation. Mamaea, disregarding her son’s feelings and exhibiting all the ruthlessness for which the Severan women were celebrated, had the father executed and Orbiana exiled to Libya.

The latter part of Alexander’s reign was overtaken by the return of the Persian threat, this time under Artaxerxes, who had killed Artabanus and taken Parthia. Attempts to negotiate a peace came to nothing, leaving Alexander with no choice by 230 but to introduce a form of conscription so that an army of sufficient size with legions at full strength could be sent against Artaxerxes. By 231 Alexander had left for Antioch where the necessary training could be organized. It must be assumed that he had taken at least a large part of the Guard with him. His first campaign involved dividing his forces into three separate armies, each of which would approach the Persians by a different route. The northerly army made its way through Armenia to attack the Persians, the central army under Alexander’s personal command simply never invaded (a fact blamed by Herodian on Mamaea’s reluctance to allow her son to go into danger), and the southerly third force was practically wiped out when Artaxerxes threw his whole army at it on the Euphrates.

Nonetheless, Mesopotamia was recovered. Alexander was able to return to Rome and celebrate a triumph in 233, only to face instability on the Rhine and Danube frontiers, in particular in the form of a threat from the German Alamanni. This led to a serious split in the army. Units transferred from Illyricum to the Persian War had suffered serious losses and now believed their absence from the Danube and Rhine had contributed to the problems there. The German tribes presented a far greater threat to Italy than the Persians, so Alexander led an army north from Italy. Rather than throw himself into fighting, he opted to offer to negotiate a peace with the Germans, adding for good measure that he had enough money to provide a payment. Alexander had placed his army’s training under the management of a giant Thracian soldier called Maximinus, who proved extremely popular with the army and provided a considerable contrast to an emperor who was generally depicted as a mother’s boy and lacking in any military guile, panache, skill or motivation. Maximinus had earned an early reputation for his physical strength and astonishing height, coming to Septimius Severus’ attention as a wrestler. So impressed was Septimius Severus that Maximinus had been automatically offered a position in the Praetorian Guard. He had subsequently retired under Macrinus, only returning to military service as an evocatus under Alexander.

Herodian added the observation that the soldiers had now experienced a relatively (by the standards of the time) long reign, meaning that it had been a considerable while since the last major donative. This made the prospect of promoting Maximinus attractive. Conversely, the Historia Augusta states that during Alexander’s reign at least three cash gifts were made to the soldiers. Moreover, the same source says that Alexander always personally heard complaints made by soldiers against their tribunes and would punish the tribune appropriately if he were found guilty. Under Alexander, the antoninianus, the new debased double-denarius introduced by Caracalla, was temporarily discontinued. Alexander produced only the traditional silver denarius, perhaps as part of his policy of restoring the coinage. Since the troops would have been the first to notice that the antoninianus contained less silver than two denarii, this return to the old denomination ought to have helped restore their confidence. If so, the gesture failed.

The soldiers proclaimed Maximinus emperor, forcing him to accept. Having acquiesced to their wishes, Maximinus told them they would have to take Alexander’s bodyguard by surprise. To help them steel their nerves, he offered doubled pay, a donative and cancellation of punishments. Alexander got wind of what had happened, panicked and floundered around, begging his troops to stand with him. They abandoned him, one by one, demanding the execution of the praetorian(?) prefect and Alexander’s household. When Maximinus arrived he sent a tribune and centurions into Alexander’s tent where they killed the sometime favourite of the praetorians, his mother Mamaea and many of their associates.

Arab Campaign to Ctesphion

Ctesphion’s star ascended even further under Sasanian rule, and it was lavishly rebuilt and vastly expanded. It was made the capital of the empire and served as a royal palace (once again favoured as a winter residence), an administrative centre and commercial hub in the region. Its rich cultural diversity (including Jews, Christians, Arabs and Syrians to name but a few) drove trade and wealth into the city limits, while its network of waterways and verdant soil enabled the Ctesiphon to support itself indefinitely.

While the Parthians ultimately added very little of their own culture to the design and architecture of the city, the Sasanians had no such problem. Prior to the widespread use of concrete, mud brick was the chosen resource for erecting buildings of worth. So when the Arch of Ctesiphon was built towards the end of the Sasanian Empire during the 6th century, the arch was constructed entirely out of these oven-baked bricks. And while the Sasanians were Iranian by descent, their building techniques were still very much influenced by the designs and practices of Mesopotamian engineers.

Those techniques enabled the builders to create a huge archway without the need to rely on precarious scaffolding. Leading to a huge 30-metrehigh and some 43-metre-long audience hall, the Taq Kasra was constructed by using an ingenious angled brickwork concept. This enabled these ancient engineers to erect each course against its predecessor with only a simple wooden tower used to give the builders access to the incredible heights to which they built. To complete this iconic structure, the Sasanians used façades decorated with blank arcading and pilasters to flank it. It created an awe-inspiring sight, one fit for royal residence – and it’s just as captivating now despite its ruined state.

As the Sasanian period continued, Ctesiphon started to evolve into more than a mere city, but rather a collection of them on both sides of the Tigris. To many, it was now thought of as `The Cities’ (al-Mada’in in Arabic and Mahoze in Aramaic). It was a sprawling metropolis so expansive that its many sides became vastly different in look, feel and purpose. The western side was known as `Veh-Ardashir’ and was home to some of the cities’ wealthiest denizens including both Jews and Christians (a cathedral was even erected in the city). The eastern side was one of the oldest sections of Ctesiphon, and played host to the `White Palace’ – the Sasanian royal residence.

Following years of conflict with the Muslim Arabs (and a number of attempts to occupy and hold the city by the Romans), the Sasanian Empire began to decline. Despite successfully defeating the Emperor Julian and his Roman forces in the Battle of Ctesiphon (363), Ctesiphon and its masters were no longer the great force of trade and power they once were. Its military exhausted and its allies dwindling, the grand cityscape of Ctesiphon soon followed.

Once again they turned east, marching through southern Iraq into the heartland of Sassanian Persia. For three years, Sasanian territories had been under constant attack, and at the Battle of al-Qadisiyyah in 636, the Muslim forces would rout their foes outright. Crossing the Tigris, they reached Ctesiphon, the Sassanian capital, and took it easily. At Ctesiphon, the desert warriors paused to gawk at the wonders of the Middle East’s most sumptuous city, its lavish palaces filled with shimmering tapestries and furniture, its storerooms brimming with gold. Some of the Arabs had never seen gold before, did not know its value, and traded their shares of it for equal volumes of silver. Mistaking camphor for salt, they flavored their cooking with the medicinal crystals. In time, they saddled up and moved on. Ahead of them lay the ancient strongholds of the Iranian plateau: Isfahan; Nihavand and Ecbatana in the old land of the Medes; and Istakhr, birthplace of the Sassanian empire. Each fell. In little more than a decade, the Muslims swept east to India.

By the time the Muslim Arabs reached Ctesiphon in 637, they found the city mostly deserted, the royal family having fled their long-standing home. Now under Muslim rule, the city began to rescind in prominence in the region, a process that only increased in severity when the Abbasid Caliphate established its capital in the nearby city of Baghdad during the 8th century. In fact, it would be the stones taken from the now dilapidated ruins of Ctesiphon that would help build Iraq’s longstanding capital

Between the Rivers – The Battle of the Bridge, 634

636 was not just a pivotal year for the future of Roman Syria. It also saw the decisive Muslim breakthrough in Persian Mesopotamia. By the time he left for Syria in late-633/early-634, Khalid had conquered virtually all Sassanid territory south of the Euphrates and safeguarded these conquests by establishing a series of garrisons. Ostensibly, these new Muslim territories were left under the command of Amr b. Haram, an early supporter of Muhammad, but, in reality, al-Muthanna, who had played such a large role in Khalid’s campaign, was the real authority around Hira. However, the constant threat of military reprisal from the Sassanids still remained and the Qadisiyyah garrison that had been Khalid’s next target was still unsubdued. Due to this threat, al-Muthanna sent repeated messages to Medina asking for reinforcements, perhaps going as far as to visit the Muslim capital to ask Abu Bakr in person once more.

Yet it was not until after the accession of Umar in August 634 that this request was fulfilled with the dispatch of a force under Abu Ubayd b. Ma’ud. With a core of about 1,000 volunteers from his Thaqif tribe gathered at Medina, and picking up contingents from local tribesmen as he marched north, Abu Ubayd may have had about 4,000 men by the time he arrived at Hira. Joining forces with al-Muthanna and about 1,000 of his kin, these two began raiding across the Euphrates. A series of encounters between this Muslim column and Perso-Arab forces are recorded but the sequence and exact location, beyond being in the alluvial plains between Hira and Ctesiphon, of many of these raids cannot be established. What is known is that these raids proved enough of an irritant and close enough to Ctesiphon to provoke a sizeable Persian response, with Bahman marching from the Persian capital to the Euphrates.

Despite the claims of some sources and his success along the Euphrates, it is probable that Khalid had not faced a true imperial Sassanid army. Much like the Romans in Syria, Yazdgerd and his generals were slow to react to what they would have perceived as just another instance of Arabic raiding. The Persians will have been further encouraged to downplay the Muslim attack by their continued dealing with the aftermath of not just the invasion of their territory by the Romans and Turks but also the destructive period of civil war that had followed Shahrbaraz’s assassination. Therefore, it would be somewhat unrealistic to expect Yazdgerd to be able to recognise and react immediately to the emergent threat from Islam. Perhaps only the defeat at Walaja and the fall of Hira saw to it that Yazdgerd and his generals `began to take the business of the Arabs more seriously.’ Furthermore, after the defeats of Bahman’s congregating forces at Muzayyah, Saniyy and Zumail in late 633, it may have taken a year before Yazdgerd could field another army.

Whatever the circumstances, with Abu Ubayd’s force campaigning along the Euphrates and Bahman advancing south from Ctesiphon, a confrontation was inevitable. It appears to have occurred sometime in November 634 at a river crossing near the present day site of Kufa, variously recorded as Mirwaha or al-Qarqas. Situated on the eastern bank of the Euphrates, Bahman reputedly had up to 30,000 men to intercept the raiding Muslims, although the likelihood is that this is an exaggeration. As for the Muslim army, it is possible that the success of their raiding into Mesopotamia both in terms of prestige and material wealth may have bolstered the force of Abu Ubayd and al-Muthanna to as many 9,000. However, it is more likely that it remained closer to the 5,000 recorded at the time of Abu Ubayd’s arrival at Hira.

With the Euphrates dominating the battlefield, the focus of the subsequent fighting was the bridge that separated the two armies. Buoyed by previous successes and perhaps in search of personal renown, Abu Ubayd took an overly aggressive stance against Bahman and attempted to force a crossing of the river. However, while this crossing was successful, Abu Ubayd’s aggression was to prove disastrous. Bahman may have allowed the Muslims to cross the river before attacking to maximise casualties; however, accounts of the battle suggest that it was the presence of elephants in the Persian army that decided the outcome. The smell and clamour they exuded disrupted the Muslim cavalry and, when Abu Ubayd led an attack against them, he himself was trampled by a rampant white elephant. With their commander killed, a large part of the Muslim bridgehead collapsed. It was then that this Battle of the Bridge turned from a defeat into a disaster as the retreating Muslims were driven into the river itself, leaving 1,000 Muslims dead from combat and perhaps a further 3,000 carried away by the Euphrates. There is some suggestion that the bridge was in fact destroyed by a Muslim Arab to force his comrades to continue fighting rather than fleeing. The forces of al-Muthanna, who was wounded, do seem to have survived the battle largely intact, which could suggest that perhaps they formed the Muslim rearguard or were able to find another way across the river.

The Muslim army seems to have disintegrated in the aftermath of this defeat with al-Muthanna returning to his homelands at Ullais and Abu Ubayd’s Thaqif kinsmen returning to Medina. However, despite the totality of their tactical victory at the Battle of the Bridge, the lack of a Persian follow-up would appear to be something of a strategic blunder. Again, much like the Romans, the Persian hierarchy was demonstrating a lack of understanding about what the words, deeds and writings of the Prophet had done for the Arabs. In the past, such a devastating defeat would have broken any pretensions that Arab raiders might have had regarding Mesopotamia. They probably expected those settlements conquered by Khalid to simply return to their original Sassanid allegiance without having to intervene any further militarily, perhaps with al-Muthanna serving as a successor to the Lakhmid buffer state. Whatever the reasons, the failure of the Persians to press their victory over Abu Ubayd in November 634 was not the military anomaly that it would appear to be; the anomaly was the failure of the Muslims to capitulate in the face of such a defeat.

The Fall of Ctesiphon and the Battle of Jalula

Syria, Palestine and Roman Mesopotamia were not the only regions in which the Muslims were steamrollering an increasingly desperate defence. Much like their victory at Yarmuk, their victory at Qadisiyyah and Sa’d’s ruthless pursuit of Jalinus had exposed the entirety of Persian Mesopotamia and left the road to Ctesiphon open. With its potential as a focal point and possible springboard for a counter-attack whilst still in Persian hands, Umar and Sa’d quickly decided that neutralising or capturing the Sassanid capital should be their next objective. Less than a fortnight after the victory at Qadisiyyah, Sa’d’s army, now reorganised into five separate corps under Zuhra, Abdullah, Shurahbeel, Hashim and Khalid b. Arfatah, set out across the alluvial plains of Mesopotamia towards Ctesiphon. Seemingly aware of the garrison forces along the route to Ctesiphon, Sa’d sent Zuhra on ahead with a strong advanced guard of cavalry, with orders to subdue the garrisons if he could but, should he come up against a sizeable imperial army, he was to await the main column that was proceeding at a more restrained pace.

However, despite the mixture of caution and alacrity, the Muslim advance met with only limited resistance. Zuhra was able to occupy Najaf without any opposition and, while the garrison at Burs resisted, Zuhra defeated its commander, Busbuhra, in single combat and the garrison was quickly overwhelmed. A battle near the ancient site of Babylon is recorded in December 636 against a large concentration of Persian forces, which given that its commanders were Hormuzan, Mihran, Nakheerzan and Beerzan suggests that it was the remnant of the force that Jalinus had extricated from Qadisiyyah. However, given the presence of Beerzan, supposedly killed by Qaqa, and the lack of clear information regarding any battle at Babylon, aside from there being dissension in the Persian ranks and the information that Hormuzan retreated to his homelands in Khuzestan the whole event should probably be downplayed as a major engagement.

Zuhra then continued his pursuit of congregating Persian forces. He is thought to have defeated a Sassanid force at Sura before catching up to Nakheerzan’s force at Deir Kab. Despite the killing of the Sassanid commander in a duel by one of Zuhra’s subordinates, the Persian force seems to have offered stiff resistance. It was only a successful flanking manoeuvre by Jarir that captured a bridge to the rear of the Persian lines that seems to have finally encouraged the Persians to retreat. 15 The last Persian attempt to stall the Muslim advance to the gates of Ctesiphon came in early-January 637 at Kusa, a mere ten miles short of the capital. However, this time all it took was the defeat of the Persian commander, Shahryar, in a duel by one of the mubarizun to force the Persians to retreat.

With the capture of Kusa, nothing now lay between Sa’d’s forces and the walls of the Persian capital. However, despite the rapidity of Zuhra’s advance, properly defended, Ctesiphon would not be easily captured or even surrounded. This was because it was not a single city but a metropolis that incorporated several settlements including Seleucia, Veh-Ardashir, Vologaesocerta and others on the banks of the Tigris, as well as Ctesiphon itself. Indeed, in Arabic, Ctesiphon was and is known as al-Mada’in, meaning `The Cities’. With the direction they were approaching from – the west bank of the Tigris – the Muslims were to come to the sub-cities of Vologaesocerta, Seleucia and Veh-Ardashir first. Of these three, it appears that Yazdgerd and his generals focused their defensive efforts on Veh-Ardashir, probably due to it being the closest to Ctesiphon itself, digging ditches and placing ballistas and catapults. The presence of such siege engines forced the Muslims back from the walls but they quickly evened the odds by employing Persians to build siege engines for them.

By March 637, after almost two months of blockade, the Persian garrison was becoming desperate and sallied forth in an attempt to break the siege. In the subsequent fighting, Zuhra is said to have killed the Persian commander in a duel before being killed himself by an arrow. But one peculiar story stands out most from the siege of Veh-Ardashir: the Persians are said to have used a specially trained lion to disrupt the Muslim cavalry and infantry, with its rampage only being stopped by Hashim, who killed the beast with a single blow with his sword. One cannot help but suggest that this is a prime example of the corruption of the record of a Persian commander either called `lion,’ such as the Greek name Leo, or being described as fighting as fiercely as a lion.

As their sally proved ineffective, the Persians offered to recognise the Muslim conquest of all territory up to the banks of the Tigris in return for an end to the fighting. Sa’d replied by saying that peace would only come when Yazdgerd accepted Islam and paid the jizya. The next morning, the Muslims found Veh-Ardashir abandoned as the garrison had somehow managed to slip across the Tigris to Ctesiphon, destroying many of the bridges and taking any available boats with them.

Despite these measures and the fact that the river seems to have been in flood, the Persians failed to prevent the Muslims from crossing the Tigris. Taking advantage of local knowledge, Sa’d found a location where the river was fordable and sent a contingent of around 600 volunteers under Asim to force a crossing. These were intercepted by Persian cavalry, but Asim’s men were able to fight off this attack, establish themselves on the eastern shore and hold their position long enough for Sa’d to get reinforcements to them. With the Muslim army safely across the Tigris, the Sassanid force in Ctesiphon under Mihran and Rustam’s brother, Khurrazad, decided that any attempt to defend Ctesiphon itself was futile and prompted Yazdgerd to abandon the city with his army and treasury. With that, aside from small pockets of resistance, Sa’d and his Muslim Arab force took one of the ancient world’s greatest cities, along with the large amounts of booty it possessed, without a fight.

This lack of an organised defence of their capital not only demonstrates the poor state to which the Persian military had fallen through its defeats by Romans, Turks, civil war and now Muslim Arabs, but also how unprepared the Persian defences of Ctesiphon were for an attack from the south. Centuries of warfare against the Romans and the nomadic tribes of the Eurasian steppe had concentrated Persian defensive efforts to the north of Ctesiphon. The contrast between the destruction of the bridges over the Nahrawan canal to block Heraclius’ approach in 627 and the ease with which Sa’d approached Veh-Ardashir and then took Ctesiphon in 637 demonstrates the direction in which Persian defences were facing. It could be argued that, by leaving troops in Mesopotamia to slow the advance of the Muslims on Ctesiphon, Yazdgerd assured the capture of his capital by depriving its defence of much needed manpower. However, without garrisons at the likes of Burs, Babylon and Kusa, Zuhra’s advanced guard would have arrived at Ctesiphon before any defensive measures were implemented. Therefore, after the defeat at Qadisiyyah, the Sassanid king and his generals were left with what was a no-win situation with regard to defending Ctesiphon.

However, this Persian evacuation of their capital without a fight meant that there were still sizeable Sassanid armies in the field that needed to be defeated before Muslim control of Mesopotamia could be consolidated. The main Persian force under Mihran and Khurrazad retreated north to Jalula, which, as well as being near the modern site of Baghdad, lay on a strategically important route between the Persian provinces of Mesopotamia, Khurasan and Atropatene. There were also forces congregating to the north at Birtha, usually identified with modern-day Tikrit, as well as the significant garrison of the fortress further up the Tigris recognised as modern Mosul. Its governor, Intaq, appears to have moved south to Birtha with his garrison and along with some survivors from Ctesiphon and new recruits from the local Arab tribes formed a sizeable force.

The relative proximity of Birtha to the main Sassanid force at Jalula meant that Intaq could move to join his forces to those of Mihran and Khurrazad as well as providing a potential route of retreat for the Persian force should it be defeated at Jalula. Therefore, whilst Sa’d sent the majority of his force against Jalula under Hashim in April, he also sent about 5,000 men under Abdullah to preoccupy if not neutralise Intaq. Upon arriving, Abdullah attempted to storm the walls with a lightning attack. However, Intaq’s men held firm and it appears as though Abdullah became concerned about the size of the garrison. To deal with this perceived strength, the Muslim commander attempted to drive a wedge between the elements of Intaq’s force. Muslim spies made contact with the Christian Arab contingent and persuaded them to side with Abdullah rather than Intaq. The Persians seem to have gotten wind of this betrayal or at least suspected it, as they attempted to abandon Birtha along the river. However, they found themselves trapped between the attacking Muslims and their former Arab allies and the Persian garrison was quickly overrun. A few days later, a small Muslim force received the surrender of Mosul without much of a fight.

Battle of Jalula, 637: Deployments.

Battle of Jalula, 637: Qaqa’s Flank Attack

While Abdullah was cutting off a potential route of retreat and reinforcement for the Sassanids, Hashim had squared up to the Persian forces at Jalula. While the strategic position of Jalula as a crossroads for the Sassanid state meant that it was vital for Mihran and Khurrazad to try to defend it, the position of the town with the Diyala River to the west and foothills of the Zagros Mountains to the east also offered an excellent defensive position. Knowing that the naturally narrow plain in front of Jalula would funnel the Muslim army towards the town and protect their flanks, Mihran prepared diligently for the Muslim attack he knew would come. Jalula itself was turned into a fort, protected by a line of trenches stretching from the broken ground of the Zagros foothills to the Diyala and caltrops to further hinder the Muslim infantry and cavalry. Archers and artillery were also positioned on the fortifications to bleed the Muslims as they approached the walls. Only after inflicting crippling damage on the Muslim ranks would Mihran then leave this defensive position in order to win a decisive victory.

Upon surveying the disposition and defences of the Persian force, Hashim recognised Mihran’s ploy in presenting the Muslims with only one offensive option – a costly frontal assault. This was something that he could ill afford given that the size of the forces arrayed at Jalula were likely very similar, around 12,000 each. Therefore, Hashim decided to draw the Persians away from their defences by employing one of the riskiest manoeuvres in battlefield tactics – the feigned retreat. The danger of this tactic is that a feigned retreat can quickly become an actual one if the morale and discipline of those attempting it is not strong enough and a counter-attack from the opponent is so well pressed and coordinated as to be impossible to resist. Clearly, after the numerous victories they had won up to the battlefield of Jalula, Hashim had every reason to believe in the discipline and prowess of his men to even attempt such a tactic. While there is no evidence to suggest that Mihran’s counter-attack was not well pressed, it could be argued that the presence of their own trenches and caltrops could have prevented the Persians from launching a fully coordinated assault on the `retreating’ Muslims as they had to waste time in placing a bridge over the defences.

The battle therefore began with a Muslim attack on the defences of Jalula, only for them to retreat under the hail of Persian archers and artillery. Mihran took this as a sign that his plan was working and that the Muslim forces were on the verge of breaking and quickly launched his planned counter-attack. Unbeknownst to the Persian commander, his opposite number will have also been pleased that his own plan was going well. His men had fooled the Persians into thinking they were retreating whilst still retaining their own discipline and order. With the Persians now drawn away from their defences, an infantry confrontation took place on the plain before Jalula. Further staged withdrawals by Hashim’s men then opened up a gap between the Persian lines and the bridge route back into the fort and it was then that Hashim launched his counterstroke. Having gathered together a strong cavalry contingent in his rear under Qaqa, Hashim now sent them in an attack around the Persian right flank against the lightly defended bridge. Once word filtered through the battlefront that the Muslims had cut off the only escape route, Hashim ordered his men in a full-scale attack on the Persian lines while Qaqa attacked their rear. Trapped by geography, their own defences and the Muslim forces, the Persian army broke. Despite many men making it back to the fort of Jalula, the defeat of Mihran and the death of Khurrazad had neutralised it as a threat. The exact date for the Battle of Jalula is difficult to pin down from the sources, some of which place the battle at the end of a seven-month siege while others say that the seven-month siege succeeded a battle in April 637.

Whatever the order of events, Jalula had fallen to Hashim by the end of 637. The Muslim general then sent Qaqa after those Persian forces under Mihran who had managed to escape. The cavalry commander caught up to them at the city of Khanaqin, some fifteen miles to the east. Some reinforcements from Hulwan may have reached Mihran but they were not enough to prevent a further defeat and the capture of Khanaqin. It is recorded that Qaqa defeated Mihran in a personal duel, removing one of the more capable Persian commanders as an obstacle. Qaqa was now within 100 miles of Yazdgerd III’s base at Hulwan and was to appear before its walls before the end of January 638. However, upon hearing of the defeat of Mihran at Khanaqin, Yazdgerd had retreated further east into the Iranian heartland of his empire, reaching Qom, around 100 miles south of modern Tehran. This hopping from Ctesiphon to Hulwan to Qom was to become a repeating pattern for the rest of Yazdgerd’s life as he attempted to outrun the Muslim advance whilst at the same time trying to bring together an army strong enough to retake his lost lands.

With the emperor gone and only a modest garrison left to defend it, Hulwan also swiftly fell. Having settled affairs with the citizenry, the ever ambitious Qaqa then sent to his commander, Sa’d, asking if he could drive further into Iran in pursuit of the fleeing Yazdgerd. Sa’d himself appears to have been in favour of such an advance, perhaps thinking that the Persians were sure to return once they had reorganised their forces. However, Umar was unwilling to further stretch his forces given the effects of the `Year of Ashes’ and the Plague of Amwas throughout 638 and 639 and, as he had done in ordering his men to pull back from a potentially decisive confrontation in Roman Anatolia, he denied Qaqa and Sa’d permission to continue east. What is now the border between Iran and Iraq was to be the effective frontier between the lands of the caliph and those of the Persian emperor, albeit temporarily.

The loss of Mesopotamia, let alone their capital at Ctesiphon, was a huge blow, not just to the prestige of the Sassanids but perhaps more importantly to their continued ability to wage war, as those provinces contained a vast proportion of their population and tax revenue. The Persians still held significant territories all the way east to the Oxus and Indus rivers and their Roman neighbours had demonstrated that by identifying the strategic necessity of regrouping such losses were survivable. However, as will be seen, Yazdgerd and his advisers would not exhibit the same restraint and strategic good sense of Heraclius, allowing their loss of dignity to force them into challenging this `Iran-Iraq’ frontier before they had laid any defensive or infrastructural groundwork.

The Fundamentals of Ancient Battle

There are some basic concepts that are almost universal across all ancient battles, and certainly across the period of the 3rd through the 2nd centuries BC that we’re examining. In order to properly understand the breakdowns of the battles that follow, it’s important to understand these fundamentals. Any officer, commissioned or non-commissioned, will have learned these basics in academy, and most wargamers pick them up as they simulate battles and see them play out on the table top. But for those of you who are neither wargamers, nor prior service members, we’ll review them here. Please keep in mind this is grossly oversimplified, and deliberately so, as I’m trying to convey basic ideas to the reader as efficiently and simply as possible.

Before we launch into this, I want to make sure readers understand the terms “rank” and “file,” as they’ll be used frequently. Most readers are probably familiar with the terms, but just to be sure, files refer to lines of soldiers arranged front-to-back of a formation. Ranks refers to the lines from side to side. So a single line of 16 men standing one behind the other would be a single file with 16 ranks. A line of the same men standing shoulder to shoulder would be 16 files and only one rank.

The battle line, frontage and flanking maneuvers

Ancient battles usually revolved around battle lines. A battle line is exactly what it sounds like – a bunch of soldiers or warriors all lined up, more or less shoulder to shoulder, usually laterally, providing as much “frontage,” or left to right distance, as possible.

More frontage is good, because this increases the chance of an “envelopment” or preferably a “double-envelopment.” An envelopment occurs when a battle line overlaps the enemy’s, allowing your line to curl around it and attack your opponent’s line from both the front and the side, which is commonly called the “flank” by both modern militaries and military historians. This envelopment, and the striking of the enemy’s battle line from the flank, is commonly called “outflanking” or “turning a flank.” A double-envelopment occurs when your line overlaps the enemy on both flanks, allowing you to curl in around both sides of the enemy line at once, as the famous Carthaginian general Hannibal Barca did at the Battle of Cannae in 216 BC.

Troop types – heavy infantry, light infantry and cavalry

Battle lines are almost always composed of “heavy infantry.” This term is used to mean different things, sometimes referring to the weight of the soldiers’ weapons and armor, and sometimes referring to the tightness of their formation. A Greek or Hellenistic (Hellenistic refers to the cultural descendants of the Greeks, such as the Macedonians and the successors of Alexander the Great) phalanx, a Roman legion, a Celtic warband, a line of Persian levy spearmen, are all examples of heavy infantry in a battle line. The heavy infantryman’s primary job was close or “shock” combat, fighting with hand weapons like swords or spears, toe to toe with the enemy.

The battle lines would line up facing one another, and then close to clash together. The opposing forces usually had one of three goals:

•To break through the enemy line, causing it to collapse

•To outflank the enemy line and attack the enemy from two directions at once.

•To get units behind the enemy’s battle line, said to be in the enemy’s rear or “backfield,” and attack the enemy units from the rear.

The benefits of flanking and rear attacks are plain. If you only have to worry about the enemy in front of you, you can focus your full attention on that enemy. This is why battle lines are so strong everywhere but the flanks. If you have a friendly soldier to either side of you, your flanks are covered, and all you have to do is deal with the enemy straight ahead. If you have a shield, you only have to cover your front, and all your attacks will be in one direction. If you have an enemy on your front and your flank, you’re in trouble. Now, you have to fight in two directions at once. You move your shield to defend against a spear thrust coming from the enemy in front of you, and the enemy to your flank has an open shot at your ribs. You shift your shield to cover your ribs, and the enemy in front of you puts his sword through your face. Being attacked from the rear is a veritable death sentence, since you can’t defend at all, and turning to face the enemy to your rear necessarily exposes your rear to the enemy who was previously to your front. In this instance, the only hope you have is your armor.

So covering the flanks, and therefore the rear, of the battle line was critical. Many generals used terrain, anchoring the flanks of their battle lines on marsh, or mountains, or deep rivers. The idea was that the enemy couldn’t turn a flank, because he couldn’t pass the terrain to do it. But, assuming that terrain wasn’t available, ancient generals usually stationed troops on the flanks who had the double role of both protecting their battle line from envelopment, and also turning the enemy battle line’s flank if they could.

This job was most often performed by cavalry, whose speed made them ideally suited for the task. Let’s say you defeat your enemy’s flank guard and now have an opportunity to get into their backfield to attack their units from the rear. You want to be able to get there as quickly as possible, to put your enemy in the pinch where they are attacked from both front and rear before they can do the same to you. Mounted troops are ideal for this work. Because they are the fastest troops on the field, they can also take the lead in running down “routing” troops. Routing troops are running away with no effort to keep fighting, as opposed to “retreating,” which means you are leaving the battle in good order, fighting as you go.

Another troop type was commonly seen in ancient battles – light infantry, sometimes referred to as “skirmishers.” These troops usually fought in dispersed order. Think of a cloud of gnats or a school of minnows. This formation is very different from the shoulder-to-shoulder ordered ranks of the heavy infantry described above. Skirmishers were usually lightly armored, and in many cases had no armor at all. They were often armed with missile weapons, such as the javelin, the sling or the bow. Heavy infantry moved more slowly, both on account of their equipment and because of their need to keep in formation or else risk the flank and rear attacks I just described. More often than not, heavy infantry had no missile weapons of their own, which made them vulnerable to skirmishers, who could run up, shower them with missile fire, then run away before the heavy infantry could charge them. Not all light infantry were skirmishers, and not all heavy infantry lacked missile weapons (most notably, the Roman legionary), but the distinction between heavy and light infantry and their respective shock and missile delivery roles was the general rule on ancient battlefields.

Of course, skirmishers were vulnerable to cavalry, who could easily catch them, and often were armed with missiles themselves (usually javelins), but if the cavalry stopped to fight hand to hand with skirmishers, they in turn would be vulnerable to being charged by the heavy infantry.

Skirmishers usually deployed out in front of the battle line, and their main role was to “soften up” the enemy battle line with missile fire, causing wounds, deaths and damage to equipment that would impair the enemy’s ability to fight in the close combat to come when the battle lines clashed. When that clash appeared imminent, the skirmishers would “retire” either by rushing back through the ranks of the heavy infantry (who would open to admit them), or rushing around the flanks of their own battle line to get out of the way.

Unit cohesion and morale

Two more things to note here: “cohesion,” the ability for military formations to stay in formation even when they’re moving and fighting, is critical to this sort of combat. Since each soldier in a formation protects the flanks of the soldiers next to them, if the cohesion of a battle line fails, individual soldiers suddenly become susceptible to flank and rear attacks. Keeping cohesion was a constant challenge when you consider that most ancient formations consisted of thousands of people. Everything, from marching straight ahead, to backing up, to inclining or “wheeling” or something as simple as opening up enough to let the retiring skirmishers through risked the spread of disorder, creating gaps in the line as some soldiers marched more slowly than others, or stumbled, or bumped into the men around them. This disorder could lead to exposure to flank and rear attacks, and sow confusion in the ranks. And it was all complicated by the lack of advanced communications technology such as radio or loudspeakers, and with many of the soldiers wearing helmets that made it hard to hear. Relaying commands that might help control disorder was very difficult. Ancient battles were, at their heart, attempts to control chaos. The legion and the phalanx, like all military formations, were an effort to provide this control, ordering soldiers for mutual defense, to make the best use of their particular equipment, and to instill the heart and discipline necessary to keep it together in the midst of the nightmare of battle.

For both legions and phalanxes, constant drill was the best way to ensure that cohesion was maintained. This is still true in militaries today. In the chaos of a fight, where seconds become critical, this ability to act instantly can be the difference between life and death.

Confusion in the ranks lowered morale, which is the pivotal element in ancient battles. The vast majority of casualties in any ancient battle did not occur during the fighting, but during the rout, when one side’s nerve broke and they abandoned any semblance of cohesion for a full-scale flight, with every man for himself, trying to escape with his life.

Bringing the enemy to this panic point was the primary goal of most ancient generals. Many factors play into morale: training, unit pride and esprit de corps, quality of equipment, physical health, rest and food, the inspiration of leaders and the belief in a just cause. In tight formations and on battlefields where communication was spotty and difficult and with most of the soldiery deeply superstitious, panic was a constant risk. The sight of one unit fleeing might indicate a tiny setback in one limited portion of the battlefield, or it might mean the defeat of the entire army, and it was up to the individual soldier to judge, moment to moment, whether it was worth it to stay in the fight or to look to his own life. Every single battle examined in this book eventually ends when the level of panic overwhelms the discipline of one side, and they finally turn to rout, and the carnage of the pursuit begins.

Even today, the critical importance of standing firm in the face of the enemy is underscored by Article 85 of the Uniform Code of Military Justice, the system of law that governs military members in the United States. Anyone who “… quits his unit, organization, or place of duty with intent to avoid hazardous duty or to shirk important service” may be punished under the article.

The penalty, in time of war, is death.

The Second Attic War: An Opportunity Squandered I

Money is not the sinews of war. . . . That what we are saying is true every history shows in a thousand places, notwithstanding the fact that Pericles advised the Athenians to make war against the Peloponnesus in its entirety, asserting that they could win that war with industry and with the force of wealth. For although the Athenians did well in that war for a time, in the end they lost it; and the counsel and good soldiers of Sparta were worth more than the industry and the wealth of Athens.

NICCOLÒ MACHIAVELLI

DIPLOMACY and dissimulation are almost inseparable. The alliance linking Athens with Argos, Mantineia, and Elis was only nominally defensive. Its real aim was the opposite, and everyone knew it. The four cities were as one in wanting to destroy the foundations of Lacedaemon’s power. With this in mind, they set out to break up Sparta’s Peloponnesian alliance, knowing full well that, in the end, the question could only be settled on the battlefield.

The Olympic Games, scheduled to be held under the presidency of Elis in August 420, provided an occasion for ritually humiliating and provoking the Lacedaemonians. The latter had apparently attacked Fort Phyrcus in Triphylia and dispatched some of their hoplites to Lepreum shortly after the Olympic truce had been proclaimed in Elis. The Eleans seized upon this purported infraction to charge the Spartans with a breach of the truce, which barred attacks on the presiding city in the general period of the Olympic festival; and the tribunal at Olympia, which was under their control, levied a fine in silver of two thousand minae (nineteen-twentieths of a ton)—two minae per hoplite, as the Olympic law prescribed—which was to be divided between Elis and the treasury of Zeus at Olympia.

The Spartans might have objected that Triphylia did not belong to Elis, but they knew better than to suppose that this would be accepted. Instead, they relied on a technicality, protesting that they had dispatched the hoplites before the Elean herald, sent to proclaim the truce, had reached Lacedaemon. The Eleans, in turn, rejected their plea but offered to give up their share of the fine and to pay what was owed the god if the Lacedaemonians would restore Lepreum to them. When the Spartans balked at this, they sought to soften the blow (or, at least, assume a posture of reasonableness) by offering the Lacedaemonians a second option—that they swear before the Hellenes that they would pay the fine at a later time.

When this overture was also rejected, the Eleans barred the Lacedaemonians from the temple of Zeus, the opening sacrifice, and the games. Fearing that the Spartans would resort to force, they posted at Olympia or nearby a guard of their own soldiers supplemented by a thousand Argives, a thousand Mantineians, and some Athenian cavalrymen. Although the Lacedaemonians refrained from violence, they did, with the help of the Boeotians, attempt to make a mockery of the proceedings.

There was a well-known, wealthy, senior Spartiate named Lichas son of Arcesilaus. His father had twice been an Olympic victor in equestrian events; and, as one would expect, Arcesilaus’ son owned a splendid team of horses. These he loaned to the Thebans, who ran them and were proclaimed the victors when this team won the chariot race. Then, however, Lichas stepped forward to claim the victory as his own by crowning his charioteer with a headband—and the umpires gave him a taste of the whip.

It is conceivable, but most unlikely that Lichas was acting on his own. The fact that he was the próxenos of the Argives at Lacedaemon made this gesture and the savage response of the Eleans especially poignant. In effect, Elis and her allies had thrown down the gauntlet. For the time being, we are told, the Spartans did not stir. They appear to have shared the modern French view that revenge is a dish best eaten cold; and, as we shall see, when the moment was propitious, they took up the challenge.

In the meantime, the Eleans and their allies tried to cash in on Lacedaemon’s humiliation by luring Corinth into their alliance—but to no avail. The following winter, the Spartans suffered another setback. The tribes in the neighborhood of Heracleia Trachinia had harried that Lacedaemonian colony from the moment of her foundation. Now, in battle, they inflicted a devastating defeat on her citizens and killed Xenares son of Cnidis, who had been dispatched from Sparta as their commander. In the aftermath, the Boeotians, who did not welcome Sparta’s presence in their near abroad, occupied the town, expelled its governor, Hegesippidas, and sent that Spartiate home in disgrace.

Themistocles Redivivus

Early in the summer of 419, Alcibiades, whom the Athenians had made a general the previous June, did what Themistocles had done fifty years before. He journeyed to the Peloponnesus, taking with him a couple hundred Athenian hoplites and some archers; and, in concert with the Argives and Athens’ other allies, he traveled about, meeting with the men who counted and settling matters at this place and that with an eye to shoring up and expanding the anti-Spartan confederacy. Thucydides singles out only one enterprise for comment, noting that Alcibiades visited Achaea. There he apparently added Patras to the alliance and persuaded her citizens to build Long Walls from the town down to the sea. Nearby, at Achaean Rhium, he also attempted to build a fort but was stymied by the efforts of the Corinthians and the Sicyonians.

Why these two powers were concerned Thucydides does not explain. But it was surely material that Achaean Rhium on the southern shore of the Corinthian Gulf is located directly opposite Antirhium (sometimes called Molycreian Rhium) on that body of water’s northern shore, that the two are situated astride the narrows where the Gulf of Patras to the west gives way to the Gulf of Corinth to the east and only a mile of water separates the two shores, that a coalition with ships stationed both at Patras on the south shore to the west and at Naupactus on the north shore to the east can quite effectively monitor and regulate traffic into and out of the Corinthian Gulf, and that Athens had controlled both shores and had no doubt used this to advantage against Corinth and Sicyon in the 450s. The prospect that suffering inflicted on one in the recent past will be inflicted once again concentrates the mind wonderfully.

Later that same summer—almost certainly in August—the Argives, with moral support from Alcibiades, launched an attack on Epidaurus. The pretext was religious; the purpose, political. The temple of Apollo Pythaeus was situated at Asine on the coast in territory seized by Argos from the local Dryopian population centuries before. By way of this conquest, the Argives had come to preside over the associated amphictyony, which they had made a vehicle for asserting their hegemony within the Argolid, the Argolic Acte, and beyond. On this occasion, the Epidaurians were accused of not having sent a victim for sacrifice that they owed—perhaps as a thank offering for the pasture land where their livestock grazed. In demanding that they meet the obligation to Apollo Pythaeus that they had long before incurred, the Argives were doing to the Epidaurus what the Eleans had done to Lepreum: they were demanding from a onetime client a symbolic acknowledgment of her subordinate status.

In seeking to conquer this city, Alcibiades and the Argives were also reportedly focused on forcing Corinth, which was situated to the north of Epidaurus across some rugged terrain, to “remain at rest”; and they were no less eager to secure for the Athenians a shorter route than the voyage around Scyllaeum into the Argolic Gulf by which to deliver to Argos aid at short notice from their stronghold on Aegina.

This maneuver was no doubt also intended as a provocation. Epidaurus was an ally of Lacedaemon. If the Spartans failed to come to her defense, and the Argives and Athenians seized and sacked the city, it would occasion a further, precipitous decline in Lacedaemon’s prestige; and. though intangible, this might well give the Corinthians, the Sicyonians, and the Tegeans pause and induce them to reconsider their allegiance.

The Spartans understood the consequences, and they knew that they had to intervene. So, in response to Argos’ invasion of the Epidauria, Agis son of Archidamus was dispatched with the city’s full levy up the Eurotas valley to a place called Leuctron (in all likelihood, modern Leondari) in the Alpheios basin on their frontier opposite Mount Lycaeum. From there, one could head almost anywhere—north-northwest toward Elis, for example, or north-northeast toward Mantineia or even Argos.

On this occasion, Lacedaemon’s Eurypontid king was no doubt acting at the behest of the ephors or of the “little assembly” constituted by the ephors meeting in consultation with the gerousía. For next to no one knew where this army was going, and all of the Spartiates would have been fully informed had the campaign been discussed and voted on at a meeting of the assembly.

At the frontier, it was the Spartan practice to conduct sacrifices called dıabatImages rıa and to examine the victim’s entrails before crossing from the domain of one set of heroes and gods to that of another. When the signs were unfavorable, it was the duty of the seer to inform his commander and of the commander to heed his warning. Of course, there were times when circumstances required audacity and others when they argued for caution; and, in one fashion or another, this may have influenced calculations. Moreover, some commanders and some seers were habitually more risk-averse than others.

As we have already had occasion to note, Agis appears consistently to have erred on the side of caution. The same can be said for his seer. Time and again, after Archidamus died, his elder son and heir marched out, examined the signs in consultation with his seer, and then turned back—which is what he did on this occasion, perhaps in part because the nine-day festival of the Carneia, when the Spartans would be barred from campaigning, would before long be upon them. When Agis once again reached Sparta, word was sent to Lacedaemon’s allies to be ready to march after the month of Carneios, which was among Dorian peoples a time sacred to Apollo.

Three days before that month began, the Argives, as a gesture of contempt, initiated their invasion of the territory of Epidaurus and began ravaging it. To make this right with the gods—given that they, too, were Dorians—the Argives resorted to intercalation, cynically adding a day to the month previous to Carneios for every day they spent on campaign. The allies summoned by the Epidaurians were more scrupulous. Either they begged off, citing the month, or they marched to the Epidaurian frontier and did not cross.

While the ravaging was going on, the Athenians summoned the Peloponnesian cities to a peace conference at Mantineia—almost certainly once again with an eye to persuading the Corinthians to join the four-power alliance and deny Sparta’s Boeotian allies access to the Peloponnesus. Accordingly, when a Corinthian named Euphamidas son of Aristonymos—an experienced general who had subscribed to the truce of 423 on his city’s behalf and who may have favored subscribing to the peace of 421—objected that it made no sense to be discussing peace while the Argives were in arms against the Epidaurians and their allies, Athens and her allies were quick to oblige. Delegates from the two sides were dispatched to separate the two armies, and the Argives actually withdrew from the Epidauria.

Of course, when the conference failed, the Argives conducted a second invasion, and, when the festival of the Carneia and the month of Carneios were over, the Spartans marched out again—this time to Caryae on the main thoroughfare leading via Tegea and Mantineia in eastern Arcadia to the Argolid. On this occasion, however, as on the previous occasion, the sacrifices conducted at the frontier were judged unfavorable, and so the Lacedaemonians returned home. Shortly thereafter, Alcibiades arrived in the Argolid with a thousand Athenian hoplites; and, upon learning that there was not going to be a showdown with the Spartans, he and they returned home. By the time that the campaigning season had come to an end, we are told, the Argives had ravaged a third of the Epidauria.

This fencing match continued in the winter. Early on, the Lacedaemonians managed to slip into Epidaurus by sea a garrison of three hundred under the command of the Hegesippidas expelled from Heracleia Trachinia shortly before. When the Argives upbraided the Athenians for having failed to prevent this and pressed them to reintroduce the Messenians and the runaway helots into Coryphasium, Alcibiades persuaded his compatriots to inscribe at the bottom of the pillar recording Athens’ treaty of peace with Lacedaemon that the Spartans had not kept their oaths. Then, he convinced them to conduct the fugitive helots back from Cranae to the fort at Coryphasium. In the Epidauria, toward the end of winter, there were raids and ambushes; and the Argives even approached the walls of Epidaurus with scaling ladders, hoping to find the city unguarded—but, thanks in part no doubt to the presence of Hegesippidas and his garrison, they did so to no avail.

The Spartans cannot have been entirely happy with Agis and his seer. They could not afford to allow the Athenians and the Argives a free hand indefinitely, and they knew it. As Thucydides observes, by the summer of 418, they were acutely aware “that the Epidaurians, their allies, were suffering hardship and that the remaining powers in the Peloponnesus had either revolted or were ill-disposed, and they thought that if they did not with expedition get out in front of events, seize the occasion, and arrest the evil the situation would grow even worse.” They did not, however, march out at the beginning of the summer, as they had in the past when they mounted invasions of Attica. Instead, they waited until midsummer—perhaps because it took some time to rally their allies; perhaps, as some scholars suggest, because they wanted to give their allies abroad and their helots at home (many of whom they intended to take with them) time to bring in the harvest; and perhaps, as others insist, because they thought that the Athenian generals slated to take office in late June were apt to be less enthusiastic regarding Alcibiades’ Peloponnesian venture than was the young man himself.

This last possibility needs emphasis. In March, perhaps because they were not themselves as excited about the enterprise as its progenitor, the Athenians had not reelected Alcibiades as general. The new board included Laches and Nicias, the chief promoters of the peace negotiated with Lacedaemon, as well as Nicias’ colleagues in various campaigns Nicostratus and Autocles, not to mention Callistratus and Demosthenes, who had both sworn on Athens’ behalf to observe the terms of peace and those of the alliance. The Spartans had good reason to suppose that Alcibiades intended their undoing. They knew that, if they lost the great battle which they intended to stage, it might well mean the total collapse of their alliance, the liberation of the Messenians, an erosion of the economic foundations of their regime, and an end to their way of life—and it was their hope that Athens would not make a wholehearted effort to effect their defeat.

Lacedaemon Stirs

The Spartans could hardly turn to the Agiad king Pleistoanax son of Pausanias for military leadership in such circumstances. He had been timid and, many believed, treasonous in dealing with the Athenians in 446; and he had championed the Peace of Nicias three years before. As such, he was suspect. So, it was his Eurypontid colleague Agis on whom they once again relied when they dispatched their full levy against Argos, accompanied by the helots in great numbers for the first time since the battle of Plataea. Along the way, he picked up the Tegeans and Lacedaemon’s other Arcadian supporters.

Those of Sparta’s allies which were situated either along the north coast of the Peloponnesus or beyond the Isthmus of Corinth gathered at Phlius—a city, fiercely loyal to Lacedaemon, situated near Nemea not all that far from the Argolid, which most of them could easily reach via Sicyon without having to cross any territory controlled by Argos or her allies. Notable among those who gathered at this mustering place were the Corinthians with two thousand hoplites (three thousand fewer than they had been able to send to the battlefield at Plataea), the Phliasians with every last man they could spare (at least one thousand heavy infantrymen), and, most important of all, the Boeotians—who dispatched five thousand hoplites, a like number of light-armed troops, and five hundred horsemen with as many light-armed infantrymen trained to operate in cooperation with their cavalry. There were also Sicyonians and Achaeans from Pellene to their west (who could march directly to Phlius), and there were Megarians and Epidaurians as well. It is also conceivable that there were contingents from Troezen, Hermione, and perhaps even Halieis in the Argolic Acte—though, since they pass unmentioned and were located on the coast of the Saronic Gulf where, as they knew only too well, the Athenians could do them great harm, they probably thought discretion the better part of valor.

All in all, with perhaps fifteen hundred Tegeate hoplites (the number sent to Plataea), another fifteen hundred Arcadians, as many as three thousand from Sicyon, and perhaps another fourteen hundred from Pellene, Megara, and Epidaurus in attendance, as well as something like fourteen hundred forty Spartiate hoplites and two thousand one hundred sixty períoıkoı, the army of the Lacedaemonians and their allies is apt to have approached, if not exceeded, nineteen thousand hoplites with five hundred cavalrymen and an untold number of light-armed troops.

“This was the most splendid Hellenic army ever yet assembled by far.” So says Thucydides, who appears to have been an onlooker. “It should have been seen while it was still intact at Nemea—the Lacedaemonians there with their whole army, the Arcadians, Boeotians, Corinthians, Sicyonians, Pellenians, Phliasians, and Megarians—all of these the picked troops from each city, seeming a match in battle for the alliance of the Argives and for another such added to it.”

The forces available within the Peloponnesus for the defense of the Argolid were far fewer. There were three thousand Elean hoplites. This much Thucydides tells us, but he does not indicate how many hoplites the Argives and Mantineians with their subject allies could field. Given what we know of Argos’ capacity at an earlier time when the city was also flourishing and at a later time, seven thousand is a reasonable estimate of what they and their allies could turn out at home to defend their own territory, and we are told by Diodorus Siculus that the Mantineians (with, we must suspect, their subject allies) supplied just under three thousand hoplites. Without Athenian help, these three powers cannot have been in a position to field a great many more than thirteen thousand hoplites, if even that.

The Second Attic War: An Opportunity Squandered II

The Argives knew about the Spartan preparations well in advance of their departure from Lacedaemon, and they were not behindhand in alerting their allies. There is, in fact, evidence strongly suggesting that the Athenians had set aside funds for the expedition before their political year ended in late June. Nonetheless, when the crisis came, they were unconscionably slow in responding to the Argive plea for help—which had not been the case the previous year when Agis marched to Caryae and Alcibiades quickly brought reinforcements to Argos. Moreover, when the Athenians finally arrived, they were insufficiently numerous. The thousand hoplites and the three hundred cavalrymen that Athens eventually sent would surely have been most welcome had they arrived in time. But, in the circumstances, a great many more were needed. For Athens, as for her Peloponnesian allies, the stakes in this struggle were extremely high.

There had not been a genuine opportunity to eliminate Lacedaemon as a great power in half a century; and Alcibiades resembled the Themistocles of that earlier period in more ways than one. Like his illustrious predecessor, he knew where Sparta’s center of gravity lay, and he had an admirably clear understanding of the strategic situation. Moreover, like that great statesman, he did not fully command the support of his compatriots. In one respect, Alcibiades was better positioned than Themistocles had been. He had not been ostracized, and he was not operating from exile. He could appear in the assembly and make his case, and there he wielded considerable influence. But there were others—Nicias was their leader—who, in 418, commanded at least as much respect as he did (and quite possibly more), and they lacked the keen strategic insight that Pericles’ ward possessed.

Alcibiades’ compatriots were halfhearted. It would have taken a man graced with his late guardian’s stature and eloquence to instill in them the requisite resolve. They were prepared to pursue victory on the cheap, which is apparently the prospect that the son of Cleinias dangled before them. But, as he seems to have recognized, thanks to the plague and the losses they had suffered at Delium and Amphipolis, they were too exhausted and too weary of war to take the considerable risks they should have embraced.

That the tardiness of the Athenians was a function of the political conflict at Athens is certain. We know that there was fierce opposition to the expedition. In his play The Demes, the comic poet Eupolis tells us as much. The omens were bad, he reports. The generals were decidedly reluctant; and, to get them on the move, an unnamed proponent of the venture had to stand up in the assembly and threaten the expedition’s prospective commanders with the stocks.

The Argives, Eleans, and Mantineians were undaunted, and their commanders were not without intelligence. Their heavy infantrymen outnumbered by more than two to one the sixty-six hundred or so hoplites making their way north toward Phlius from Lacedaemon, Tegea, and elsewhere in Arcadia. As they recognized, their best chance for victory was to intercept this force en route. Agis understood the danger. It would have been foolhardy take the normal route from Caryae up the valley shared by Tegea and Mantineia. The latter city, which was situated astride that well-beaten path, stood squarely in the way. It was a virtual certainty that the Argives and their allies would take the Lacedaemonians’ appearance in the territory of Mantineia as an opportunity to force a decision before the great army could coalesce.

Mindful of all of this, Agis opted to bypass Mantineia and led the Lacedaemonians, Tegeans, and associated Arcadians through the plain in south-central Arcadia that would eventually be dominated by Megalopolis; then north-northeast through Zoitia and Trikolonoi on a roundabout route that ran initially to the west of Mount Maenalum; and finally, we have reason to believe, north and east from there to Arcadian Orchomenos—which had remained resolutely loyal to her hegemon. On Agis’ path, directly north of Trikolonoi and across from Mantineia, lay the Arcadian city of Methudrion. There, the Argives, Mantineians, and Eleans gathered from the eastern and the western parts of the Peloponnesus; and there, no doubt to his great dismay, Agis found them waiting. For a brief moment, it looked as if there might be a battle. Each army occupied a hill, and the rival captains eyed one another warily. But Agis’ defect was not audacity, and he was anything but tactically obtuse. So at night—while the Argives, Eleans, and Mantineians were asleep—he broke camp and, thanks to negligence on the part of the Argive commanders in charge of the coalition forces, he managed to slip off toward Orchomenos and the rendezvous at Phlius further east-northeast.

In the aftermath, the Argives and their allies pulled back to Argos. Then, after a brief pause, they marched up through the Trestus pass along the main thoroughfare that stretched from that city to Corinth. Then, at Cleonae, they turned off onto the ancillary road that led to Nemea and Phlius in the west. It was their presumption that this was the path that the army concentrated at Phlius would have to take, and they may have supposed that they could stage a battle in a location near Nemea where the numerical superiority of the enemy and the cavalry they possessed would afford them no great advantage.

This was a bold and foolish maneuver. The proper station for an army intent on defending the Argolid was near the Heraeum at the point where an invader would emerge in column and in some disarray from the narrow Trestus pass. An army placed there could fall back on the city of Argos if the enemy chose one or more of the roads or paths less well-traveled—which is what a majority of those in Agis’ army, in fact, did

Instead of proceeding as expected, the son of Archidamus divided his army into three and had the separate contingents make their way to the Argive plain by different routes at distinct intervals. With the Arcadians and the Epidaurians, he and his fellow Lacedaemonians appear to have broken camp late at night, taking what Thucydides describes as a difficult path, which was no doubt seldom used. The Corinthians, Pellenians, and Phliasians then set off at first light, some two hours before dawn, following another, similar route. Last to leave were the Megarians, Sicyonians, and Boeotians with roughly eighty-five hundred hoplites, who took the main highway through Nemea past Cleonae and down through the Trestus pass, which was the only road suited to the Boeotians’ five hundred mounts and to the carts bearing the army’s provisions.

Agis’ aim in staging this elaborate maneuver was to lure the Argives, Eleans, and Mantineians into a position in which they were surrounded and he could take maximum advantage of his army’s great numerical superiority and of the cavalry in its possession. Thanks to the fact that the coalition army commanded by the Argives had marched up the Nemea road, this stratagem worked brilliantly.

As was planned, the Lacedaemonians, Arcadians, and Epidaurians—roughly seven thousand in number—were the first to enter the Argive plain—almost certainly from the west by way of a path that ran west or east of the main summit of Mount Keloussa. At dawn, when the Argive commanders learned that at least part of the enemy army had taken the route in question, they reversed course and hotfooted it back down the Nemea road—aware that there was a hostile army situated between them and the city of Argos.

Shortly after reentering the Argolid, the Argives, Mantineians, and Eleans encountered—to the northwest of the forces under Agis’ direct command—the Corinthians, Pellenians, and the Phliasians, whose heavy infantry contingent cannot have numbered many more than thirty-five hundred. After a brief skirmish in which they killed a few Phliasians and lost a few men in encounters with the Corinthians, they brushed them aside; and, seeing that their territory was being plundered, they made a beeline for the Lacedaemonian, Arcadian, and Epidaurian marauders, whose heavy infantry theirs also greatly outnumbered. It was their local numerical superiority and the apparent opportunity with which they had been presented that made the greatest impression on the Argive rank and file.

The coalition’s commanders no doubt knew better. They cannot have been unaware that something on the order of nine thousand Boeotian, Megarian, and Sicyonian hoplites and cavalrymen were unaccounted for. They knew that rough terrain rendered it difficult, if not impossible, to conduct cavalry by any route other than the main road running down from Phlius via Nemea, Cleonae, and the Trestus pass; and they must have anticipated being assaulted by twelve thousand hoplites and five hundred cavalrymen from their rear.

It is, of course, conceivable that the Argives, Mantineians, and Eleans could have routed the Lacedaemonians, Arcadians, and Epidaurians and then wheeled about to take on the Corinthians, Pellenians, and Phliasians to the northwest and the Boeotians, Megarians, and Sicyonians advancing from the northeast; and, since the odds are good that the latter contingent was not yet visible on the horizon, this may well be what the rank and file had in mind. But, in the best of circumstances, the achievement of successive victories of this sort would have been an astonishing feat, calling for iron discipline, astonishing endurance, and dispatch on a scale rarely achieved in classical antiquity except by the Lacedaemonians; and it would also have required time—time that, Thucydides intimates (if I and most scholars read him correctly), the Argives and their allies simply did not have. If the discernment ordinarily attributed to the Athenian historian is sound, as it seems to be, the soldiers in the Argive coalition were caught between two fires, and they were apt to be badly burned. Moreover, the Lacedaemonians, Arcadians, and Epidaurians were situated between the coalition army and walls of Argos. So, there was nowhere to flee.

This entire scenario is testimony to the tactical genius of Agis son of Archidamus. He had maneuvered the Argives, Mantineians, and Eleans into a position where, if he wished, he could see to their slaughter. Not since the battle of Sepeia had the Argives been in such terrible straits, and the situation of the Mantineians and Eleans was no less dire.

The Eurypontid king was not, however, as astute politically as he was militarily. Just as the armies were about to do battle, when the Argive commanders asked for a parley, he agreed to a pause. This was on his part quite sensible. It afforded the Boeotians, Megarians, and Sicyonians more time in which to close in. But then, when an Argive named Alciphron, who was the próxenos of the Lacedaemonians at Argos, and another named Thrasylus, who was one of the five Argive generals, announced to him that the Argives were prepared to settle by “judgments consistent with equity and common practice” any complaints that the Spartans had to make and that they were ready and willing to pour libations and agree to a treaty providing for a lasting peace, he did what Pleistoanax had done vis-à-vis the Athenians in 446. He embraced their initiative. He informed “one of those in authority who was accompanying the army” (almost certainly one of the two ephors customarily assigned to keep an eye on a king sent out on such a command). But he did not consult his fellow Lacedaemonians—and he granted to the Argives a four-month truce in which to fulfill their promises. Then, without offering any explanation to Lacedaemon’s allies, he led his tripartite army off to Nemea.

The Spartans and their allies followed their commander’s lead dutifully, as the law required. But, in their conversations with one another, they reacted as they had when they marched out of Attica in 446. They showered blame on their king—in this case “thinking,” as Thucydides puts it, “that, with the enemy hemmed in on all sides by cavalry and footsoldiers, they had happened upon a fair prospect for converging and striking a great blow and that they were now departing, having done nothing worthy of the preparations that had been made.” It is in this context, as if to drive the point home, that Athenian historian describes in wonder the splendid quality of the army that camped at Nemea that night. In these circumstances, as in those that pertained in 446, it is hard not to sympathize with the Spartan and allied rank and file.

Thucydides does not tell us what the son of Archidamus intended on this occasion. His reticence could be an indication that he had no idea. There is, however, a great deal that he does not tell us because he supposed divulging his thinking pedagogically counterproductive. He does not, for example, explain why Alcibiades encouraged the citizens of Patras to build Long Walls down to the sea, and he does not spell out why the Athenian attempted to construct a fort at Rhium. His aim throughout was to give his readers the tools with which to sort out such questions for themselves. It is an error to suppose that, if Thucydides was of a certain opinion or even knew something to be true, he would have told us as much. His silence is more often than not an invitation to us to puzzle over the information that he did, indeed, provide.

Agis’ willingness to strike a deal with Alciphron and Thrasylus could be a function of caution. He does seem to have been risk-averse, and he may have had the good sense to recognize that, even in the most favorable of circumstances, going into battle makes one a hostage to fortune. Not one precious Spartiate and not one citizen from a community allied with Lacedaemon lost his life on that particular day because of the son of Archidamus.

There may, however, have been more to Agis’ calculations than an aversion to danger. He may have hoped for an outcome more favorable to the long-term interests of his city than a mere massacre of the Argives, Mantineians, and Eleans. Alciphron the próxenos and Thrasylus, who was acting on behalf of his fellow generals, promised that there would be a settlement of disputed questions and a lasting peace. Such an arrangement would be a great boon for Lacedaemon. It would mean that Argos would remain quiet for an extended period; that Mantineia and Elis, once deprived of Argive support, could be forced to fall in line; and that Athens would lose her foothold within the Peloponnesus. It would restore within that great peninsula what must have seemed like the natural order, which had existed as long as this Eurypontid king could remember.

Alciphron may, moreover, have been Agis’ xénos. If not, he was almost certainly the guest-friend of Lichas, the Argive próxenos at Sparta, or of another leading Lacedaemonian. Otherwise, he would never have been awarded the proxenía he held. He was a friend to Sparta, and it was through such friends abroad—those whom they termed “serviceable men [epıtImages deıoı]”—that the Lacedaemonians provided guidance to the cities within the Peloponnesus and maintained their alliance.

Thrasylus may have been cut from similar cloth. He may have been well-known at Lacedaemon as a sympathizer. He, too, is apt to have been the xénos of an important Spartan. That such Laconizers existed at Argos and that some of them held high office is, as we have seen, an established fact; and Thucydides, who is nothing if not coy in his account of the flurry of diplomacy that took place in the wake of the Peace of Nicias, provides us with numerous clues suggesting their presence and importance. In the early summer of 421, the Corinthians knew to whom, among those in authority at Argos, they should in private turn. Later that summer, Cleobulus and Xenares knew whom at Argos they should alert to the willingness of the Boeotian envoys to discuss the forging of an alliance.

The Argive generals who sanctioned this overture were surely aware that Alciphron would be welcome in Agis’ entourage, and they may well have been of the same opinion regarding their colleague Thrasylus. After all, in 420, there had been influential Argives who had lent a hand in trying to stampede their compatriots into the alliance with Lacedaemon that Eustrophus and Aeson, the two Argives then judged “most acceptable to the Spartans,” had been dispatched to Laconia to negotiate. Within three or four months, there would be a briefly successful attempt, concerted between the Lacedaemonians and certain Argives, to install an oligarchy in Argos. The movement that produced a coup d’état in the fall of 418 did not come from out of the blue—and, as will become clear in the next few pages, in August 418 the royal son of Archidamus was prepared to protect such men.