Development of the Hoplite Structure

A shift in ancient Greek social and political organization resulted in the emergence of the hoplite military structure, which represented the land- owning classes with a stake in society, replacing the aristocratic military caste that preceded it. The Greek Dark Ages (1200-1800 BCE) had been characterized by horse-mounted warriors representing the wealthier strata of Greek society. The hoplite reform that emerged at the end of this period resulted in the inclusion of citizen- farmers of the evolving city-states, which while granting political representation also required military obligations for the defense of the state. The hoplite structure also created new tactical military strategies exemplified by the phalanx.

For 300 years, between approximately 650 and 350 BCE, the hoplite military structure dominated the Greek world. During this period, no other military tactic was able to engage the Greek phalanx effectively. The phalanx consisted of a close formation of heavily armed warriors, characterized by their round shields known as hoplons. They also carried a long spear, usually as long as the height of the soldier. In terms of armor, they would have a breastplate, which made them vulnerable at the neck and at the groin. It did not provide any protection for the back. Hoplites would also have greaves to protect their legs, from their kneecaps to their ankles. A Corinthian helmet would cover most of their face but would allow limited eyesight for close combat. Leather padding would create a level of protection for the hoplite, but a strong enough impact could still cause considerable bodily harm.

The main difference between the hoplite phalanx and previous and subsequent military procedures in ancient Greek tactical formations is the efficient combination of military service with the civilian sense of duty to the nation-state. The inclusive and egalitarian nature of the phalanx placed friends, family, and locals fighting for the defense of the community and for esprit de corps. Rather than reliance on a caste of elites fighting in a small-scale engagement, the phalanx pitted citizen-soldiers from one polis (city-state) against another. The auxiliary forces in the form of archers and skirmishers were typically formed from the lower strata of the city-states and did not command much respect in the hoplite ranks.

Distinctive military traditions emerged as a result of the development of the hoplite organization. Among the most famous example is the city- state of Sparta, renowned for the military prowess and the lifelong commitment of its hoplites. Young boys would enter military training at the age of five and carry on in military life past middle age. The spirit of fighting for the honor and glory not only of the city-state but also for family honor was important for Spartans. The weight of the armor necessitated Spartans to maintain a proper physique, which resulted in intense physical preparedness in the form of gymnastics and an intense exercise regime. Strength and agility were necessary to be able to carry heavy armor while engaging in battle. Other Greek city-states maintained comparable rituals to those of the Spartans in regard to physical preparedness.

Bibliography Hanson, Victor Davis, ed. Hoplites: The Classical Greek Battle Experience. New York: Routledge, 1991. Lendon, J. E. Soldiers and Ghosts: A History of Battle in Classical Antiquity. New Haven, CT: Princeton University Press, 2005. Martin, Thomas R. Ancient Greece: From Prehistoric to Hellenistic Times. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2000.

The Nature of Hoplite Combat

The Greek Military Revolution I

The Greek Military Revolution II


The Sarmatians

The steppe lands north of the Black Sea were inhabited by a powerful nation of mounted nomad warriors known as the Sarmatians. The Sarmatians were the cultural group that included the Alani and Aorsi population who occupied the northern Caspian region. Ancient Roman sources suggest that the Sarmatians were divided into at least five large sub-nations that shared common ethnic and cultural features, but each had their own rulers, territories and political interests. During the first centuries AD, the Sarmatians began to expand their range and power westwards across the steppe lands that led from the Ural Mountains in southern Russia into Central Europe. They conquered many steppe-dwelling Scythian populations and absorbed them into their wider culture.

By the end of the first century AD, the Alani and Siraces occupied lands stretching west from the Caspian Sea to the River Don. On the north coast of the Black Sea the plain between the Don and the Dniester was claimed by a Sarmatian people called the Roxolani. Beyond the Dniester was the territory of the Iazyges who moved west to the plains of Hungary and the Danube frontier of the Roman Empire. The Sarmatians were therefore in a position to control crucial population movements across the northern steppe and threaten Roman interests in Europe.

Greek and Roman sources suggest that the Sarmatians had a similar lifestyle to traditional Scythians (mounted steppe nomads). Herodotus describes the Scythians as having `no established cities or fortresses, just house-bearers and mounted archers who live, not by tilling the soil, but by cattle-rearing and carrying their dwellings on wagons’. These customs made the steppe nations `invincible and unapproachable’. Writing in the Augustan era, Strabo describes how the Sarmatians `spend their lives in felt tents fitted to wagons, while around them are the herds that provide the milk, cheese, and meat that provide them with sustenance’. They did not store liquids in metal or fragile pottery vessels, as even bronze water jars would burst and fracture when their contents froze in the harsh steppe winters.

The Sarmatians could establish fortified compounds, but most of their population had no fixed habitations and no sacred temples.  When Ammianus describes the Alani, he reports `An unsheathed sword is fixed downward in the ground and they reverently worship it as their God of War and the presiding deity of the lands that they range across.’ Pliny suggests that the early Sarmatians considered decorative tattoos to be a symbol of honour and reports that even their infants were marked with tattoos. During the winter months the Sarmatians led their ox-driven wagons down to meadowlands near shores of the Black and Caspian Seas. In summer they moved north again to graze their horses, cattle and sheep on the vast open steppe. Strabo explains, `They follow the grazing herds. In time they move to other places that have grass, living in the marsh-meadows about Lake Maeotis (Sea of Azov) in the winter and the plains in the summer.’ Their wagons followed the course of rivers on seasonal journeys across the Eurasian steppe which meant that their routes were mainly along a north-south range. The old, infirm and the women remained with the wagons, while mounted bands of male warriors gathered for hunting, raiding or war. Writing in the fourth century AD, Ammianus describes how the Alani remained one of the leading Sarmatian groups and preserved their nomadic lifestyle throughout antiquity.

Strabo describes how Sarmatian horses were comparatively small and difficult to control, but they were extraordinarily fast. The horses used for riding and war were castrated to better manage their temperament. This ensured that they remained silent and obedient when Sarmatian war-bands concealed themselves for ambush attacks. On long-range expeditions, mounted Sarmatians rode with spare mounts and used a relay system to cover great distances at a relentless pace. Ammianus explains that `they cover vast spaces in pursuit or retreat, on swift manageable horses, sometimes each rider leading one or two spare chargers, so they can preserve their strength by alternate rest periods.’ With this advantage Sarmatian armies might cover more than 50 miles per day.

Early Sarmatian warriors carried wicker shields and wore helmets and breastplates fashioned from thick layers of raw ox hide. They carried bows, but were also prepared for close combat with spears and swords. According to Strabo, in a pitched battle this light weaponry was not effective against a disciplined unit of well-armoured Greek infantry. He describes how in 100 BC, during a battle for control over the Crimea, a force of 50,000 Roxolani was overcome and massacred by a phalanx comprising only 6,000 Hellenic troops.

During this period the Sarmatians served as mounted mercenary forces in foreign wars occurring close to the Pontic-Caspian steppe by various kingdoms and other factions. The chief of the Sarmatian Siraces was said to have mobilized 20,000 mounted warriors to support Pharnaces II of Pontus (97-47 BC). Strabo thought that the Aorsi (Alani) might be able to field over 200,000 horsemen in the defence of their own territories. He estimated that this number might be larger if the more distant steppe clans mobilized, `for they held dominion over more land and rule over most of the Caspian coast’. The Greek writer Lucian heard stories from the Chersonesos kingdom about wars fought with the assistance of steppe allies. In one of these accounts 20,000 Alani and other mounted Sarmatians were recruited by a Hellenic king to fight an enemy force including 30,000 Scythians. These accounts suggest the scale of warfare conducted in the Pontic-Caspian region and Chinese records confirm that the Caspian Steppe (Yancai) could support over 100,000 mounted warriors.

In the early first century AD the Romans probably considered the Sarmatians to be a manageable threat. In AD 49, Julius Aquila, a Roman commander stationed in the Crimea, had to deal with a rebellion in the Chersonesos kingdom led by a dignitary who summoned cavalry support from the Siraces. Pro-imperial forces included native troops equipped in the Roman military manner backed by a small number of Roman cohorts numbering several thousand soldiers. But this army required cavalry support, so Aquila consequently formed an alliance with a Aorsi chief named Eunones who offered horsemen to fight for the Roman cause. Tacitus reports, `It was agreed that Eunones should engage the enemy with his cavalry and the Romans undertake the siege of towns.’

The Roman-Aorsi army advanced against the rebel districts with the armoured cohorts and the native infantry forming the centre point of the battle line and the Sarmatian horsemen formed up along the front and rear. They assaulted a fortified rebel town called Uspe which was defended by moats and earthwork ramparts created by heaping layers of soil between wickerwork hurdles. The Roman army used spears and firebrands to drive back the garrison from their wooden towers and burn their wickerwork defences. By nightfall large parts of the defences were destroyed and the Roman army prepared to assault the town using ladders to scale the breached earthworks. Spokesmen from the town sought terms and offered the entire population of 10,000 people as slaves if their lives were spared. Tacitus reports that the offer was rejected since it would have been `extremely difficult to maintain a cordon of guards round such a multitude. It was better they should die by the law of war.’ When the inhabitants of Uspe were massacred, the shocked communities from surrounding districts quickly renounced their support for the rebellion. This conflict demonstrated how quickly urban settlements on the northern coast of the Black Sea could transfer their allegiance and resources between dominant factions.

By this period the Sarmatians were adopting new forms of armour and equipment that greatly increased their military prospects. Mounted Sarmatians began to wear conical metal helmets and distinctive coats of scale-armour made from the hard plates of horse hooves strung together with strong sinew or sewn onto ox hide. When Pausanias visited Athens he saw Sarmatian armour displayed in the Temple of Aesculapius, the Greek god of medicine who was venerated with snake imagery. Pausanias describes this Sarmatian armour as being `like a reptile’ and fashioned `like a closed pine cone’. He explains that `Sarmatian breastplates are as well-crafted and sturdy as those of the Greeks, for they can withstand the blows of missiles.’ It was confirmation that these `foreigners are as skilled artisans as the Greeks’. Ammianus confirms that horn-armour was still utilized in the fourth century AD when the Alani fought `in cuirasses made from smooth and polished pieces of horn, fastened like scales to linen shirts’. Some Sarmatian armour could have been crafted from small iron or bronze plates riveted onto leather or sewn onto heavy cloth. When Tacitus describes the Roxolani he reports that `their princes and all their nobility wear iron scales and hard hide and although this armour is impenetrable to blows, it is difficult for the wearer to get up when thrown from his mount.’

A first century Roman poet named Valerius Flaccus imagined an attack by `fierce Sarmatians who thronged together with savage yells, their corselets ridged with flexible chain mail which also covered their steeds’. Trajan’s Column depicts the armour-encompassed Sarmatian mercenaries who fought for the Dacian kingdom in their war against the Empire (AD 101-106). The reliefs show fleeing Sarmatian horsemen dressed in long-sleeved scale-covered coats and protective leggings with a barde that extends down to their horses’ hooves. As this length of barde would have restricted the movement of the horse, these images must be based on inaccurate eye-witness descriptions.

The Sarmatian cavalry fought with long slashing swords and the remains of these weapons have been found on the steppe in small grave mounds known as kurgans. Armoured warriors also began to carry long lances held in both hands to spear enemy combatants with a direct forward charge. When Tacitus describes Sarmatian warriors in AD 68 he reports that long-swords and twohanded lances of `excessive length’ were part of their standard arms and `it is not their custom to use shields.’ Valerius Flaccus describes these lances as `a pinewood shaft that stretches out over the head and shoulders of their horse, which they rest firmly on their knees. The lances cast a long shadow over the field of conflict ready to be driven with the might of warrior and steed swift through the midst of the foe.’ Arrian reveals that the Romans called these lances `contus’ and suggests that they were a particular innovation of the Sarmatians. Tacitus explains that this combination of lance and heavy armour meant that `when the Sarmatians charge on horseback, hardly any battle-line can withstand their assault.’ Sarmatian riders were also skilled in the use of lassoes and Pausanias reports that they could `throw a lasso around any enemy, then by turning around on their horses take them off-balance’.

Sarmatian armies rode into battle with draco (dragon standards) made from a hollow metal head with a long sleeve-like streamer attached made from brightly coloured silk. When the riders charged at an enemy these banners became dramatically animated. The wind whistled through the funnel head and the silk `tail’ thrashed about to resemble dragons flying above the heads of the riders. Scenes from Trajan’s Column depict captured arms and equipment including draco standards with fish, wolves and dog-heads.

The Late Roman army adopted Sarmatian-style standards for their own military units and Ammianus describes how the Emperor Julian addressed his troops in front of a carefully arranged display of gilded ensigns (AD 357). He was `surrounded by gold and jewelled dragons, woven from purple fabric fixed to spearpoles. The broad mouths of the dragons were open to the breeze and they hissed as if animated by anger, as their tails wound in the wind.’ In his war against the Persians, Julian was able to rally a unit of Roman cavalry as they fled the battlefield. He rode into their midst with his distinctive standard and Ammianus reports, `They recognised his purple dragon ensign, fitted to the top of a very long lance and spreading out like the slough of a serpent. The tribune of one of the squadrons stopped and although pale and shaken with fear, he rode back to renew the battle.’

Ammianus had served as a soldier in the fourth century Roman army and he claimed that the Sarmatians were `more suited to predatory incursions than to regular war’. They did not maintain garrisons or conduct long-term sieges, but they became a substantial threat to the Empire due to opportunistic attacks that inflicted substantial losses on Roman armies and damage to imperial territory. Their expansion also caused population movements that created fear and disorder on the Roman frontiers.

Achaemenid Empire Administration and Army

The Median Empire was overthrown by the king of Anshan, Cyrus II, either in 554/553 or 550/549 BCE. The new dynasty founded by Cyrus adopted the administrative practices of the Medes. Once Cyrus expanded his empire to incorporate Asia Minor, Mesopotamia, and parts of Central and South Asia, the newly founded empire required a new and more elaborate administrative structure. The principal challenge for a vast empire, which ruled diverse geographical regions and contained numerous ethnic, linguistic, and religious communities with their own social organizations, was how to collect taxes and generate sufficient revenue to pay the salaries of the king’s officials and troops. Beginning with Cyrus the Great but particularly during the long reign of Darius I (r. 522–486 BCE), the Achaemenids divided their empire into provinces, or satrapies. The Persian king appointed a governor, or satrap, to each province. The satraps were not hereditary rulers. They were appointed by the Persian king and served at the pleasure of their royal master. Every new country or region that had been conquered was assessed for taxes. At times for purely administrative purposes, neighboring regions were joined to a newly conquered area in a single unit (Herodotus: 3.89). The satrap was responsible for maintaining security in the area under his control, making sure that the cultivation of land would not be disrupted. Each satrap had his own army, and he could use it to defend the territory under his jurisdiction. The satraps also provided troops to the king’s army during military campaigns, thereby contributing to the central government’s cavalry and infantry forces. In a long paragraph in his Oeconomicus, the Greek author Xenophon described the relationship between the Persian king and the provincial power centers in the following words:

We agree that he [the Persian king] is seriously concerned about military matters, because he gives orders to each man [governor] who is in charge of the countries from which he receives tribute to supply provisions for a specified number of horsemen, archers, slingers, and light-armed troops who will be capable of controlling his subjects and of protecting the country if an enemy should attack. And besides these he maintains guards in the citadels. And the officials to whom this duty has been assigned supplies provisions for the guards. The king holds an annual review of the mercenaries and the other troops who have been ordered to under arms, assembling all of them, except those in the citadels, at the “place of muster.” He personally inspects the troops near his own residence and he sends men whom he trusts to review those who live farther away. And those garrison commanders and chiliarchs [commander of a thousand] and satraps who show up with the full complement of soldiers assigned to them and present them equipped with horses that are well groomed and weapons that are well maintained he promotes with honours and rewards with valuable gifts. But those commanders whom he finds either showing a lack of concern for their garrisons or making a private profit from them, he punishes severely, removing them from office and appointing other men to take charge. Furthermore, he himself examines all of the land that he seized as he rides through it, and by sending men whom he trusts he surveys the land he does not examine personally. And those governors whom he observes presenting densely populated land and fields under cultivation stocked with the trees and crops that grow in that region, to these he gives additional territory and he lavishes gifts on them and rewards them with seats of honour; but those whose lands he seized uncultivated and sparsely populated, because of the governor’s harshness or arrogance or lack of concern, he punishes, removing them from office and appointing other governors. Since he does these things, does he seem to be less concerned that the earth be well cultivated by the inhabitants than that it be well protected by the garrisons? Separate officials are appointed by him for each of these activities, not the same men: some are in charge of the inhabitants and the workers, and collect tribute from them; others command the armed troops and the garrisons. If the garrison commander does not adequately defend the country the official concerned with the inhabitants and agricultural production brings an accusation against the commander on the grounds that the people are not able to do their work because they are not properly protected. But if the garrison commander provides peace for farming, whereas the civil governor presents under populated, unproductive land, the garrison commander, in turn, brings an accusation against him. For, on the whole, those who cultivate the land poorly are unable to support garrisons or pay tribute. But wherever a satrap is appointed, he is concerned with both areas of activity. (Xenophon: IV.5–12)

After the collapse of the Persian Empire in 330 BCE, Alexander and his Macedonian generals continued with the administrative practices of the Achaemenid kings. The short-lived empire of Alexander and the Seleucid state, which succeeded it in Iran, Mesopotamia, and parts of Asia Minor, relied on a system of vassals who paid tribute and taxes to their Seleucid overlords. The Seleucids, who ruled from Antioch in Syria (present-day southern Turkey), also relied on Greek colonies, which had been founded by Alexander during his conquests.

Achaemenid Army

The Achaemenid army was the backbone of the Achaemenid state. The army served as the principal instrument for maintaining order in the empire. As the Achaemenid state grew from a small kingdom in southern Iran to the largest empire the world had ever seen, the Persian army went through a major transformation. The armies of Cyrus II the Great, the founder of the state, consisted of Persian tribal units, which had initially supported his rebellion against the Medes. As the small Persian state expanded and converted itself into an empire, the Achaemenid monarchs developed a professional army. As displayed by the magnificent wall carvings of Persepolis in southern Iran, the core units of the standing army were recruited from the Persians and the Medes. The “royal cavalry guard and the ‘Immortals’ composed the core of this standing army” (Frye: 104). According to Herodotus, the Immortals corps “was known as the Immortals, because it was invariably kept up to strength; if a man was killed or fell sick, the vacancy he left was at once filled, so that its strength was never more nor less than 10,000” (Herodotus: 7.83). The pool for recruiting the Achaemenid army was vast and deep, as ancient Persians were educated in the art of warfare since childhood. As young boys, they learned how to ride and draw bows. Sport events and hunting expeditions were organized as the means of military training.

The Achaemenid army reflected the ethnic, linguistic, and religious diversity of the Persian Empire. It was a multinational force, which included fighting men from the diverse communities that resided in the empire. Commanders of infantry units were mostly Persians, related to the king either by blood or marriage. The army units were divided into units of tens, hundreds, and thousands (Herodotus: 7.81). Before embarking on a campaign, spies were dispatched to collect information on the ruler and the country that was about to be attacked. Prior to a military campaign, all army units assembled in a gathering place for inspection. The tradition among the Persians was to begin a march after sunrise (Quintus Curtius Rufus: 3.3.8). The signal for the march was given by trumpet from the king’s tent. To make the king’s tent visible to all, “a representation of the sun gleamed in a crystal case” above it (Quintus Curtius Rufus: 3.3.8). The “order of the line of march was as follows: in front, on silver alters, was carried the fire which the Persians called sacred and eternal” (Quintus Curtius Rufus: 3.3.9). After the fire alters came the magi singing hymns, “followed by 365 young men in scarlet cloaks, their number equaling the days of the year,” then “the chariot consecrated to Jupiter [Ahura Mazda], drawn by white horses, followed by a horse of extraordinary size, which the Persians called ‘the Sun’s horse’” (Quintus Curtius Rufus: 3.3.9). Next came various cavalry units, including “the cavalry of twelve nations variously armed”; the Immortals, “10,000 in number”; the “15,000 men called ‘the king’s kinsmen’”; and finally the unit that looked after the king’s wardrobe (Quintus Curtius Rufus: 3.3.13–14). All these units “preceded the royal chariot on which rode the king himself, towering above all others” (Quintus Curtius Rufus: 3.3.15). The king appeared in magnificent attire: “his tunic was purple, interwoven with white at the center, and his gold-embroidered cloak bore a gilded motif of hawks, attacking each other with their beaks” (Quintus Curtius Rufus: 3.3.17). His “royal head-dress” was “encircled by a blue ribbon flecked with white” (Quintus Curtius Rufus: 3.3.19). A unit of “10,000 spearman carrying lances” followed “the king’s chariot, and to the right and left he was attended by some 200 of his most noble relatives” (Quintus Curtius Rufus: 3.3.21). At the end of this column came 30,000 foot soldiers followed by 400 of the king’s horses. The female members of the royal family, including the king’s mother, wives, concubines, children, and their attendants and nurses accompanied the king in his campaigns. They were guarded among others by “a troop of women” (Quintus Curtius Rufus: 3.3.22).

The Achaemenid state was originally a land power. As the boundaries of the empire expanded and reached the shores of the Mediterranean and Aegean Seas, the Achaemenids turned their attention to establishing Persian supremacy on the eastern Mediterranean and launched a navy. The Achaemenian navy was “the domain of Phoenicians and to some extent the Inonian” and Cyprian Greeks, but Iranian marines constituted an important component of the Achaemenian naval forces and “fought on the ships” (Frye: 107). The Phoenicians had joined the Persian navy of their own free will and enjoyed enormous power in the military decision-making process. For example, when the Achaemenid king Cambyses II ordered his fleet to attack Carthage, the Phoenicians “refused to go, because of the close bond which connected Phoenicia and Carthage” (Herodotus: 3.19). With the Phoenicians “out of it and the remainder of the naval force too weak to undertake the campaign alone, the Carthaginians escaped Persian domination” (Herodotus: 3.19). Darius, who wished to know where Indus joined the Indian Ocean, sent an expedition down the river under the command of the Inonian naval admiral Scylax of Caryanda (Herodotus: 4.44). The naval expedition followed the course of the river eastward until it reached the ocean; then, “returning westward, the ships followed the coast, and after a voyage of some thirty months,” reached Egypt (Herodotus: 4.44). This allowed Darius to make regular use of the Indian Ocean and complete his conquest of the Indus Valley (Herodotus: 4.44).

While the Achaemenid army was the principal instrument of territorial expansion and preservation of security and order, military might was used not only to wage war but also to conduct co-option and peace. To the astonishment of their enemies, the Achaemenid kings generally treated the rulers they defeated with kindness and magnanimity. According to Herodotus, Cyrus treated Astyages, the defeated king of Media, “with great consideration and kept him at his court until he died” (Herodotus: 1.130). Cyrus displayed the same benevolent generosity and forgiveness toward Croesus, the king of Lydia (Herodotus: 1.88–91). If a king sought peace he was pardoned, and at times he or one of his sons was restored on the throne. There are “many instances from which one may infer that this sort of generosity” and compassion was a common practice among ancient Iranians (Herodotus: 3.15). As Herodotus remarked, the Persians were in “the habit of treating the sons of the kings with honor, and even of restoring to their sons the thrones of those who have rebelled against them” (Herodotus: 3.15). If, however, after being defeated and pardoned a king tried to organize a revolt among his people, he was condemned to death.

Ambrosius Aurelianus

When the Romans left Britain, they didn’t just take their belongings with them; they took their entire way of life. Over the centuries, Roman rule had civilized Britain. The abrupt departure of the Romans left a vacuum the Anglo-Saxons were happy to fill, but the two invaders could not have been more different. The Romans had introduced government to Britain, central political and economic structures that had created an orderly and prosperous life for most. They had also established long-distance trade, money, taxes, roads, sanitation, pottery, and glass. When the Romans left, they took all of these innovations with them and under the illiterate, “barbaric” Anglo-Saxons the British were reduced to a barter economy and lived in a more primitive state than their ancestors before.

Those who were able to escape fled to Armorica in Gaul (modern-day France) where they settled by the sea in a land that closely resembled that which they had left behind. To this day, inhabitants of the part of France now known as Brittany speak in an unusual Welsh-sounding dialect that is an ancient British tongue. For those who remained behind in Britain, the only option was to run and hide from the fearful barbaric warriors who would kill them on sight.

It is at this desperate juncture in British history that Ambrosius Aurelianus appears and the legend of King Arthur is born. Little can be fact-checked on the life of Ambrosius Aurelianus, but it is thought that he was a Roman general of impeccable lineage who had remained behind in Britain when the Empire fell. Aurelianus may have had a son who was Romano-Celtic and given the same name, and as a result, the British army of resistance against the Anglo-Saxons may have been active under a leader named Aurelianus for two generations.

Under the second Aurelianus, who has been described as a Welsh prince, the first effective resistance to Anglo-Saxon forces was established. Saxons were pushing further and further west, forcing Romano-British deeper into Wales. Aurelianus gathered the surviving Roman-British and organized them into a military force, capable of standing up to the Anglo-Saxons. In a series of battles, the British resistance managed to reclaim important territory, forcing West Saxons out of Dorset and as far as Wiltshire.

These skirmishes reached their climax in the Battle of Mons Badonicus, or the Battle of Mount Badon, which is thought to have taken place around the year 500 AD. We cannot be sure exactly where Mount Badon is. Most of the assumptions historians are able to make about this period of ancient history come from archeological findings. Evidence of a hillfort manned by Romano-British people was found at Little Solsbury Hill in southern England, close to Bath, leading some historians to believe that this is Mount Badon. Others think it more likely that Aurelianus was defending the north of England and that Mount Badon is probably located in Cumbria, known as Camboglanna in Roman times.

What little information we have about Ambrosius Aurelianus and the Battle of Mount Badon comes from just one scant source: the sermon of a sixth-century British priest or monk named Gildas. Gildas, who was known as Gildas the Wise, wrote the sermon De Excidio et Conquestu Britanniae (On the Ruin and Conquest of Britain) as a religious re-telling of the Anglo-Saxon invasion of Britain and the aftermath. It is thought that Gildas’ text was written sometime between 510 and 540 AD, meaning Gildas was writing about events as they were happening or at the very least had happened within living memory. As such, Gildas’ text is incredibly valuable to historians studying this particular period of British history. Gildas, for example, offers one of the very first descriptions of Hadrian’s Wall.

On Ambrosius Aurelianus, Gildas says only, “A gentleman who, perhaps alone of the Romans, had survived the shock of this notable storm. Certainly his parents, who had worn the purple, were slain in it. His descendants in our day have become greatly inferior to their grandfather’s excellence. Under him, our people regained their strength and challenged the victors to battle. The Lord assented, and the battle went their way.”

Gildas account of Aurelianus and his followers’ Christian piety and bravery in this first section of his sermon contrasts with the next two parts in which he condemns contemporary leaders for their sinful ways. Was Aurelianus a real man? And if so, was his life the foundation of the legend of King Arthur? One theory suggests that Arthur was a nickname given to Aurelianus by his men. In early Anglo-Saxon times, Arthur meant “bear man” and alluded either to Aurelianus being a particularly powerful and hairy man or to his habit of wearing a bear skin cloak.

The next mention of the British leader who led his men to victory at Mount Badon comes from the Welsh cleric Nennius, who wrote Historia Brittonum (History of Britain) around 830 AD. Nennius lists twelve battles between the British and the Anglo-Saxons, but unlike Gildas, he names the leader of the battles Arthur. Arthur is briefly mentioned again in the slightly later Annales Cambriae, compiled during the seventh or eighth century. This weighty chronicle was written anonymously and includes references to the Battle of Badon during “year 72” with the detail, “Arthur bore the Cross of our Lord Jesus Christ on his shoulders for three days and three nights and the Britons were the victors.” Arthur’s death is also listed as having occurred during a battle at Camlann in 539 AD. It’s not much to go on, but it was enough to spark the imagination of subsequent generations who looked to these ancient texts as proof of the origin of the legend of King Arthur.

The Battle of Mount Badon became legendary as it was the first military victory the Romano-British had achieved over the Anglo-Saxons and secured relative peace for 50 years. Peace was disrupted again in 550 AD when a massive and devastating new wave of Saxons descended on Britain and took almost complete control of the land. By the seventh century, there was no such thing as Britain; four distinct cultures were sharing the cluster of islands we now refer to as the United Kingdom.

What remained of the Romano-British stayed in Wales and the southwest, but by now they had taken on the language of the Celts. A culture known as the Gaels lived in Ireland and the northwestern region of Scotland. The Pictish kingdoms kept control of the land north of the Roman Wall. And the Anglo-Saxons and Jutes controlled the vast majority of England, territories they named Mercia, Northumbria, East Anglia, Kent, Wessex, Sussex, and Essex. The very term Welsh is an Anglo-Saxon one, derived from Wielisc or Wyliscand meaning foreign or slave. Even today, the Welsh term used to describe England translates roughly as “the lost lands.”

It’s impossible to say how much of Aurelianus or King Arthur’s life happened, and focusing too much on historical evidence is beside the point. The time period in which King Arthur was supposed to have lived was a real period in British history that later became known as the Dark Ages. Looking back at the Anglo-Saxon invasion their ancestors lived through, subsequent generations needed a hero whose bravery and Christian virtues were something to look up to, and this brings us nicely to the legend of King Arthur in the twelfth century.


It was not until 410 BC that Carthage’s seventy-year sabbatical from Sicilian affairs came to an end, when it was decided to lend help to the city of Segesta in a dispute that had flared up with its Greek neighbour Selinus. The reason for this foreign-policy volte-face probably had more to do with increasing concerns over the growing influence of Selinus’ ally Syracuse than it did with solidarity with Segesta. After the death of Gelon in 478, Syracusan power had quickly waned and Sicily had once more become a patchwork of feuding city states and minor warlords. Economic and demographic decline had quickly followed, with many mainly Elymian settlements in western and central Sicily contracting greatly in size or even being completely abandoned. However, by 410, after spectacularly repelling an Athenian invasion, Syracuse began to re-emerge as a major power on the island–one that might potentially take advantage of the continuing turmoil in western Sicily.

Segesta and Selinus were located in the west of the island, close to the Punic cities of Motya, Solus and Panormus, which, although politically independent of Carthage and neither significant markets for Carthaginian goods nor major exporters to the city, were still of great strategic importance to Carthage, being key coordinates on the trade routes that linked the North African metropolis with Italy and Greece. The sense of a renewed Syracusan threat may have been the stimulus for the construction of a new system of fortifications at Panormus. The Greek cities of Sicily were also important trading partners. Diodorus, taking his information from earlier Sicilian Greek historians, explained that the enormous wealth of the city of Acragas in the late fifth century came in part from supplying olives to the Carthaginians. The Carthaginian economic hegemony in the central Mediterranean appears to have been built around the control of foreign trade. Profit was gained not only through Carthage’s own participation in this trade, but also from taxing foreign merchants who wished to operate in markets for which Carthage increasingly provided ‘protection’, such as the Punic cities on Sardinia and Sicily. Moreover, allies could be rewarded by the grant of trading rights in ports over which Carthaginian influence extended. Initially, at least, Carthaginian intervention in Sicily was driven by the desire to protect this system.

For the Magonids, there were other, more personal, considerations. Carthage might have become the richest and most powerful state in the western Mediterranean under their stewardship, but the disaster at Himera remained a blemish on that proud record. Magonid prestige at home would undoubtedly be boosted by a triumphant return to Sicily. Now that major domestic constitutional reforms had been bedded in, the Magonids may have considered this a good time to act abroad. Unsurprisingly, it was Hannibal, the present leader of the Magonids and the grandson of Hamilcar, the defeated commander at Himera, who was the main advocate within the Council of Elders for Carthage lending assistance to Segesta. When that assistance was agreed, in 410, he was put in command of the expeditionary force.

In an attempt to ensure that the Syracusans did not become militarily involved in the dispute, the Carthaginians sent envoys to Syracuse requesting their arbitration. This strategy delivered the desired result when the Selinuntines refused Syracusan intervention. The Syracusans then decided to renew their alliance with Selinus while maintaining their peace treaty with Carthage, thereby staying neutral. The Carthaginians then sent 5,000 Libyan and 800 Campanian mercenaries, supplying them with horses and high salaries, to assist the Segestans.

After the Segestans with their hired military help had routed a Selinuntine army, both sides turned to their respective allies, Carthage and Syracuse, for help, which was granted, thereby putting the two great powers on a collision course. Preparing himself for war, Hannibal mustered a formidable army made up of Libyan levies and Iberian mercenaries, and started to prepare the necessary sea transportation to carry his army across to Sicily. After these troops, siege engines, missiles and all the other equipment and supplies that were needed had been loaded into 60 ships and 1,500 transports, in 409 the armada set off.

Once it had safely landed, the army was joined by Carthage’s Greek and Segestan allies, before marching directly to Selinus, where Hannibal, aware that the Selinuntines were holding out for the arrival of Syracusan allies, did everything in his power to capture the city as quickly as possible. Giant siege towers were dragged up to the walls, and battering rams were taken to the gates. Archers and slingers were also employed to keep up a constant stream of missiles. (Unfortunately we are almost completely reliant on the extremely hostile (and much later) testimony of the Sicilian Greek historian Timaeus for information on this, and later, Carthaginian military campaigns in Sicily. Though he provides a considerable amount of information on Carthaginian troop movements, much of his analysis needs to be treated with extreme caution.)

The Selinuntines had recently spent so much effort and expense on the construction of a series of magnificent temples that they had neglected the repair of their city walls. The Carthaginian siege engines soon punched holes in these fragile defences, and battalion after battalion of fresh troops were thrown at the breaches. However, knowing how catastrophic the consequences of defeat would be for them, the citizens of Selinus mounted a desperate defence that held the Carthaginians at bay for another nine days. Indeed, it was only when, in a moment of confusion, the defenders withdrew from the walls that the Carthaginians gained access to the city. Despite this piece of good fortune, progress was still painfully slow, as each street had to be taken by fierce hand-to-hand fighting while women, children and old men rained stones and missiles down upon the heads of the Carthaginian troops. The end arrived when the Selinuntines, who had at last run out of options, made a futile last stand in the marketplace. After a fierce fight, they were all cut down. Diodorus (once more following Timaeus’ hostile testimony) then provides a vivid, but one suspects highly partisan, account of the supposed outrages inflicted on the city and its surviving inhabitants by the Carthaginian troops, which he contends left the streets of the city choked with 16,000 corpses and many buildings burnt to the ground.

Hannibal’s next target was surely no surprise to its inhabitants. Using the same tactics that had been so successful at Selinus, the Carthaginian army hit Himera with a sustained, high-tempo assault. However, the Himerans, deciding that attack was the best form of defence, marched out of the city and, as their families cheered them from the walls, attacked the Carthaginian army. Although initially startled by this unexpected tactic, the numerically superior Carthaginian forces eventually managed to drive the Himerans back into their city. There the decision was now taken to evacuate as many of the citizenry as possible on Syracusan ships. Those left behind were instructed to hold out as best they could and wait for the Syracusan fleet to return for them. It never did, and on the third day the city fell. Once more Diodorus provides a lurid account of the outrages committed, on the orders of Hannibal himself, by the Carthaginian troops. Unlike Selinus, which had only its walls destroyed, Himera was to be razed to the ground and its famous temples pillaged. Hannibal then supposedly rounded up the 3,000 men who had been taken prisoner and, in a bloody memorial to his grandsire, slaughtered them at the very spot where it was said that Hamilcar had fallen. After that, rather than pressing on and taking full advantage of the Sicilian Greeks’ disarray, the Magonid general paid off his army and returned to Africa.

Despite the strictly limited nature of Hannibal’s Sicilian operation, there is little doubt that it had set an important precedent for future Carthaginian intervention. Carthage’s extensive use of mercenary troops resulted in the production of the city’s first coinage to pay them. Previously Carthage had resisted the introduction of coinage, which had first appeared in the Greek world at the beginning of the sixth century. However, the Punic cities of Sicily, clearly influenced by their Greek counterparts on the island, had started minting their own coinage much earlier, in the last three decades of the sixth century.

As their chief purpose was to pay mercenaries, who wished to have high-value Greek-looking coinage, the new Carthaginian coins borrowed heavily from western Greek designs and weight standards. They were decorated with two motifs that became increasingly associated with Carthage: the horse and the palm tree. They carried one of two superscriptions: Qrthdst (‘Carthage’) or Qrthdst/mhnt (‘Carthage/ the camp’). The latter term, which basically meant ‘Carthaginian military administration’, is surely confirmation that the coins were only for a specific purpose. Carthage’s lack of a permanent presence in Sicily at this time is highlighted by the fact that the troops were recruited and drilled in Africa, and it appears that the supplies and coinage were also shipped from Carthage.

There were now clear signs that Hannibal’s actions had further destabilized the island. Within two years, in 407, Carthaginian troops were back on Sicily after Hermocrates, a renegade Syracusan general, had attacked the Punic cities of the south-west. Despite Diodorus’ assertion that their aim was the conquest of the whole island, the Carthaginians were wary of taking further unilateral action. The discovery of a partial inscription in Athens shows that the Carthaginians sent envoys there to seek an alliance. The Carthaginian heralds received a warm welcome, and were invited to participate in civic entertainment. The inscription appears to have been a positive recommendation from the Athenian council that steps should be taken to cement such an alliance if the wider citizen assembly ratified it. The council also recommended the dispatch of a diplomatic mission to Sicily to meet with the Carthaginian generals and assess the situation. However, even if this alliance was sanctioned, the Athenians, stretched by long years of conflict with Sparta, provided no practical assistance to Carthage.

After collecting together another sizeable army, made up of Carthaginian citizens, North African allies and levies, Hannibal and a younger colleague, Himilcar, set out for Sicily.66 However, the campaign got off to an inauspicious start. First the fleet was attacked by the Syracusans, with the resulting loss of a number of ships and the remainder of the flotilla having to flee into the open sea.67 Then, after the army had managed to land on Sicily and had started to besiege the exceptionally wealthy Greek city of Acragas, it was struck by an outbreak of plague that killed many men, including Hannibal. Diodorus, taking his cue from Timaeus, records the questionable detail that Hannibal’s fellow general, Himilcar, in order to appease the god’s anger, sacrificed a young boy to Baal Hammon. Subsequently, after suffering a defeat at the hands of the Syracusan army, the Carthaginians managed to retrieve the situation sufficiently that they forced the citizens of Acragas hurriedly to evacuate their city. Diodorus/Timaeus describes how Himilcar and the Carthaginian army then went on a looting session, seizing all manner of works of art and other precious objects from the abandoned temples and mansions. However, this is one of the few occasions when we possess a document–a Punic inscription from the tophet at Carthage–which, although incomplete, provides a Carthaginian view of these events:

And this mtnt at the new moon [of the month] [P] ‘It. year of Ešmunamos son of Adnibaal the i [Great?] and Hanno son of Bodaštart son of Hanno the rb. And the rbm [general] Adnibaal son of Gescon the rb and Himilco son of Hanno the rb went to [H]alaisa. And they seized Agragant [Acragas]. And they established peace with the citizens of Naxos.

Despite the limited nature of the information that it imparts, the inscription stands as an important reminder of how one-sided and partial our usual historical view of these events actually is.

Eventually, in 405, the Carthaginian generals, having lost over half their army to plague but having gained a strategic advantage, offered Syracuse a treaty of peace, which was accepted by their hard-pressed foes. Understandably, the terms were very favourable to the Carthaginians. Their authority over the indigenous and Punic areas of west and central Sicily was recognized, and the payment of an annual tribute to Carthage by a number of cities on the island was ratified.

Classic Maya Warfare

Weapons: Little attention has been directed to the weapons used in Maya warfare. The Classic Maya certainly had chert stone points suitable for hafting onto spears. Small dart points were introduced during the Postclassic, evidently from central Mexico. Caches of stone spear points were found along the defensive wall systems at Dos Pilas, as well as a cache of adult male skulls, decapitated while still fleshed, in a pit outside the exterior wall (Demarest et al. 1997, 234).

The Classic Maya were more warlike than considered by Thompson (1970), Morley (1946), and others in the 1940s and 1950s, but archaeologists do not agree on the role of warfare in the development and fall of Classic Maya society. Thompson viewed the ancient Maya as a pacific theocracy, based on interpretations at that time of empty ceremonial centers, low populations of contented rural farmers, and elite Maya engaged in cosmological and astronomical study. David Webster (1993; see also Webster 1976; Webster 2002), an archaeologist at Pennsylvania State University and a leading expert in Maya warfare, points out that the popular but erroneous view of the ancient Maya, particularly of the Classic period, was that they were unique among ancient civilizations and that they mysteriously rose and fell in the rainforest.

Warfare, capture, and sacrifice are commonly depicted in Maya art, especially art of the Late Classic, but these themes were largely ignored by Mayanists. Denial of the prevalence, even presence, of warfare in the Maya lowlands did not change until the dramatic breakthroughs in deciphering Mayan hieroglyphs that began with Heinrich Berlin’s and Tatiana Proskouriakoff’s (see Coe 1992; Houston, Mazariegos, and Stuart 2001; Proskouriakoff 1960) stunning discoveries that cities had emblem glyphs and that the glyphs were historical, not calendrical or astronomical records, respectively. Instead, the hieroglyphs recount the history of Maya dynasties, highlighting the battles won, captives taken and sacrificed, and cities conquered and subjugated.

The last quarter of the twentieth century witnessed a tremendous increase in the evidence of Classic Maya warfare, particularly from epigraphy and art, and increasingly from dirt archaeology. The hieroglyphs provide a military record of conquests by Maya rulers, even naming some captives. Battle scenes are depicted on the magnificent wall murals at Bonampak (Miller 1986), Chichen Itza, and elsewhere. Warfare, capture, and sacrifice are pervasive themes in stone carvings at Classic sites (Schele and Miller 1986). The pictorial scenes on painted pots from the Late Classic also are replete with themes of warfare (Reents-Budet 1994). Documentation of warfare archaeologically through discovery, excavation, and study of walls, weapons, and victims of war is necessarily a more lengthy process.

Elsewhere in Mesoamerica, warfare has been linked to the origins and development of civilization (Flannery and Marcus 2003). In ancient Oaxaca, intervillage raiding resulting from competition for access to water, good farmland, and other resources escalated as agricultural populations increased in size over time. Raiding escalated into the conquest of territory to obtain resources through tribute and the consolidation of power by military force. Since the conditions were similar in the Maya area, future researchers may find that raiding and warfare developed prior to the Classic period, as competition for scarce resources and population increased.

In addition to Webster’s (1976) classic description of the defensive wall at Becan, defensive stone or earth walls have been reported from many sites in the southern and northern Maya lowlands. Although dating a defensive wall is often problematic, many evidently date to the Late Classic, although some date to the Early Classic or even the Late Preclassic. Southern lowland sites with defensive walls include Tikal, Calakmul, Becan (Webster 1976), El Mirador, Dos Pilas (Palka 1997), Aguateca (Inomata 1997), and Punta de Chimino (Demarest et al. 1997), among others. Dahlin (2000) describes a defensive wall around Chunchucmil in relation to walls around nine other sites in the northern Maya lowlands (see also Webster 1993; Webster 2002).

By Late Classic times, the Maya were engaged in frequent warfare, but was it related to the expansionistic, empire-building desires of Maya royalty, or was it to obtain captives for sacrifice, much like the Flowery Wars of the later Aztecs? Interpretations of the role and extent of Maya warfare are tied to Mayanists’ views of the political structure of the lowlands during the Late Classic. Some Mayanists, like Culbert (1991) and the Chases (Chase and Chase 1996), regard warfare as expansionistic, resulting in the enlargement of political territories. In contrast, others (Martin and Grube 2000) regard warfare as more limited to the acquisition of captives for sacrifice and as a component of diplomacy-in fact, sometimes a tactic to maintain political dominance when diplomacy fails. Dahlin (2000) points to the destruction of walled cities to end their economic control over production and distribution. Joel Palka (1997), by way of contrast, suggests that the rulers may have abandoned walled cities such as Chunchucmil and Dos Pilas after they were attacked, but that the bulk of the city’s residents may have continued to live in the city, except the abandoned downtown.

In the wider sphere of regional geopolitics, intermarriages sometimes occurred with polities at some distance, whereas warfare was usually initiated with polities closer geographically, usually neighbors. The greatest distance for interpolity marriage was between Palenque and Copan. For the other seven known instances of interpolity marriage, the average distance is 64 kilometers (with Palenque and Copan the distance is 109 kilometers). Hammond (1991) notes that for polities recorded in hieroglyphs as being engaged in warfare, each polity had an average territory of about 2,000 square kilometers, with the polity capital about 25 kilometers from each boundary, so that polity capitals were about 50 kilometers apart.

The patterns of royal visits and marriages are quite different from the patterns of warfare, a point well articulated by Hammond (1991) based on hieroglyphic data (Schele and Mathews 1991). In fact, patterns of visits and warfare are mutually exclusive. Rulers seem to have made shorter trips than did their royal representatives (lesser ahau). Rulers made short trips, as with the 45- kilometer trip downriver from Yaxchilan to Piedras Negras, or the 22-kilometer overland trek from Yaxchilan to Bonampak.

The possibility that Tikal conquered Rio Azul, some 100 kilometers to the northeast, also is under debate. Richard E. W. Adams (1999), who led the fieldwork at the site, believes that Tikal conquered Rio Azul and incorporated the site into the Tikal realm. Kneeling prisoners pictured on altars from Rio Azul are similar to those found by the Proyecto Nacional Tikal at the Lost World Complex. Adams also interprets the insignia of Ruler X from Rio Azul to indicate that he was related to Stormy Sky from Tikal. Other Maya archaeologists, notably Culbert (1991) and the participants of the School of American Research seminar on Maya politics, do not believe that Tikal’s polity extended that far.

Mathews (in Schele and Mathews 1991) tabulates interpolity warfare and captures recorded in the hieroglyphs. Mathews reports about a dozen men of ahau status recorded as being captured in major battles. They include those portrayed on murals in a room in Bonampak. Two rulers were captured without their territories having been taken over. They were Kan-Xul of Palenque and 18 Rabbit of Copan, with their captors being 64 kilometers and 47 kilometers distant. On the other hand, when Ruler 3 of Dos Pilas, 24 kilometers away, captured Jaguar Paw-Jaguar of Seibal, Jaguar Paw-Jaguar’s capital was subordinated to Dos Pilas. Hammond suggests that border skirmishes may have been quite common, with the purpose of obtaining captives for sacrifice and to enhance the captor’s status, and that polity capitals were more interested in guarding the work force for construction efforts and food production closer to the city than in protecting the exact geographical boundaries of their polities.

The history of empire building in the Petexbatun region, as outlined by Arthur Demarest (1997), includes a series of military conflicts and alliances. Tamarindito was the main power in the Petexbatun before the rise of the Dos Pilas royal dynasty and after its downfall. From the late seventh to the mideighth century, the Petexbatun region was subsumed under the power of Dos Pilas. Initially, there were battles with Dos Pilas relatives at Tikal in order to claim that throne and subsume Tikal under the Dos Pilas polity, and later battles to conquer local neighbors.

The power of Dos Pilas and the Petexbatun in general expanded following a pattern of intensifying dynastic rivalries and interelite competition until a. d. 760, when Dos Pilas was invaded, destroyed, and abandoned. After the fall of Dos Pilas, the seat of regional dynastic power moved for a time to Aguateca until it, too, was sacked and abandoned. Generally, the Petexbatun region wallowed in endemic warfare until about a. d. 820 or 830, the beginning of the Terminal Classic period (marked by the introduction of Fine Orange pottery to the area). Demarest regards this incessant warfare as instrumental in the collapse of the region. The regional polity fragmented into warring centers, and continued to fragment, ultimately with villages themselves being fortified. This had a negative impact on the stability of the economic and demographic basis of the region, with disruption of production and trade; agriculture and the balance of subsistence in various environmental niches changing to strategically placed walled fields; emigration; and depopulation of the area. The Petexbatun collapsed into endemic siege and fortification warfare, from which it did not recover.

Military Organization

Wars were organized and led by the ahau, usually the king. The military of each city-state was evidently well organized with a trained and large corps, owing to the frequent success in taking high-ranking ahau and cahal captives and, in some cases, toppling the capital of another polity and taking its territory. Military strategy included the taking of captives, some high-ranking, for humiliation of their polity of origin and for sacrifice. The presentation of captives before the ahau is depicted on painted pottery vessels and stone monuments.

Military strategies varied from raids to obtain captives, to sacking and destroying the capital of a polity, as at Aguateca in the Petexbatun, to conquering and subjugating a polity, as Calakmul did with Tikal and Naranjo. Military tactics included attacking the central acropolis of capitals to capture the king and his entourage. Some cities took defensive measures to counter such attacks. At Aguateca, a city that became allied with Dos Pilas in the Petexbatun region, Takeshi Inomata (1997; Demarest et al. 1997, figure 7) mapped a series of three concentric defensive walls around the city, itself in a naturally defensive location with an escarpment forming the eastern side of the city center, deep gorges along the south and west, and sinkholes along the north. Most of the walls were constructed at the end of the Late Classic (Tepeu 2), when the bulk of the population lived in the city. Walls were built to protect the city center and were laid out in a preconceived concentric plan. The walls here did not cross over architecture as at Dos Pilas. The innermost circle protected the royal palace, which housed the ahau of the Petexbatun polity.

Aguateca became an important city allied with Dos Pilas around a. d. 700. After the defeat of the Dos Pilas Ruler 4 in a. d. 761, the royal dynastic seat evidently moved to Aguateca with the “Ruler of Aguateca.” Demarest et al. (1997) believe that before the collapse of Dos Pilas, its royal dynasty may have periodically resided at Aguateca, with its better-planned and more-defensive wall system and its access to trade routes. After the fall of Dos Pilas, during the time of increasing endemic warfare in the Petexbatun, Aguateca may have been more defensively situated to successfully hold the royal seat of power in the region. A nearby hilltop site, Quim Chi Hilan, included residences and agricultural terraces protected by defensive walls, contemporary with Aguateca and evidently defended to provide a secure food source for nearby Aguateca. Defensive walls also protected small villages and springs. Cerro de Cheyo was a true fort or garrison outpost for Aguateca located on a fortified hilltop, with few local residences.

By the late eighth century, defense was the first priority in settlement location, in contrast to earlier settlement choices in the Late Preclassic through the early part of the Late Classic (Tepeu 1) when settlements were located near arable land and water and along water transportation routes, especially along the edge of Lake Petexbatun. By the end of the eighth century, most hilltops were the locations of fortified villages or forts.

Inomata (1997) recounts how the epicenter of Aguateca was attacked and burned, with people fleeing and leaving their possessions behind. What he refers to as a deliberate attack and destruction by outsiders took place at some point after the last dated stela to the “Ruler of Aguateca” in a. d. 790 and before a. d. 830, the beginning of the Terminal Classic. Demarest et al. (1997) suggest that the attackers may have laid logs across a narrow section of the gorge on the eastern side of Aguateca and quickly and effectively entered and ransacked the epicenter of the community (as depicted in National Geographic magazine, Demarest 1993). The attack and burning of buildings in the central area is clear from excavations in three buildings that had the shattered remains of artifacts on their floors, with reconstructible activity areas. There were thin layers of burnt daub on floors and evidence of burning on some of the walls, indicating that the buildings were burned when they were abandoned. In contrast, the buildings outside the epicenter were not burned, and their occupants had enough time to carry away household goods, as the floors were clean. It is of particular note that the invaders did not occupy Aguateca, but instead sacked the city and left it empty. The imperialist military strategy exhibited earlier by Caracol, Tikal, and Dos Pilas was not evident with the attack on Aguateca. The objective of these attackers was not to conquer or subjugate; the city was simply taken off the geopolitical map of power.

Mesoamerican Warfare

Alexander the Great’s Staff

How did Alexander form his military judgements? It is dangerous, in any age much before our own, to speak of a ‘general staff’, because to do so is to imply a bureaucratization of society quite at odds with reality. The general staff, officered by men selected and trained to perform intelligence, supply and crisis-management tasks, was a nineteenth-century Prussian invention. The Romans, via the cursus honorum, anticipated something akin to it. But mediaeval armies knew it not at all, while even the Renaissance and dynastic armies of early modern Europe were staffed at best by gifted amateurs, usually the friends or favourites of the commander.

Alexander commanded alone, certainly maintaining nothing like the ‘three bureaux’ system – operations, intelligence, logistics – through which European armies of the last hundred years have been articulated. Nevertheless, he needed and used subordinate commanders, if only to control his detached armies, such as those sent ahead into Asia Minor before the invasion and left behind in Greece after it. He took surveyors, secretaries, clerks, doctors, scientists and an official historian – Callisthenes, a nephew of Aristotle – in his entourage, and he consulted anyone whose expert knowledge promised to enlarge his own picture of how the future could be made to fall out. As a boy at his father’s court he had closely questioned visitors from distant places about the topography of their homelands, and on the eve of his march into Asia was certainly one of the best-informed men in the Greek world. But between information and decision falls the shadow. Did Alexander find his way through the dark alone, or did he require the minds of others to guide him to the right choice of action?

Alexander’s intimate friends, the inner circle of Companions, were by no means all hard-drinking highlanders, boastful and empty-headed. Ptolemy, the future ruler of Egypt, would write a history of the conquests; Marysas also became an author. Hephaistion, Alexander’s favourite, was the friend of scholars, and Peucestas, who was to govern Persia, took the trouble to learn the language and cultivate a knowledge of Persian customs. But our main sources give no real hint that Alexander used his circle of friends as a sounding-board for his plans. That was not their function: it was personality and character that were under test when Alexander was among his close Companions, the test of quickness of wit, sharpness of retort, memory for an apt phrase, skill in masking insult, boast or flattery, capacity to see deep into the bottom of a glass, and no heeltaps. When in doubt – and Alexander probably took the trouble to disguise doubt though he felt it but rarely – he turned to the most experienced professional at the court, Parmenio, to help him fix his ideas, using the old general’s temperamental prudence as a catalyst to precipitate his preference for the bold and immediate option.

Arrian, whose biography is the most important surviving source, provides four specific examples of how debate was conducted at court, when Alexander locked minds with Parmenio and overcame his objections to pressing forward rather than holding back. Arrian’s testimony is of the greatest value; writing though he did 400 years after Alexander’s death, he worked from biographies and histories, now lost to us, written by Alexander’s contemporaries. Moreover, being a Greek himself, who as a high Roman official had governed and campaigned in exactly the area in which Alexander began his conquests, he was in close sympathy with both his subject’s character and his problems.

Two of the reported Alexander-Parmenio debates are strategic in character, two tactical. At the strategic level the first concerned the policy to be adopted against the Persian Mediterranean fleet after the victory of the Granicus. The choice lay between a continental and a maritime campaign. Such a choice is a constant, recurring in all campaigns where sea- and land-power intermingle, as they must do in inland seas, as they have always done in the Mediterranean, as they notably did in Macedonia’s struggle against Persia. Persia, though maintaining a large Mediterranean fleet, was essentially a continental empire, whose control of its territory depended in the last resort on the superior strength of its army. Macedonia, though almost land-locked and only a recent entrant to the world of the Greek states, had thereby joined the ranks of maritime powers, in which strategists’ thoughts always turned on how superior land force might be negated by a stroke from the sea.

After the victory of the Granicus, Alexander proceeded on a mopping-up campaign of those ancient Greek cities along the western coast of Asia Minor that had fallen into Persian hands. Ephesus – to whose future Christian congregation Saint Paul would write one of his epistles – and Miletus quickly fell to him. Three days after his small fleet had anchored offshore, however, the much larger Persian fleet arrived. Not only did its presence threaten his freedom of manoeuvre, it also menaced his communications with Greece, where the militant Spartans remained Persia’s firm allies. Parmenio therefore urged Alexander to seek a naval battle. ‘If they won,’ he said, ‘it would be a great help to the expedition generally; a defeat would not be very serious; [and] he was willing to embark himself and share all the perils.’ Brave words from a 67-year-old. But Alexander would not have it. Parmenio had not grasped the overarching range of the young king’s vision. The old general’s thoughts were of immediate advantage in a local campaign, Alexander’s of ultimate victory on the stage of the world. That could be won only by feeding success with success. ‘He would not risk sacrificing the skill and courage of the Macedonians; should they lose the engagement it would be a serious blow to their warlike prestige.’ He would instead proceed with his reduction of the Persian naval bases along the coast and so ‘defeat the Persian fleet from the land’.

This was an extraordinarily incisive piece of strategic judgement; an obvious analogy is with MacArthur’s scheme at the outset of the South Pacific campaign to outflank Japan’s naval advantage by seizing only those islands that he needed as stepping-stones northward, leaving the rest ‘to wither on the vine’. Alexander’s decision, like MacArthur’s, was justified by results. After the reduction of the last great Persian fortified ports at Tyre and Gaza in 332, the Persian fleet began to disintegrate. Its squadrons were recruited from precisely those Phoenician cities that Alexander had made his targets and, as one after another fell, the crews lost heart and made for home. As winter approached, Alexander’s admirals were no longer outnumbered and had regained control of the whole of the Aegean.

By then, of course, Alexander had also won his first direct engagement with Darius, at Issus, in November 333. The shock of defeat had so unsettled the Great King that he had offered the invader a bribe well calculated to buy him off: the whole of Asia Minor, not only a territory of great wealth but also the homeland of all those Greek colonists whose subjection by Darius had supplied the initial motivation for the Persian expedition. Isocrates, its ideologue, had actually urged that the capture merely of Asia Minor would be justification enough of the risk entailed, but Alexander had already rejected this in the most insulting terms. After the fall of Tyre, when Darius improved his bid, offering the whole of his empire up to the Euphrates, from which Alexander was still 500 miles distant, and also threw in the offer of a large cash sum and his daughter’s hand in marriage, Parmenio at once urged Alexander to accept. Alexander’s famous reply was that ‘he would indeed have done this were he Parmenio but, being Alexander, he would do no such thing’. He had already told Darius that since Issus he was Lord of Asia, that the Great King’s money and lands were therefore already his, and his daughter’s hand also, if he chose to take it.

Alexander could never have been accused of lack of boldness. After Issus, however, he had reason to feel bold. More impressive, and more indicative of his fundamental character, was his boldness at the Granicus, where he and Parmenio differed over the tactical scheme for the battle. The Persians, holding a river position, had brought their line right down to the river’s edge, thereby, as Parmenio warned, threatening a Macedonian attack with disaster. ‘As we emerge in disorder, the weakest of formations, the enemy cavalry in good solid order will charge.’ Better, he proposed, to camp for the night, wait until the enemy had done likewise, and get across the watercourse when it was unguarded.

Alexander would have none of it. ‘I should feel ashamed,’ he said, ‘after crossing the sea from Europe to Asia so easily if this little stream should hinder us … I consider it unworthy either of the Macedonians or of my own brisk way with danger. Moreover the Persians would pluck up courage and think themselves fighters as good as we are …’ And so, clapping spurs to horse, he ordered the advance and plunged into the Granicus.

Parmenio, of course, was proved wrong and he right (though as we shall see, there was perhaps as much acute tactical insight as moral wilfulness in Alexander’s decision). Before Gaugamela, when he and Parmenio differed again over tactics, it was almost, perhaps wholly, the issue of moral courage that divided them. Parmenio, seeing the Persian army drawn up in overwhelmingly preponderant force, urged Alexander to wait until darkness fell and make a night attack. Curtius, another of the Romans who wrote from the lost sources, has Parmenio argue that, ‘in the silence of the night, the enemy may be overwhelmed. For nations so discordant in language and customs, attacked in their sleep, terrified by unexpected danger and by formidable darkness, will plunge tumultuously together, unable to form.’ Alexander did not answer Parmenio directly but spoke to one of the nobles he had brought with him for moral support. ‘Darkness,’ he said, ‘belongs to robbers and waylayers. But my glory shall not be diminished by stealing a victory … I am determined on an open attack.’

Arrian, the old campaigner, whose account tallies closely, thoroughly approved. Alexander, he says, had good military reasons for shunning a night operation. But, more important, ‘the secret attack by the Greeks under cover of night would excuse Darius from any confession of being a worse general with worse troops’. Alexander, now deep in the heart of the enemy’s empire, had not only to win but to be seen to win unequivocally if the campaign were not to protract itself interminably. All or nothing: Alexander played for all, and won.