‘AN INDIAN JULIUS CAESAR’

Chandragupta had defeated the remaining Macedonian satrapies in the northwest of the Indian subcontinent by 317 BCE.

Chandragupta Maurya’s origins were probably undistinguished; they certainly remain so. Buddhist texts claim that he was related to the Buddha’s Sakya clan, others that he was related to the Nandas. Both may be taken as fairly transparent attempts to confer lustre and legitimacy on a new dynasty whose founder was of humble caste, possibly a vaisya. If not born in the Panjab, he seems to have spent some time there, as suggested by Plutarch and as confirmed by a legend, found in both Indian and Graeco-Roman sources, associating him with the lion. Tigers were widely distributed throughout India, but the Indian lion, now retaining a clawhold only in a corner of Gujarat, seems never to have roamed further east than Rajasthan and Delhi.

At some point in his youth the self-possessed Chandragupta was adopted as a promising candidate for future glory by Kautilya (otherwise known as Chanakya), a devious and disgruntled brahman who had been slighted at the Nanda court. Kautilya sought his revenge by exploiting the unpopularity of the Nandas; and, disqualified from kingship himself because of deformity (possibly only the loss of his teeth), he championed the ambitions of Chandragupta. An early attempt to overthrow Nanda power in Magadha itself was a failure. Perhaps Kautilya hoped to achieve his ends by a simple coup d’état but failed to win sufficient support. The pair resolved to try again, and took their cue from a small boy who was observed to tackle his chapati by first nibbling round its circumference. This time, instead of striking at the heart of Nanda power, they would work their way in from its crusty periphery, exploiting dissent and enlisting support amongst its dependent kingdoms before storming the centre.

A good starting place may have been the Panjab, where Alexander’s departure had left a potential power vacuum. Settlements founded by the Macedonian seem not to have prospered, and their garrisons to have trailed home or gravitated to older power centres like Taxila. While in western Asia Alexander’s successors disputed his inheritance, the Indian satrapies reverted to local control. Ambhi and Porus, designated governors for the region by Alexander, had no love for the Nandas and may, under the circumstances, have felt themselves entitled to endorse Mauryan ambitions. Troops from the gana-sangha republics, of which there were still many in the north-west, are also said to have joined Chandragupta, along with other local malcontents. So, more certainly, did a powerful hill chief with whom Kautilya negotiated an offensive alliance.

Overrunning the satellite states and outlying provinces of the Nanda kingdom, the allies eventually converged on Magadha. Pataliputra was probably besieged and, aided no doubt by defectors, the allies triumphed. The last Nanda was sent packing, quite literally: he is supposed to have been spared only his life, plus such of his legendary wealth as he could personally crate and carry away. The hill chief, with whom Kautilya seems previously to have agreed on a partition of the spoils, was then poisoned, probably at Kautilya’s instigation, and Chandragupta Maurya ascended the Magadhan throne in, as has been noted, c320 BC.

Of his reign very little is known for certain. There are hints that pockets of Nanda resistance had to be laboriously stamped out, and there is ample information in the Arthasastra that could be used, and usually is, to flesh out the policies and methods on which Mauryan dominion was founded. Firm evidence of the extent of this dominion comes mainly from later sources. But since few named conquests can definitely be credited to his successors, it seems likely that Chandragupta, adding the Nandas’ vast army to his own, found ample employment for it. He may reasonably be considered the creator as well as the founder of the Mauryan empire, indeed ‘an Indian Julius Caesar’ as nationalist historians call him (though chronologically speaking Caesar should, of course, be ‘a Roman Chandragupta’).

The suggestion has also been made that Chandragupta derived the very idea of an empire based on military supremacy from his observation of Alexander’s conceit. Yet unlike Alexander, whose campaigns progress from one victorious encounter to the next, he cannot certainly be credited with winning a single battle. The Mauryan empire was probably the most extensive ever forged by an Indian dynasty; even the Mughals rarely achieved a wider hegemony. Yet we have positive knowledge of only one campaign undertaken by a Mauryan ruler – and we know of that only because the man responsible chose publicly to express his remorse. All of which may say more about relative attitudes to the past and about the variable nature of the source materials than about Mauryan imperialism.

In assessing Chandragupta’s conquests it would be helpful to know the extent of the empire to which he succeeded when he overthrew the Nandas. We can only presume that, as well as Magadha and Anga, it included most of the erstwhile Gangetic states (Koshala, Vatsya, Licchavi, etc.) and reached south across the Vindhya hills to central India and the Narmada river; beyond that river the Deccan preserves only highly doubtful hints of any Nanda presence.

From a later inscription found in Kalinga, the modern Orissa, it is evident that that region had also formed part of the Nanda empire. It may have been retained by Chandragupta, but must subsequently have slipped from Mauryan control since it would have to be reconquered by his grandson. A thousand miles away, on the other side of India at Girnar in Junagadh (Gujarat), another inscription refers to the repair of a local dam which, it says, had originally been built under the direction of Chandragupta’s governor in the region. Nanda power may have reached as far west as Avanti (Malwa), but is unlikely to have reached Gujarat. It is therefore assumed that Chandragupta conducted a successful campaign in western India and probably also reached the Bombay region. The Mauryan empire thus became the first to stretch from sea to sea – from the Bay of Bengal to the Arabian Sea. The object, however, may not have been ‘to unite India’, an unlikely ambition at a time when geographical, let alone national, horizons were still hazy. More probably its westward extension was intended to engross that lucrative maritime trade, pioneered by the Harappans, in timbers, textiles, spices, gems and precious metals between the ports of India’s west coast and those of the Persian Gulf.

In the Panjab and the north-west Chandragupta’s successes were no less extensive, as is coyly acknowledged by those Graeco-Roman sources. From these we know that, after a prolonged struggle, Seleucus Nikator, one of Alexander’s generals, succeeded to the eastern half of his empire. Much of it had to be reclaimed, and it was not until 305 BC that Seleucus turned his attention to India. There it seems that Chandragupta had already ‘liberated’ (as one Latin source has it) the Panjab. Seleucus, nevertheless, crossed the Indus, and possibly the Jhelum too, before he came to terms with Chandragupta and retired. It may be inferred that Seleucus, like Alexander, had to fight his way forward and that, like Alexander’s men, he soon thought better of the venture. Perhaps he was roundly defeated. The terms on which he withdrew certainly suggest so. Chandragupta presented him with five hundred war-elephants, which would prove decisive in further struggles with his main rivals in the west, although they can scarcely have dented Mauryan resources. In return Seleucus ceded to Chandragupta not only the Panjab but also Gandhara and all of what is now Afghanistan save Bactria (the northern region between the Hindu Kush and the Oxus). The treaty may have been sealed with a matrimonial alliance by which Chandragupta, or his son, received a daughter of Seleucus as a bride.

To cement their friendship further, Seleucus appointed an ambassador to the Mauryan court at Pataliputra. This was Megasthenes, whose account of ‘Sandrokottos’ and his empire, as viewed from its capital, survives only in fragments quoted or paraphrased by later authors. As a first-hand description of anywhere in fourth/third-century BC India east of the Panjab, these fragments are nevertheless valuable. Indeed Megasthenes, in his emphasis on the bureaucratic and absolute nature of Mauryan rule and on the structure of its standing army, goes some way towards vindicating the utility of the Arthasastra as a possible source material. Back home in Greece, his work was seen as vindicating those who dismissed all descriptions of India as a pack of lies. To the floppy-eared and umbrella-footed monstrosities already on record were added such palpable fantasies as reeds which yielded syrup and trees that grew wool. Rocking, no doubt, with Attic mirth, his readers confidently rubbished such early accounts of sugarcane and cotton production as more tall stories from the impossible East.

Although Chandragupta certainly left his successor an empire which reached from Bengal to Afghanistan and Gujarat, there is no clear indication of how far south it extended. Jain tradition insists that, when he abdicated in favour of his son, Chandragupta retired to a Jain establishment in Karnataka. At Sravana Belgola, a picturesque little town nestling in the cleavage between two steeply swelling hills west of Bangalore, the emperor is said to have passed his final days in austerity and devotions. The pinnacle of one of the hills comprises a massive nude sculpture of Gomateshwara, an important Jain teacher; mostly free-standing and nearly twenty metres high, it is one of the sights of south India – ‘nothing grander or more imposing exists anywhere out of Egypt and even there, no known statue surpasses it in height.’ But it is on the other hill, the less sensational Chandragiri, that Chandragupta is supposed to have resided. Inscriptions and reliefs dating back to the fifth century AD record his presence; and a low cave amidst the granite scarps is said to be where, in the ultimate act of Jain self-denial, the emperor finally starved himself to death.

Scholarly doubts, of course, remain, particularly since the imperial lifestyle as recorded by Megasthenes amidst the splendour and luxury of Pataliputra seems the very antithesis of Jain asceticism. But abnegation was not uncommon in Mauryan society and, in the light of subsequent evidence of Mauryan authority in the south, the story ‘may be accepted as proof of his acquisition of this part of the peninsula’.6

That it probably represented the frontier of his empire is evident from the prologue to the story. The emperor had chosen to abdicate (c297 BC) after receiving information about an imminent famine from the revered Bhadrabahu, who was reputedly the last Jain monk to have actually known the Jain founder Mahavira Nataputta. (Just such a famine is anticipated in two very early inscriptions, engraved on copper plates found in Bengal and UP, which have been dated to Chandragupta’s reign; and unless Bhadrabahu was extraordinarily long-lived, his connection with Mahavira, the Buddha’s contemporary, may be further evidence in favour of the Buddhist ‘short chronology’.) As a result of this prophecy not only Chandragupta but an entire Jain congregation is said to have migrated south. In what, judging by remarks in the Arthasastra, was a continuing pattern of settlement in lands newly conquered or on the margins of existing settlement, the Jains journeyed south till they reached Karnataka. There, where a stream slid between the twin hills of Sravana Belgola, they stopped and stayed, nourishing the legends beloved of generations of pilgrims and patrons whose donations would enable them to dig a fine tank, build a dozen neat temples, and whittle their granite surroundings into megalithic images of the starkest abstraction. The Jains have been there ever since; and to this day they tell much the same story of the emperor Chandragupta.

Such continuities are not uncommon in India. Sir William Jones had likened first meeting his brahman informants to discovering an isolated community of Greeks who, two thousand years on, still wore toga and sandals, worshipped Zeus, recited Homer, and stood guard over a written archive reaching back to the Stone Age. Even now historians of India continue to scrutinise their own surroundings and society for clues to the past. In one of the most compelling exercises in modern historical writing D.D. Kosambi, armed with his notebook and a stout stick (‘fitted with a chisel ferrule for prying artefacts out of the surface … it also serves to discourage the more ambitious village dogs’), conducts his reader on a short walk from his home on the outskirts of Pune (Poona). Chance finds, encounters with neighbouring social groups, careful scrutiny of domestic routines and patient enquiries about local images reveal a three-thousandyear panorama of settlement patterns, trade contacts, and Sanskritic acculturation. ‘There is no substitute for such work in the field for the restoration of pre-literate history,’ writes Kosambi.7 Most of India’s history prior to the arrival of Islam fits his definition of pre-literate; and no society retains a more rewarding consciousness of the past than India’s. Legend and oral tradition, when credible, may be quite as reliable as authentic contemporary documentation.

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Parthia and Rome

After the defeat of Crassus, the Romans expected a Parthian invasion to overrun and claim the poorly defended territories of the eastern Mediterranean. Instead, the Parthians launched plundering raids into Syria and Asia Minor that undermined, rather than vanquished, Roman authority in these regions (53–52 BC). The death of Crassus destabilised Roman politics and in 49 BC Julius Caesar was drawn into a civil war with a political faction led by his former friend and colleague, Pompey. When Caesar emerged victorious and was declared Dictator, he prepared the Roman legions for a further campaign against Parthia. His plan was to avenge Crassus by conquering the Parthian Empire and extending Roman rule as far as the Oxus River. But Caesar’s autocratic rule had alarmed traditionalists in Rome who conspired to have him assassinated before he could begin his war against the Parthians (44 BC).

The death of Caesar caused another civil war as Mark Anthony joined with Caesar’s nephew and adopted son Octavian to establish their own joint rule over the Roman Republic. They achieved a decisive victory over the pro-republican faction at the Battle of Philippi in Macedonia in 42 BC. Octavian then assumed power in Rome and Antony took authority over the Roman commands in the Eastern Mediterranean. The responsibility therefore fell on Antony to enact Caesar’s plans and conquer the Parthian Empire.

Fresh from his dalliance with Cleopatra, Antony set out to conquer the Parthian empire, following a battle plan he discussed years before with Caesar. Avoiding Crassus’ mistake of striking directly through Mesopotamia, Antony took his massive army north through Armenia. Always impetuous, Anthony refused to wait for his baggage wagons and siege equipment and marched with his main army to Phraaspa, the Royal City of Media, leaving Oppius Statianus in charge of the siege train with a fairly large security force. When king Phraates heard about Antony’s folly, he led a strong force of cavalry to attack the wagon train. Phraates’ cavalry quickly surrounded the wagons, killed the guards, and destroyed all the equipment. Antony could not capture Phraaspa without his siege equipment. Despite winning a few minor skirmishes, Anthony was forced to withdraw from Media in the winter, suffering extremely heavy losses to both Parthian attacks and the harsh weather.

After his victory at Philippi, Mark Antony was intent on waging war against the Parthians and avenging the defeat at Carrhae. Anthony sent Pubulius Ventidius Baussus ahead to pave the way. Ventidius was one of the most successful Roman generals who fought the Parthians. His use of ranged weapon troops and terrain to combat the Parthian cavalry gave him several victories.
Ventidius marched into Syria and encountered Quintus Labienus, a renegade Republican officer who had served under Brutus and then joined the Parthians. Ventidius gave chase, tracking Labienus down at the Cilician Gates, the main pass through the Taurus Mountains that separated Cilicia from Anatolia. Ventidius made camp on the heights while Labienus, expecting Parthian reinforcements, camped a short distance from the away. The Parthian cavalry under Pacorus soon arrived. Utterly fearless of the Romans, the Parthian horsemen did not wait to join Labienus but instead directly charged the heights. The Roman force, well supplied with missile troops and benefitted from the terrain, repulsed the attack and drove off the Parthians. The surviving Parthians fled to the Labienus’ camp. Labienus avoided the fight and managed to escape again after dark. The way was now clear for Antony to invade Mesopotamia.

Antony invades the Parthian Empire

Antony utilized the Egyptian city of Alexandria as his new political headquarters and with the support of Roman client kingdoms in the Near East he prepared for a new war against the Parthians. He mobilized an army of 100,000 soldiers including up to 60,000 legionaries from sixteen legions and 10,000 cavalry. The allied forces included 20,000 Hellenic troops provided by Queen Cleopatra VII of Egypt and several other kingdoms in the Near East subject to Rome. The King of Armenia also offered 6,000 cavalry and 7,000 infantry to support the Roman conquest. A convoy of 300 wagons was organized to transport essential siege machinery including an 80-foot long battering ram. The wagons also carried crucial food stocks for the campaigning army. Antony believed that this force was sufficient to defeat a Parthian army that could probably mobilize about 40,000 mounted troops including 4,000 armoured lancers commanded by their new king Phraates IV.

In 36 BC the Roman army crossed the Upper Euphrates and invaded the large kingdom of Media Atropatene which dominated the northwest quarter of the Parthian Empire. Their first target was the Median winter capital Phraaspa (Maragheh) which was almost 300 miles, or three week’s march, from the Euphrates frontier. The Roman soldiers were equipped with slings that had proved effective in countering volleys of enemy arrows. Dio reports that ‘the numerous slingers routed the enemy because they could shoot farther than the Parthian archers.’ A hail of lead sling-stones could inflict ‘severe injury on all Parthians including men in armour’, but this weapon rarely killed and the enemy could quickly retreat if overwhelmed or injured.

Antony achieved a rapid advance by marching ahead of the slow-moving train of accompanying wagons which were guarded by at least two Roman legions and a large force of allied Hellenic troops. But the Parthian army ambushed the convoy, massacred its guard of 10,000 legionaries, plundered the Roman supplies and burnt the siege equipment. Plutarch explains that this was a decisive point in the war and ‘the king of Armenia, despairing of the Roman cause, withdrew his forces and abandoned Antony.’

Antony reached Phraaspa with a force of more than 50,000 legionaries, but the fortified city was well-garrisoned and provisioned to withstand long-term siege. The Roman siege machinery that had been destroyed could not be replaced using local timber or the palisade wood that the legionaries carried to fortify their camps. The Romans therefore began to build a large earthen mound next to the city wall to surmount the defences and provide a platform for attack. This was a time-consuming, labour-intensive effort and as their supplies dwindled large parts of the army were left immobile. The Parthian army appeared outside the legionary camps arrayed in full battle formation to yell repeated challenges and insults which badly affected Roman morale. Antony was concerned that this ‘dismay and dejection would increase through inactivity,’ so he assembled ten legions and with the support of his cavalry he marched into the countryside to seize all available food supplies. This he hoped would draw the Parthians into a decisive battle.

Leaving a retaining force near the city walls, Antony marched his army a day’s journey from Phraaspa. The following day, the Parthian army including up to 40,000 mounted warriors appeared within sight of the Roman legions. They waited for the Romans to renew their march then gathered a crescent-shaped formation to attack the legionary columns from their flanks. But at a given signal the marching legionaries began a complex manoeuvre to bring columns of men into rank formation and face the Parthian army in a combat-ready battle-line. Plutarch describes how the Parthians ‘were awed by Roman discipline and watched the men maintain equal distance from one another as the marching lines rearranged in silence without confusion. Then soldiers brandished their javelins.’ Antony had issued orders that the Roman cavalry were to ride against the Parthians if they came within range of a legionary charge.

The Parthians interpreted these silent manoeuvres as the early stages of a Roman withdrawal and were not alarmed when the space between two armies narrowed. But at a given signal, ‘the Roman horsemen wheeled about and rode against the enemy with loud shouts.’ The shocked Parthians did not have time to unleash a full volley of arrows as 10,000 Roman cavalry charged into their midst. The larger Parthian force was able to withstand and repel the Roman charge, but the delay gave the legionaries time to dash forward and reach their enemy. Plutarch describes how battle was joined with shouts and the clash of weapons, but ‘the Parthian horses took fright and broke contact, and the Parthians fled before they were forced to fight the legionaries at close quarters.’ The legionaries pursued the Parthians for up to 6 miles, then the Roman cavalry continued the chase for 18 miles, but the enemy did not regroup for battle.

This engagement was considered a Roman victory, but when the legionaries took a tally of the battle they counted only eighty Parthian casualties and thirty prisoners. Plutarch explains that ‘Antony had great hopes that he might finish the whole war or decide a large part of the conflict in that one battle.’ But the tactics and casualty figures suggested otherwise, especially as the Roman army had already lost 10,000 legionaries in the earlier ambush. Plutarch reports that ‘all were affected with a mood of despondency and despair. They considered how terrible it was to be victorious, yet have killed so few of the enemy, when they had been deprived of so many men when they themselves had suffered defeat.’

The following day the Roman legions began the march back to Phraaspa. But the Parthian army had rallied and reappeared, ‘unconquered and renewed, to challenge and attack the Romans from every side’. Plutarch explains that the Romans only reached the safety of their siege camp after ‘much difficulty and effort’. When they saw the condition of the returning Roman army, the defenders of Phraaspa launched a successful sortie to destroy the improvised siege-works and put the guards to flight. To maintain discipline Antony ordered an immediate ‘decimation’ where one in ten of the soldiers in the disgraced units were selected for summary execution by their colleagues.

By this stage famine was imminent as Roman supplies were depleted and any troops sent on foraging parities suffered heavy casualties. Furthermore, winter was approaching and both armies knew that severe cold and frosts would soon cover this exposed landscape. Antony had no choice but to abandon the siege and withdraw to Roman territory. Plutarch reports that ‘although Antony was a natural speaker and could command armies with his eloquence, he was overcome with shame and dejection and did not make his usual speech to encourage his troops.’ The Roman retreat was announced by a sub-commander who perhaps reminded the legions that Armenia was now considered to be hostile territory, since its king had changed his allegiance.

Antony chose an alternative route back to Roman territory that crossed hills rather than the open treeless stretches of plain which would have been favourable to pursuing Parthian cavalry. The hill route passed through well-provisioned villages, but the Parthians were prepared and ‘seized passes before the Romans approached, blocked routes with trenches or palisades, secured water-sources and destroyed pasturage’. On the third day of the march the Parthians breached a dyke and flooded the ground in preparation for an ambush. But the legions were quick to form defensive formations with slingers and javelin-throwers launching missiles. The forward march continued and Antony ordered his troops not to leave the marching column to pursue the enemy. On the fifth day a detachment of light-armed troops guarding the rear disobeyed his orders and followed a Parthian attack force away from the main column. The detachment was immediately surrounded by Parthian reinforcements and Antony fought a fierce battle to retrieve his troops. Almost 3,000 Romans were killed and a further 5,000 soldiers suffered serious wounds in this single engagement.

The following day the Parthians again rode against the Roman rear-guard and encountered several units formed up behind a wall of shields (the testudo). They assumed that these immobile ranks were units that had abandoned the march prior to surrender. The Parthians therefore dismounted and approached on foot. But the legionaries counter-charged and cut down the first ranks of the enemy with their short-swords.

As the march continued the weather worsened with severe frosts and driving sleet further hampering the Roman retreat. Many wounded Romans had to be carried or supported, and the accompanying pack animals began to die from exhaustion and exposure. Provisions were almost exhausted and the troops became ill from eating harmful wild plants. But the Parthians still followed the retreating Romans, guarding any nearby villages that the legionaries might try to seize for shelter or supplies.

Antony considered leaving the hills, but he received a Parthian deserter who warned that the Roman column would be annihilated if it ventured onto the open plains. One source suggests that this man was a survivor from the campaign by Crassus who had undertaken to serve his Parthian captors, but could not bear to see his countrymen massacred. Florus reports, ‘The gods in their pity intervened, as a survivor from the disaster of Crassus dressed in Parthian costume rode up to the camp. He uttered a Latin salutation, inspired trust by speaking their language and told them of imminent danger’. Florus asserts that ‘no disaster had ever occurred comparable with the one which now threatened the Romans.’

The Parthian deserter warned Antony that the hill route was taking them across a district where there was no fresh drinking water. Antony therefore instructed his soldiers to fill all available leather-skin containers and carry additional water in their upturned helmets. The Romans began the 30-mile march across this district at night with the mounted Parthians still in pursuit. By morning the Romans had reached a clear, cold-running stream that was heavily saline. Despite direct orders from Antony, many thirsty soldiers drank this harmful water and were debilitated by a sudden sickness. After miles of further forced march, the exhausted legionaries finally reached shade and clean drinking water, but they were only permitted a short rest. Their guide promised Antony that they were close to a boundary river and rough terrain that the mounted Parthians would not cross in pursuit.

The night before they reached the river there was a large-scale disturbance in the Roman camp. A group of deserters killed comrades who had been guarding the pay and precious metal artefacts carried by the legions. The Parthians saw the disorder and attacked. Antony feared that a breakdown in the Roman formations would cause a mass rout, so he ordered a member of his personal guard to kill him if his capture seemed imminent. The freedman was instructed to cut the head from Antony’s corpse so that it could not be taken and displayed as a Parthian trophy. But Roman training and discipline held enough of the ranks together to repel the enemy throughout the night. In testudo formation the Roman column finally reached the banks of the boundary river the following day. The cavalry formed a guard as the sick and wounded were brought across the river to safety in the territory that lay beyond.

It had been twenty-seven days since Antony had abandoned the siege at Phraaspa and begun the retreat back through the hill country. Since then, his army had fought at least eighteen defensive engagements and suffered heavy casualties due to enemy action, exposure, sickness and fatigue. According to Plutarch the Romans lost 20,000 legionaries and 4,000 cavalry on the return march alone. To these figures can be added the two legions (10,000 troops) destroyed with the siege equipment on the outbound expedition. Florus claims that barely a third of the expedition force (23,000 troops) reached safety, meaning that 12,000 were captured or killed at Phraaspa. Roman casualties were over 40,000 men, the size of the entire army led by Crassus. Antony had probably lost two-thirds of the soldiers taken on campaign. This reduction in Antony’s forces proved significant when Octavian successfully challenged and defeated Antony to gain control over the entire Roman Empire (32–30 BC).

Augustus and Parthia

In 27 BC Augustus (Octavian) formally accepted the position of Emperor and became the uncontested ruler of the entire Roman Empire. But important political legacies of the civil war period were still unsettled. Julius Caesar had planned the conquest of Parthia in revenge for the Roman defeat at Carrhae and Antony had suffered humiliating setbacks in his failed campaigns against the Parthian Empire. Augustus was expected to rectify this situation and restore Roman honour in the Middle East.

But eastern conquests were not an easy prospect for the Augustan regime. Two Roman armies had been almost annihilated attempting first the Euphrates invasion route and secondly the Median route into Parthia. Furthermore, any invasion of Parthian territory would take large numbers of Roman troops far from the centre of their Mediterranean Empire at a time when Augustus needed to be near Rome to oversee political affairs and guarantee the dictatorial reforms that he had introduced. Any Parthian campaign needed to be undertaken by generals that Augustus could trust to pursue conflicts in distant regions far from his direct supervision. Alexander had been able to conquer the core territories of the Persian Empire in just three years (331–328 BC), so perhaps the Romans could expect similar progress if everything in their high-risk invasion plans were to succeed. Appian records that even Caesar’s invasion plans had set out a three-year schedule for the conquest of the Parthian Empire.

The Latin poet Horace reveals the prevalent Roman attitude during this period (30–20 BC). In one instance he refers to ‘the Parthians, threatening Rome’ and in another context suggests that the Roman army needed to develop a cavalry corps equipped with long lances to counter the tactics of mounted Parthian forces. He asserted that ‘our youth should learn how to use the steed and lance to impose fear on the Parthians.’ This is probably based on popular debate as to how to prepare the legions for the prospect of eastern wars.

Other comments by Horace promote Roman supremacy, for example, ‘The Roman soldier fears the deceptive retreat of the Parthians, but Parthia dreads Roman dominance.’ Elsewhere he comments, ‘who fears Parthian or Scythian hordes, or dense German forests, while the Emperor lives?’ The view that the Romans might be about to attack Parthian territory is also conveyed by his statement that ‘Rome, in warlike pride will stretch a conqueror’s hand over Media.’

Alexander the Great and the Greek Influence in Central Asia

Bactrian warriors under the Achaemenids (400 to 330 BC)

Events in the mid-fourth century disrupted the political development of Central Asia and B.C. seriously changed the course of history for several centuries. In the eyes of Central Asians, the Greek-Macedonian army led by Alexander the Great (356-323 B.C.) probably came out of nowhere. He appeared from the west to move triumphantly through Mesopotamia and Persia, defeating the Persian army, one of the world’s most powerful military forces until that time. Alexander successfully fought against the Persian garrisons, campaigning between 330 and 327 B.C., and then suddenly left the region and never returned.

The political situation in Central Asia, along with its economic development, on the eve of Alexander’s invasion contributed significantly to his success. The Persian Achaemenian empire had controlled the Central Asian states in one way or another for about 200 years. By the mid-fourth century this control was already significantly weakened. The centralized Persian Empire had been considerably undermined by internal strife, excessive expenditures on the royal family’s lavish court life, public constructions and numerous military campaigns that siphoned revenues from a shrinking state budget. On top of that, there was growing strife between the center and the Central Asian periphery over taxes and the recruitment of conscripts and mercenaries into the Persian army.

Alexander the Great probably entered Central Asia in 330 B.C., after campaigning in Persia for about four years in pursuit of the Persian King Darius III (380-330 B.C.). Darius III gathered large armies several times but lost all the decisive battles. Step by step he retreated further to the east, probably hoping that the remoteness of his Central Asian satrapies would give him shelter against the advancing Greek troops. However, entrepreneurial Greek merchants, craftsmen and colonists had probably settled in or visited Central Asia and were able to provide help to Alexander. Darius’s military mismanagement and mediocrity angered many of his followers and supporters. In 330 B.C. he was murdered by his own governor Bessus, the satrap of Bactria. Bessus declared himself Darius’s successor and adopted the name Artaxerxes V.

With the rise of Bessus-Artaxerxes V as a self-nominated ruler of the Persian Empire, the war entered a new stage. Alexander and his army faced the threat of a protracted guerrilla war in the difficult mountainous terrain of Bactria and later Sogdiana, where Bessus Artaxerxes V sought refuge. The war did not quite end there, for Spitemenes, a satrap of Sogdiana, rose to lead the local resistance.

Before Alexandria-the-furthest could be begun, news arrived of rebellion, not among the Scyths, but in the rear. Since landing in Asia, Alexander had asked his men to march dreadfully hard, often without food, but he had never entangled them in a slow and self-sustaining struggle with guerrillas. Now for the first time his speed was to be halted. This Sogdian rebellion would exhaust his army’s patience for eighteen unsatisfactory months, make new demands on his generalship and induce a mood of doubt among his entourage. The causes were simple; four of Bessus’s henchmen still ranged free, led by Spitamenes the Persian whose name has a link with the Zoroastrian religion. All four now began to work on the native mistrust of the Macedonians. There was ample reason for it. Anxiously searching for food in the Sogdian desert, Alexander’s army had plundered ricefields, looted flocks and requisitioned horses, punishing all resistance severely. His thirty thousand soldiers could not be fed from any other source, but it was a dangerous way to behave. Meanwhile, the natives saw garrisons installed in their main villages; Cyrus’s old town was being changed into an Alexandria, and already, as in Bactria, Alexander had banned the exposure of dead corpses to vultures, because it repelled his Greek sensitivities. Like the British prohibition of suttee in India, his moral scruples cost him popularity, for Sogdians had not seen Persia overthrown only to suffer worse interference from her conquerors. It was time to be free of any empire, especially when a conference had been ordered at Balkh which the local baronry were expected to attend. If they went they might be held hostage. Bactrians, therefore, joined the resistance, the same Bactrians no doubt, whom Bessus had timorously abandoned, and from Balkh to the Jaxartes Alexander found his presence challenged.

Ignoring the nomad skirmishers who had gathered to rouse the south along the Oxus, Alexander turned against the nearest rebellious villagers. Here his garrisons had been murdered, so he repaid the compliment to the seven responsible settlements in a matter of three weeks. The mudbrick fortifications of the qal’ehs were treated contemptuously. Though siege towers had not yet been transported over the Hindu Kush, collapsible stone-throwers were ready to be assembled if necessary; they were not needed at the first three villages, which succumbed in two days to the old-fashioned tactics of scaling parties backed up by missiles; the next two were abandoned by natives who ran into a waiting cordon of cavalry, and in all five villages the fighting men were slaughtered, the survivors enslaved. The sixth, Cyrus’s border garrison at Kurkath, was far the strongest, because of its high mound. Here, the mud walls were a fit target for the stone-throwers, but their performance was unimpressive, perhaps because there was a shortage of ammunition; stone is very scarce in the Turkestan desert and it cannot have been possible to transport many rounds of boulders across the Hindu Kush. However, Alexander noticed that the watercourse which still runs under Kurkath’s walls had dried up in the heat and offered a surprise passage to troops on hands and knees. The usual covering fire was ordered and the king is said to have wormed his way with his troops along the river-bed, proof that his broken leg had mended remarkably quickly. The ruse was familiar in Greece, and once inside, the gates were flung open to the besiegers, though the natives continued to resist, and even concussed Alexander by stoning him on the neck. Eight thousand were killed and another 7,000 surrendered: Alexander’s respect for his newfound ancestor Cyrus did not extend to rebellious villagers who wounded him, so Kurkath, town of Cyrus, was destroyed. The seventh and final village gave less trouble and its inhabitants were merely deported.

Seemingly unmoved by wounds and the August sun, Alexander left the Oxus rising and returned to plans for his new Alexandria. The only available materials for building were earth and mudbrick, hence the walls and main layout were completed in less than three weeks. Nor was there any shortage of settlers after the recent besieging and razing: survivors from Kurkath and other villages were merged with volunteer mercenaries and Macedonian veterans and were consigned to a life in the hottest single place along the river Jaxartes, where the sun rebounds at double heat from the steeply rising hills on the far bank. The houses were flat-roofed and built without windows for the sake of coolness, but of the comforts of life, of the temples and meeting-places, nothing can now be discovered. The new citizens were chosen from prisoners as well as volunteers, and given their freedom in return for garrison service: they would have to live with Greeks and veteran Macedonians, fiercely tenacious of their native customs and aware that they had been chosen as much for their unpopularity with their platoon commanders as for their physical disabilities.

If the rebels further south had been unwisely forgotten in the first excitements of an Alexandria, it was not long before they forced themselves abruptly to the fore. The sack of seven nearby villages had done nothing for the true centre of revolt; Spitamenes and his nomad horsemen were still on the loose behind the lines, and during the building news arrived that they were besieging the thousand garrison troops of Samarkand. The message reached the Scyths on the frontier-river’s far bank: they gathered in insolent formations, sensing that Alexander was under pressure to withdraw. This was a serious situation, for Alexander’s troops stood at their lowest level of the whole campaign after the recent Alex-andrias and detachments; caught between two enemies, he chose to deal with the nearer and detached a mere 2,000 mercenary troops to relieve Samarkand, leaving himself some 25,000, no more, to shock the Scyths. Two generals from the mercenary cavalry shared the command of the Samarkand detachment with a bilingual Oriental who served as interpreter and as staff officer. They were never to be seen again.

As the relief force rode south, Alexander stayed to teach the Scyths a lesson. At first he ignored their provocations and continued to build, ‘sacrificing to the usual gods and then holding a cavalry and gymnastic contest’ as a show of strength. But the Scyths cared little for Greek gods, less for the competitors, and started shouting rude remarks across the river; Alexander ordered the stuffed leather rafts to be made ready while he sacrificed again and considered the omen. But the omens were deemed unfavourable and Alexander’s prophet refused to interpret them falsely: rebuffed by the gods, Alexander turned to his arrow-shooting catapults. These were set up on the river bank and aimed across the intervening river: the Scythians were so scared by the first recorded use of artillery in the field that they retreated when a chieftain was killed by one of its mysterious bolts. Alexander crossed the river, Shield Bearers guarding his men on inflated rafts, horses swimming beside them, archers and slingers keeping the Scyths at a distance.

On the far bank combat was brief but masterly. Scythian tactics relied on encirclement, whereby their horsemen, trousered and mostly un-armoured, would gallop round the enemy and shoot their arrows as they passed; others, perhaps, kept the foe at bay with lances. Alexander too had lancers, and he also had Scythian Mounted Archers who had been serving for a year in his army. He knew the tactics and dealt with them exactly as at Gaugamela; first, he lured the Scythians into battle with a deceptively weak advance force; then, as they tried to encircle, he moved up his main cavalary and light-armed infantry and charged on his own terms. For lancers, not bowmen, it was the only way to repulse nomad archers and the Scyths were jostled back with no room to manœuvre: after losing a thousand men, they fled away into the nearby hills, safe at a height of some 3,000 feet. Alexander pursued sharply for eight miles but stopped to drink the local water ‘which was bad and caused him constant diarrhorea so that the rest of the Scyths escaped’. He was still suffering from his recent neck-wound which had also lost him his voice, and an upset stomach was a convenient excuse for giving up a hopeless chase, especially as his courtiers announced that he had already ‘passed the limits set by the god Dionysus’. Like the cave of Prometheus, this mythical theme, important for the future, must not be treated too sceptically. In Cyrus’s outpost, stormed by Alexander, altars had been found for Oriental cults which the Macedonians equated with the rites of their own Heracles and Dionysus. If Dionysus had not reached beyond Cyrus’s outpost, furthest site of his equivalent Oriental cult, then Alexander could indeed be consoled for losing the Scythians. The omens had been justified by his sickness and failure.

Bursting the bounds of Dionysus was scant reward for what followed. While the Scythian king sent envoys to disown the attack as the work of unofficial skirmishers, Alexander heard a most unwelcome report from behind the lines. The 2,000 troops who had been sent back to Samarkand to deal with the rebel Spitamenes had arrived tired and short of food; their generals had begun to quarrel, when Spitamenes suddenly appeared and gave them a sharp lesson in fighting a mobile battle on horseback. Unlike Alexander, the lesser generals did not know how to deal with the fluid tactics of mounted Scythian archers, especially when they were outnumbered by more than two to one: their entire relief force had been trapped on an island in the river Zarafshan and killed to a man. The difference between frontline generals and reserves could hardly have been pointed more clearly, especially when Alexander had misjudged an enemy, not so much in numbers as in ability. Even if a larger force could have been spared from the scanty front line, Spitamenes’s speed might still have destroyed it; what was needed was a first-class general in sole command, whereas Alexander had appointed three wrong men and left them to argue. The error was galling and nothing was spared to avenge it.

On the first news of the disaster, Alexander gathered some 7,000 Companions and light infantry and raced them through the 180 miles of desert to Samarkand in only three days and nights. Such speed through the early autumn heat is astonishing, but not impossible, yet Spitamenes easily escaped from another tired and thirsty enemy, disappearing westwards into the barren marches of his attendant nomads. There was nothing for it but to bury the 2,000 dead, punish such nearby villages as had joined the nomads in their victory and range the length of the Zarafshan river for any signs of rebels. The search was unrewarding and eventually even Alexander gave it up: recrossing the Oxus, he quartered for the winter at Balkh, where he could only ponder the most conspicuous mishap of the expedition and the decrease in his forces which were now close to a mere 25,000.

Two wounds, a continuing rebellion and shortage of men and food had made his past six months peculiarly frustrating. But just when his prospects seemed at the worst, hope for a new strategy was to arrive most opportunely in this winter camp. From Greece and the western satraps, 21,600 reinforcements, mostly hired Greeks, had at last made their way to, Bactria under the leadership of Asander, perhaps Parmenion’s brother. and the faithful Nearchus who had given up his inglorious satrapy in Lycia to rejoin his friend in the front line. Far the largest draft as yet received, they allowed the army to be brought up to its old strength; they could be split into detachments, and at once Alexander’s problems would be reduced. Sporadic raiders could be beaten off by independent units and the theatre of war would narrow accordingly. The rocks and castles of the east were fortunately untroubled; north beyond the Jaxartes one raid had so impressed the Scyths that they had sent envoys to offer their princess in marriage. In central Sogdia, 3,000 garrison-troops had been added to a region which had twice been punished; the new mercenaries could now hold Balkh and the Oxus, so that only the adjacent steppes to the west and north-west remained open to Spitamenes. Even here, his freedom was newly restricted.

To Balkh came envoys from the king of Khwarezm, not a hushed desert waste as poets suggested, but the most powerful known kingdom to the north-west of the Oxus, where the river broadens to join the Aral Sea. It had left little mark on written history until Russian excavations revealed it as a stable and centralized kingdom, defended by its own mailed horsemen, at least from the mid-seventh century B.C.: now, it hangs like a dimly discerned shadow over a thousand years of history in outer Iran. In art and writing, it shows the influence of the Persian Empire to which it had once been subject; it was a home for settled farmers, and its interests were not those of the nomads who surrounded it in the Red and Black Sand deserts. Spitamenes was using these deserts as his base, and safety inclined Khwarezm to Alexander’s side. Its king even tried to divert the Macedonians against his own enemies, offering to lead them west in an expedition to the Black Sea. Alexander refused tactfully, though glad of a solid new ally: ‘It did not suit him at that moment to march to the Black Sea, for India was his present concern.’ It was the first hint of his future: ‘When he held all Asia, he would return to Greece, and from there he would lead his entire fleet and army to the Hellespont and invade the Black Sea, as suggested.’ Asia, then, was thought for the first time to include India, and not just the India of the Persian Empire. But polite refusals are no certain proof of his plans and it was easy to talk of the future in winter camp, the season when generals talk idly; it was only to hold back Spitamenes that the king of Khwarezm was wanted. Hopes in this direction had been raised for an early victory: the new reinforcements were brigaded and four Sogdian prisoners were conscripted into the Shield Bearers, because they were noticed by Alexander, going to their execution with unusual bravery. As winter passed, the traitor Bessus was sent to Hamadan, where the Medes and the Persians voted that his ears and nose should be cut off, the traditional treatment for an Oriental rebel.

Alexander decided that his positions were strong enough and he turned to conquer India. Before leaving for India, however, he decided to cement his stand in the region by making some strategic arrangements, one of which was a dynastic marriage. In 327 B.C., by accident or by an accord, he met and married Princess Roxana (Roshanak-“little star” in Persian), the daughter of an influential local leader and one of the most beautiful women in Asia. Other arrangements included the establishment of several cities as Greek-Macedonian strongholds and colonies. Ancient sources traditionally report that Alexander established six such centers in Central Asia: Alexandria of Margiana (near present-day Merv in Turkmenistan); Alexandria of Ariana (near present-day Herat in northern Afghanistan); Alexandria of Bactria (near present-day Balkh in northern Afghanistan); Alexandria on the Oxus (on the upper reaches of Amu Darya, which the Greeks called Oxus); Alexandria of Caucasum (close to present-day Bagram in northern Afghanistan); and Alexandria Eschatae (near present day Khojand in northern Tajikistan).

Bactria and Sogdiana were included in Alexander’s world empire, though very soon after his death in 323 B.C. these provinces began experiencing political turmoil. The empire was shattered by internal instability and infighting and rivalries among his generals. Between 301 and 300 B.C. Seleucus, one of Alexander’s generals, consolidated his control over the Persian possessions and founded the Seleucid Empire. In 250 B.C. Diodotus, governor of Bactria, broke away from the Seleucids and established an independent Greco-Bactrian kingdom. This kingdom flourished for 125 years, between 250 and 125 B.C., as an island of Hellenism in Central Asia. The Greco-Bactrian state prospered and became known as the land of a thousand cities, leaving significant cultural marks among both the settled and nomadic populations of Central Asia. At its zenith it extended its control well into Sogdian territory in the north and to areas of northern India, although it struggled against militant nomadic tribes that regularly attacked the kingdom from the north.

The final blow to the Greco-Bactrian kingdom came from the Eurasian steppe, where powerful nomadic tribal confederations of the Huns and Yueh-Chih fought fiercely for influence in the second century B. C. The Yueh-Chih lost to the Huns and were forced to move to the territory between the Syr Darya and Amu Darya rivers, eventually regaining strength and destroying the Greco-Bactrian state, probably between 126 and 120 B. C.

The Rise of the Parthian Empire I

The rise of the Parthian Empire in the second century BC was connected with the Mediterranean expansion of the Roman regime. When the Seleucid King Antiochus III came to power in 222 BC, he campaigned in Parthia and Bactria to regain his authority over these distant territories. Antiochus also expanded Seleucid rule into western Asia Minor and made plans to annex the Greek city-states around the Aegean that were either semi-independent or under the rule of rival Hellenic kings. In 192 BC Antiochus invaded Greece with an army of 10,000 soldiers and the support of a federation of Greek states called the Aetolian League. This invasion brought the Seleucid Empire into conflict with the militarized Roman Republic and its formidable network of Italian allies. The Romans mobilized over 20,000 soldiers and after defeating the Seleucid army at Thermopylae, they pursued Antiochus into Asia Minor and sent a fleet to attack his naval forces. The decisive battle in this war took place in 190 BC at Magnesia in western Asia Minor. According to Livy, the Roman legions achieved a battlefield victory with a force of 30,000 soldiers while facing a Seleucid army consisting of about 70,000 fighting men levied from all parts of their extensive realm.

In 188 BC Antiochus III was forced to conclude a peace settlement with Rome that required all Seleucid forces to withdraw from Greece and most of Asia Minor. Seleucid armies were dependent on Greek mercenaries, but Rome prohibited the regime from recruiting new troops from any territories under Roman protection. The Romans also demanded war reparations from the Seleucid Kingdom to be paid in silver bullion. The annual figure was set at 1,000 talents (almost 26 tons) which was enough silver to mint 6 million Roman denarii. To give context to this figure, by the first century a denarius represented a generous day’s pay for a labourer. This income greatly increased Rome’s capacity for war, while stripping the Seleucid kingdom of the wealth and revenues it relied upon for its own stability. The loss of this income diminished Seleucid funds for employing soldiers, maintaining garrisons, hiring labour and purchasing foreign resources such as shipbuilding materials.

After its defeat by Rome, the Seleucid Kingdom began to disintegrate through a series of dynastic conflicts, local revolts and civil wars supported by rival powers. The Seleucid Empire finally collapsed when mounted Parthian armies attacked from its eastern flanks to invade Media and seize power in Babylonia (141 BC). In 138 BC, the Seleucid King Demetrius II Nicator was defeated in battle and taken as an ‘honoured captive’ to the Parthian capital Hecatompylos in eastern Iran. Meanwhile, his brother Antiochus VII Sidetes assumed the Seleucid throne in Syria and prepared a large force of Greek mercenaries to retake Babylonia. Ancient accounts claim that his army included 80,000 armed men which represented the largest force that the Seleucid regime had been able to assemble for several generations.

Attacking in 130 BC the Seleucid army successfully retook Babylonia from the Parthians. But Seleucid soldiers imposed heavy requisition burdens on some Iranian communities and their actions encouraged pro-Parthian uprisings. During these disturbances an army of Parthian horsemen crossed undetected into Media and when the Seleucid King Sidetes entered the territory with his royal guard, he was intercepted and killed. The leaderless Seleucid army was expelled from Babylonia and the Parthians prepared to conquer Syria and extend their empire west towards shores of the Mediterranean Sea. But the campaign had to be abandoned when Saka war-bands from the Central Asian steppe attacked the Parthian homelands in eastern Iran.¹²

Babylonia contained densely populated cities and its conquest brought immense wealth into the Parthian Empire. The walled city of Seleucia on the Tigris River had a population of up to 600,000 people which included Greeks, Jews, Arabs and Persians. It had been one of the primary capitals of the Seleucid Empire and by the first century BC it was perhaps the third largest city west of India. In an effort to dominate Babylonia and further enforce their rule, the Parthians established their own royal capital named Ctesiphon on the banks of the Tigris, opposite Seleucia. Ctesiphon served as the western capital of their enlarged empire and the Parthian King spent the winter administering his realms from palaces in this monumental city. But every year before the onset of the hot and humid summer months, the king moved his royal court east to the cooler higher-altitude climate of Ecbatana where meadow greenery covered the hillsides around the ancient Iranian city.

The Han Empire established its first diplomatic contact with the Parthians in about 100 BC. They called the regime Anxi since the Parthian founding dynasty was known as the Arsacids. The Shiji records that when the first Chinese envoys arrived on the eastern frontiers of Parthia they were greeted by a ceremonial guard of 20,000 horsemen. They were escorted ‘several thousand li from the border and passed through several dozen cities inhabited by great numbers of people as they travelled to the capital [Hecatompylos].’ The Parthian King Mithridates II (121–91 BC) reciprocated by sending his own envoys to China to ascertain the size and power of the Han Empire. The Parthians sent the Han Emperor unusual gifts from their homelands including court conjurers and ostrich eggs.

Chinese records from this period describe the Parthian Empire as ‘by far the largest kingdom’ and report that it possessed ‘walled cities like the people of Dayuan [Ferghana] in a region containing several hundred cities of various sizes’. Even in this early period Parthia had long-range commercial networks, and the Shiji reports ‘some of the inhabitants are merchants who travel by carts or boats to neighbouring countries, sometimes journeying several thousand li’ (1,000 li = 310 miles). The Chinese also took an interest in Parthian coinage, noting that ‘the coins of the country are made of silver and display the face of the king. When the king dies, the currency is immediately changed and new coins issued with the face of his successor.’

First Contacts with Rome

During the second century BC the Roman Republic conquered the Kingdom of Macedonia and achieved full authority over ancient Greece. Then in 133 BC the Romans were bequeathed the small kingdom of Pergamon and the Republic gained a permanent presence on the Aegean coast of Asia Minor. This was the beginning of the Roman expansion into western Asia.

The first diplomatic contact between Rome and Parthia occurred in 97 BC when a general named Lucius Cornelius Sulla restored a deposed ruler to the throne of Cappadocia in eastern Asia Minor. Cappadocia was confirmed as a Roman protectorate and during these operations Sulla led imperial forces as far as the River Euphrates. On their arrival there, the Roman army received a Parthian envoy who had come to investigate recent political events and ‘seek the friendship of the Roman people.’

Sulla did not refer the matter to the Roman Senate and insulted the Parthians by arranging that their envoy take a submissive position close to the Cappadocian king in a publicly staged political meeting. The envoy was escorted to a chair beneath that of the Roman general in a scene that suggested that the Parthians were a foreign power subject to Roman dictates. But Parthian rule was dependent on maintaining authority over subject realms and when the Parthian king received news of this public dismissal, he ordered his envoy executed for defaming the regime.

In 66 BC the Senate sent Gnaeus Pompeius (Pompey) to take charge of the Roman forces campaigning in Asia Minor. Pompey renewed the existing agreements with the Parthian Empire that promised non-aggression, non-interference and possibly acknowledged the Euphrates as the frontier between their domains. Pompey then added a large part of Asia Minor and Syria to the Roman Empire and formed political intrigues with vassal rulers under Parthian dominion. This broke the terms of the existing treaty, but when Parthian envoys asked the general for an explanation, Pompey replied that ‘he would observe any frontier that seemed fair to him.’

These Roman conquests in western Asia gave the imperial government access to enormous new revenues. In 61 BC Pompey returned to Rome to celebrate his achievements with an elaborate triumphal parade through the centre of the capital. Written records were displayed to the Roman public showing how the new conquests had added 140 million sesterces to Republican revenues previously worth about 200 million sesterces per annum (50 million denarii).

In this era it seemed possible that the Romans might claim all the territories that had once formed the Seleucid Kingdom. Many of the urban communities in Babylonia were still recognisably Greek and the Romans saw themselves as the natural successor to that civilization. These Greek communities paid regular tribute to the Parthian Empire in order to preserve a degree of localised political freedom and self-governance. But they could be antagonistic towards their Parthian overlords and might support Roman interests if the opportunities seemed favourable.

A Roman pretext for intervention came in 58 BC when the Parthian king Phraates III was murdered and his sons fought a civil war for control over his empire. One of the sons fled to Syria where he sought military assistance from the Roman governor Aulus Gabinius (57–55 BC). The sources suggest that Gabinius was prepared to support this Parthian prince with an invasion force that would seize the western capital Ctesiphon. But then Gabinius received a payment from the Ptolemaic king Ptolemy XII Auleles, who needed urgent Roman support to crush a rebellion in Egypt. Auleles is said to have offered Gabinius 10,000 talents (240 million sesterces) for his immediate assistance and his needs took precedence over Roman plans to seize Ctesiphon.

Crassus and the Battle of Carrhae

In 58 BC Julius Caesar began the conquest of Gaul which extended the Roman Empire north as far as the Rhineland and the coasts of Europe facing Britain. Meanwhile, his political ally Marcus Licinius Crassus was allocated the governorship of Syria and prepared for the conquest of Babylonia. Crassus had gained military honours by brutally suppressing a major slave revolt in Italy led by a former gladiator named Spartacus (71 BC). By 55 BC he was the richest politician in Rome, but he craved the wealth and glory of foreign military conquests that would equal or exceed the achievements of his colleagues Pompey and Caesar.²² Crassus therefore planned to emulate Alexander by invading Persia before leading his conquering armies east to the frontiers of India.

The Roman conquest of Persia seemed feasible since the Republic had overcome all rival powers in the eastern Mediterranean, including the Greek and Macedonian successors of Alexander. As Livy claimed, ‘The Romans have repulsed a thousand armies more formidable than those of Alexander and his Macedonians and if the peace is broken, they will do so again.’ The steppe armies of the Parthians seemed to be a manageable opponent since in 68 BC the legions led by a general named Lucius Licinius Lucullus had easily defeated mounted archers and armoured cataphracts in Armenia at the Battle of Tigranocerta. In this battle, Lucullus ordered his lightly-armed auxiliary cavalry to charge the Armenian cataphracts and keep them occupied while several hundred legionaries rushed forward to surround their position. The legionaries were instructed to strike at the unprotected legs of the armoured horses causing the riders to tumble from their heavy mounts. Plutarch explains the Roman soldiers commanded by Crassus ‘were fully persuaded that the Parthians were the same as the Armenians and the Cappadocians, whom Lucullus had robbed and plundered till he was weary of the effort. They thought that the most difficult part of the war was going to be the long journey and the pursuit of an enemy who would avoid close quarter fighting.’ However, Plutarch claims that many Roman politicians opposed a conflict with Parthia because ‘they were displeased that anyone should wage war on men who had done the Roman State no wrong and were held in established treaty relations.’

When Crassus took command in Syria in 54 BC, he sent Roman troops into northern Mesopotamia to claim several frontier towns on the Upper Euphrates. Greek communities from the walled cities of Babylonia also sent spokesmen into Syria to negotiate terms with the Romans and offer them support against the Parthians. As Crassus awaited the arrival of reinforcement Roman cavalry from Gaul, he spent his time reviewing the revenues and treasury reserves of subject populations in Syria and Palestine.

Crassus sent word to the Armenian King Artavasdes II requesting allied troops for his planned conquest of the Parthian Empire. But Artavasdes cautioned Crassus not to invade Babylonia via the northern Euphrates, as this meant crossing desert plains where the Parthian cavalry had an advantage over Roman infantry. He urged the general to proceed through Armenia and Media where rugged terrain would impede the Parthian horsemen. The Armenians offered to provide abundant supplies and significant military support to Roman forces using this route and Artavasdes pledged 6,000 royal horsemen, 10,000 armoured cavalry and 30,000 infantry to assist the legions. Crassus rejected the offer, perhaps reasoning that the Euphrates River Valley would provide a more direct invasion route into the Parthian domain and offer better supply and communication lines for the Roman advance. He expected the Greek cities of Babylonia, including Seleucia, to support the Roman cause and when he captured the Parthian capital at Ctesiphon, this would provide him with greater wealth and glory.

In the summer of 53 BC, Crassus led an army of 40,000 Roman troops across the Euphrates frontier into the territory of the Parthian King Orodes II. This Roman force was almost the same size as the army that Alexander led to victory against the Persians almost three centuries earlier. Crassus commanded seven legions consisting of 35,000 armoured infantry, 4,000 light-armed auxiliaries, 4,000 cavalry and 1,000 Gallic horsemen sent by Julius Caesar.³² The cavalry forces were under the command of Crassus’ son Publius, a well-respected leader who had served with Julius Caesar in Gaul.

Crassus had high expectations of success, but even before the campaign began, disturbing reports reached the Romans regarding Parthian tactics and armaments. Roman garrison troops posted in northern Mesopotamia reported that during the winter they had been attacked by Parthians riders equipped with arrows that could pierce through any protective armour. The reports suggested a type of missile-weaponry that was superior to any previously encountered equipment, but Crassus dismissed these claims as ‘exaggerated terror’.

Further concerns were raised when the legions crossed the Euphrates River. Crassus was met and challenged by a Parthian envoy named Vageses who accused him of being led by greed to cross the agreed boundary between their empires. Vageses warned Crassus that he was breaking political treaties agreed by previous Roman generals and if he continued with an invasion in search of Parthian gold ‘he would instead find himself burdened with Seric iron.’

The term ‘Seric iron’ would not have alarmed Republican Romans who knew little about the distant Seres or ‘Silk People’. In this era the Romans were unaware that the Parthians were connected to an overland supply chain that was equipping their warrior-horsemen with superior armour and weaponry. Small samples of Chinese silk had probably reached the Mediterranean soon after the Han Empire secured the Hexi Corridor and established a route through the Tarim territories (104 BC), but during this period supplies of superior oriental steel were highly-prized by steppe peoples and this metal was not reaching markets in the Mediterranean in any great quantity.

As Crassus began his march down the Euphrates Valley, reports arrived that the main Parthian army had crossed from Media into Armenia. The Parthian King Orodes II probably hoped to distract Crassus from his invasion route by threatening Roman interests in the allied Armenian kingdom. But Crassus ignored Armenian requests for assistance in favour of continuing his planned attack on Babylonia. He probably reasoned that, with the Parthian king and main army absent in Armenia, the territory would be poorly defended.

King Orodes had left the defence of Babylonia to a Parthian prince named Surenas who had raised a force of horsemen from his subject realms in eastern Iran. Orodes knew that Surenas could harass and delay the Roman invasion, while the main Parthian forces made military gains in Armenia. But Surenas planned a full engagement with the Roman army using the well-known strategies and ambush tactics of steppe warfare. His force was small, highly mobile and carried steel-enhanced weaponry including lances, armour and arrowheads.

Surenas was in command of approximately 9,000 lightly-armed mounted archers and 1,000 heavily-armoured cataphracts. These mounted lancers wore steel-strengthened mail-clad armour with conical-style plumed helmets with their warhorses protected by a blanket of chain mail. The archers carried composite horn and wood bows and wore belted tunics, wide trousers and long riding boots that allowed fast flexible movement. To provision this mounted battle-force, Surenas brought his personal caravan of 1,000 camels. By comparison the Roman infantry force were equipped with chain mail shirts, cap-like protective headgear, large oval wooden shields, short-swords suited for stabbing and several weighted javelins for single-use ranged attack. The spear-equipped Roman cavalry carried large shields and were armoured with mail shirts and helmets. Crassus had not made any arrangements for supply columns to replenish his stock of spent weaponry.

The Rise of the Parthian Empire II

Left: East Parthian Cataphract; Middle: Parthian Horse-Archer; Right: Parthian Cataphract from Hatra

As the Roman army began its march down the east bank of the Euphrates, the forward scouts reported that the cavalry tracks of horse-riders had been sighted. They reasoned that these had been made by enemy cavalry retreating back into the nearby desert. Although Crassus was again warned not to proceed by Armenian envoys, he took advice from an Arab leader named Ariamnes who recommended immediate pursuit. Crassus marched his army into the desert without adequate water supplies or suitable cover from the scorching summer sun. Plutarch describes a landscape that had ‘no branches, streams, hillocks or greenery, just an expanse of sand which might encompass the army’. After hours of marching, the Roman army sighted a force of several thousand Parthian cavalry. At first the Roman army tried to extend their ranks into a long defensive line, before new orders were issued and the legions drew into tight infantry blocks and prepared to engage the mounted enemy.

Surenas placed part of his army in front of the Romans, assembling them in a formation that concealed their full numerical strength. The cataphracts hid their bright armour beneath animal skins and dull leather cloaks, so that the Romans would be unprepared for an assault by heavy cavalry. Crassus appeared to be engaging a weaker enemy force, but as the Romans advanced, Surenas gave a signal to mounted drummers in the Parthian line. They began to rhythmically pound the large hide-skin drums fixed to their horses. These drums were hung with bronze bells and produced a deep reverberating tone that filled the desert plain with a roaring sound like the approach of wild animals, or an oncoming thunderstorm. This noise caused fear and alarm in the Roman ranks. The resultant tumult made it difficult for Roman forces to convey orders along their battle-line. Breaking into a canter the Parthian formation began to spread out along the plain, then charged forward in a full gallop towards the legions. At this moment Surenas signalled his cataphracts to discard their dark coverings and reveal the full splendour of their encompassing armour. The Romans suddenly saw the gleam of polished armour plates and the steel of the enemy lances. As the Parthians began their charge forward, they unfurled colourful banners made from a strange ethereal fabric that streamed out behind them in the desert breeze. This was said to be the first time that Roman soldiers had seen Chinese silk.

The legionaries had formed themselves into dense infantry squares to resist the cavalry charge, but the Parthian horsemen suddenly broke off the attack before they reached the Roman line. They paced along the front ranks keeping their distance from the legionaries. The cataphracts were screening a larger force of Parthian archers who rode the length of the Roman lines, firing lethal volleys of arrows into the densely packed legionary formations. These Parthian bows outranged the Roman javelins which were one-shot weapons designed to buckle and break on impact so that they could not be reused by the opposition. There were a few units of Roman archers with the legions, but they did not have the numbers or weapon range to match the powerful bows of the fast-moving Parthian riders.

The Romans raised their shields and held them together in a shield-wall formation known as the testudo (the tortoise). The front ranks interlocked their shields into an outer barrier, while the inner rows lifted their shields above their heads to create a shell-like roof designed to deflect missile fire. But the piercing steel of the Parthian arrows punched through their wooden shields and tore through their chain mail chest armour.

Crassus ordered his Roman skirmishers to charge the Parthian horsemen, but the lightly-armoured auxiliary troops were driven back into the legionary ranks by a dense hail of arrows. As they scrambled for protection, they caused further fear and disorder amongst their fellow soldiers. Riding around the Roman positions, the Parthians spread out into a wide formation and shot their arrows into the legionary ranks from multiple quarters. These highly skilled warriors could fire on the gallop and wheel around in the saddle to shoot at targets behind them – a manoeuvre known as the ‘Parthian shot’. Any of the legionary ranks who tried to charge the Parthian archers found that the enemy fled before them, maintaining their distance, but still firing to the rear at their now exposed pursuers.

By this stage it was clear to the Roman officers that the Parthians were equipped with a superior form of weaponry that was causing unexpectedly high casualty rates amongst the legionaries. But Crassus still expected the enemy either to withdraw, or commit to decisive close-quarter combat once their arrows were exhausted. Close combat would favour the Romans with their superior numbers and proven expertise in brutal short-range engagements. However, this hope was thwarted when Roman observers realised that Parthian archers who had emptied their quivers were returning to the front line fully restocked. Heavily laden camel teams were carrying new bundles of the lethal, steel-tipped arrows into the offensive.

The fake retreat was a well-known tactic in steppe warfare, used to divide and exhaust any over-eager enemy cavalry. In 120 BC the Han general Li Guang faced similar strategies when he fought mounted Xiongnu warriors in Mongolia. In response, he placed his son Li Gan at the head of a small cavalry unit with orders to charge towards the enemy and provoke the expected feigned retreat. Li Gan galloped out from the Chinese ranks and when the opposing horsemen fled towards their ambush site, he returned immediately to the main army. This allowed his father to boost Chinese moral by proclaiming the Xiongnu to be ‘cowards’.

The Parthians expected the Romans to be unfamiliar with this tactic. When Crassus realised there would be no imminent end to the Parthian missile fire he ordered an assault using the Roman cavalry he had kept in reserve. He sent his own son Publius to lead the breakout in command of Caesar’s mounted Gallic auxiliaries. Publius was a popular figure amongst the troops and as he rode through the front ranks of the Roman army, a large section of the surrounding infantry ran forward to support his assault. At that moment the Parthian horsemen suddenly wheeled around and fled the battlefield in what appeared to be full-scale rout. The Roman cavalry pursued them with several thousand infantry joining the headlong rush after the fleeing enemy. This forward charge took the cavalry far from the sight of Crassus and the protection of the main Roman army. Publius did not realise that he was entering a trap until the retreating Parthians wheeled around to face their pursuers and were joined by further battle-lines of steppe horsemen. Surenas had prepared a killing-ground some distance from the first battle site where the larger part of his army of 10,000 warriors waited to ambush and slaughter the most mobile units of the Roman army.

Outnumbered and exhausted, the Roman infantry formed a wall of shields around Publius in an attempt to protect the cavalry. The Parthians rode around this isolated force launching volleys of arrows into the huddled mass. Their horses’ hooves tore up the bare earth until a great cloud of choking dust engulfed the Romans and made it difficult for their officers to shout commands. The Romans were cut off from any retreat and their officers could not restore cohesion. After the haphazard chaos of the pursuit, intermixed divisions clambered through their own ranks to escape the unrelenting arrow fire. The battlefield was covered in low hillocks wich made it difficult for the Roman troops to form an effective shieldwall or assemble into rank formations. Publius urged his soldiers to charge forward into the enemy, but his infantry were already critically injured, their hands pinned to their shields by Parthian arrows, or their feet skewered to the ground. To some, these injuries may have been reminiscent of crucifixion, the humiliating public death that Crassus had imposed upon the slave-captives who had supported the Spartacus rebellion.

When it was clear that no reinforcements would come to their aid, Publius led a final desperate cavalry charge out from the Roman ranks to engage the enemy in close-quarter combat. But his lightly-equipped Gauls were no match for the armour-encased cataphracts with their heavy steel-tipped lances. In desperation, those Gallic riders who had been thrown from their saddles tried to stab at the unprotected underbelly of the cataphract horses, only to be trampled to death in the attempt. The Gauls were quickly exhausted by thirst and the oppressive desert heat. Consequently only a few survivors managed to retreat back into the Roman infantry ranks, carrying with them the critically wounded Publius.

Crassus still had more than 30,000 legionaries, but when the news came of the enemy ambush, he was overcome with conflicting emotion and could not decide on a course of action. By ordering an immediate advance to the new battle site he might have saved Publius, but this meant jeopardising the entire army. An urgent retreat back to the Euphrates would have condemned the Gallic cavalry to annihilation, but might have granted the main army enough time to escape. Crassus stalled and waited, before ordering his army forward to rescue Publius and the Roman cavalry. But by then it was already too late.

As Parthian arrow-fire continued, the encircled Romans commanded by Publius realised that there was no possibility of rescue or further resistance. Many of the leading Roman officers began to commit suicide rather than face the ignominy of defeat. Those suffering multiple wounds were assisted to die by junior colleagues. Publius, who had his sword hand pierced by an arrow, had to be helped by his shield-bearer to force the blade into his own chest. When the Romans could no longer maintain their rank order amidst their crippled and dead comrades, the cataphracts charged, trampling the fallen and skewering the legionaries with their long-lances. Almost 6,000 Roman troops were butchered on the battlefield before Surenas called a halt to the killing and prepared his army to engage Crassus and the main Roman force.

As the full Parthian army rode into view, they sounded their drums and spread out into a wide formation to relaunch their attack on the main Roman force. They galloped close to the Roman ranks and displayed the severed head of Publius to the horrified legionaries. Then with jeering insults they resumed their relentless arrow-fire. Without the support of the cavalry the Roman retreat back to the Euphrates Valley would involve hours of marching through dry featureless terrain with the infantry exposed to continuous missile attack. The Romans were forced to abandon any immediate prospect of retreat and formed ranks into infantry squares to withstand the Parthian arrows.

From that moment on, any Roman units who broke formation or tried to rush into close combat with the Parthian archers were charged by the cataphracts. These cataphracts could impale more than one man with a single powerful strike from their long steel lances and their manoeuvres forced the Roman ranks back into tightly packed formations. This maximised the impact of the Parthian archery volleys and caused greater distress and trauma to troops already crushed in by their comrades, or choked by dust. Stumbling over corpses, some legionaries succumbed to heat-stroke and exhaustion. Others caused themselves further injuries by tearing out the barbed steel arrowheads from their wounded bodies.

In 101 BC, the Han general Li Ling had found himself in a similar situation against the Xiongnu. His small regiment had fought a disciplined retreat across the Mongolian steppe while being harassed by an overwhelming force of Xiongnu horsemen led by their Chanyu. When the Chinese troops had exhausted their arrows, Li Ling destroyed and buried his battle standards rather than have them fall into enemy hands. Then he waited until dusk and created a diversion that allowed many of his remaining soldiers to escape back to the well-guarded Chinese frontier.

By contrast, as night fell Crassus had been reduced to utter despair before the Parthians finally broke off their attack due to fatigue and poor visibility. Centurions took charge of the situation and prepared their units to retreat in silence under the cover of darkness. They abandoned any wounded soldiers who could not keep pace, but when their colleagues began to shout out appeals for help, this caused widespread alarm. The retreating force was thrown into confusion by the fear of further Parthian attacks and they fled in disarray to a nearby fortified town named Carrhae. Carrhae had a sympathetic Greek population and a Roman garrison, but this outpost was not provisioned to withstand a protracted siege. The following night Crassus escaped the town with his command staff in the hope of finding safety in Syria or Asia Minor. The remaining Roman troops took their chances to leave the town in small groups setting out at nightfall to evade the Parthian cavalry and their Arab allies, who were patrolling the surrounding countryside ready to kill or capture any survivors.

But before Crassus could reach the Mediterranean coast, the Parthians caught up with him. The general was compelled by his own troops to go forward and meet the enemy and discuss terms. When the Parthians tried to seize Crassus, there was a violent scuffle with his bodyguards and the general was fatally stabbed. The battle-standards of the legions defeated at Carrhae were taken to Ctesiphon as trophies and Surenas sent the severed head of Crassus to the Parthian King Orodes in Armenia. The Parthians believed that Crassus had been motivated by plunder and it was said that they poured melted gold into the mouth of his severed head as a symbol of his greed.

From an army of 40,000 Roman troops less than a quarter were able to reach safety. More than 20,000 men were killed and 10,000 legionaries were taken prisoner. This was the greatest loss of men that the Romans suffered in a single battle and the largest number of citizen-soldiers ever captured by a foreign regime. The entire episode demonstrated how devastating steppe tactics and weaponry could be when used against unprepared infantry.

The Crassus campaign had taken almost all the available Roman troops out of Syria, so the Parthians were able to plunder the region and claim full control of Armenia. Prince Surenas exploited his victory at Carrhae to reinforce Parthian authority in Babylonia. He prepared a parade through Seleucia that further humiliated the Romans by imitating an imperial triumph. The procession was complete with prisoners of war and military trophies, including the legionary battle-standards captured during the retreat. One Roman captive who resembled Crassus was forced to wear a woman’s purple dress to mock the appearance of a triumphal toga. He was accompanied by a guard of prostitutes and musicians who ridiculed Roman courage and battle prowess. This exhibition sent a powerful message to the Greeks of Babylonia that Parthia was the military superior of Rome. After this degradation, the surviving Roman prisoners were taken to be settled at Merv on the eastern frontier of the Parthian realm (Margiana in modern Turkmenistan). Rather than conquerors of the east, they had become prisoners in exile on the borders of the steppe far from their Mediterranean homelands.

Early Career of Hannibal Barca


The elderly general was a visitor at court. No longer in command of any armies, he was a wandering exile. He was hoping to be military adviser to Antiochus the Great, lord of many of the Asian lands conquered a century before by Alexander the Great. The king was pondering a war with that annoying new Mediterranean power, Rome, and was uncertain of his guest’s loyalty.

In response, the old man told a story to prove his bona fides:

I was nine years old and my father was about to set off on a military expedition to Spain. I was standing beside him in the temple of Baal Hammon where he was conducting a sacrifice. The omens proved favorable, and my father poured a libation to the gods and performed the usual ceremonies. He then ordered all present to stand back a little way from the altar and called me to him. He asked me affectionately if I would like to come on the expedition. I was thrilled to accept and, like a boy, begged to be allowed to go. My father took me by the hand, led me up to the altar and made me place my hand on the victim that had been sacrificed and swear that I would never become a friend to the Romans.

The king was convinced and put the old man on his payroll.

For the little boy, the oath he swore that day was a defining, emotionally purifying moment. It remained a vivid memory and guided his actions all his life. He was Hannibal the Carthaginian—a military genius and, in all its long history, the Roman Republic’s most formidable enemy.

When, as commander of a great army, he camped outside Rome’s walls, it was a monstrous, never-to-be-forgotten image of nightmare; in future, if Roman children were boisterous their parents would calm them by uttering the worst threat imaginable: “Hannibal ad portas” (“Hannibal’s outside the city gates”).

Hannibal’s father was the energetic Hamilcar Barca, who had commanded Carthage’s armed forces in Sicily during the final years of the First Punic War. His arrival on the island in 247 coincided with his son’s birth. Barca was not a family or clan name but a nickname meaning “lightning” or “sword flash” (the word is related to the Hebrew barak), which conveys a reputation for liveliness and drive.

This was a quality Hamilcar appears to have asserted in his private as well as his public life. As well as siring three sons and at least one daughter, he became besotted with an attractive young male aristocrat, Hasdrubal (nicknamed the Handsome). Since Hamilcar was a leading politician and general, this gave rise to much critical comment (indeed, his rivals may have invented the story) and the authorities charged with oversight of morals banned the two men from seeing each other. Nothing daunted, Hamilcar married his lover to a daughter of his, on the grounds that it would be illegal to prevent a father-in-law and his son-in-law from meeting.

Once Hamilcar had negotiated the peace that brought the war in Sicily to a close, he sailed back to Carthage, leaving to others the thankless task of repatriating the multiethnic Punic mercenary army. Being an agile tactician, he wanted to distance himself as far as possible from the humiliating capitulation to Rome and the problem of how a bankrupt state could pay off its soldiery. He also had to deal with charges of maladministration brought by his political enemies.

The return of twenty thousand mercenaries proved to be a mistake of truly disastrous proportions and nearly led to the destruction of Carthage. They were not Punic citizens, and their first loyalty was, very naturally, to themselves, not to their employers. The cash-strapped authorities paid them only a small proportion of the money owed, and the men promptly revolted. It was a mortal crisis, for the rebels were the national army and there was no other soldiery with which to resist them. The Carthaginians were obliged to recruit in short order a citizen force and, with the small amount of cash in its coffers, hire some new mercenaries.

To begin with, an incompetent commander was appointed and the war went very badly. So Hamilcar was given a small force to try his hand at defeating the insurgents. Both sides perpetrated disgusting acts of cruelty. Hamilcar trapped the mercenary army and eventually the revolt collapsed. Anyone luckless enough to fall into his hands was crucified. One of the main leaders, an African named Matho, endured a parody of a triumphal procession through the streets of Carthage. He was led along by young men who, Polybius writes, “inflicted on him all kinds of torture.” What this may have meant in practice was imagined by Flaubert in his novel Salammbo:

A child tore his ear; a young girl, with the point of a spindle hidden in her sleeve, split his cheek. They tore out handfuls of hair and strips of flesh; some had sponges steeped in excrement on the end of sticks and rammed these into his face. Blood was streaming from his throat and the sight of it excited the crowd to a frenzy. To them this man, the last of the barbarians, symbolized the entire barbarian army; they were avenging themselves on him for all their disasters, their terror and their shame.

One final twist in the story deepened the rancor against Rome among leading Carthaginians. Mercenaries on the Punic island of Sardinia revolted in solidarity with their comrades in Africa. They came under pressure from native inhabitants and appealed to Rome for help. In 238/7, the Senate decided to send an expedition to take over the island. When the Carthaginians learned of this, they reminded the Senate that Sardinia was still regarded as their possession and they intended to recover it. The response was both surprising and cynical. Despite the fact that they had not a shred of justification, the Romans claimed that Carthage’s preparations were a hostile act and delivered an ultimatum demanding an abdication of all its rights to the island and an indemnity of twelve hundred talents. These new conditions were added to the treaty of 241. Rome took possession of Sardinia and, with it, Corsica, which became a single province, like Sicily.

This was grand larceny. The historian Polybius was a great admirer of Rome, but even he condemned the annexation out of hand. He observed, “It is impossible to discover any reasonable ground or pretext for the Romans’ action,” and noted that men like Hamilcar neither forgot nor forgave the injustice.

Immediately after the war ended, Hamilcar set off for Spain. Carthage was no place at present for a child, and it was little wonder that he took young Hannibal with him. But the motive for his departure was not personal; it was nothing less than to reverse the misfortunes of his motherland.

Little is known of internal Carthaginian politics, but there appear to have been two factions—one representing the landed interest, which much preferred expansion in Africa and the development of agriculture to risky foreign escapades, and the other consisting of merchants and traders who sought military protection for their activities in international waters. The former represented the governing oligarchy, and the latter advocated democratic reform.

Hamilcar was a leading figure in the second group. Although he was respected as a prudent statesman, the defeat in Sicily and the agony of the Mercenary War appear to have radicalized him. According to Diodorus:

Later on after the conclusion of the Mercenary War, he formed a political power base among the lower classes, and from this source, as well as from the spoils of war, amassed wealth. Perceiving that his successes were bringing him increased power, he gave himself over to demagoguery and to currying favor with the People. In this way, he induced them to put into his hands for an indefinite period the military command over all Spain.

Hamilcar was behaving very much like a common Hellenic political type—the turranos, whose one-man rule was backed by the ordinary citizen. However, as it turned out, he had no ambitions to stage a coup d’état at Carthage. He merely wanted a free hand in Spain.

Two basic and interlinked challenges faced Carthage. How was it to rebuild its ruined economy? Both trade abroad and agricultural production at home had been gravely damaged by the recent military struggles, and the huge indemnity was an annual financial hemorrhage. And, taking the longer view, how was Carthage ever to get its own back on the Romans?

For Hamilcar, the answer to both questions lay in the Iberian Peninsula, which boasted a large human reservoir of potential military recruits and a seemingly inexhaustible supply of silver, iron, and other metals. He accepted that the loss of Sicily was permanent. Like all Carthaginians, he was humiliated by Rome’s decision to annex the Punic islands of Corsica and Sardinia, a clear and scandalous breach of the peace treaty. The Phoenicians had long had mercantile outposts in Spain, and Gades was a great city and port. Hamilcar now decided to create a large and powerful Carthaginian province in the peninsula. Predictably, even those tribes which were accustomed to a Phoenician coastal presence put up resistance. Hamilcar applied the combination of clemency and cruelty that had served him when dealing with the rebellious mercenaries.

He brought with him his son-in-law-cum-lover, the beautiful Hasdrubal, who turned out to be as persuasive a diplomat as he was an aggressive and resourceful commander. Hasdrubal tactfully chose a Spanish princess as a second wife. During the next decade, the two leaders conquered most of southern and southeastern Spain. The Carthaginians also reorganized the silver-mining industry, massively increasing its productivity. It has been calculated that in later centuries a labor force of forty thousand slaves worked the mines and created a hundred thousand sesterces of profit every day. There is no reason to suppose that the Carthaginians in Hamilcar’s day were any less efficient.

Having no strategic interest in Spain or assets to protect, the Romans paid little attention to these developments, but after a time decided to look into reports of Punic expansion (not that this meant Carthage had in any way breached an agreement). They sent an embassy to Hamilcar to ask for a briefing. It was received with carefully controlled courtesy. The Carthaginian general replied to its inquiries with a plausible explanation. “I have to make war on the Spaniards,” he asserted, “to find the money to pay our indemnity to Rome.” This very effectively silenced the envoys.

In 229, Hamilcar suffered a rare military setback at the hands of a Spanish chieftain. Hannibal and another son were with him, but he saved their lives by turning off onto a different road, the enemy following after him rather than the rest of his force. He was overtaken by the chieftain. To escape from him, he plunged on horseback into a river and drowned. Hamilcar’s death did not dent Punic dominance in the peninsula, and a successor was swiftly appointed. At eighteen, his son Hannibal, though popular and able, was too young to be considered. So the Council of Elders in Carthage confirmed Hasdrubal, who had shown himself to be far more than a pretty face.

The new commander-in-chief continued his predecessor’s good work, achieving as much by negotiation as by force of arms. This included a treaty with Rome: the Senate realized it had been “fast asleep” and let Carthage recruit and equip a large army. It sent a second embassy to Spain, and Hasdrubal agreed not to cross the river Hiberus (the present-day Ebro). This was some way north of territory then controlled by Carthage and was an easy concession; and, from Rome’s point of view, the accord satisfactorily protected the interests of its anxious ally, Massilia, and its colonies on the coast of northeastern Spain. The larger issue of the unwelcome Punic revival remained unsettled, and, indeed, even the most obdurate senatorial envoy could hardly expect Carthage to renounce its acquisitions simply on request.

Even if Rome had wanted to issue any threats at this time, it would not have been able to follow them up, for the Republic was facing a major crisis in northern Italy. The Celtic tribes that formed the population of the Po Valley were infuriated by Roman encroachments and had mobilized a vast horde of warriors. In 225, they were defeated at the Battle of Telamon but remained discontented and ungoverned neighbors.

Hasdrubal’s enduring accomplishment was the foundation of a new port, one of the best harbors in the Western Mediterranean, which he called Carthago Nova (New Carthage, today’s Cartagena). The name was appropriate, for, like the mother city, it was built on a promontory between a shallow lagoon and a bay. An island at the mouth of the bay broke the waves of the sea. Occasionally, a southwest breeze raised a slight swell, but otherwise few winds ruffled the surface of the water inside. It was an ideal spot, not merely for fishermen and merchants but as an up-to-the-minute export facility for the growing silver trade. On the city’s highest eminence, Hasdrubal erected a magnificent palace, which stood as a gleaming symbol of the new empire he and his father-in-law had created.

The message to the world was unmistakable: Carthage was back.

Hasdrubal’s pacific policies did not save him from a violent end. One night in 221, he was killed in his lodgings by a Celtic slave, whose master he had had executed. The assassin was seized by bystanders but showed no sign of fear or remorse. Under torture, the expression on his face never changed.

Hannibal was now twenty-five years old, popular with his men, daring, with a quick and fertile brain and, though still young, experienced; he had, after all, spent the past fifteen years at the center of affairs while his father pursued his self-ordained mission of conquest. As a member of a leading democratic family, the rank and file acclaimed him as the new commander-in-chief, as did the popular Assembly at Carthage. Despite some opposition in the Council of Elders, Hannibal’s appointment was confirmed.

He was soon to win Rome’s complete attention and his personality became of absorbing interest. Livy summed up the general perception:

Reckless in courting danger, he showed superb tactical ability once he was at risk. Physically and mentally tireless, he could endure with equanimity excessive heat or excessive cold. He ate and drank according to need rather than for enjoyment. His hours for waking, like his hours for sleeping, were never determined by daylight or darkness: when his work was done, then and only then, he went to sleep, without needing silence or a comfortable bed. Often he was seen lying in his cloak on the bare ground among ordinary soldiers on sentry or picket duty.… He was the first to go into battle, and the last to leave the field.

On the negative side, he was notorious among his fellow citizens for his love of money and among Romans for his cruelty. This, at least, was the general impression. The accuracy of these criticisms is obscured by the murk of hostile propaganda. Also, in Polybius’s wise words, pressure of circumstances made it exceptionally difficult “to pass judgement on Hannibal’s real nature.”

At this point, the young general’s thinking was unknown. For two years, he maintained the Carthaginian policy of expansion but reverted to his father’s aggressive military approach. He, too, took care to marry a local princess, as his brother-in-law had done. Soon Punic territory reached as far as the Hiberus. Did he have a long-term plan?

If he did not, events soon prompted him to create one. Saguntum was a small coastal town well south of the Hiberus, of no great military or commercial importance. It was on friendly but not formal terms with Rome, which at the town’s request had acted as arbiter in an internal political dispute. It is not known exactly when this entente with Rome was agreed, but if it was before Hasdrubal’s Hiberus treaty, then that, it might be supposed, superseded the entente. If afterward, Rome had incontestably breached the treaty, for Hasdrubal’s commitment not to march his forces beyond the Hiberus could only mean that territory south of the river lay inside Carthage’s sphere of influence. Either way, Hannibal had grounds for irritation with Roman meddling.

Then Saguntum became involved in a quarrel with a local, pro-Punic tribe, which appealed to Hannibal for assistance. For the Punic general, this was the last straw. However, he acted with caution, not wanting to give the Romans any pretext for war until he had completed his conquest of all territory south of the Hiberus, and fully secured his gains. This he achieved in 220, after a decisive victory over enemy tribes. He now controlled about half of the Iberian Peninsula, some 230,000 square kilometers.

Only Saguntum refused to recognize Punic dominance, but feared Hannibal’s anger. The townsfolk could feel the noose tightening around their neck and sent embassy after embassy to Rome asking for urgent assistance. The Senate, busy with other matters, took a long time to respond but eventually dispatched envoys to warn Hannibal against taking action against Saguntum.

The Carthaginian general found them at the palace at Carthago Nova, where he was to spend the winter after the end of the campaigning season. He launched into a critique of Rome for intervening in Saguntum’s internal affairs. He said, “We will not overlook this breach of good faith.”

The Roman delegation concluded that war was inevitable and sailed to Carthage to repeat their protests, to no avail. Hannibal reported to the home authorities that Saguntum, confident in its Roman support, had attacked a tribe under Punic protection and asked for instructions. There was some token opposition, but the Council of Elders hesitated to take a stand against a well-liked and successful general in command of a large army and with support among the People. Hannibal was given a free hand, if without great enthusiasm.

In early 219, he lay siege to Saguntum. The inhabitants put up a stiff resistance, believing that the Romans would come and save them. They were to be disappointed, for the Republic had just finished one war, against the Celts of northern Italy, and was now busy with another, against the piratical Illyrians on the far side of the Adriatic Sea. The Senate never liked to fight on two fronts, so Saguntum went to the wall. It fell to Hannibal in the autumn after eight long, desperate months.

The defenders were driven by starvation to cannibalism. Once they had despaired of Rome, they gathered together all their gold and melted it with lead and brass to make it unusable. Believing it best to die fighting, the men sortied from the town and battled bravely but futilely against the besiegers. Appian writes:

When the women watched the slaughter of their husbands from the walls, some threw themselves from housetops, others hanged themselves and others killed their children and then themselves.

Hannibal, whose temper had not been improved by a javelin wound, was so cross over the loss of the gold that he put all surviving adults to death by torture.

Everything now went into slow motion. Rome was of two minds what to do. The clan of the Fabii, led by a respected Senator, Quintus Fabius Maximus (to which was added the descriptive cognomen Verrucosus, or Warty, for he had a wart above his lip), opposed war, whereas the Cornelii Scipiones argued for it. It was not until early or late spring of 218 that, after a lively debate, the Senate sent some senior politicians to Carthage to deliver an ultimatum. They told the Council of Elders that either Hannibal was to be handed over to Rome or there would be war. A Punic spokesman pointed out that the annexation of Sardinia had been a Roman breach of the peace treaty of 241, and that Saguntum had not been listed in that treaty as a Roman ally and so was not protected by its terms from Carthaginian attack. The Romans did not like being seen to have acted illegally, and declined to reply to what had been said. Polybius reports what happened next:

The senior member of the delegation pointed to the bosom of his toga and declared to the Council of Elders that in its folds he carried both peace and war and that he would let fall from it whichever of the two they chose. The Carthaginian sufet answered that he should bring out whichever he thought best. When the envoy replied that it would be war, many of the Elders shouted at once, “We accept it.”

The Romans went home and, for a time, very little seemed to happen. It was assumed that the war would be fought out in Spain and in Africa. So the two consuls, Publius Cornelius Scipio and Titus Sempronius Longus, raised armies for that purpose. Sometime in the summer, they set off from Italy in different directions. Scipio took ship for Massilia, after which he was to march to the Pyrenees. Meanwhile, his colleague established himself in Sicily and laid his invasion plans.

HYREATIS (545, spring) – Argive-Spartan Feud

SPARTAN WARRIOR, c. 546 BC This Spartan warrior from the time of the `Battle of the Champions’ is shown wearing the equipment depicted on an archaic Lakonian figurine from Kosmas, in the vicinity of Thyrea (now in the National Archaeological Museum, Athens). Similar archaic figurines, along with the evidence of several vase paintings, confirm that warriors went into battle naked, except for the helmet, `bell’ cuirass (1) and greaves (2). They are often depicted with high crests on their helmets.

The two styles of helmet shown here are the open-faced `Illyrian’ (3) and an early variety of `Corinthian’ (4), which introduced the nose guard and covered more of the wearer’s face. Both styles could be fitted with crests, either made from horsehair (5) or fashioned from bronze (6). The Spartan warrior was a spearman, first and foremost, and is shown with the large hoplite shield

(aspis) and spear (dory). The spearheads and butt-spikes are based on examples in the National Archaeological Museum, Athens. The shield emblem is the Gorgoneion (or Medusa mask) (7), a motif that was popular at Sparta, where it recurs on bronzework and on bone and ivory carvings.

This unusual encounter is often called the Battle of the Champions. The Spartans were engaged in a quarrel with Argos over Thyreatis, the territory of Thyrea, which was about halfway between the rival cities. At that time it belonged to Argos but had been occupied by the Spartans. The Argives marched to recover their stolen land. When the two forces met, it was agreed in conference that 300 picked men from either side should fight it out. The battle was bloody, fierce, and inhuman. The killing was on a vile level, and each side knew that no one was to survive. If anyone was to become injured and fall, their fate was sealed because no one was to be rescued from the onslaught. The battle was so intense and fierce that it was at a stalemate all the way down to the last soldier. Left standing were two Argives who had slew the last Spartan warrior. After looking over the area and making sure that they were the last ones alive, they left and returned to their home in Argos, where they informed the state of their victory. However, they had made a mistake and overlooked a Spartan warrior, Othryades, who had survived. He was very injured but was able to make it to his feet. He was able to inform some watchers of his victory, but according to legend, he was humiliated for falling on the battlefield. Guilty, he is assumed to have taken his life due to embarrassment. There is speculation that he died from his wounds, but the Spartan Empire want to make sure their image stayed high in the eyes of the world.

The following day both parties claimed the victory: the Argives because they had the greatest number of survivors, the Spartans because their hero was the only survivor remaining on the battlefield. This argument led to blows and then to a full-scale battle between the two armies. After heavy losses on both sides the Spartans emerged victorious. The Spartan victory, which was thereafter celebrated in the Gymnopaidiai by the carrying of the wreaths known as `Thyreatic’. Moreover, they now controlled Thyreatis and indeed incorporated it within Lakedaimon. Hysiai had been avenged.

The lone survivor of the quasi legendary Battle of the Champions went home and hanged himself, thereby avoiding questions about how he was able to survive such a holocaust.

Survey data indicate that the area of the Thyreatis and Cynuria was already coming under Spartan control in the early sixth century, a process finalized at the Battle of the Champions, corroborating Herodotus’ statement that Spartans “held” the Thyreatis for some time before the battle. It is tempting to associate this Spartan victory with the extraordinary spike in settlement activity in the north and central Parnon region beginning around the middle of the sixth century. The internal colonization of this area resulted in the creation of no fewer than eighty-seven settlements in the area of the Laconia Survey, including one new town, Sellasia. Such a burst of activity could be expected in the aftermath of the failed conquest of Tegea, which prevented settlers from moving north, if Spartan success at the Battle of the Champions had removed the Argive threat to eastern Laconia. Herodotus’ claims that Argos had previously controlled all of the Parnon range down to and including Cape Malea and the island of Cythera may be a trifle extreme, but the Argives’ ability to harass settlers may partly explain why this area of Laconia remained more or less empty until the mid-sixth century.

Male hair is potently symbolic stuff. Spartans signalled their virility and belligerence by growing theirs and went into battle with it all braided and be-wreathed with flowers. In this way, no less than a uniform and no less of a distinctly Spartan trait was the long hair grown specifically for its military function. As to the origins of this Spartan custom we can turn to Herodotos, who reckons the legislation enjoining the Spartiates to grow their hair proudly and terrifyingly long, contrary to previous practice, had first been instituted after the victory over the Argives at the Battle of the Champions. The reality of the Battle of the Champions has been doubted by some scholars, and that is understandable, but it seems that at least in the fifth century BC it was taken as historical. Still, whether or not we chose to believe in the historical truth of this battle is irrelevant here. The point of Herodotos’ story is that the Spartans, at some point in their history, adopted the idea of wearing the hair long as a symbol of militaristic pride, and this is certainly the view later promoted by Xenophon. According to Aristotle, on the other hand, the Spartans thought long hair noble because it was the mark of a free man, since it was difficult to perform servile tasks with long hair.