The Sicels c. 1000 BC – 450 BC

A 6th century BC Greek hoplite. Some of the hoplites in Gelon’s army would have looked very similar, clad in bronze armour.  Artwork by © Angel Garcia Pinto.

The map shows the most important archaeological sites of Sicily related to pre-hellenic cultures, as well as the possible extent of the cultures of Sicani, Siceli and Elymians. Note that the borders shown are merely approximate, and resemble the situation of VI century BC, when there already were foreign colonies present on the island. Historical names where known, modern Italian names in brackets.

Settlers of Sicily

The Sicels crossed over from Italy to the island … which thus came to be called Sicily. After they crossed over they continued to enjoy the richest parts of the country for nearly three hundred years before the coming of the first Greeks.

Thucydides, History of the Peloponnesian War 6.28

We are accustomed to colonization being a violent, brutal affair which ends with the colonists exploiting and often massacring the people whose lands they have forcibly seized. Yet what if the colonists were cautiously welcomed, and were not too oppressive, and they and the original inhabitants eventually become one and the same? While there were inevitably a number of violent episodes, when it came to colonization it seems the Sicels were remarkably accommodating, both as an occupying and occupied people.

Whatever their origins, the people who have given their name to the island of Sicily did not begin there. It seems reasonably certain that ancient writers are correct in their claim that the first peoples who occupied Sicily were a tribe called the Sicani. Then came the chaos of the Bronze Age collapse.

The Egyptians report that one of the seafaring confederations they repulsed included a tribe called the Shekelesh. According to later tradition, the Shekelesh rebounded from Egypt to the western Mediterranean and settled in southern Italy. Here they gradually adopted Italic ways and the local language before crossing into Sicily at some time around 1000 BC. Indeed, the ancient historian Diodorus Siculus says exactly that (5.6): ‘And many generations later, the people of the Sicels crossed over en masse from Italy into Sicily and made their home there.’ As the ‘Siculus’ part of his name informs us, Diodorus was a local from the formerly Sicel town of Agyrium in the centre of the island, and his report probably draws on the same tradition.

As ever with such migrations, the people into whose lands the Sicels migrated were not particularly happy to see them. But there was not a lot the original Sicani could do about it, since as one of the Sea Peoples (if this was indeed the case) the Sicels will have been proficient with Iron Age weaponry.

Nevertheless, modern archaeological studies suggest that the Sicel invasion was far from an apocalyptic event. Throughout antiquity, Sicily was relatively thinly inhabited, especially in the interior where the Sicels chose to settle. While it was not quite the case that land was available for all, archaeological evidence indicates that by and large, once the Sicani had been bumped from prime sites they settled in the second-best locations, mostly in the west of the island.

Sicels and Greeks

By the time civilization got back on its feet in the Archaic era of around 800 BC, the Sicels were recognized as the dominant people of the island. The poet Homer gives wandering Odysseus a Sicel servant woman who already lived at his home farm before the Greek hero set off for the Trojan War, which suggests there was interconnection between early Iron Age Greece and Sicily.

The Greeks of the Classical era imagined that Sicily in former times had been a wild, distant and romantic place – but definitely part of the Greek world. It was in Sicily, for example, that Hades, the grim god of the Underworld, was believed to have abducted Persephone to be his bride. Other nations have also claimed the location, but Lake Pergusa near the formerly Sicel town of Enna has a good claim, not least because its shores are abundant in flowers, which Persephone was said to be gathering when she was kidnapped.

Another people with whom the Sicels came into contact – often violently – were the Phoenicians, thanks to Carthaginian settlement in the west of the island. Sadly, today we know few precise details about Carthaginian-Sicel interactions, because the Sicels did not leave a written record at this period, and modern historians are grateful for any scraps of information from the Carthaginians about themselves, let alone about other peoples.

Much of what we know of the Sicels comes from the Greeks, since while it seems clear that the Sicels originally spoke an Italic language, by the time they came to set things down in writing they mostly used Greek. The Greeks settled by and large on the eastern side of the island, and rather like the Sicels before them, they had the military technology to ensure that no one could seriously object to their arrival. Then again, as with the Sicel settlement, it seems that no one particularly minded them being there in any case. The Sicels, as already noted, were largely settled in the island’s interior, and as Cicero later observed, the Sicel city of Enna was about as far from the Mediterranean in every direction as it is possible to be on the island. Therefore the arrival of strangers on a coast the Sicels generally had little use for occasioned them as much curiosity as distress. And the Greeks came bearing gifts.

The colonization of Syracuse may be considered something of a template for Greek settlement in Sicily. First the Greeks occupied the (probably uninhabited) island of Ortygia just off the coast. Then through trade, bribery and diplomacy they developed friendly relations with the locals (probably Sicani in this case, but the same pattern applied to colonies with a native Sicel population). Eventually the Greeks acquired land on the mainland and the colony of Ortygia became Syracuse.

The Sicels were a tribal-based people who practised rudimentary agriculture but were mainly pastoral. The Sicilian interior met their needs well, and it turned out to be rather useful to have Greeks to trade with on the coast. Where the Greeks and Sicels did have a common interest in the same fields, ownership changed hands as much through sale and marriage arrangements as through more violent forms of acquisition.

Indeed, stories of how sophisticated Greeks managed to trick the rustic Sicels out of land actually show that the Greeks preferred not to simply take those lands by brute force. One might suspect that for every Sicel tricked out of his landholding, there was an undocumented Greek who came out worse in a trade deal. (Modern anthropology has shown that native peoples were in reality shrewd bargainers when dealing with more sophisticated cultures – it was simply that they often assigned higher values to certain goods.)

As the Classical era went on, Sicel society rapidly developed. What had once been small towns expanded as the Sicels discovered the joys of urbanism, and at least three settlements grew to sufficient size for the Greeks to refer to them as ‘cities’. At the same time there was a marked decline in relationships between the Sicels and Dorian Greek cities led by Syracuse.

Conflict and assimilation

According to Diodorus Siculus, a man called Ducetius took advantage of anti-Syracusan sentiment and united the Sicels under his leadership. (They had formerly been led by individual chiefs of different tribes.) For a while the Sicel confederation dominated the island’s interior. Ducetius was able to retake lands the Greeks had seized from the Sicels, but the rapid growth of his power alarmed the Syracusans. They allied with the nearby Greek city of Agrigentum and in 450 BC their combined power destroyed the Sicel army in battle. Ducetius demonstrated the remarkable lack of hatred between Greeks and Sicels by riding into Syracuse and offering his surrender. The Syracusans reciprocated in kind by exiling him to Corinth with sufficient funds to maintain himself comfortably. It is also worth noting that Ducetius founded at least one city and repopulated others with a mixed Greek-Sicel population.

Sadly, the good relations did not last. Ducetius broke his parole and returned to Sicily. He died soon after his reappearance, but that was itself enough to provoke a Syracusan assault and the conquest of much former Sicel territory. Nevertheless, the real conquest was not physical but cultural. Increasingly the Sicels were indistinguishable from their Greek neighbours in language, culture and (thanks to intermarriage) ethnicity.

By the time the historian Diodorus Siculus was writing in the first century BC, he was able to deliver this pronouncement on the disappearance of his ancestors (5.6.5):

Once sufficiently large numbers of Greeks came to Sicily, those already living there adopted that language. Eventually they grew into the Greek way of life. Finally they lost not only their barbarian tongue but also themselves.

Future Echoes

There appears to be a clear etymological link between the Shekelesh Sea People, the Sikeloi of Italy and the Sicels who emigrated to Sicily. The Sicels certainly gave the island the name it has today. It is interesting that it has endured, even though Sicily has seen so many peoples come and go in subsequent ages that geneticists attempting to untangle the island’s complex ethnic heritage have had difficulty isolating ‘original’ Sicel genes.

That the Sicels originated in Italy seems to be generally agreed. According to Thucydides, one of their kings was named Italus, and it was he who gave his name to Italy. The people who drove the Sicels from Italy were a tribe called the Aborigines. They were in central Italy before the Romans, so ‘aboriginal’ has come to mean any people who first occupied a land

The Persian Onslaught I


‘As for you wretched Syria, I weep for you with great pity. To you too will come a fearful attack by bow-shooting men, which you never expected to befall you. The fugitive of Rome will come, brandishing a great spear, crossing the Euphrates with many thousands, who will put you to the torch and maltreat everything….Having despoiled you and stripped you of everything, he will leave you roofless and uninhabited. Suddenly anyone who sees you will weep for you.’

The Thirteenth Sibylline Oracle (c. AD 253)

In 253 Roman forces had marched against one another in order to defend their choice of emperor. Valerian and his son, Gallienus, had been the victors in that relatively bloodless showdown, north of Rome. Bloodless it may have been, but Valerian had marched into Italy at the head of an army that he had been ordered to raise for a campaign on the upper Danube. Valerian had been given that job by emperor Trebonianus Gallus and once news of Gallus’ assassination reached Valerian, he had decided to move the Danube legions into Italy – he planned to take the throne away from the usurper, Aemilianus.

This crisis of succession and of legitimacy in 253 obscured the real danger. Not only had the Danube frontier been weakened by the removal of its troops to support Valerian’s claim on Rome, but in the east the ruin and destruction wrought by the energetic Shapur, ruler of Sassanid Persia, still smouldered.

Shapur Takes the East

The wicked Shapur of whom I have spoken succeeded him (Ardashir) and lived on for thirty-one years more, doing great harm to the Romans

Agathias 4.24

Valerian was not a young man, he was already fifty-eight when he took the throne and his son, Gallienus, was forty. In a way this provided the new emperor with a nominated successor and a loyal co-emperor from day one of his reign. This situation might have been able to provide the stability that the empire desperately needed, but Fate would cruelly intervene. Leaving his son to organise the defence of the west, the emperor set out immediately for Syria in order to restore the situation there. He would never return.

Antioch was the second city of the Roman Empire and the shock of its fall and destruction resonates in the writings from the time. Although Roman forces had been soundly beaten at the battle of Barbalissos in 252 and much of Syria then occupied and plundered by Persian raiding forces, it seems that its jewel, Antioch, fell to King Shapur a year later. The city was offered to the Persians by the traitor, Myriades. This man had been a wealthy senator who had been expelled from the city for embezzling funds that were destined for the chariot races. In revenge Myriades offered his services to Shapur and led the troops directly to the gates. The rich fled from Antioch at the approach of the Persians, leaving behind the restless masses who seemed to be quite content with a change of government.

Shapur had ordered a huge battering ram to be fashioned, its head was indeed in the shape of a ram and solidly made of iron. It was massive, and once it had served its purpose was dragged to the city of Carrhae and abandoned. A hundred years later this same ‘antique’ ram would be dragged to the city of Bezabde by the legions in order to dislodge the Persians from that city. The fall of Antioch must have been sudden and unexpected, Eunapius writes how a comic actor on stage within the city suddenly declared to his audience, ‘Am I dreaming or are the Persians here?’ His audience fled in terror as missiles rained down upon them, the houses and temples were plundered, inhabitants killed or taken into captivity and the city set on fire. The treacherous Myriades, history records, was executed by Shapur once the city had been captured.

Valerian mustered his Roman forces and fought the Persian garrisons left behind by Shapur. It must have seemed to the emperor that he was making light work of the Persian occupation and raiding troops, but the King of Kings was holding his elite cavalry forces in reserve further east. An unnamed Roman victory in 257 was even substantial enough to be commemorated on an issue of coins bearing Valerian’s name.

When Valerian discovered that Shapur was besieging Edessa with great difficulty in 260, he launched a military expedition to fight the Persians there. However, the plains around Edessa and Carrhae were much suited to Persian cavalry and in addition the Roman troops were far outnumbered. Not only that but the equites Mauri (the Moorish cavalry) were stricken with the plague. Suffering a terrible defeat in June of that year and forced to retreat behind the walls of Edessa, Valerian had run out of options. Persian inscriptions claim that the Roman force had numbered 70,000 and that a great number were captured and deported to Iran. The emperor decided to attempt negotiation, it was perhaps the only option left to him. Shapur insisted he leave Edessa to talk, accompanied only by a small retinue of advisors and officers. Upon receiving the Roman delegation, the ‘wicked and bloodthirsty’ king captured them all. Valerian, the emperor of Rome, as well as high ranking Roman senators, the praetorian prefect and many others, were all enslaved. No emperor had ever been captured by the enemy before; the news stunned Rome.

Free now to roam at will, Shapur attacked Syrian cities in a renewed military campaign, sacking Seleucia, Iconium, Nicopolis, Tyana and, once again, Antioch. The Persian army even reached Cappadocia. The Roman forces, smashed outside Edessa, were little match for the Persian army. There was some spirited resistance in Cilicia where a Roman general named Ballista rallied Roman stragglers and made attacks on the Persians, now divided into smaller, more mobile raiding parties. He was able to capture the harem of Shapur along with a great deal of booty and his troops were able to wipe out a force of three thousand Persians.

Shapur, realising he had outstayed his welcome, turned his forces east and headed for home. He first had to bribe the fierce citizens of Edessa in order that he might pass unmolested. Odaenathus, king of Palmyra, a wealthy caravan city allied with Rome, could not be bribed – and he harried the retreating Persians along the Euphrates river frontier. Thousands of prisoners were marched east by the Persians, fed on the bare minimum to support life and allowed to drink once a day, being driven to water by their guards like cattle. According to the writer Zonaras, at one point the retreating column reached a gorge impassable to Shapur’s baggage animals. The king ‘ordered the prisoners to be killed and thrown into the gorge so that when its depth was filled up with the bodies of the corpses, his baggage animals might make their way across.’

Of course Valerian was now also a prisoner. Accounts differ about how long he survived; Aurelius Victor claims that he was quickly hacked to death, but others insist the emperor lived out his life in servitude to Shapur. As a common slave, Valerian, a man in his sixties, was humiliated and forced to stoop and allow Shapur to step on his back to mount his horse. Lactantius claims that when Valerian eventually died, the Persian king had his body skinned. The old man’s skin was dyed with vermillion and then stretched upon a wall so that future ambassadors from Rome might look upon poor Valerian evermore as a symbol of Rome’s military vulnerability.

Had Valerian left no heir it is likely that a new round of civil wars would have torn through the empire. However, Valerian had entrusted the western half of the empire to Gallienus, his capable son and co-emperor. But if Romans had thought that the future could not get any worse, they were sorely mistaken.

The Era of Pretenders

Now let us pass on to the twenty pretenders, who arose in the time of Gallienus because of contempt for the evil prince.

Historian Augusta, Life of Gallienus 21

While Valerian spent his final years of freedom in the east waging war against the Persian army, his son Gallienus was no less busy on the northern frontier. German tribes beyond the Danube river were beaten back during the years 254 to 256, and once that frontier was secure, the focus shifted to the defence of the Rhine. Attacks came thick and fast. Although Gallienus claimed the title of ‘Germanicus Maximus’ for himself five times and issued coins celebrating his victories beyond the Rhine, he was soon back on the Danube (258). Yet, despite his furious fire-fighting Gallienus could not be everywhere at once and further west the Juthungi broke through the military frontier (limes).

From the North Sea, the river Rhine snaked southwards to provide a natural barrier against the German tribes to the east. Meanwhile, Italy, Pannonia and Thrace received the protection of the river Danube which ran from southern Germany eastwards to the Black Sea. North of this frontier, German and Sarmatian tribes squared off against the local Roman garrisons. However, these ‘wet’ frontiers, formidable natural moats that took great effort to breach, did not meet. This vulnerable gap at the headwaters of the Danube and the Rhine was kept free of German invaders with only a man-made defensive line. The modern-day German state of Baden-Württemberg represents the vulnerable provincial settlement known as the Agri Decumates that lay behind this frontier.

For the previous twenty years attacks had been frequent and punishing on this defensive weak point. At Castra Vetoniana (modern Pfünz) excavations seem to suggest that the soldiers of cohors I Breucorum had been so surprised in one attack that gate guards had no time to grab their shields. Repeated Germanic attacks eroded the military installations and their garrisons to a point that made the 259 invasion possible. The Juthungi descended on Italy and marched toward Rome where a hastily assembled army turned them back – they were defeated near Mediolanum (Milan) by the forces of Gallienus. The weakened sector of the frontier had exposed Italy to the ferocity of the northern tribes. Rome, a city without fortifications, had not felt this vulnerable since the first century BC.

Unsurprisingly, the Agri Decumates was hastily abandoned – that frontier was now considered untenable. Yet attacks continued relentlessly. The Alemanni invaded Italy in 260 while other raiders ravaged as far as Gaul and Spain. The northern borders were crumbling, as was confidence in the emperor Gallienus. Beleaguered provincials who were threatened with continued barbarian attacks, and some of the emperor’s own generals, had lost faith in Gallienus’ ability to defend the empire.

The Usurpers

The invasion of northern Italy and the abandonment of the Agri Decumates region, coupled with the Roman defeat at Edessa and capture of Valerian, triggered a wave of usurpers all eager to prove that they could do better. Although the Historia Augusta talks of twenty pretenders, there were in fact fewer serious contenders. First was Ingenuus, governor of Pannonia and Moesia, with plenty of legions at his command. He was defeated in battle at Mursa, northwest of modern Belgrade, by a Roman army led by one of Gallienus’ top generals called Aureolus. This seething frontier produced another discontented general, Regalianus, who was proclaimed emperor by the remnants of Ingenuus’ broken army in late 260. He was murdered by his own troops.

Syria had more right than most to be discontented and late in 260 the legions there threw their support behind Macrianus and Ballista, the two generals who had pulled together some kind of military response to the terrible Persian onslaught following Valerian’s capture. Macrianus was hailed as emperor by the eastern troops he commanded but being of advanced age and infirm, he passed that title to his two sons, known together as the Macriani. The two brothers were named Fulvius Iunius Macrianus and Fulvius Iunius Quietus. Proclaimed joint emperors and enjoying the support of the war-weary eastern provinces they planned to take control of the empire. Macrianus (the older of the two brothers) marched against Gallienus with an army numbering 45,000. Again the general Aureolus counter-attacked and in 261 his forces encircled the army of the rebels in Illyricum (the region of former Yugoslavia). The trapped legionaries suddenly switched sides and ended the rebellion.

Quietus, the younger of the Macriani, had remained in Syria with Ballista and both men had taken refuge within the city of Edessa. Here, Gallienus was able to call on Odaenathus, an ally in the east on whom he could depend. As the ruler of wealthy Palmyra, untouched by Persian aggression, Odaenathus commanded the premier fighting force on the eastern frontier. Following the earlier Palmyrene attacks on the Persian columns and the capture of Shapur’s harem, Gallienus had rewarded Odaenathus with the honorary title of dux Romanorum (‘regional commander’). Edessa was soon besieged by the Palmyrene prince who executed Quietus and Ballista once the city had fallen. He did this on behalf of Gallienus.

The eastern uprising had been quashed but plenty of bitterness and resentment circulated throughout the empire. Mussius Aemilianus was governor of Egypt and had been part of the Macriani revolt. Now he claimed the throne but like the Macriani, he was defeated in battle and executed early in 262.

Even Aureolus, the emperor’s trusted general, rebelled in 262 but he was forced to back down and make peace with his master. Unusually, the emperor let him retain not only his life but also his position and power. Perhaps he needed the military talent of Aureolus too much to have him executed.

Fragments of Empire

Upon the news of Valerian’s capture and enslavement, the governor of Lower Germany, Marcus Cassianus Latinus Postumus, rose in revolt against Gallienus. Postumus had ably dealt with a Germanic attack and on the strength of this victory, had his troops proclaim him emperor. In the autumn of 260 he marched to Colonia Agrippina (modern Cologne) where the young son of Gallienus, Salonius, had been installed as co-emperor with his father. Postumus refused to give up the siege of the city unless Salonius was handed over to him. Once the folk of Colonia Agrippina agreed to the demands, both the boy and his guardian were executed.

Unlike past usurpers who had usually gathered together a military force and then made a dash to Rome, Postumus seemed content to remain beyond the Alps. Using the Rhine legions, he was able to clear the western provinces of barbarians and in doing so he earned the loyalty of the British, Spanish and Gallic provinces. The governors and legionary commanders decided to recognise Postumus as the legitimate emperor over those territories. This was not a re-run of power-sharing between Clodius Albinus and Septimius Severus in 193, Postumus had, in a stroke, created an alternative Roman Empire, one based primarily upon the defence of the western provinces that was ruled from Augusta Treverorum (modern Trier). Postumus made it clear that he was satisfied with the western provinces and did not spoil for a fight, this was just as well, for Gallienus was struggling to cope with a series of usurpers from 260 to 262.

It was not until the spring of 265 that Gallienus felt confident enough to challenge Postumus and marched a Roman army deep into Gaul. An early victory led to the bottling up of Postumus within a city (possibly Lugdunum, modern Lyons) followed by a siege. While the emperor inspected the siege works constructed by his troops, a defender shot Gallienus in the back with an arrow, seriously wounding him. He was evacuated back to Rome in order to recover and although Aureolus was left in charge of the conflict he seems to have made some kind of deal with Postumus, lifting the siege and letting the usurper escape. The Gallic Empire was thereafter left unmolested by Gallienus who continued to face the inevitable distractions – the renewed invasions that would continue to batter what was left of the Roman Empire.

This break-away Gallic Empire survived as an independent state for the next fourteen years; it was made up of the three provinces of Gaul (Aquitania, Narbonensis and Lugdunensis), the two German provinces (Upper and Lower), the three Spanish provinces (Tarraconensis, Lusitania and Baetica), Raetia and the two British provinces (Superior and Inferior). Raetia was taken back by Gallienus in 263 and the Spanish provinces, along with eastern Narbonensis (that area east of the Rhône) were all recovered in 269. However, a measure of the Gallic Empire’s success can be gleaned not just from its relative longevity but also from the fact that all of its four emperors refused to march on Rome and they instead focused on protecting the territory from incursions beyond the Rhine. The third century ‘disease’, that of imperial succession by military assassination plagued the successors of Postumus just as it did Rome; all but the last of the Gallic emperors were murdered.

In a sense, the Gallic Empire depicts the Roman Empire cracking and disintegrating under pressure, and as events in Syria would soon show, it was not just the west that wanted to go its own way. The mass eastern support of the Macriani in 260 indicated a similar provincial sentiment – that of a desire for firm local control in the face of a foreign onslaught. In 270 the east would officially break away from Rome which effectively created three separate imperial powers.

In 266, as the emperor Gallienus recovered from his arrow wound, Odaenathus, the ruler of Palmyra, spearheaded his own military campaign against Persia. Driving deep into Mesopotamia he was able to win a stunning victory at Ctesiphon, the Persian capital, an achievement matched only by three Roman emperors before him. These men had the weight of Rome’s military behind them; Odaenathus had his elite Palmyrene cavalry backed by the military forces of the eastern provinces. It was clear that this potentate was running the show in Syria and Mesopotamia.

From the viewpoint of Gallienus, looking outwards from Rome, the Gallic Empire in the west was dealing effectively with German raids. In the east, the Roman proxy Odeanathus was thrashing the Persians on their own territory. Meanwhile, the Danube frontier was quiet. Did this mean peace for Rome at last?

The Persian Onslaught II

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

The Goths Were Coming …

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

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

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

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

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

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

Dura Europus

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

Isidore of Charax, Parthian Stations

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

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

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

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

Pompeii of the Syrian Desert

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

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

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

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

Who Defended Dura Europus?

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

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

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

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

The Siege

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

Ammianus Marcellinus, at the siege of Amida, 19.5

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Julian Apostate

Julian had survived because he was so young (only six when the previous Emperor Constantine died), and he appeared unambitious and insignificant; he professed Christianity, but he had fallen in love with the culture of Athens and was a pagan at heart. In 355, as Constantius himself was preparing for war against Sapor, Julian was sent to Gaul as caesar to fight the Franks. (Julian’s chief of staff was picked personally by Constantius.) Julian quickly assumed command and won some victories, but the raids continued. The Alamanni-after a succession of successful raids and skirmishes, after driving even Julian behind walls, after seeing Roman cooperation break down in a futile attempt to coordinate a converging movement on the Alamanni-decided on a major campaign in Gaul under their king, Chnodomarius [Chnodomar]. Julian was ready to fight, and the two sides met at the battle of Strasbourg [Argentoratum] (A. D. 357).

The Roman army had to march about twenty miles. It set out at dawn, the foot soldiers in the middle, their flanks guarded by cavalry squadrons including cataphracts and archers (“a formidable kind of armed men”). After eight hours marching, they reached the vicinity of the enemy camp and Julian suggested to the troops that they prepare a fortified camp wherein they could rest, refresh themselves, and prepare to attack the next dawn. The soldiers “gnashed their teeth, clashed their spears on their shields,” and demanded that Julian lead them immediately against the enemy. Julian’s Praetorian prefect also urged him to attack while they had all the Alamanni fixed in one location and reminded him of “the hot tempers of the soldiers which could turn them so easily to riot.” A standard bearer cried out, “Advance, Caesar, luckiest of all men!”

The Romans advanced slowly, and when they came in sight of the Alamanni, they formed up in a close-packed wedge formation, and the Alamanni also formed up in wedges. The Alamanni put all their cavalry opposite the Roman cavalry on the Roman right. As the cataphracts had the advantage over the Alamanni cavalry because they wore mail armor and their hands were free while the Alamanni had to hold reins and shield in one hand and spear in the other, the Alamanni reinforced their cavalry with skirmishers and light infantry. The Alamanni had dug trenches on their right from which to spring ambushes, but the Romans expected trickery and halted on the edge of the trenches and waited to see what would happen.

Julian, protected by a bodyguard of 200 men and identified by a dragon banner, rode back and forth calling upon his men to restore Rome’s majesty; the Alamanni called upon their leaders to dismount and share the fortunes of the common soldier. King Chnodomarius [Chnodomar], a gigantic, muscular man, was the first to dismount, and the other princes followed his example. Then the trumpets blared, the two sides hurled their spears at each other, and the Alamanni charged. “The Alamanni, their long hair streaming, their eyes blazing with madness, made a terrifying sight.”

The two sides, densely packed, pushed each other back and forth, and clouds of dust obscured the field. Then the Roman cavalry commander was wounded and the Roman cavalry withdrew; Julian rushed to the spot to stop the retreat, but the cavalry and Julian were out of the battle long enough for the Alamanni to force their way into the Roman formation. There they were checked momentarily by Julian’s German troops before they broke through to the center of the army, where the Roman master of troops commanded a special unit. The two sides hacked at each other, the Romans sheltered behind their phalanx of shields, the Alamanni gone beserk, trying to break the formation and shouting war cries above the shrieks and moans of the wounded and dying. The Romans stabbed at the unprotected sides of the Alamanni, until they broke the impetus of their charge and forced them to turn and run.

The Romans pursued them to the banks of the Rhine and struck them until their swords were dulled, their spears broken, and then they stood on the banks of the river and threw javelins at them. The Alamanni who had preserved their shields in their flight used them as miniature rafts to take them to the other side. Chnodomarius surrendered and was sent to Rome where he died of old age. The Romans estimated that the Alamanni had numbered about 35,000 and that they themselves had been outnumbered three to one. They acknowledged 247 dead.

Julian’s Germans were so valuable to him that he learned their language. One of the commanders in his subsequent campaign against the Persians was Vadomarius, who had been king of an Alamannic canton. As king, Vadomarius led raids into Roman territory (in 352-353), his own territory had been raided in retaliation, and he had concluded a peace treaty with the Romans. Under the cover of the peace treaty, even as he accepted the local Roman commander’s invitations to banquets, he continued to raid Roman territory. Roman patience ran out, Vadomarius was arrested while he was attending a banquet, and he was sent to Spain. (His son succeeded him as king.) During Julian’s campaign in the east, Vadomarius was the “leader of the Phoenicians,” and under Julian’s successor, Valens, he conducted the siege of Nicaea and successfully commanded troops against the Persian King Sapor II in 371. This German king was at home in the Roman world, at least as that world was represented by the army, and he was a trusted commander, although his loyalty was pledged to the emperor and the army, not to the abstract entity Rome.

In 359, the Persians captured the important Roman frontier post of Amida, and the following year two other Roman outposts fell. Constantius was obliged to return to Antioch and prepare for war. Since 357, and Constantius’ march on the Danube, Julian had effectively been the sole representative of imperial authority in the western provinces, a responsibility to which he adapted himself with remarkable élan. In an impressive series of campaigns, Julian had driven the marauding barbarians from northern Gaul, and shown the strength of Roman arms beyond the Rhine. At the same time, he had reorganized the collection of taxes in Gaul to the benefit of both fisc and subjects alike. Julian was proving himself to be not only a brave general, but an efficient and equitable administrator.

Julian’s success in Gaul appears to have caused Constantius some consternation. Accordingly, in early 360, the emperor sent orders that a considerable portion of Julian’s army be moved eastwards for the purposes of the Persian war. To Julian this must have seemed like a deliberate attempt to undermine his position. Julian’s army was soon to head east in numbers that Constantius may not initially have expected. For, in February 360, Julian’s troops proclaimed him Augustus. Constantius refused to countenance any diminution of his own authority, and in 361 Julian and his army began the long march east to settle the question of the imperial title by force of arms. Constantius in turn withdrew from Antioch, ‘eager as always’, Ammianus records, ‘to meet the challenge of civil war head on’. As he and his army advanced through Cilicia, however, Constantius fell victim to a fever that claimed his life. The late emperor’s advisers agreed to acknowledge Julian as supreme lord of the Roman world, and two officers set off to invite him ‘to come without delay and take possession of the East, which was ready to obey him’. Julian hastened to Constantinople.

Julian’s reign was to last little more than eighteen months. Yet, to contemporaries, as to modern scholars, his period of rule was to be of lasting fascination. On the death of his uncle he chose to reveal publicly what had long been known to a circle of close intimates, namely that, during his studies first in Nicomedia in 351, and subsequently at Ephesus, he had cast aside the God of Constantine, and instead embraced the mysteries of Neoplatonic paganism. Once in Constantinople, Julian declared religious toleration, removed the privileges enjoyed by the Christian Church and clergy, and ordered a revival of worship at the pagan temples of the cities of the empire.

Julian sought to present this declaration as restoring to the Roman world the publicly sanctioned worship of the gods who had granted Rome her past success. Yet it is important to realize the extent to which, even to many non-Christians, Julian’s paganism seemed a strange and possibly alienating amalgam. Julian had been raised a Christian: his paganism had something of the quality of a foreign tongue, one eagerly acquired, but alien to the ear of a native speaker. Julian was a devotee of a highly intellectualized form of paganism that took a metaphorical approach to the myths and legends of Graeco-Roman tradition. Whilst the cults of individual deities were to be nurtured, the ultimate purpose of these cults was to lead one to a clearer appreciation of the single divine principle embodied in what Julian described as ‘the creator … the common father and king of all peoples’.

This intellectualism, infused with a monotheistic tendency that had long been evident within late paganism, might well have appealed to members of the empire’s educated elite. Yet Julian’s high-mindedness went hand-in-hand with a taste for the spectacular, the sacrificial, and the magical, a taste which many members of this self-same elite would have regarded as rather vulgar. Thus Ammianus remarks that Julian was ‘superstitious rather than genuinely observant of the rites of religion, and he sacrificed innumerable victims regardless of expense’. It was not just the accession of Christian emperors that had led provincial pagans to allow the civic temples and their associated cults to fall into desuetude. It was also, to some extent, the result of a lack of interest in overtly public and highly costly displays of pagan religiosity on the part of well-born pagans themselves.

If Julian’s religious inclinations ran counter to much contemporary feeling, so too did certain of his secular aims. In essence, Julian’s policies reveal a determination to roll back the Diocletianic and Constantinian revolution. The court was reduced both in scale and splendour. The emperor was to revert to the role of chief magistrate, rather than overlord, of the Roman world. The central government was gradually to be retrenched, and the administration of the empire was once more to devolve upon the self-governance of the city councils. Such conservative ambitions may have seemed praiseworthy to some. But the chance to escape burdensome civic duties, to advance oneself through the offices of central government, to experience and partake in the extravagance of the court, had opened up opportunities to members of the new imperial aristocracy which they would have been loath to lose.

It is thus perhaps no surprise that, as Julian headed off from Constantinople to Antioch in 362, he found himself distinctly underwhelmed by the enthusiasm his secular and religious policies were eliciting amongst the cities through which he passed. This was to culminate with Julian’s spectacular falling out with the citizenry of Antioch. There, Julian’s lavish sacrifices to mark the feast of Adonis at a time when the city was suffering from a food shortage, combined with the emperor’s own botched attempts to relieve the city’s hunger, annoyed Christian and pagan alike. This left the emperor vulnerable to a public lampooning that made a deep impression on him. Upon his return to the region, Julian declared, he would make Tarsus, not Antioch, his home.

Julian’s journey east in 362, however, suggests that he was aware of the difficulties he faced in realizing his ambitions. For his aim appears to have been to do what Roman emperors had long done to unite the Greek-speaking cities of the East behind them: to launch a campaign against the Hellenic world’s traditional enemy—the empire of Persia. In 363, with an army of 65,000 men, Julian crossed into Persian territory, and, in a series of spectacular victories recorded for us by the first-hand testimony of Ammianus Marcellinus, came within reach of the capital of the shahs at Ctesiphon. Within sight of the city’s defenders, Julian presided over a set of athletic celebrations and games. A brilliant victory seemed within his grasp, one that would demonstrate the superiority of his religion. However, it soon dawned on Julian and his advisers that the city was, to all intents and purposes, impregnable. As the Christian Gregory of Nazianzus declared, ‘from this point on, like sand slipping from beneath his feet, or a great storm bursting upon a ship, things began to go black for him’.

It was at this point that Julian made his fatal error. He decided that, rather than retreating the way he had come, he would burn the ships that his army had used to traverse the Euphrates and its tributaries, and instead strike further into Persian territory. As it did so, Julian’s increasingly demoralized army found itself deprived of supplies and subjected to raids and ambushes. During one such attack, on 26 June, the emperor himself was struck down by a spear that passed through his ribs. Julian was carried to his tent where he died the same evening, professing satisfaction, according to Ammianus, that he had at least suffered a virtuous death in battle rather than ‘through secret conspiracy’. Others were less sure: it was rumoured that the emperor had in fact been struck down by one of his own Christian troops.

Pyrrhus in Sicily

Two new warlike prospects now invited Pyrrhus. Both offered him the opportunity-which he always coveted – of championing Greek civilization. One opportunity lay in Greece itself, where an eruption of Celtic hordes from the north had produced turmoil; the other lay in Sicily, where the Greek cities, lacking a military successor to Agathocles, were again menaced by the Carthaginians. Pyrrhus chose the Sicilian venture. Certainly, it looked less like a retreat from his present unsatisfactory situation. To the disgust of the Tarentines, after unsuccessful peace overtures to Rome, he suspended operations in Italy, placed a garrison in Tarentum, and sailed for Sicily with 30,000 infantry and 25,000 cavalry. His consequent success was quite unequivocal; he swept the Carthaginians before him, soon reaching Eryx, their strongly fortified city at the western extremity of the island.

Eryx was taken by storm. A trumpet blast gave the signal for a missile barrage which dispersed the defenders on the walls. Scaling ladders were swiftly brought up and Pyrrhus was himself the first man to mount the battlements, dealing death to left and right of him and emerging at last unscathed. This was a victory after his own heart and he celebrated it, as he had vowed to do, with athletic events and displays in honour of Heracles.

The Carthaginians having been thus subdued and already inclined to negotiate terms, Pyrrhus found himself in the role of a keeper of the peace. A community of Italian brigands, originally hired from Campania as mercenary troops by Agathocles, had been in the habit of extorting payments from Sicilian cities. These lawless and violent men, who styled themselves Mamertini (“The War God’s Men” in their dialect), were to play a crucial part in later history; but for the time being Pyrrhus managed to suppress them, defeating them in pitched battle and capturing many of their strongholds. Even here, however, his achievement was incomplete. The Mamertines survived to embarrass the Mediterranean world at a later date.

As for the Carthaginians, Pyrrhus refused them the peace they asked and required that they should totally evacuate Sicily. But by this time he had himself begun to quarrel with the Greek Sicilian cities, some of whom were ready to support the Carthaginians, while others rallied surviving Mamertines to their aid. News that the people of Tarentum and other Greeks of the Italian mainland were hard pressed by the Romans in his absence now gave him the opportunity of extricating himself from yet another deadlock, and he took it.

In Sicily, Pyrrhus’ reputation, both as a triumphant war-leader and as a liberal ruler, had ultimately suffered. He had failed to capture the remaining stronghold of Lilybaeum, which the Carthaginians had established on the westernmost point of Sicily after the destruction of Motya at the beginning of the previous century. Planning the invasion of Africa, in imitation of Agathocles, he had made himself unpopular by what amounted to pressgang recruitment of rowing crews. But at the same time it must be admitted that the Greeks were never an easy population to deal with. Every successful champion of their liberties was sooner or later bound to be suspected as a potential tyrant.

It is related that Pyrrhus left Sicily conscious that it would become a battlefield for hostilities between Rome and Carthage. Perhaps the remark attributed to him on this occasion was the invention of historians who enjoyed the advantage of hindsight. But Sicily had always been a cockpit and it was easy to see here an area in which any widely expanding power must be challenged.

Rome and Carthage as Allies

At the time of Pyrrhus’ operations in Italy and Sicily (281-275 BC), Rome and Carthage were in fact associated by a series 6f treaties which dated from very early times. The precise number of these treaties is a subject on which neither ancient historians nor modern scholars agree. Polybius, the Greek historian of Rome’s wars against Carthage, paraphrases these treaties, the earliest of which was preserved at Rome in an archaic form of Latin. According to Polybius, the treaty forbade the Romans to sail south of the “Fair Cape” (just north of Carthage) unless driven there by weather or warfare. A Roman finding himself accidentally in this area was not allowed to carry anything away with him save what was necessary for repairs to his ship or sacrifice to the gods, and he was obliged to leave the country within five days. Any business contracts in the scheduled zones were to be concluded in the presence of a herald or notary. Such contracts could be enforced by law in Libya and Sardinia. In Sicily, a Roman was to enjoy equal rights with others. Carthage, for her part, was bound to maintain friendly relations with Rome’s Latin satellites, and this applied even to other Latin cities, though rather equivocally: if the Carthaginians captured such a city, they were obliged to hand it over to Rome without sacking it. The Carthaginians, moreover, were forbidden to build any fort in Latin territory, and if Carthaginians by chance entered the territory under arms, they were not to pass the night there.

At a later date, says Polybius, another treaty was made. Areas in which the Romans might neither trade nor practise piracy were more specifically defined. If the Carthaginians captured any Latin city, they could retain valuables and captives but must surrender the city itself to the Romans. There are detailed provisions relating to the taking of slaves, and again a reference to Sardinia and Libya as sensitive Carthaginian zones. The Romans were not to trade or found settlements in either of these territories.

The last of the three treaties mentioned by Polybius was occasioned by Pyrrhus’ invasion and may confidently be assigned to 279 BC. It provided that, should either the Romans or Carthaginians subsequently reach terms with Pyrrhus, these should be subject to a reservation: namely, that if either of the two parties became a victim of the king’s aggression, they might both collaborate within the resulting theatre of war. In any such case, the Carthaginians would provide ships for transport and hostilities, but each government would pay its own troops. The Carthaginians would assist in war at sea but could not be obliged to land any forces. The representatives of the contracting parties swore solemnly to this agreement, each by his own gods, and the terms of the treaty, inscribed on bronze tablets at Rome, were preserved at the temple of Jupiter. Polybius expressly denies the assertion of the pro-Carthaginian Greek historian, Philinus. that another treaty existed according to which the Romans and Carthaginians were respectively forbidden to enter Sicily and Italy.

It is not always easy to distinguish between the commercial and strategic activities of the ancient world. A major sector of commerce was the slave trade and the capture of slaves was necessarily accompanied by violence and warlike action. Nor was piracy regarded as an infringement of any international code, although one might be obliged to refrain from it locally under treaty pledges. However, the first two of the above-mentioned treaties seem to have been mainly commercial in scope; the third, military and naval. The underlying principle seems to have been that Carthage should offer naval aid in return for Roman military support.

It is indeed on record that, hoping to hinder Pyrrhus’ intervention in Sicily, a Carthaginian admiral arrived with 120 ships to dissuade Rome from making peace with the king. The Romans were not at first willing to commit themselves. The Carthaginians then sailed off to negotiate with Pyrrhus. These negotiations also led to nothing. but when the Carthaginian mission returned again to Rome, the Romans were more amenable. The Carthaginian negotiators had made their point. The 120 ships could be thrown into either scale; Rome continued its war against Pyrrhus’ allies in Italy. In fact, the Carthaginian commander, on his way back to Sicily, The Carthaginian diplomatic initiative against Pyrrhus certainly seems to have borne fruit. Moreover, the Carthaginian navy attacked the king’s forces as they returned from Sicily and destroyed a substantial number of his ships. About 1,000 Mamertines had also crossed into Italy to afflict Pyrrhus with guerrilla warfare. Their crossing had no doubt been much facilitated by the Carthaginian fleet.

The Late Mycenaean Period, the Dark Age and Homer, 1300–900 bc Part I

The period covered, was a period of turmoil and change. The Greek palaces grew in economic wealth, and many of them built or improved impressive fortifications, showing that battle was very much a common occurrence. Greek influence was extended to south-west Asia Minor and to the island of Cyprus. Then, shortly after 1200, the great catastrophe happened. The palaces were destroyed and only some were rebuilt. At the same time the Hittite civilisation was overrun, and Egypt had to battle with invading ‘Sea Peoples’, some of whom may have been Mycenaean Greeks. This calamity was originally thought to be some great natural disaster like an earthquake, but it is unlikely that one such event could have caused such an impact. The main reason seems to have been population movement, probably caused by overpopulation after a long period of relative peace and prosperity. A good parallel is the Viking period in north-west Europe.

Overpopulation at home caused the Vikings to leave in search of plunder to support a way of life, followed by settlement in England, Normandy and elsewhere. Was Mycenaean Greece overcrowded? The increase in prosperity might suggest that, but there is also evidence from linguistics that Greeks from further north, the Dorians, came south and caused the collapse of the Mycenaean palaces and the emigration of some Mycenaeans, forming part of the ‘Sea Peoples’. Whole books have been written on this subject (Drews 1993, passim; see also Sandars 1964 and Snodgrass 2000, p. 311 ff.) and there is not the space to go through all the arguments here. Suffice it to say that the evidence for Greece points to warfare causing the collapse of the civilisation, and that it was warfare among Greeks. The palace system did not disappear overnight. Pylos was destroyed in c. 1200 and never rebuilt, but Mycenae and Thebes were rebuilt and struggled on for perhaps another 100 years or more. Athens, a smaller settlement, seems to have remained unaffected. Many other smaller settlements were simply abandoned, and there is evidence for Mycenaean population movements to Achaea in the Peloponnese and to Cyprus, where there was a final flourishing of Mycenaean civilisation until about 1050.

After this, Greece entered a Dark Age, by which we mean that there is little evidence for what was going on, although it is certain that overseas trade and contacts diminished dramatically, as did the population. To help enlighten us, we have the Iliad and the Odyssey of Homer, epic works written down in the eighth century, but preserved in an oral tradition for generations before. These refer to the Trojan War, traditionally fought in the 1180s, and preserve some memory of those calamitous times and their aftermath. The wanderings of Odysseus in the Odyssey perhaps preserve some memory of the population movements and strife in the homeland, and the Iliad perhaps tells us of Mycenaean expansion eastwards. It also tells us much about how Greek soldiers were thought to have fought at the end of the Mycenaean period, written by Greeks just a few hundred years later. Mixed up with this is the combat of Homer’s own day, and sorting out true Mycenaean memories is difficult.

The form of combat with chariots and infantry appears to have remained virtually the same in this period, except for the demise of the chariot following the final collapse of the palace civilisation in the eleventh century (Crouwel, in Laffineur 1999, p. 456). The last certain use of the chariot is an example excavated at Lefkandi in Euboea, dating to c. 1000 (Popham, Touloupa and Sackett 1982), and by then it may have been a status symbol rather than a weapon of war. At around the same time there is the first certain evidence for cavalry, in the form of a picture on a vase of a mounted warrior with a spear (Greenhalgh 1973, pp. 46–7).

Evidence from vases and frescos seems to show an increase in the use of infantry over chariots, which may have been caused primarily by an increase in the size of armies in general. Chariotry was expensive, and larger armies would be made up of more infantry, especially after the catastrophe when the palace system gradually broke down. Let us now look at the equipment and its use in detail.


As far as helmets go, the boars’ tusk helmet still seemed to be the main form of head protection. It features on the Pylos frescos of c. 1200, and three plates from a helmet were found in Chamber Tomb B at Kallithea in Achaea, dating from c. 1150 (Yalouris 1960, p. 44 and plate 31; Papadopoulos in Laffineur 1999, p. 269). It is perhaps safe to assume that, with the end of the palaces and their elite warriors/hunters, the boars’ tusk helmet ceased being manufactured. It does of course survive in literary form in the Iliad, as mentioned above, but as a rare helmet whose method of construction has to be explained to an unfamiliar audience. The Pylos Linear B tablets of 1200 continue to mention helmets with four ‘strips’ or ‘things hung on’ (as well as cheek pieces), which we interpreted in the earlier period as scale armour guards for the back of the neck on bronze helmets.

Other evidence for bronze helmets continues to be slight. The Mycenaean Warrior Vase of c. 1150 shows lines of warriors marching off to battle. The helmets are black with white dots, which has been interpreted as bronze studs on a leather helmet (Snodgrass 1967, p. 31) or an embossed bronze helmet (Connolly 1977, p. 22), which latter was certainly in use further north in the Balkans and Central Europe at this time. Indeed, the helmets are remarkably similar to the Pass Lueg crested helmet from Austria (Borchhardt 1972, plates 39.1, 39.2). Some other warriors on the vase have a low crest on the helmet, which has been described as a hedgehog crest, probably made of stiff horsehair.

The main surviving line of warriors have high crests with white dots, which seems to favour the idea of an embossed bronze helmet. These also appear to have a flowing horsehair crest behind, and horns on the front.

We have seen that earlier boars’ tusk helmets could have horns, and there is no reason for these not to have been fitted to bronze helmets. Indeed, Homer mentions such helmets in the Iliad (XXII, 314). Mention has been made of Central European helmets of embossed bronze which appeared possibly as early as the twelfth century, and it is likely that they received the idea of bronze plate armour from the Greeks. The fact that helmets were more common in Central Europe, in this and later periods, is because of the abundance of the raw materials there and the greater likelihood of being buried with such items, or of such items being offered in votive deposits (Snodgrass 1971, passim). Greece, by contrast, has little copper, and most would have had to be imported from Anatolia and Cyprus – hence the Mycenaeans’ interest in the island.

The embossing of bronze does seem to be a form of decoration clearly derived from that of reinforcing leather with bronze studs, and so it would seem that leather helmets reinforced with bronze were certainly in use at this time, as well as completely bronze helmets. The evidence of the Mycenaean Warrior Vase shows that foot soldiers during this period were being armoured to a greater extent with body armour and greaves (see below), and there was perhaps more of a demand for bronze than could be met by the supply. The only find of a Late Mycenaean bronze helmet has occurred just recently at Portes-Kephalovryson in Achaea, where many Mycenaeans went after the initial catastrophe of c. 1200. Here in Chamber Tomb 2 a helmet of a ‘tiara’-like construction was found. It consists of strips of embossed bronze in layers or rows built up to form a helmet, and must have been over a leather cap. It is in fact more of a bronze-reinforced leather helmet than an actual bronze one. It has not yet been reconstructed or fully published (Papadopoulos, in Laffineur 1999, p. 271). Similar embossed bronze strips occurred in Chamber Tomb A at Kallithea and were interpreted as part of a cuirass (Yalouris 1960, p. 43 and plate 29). They too could be part of a ‘tiara’ helmet, especially as there was no sign of a helmet in this otherwise very rich grave. Further bronze studs, but no studded strips, have also been found in a tomb at Lakkithra on the island of Kephallenia (Marinatos 1932, plate 16). To confuse the situation, Chamber Tomb 3 at Krini, also in Achaea, had bronze studs and strips which were clearly the decoration for a scabbard (Papadopoulos, in Laffineur 1999, p. 271), so the Kallithea and Lakkithra finds could now be interpreted as scabbards! We will need to wait for the ‘tiara’ helmet from Portes-Kephalovryson to be fully published before we can properly reassess these other finds.

The Mycenaean civilisation based on the palaces seems to have petered out by 1100, and from just after then, perhaps from 1050, we have a helmet find from Tiryns (Bulletin de Correspondance Hellénique, 82, 1958, p. 707; Mitteilungen des Deutschen Archaeologischen Instituts, 78, 1963, pp. 17–24). Although often described as a bronze helmet, this too is really a bronze-reinforced leather helmet. It consists of four plates. There are two triangular side plates which have a decorative border of triangular holes punched right through the plate, presumably the means by which it was attached to its leather or fabric cap; and two long, curved, rectangular plates running along the central ridge from the forehead to the back of the neck. These would leave a join running down the middle, where we might imagine a short horsehair crest was fitted like the ‘hedgehog’ crests on the Mycenaean Warrior Vase. The border of each side plate is also decorated with rows of small, embossed bronze studs, and the centre of each side has a large, embossed bronze stud surrounded by circles of smaller studs. Such decoration is very similar to that found on greaves of the period. The cheek pieces are bronze plates of a scalloped shape, very similar to the earlier helmets of Dendra and Knossos, and were not attached to the helmet plates but separately attached to the lining, just like the Knossos helmet. They have a row of holes all around the edge for attachment to the lining and a central embossed stud and circles matching the helmet plates.

For the next 200 years there is no evidence for helmets in Greece, almost certainly due to a great shortage of bronze following the loss of contacts with the outside world. Bronze or bronze-reinforced helmets may have continued in use, but were simply never buried or lost for archaeologists to find, because the bronze was too precious. However, the evidence we do have, for the period 1025 to 950 roughly, shows that many artefacts which were previously made in bronze, like pins and fibulae, were now made in iron, which was just coming into use. When Greek contacts overseas began again towards the end of the tenth century, these pins and fibulae were again made in bronze (Snodgrass 1971, p. 42). If there was not enough bronze in Greece for such small items, it seems even less likely that there was sufficient to make helmets, and warriors must have resorted to caps made of leather or other perishable materials.

The evidence of Homer adds a little to our knowledge of helmets, apart from the evidence already quoted for the boars’ tusk helmet. Most importantly, the other helmets used in the Iliad are invariably made of bronze or reinforced with bronze (Lorimer 1950, p. 238). An occasional epithet is ‘with bronze cheek pieces’, reminding us of the Dendra boars’ tusk helmet, where only the cheek pieces were of bronze. ‘Bronze helmets’ reminds us of the late fifteenth-century Knossos helmet, whereas ‘bronze-reinforced helmets’ is closer to the Tiryns helmet, and perhaps those shown on the Mycenaean Warrior Vase. There is no detailed description to show us the construction of the helmet, but there is some information on decoration. Horsehair crests are frequently mentioned and must have been of an upright, stiff form rather than just hanging naturally loose, because they are said to nod downwards (Iliad III, 336–7). Achilles’ helmet also has additional golden crests at its sides (Iliad XIX, 382–3). Some helmets are described as four-horned, tetraphalos, and others with four plates, tetraphaleros; Lorimer (1950, p. 241) probably rightly asserts that there may be some confusion between these two words. The Tiryns helmet is constructed of four main plates, so Homer may be remembering a reality there, but there is also evidence for horned helmets from early seals of boars’ tusk helmets, through to the Mycenaean Warrior Vase. Those helmets appear to have just two horns, and Homer also uses the term amphiphalos for this sort of helmet. A problem with this interpretation of phalos, meaning horn, is that it is sometimes described as ‘shining’, which is more suggestive of metal (Iliad XVI, 216). Another passage suggests that the horn is supporting a horsehair crest (Iliad XIII, 614), which also suggests a metal projection. Perhaps the word could mean either; or perhaps we have a mistake here, with phaleros meaning a bronze plate, like the central plates on the Tiryns helmet which would have supported a crest. A final word, which Homer uses in connection with the four-horned helmets, is aulopis. This word is unknown but is related to aulos, meaning a socket, and presumably means that the four horns or crest supports on these helmets were tube-like, which is easily understandable if crests were to be fitted into them. While some of these descriptions can be related to late eighth-century helmets of Homer’s own day, the horns, and certainly the description of a boars’ tusk helmet, seem to be connected only to Mycenaean helmets. With the shortage of bronze in the Dark Age, Mycenaean helmets – or at least their memory – may have been passed down the generations; or old pieces of armour may have been discovered in Mycenaean tombs.


When we turn to body armour we again have to rely on artistic depictions, supplemented by finds from Central Europe and the evidence from Homer. A short cuirass seems now to have been the order of the day, replacing the much heavier Dendra-style armour, and was being worn by infantry as well as chariot warriors. It was suggested that the warrior who wore the Dendra-style armour found at Thebes may have discarded the subsidiary plates to be left with a short bronze cuirass. Unfortunately there is no Greek bronze cuirass of that date to support this theory, although some vase paintings of around 1200 suggest metal cuirasses rather than the leather corslets they are usually described as. Three examples at least seem to be shown by Vermeule and Karageorghis in their book on vase paintings (1982, figs XI.31, XI.57, XI.64.1). One has the nipples marked out especially and there is a high neck guard, which suggests that this piece of equipment lasted longer than the other Dendra attachments (Greenhalgh 1980, passim).

A bronze neck guard implies a bronze cuirass, and the continued use of the neck guard is also shown by the Pylos Linear B tablets. Another picture of a warrior on a vase fragment (Vermeule and Karageorghis 1982, fig. XI.57), lacks a neck guard, but his cuirass is clearly marked with curved lines representing the pectoral muscles, as well as having the nipples marked. These fragments all date from c. 1200.

Two gold breastplates of this period have also been found at Enkomi in Cyprus with anatomical details; they remind us of the Shaft Grave finds and the possibilities of bronze versions for use in combat (Fasti Archaeologici 4, 1949, no. 1817). As far as I am aware, these finds have not been published further, so I cannot ascertain whether they were full breastplates or just small pectorals.

There are no surviving Greek bronze breastplates from the Late Mycenaean period, but there are two fragmentary examples from Slovakia that are worth looking at, as they are of the same period and were probably derived from Mycenaean examples (Snodgrass 1971, p. 37). The Urnfield peoples of Central Europe certainly had contact and trade with the Mycenaean Greeks and may have been introduced to plate armour in the course of that trade. Lack of evidence prevents us from deciding whether the Central Europeans adapted their simple cuirass from the inner thorax of the Dendra panoply, or whether the Greeks first adopted this short cuirass which was then in turn passed to Europe; this latter reason seems more likely.

The Čaka cuirass from East Slovakia was the first to prove that Urnfield cuirasses really did stretch back to the late Bronze Age, as it was firmly dated to the end of Bronze D or the beginning of Hallstatt A, that is c. 1200 (Snodgrass 1967, p. 42). It consists of only four or five fragments, and the overall shape is indeterminable. It is possible that it was short, ending at the waist, and perhaps with a separate belt below that, rather than a proper bell shape with a flange over the hips as developed later. It has a decorated border of embossed studs and zigzag lines, and over each breast it has a star-shaped design, cut out of a separate piece of bronze and riveted on. It was thought that this was a unique piece of armour, possibly an import from Greece, but further finds now argue convincingly for local manufacture; there was after all a plentiful supply of copper. Most importantly, two large fragments of another cuirass were found at Ducové in Slovakia in a context datable to 1150. Again the overall shape eludes us but, like Čaka, it has a decorated border, this time a double line of small bosses, and star-shaped designs on the breasts. These were executed with a fine punch and, below the design, one of the fragments shows that a repoussé curve was hammered into the metal to delineate the pectoral muscle, as has been described above on one of the Mycenaean vase fragments. In the centre of the chest was a circular design executed, like the border, by embossed studs on a raised line. A point worth noting here is that the remains of both these early cuirasses are from the breastplate only. It is possible that backplates were a luxurious extra and that sometimes a breastplate was worn on its own, simply tied on with leather straps.

Before we return to the Greek evidence, we should examine the significance of the decoration on these cuirasses. The most important things to note are the studs around the edges, which show they were translations into bronze of leather breastplates, which would have had their edges turned over and riveted with bronze to stop them fraying. The separate bronze breast stars from the Čaka cuirass also have bronze studs at each of the points, showing that such stars were originally riveted to leather corslets. This leather corslet with bronze reinforcement reminds us of the evidence we have discussed for Late Mycenaean helmets, and it would seem that bronze-reinforced leather was also in use for body armour. The surviving evidence is rather stronger for this than for bronze cuirasses.

As with helmets, the Mycenaean Warrior Vase is our best evidence. The soldiers, marching with spears over their shoulders, apparently have leather corslets with long sleeves since there is no line at the shoulder (Snodgrass 1967, p. 36). The warriors on the opposite side, however, do have a pair of white lines at the shoulder showing, perhaps, that the corslet they wear has no sleeves and maybe a bronze edging. They also have a series of white lines and dots on the chest that look like bronze attachments and studs. Connolly (1977, p. 22) has argued for these being bronze cuirasses, which remains a possibility but, as we have noted, the decoration – if in bronze – implies derivation from bronze-reinforced corslets, and I think that is what we have here. Astrom, in his work on the Dendra armour (1977, plate XXXII), examined several other pottery fragments featuring warriors, which he thought might show bronze cuirasses. Most are painted black like those on the Warrior Vase, although one is white, and one illustrated by Greenhalgh (1980, p. 202) is decorated with geometric designs. This latter possibly represents embossed or painted bronze, but the other examples are more likely to be leather. They mostly appear to have integral long sleeves. An argument in favour of bronze is that most depictions (including the Warrior Vase) have an outward-turning flange at the waist, very similar to the much later bell cuirasses in bronze. This flange may just be artistic style, however, or it could be that the bell curve did develop at this early period. There is no evidence at this time for cuir-bouilli, that is, leather stiffened and moulded through boiling; but a bell shape could be made from leather by the use of bronze edging or simply through the cut of the leather. This would have given the warrior more freedom of movement.

The most convincing evidence for bronze-reinforced corslets used to be the finds of strips and studs from Kallithea, published by Yalouris (1960, p. 47) but, as mentioned above, it seems that these now came from a scabbard or a ‘tiara’ helmet. Some of the pieces of embossed bronze are curved rather than flat so a helmet is perhaps more likely, as this grave had two swords and a pair of greaves but no sign of a helmet. The only other possibility comes from Cyprus, where Catling assembled a large shield from fragments from a tomb at Kaloriziki dating to the eleventh century (Catling 1964, p. 144 and plates 17, 18; Snodgrass 1967, p. 44 and plate 14). As reconstructed this shield has one large central boss and two small side bosses, but I know of no other shield that has three bosses, and Borchhardt (in Buchholz and Wiesner 1977, p. 34) has suggested that the smaller two bosses are quite possibly breast ornaments from a leather cuirass. The bronze ‘shield edging’ may also have belonged to a cuirass, although it is perhaps too wide for this. Most important are the fragments of bronze, decorated with embossed circle patterns, which Catling (1964, p. 144 and plate 17) also places on the reconstructed shield, although he admits that they could have come from anywhere. These remind one of the cuirasses from Slovakia, but also of contemporary Greek greaves which will be discussed later. They too, then, may be from body armour, although greaves are perhaps more likely. Perhaps the important thing to note is that the find is from Cyprus, which did not suffer the bronze shortages that mainland Greece had at this time. The name of the island means ‘Copper’, and finds of bronze armour are more common there as a result of the occurrence of the metal.

It has been suggested that these bronze or bronze-reinforced leather corslets may have been short, ending at the waist, instead of the flanged bell shape that appears later, although this flanging appears to be shown in some of the contemporary vase depictions. The reason for believing in a short corslet comes from Homer (see below), who occasionally seems to suggest an armoured belt worn below a cuirass of bronze, and also from finds of bronze figurines going through into the Dark Age, which show warriors wearing only a bronze belt and a helmet for protection (Snodgrass 1967, p. 42). A possible example of such a belt was found in a twelfth-century chamber tomb at Mycenae. This example consists of the two surviving ends of a waist belt, 29cm and 16cm long with a width of just over 5cm – much narrower than the earlier Dendra ‘belts’. There are holes along the edge for the attachment of a lining, but no sign of a clasp. We must suppose that this was also attached to the leather backing, but not to the bronze itself. If a leather corslet was worn with this belt, it could have reached down to the hips and the belt could have been worn over it. Of course, the belt could have been worn on its own or perhaps with a short bronze cuirass. A similar usage of plate armour appeared among the Samnites and other Italians in the fourth century (Connolly 1978, pp. 22–7).

Travelling further down the torso, there is good evidence in this period for the wearing of heavy kilts, made of leather or thick material, perhaps reinforced with bronze studs, for the protection of the pelvis and upper thighs. The warriors on the Mycenaean Warrior Vase wear them, and some have the same white dot decoration as on their helmets and corslets, which we have interpreted as bronze reinforcement. Other kilts are shown as plain black, or with a black-and-white check pattern suggesting a woven or quilted material. These kilts often have a fringe on the lower edge (Vermeule and Karageorghis 1982, figs XI.1A, XI.18, XI.42, XI.43, XI.44, XI.59). The warriors on the Pylos frescos appear to be wearing similar black-and-white kilts but with a diagonal pattern. They wear no other body armour, which suggests that a kilt might have been a preferable piece of armour to a corslet. This would have made sense if a small shield was carried, and there are similar examples of kilts being worn in the later hoplite period. The body shield seems to have gone out of favour after c. 1300, and smaller shields meant the legs especially became vulnerable. These kilts would have protected the thighs, and we see a greater use of greaves in this period to protect the lower legs.

A final type of corslet to be considered, which would not have required a separate kilt but would have been worn with a belt, is the scale corslet. This was armour made from small plates of bronze called scales, sewn in rows onto a backing material, presumably leather, and was invented in Egypt or the Near East as early as the seventeenth century. There are two possible large scales from Phaistos in Crete dating to c. 1200, which are trapezoidal in shape and not of Eastern origin. They measure 5 × 4cm and were perhaps a local idea, possibly made by a man who had heard of scale armour but not seen it, and had attempted his own design (Hood and De Jong 1952, p. 261; Snodgrass 1965c, p. 99). Mycenaeans at this period, especially as they colonised south-west Asia Minor and Cyprus, would have seen and perhaps fought warriors wearing scale armour, and would have noticed its advantages.

Each bronze scale is usually 2–3cm wide, 5–6cm long and about 1mm thick, with a reinforcing central spine. Since each scale covers the top half of the scale below, the warrior was protected by two layers of bronze as well as by the coat of leather onto which they were sewn. The design also meant that the corslet was almost as flexible as one made simply of leather, and it did not need too skilled a craftsman to make it, although many hundreds of scales would have been needed for each suit. As might be expected, our main evidence for Mycenaean Greeks using scale armour comes from Cyprus. Here there was a ready supply of bronze, and the influence from the Near East was closest. Two bronze scales have been found at Enkomi dating from c. 1150 (Popham, Sackett and Themelis 1980, p. 251), four more in an eleventh-century tomb on the Karpos Peninsula, and three more from c. 1100 at Alaas in the south of the island (Karageorghis 1975, pp. 6 ff.). These late dates are all contemporary with, or after, the great catastrophe that destroyed the mainland palaces. Cyprus and Achaea seem to have had an influx of Mycenaean Greeks at this time. After this period, Cyprus was very much on the periphery of the Greek World, often succumbing to invaders and influences from the East such as Assyria and Persia. As a result it did not always follow armour developments elsewhere in Greece and, unlike Greece, it was to continue to use scale armour for many centuries.

For the rest of Greece we have just two examples of scales. A solitary scale of twelfth-century date was found at Mycenae (Connolly 1977, p. 23), and there is also an example from Lefkandi on Euboea dating to c. 900 (Popham, Sackett and Themelis 1980, plate 239.1). Both these scales are small at 5 × 2cm, which means they came from high-quality suits. Smaller scales meant more of them were needed, and so the suit became more expensive. The example from Lefkandi comes from a period when Near Eastern and Cypriot scales were being made from iron, and the excavators suggest this might have been an antique piece kept as a souvenir. Even so, it seems that some Greeks at least had access to scale corslets throughout this Late Mycenaean and early Dark Age period.

For artistic representations of scale corslets we must turn to Egyptian paintings and Assyrian reliefs. These generally show a short-sleeved garment, which reaches down to the ankles and is worn with a belt at the waist to take some of the weight off the shoulders. When first introduced, this armour was used as an alternative to a body shield by those soldiers who needed both hands free, like archers and chariot warriors. This is why the armour covers so much of the body, although it must have hampered movement somewhat. It is unlikely, however, that such a long garment was worn in Greece and Cyprus, since we know that the Mycenaeans of the period also wore greaves (see below). The only clear representation of scale armour we have in the Greek sphere is that worn by an archer in a chariot, on a carved ivory box from Enkomi in Cyprus. This shows Hittite influences, however, and does not seem to be of local manufacture. The scale corslet worn here reaches to midway down the warrior’s thighs; this is more likely to be the type worn by Greeks.

Further evidence for the use of scale armour in Greece is provided by Homer. Cinyras of Cyprus gives Agamemnon a unique armour described in detail by Homer (Iliad XI, 15). It is described as being made up of forty-two strips or bands (oimoi). Ten strips were of dark cyanus, that is blue enamel or glass paste, presumably on a base of bronze. Twelve strips were of gold and twenty strips were of tin; both these also must have been plating on bronze. Since this corslet was a gift, the method of manufacture and the materials used were perhaps uncertain. The word oimoi has been interpreted by most scholars as ‘rows’, and this corslet as being a scale corslet. (See Connolly 1986, p. 7 for an alternative interpretation.) Support for this theory is the fact that the corslet was a gift from Cyprus, where we know scale armour was in use. It seems that some wealthy Greeks may have used them. It is interesting that Homer takes the trouble to write about the armour in detail, suggesting that it was a piece of equipment rarely seen or used in his day. However, he does the same with the boars’ tusk helmet, and we have seen that that was a very common piece of equipment in Mycenaean times. Perhaps in the Late Mycenaean period scale corslets were common, but they are a rarity in the Dark Age and into the eighth century. There is certainly no evidence for their use on the mainland after the Lefkandi scale of c. 1000. Returning to the description of Agamemnon’s corslet, if we assume a scale length of 5cm with a good overlap, this gives a width of 2cm per row, and a total length of c. 84cm. As surmised earlier, this means that Agamemnon’s corslet reached down to just above the knees and would have been worn with a waist belt and greaves. The different colours of the rows of armour scales are paralleled in Egyptian paintings of scale corslets worn by Ramses III and Tutankhamun (Yadin 1963, pp. 240–1). These could simply be painted scales, but the tomb of Tutankhamun did produce a scale corslet incorporating gilding and blue glass enamelling (Carter and Mace, 1923–33, plate XXXVIII). Agamemnon’s corslet is further described as having had three serpents of iridescent cyanus on either side of the corslet, writhing towards the neck. This armour was a splendid piece of equipment, then, and it is fitting that it should have been a gift to the great Greek king from one of his allies.

For this period (c. 1200) we also have Linear B tablets from Pylos, twelve of which show corslet ideograms. These differ from the earlier Knossos ones in several important ways. Firstly, they are now named using the classical Greek word thorax implying a simpler piece of equipment than the list of parts accompanying the Knossos ideogram, which was describing a Dendra panoply. Secondly, they are not listed with chariots, although these (or at least their wheels) are listed elsewhere. This implies that the cuirasses could be and were used by infantry as well as charioteers, and were therefore less cumbersome and more widely available. Apart from the word thorax, the Pylos corslets are described as having ‘things hung on’: twenty large and ten small or, in four cases, twenty-two large and twelve small (Chadwick 1976, p. 162). Snodgrass (1965c, p. 99) has interpreted these as quilting or layers for a material armour, but the number seem too large. He backs this idea up by interpreting the horizontal lines on the ideograms as quilting. However, we have seen that the earlier Linear B ideograms from Knossos had these lines because they were representing a Dendra cuirass. It must be remembered that these Linear B ideograms are not accurate illustrations, but a shorthand form. It is clear that by the time of the Pylos ideograms, Dendra cuirasses were no longer used, but the ideogram remains similar because to change it would have been confusing for the scribes.

Chadwick (1976, pp. 162–3) interprets the ‘things hung on’ as scales, but since that gives him only thirty or thirty-four scales, instead of the hundreds needed, he proceeds to design a theoretical armour with a very small number of large scales. It is much more likely that these ‘things hung on’ equate with the oimoi in Homer, and that the numbers refer to rows of scales. Homer describes Agamemnon’s armour by giving the numbers of rows, and it seems reasonable to assume that that is how these Linear B scribes are describing armour in the Pylos tablets. Here we have only thirty or thirty-four rows compared to the forty-two of Agamemnon’s suit, but his was a suit fit for a king and would have had a greater number of smaller scales. If we interpret the Pylos large ‘things hung on’ and small ‘things hung on’ as 6cm scales and 5cm scales, we get rows mostly of 3cm width each after overlapping, with 2cm rows only where the small scales are used, presumably at the neck. This gives suit lengths of 80–90cm, pretty much the same as calculated for Agamemnon’s armour, and giving a knee-length cuirass that would have been supported with a waist belt. If this interpretation is correct, then the palace at Pylos was issuing scale corslets as body armour to its charioteers and foot soldiers in the thirteenth century. The scale from Mycenae and the description in Homer suggest that scale corslets may have been more popular in twelfth-century Greece than has been previously thought rather than just in Cyprus.

The Pylos ideograms differ slightly from the earlier Knossos ones in that they show no shoulder guards, but short sleeves (or the wearer’s arms: it is unclear which), and neck guards and helmets. If the neck guard appears on these tablets, but not on the Knossos ones, it suggests that the guard was a later addition to the panoply. It is also further evidence for the Pylos corslets being metal, since a bronze neck guard would be unlikely with material armour. There is an illustration from Egypt showing a high, bronze neck guard being worn with a scale armour corslet, which is just the armour I am suggesting these Pylos tablets show (Connolly 1986, p. 30, fig. 1).

Apart from his description of Agamemnon’s scale corslet, all other mentions of armour by Homer are of bronze plate armour, and before the discovery of Mycenaean bronze armour it was thought that these mentions of bronze were later additions or interpolations. With the discoveries of Dendra, Knossos, Tiryns and Achaea, and the realisation that commonly occurring epithets such as Achaion chalkochitonon (bronze-corsleted Achaeans) could not possibly be interpolations, as they are the basic structure upon which the epic is built, this idea can happily now be dismissed (Sheratt 1990, p. 814). We still have the problems of uncertain translations, words that later change their meanings and words for which the translation can be guessed only from the context.

The use of the word guala (hollow) in describing this armour shows that the armour consisted of back- and breastplates forming a cuirass, and was not a bronze scale cuirass. Other passages prove that the thorax covered the shoulders (Iliad V, 98–9) and reached to the waist (ibid. IV, 132) but no further. Supplementary pieces of armour were also worn, as is explained below, and we must decide whether they are describing a Dendra-style suit or are just additions to a short cuirass of bronze or bronze-reinforced leather, as has been suggested. The latter seems more likely, and Snodgrass (1965a, pp. 171–2) even equates guala with the later bell cuirass of Homer’s own day. The wide bell curve of such cuirasses does not always fit well with these armour additions, however, as Snodgrass admits (1967, pp. 55–6), and I would see the Homeric cuirass as ending at the waist.

The Late Mycenaean Period, the Dark Age and Homer, 1300–900 bc Part II

One of the most enlightening passages in the Iliad is in Book IV, 132, when Menelaos is wounded by an arrow. This arrow strikes the golden clasp of his zoster, which is made of bronze. It passes through this, and his cuirass, and then pierces the mitra, which he wore as a last defence against missiles. Describing the incident later (Iliad IV, 186), Menelaos says that the arrow was stopped by his zoster, his zoma and his mitra, which was either made by the bronzesmiths or had bronze put on it. Either translation is possible. The first passage gives us clearly enough the order in which the armour was worn. The word zoster means a belt in later times and that seems a reasonable translation here. It is described as well-wrought and shining, which tells us that it is metal, or perhaps metal plates on a leather belt (Liddell and Scott 1968, p. 760). It is worn over the cuirass, and the mitra was worn under the cuirass. In later times mitra can mean a boxer’s girdle, which is perhaps closest to its meaning here. Buchholz and Wiesner (1977, p. 127) associate it with the belts worn by Dark Age warrior statuettes and say it was overlapped sometimes by a metal cuirass. They say that the zoster, on the other hand, was a bronze belt worn over a tunic of linen and the zoma was a synonym for either word (ibid. p. 142). The objections to these conclusions can be found in the two above passages concerning Menelaos that we have been discussing. It is clear that Menelaos was wearing all three pieces of armour at the same time, and with a bronze cuirass.

The word zoma is also used by Homer as something worn by boxers, and it is clear that it must be a loincloth. The zoster was a belt worn over the cuirass, whether it was bronze or linen. It is possible that it was a baldric rather than a waist belt, but I think this is unlikely. The mitra remains a problem. It was a visible part of the armour and perhaps attached to it, as seems likely from the epithet amitrachitones (literally ‘mitra-corsletted’ or mitra-tuniced’) (Iliad XVI, 419), and its use as a last defence against missiles suggests to me something more substantial than a waist belt. There is no archaeological evidence until the seventh century for the semicircular abdominal guards found mostly in Crete and misnamed mitras, and I think the word is most likely describing an armoured kilt such as is worn on the Mycenaean Warrior Vase. This would allow for the three layers of armour in the region of the waist for Menelaos’s arrow to penetrate, and fits well with the phrase ‘with the bronze they put on it’, since these kilts are generally agreed to have been leather with bronze studs.

King (1970, p. 294) has taken a different line, in which she compares Homer’s descriptions to the Dendra-style armour. She argues that zoster is in fact the armoured skirt from the Dendra suit, which is why it is never mentioned separately in the arming scenes, since it was attached to the cuirass. King also interprets guala as the shoulder guards as well as the inner cuirass. These arguments can be rejected on the following grounds. Guala is too general a word to represent a specific item of equipment, and for something not to be mentioned in the arming scenes is not a strong argument. King makes no mention of the mitra, and I imagine that it would have been superfluous to wear an armoured kilt under the Dendra-style skirt of bronze. The most telling argument perhaps is that Amphius wore a zoster with a linen corslet (Iliad II, 830 and V, 615), which is perfectly acceptable for a bronze waist belt, but not for an armoured skirt of Dendra style. Also the zoster is often described as having a golden clasp, which Dendra ‘belts’ did not have. Finally, Dendra-style armour had gone out of use by 1300 and Homer rarely mentions items that were in use only in that earliest period; the large body shield of Ajax is one of the few exceptions. Most Homeric references can be securely dated to the Late Mycenaean or Dark Age periods.

When talking about corslets made of a material backing reinforced with bronze, I have referred to bronze-reinforced leather, because such illustrations as we have seem to suggest this. When we come to greaves, however, we will see that there is evidence for the use of linen, and there is also evidence for the use of linen body armour at this time, although it is less practical to attach bronze reinforcements to linen. There was a fragment of multilayered linen in the Shaft Graves at Mycenae, which has been interpreted as armour, but our first real proof for its use comes from Homer. The lesser Aias and Amphius are both described as linothorex (linen-corsletted), but Homer neglects to go into details and they could have been made in a variety of ways: either woven from thick cord, built up of many thin layers, or padded. I will discuss these various designs later when the linen corslet gained in popularity in the Archaic period, and we have more evidence for its design. For the present, it is interesting to note the two characters who did wear this armour. The lesser Aias could be insolent and unpleasant, and Amphius is a nondescript, second-class character. All the great heroes wore bronze, and this shows the secondary position of linen armour in the Late Mycenaean period – or perhaps just Homer’s opinion of it.

On a couple of occasions Homer also mentions gold armour (Iliad VI, 234 ff. and X, 439), and implies that it was of the same design as the bronze armour but more costly. It was worth one hundred oxen, as opposed to the nine oxen that a normal panoply was worth. Both sets of armour were worn by non-Greeks: Glaucus the Trojan and Rhesus, King of Thrace. Homer despises such armour, saying it was fit only for the gods. It no doubt occurred to him that gold armour was useless as a defence, and it is plain that he is not describing gilded armour. The passages remind me of the gold pectorals from the Shaft Graves of Mycenae and from Enkomi, and it seems possible that Dark Age tomb robbers had found such items, and believed that some warriors of old had in fact worn gold breastplates in battle. It is possible, of course, that gilded bronze armour was worn by the exceedingly rich, but it would have been expensive and also impractical in battle, where the gilding would soon have been damaged.

As we have seen, the evidence for body armour in this period is slight, especially considering the lack of it in the otherwise rich Achaean tombs. After 1100 there seems to be little evidence for bronze armour apart from Homer and, with the collapse of the palace system and the lack of bronze coming into the country, we must assume leather or linen corslets, if any, down to the reintroduction of bronze armour in c. 800.


The evidence for greaves and leggings is clearer than that for body armour, but still problematical in parts. Schauer’s study (1982, passim) still gives the best overall picture, although there have been important recent finds which were not known about when he wrote. The plain bronze greave type that was found in the Dendra cuirass tomb seems to have disappeared, but illustrations of ‘leggings’ abound (Vermeule and Karageorghis 1982, figs XI.3, XI.7, XI.18, XI.28, XI.42, XI.43, XI.49, XI.53, XI.59, XI.63). Those on the palace frescos at Pylos are long, covering the knee, and clearly tied on (Bossert 1937, p. 31, fig. 42). They are painted white, which has suggested to some that they were made of metal, but considering the shape of surviving metal greaves this seems unlikely. I would suggest that they are made of linen but, since most of the pottery depictions show black leggings, it would seem that leather was commoner, perhaps particularly after the great catastrophe of c. 1200 which would have disrupted trade. Leather leggings are in fact mentioned in the Odyssey (XXIV, 228), but they are worn by a farmer to protect him from thorns, and it is speculative to stretch this to a military use.

We do have some examples of short metal greaves of an elliptical form from this period, and the Pylos frescos show such an elliptical form on one leg of each of the Pylos warriors who wears ‘linen’ leggings. Because of the style of the fresco painting, it is difficult to ascertain whether the elliptical shape is on the left or right leg. Fortenberry (1991, passim) opts for the right, but Schauer (1982, p. 149) is surely right to suggest the leading left leg, which would have been more exposed in combat. The early Roman republican army often wore single greaves on the left leg, which was cheaper than a matching pair (Arrian Ars tactica, as quoted by Connolly 1998, p. 133). I suggested that because the Dendra greave was so thin, it was probably stitched to a material legging. The Pylos frescos seem to support the idea of a metal greave or greaves being worn over a much larger material legging, rather than directly on the leg like later Archaic and Classical greaves.

Many such elliptical greaves have been found in the Urnfield culture of Central Europe, and the Greek examples are thought by some to have originated from there (Yalouris 1960, p. 49). However, there are two reasons why this does not seem to me to be the case. Firstly, the greave appears in Greece over 300 years before it does in Europe with the Dendra example, and the later Mycenaean ones I am about to discuss still probably pre-date the earliest Hallstatt greaves, although dating the latter is tricky. The second reason is design.

Let us consider the Late Mycenaean examples. The earliest known greaves of this period, dating to c. 1200, are from the tombs at Enkomi in Cyprus, but were not found with the scales mentioned above. A greave from Tomb 18 is badly corroded and fragmented, and only the lower half is preserved (Catling 1955, p. 23). It is 2mm thick, with the bronze rolled over at the edges for extra strength. The border is 6mm thick and decorated with diagonal lines. Riveted to the edge is a piece of bronze wire lacing, through which leather thongs would have been threaded to tie the greave at the back of the leg. There is no visible decoration on this piece, but other fragments show heavy embossed lines similar to the decoration on the Kallithea greaves, and the original decoration may have been of this nature.

Tomb 15 at the same site produced a non-matching pair of greaves of similar design. The best preserved is almost the complete right side of a greave which was probably for the left leg, as there is a bulge for the calf muscle (Catling 1955, p. 30). This greave is also 2mm thick and is decorated with two repoussé lines running around the greave, 1cm from the edge. Although not visible in the photograph, there was also a repoussé line running vertically from top to bottom down the middle of the greave, the first few centimetres of which still survive. There is also some decoration on the face of the greave, which is hard to detect owing to the corrosion. On the upper half of the greave is an embossed stud surrounded by a circle of fine punched holes. The use of embossing is reminiscent of the helmets and corslets in use at this time, and the fact that such decoration follows on from the direct use of bronze studs on leather leggings. Indeed, the embossed circle is very similar to the later Tiryns helmet mentioned above. The edges of the greave are rolled over, but the bronze lacing wire is not riveted directly to the greave. It is riveted to a long strip of bronze, which is in turn then riveted to the greave. This suggests to me that the original lacing had become damaged, and that a bronze lacing section had been taken from another greave (old or damaged), and riveted onto this one. The extra work of riveting the lacing onto a strip of bronze and then riveting that strip onto the greave would have made no sense unless it was a repair. All other known laces like this are riveted directly to the greave.

The second greave from this tomb is only a fragment and, at first glance, the two look like a pair. However, this second greave has double repoussé lines much closer to the edge (6mm) and, like the Tomb 18 example, the bronze lacing wire is attached directly to the greave. Catling (1955, p. 30) suggested that they are the remains of two pairs of greaves, but given that the Dendra warrior perhaps had only one greave, that Tomb 18 at Enkomi had only one greave, and that the Pylos frescos show the use of one greave, then perhaps we have two single greaves here rather than a pair. There may have been two warriors buried in this tomb, each with his own greave, or perhaps a wealthy warrior who possessed two greaves in the same way as he might have had two spears or swords. If we accept that one greave had been repaired after being damaged, it is also possible that this was a pair of greaves worn by a single warrior, which just no longer matched. That they would be reused and repaired also gives us some indication of the value of these items.

The other Greek greaves we have are all matching pairs, two from Achaea and a pair from Athens. Tomb B at Kallithea in Achaea, which produced the bronze strips now thought to be from a ‘tiara’ helmet or scabbard, also produced a pair of greaves dating from perhaps 1180. These are of a more oval design than the Enkomi greaves (although they have been heavily restored), and are more heavily embossed with repoussé borders and embossed studs. They also have lacing wires almost identical to the Cypriot examples and riveted directly onto the greaves. Yalouris (1960, p. 46) has cleverly interpreted the design as being derived from bronze-reinforced leather greaves. He suggests the space in between the repoussé lines going around the edge and down the centre of the greave as being representations of bronze strips on a leather backing, and suggests the diagonal lines as being representations of fastening straps held in place by a central stud.

A further pair of greaves was found at Portes-Kephalovryson in Achaea, in the tomb which produced the ‘tiara’ helmet (Papadopoulos, in Laffineur 1999, p. 271 and plate LIXa). Their discovery is yet to be properly published, but from the excavation photograph they appear to be of a similar shape to the Enkomi greaves, and also to have the elaborate lacing wires. According to Papadopoulos they are undecorated, but after cleaning we may discover some slight decoration like the Enkomi ones. They are certainly very different from the Kallithea pair.

The final pair of Late Mycenaean greaves came from a tomb on the slopes of the Athenian acropolis. They were originally thought to be from the Geometric period, that is tenth or ninth century (Snodgrass 1971, p. 47 after Platon 1965, Archaeologikon Deltikon 20, B.1, p. 32), but have now been fairly conclusively proved to be from c. 1200 like the Cypriot and Achaean examples (Mountjoy 1984, passim). The greaves are very fragmentary, and there are no surviving lacing wires. The bronze was not rolled over at the edges, and there are a couple of edge holes on one piece. These may have been for loops to hold lacing wires, but the greaves may have had more simple fastenings, like some of the Central European specimens. Apart from that they resemble the Kallithea greaves in that they are oval in shape, and the Enkomi greaves in that they have fine, punch-marked decoration. In this case it consists of a border and central vertical line and six circles on each greave.

Very similar decoration was found on some bronze fragments from Kaloriziki on Cyprus, and it is quite likely that they came from another greave or greaves, although Catling (1964, p. 144 and plate 17e) restored them as part of a shield. Holes are visible at the edge for attaching to a backing, or for bronze lacing wires, although these were not found and may not have existed. The pieces are very fragmentary and the tomb had been much disturbed.

The European greaves of this period and later have decoration similar to the Kallithea and Athens greaves, which has led some scholars to believe that the Greeks got the idea of greaves from Central Europe. Schauer (1982, pp. 152–3) points out that the main difference between Greek and European greaves is the fastening. All the European greaves, except for one late Italian copy of the Greek design, have only single rings or loops of wire at the edges of greaves, which do not fold around the leg to such an extent. They are much more basic plates of bronze protecting the front of the leg. Although dating is difficult, they probably did not appear until 1100 at the earliest, in the Hallstatt A period.

It is much more likely that the Central Europeans copied the Greek greaves, including their decorations, but simplified the shape and the fastenings. Yalouris (1960, p. 47) suggested that greaves, like many military developments, came from the Near East via Cyprus, but this can be refuted. There are no artistic representations, and the only literary reference is Goliath the Philistine in the Bible (I Samuel 17: 4), who wears a pair of greaves with his scale armour. This episode is set in the eleventh century and may well have been written later, so it does not count for much. Also, the Philistines are quite possibly descended from the Peleset, one of the Sea Peoples, who brought war to the Near East and may have had a Greek or Central European origin (Astrom 1977, p. 48; Sandars 1964, passim).

Homer mentions the ‘well-greaved’ Achaeans some forty times in the Iliad, which rules out later interpolation as suggested by Lorimer (1950, pp. 253 ff.) who was writing before the discovery of Bronze Age greaves on mainland Greece. Homer also mentions greaves three times in a standard phrase (e.g. Iliad III, 330–1) which tells us that they were put on first, followed by the cuirass. This was because once the cuirass or corslet was on, the warrior would be unable to bend easily to fasten his greaves. These greaves are presumably bronze, although Hephaestus made a special tin pair for Achilles (Iliad XVIII, 613) and these had close-fitting silver guards or clasps (episphuriois) at the ankles. There is no evidence for ankle guards until the seventh century and ones made of silver are unlikely. A silver peg was apparently found near the Dendra greave and could have been part of a fastening (Schauer 1982, p. 148), or perhaps the word refers to the elaborate lacing wires that we have seen on the excavated examples, although these are not connected only at the ankle.

All the evidence we have for Late Mycenaean metal greaves fits into the period from c. 1220 to c. 1150 (c. 1050 if the Kaloriziki fragments are greaves), and the decline of the palace system must have been responsible for their disappearance. Bronze greaves continued in use in Central Europe, and this must have been because of the availability of bronze locally. As with body armour, bronze greaves seemed to disappear from Greece completely, to emerge in a quite different form in c. 800. For the rest of the period, perhaps from 1100 down to 900, we must assume that leather leggings were the only armour available.


If there seems to have been a reduction in body armour in the Late Mycenaean period, there was certainly a reduction in shield size. The great body shields ceased to exist in art by c. 1300 and were replaced with smaller, mostly round shields. Rather strangely, the frescos at Pylos do not show shields at all for the warriors armed with helmets and greaves, but shields are more common on pottery fragments. Small round shields of perhaps 50–60cm are being carried by chariot warriors on three separate vases illustrated by Vermeule and Karageorghis (1982, plates XI.1A, XI.1B and XI.28). These were presumably carried by a central handgrip.

The Mycenaean Warrior Vase and Stele, which definitely show infantry, include rather larger shields. The better-preserved side of the Warrior Vase shows 60–70cm round shields with a segment cut out from the bottom. The artist does not show how the shield was carried and, when it was held up in combat, this cut-out may have been on the warrior’s right-hand side to make a gap for an underarm spear thrust. Otherwise its purpose is uncertain. The warriors on the other side of the vase and on the stele have even larger oval shields, measuring perhaps as much as a metre across. One of these shows a handle which is not being gripped, implying the existence of a shoulder strap (Lorimer 1950, p. 146; Snodgrass 1967, p. 32). So it seems there were smaller shields carried by chariot warriors, and larger shields with shoulder straps carried by infantry. Lorimer (1950, pp. 148–9) illustrates a vase fragment showing two men on foot holding small shields, but it is most likely that they have just disembarked from their chariot, which is also shown.

Archaeological evidence for shields comes in the form of bronze shield bosses which were used on at least some of these shields, although they are not clearly shown in the art. Mouliana in Crete has produced a twelfth-century example (Snodgrass 1967, p. 32), and eleventh-century examples have been found in Grave XXVIII at Tiryns, which produced the helmet, and Tomb 24 at the Kerameikos in Athens (Snodgrass 2000, p. 319). These are generally domed with a flat edge or border, sometimes decoratively embossed, and would have covered a central handgrip on a round shield. Kaloriziki in Cyprus also produced an example of a shield boss of the eleventh century with a dome and large spike (Snodgrass 1967, p. 45). Found with this shield were two further discs which were interpreted as additional bosses on the shield, and bronze edging, giving a shield shape with an alleged cut-out similar to that on the Mycenaean Warrior Vase (Catling 1964, plate 18; Snodgrass 1967, plate 14). The shape is more exaggerated than the vase and the shield reconstruction looks too wide to be practical. The ‘edging’ does not exist at the top of the shield where it would have been most needed, and the two smaller bosses are more likely to have come from somewhere else: perhaps a corslet or maybe a pair of cymbals, which are also occasionally found as grave goods. Only one sharp bend in the bronze edging is visible in Catling’s plate and I would place this at the bottom of the shield, making a kite shape. This would then look very similar to the larger oval shields on the Mycenaean Warrior Vase. The pieces would obviously benefit from re-examination. Unlike the evidence for helmets, armour and greaves, there is evidence for the existence of shield bosses throughout the Dark Age, to c. 900 and beyond, showing that the round shield continued in use (Snodgrass 1967, p. 44). Shields with bronze bosses were, nevertheless, prestige items. The very rich warrior graves of Achaea, which have produced two out of the three known pairs of Late Mycenaean greaves, have produced only one bronze shield boss (Papadopoulos, in Laffineur 1999, p. 271). Since chariots ceased to exist after about 1000, it seems likely that the small shield used by chariot warriors went out of use, leaving only the larger round or elliptical shield used by infantry. This would eventually develop into the hoplite shield.


The spear became a lighter weapon after 1200. Gone were the 3-metre examples used with the body shield, and now there were only one-handed spears, as clearly depicted on the Mycenaean Warrior Vase. The spear seems to have been about 2 metres long, with a 20–30cm leaf-shaped blade of bronze. Many of the warrior tombs of Achaea contained a single spear (as well as a sword) of bronze with this type of blade (Papadopoulos, in Laffineur 1999, pp. 267 ff.). Tomb B from Kallithea was also provided with a butt spike of bronze to protect the other end of the spear, and possibly for use as a secondary weapon should the spearhead break off (Papadopoulos, in Laffineur 1999, p. 269 and plate LVIIb). This is the earliest example of the spear-butt in mainland Greece, but there are also some contemporary examples in Cyprus (Snodgrass 1967, p. 29). A grave from the Kerameikos in Athens produced a similar bronze blade dating from c. 1050, but this was paired with a much smaller blade (9cm), suggesting a throwing spear or javelin (Snodgrass 2000, p. 223). A flame-shaped spearhead type, which was an import from the Balkan area, has also been found in parts of north-west Greece, Kephallenia and Crete. Clearly a combat spear, the type does not seem to have caught on (Snodgrass 2000, pp. 306–7).

The soldiers on the Mycenaean Warrior Vase hold one spear, and are using it overarm as a thrusting spear; but another vase fragment (Vermeule and Karageorghis 1982, Plate XI.28) clearly shows a chariot warrior carrying two spears, suggesting that one at least might be thrown. However, his companion has no spear as he is driving the chariot, so perhaps the first warrior is just holding his companion’s spear until they both dismount and fight. Other fragments seem to show chariot warriors with only one spear, which seems to be more practical with a small, hand-held shield (Vermeule and Karageorghis 1982, plates XI.1B, XI.16, XI.57). Later on two or more spears, including one for throwing, seem to have been the norm, so this system could have occurred at the end of the Mycenaean period. In the eleventh century, iron started to be used for daggers and swords but not yet for spears, possibly because of the difficulty in fashioning a spear socket; but in the tenth century iron spears began to appear as well (Snodgrass 2000, p. 224). By c. 900, bronze spearheads had died out except in some of the more remote regions, but butt spikes, where used, continued to be made of bronze.

From c. 1050 until c. 900, it often seems to be the case that a warrior was buried with either a sword or a spear, but it is difficult to know whether this was some measure of status or whether the weapons were indeed used as alternatives. Looking at the soldiers on the Pylos frescos fighting the ‘barbarians’ by the river, we can see that one has just a sword, and one just a spear. After c. 900 spears were more common in multiples (and were buried with swords) and must have been used as throwing weapons as portrayed in the Iliad (Snodgrass 1967, pp. 37–9). Homer often describes warriors carrying pairs of spears and throwing them in battle. Even when warriors have only one spear, it is just as likely to be thrown (Lorimer 1950, pp. 258–9). The spearheads in Homer are always made of bronze, and Hector’s is mentioned with a gold band around the joint between head and shaft (Homer, Iliad VI, 319). The only other evidence for spear decoration at this time is the Mycenaean Warrior Vase, which appears to show flags or large tassels attached to the spears.


The sword also became a shorter and lighter weapon during the thirteenth century. The long Cross-hilted sword went out of use by about 1250. Swords of Horned Type 2a developed into weapons with shorter blades, usually of 35–40cm, known as Horned Type 2b. Another short sword also appeared in about 1250, known as Type F after the classification by Sandars (1961, 1963, passim; Kilian-Dirlmeier 1993, pp. 76 ff.). These swords also averaged 35–40cm in length for the most part and had similar hilts with cross bars at the top, but no sign of horns, which were perhaps no longer considered essential. A similar, but even shorter weapon, called Type E by Sandars, was really only a dagger and is not generally considered to be a weapon of war, but a tool (Kilian-Dirlmeier 1993, plates 66–7). It is probably a Type F short sword that is being wielded by a warrior on the Pylos frescos, and perhaps also on a Late Mycenaean vase fragment (Vermeule and Karageorghis 1982, plate XI.49). These short weapons were much more practical for cut-and-thrust fighting and for general carrying about in these troubled times (Snodgrass 1967, p. 28) but, although they lasted into the twelfth century, they were ousted by a new sword from the north.

This new sword is known as the ‘Griffzungenschwert’ or, more usually, the Naue II Type. It seems to have been invented in Central Europe, where the earliest and best examples have been found (Snodgrass 1967, p. 29), and came into Greece before the great catastrophe: that is, before c. 1230. It had a flanged hilt, with a distinctive curved outline where rivets fasten the grip to the sword, making it a very strong cut-and-thrust weapon. The known examples are usually 60 to 80cm long, but daggers with the same handle type are also known. The earliest examples must have been imports and, since they pre-date the great catastrophe, cannot have been brought in by invaders as was once thought. The Greeks were soon making the Naue II Type sword themselves, and the design was so effective that it became virtually the only sword used in Greece for the next four or five hundred years. It was also widely adopted in Italy, Cyprus, Egypt and the Near East. The only change that happened to the sword was its translation into iron from the middle of the eleventh century. Tomb 28 at Tiryns produced a Naue II Type dagger in iron and there is a 48cm sword from the Kerameikos in Athens, which both date from c. 1050 (Snodgrass 2000, pp. 220–3). From this time down to 900, nearly every Greek sword is a Naue II Type in iron. There are a few examples in bronze from outlying parts, but these are just as likely to have been heirlooms as contemporary weapons (Snodgrass 2000, p. 241). Iron is stronger than bronze, and can be given a sharper edge. It is also slightly lighter, and some of the iron Naue II Types are longer than any known bronze example, approaching 90cm in length. This is the combined cutting and slashing weapon that features in the Iliad, capable of cutting off an arm or a head (Lorimer 1950, p. 270). Only an iron sword could do that, although swords in the Iliad are always described as being of bronze, in a throwback to an earlier time.

Homer often describes the swords as silver-studded, which reminds us of earlier Mycenaean swords from the Shaft Graves with their golden rivets. Swords with silver rivets are also known, but are rarer and none is known after 1200 (Lorimer 1950, pp. 273–4). Homer also describes swords as well hilted (kopeis) and, on one occasion, bound with black thongs (melandeton) (Homer, Iliad XVI, 332; XX, 475; XV, 713). Evidence we have for hilts at this time shows they were mainly made of ivory or wood, but thongs would generally not have survived. They would certainly have helped to give a good grip. A recently discovered, rare survival is a wooden scabbard from Krini in Achaea, dating from c. 1150 (Papadopoulos, in Laffineur 1999, p. 271 and plate LVIIIc). This was covered in leather and further decorated with cut-out strips and studs of bronze. Similar studs and strips have been found at Kallithea and Lakkithra (as mentioned above) which may also be from scabbards, and this shows the care with which these swords were treated, and the value they must have had. Swords, like spears, could also be decorated with tassels, as is shown on a vase fragment of c. 1200 (Vermeule and Karageorghis 1982, plate. XI.59).


Archery continued to be practised in the Late Mycenaean period; the palace at Pylos produced 500 arrowheads, showing they were produced for the military. Other finds and depictions are rare. None of the warrior graves from Achaea has produced any arrowheads. A vase in the British Museum from Enkomi dating to the twelfth century shows archers presumably marching to war, but maybe they are going on a hunt. Vermeule and Karageorghis, in their corpus of Mycenaean pictorial vase painting (1982, plate XI.58), illustrate only one archer, which also tells us little. After the great catastrophe of c. 1200, evidence becomes even slighter. There are a few large bronze arrowheads from Greece, including a tenth-century example from the Kerameikos in Athens (Snodgrass 2000, p. 233), but most examples come from Crete, which seems to have begun now to develop its later reputation as a land of archers (Snodgrass 1967, p. 40). Tiryns has also produced two obsidian examples (Snodgrass 2000, p. 274).

By the tenth century arrowheads in Crete are made of iron, and the simple bow is replaced by the composite bow. This has pieces of horn attached to the inner edge of the bow, and sinew attached to the outer edge. When the bow is drawn the sinew is stretched and the horn is compressed, both of which give the bow greater power. Homer (Iliad IV, 105 ff.) mentions such a bow but seems to have an incomplete understanding of it, thinking it was made entirely of horn. It is possible that the composite bow did not reach mainland Greece until the eighth century, when there is a great increase in its depiction in art. In the Iliad, Homer often depicts arrows being shot in the thick of the fight (XV, 313–14; XIII, 711–20), but they were not used in hand-to-hand combat by any of the great heroes. Indeed they frequently had negative connotations (Reboredo Morillo 1996, pp. 16–19) such as in the depiction of Teucros, who hides behind Aias’s shield and comes out to shoot (Iliad VIII, 265–72). With the archery it is really unclear to what extent Homer is remembering the Late Mycenaean period or is mixing in contemporary material of the eighth century, when there was a brief flourishing of archery after the apparent lapse in the Dark Age. There is no further evidence for the military use of the sling in this period (Pritchett 1991).

To conclude: the Late Mycenaean period was one of expansion and prosperity, probably leading to an increase in armed forces put into the field by the palaces. Perhaps as a result of this, soldiers were less well equipped with body armour, and infantry outnumbered chariots by a larger margin. The chariot also seemed to become lighter and faster (Bloedow, in Laffineur 1999, p. 456). The chariot warriors wore greaves and carried small shields, while the infantry also wore greaves but carried larger, oval shields. These ‘greaves’ were mostly non-metallic leggings. Most actual fighting was done on foot with the thrusting spear used in combat, supported by the short cut-and-thrust sword, or the longer Naue II Type which was coming into use. Archers and slingers also played their role. After the great catastrophe of c. 1200, the palace system gradually collapsed, and that seems to have led to a reduction in chariotry and archery (and slingers?). The infantry continued to fight in the same way, with the richest still being able to afford metal greaves and other armour, and perhaps a personal chariot. Gradually the chariot died out and was perhaps replaced with horse riding. Our evidence for this comes from Homer where, in some passages, he clearly confuses chariots with horses, apparently showing that mounted warriors were in use in Homer’s time, i.e. by c. 800 (Delebecque, quoted in Greenhalgh 1973, pp. 67–8). Actual combat was still on foot, even if the warrior arrived by chariot or horse. Also after c. 1200, the thrusting spear was replaced by two or more throwing spears. The Naue II Type sword also became the sword of choice and was manufactured in iron. These long cut-and-thrust swords, small shields and the throwing spears suggest a skirmishing type of warfare. Metallic body armour, including helmets and greaves, seemed to die out entirely, due to the economic collapse and the cessation of overseas trade to obtain copper and tin for bronze making. Greece slipped slowly into the darkest part of the Dark Age after c. 1050.


The battle of Pydna, of course, was not the end of the contest. The Roman legion would go on to fight more variations of the phalanx in the centuries to come, taking on the other armies influenced by the Hellenistic phalanx and employing, to varying degrees, similar methods. There was a Fourth Macedonian War, followed by a war against the Achaeans, and the kingdoms of Numidia and Pontus, in north Africa and north Turkey, respectively. But the writing was already on the wall. The phalanx had met the legion on multiple occasions, in all variations of leadership, terrain, weather, states of troop discipline and supply, and the various morale-influencing factors of divine inspiration and omen. The legion was the hands-down winner, and would continue to dominate the battlefield for hundreds of years to come.

But we already knew this. Again, the interesting question is, “why?” let’s take some time to go over the evidence, and more importantly, to return to Polybius’ original statement as to why the legion won out over the phalanx, agility, flexibility and adaptability. So, was Polybius right?

Was Polybius Right?

The answer, supported by the evidence of the six battles we’ve just examined, is “yes, but only partly.”

Let’s take a look. Polybius is certainly correct in that while both the legion and the phalanx required tight unit cohesion, and were limited by the fundamentals of the battle line, the legion certainly required less of it. The short sword is, by its very nature, a weapon well suited to both whole unit combat and individual fighting. Legionaries deployed at larger intervals, which gave them more space to maneuver as individuals, able to absorb the shock of a charge, to dodge incoming missiles, to fence with an opponent if required. More importantly, they were trained to do this very thing. The sword was their weapon, and they were skilled in employing it both as an instrument of a formed maniple, and as an individual fencer.

Contrast this with the phalangite, whose primary weapon, the massive pike, was only effective when formed. Fighting as an individual, a phalangite was left with little option but to drop the giant weapon and draw his own sword, with which he was not nearly as well trained as his Roman enemy.

There’s a great example of the ineffectiveness of the phalangite pike in an individual duel in Diodorus. He tells a story of a fight that breaks out in the camp of the army of Alexander the Great at Alexandria – not Alexandria, Egypt, but a different city named for him in modern day Uch, Pakistan. Coragus, one of Alexander’s Macedonian phalangites, had a bit too much to drink and got into it with Dioxippus, one of the Athenian allied soldiers in Alexander’s army.

Both men were, by all accounts, tough as nails. Coragus was a veteran of many battles, and had secured a solid reputation as a fighter. Dioxippus had won the boxing title in the Olympics of 336 BC. It’s not clear if Dioxippus had won at ancient boxing, which was mostly similar to the modern sport, or at pankration (all-force), a kind of mixed martial art that combined throws, holds, punches, kicks and whatever else you could think of, apart from biting and eye-gouging. Either way, Dioxippus was nobody to take lightly, but that didn’t scare Coragus, who wound up challenging him to a duel. The whole thing turned into a kind of contest between the Macedonians and the Greeks, with each side cheering on their respective champion.

Everybody cleared a space for them to fight, and Coragus put on his armor. Dioxippus showed up naked and oiled. Coragus appears to have brought his pike and a javelin, while Dioxippus brought only a club. Now, we don’t know how long this club was, but it makes more sense to me if it was a short, one-handed weapon, not all that different from the Roman sword. You should keep in mind that the club was the favored weapon of the mythical hero Herakles, which lent a symbolic flair to Dioxippus’ choice.

The fight began, and Dioxippus easily dodged Coragus’ thrown javelin. Diodorus alternately calls Coragus’ weapon a “spear” and later a “long lance,” which likely means he’s talking about the pike. Whatever the weapon, Diodorus is clear that Dioxippus got inside the weapon’s effective range, slammed the pike shaft with his club, and snapped it.

Coragus doesn’t appear to have had time to reverse the weapon to make use of his butt-spike, so he drew his sword, but Dioxippus was already close enough to grab his wrist and execute a wrestling throw, evidence that Dioxippus had won at pankration and not boxing, to put Coragus on his back. Then, boot on his opponent’s neck, Dioxippus raised his club and proclaimed victory.

It was a great moment for Dioxippus, but it ultimately led to his downfall. The Macedonians were furious at the embarrassing loss, falsely accused him of theft and the poor Athenian wound up committing suicide in protest. He was largely ridiculed for this overreaction, but Alexander was furious at the senseless waste of a powerful life.

Now, Dioxippus was not a Roman legionary, but the story does illustrate the effectiveness of a fast-moving individual armed with a short weapon against a Hellenistic phalangite who is without the protection of his formed phalanx. It is possible that the Roman legionary had some speed advantage. The average phalangite wore the linen or bronze cuirass, helmet, shield and greaves and carried the pike. The hastati front line of the Romans would only have worn a much lighter pectoral, and possibly a single greave. The Roman shield was much heavier, but the lighter armor, in the front line at least, may have given the hastati a speed edge in engaging the phalanx.

Even more importantly, the Romans introduced a tactical innovation, in that they combined the missile functions of the skirmisher with the shock combat function of the heavy infantry. The Roman legionary, possibly with the exception of the triarii, had a limited missile weapon role – it was most often used to soften up the enemy line, but also could be used to return missile fire from skirmishers in a pinch. The pilum was purpose-built in a way that most ancient javelins were not – uniquely designed to cause an enemy to discard his shield, thus preparing the battleground to allow the legionary the chance to engage in close combat under the most advantageous circumstances possible.

Roman legionaries did not skirmish as the velites did, but their hybrid role as a limited kind of missile troop is often underappreciated. The argument can be made that this is because it wasn’t new. The famous Persian “Immortals” of Xerxes I, who fought Leonidas and his Spartans at Thermopylae, are described by Herodotus and depicted in carvings at Persepolis – modern day Marvdasht in Iran – as being spear- and shield-armed heavy infantry who also carried bows. But the general belief is that the Immortals acted either as formed groups of either archers or spearmen, and didn’t combine the two as the Roman legionary did, using their missiles to soften up the enemy just before the charge to close combat, a similar tactic to the 17th century cavalry cuirassier, who discharged his pistol at point-blank range just before his charge hit home.

The effectiveness of this combining of skirmishing and shock-combat capabilities in a single infantry class is illustrated by the abolition of the velites during the Marian reforms of 107 BC, after which the legions had no dedicated skirmishing body (though auxiliaries still skirmished). Each legionary had their javelins, and that was that.

Polybius is certainly right that terrain played an important role. Looking at the tactical subunits of the Hellenistic phalanx and their respective depth and frontage gives us some clues. The Hellenistic lochos of 16 men would have been useless, just a long line of 16 men in single file, and even the tetrarchia of 64 would still have only had a frontage of four men, or 16 feet, and would therefore be easily enveloped. At the speira level of 256 men, you’re covering a little less than 50 feet, which still isn’t great. It isn’t until you get up to the chiliarchia level of 1,024 men that you’re getting to just under 200 feet of frontage. And all of this assumes that the phalanx is deploying in the usual lochoi of 16 soldiers. In many instances, as at Cynoscephalae, the phalanx’s depth was doubled, with the resulting loss of 50 percent of its frontage.

Now, compare this with the Roman legion. We’re not sure of the exact depth of the maniple (the sources point to either three or six ranks deep) but we are still looking at units of approximately 120 soldiers. If we assume they’re three ranks deep, and we believe Polybius’ statement that the soldiers have 6 feet each, we’re looking at almost 250 feet of frontage for a single maniple. And this doesn’t even count the likelihood that the two centuries were able to function independently of one another (after all, each had its own centurion), which would result in two tactical units covering over 100 feet of frontage each. The checkerboard deployment of these units would have allowed them to operate independently of each other without having to worry too much about their flanks. If one maniple or century was attacked on their exposed flank, there would be another one not far off who could come to their aid. And any unit that hit a Roman flank would in turn have to expose their own flank to the other maniples.

Polybius is right that the Roman system was much more flexible, and it is clearly geared to take maximum advantage of the legionary’s ability to fight in all directions, and even on his own if need be. Further, the smaller units, stationed at intervals, allowed the Romans to handle broken terrain much more easily, weaving around boulders or sinkholes or whatever other irregularities the battlefield presented.

The phalanx could only fight in one direction, and because it was so reliant on its depth (without at least five ranks, you wouldn’t have the interleaving pike heads critical to defending the front rank), it required far more troops to be effective. And because it could only fight in one direction, protecting the flanks became even more critical than usual, and it was pretty damn critical already. The best way to protect the flanks was to expand the frontage of the phalanx, with the result that phalanxes tended to deploy, as we have seen in all six of the battles we’ve examined in this book, as more or less one enormous line. This is necessarily more vulnerable to terrain than a checkerboard deployment, and made the phalanx far more dependent on flat, level ground to prevent gaps from forming in the line.


Another thing you may notice when you look at these battles is the role of the general in the fighting. Roman generals certainly could and did participate in battles directly, fighting hand to hand in the front ranks and exposing themselves willingly to danger. In fact, one of the highest honors a Roman general could earn was the spolia opima (rich plunder), which were the weapons, armor and other treasure stripped from an enemy leader killed in single combat.

The Romans in three battles we examined had a recent example of this – the consul Marcus Claudius Marcellus, who in 222 BC met Viridomarus, king of the Gaesatae tribe of Gauls, in single combat and killed him. The winning of this high honor cemented Marcellus’ place in history, and would certainly have encouraged other Roman generals to get out front in the fighting. This wasn’t a one-off event. Over a century and a half later, Julius Caesar would grab a shield and join his own front line fighting against the Nervii in what is now northern France. Casualty rates among Roman centurions were notoriously high, in part due to the culture of valor and risk-taking that dominated.

But at least in the battles we’ve examined here, that appears to be the exception rather than the rule. Note Flamininus’ moving to his right wing at Cynoscephalae when he realized he couldn’t salvage things on his left. Witness Paullus moving bodies of troops around as events unfolded at Pydna. The general impression is that the Roman consul led from immediately behind the battle line, on horseback, which not only made him more mobile for purposes of acting as an observer and giving orders, but gave him a higher vantage point from which to see the evolution of the battle and to allow him to direct his troops.

That doesn’t appear to be the case with Hellenistic generals. They were stamped in the mold of Alexander the Great, a general famous for his personal role as a warrior. In many of his most famous battles, Alexander charged at the head of his cavalry, acting as a tactical unit in the fight and personally giving and receiving blows, almost at the cost of his life at the Battle of the Granicus in 334 BC. It is believed that Alexander set his troops in line before the battle, but once the order was set, he abdicated actual command to his subordinates in favor of acting as a fighting cavalryman.

Remember that all of the Hellenistic generals we’ve examined were descendants of the successors of Alexander, and likely considered themselves the rightful inheritors of his legacy. The stories of his personal valor and style of command would have been much fresher to them than they are to us.

We see this in the behavior of the generals here. Pyrrhus of Epirus is always in the thick of the fighting, and is killed, though not in the most heroic manner, in a battle. We see Philip V personally leading his troops on the ridge at Cynoscephalae, and Antiochus leading the cavalry charge that breaks the Roman left at Magnesia. It seems likely that they, in the tradition of Alexander, were happy to lay out their general plans for the battle and then leave it to their subordinate commanders to enact it while they rode off to fight.

This makes sense in the plodding, defensive context of the phalanx. Here was a formation that wasn’t expected to move much. It was supposed to be laid out in a position and then to hold that position, or to march straight forward from it, while other units conducted any more complex maneuvers required. In fact, it’s generally considered that during the time of Alexander at least, the phalanx’s job wasn’t to win the battle at all, but merely to pin the enemy battle line in place long enough for Alexander and his heavy cavalry to strike the critical blow that would begin the rout. The formation’s tremendous depth, along with the difficulty of maneuvering with the enormous pike, lend it to this style of generalship. We don’t see Hellenistic generals breaking off pieces of their phalanxes to respond to contingencies the way the unnamed Roman tribune does at Cynoscephalae. We also don’t really see them rallying up small units of phalangites as Marcus does the Roman routers at Magnesia.

It’s possible that this focus on personal heroism on the part of the commander deprived the phalanx of much needed leadership in the thick of battle, but it’s equally possible that it was simply part of the Hellenistic military ecosystem. A static, defensive formation like the phalanx wouldn’t require as much attention from the general of the entire army, freeing him to engage in the kind of personal heroism that would inspire everyone, boost morale and thus prevent the infectious panic that could be the end of a battle.

Some of this may also be due to the nature and position of the Hellenistic versus the Roman leader. Romans had despised the word rex (king) ever since the expulsion of Lucius Tarquinius Superbus, Rome’s last king, in 509 BC, and the government of the Republic was carefully devised to prevent any one person from amassing too much personal power. A Roman consul was, despite his enormous authority, a servant of the Roman civitas, the social body of Roman citizens. Abstracting loyalty to a state, instead of a person, is a sophisticated concept, and one that the Romans excelled at, at least until their first civil war. Personal glory was absolutely a priority for the Roman consul, and Rome’s history is rife with unnecessary military action specifically brought on by a Roman public official’s need to win glory in battle. This need was driven partly by the limited term of office. Roman commanders only held imperium for a short period, and once it expired, so did their authority to lead an army. But, at least conceptually, the Roman consul was a public servant.

The Hellenistic king was a royal monarch. His military authority never waned. The army, like everything else in his kingdom, was his personal property.

Command and Control, Independence of Action and Initiative

There’s something else, the extent to which command and control is pushed down to the lowest level in the Roman army.

Command and control (also known as “C2”) is a modern military concept that refers simply to the ability to command military actions and personnel. C2 obviously accrues to the highest in rank, who have the authority to make more and bigger decisions. When that C2 is assigned to officers and soldiers of lower rank, it’s said to be “pushed down” or “pushed out” to a lower level. This is a judgment-neutral statement, and military theorists can disagree about whether or when pushing C2 down is a good idea. The Coast Guard is known for pushing C2 down as far as it can.

A lot of evidence of distributed C2 in the army of the Roman Republic that isn’t in evidence in their Hellenistic opponents. We’ve already talked a little about the power and influence of the Roman centurion, and we’ve seen them taking individual initiatives at Pydna to get their troops into the phalanx as the gaps opened up. We also know that senior centurions participated directly in counsel with the consular leadership of the Roman army, and that there was some interplay between these operational leaders and the highest ranks of Roman society, as evidenced by the 1st century AD Roman consul C. Silius Italicus’ poem Punica, which tells the story of the centurion Ennius, whose feats endeared him to the famous Scipio family to the degree that he was buried in their family plot.

The casualties among Roman centurions were extremely high. Julius Caesar, writing in the 1st century BC, describes casualties at the Battle of Pharsalus in 48 BC, where Roman centurions (per capita) died around 700 percent more frequently than milites (soldiers, common legionaries). This is a clear indicator of the personal initiative they were expected to show in leading their troops into combat, and may be an indicator of a military culture that encouraged the seizing of tactical initiative at this comparatively low level. We also hear of the velites wearing animal skins over their helmets, in part to distinguish themselves and make themselves visible to their superiors who could then mark them out for reward, promotion or praise. This isn’t absolute proof, but it is certainly evidence of individual initiative on the part of the average soldier.

But we have more concrete examples, and in the battles we examine here, no less. At Cynoscephalae, we see a tribune feeling confident enough in his ability to make major strategic decisions without consulting his general or the overall commander, to the degree where he wheels off 20 maniples from the rear of the line to execute a flanking maneuver that may well have won the battle.

At Magnesia, we see a tribune taking it upon himself not only to rally fleeing troops, but to punish them with death, re-form them, and then lead them in a countercharge, all on his own initiative and without any consultation.

At Pydna, we see an allied commander make the call to throw the unit standard into the enemy ranks in order to motivate his own troops. It’s a precursor of Caesar’s standard-bearer in 55 BC, jumping into the sea to motivate his frightened comrades. All of these decisions appear to be self-initiated, made in a split second, and without consulting higher command.

Correlation is not causation, and these are just a few data points, but they are enough to give the feeling of a military culture that rewarded initiative and personal resourcefulness to the degree where comparatively lower-ranking individuals felt comfortable making operational decisions.

We have no comparative examples in the Hellenistic armies we’ve examined. At Heraclea, Megacles dons Pyrrhus’ armor, a decision which, if anything, nearly jeopardizes the outcome of the battle. At Cynoscephalae, Nicanor hurries with his foraging troops in a column over the ridge, at the command of his superior. Nicanor is unable to make any tactical decision that might have saved his men, such as forming them up before setting off. We don’t hear much of individual brilliance during the battles we’ve examined. Some of this may be due to history being written by the winners, but reckoned as a whole with the cohesive nature of the phalanx, the royal system of government that accrued all personal power with a king, a picture of a more rigid system that discouraged individual initiative starts to make itself seen.


The medieval and early modern world saw their share of phalanxes. There’s a great translation of Aelian’s tactics published in 1616 by John Bingham under the title of The Tactiks of Aelian or Art of Embattailing an Army After Ye Grecian Manner Englished & Illustrated Wth [sic] Figures Throughout: & Notes Vpon Ye Chapters of Ye Ordinary Motions of Ye Phalange. The book is remarkable for, apart from its great title and equally amusing English, its illustrations of phalangites in 17th century armor. They wear the crested morion-style helmets you might see on one of Cortes’ conquistadores, and iron peascod breastplates over buff leather coats. These men are as far from a Hellenistic phalangite as you could imagine, but the legacy is clear and the connection to it is powerful.

The fact remains that the people reading Bingham’s translation of Aelian weren’t doing so for nostalgia’s sake. The 17th century AD was every bit as bloody as the 3rd century BC, and the commanders looking to writers like Aelian were hard-bitten war leaders like the Swedish King Gustavus Adolphus and the Holy Roman Empire’s general Count Albrecht von Wallenstein. They were looking to the ancient world because they genuinely believed that the military methodology of the period still had value, and it’s fair to argue that it did. The “pike and shot” formations that were the core of 17th century armies married the Hellenistic phalanx of pikemen with the emerging firearms of the period.

Even here we see the legacy of the ancient world. The matchlock arquebus (an early type of firearm), much like the Hellenistic pike, was of little use on its own. It was only truly effective deployed in a tightly packed formation that could pour on concentrated volumes of fire. Worse, it was incredibly slow to reload, far slower than the bows and javelins that were still used on early modern battlefields. In order to employ them effectively, you had to marshal thousands of arquebusiers to maneuver, reload and fire in perfect unison, as part of a giant and complex formation.

There’s only one way this kind of military operation can be accomplished: constant and relentless drill. Make no mistake: these are concepts that grew out of the ancient military experience and of the legion and the phalanx in particular. It may seem like a silly point. Of course all soldiers drill constantly. How else would they ever be effective? The truth is that in pre-modern armies, it’s a lot rarer than you think. Outside the organized city-state cultures we’ve examined here, many cultures fought as warbands, and even inside them, they could frequently not resist the temptation to pursue individual honor and glory at the expense of critical unit cohesion.

But even if it seems simple, even if it seems commonplace, it remains the fact that the notions of troop cohesion, drill, keeping formation and even conceptions modern professional militaries take for granted (numbered corps, uniform standards, military retirement, span of control, etc …) reached a level of refinement in these two formations that endures to this day. The legion and the phalanx certainly didn’t invent these concepts, but they cemented them. They are timeless because these concepts are universal and effective. They endure, all around us, every day.

The result was a massive cultural shift. The same is true of the legion and the phalanx. In their organization, esprit de corps, deployment, method of arming, and in hundreds of other fine details, they represent an expression of how people mobilize for war that seems so incredibly familiar.

Perhaps what’s most fascinating about the legion and the phalanx is how they were, ultimately, expressions of culture – of a Rome struggling to come to grips with brutal Celtic invasions that swept away its burgeoning hoplite phalanx and put its nascent city to the sack. Of a fractious Greece with disparate city-states constantly striving against one another, until the threat of the enormous Persian Empire gave them a common enemy, if only for a little while. These cultures bled into and informed one another, and in a way we can see the conflict between the legion and the phalanx as a conflict between two branches of Greek legacy, drifting apart and then coming together again.

But in the end, it is this above all: a great story, full of blood and sweat and adventure and more than anything – people, fascinating, complicated and ambitious.

In other words – us.