The Romans’ success in conquering and maintaining their enormous empire lay partly in their military culture, their weapons and their training. Rome’s ability to provision large armies at long distances was, however, equally as, or more important to its success. The military history of Rome is not one of continuous victory: indeed the Romans often won wars because, after losing battles—and sometimes entire armies and fleets—they could keep replacing them until the enemy was defeated. Polybius, a keen observer of the Roman military at its height, remarked that “the advantages of the Romans lay in inexhaustible supplies of provisions and men.”

A sophisticated logistical system allowed the Romans to exploit their military resources effectively. The Romans recognized the importance of supply and used it both as a strategic and a tactical weapon and the necessities of military supply influenced and often determined the decisions of the Roman commanders at war. Plutarch even mentions the military slang term for such tactics: “kicking in the stomach” (eis tên gastera enallonomenos). Frontinus cites Caesar, certainly Rome’s greatest general, on the use of logistics in military strategy:

I follow the same policy toward the enemy as did many doctors when dealing with physical ailments, namely, that of conquering the foe by hunger rather than by steel. Logistics in Campaign Planning Traditionally, Roman campaigns began on March 1st: in part to ensure the availability of fodder.

The Romans paid close attention both to raising armies and to the preparations for supplying them. Their habitually careful arrangements made a strong impression, and, given the general neglect of logistics in military history, our sources mention such planning remarkably often. For example, Polybius describes the large-scale Roman preparations for a Gallic invasion as early as 225 B. C.:

[The consuls] enroll[ed] their legions and ordered those of their allies to be in readiness. . . . Of grain, missiles and other war materiel, they laid in such a supply as no one could remember had been collected on any previous occasion.

There are many other examples both in the Republican and the Imperial periods.

Commanders naturally wanted to complete their logistical preparations before operations began. When Quinctius Flamininus was preparing his campaign against Nabis, the tyrant of Sparta, in 195 B. C., the arrival of allied troops, including Macedonians, completed his authorized force. Nevertheless, he still waited until the arrival of the supplies (commeatus) requisitioned from the neighboring Greek states before beginning his offensive. At times, troops were moved first and supplies sent after them. When Sulla had obtained the command of the First Mithridatic War, he marched his army over to Greece and then summoned money, auxiliary troops and supplies from Aetolia and Thessaly.

Some wars broke out unexpectedly and preparations had to be made in haste. Sallust notes that when the consul Spurius Postumius Albinus determined to reopen hostilities with Jugurtha, he “hastened to transport to Africa provisions (commeatus), money for paying the soldiers, and other apparatus of war.” The frequency of Roman conflict, and the experience of Roman officials with warfare, made such impromptu preparations much easier. Other times, military campaigns were planned years in advance.

The Security of Supply Lines

Ensuring that the army continued to receive supplies, despite an enemy’s attempts to interrupt them, remained an important priority in Roman warfare in every period. Provisions reached the army in a variety of ways: by sea and river, overland and through foraging and requisition. In each of these circumstances, enemy action was a threat, and the Romans had to deploy military forces, as well as the application of strategy and tactics, to meet this threat. Rome often found it necessary to prevent the enemy plundering Roman or allied territory: it is noteworthy that the fleet of Gaius Duilius, which won the first major Roman victory of the First Punic War at Mylae (260 B. C.), was sent out to prevent the Carthaginians from plundering the territory of a Roman ally.

Security of Waterborne Transport

Protecting sea-borne transport was vitally important in wartime: enemy action could seriously threaten the army’s supply shipments. There are many instances of such threats. In 217 B. C., for example, the Roman grain fleet supplying the army in Spain was captured by the Punic fleet. A Roman task force was immediately mobilized to set out in pursuit, but the damage had already been done. Plutarch notes that the Macedonian king Perseus during his war against the Romans (172–167 B. C.):

. . . made an unexpected attack upon the Roman fleet which was lying at anchor near Oreus, seized twenty ships of burden with their car- goes, and sank the rest together with the grain that filled them. . . .

The navy of Antiochus III, operating from the Hellespont and Abydos during the war of 192–189 B. C., made frequent raids (excursiones) against Roman cargo ships (onerariae) supplying their army in Greece. Later, Mithridates used his naval superiority in the eastern Mediterranean to cut off supplies to Sulla’s forces in Greece in 87–85 B. C. Attacks on sea-borne supply were important elements in the Civil Wars of the Late Republic. In 42 B. C., a Republican fleet under Statius defeated Dolabella’s fleet at Laodicea, cutting him off from supplies. When Octavian sent a large force by sea to reinforce and resupply the Caesarean army at Philippi, it was attacked and destroyed by the Republican navy.

The Romans routinely used their fleet to protect supply transports in wartime. As early as the First Punic War, the Romans assigned a fleet of 120 warships to provide a convoy for merchant ships bringing supplies for the siege of Lilybaeum (249 B. C.). When the commander of the fleet in 209 B. C., Marcus Valerius Laevinus turned some ships over to the consul Quintus Fabius Maximus for use in the assault on Tarentum, they are called by Livy “the ships which Laevinius had for protecting the supply lines (tutandis commeatibus).” Such protection continued in the late Republic: Sallust, in a speech attributed to the consul Gaius Cotta, and set in 75 B. C., refers to the fleet which “guarded our supplies (commeatus tuebatur).”

Such naval escorts were not always successful. The convoy protecting supplies going to Lilybaeum in 249 B. C., mentioned above, did not prevent the Carthaginians from attacking and seizing several of the merchant vessels. The threat of attack was sometimes more destructive than the attack itself: trying to avoid attack by Carthaginian warships, a Roman supply fleet placed its ships in a dangerous anchorage where a storm destroyed the entire fleet including all the army’s supplies. Whenever possible, a fleet put supplies put ashore before a battle. To prevent them from falling into enemy hands commanders of escorts might scuttle conveyed merchant ships, as the Pompeian admirals Lucretius and Minucius did during the Dyrrachium campaign of 48 B. C. 26 Despite the dangers of attack, supplies transported by sea were generally safer from attack than those sent overland, a point made by Tacitus.

Security of Overland Supply

The army provided escorts for supply convoys bringing provisions to troops in garrison even during peacetime, albeit on a limited scale. An incident from the anti-Roman uprising of Athrongaeus in Palestine around 4 B. C. illustrates the small size of such peace- time escorts. Josephus reports that a single century (80 men at full strength) was escorting a convoy of grain and arms to a legion stationed in Jerusalem, when the rebels ambushed the column near Emmaus. The Romans lost half the century and only the intervention of King Herod’s army saved the rest.

Obviously, moving provisions from the operational base to the army over supply lines provided ample opportunities for attack. Due to the increased danger in war, convoy escorts were, of course, considerably larger than in peacetime. A tribune commanded the forces that escorted a supply convoy bringing provisions to the army of Pompeius Aulus in Spain in 141 B. C. Appian does not give the size of the escort, but a tribune would have commanded at least several centuries and possibly a cohort or more.

An escort’s size was not the only factor in successful defense of a convoy. While accompanying a supply convoy to Lucullus’s army from Cappadocia in 71 B. C., a Roman force defeated an attack by Mithridates’s cavalry: the Pontic force had attacked the convoy in a defile, a more easily defensible position, instead of waiting until it reached open country. An escort also had to maintain a disciplined defense cordon, even if the column was proceeding to pick up sup- plies. Tacitus notes the lack of security in an unloaded supply column going to Novaesium from the Roman forces at Gelduba in 69 A. D., during the revolt of Julius Civilis. The troops assigned to defend it moved as if there were no danger:

. . . the cohorts escorting [the convoy] were proceeding as if in time of peace, that there were few soldiers with the standards, that their arms were being carried in carts (vehicula) while they all strolled along at will, he drew up his forces and attacked them, sending first some troops to occupy the bridges and narrow parts of roads.

The column was unable to make it to Novaesium and had to fight its way back to Gelduba without fulfilling its mission. In order to secure its supply lines, an army had to pacify the area between the operational base and the tactical base. This is why Vespasian did not immediately attack Jerusalem when he arrived on the scene in 67 A. D.: if he left hostile forces behind him, in Galilee and Samaria, the rebels would have been in a position to cut off his supply lines. Therefore, he spent an entire campaigning season taking important fortresses in the north of Palestine.

Providing a series of depots between the operational and tactical base was not only a question of “leap-frogging” supplies forward. Depots were generally placed within fortifications, as at Rödgen and South Shields and they served to secure provisions from enemy attack. Therefore, the sources often refer to them as “forts” (castella or phrouria). Vegetius describes this practice:

Among the things particularly incumbent upon a general . . . is to see that the transportation of grain and other provisions . . . is rendered secure from hostile attack. The only way to achieve this is to plant garrisons at suitable points through which our supply-trains pass. These may be cities or walled forts. If no old fortifications are available, temporary forts (castella) are established in favorable positions [and] a number of infantry and cavalry stationed in them on outpost duty provide a safe passage for supplies.

Brutus used fortified lines to protect his supply lines at Philippi (42 B. C.).

The use of fortified depots considerably reduced the risk of attack to supply lines. Once a rear area had been pacified, though, the danger of convoyed supplies, which at first glance seem very vulnerable, was actually rather small. Lacking firearms or explosives, the ambushing party in antiquity usually had to rely on superior numbers to overwhelm a convoy. Even if the enemy knew the likely route of a convoy, the exact time of its movement would not be predictable, so a large ambushing force would have had to wait in enemy territory, itself vulnerable to surprise attack.

Naturally, armies have a tendency to use their worst troops to garrison depots and operational bases, not to mention escort duty, leaving the best soldiers for combat. Livy explicitly states that after the consuls filled their legions with the best troops, they assigned the “surplus” (ceteri ) to garrison duty. In the Republican period, the Romans sometimes used their least reliable Italian allies to defend supply lines, sometimes with unfortunate results. In 218 B. C., Dasius of Brundisium commanded the garrison of Clastidium, in which a great quantity of grain had been stored for the Roman army. He betrayed the city to Hannibal for 400 gold pieces. The city’s capture not only hurt the Romans, but relieved the Carthaginians of considerable supply difficulties. When Manlius Vulso set up an operational base on the Lake of Timavus in his Istrian campaign of 178 B. C., he garrisoned it with a single reserve cohort (repentina cohors) and a few legionary centuries. The Istrians, seeing the weakness of the Roman defense, attacked the base and captured it. Only the barbarian drunkenness that followed, and the timely arrival of Gallic auxiliaries and of part of another legion (which had been foraging nearby) restored the situation, and the base, to the Romans.

Since Roman marching camps also functioned as supply bases, camp security was especially important. The Romans were justifiably famous for their security measures while encamping. Such measures involved both fortification and maintaining the discipline necessary to proper security. This system sometimes broke down, as it did in Albinus’s army in Numidia. Sallust notes that in this case:

. . . [his] camps were not fortified, nor was watch kept in a military fashion, men absented themselves from duty whenever they pleased.

It was no doubt at least partly for logistical reasons that the consul Caecilius Metellus reestablished security in his famous reform of the army in 109 B. C.

Shalmaneser III



The Campaigns of Shalmanesar III.

Constantly on the battlefield, starting his campaigns from Nineveh or from one of his provincial palaces, Ashurnasirpal’s son, Shalmaneser III (858 – 824 B.C.), appears to have spent only the last years of his life in Kalhu. Yet it is from that city and its neighbourhood that come his most famous monuments. One of them is the ‘Black Obelisk’ found by Layard in the temple of Ninurta over a century ago and now in the British Museum. It is a two-metre-high block of black alabaster ending in steps, like a miniature ziqqurat. A long inscription giving the summary of the king’s wars runs around the monolith, while five sculptured panels on each side depict the payment of tribute by various foreign countries, including Israel, whose king Jehu is shown prostrate at the feet of the Assyrian monarch. More recent excavations at Nimrud have brought to light a statue of the king in the attitude of prayer, and a huge building situated in a corner of the town wall, which was founded by him and used by his successors down to the fall of the empire. This building, nicknamed by the archaeologists ‘Fort Shalmaneser’, was in fact his palace as well as the ekal masharti of the inscriptions, the ‘great store-house’ erected ‘for the ordinance of the camp, the maintenance of stallions, chariots, weapons, equipment of war, and the spoil of the foe of every kind’. In three vast courtyards the troops were assembled, equipped and inspected before the annual campaigns, while the surrounding rooms served as armouries, stores, stables and lodgings for the officers. Finally, we have the remarkable objects known as ‘the bronze gates of Balawat’. They were discovered in 1878 by Layard’s assistant Rassam, not at Nimrud, but at Balawat (ancient Imgur-Enlil), a small tell a few kilometres to the north-east of the great city. There Ashurnasirpal had built a country palace later occupied by Shalmaneser, and the main gates of this palace were covered with long strips of bronze, about twenty-five centimetres wide, worked in ‘repoussé’ technique, representing some of Shalmaneser’s armed expeditions; a brief legend accompanies the pictures. Besides their considerable artistic or architectural interest, all these monuments are priceless for the information they provide concerning Assyrian warfare during the ninth century B.C.

In the number and scope of his military campaigns Shalmaneser surpasses his father. Out of his thirty-five years of reign thirty-one were devoted to war. The Assyrian soldiers were taken farther abroad than ever before: they set foot in Armenia, in Cilicia, in Palestine, in the heart of the Taurus and of the Zagros, on the shores of the Gulf. They ravaged new lands, besieged new cities, measured themselves against new enemies. But because these enemies were much stronger than the Aramaeans of Jazirah or the small tribes of Iraqi Kurdistan, the victories of Shalmaneser were mitigated with failures, and the whole reign gives the impression of a task left unfinished, of a gigantic effort for a very small result. In the north, for instance, Shalmaneser went beyond ‘the sea of Nairi’ (Lake Van) and entered the territory of Urartu, a kingdom which had recently been formed amidst the high mountains of Armenia. The Assyrian claims, as always, complete success and describes the sack of several towns belonging to the King of Urartu, Arame. Yet he confesses that Arame escaped, and we know that during the next century Urartu grew to be Assyria’s main rival. Similarly, a series of campaigns in the east, towards the end of the reign, brought Shalmaneser or his commander-in-chief, the turtanu Daiân-Ashur, in contact with the Medes and Persians, who then dwelt around Lake Urmiah. There again the clash was brief and the ‘victory’ without lasting results: Medes and Persians were in fact left free to consolidate their position in Iran.

The repeated efforts made by Shalmaneser to conquer Syria met with the same failure. The Neo-Hittite and Aramaean princes whom Ashurnasirpal had caught by surprise had had time to strengthen themselves, and the main effect of the renewed Assyrian attacks was to unite them against Assyria. Three campaigns were necessary to wipe out the state of Bit-Adini and to establish a bridgehead on the Euphrates. In 856 B.C. Til-Barsip (modern Tell Ahmar), the capital-city of Bit-Adini, was taken, populated with Assyrians and renamed Kâr-Shulmanashared, ‘the Quay of Shalmaneser’. On top of the mound overlooking the Euphrates a palace was built, which served as a base for operations on the western front. But whether the Assyrians marched towards Cilicia through the Amanus or towards Damascus via Aleppo, they invariably found themselves face to face with coalitions of local rulers. Thus when Shalmaneser in 853 B.C entered the plains of central Syria, his opponents, Irhuleni of Hama and Adad-idri of Damascus (Ben-Hadad II of the Bible), met him with contingents supplied by ‘twelve kings of the sea-coast’. To the invaders they could oppose 62,900 infantry-men, 1,900 horsemen, 3,900 chariots and 1,000 camels sent by ‘Gindibu, from Arabia’. The battle took place at Karkara (Qarqar) on the Orontes, not far from Hama. Says Shalmaneser:

I slew 14,000 of their warriors with the sword. Like Adad, I rained destruction upon them…. The plain was too small to let their bodies fall, the wide countryside was used up in burying them. With their corpses, I spanned the Orontes as with a bridge.’

Yet neither Hama nor Damascus were taken, and the campaign ended prosaically with a little cruise on the Mediterranean. Four, five and eight years later other expeditions were directed against Hama with the same partial success. Numerous towns and villages were captured, looted and burned down, but not the main cities. In 841 B.C. Damascus was again attacked. The occasion was propitious, Adad-idri having been murdered and replaced by Hazael, ‘the son of a nobody’. Hazael was defeated in battle on mount Sanir (Hermon), but locked himself in his capital-city. All that Shalmaneser could do was to ravage the orchards and gardens which surrounded Damascus as they surround it today and to plunder the rich plain of Hauran. He then took the road to the coast, and on Mount Carmel received the tribute of Tyre, Sidon and Iaua mâr Humri (Jehu, son of Omri), King of Israel, the first biblical figure to appear in cuneiform inscriptions. After a last attempt to conquer Damascus in 838 B.C. the Assyrian confessed his failure by leaving Syria alone for the rest of his reign.

In Babylonia Shalmaneser was luckier, though here again he failed to exploit his success and missed the chance which was offered to him. Too weak to attack the Assyrians and too strong to be attacked by them, the kings of the Eighth Dynasty of Babylon had hitherto managed to remain free. Even Ashurnasirpal had spared the southern kingdom, giving his contemporary Nabû-apal-iddina (887 – 855 B.C.) time to repair some of the damage caused by the Aramaeans and the Sutû during ‘the time of confusion’. But in 850 B.C. hostilities broke out between King Marduk-zakir-shumi and his own brother backed by the Aramaeans. The Assyrians were called to the rescue. Shalmaneser defeated the rebels, entered Babylon, ‘the bond of heaven and earth, the abode of life’, offered sacrifices in Marduk’s temple, Esagila, as well as in the sanctuaries of Kutha and Barsippa, and treated the inhabitants of that holy land with extreme kindness:

For the people of Babylon and Barsippa, the protégés, the freemen of the great gods, he prepared a feast, he gave them food and wine, he clothed them in brightly coloured garments and presented them with gifts.

Then, advancing farther south into the ancient country of Sumer now occupied by the Chaldaeans (Kaldû), he stormed it and chased the enemies of Babylon ‘unto the shores of the sea they call Bitter River (nâr marratu)’, i.e. the Gulf. The whole affair, however, was but a police operation. Marduk-zakir-shumi swore allegiance to his protector but remained on his throne. The unity of Mesopotamia under Assyrian rule could perhaps have been achieved without much difficulty. For some untold reason – probably because he was too deeply engaged in the north and in the west – Shalmaneser did not claim more than nominal suzerainty, and all that Assyria gained was some territory and a couple of towns on its southern border. The Diyala to the south, the Euphrates to the west, the mountain ranges to the north and east now marked its limits. It was still a purely northern Mesopotamian kingdom, and the empire had yet to be conquered.

The end of Shalmaneser’s long reign was darkened by extremely serious internal disorders. One of his sons, Ashurdaninaplu, revolted and with him twenty-seven cities, including Assur, Nineveh, Arba’il (Erbil) and Arrapha (Kirkuk). The old king, who by then hardly left his palace in Nimrud, entrusted another of his sons, Shamshi-Adad, with the task of repressing the revolt, and for four years Assyria was in the throes of civil war.

The war was still raging when Shalmaneser died and Shamshi-Adad V ascended the throne (824 B.C.). With the new king began a period of Assyrian stagnation which lasted for nearly a century.

Military Strength and Weakness of the Imperial Roman Army




The gradual changes in the nature of the Roman army between the time of Tiberius and 235 certainly affected both Roman society and the empire’s internal power-struggles. Did they also affect Rome’s strength at the periphery? The really big changes were three, though they had all started well before Tiberius’ accession. The first was the regular organization of ‘auxiliary’ troops into quasi-permanent units in which they would normally serve for twenty-five years before being made Roman citizens on discharge, a system set up by Augustus and refined by his successors. As in centuries past, such troops often outnumbered the legionaries, and their effectiveness was of profound importance.

That leads, secondly, to the matter of recruitment. In the era of the civil wars of 49 to 31 bc, and under Augustus, provincials had entered the legions in large numbers. Recruits came from Roman-colonial or Romanized communities, but also from others: thus an inscription of the early Principate (ILS 2483) shows that almost all the soldiers in the two legions stationed in Egypt had been recruited in non-citizen communities in the eastern provinces (their lingua franca was Greek). All over the empire, the more Romanized provinces provided more and more of the legionaries, while Italians – who made up the bulk of the better-paid praetorian guard – provided fewer and fewer. The authorities were now quite willing in practice to recruit non-citizens, giving them citizenship when they were sworn in. This ‘provincialization’ probably reflected some Roman/Italian reluctance to serve (Italy was too prosperous) but also some intention on the emperors’ part to bring provincials into the mainstream. From Hadrian’s reign on, the normal pattern (though not in Britain) was to recruit legionaries in the provinces where they were needed, but from relatively Romanized/Hellenized elements (and legionaries were more likely than ‘auxiliaries’ to be literate). This was by and large a well-organized and disciplined force; and fighting spirit was probably not lacking either, at least down to Trajan’s time – when battle-commanders chose to entrust the initial impact of the fighting to ‘auxiliary’ units and keep the legionaries in reserve, a procedure that is first attested in a major battle at Idastaviso in Germany in AD 16 (Tacitus, Annals 2.16.3), there could be a variety of tactical reasons.

‘Auxiliary’ recruitment was quite different: the government concentrated on fringe areas such as Iberian Galicia and Thrace, simply supplying officers from the core area of the empire; such units were commonly posted away from their home areas, Britons for example in Upper Germany, while the auxilia in Britain itself might, for example, be Batavian or Syrian. Eventually, but unfortunately we do not know when, Rome also began to employ soldiers who are unlikely to have felt themselves to be Roman subjects: Marcus sent 5,500 cavalry of the Transdanubian Iazyges, whom he had just subdued, to serve in Britain (Dio 71.16). There were Goths garrisoning Arabia in 208, and Goths later took part in Valerian’s war against the Persians. This was probably an increasing trend, but it is hard to tell how much the armies of, say, Constantine and Licinius were really dependent on Goths or Arabs, whom they are known to have made use of.

The other military change of potentially great importance in the period prior to 235 was not so much that many units in the Roman army became ‘sedentary’ from generation to generation, becoming deeply involved in essentially administrative duties, but that many Roman soldiers never experienced battle. This army had never been invincible, but its deplorable failure to protect the Danube frontier in 170–1 suggests significant changes for the worse. Enemy forces reached northern Italy for the first time in some 270 years, while others, as already mentioned, raided as far south as Attica. Our sources on all this are poor, but it may be conjectured that a shortage of officers and soldiers seasoned by warfare had a great deal to do with Rome’s failure, and this in turn was the indirect result of conscious policy. In other respects, the Romans were normally at an advantage: throughout this period they were superior to their opponents in important areas such as artillery and engineering (‘the soldiers are always practising bridge-building’, Dio 71.3).

Temporary causes admittedly contributed, and the Danube line still had a long future. Marcus Aurelius, as we have seen, had had to raise two new legions about 165 to replace the three which his co-ruler Verus had taken from the Rhine and Danube to the east in order to fight the Parthians. Shortly thereafter, the Roman military in the north suffered seriously from the Great Pestilence, as recent studies have demonstrated. Marcus himself had had no military or even provincial experience before 168 – and it showed. Imperial coin-types furthermore had often exaggerated the emperors’ military achievements, and there was a risky deception involved when coin-types absurdly declared in 172–4 ‘Germania subacta’ – ‘Germany has been vanquished’.

Few historians have really tried to evaluate the Severan army, and the evidence is slippery. Even republican armies sometimes mutinied, and there were whole rhetorical topoi about undisciplined soldiery. But an army stationed in Mesopotamia that was mutinous enough to assassinate the provincial governor (about 227, Dio 80.4.2) was a very negative symptom (and see below on the year 235).

We have quite a lot of information about how the Roman army changed between Severan times and Constantine, but assessing its ability to do its job is nonetheless difficult. On the one hand it never, unlike the republican army, won battles it might well have lost, on the other it never, unlike the late-antique Roman army, lost battles that it ought to have won. We have little option but to judge it by its results, though these may be mainly attributable not to its own qualities but to those of its generals, or its logistics, or its enemies, or to any combination of these factors. Recent accounts of Rome’s military performance in this 100-year period are unsatisfactory, but our sources are admittedly tenuous to a degree, whether it is for the defeat at Abrittus in 251 or the battle nine years later in which, or after which, the Persians captured the emperor Valerian (some Roman sources naturally preferred to claim that he was captured by trickery).

Tiberius already knew that it was worth keeping two legions in Dalmatia partly in order to back up the legions on the Danube (Tacitus, Annals 4.5). Later Roman emperors eventually concluded that the long-standing dispositions of the Roman army, with the great majority of the soldiers stationed on or near the frontiers, were ill adapted to resisting major invasions that might come from different directions. It had always been necessary to balance the needs of the Danube frontier and the Euphrates frontier, but both became more dangerous in late-Severan times. Once Rome surrendered the initiative, the distances involved presented an almost insoluble problem: it took something over two months, for example, for troops to travel from Rome to Cologne. The best that could be done was to create a reserve army that could be sent wherever it was needed without weakening some vital garrison. It appears to have been Gallienus who created a central cavalry force (cf. Zosimus, New History 1.40, Cedrenus, i, p. 454 Bekker). The development of these comitatenses, as they came to be called, is impossible to follow in any detail, but Constantine apparently expanded their role (Zosimus 2.21.1 may refer to such troops), while also centralizing the command structure of the army by means of an overall infantry commander (the magister peditum) and a parallel cavalry commander (the magister equitum). Nonetheless it remained difficult to counter any large invasion once it had passed the northern or eastern frontiers. An enterprising governor might raise a local militia (populares: AÉ 1993 no. 1231b shows us a governor of Raetia doing this in 260), but they would be largely untrained and untried.

The reliefs on the Arch of Constantine distinguish between his Roman and his ‘barbarian’ troops, which raises again the complex question of whether Rome was now relying too much on troops who were merely mercenaries. According to the emperor Julian (Caesars 329a), Constantine ‘practically paid tribute’ to the barbarians, and modern accounts suppose that he and his rival Licinius made Rome significantly more reliant on German and other non-Roman troops than any previous ruler; but the ill effects do not yet seem to be visible.

The strength of the Roman Empire’s numerous and various neighbours to the north, east, and south can only be judged, once again, by the results, their aims likewise. From Tiberius’ time to Trajan’s, those who kept their freedom from Rome and their territorial integrity were doing well; this applies mainly to the Romans’ failure to advance far beyond the Rhine and to hold on to Mesopotamia. The incursions of the 160s–70s and of the 240s–60s showed a great deal of vigour. The invaders’ goal was often plunder, including human beings, which the Roman Empire offered in abundance. Dio (71.16) asserts that the Iazyges had taken far more than ‘ten myriads’ of prisoners in Roman territory – a five- rather than a six-digit number, one might think. (Some of the third-century booty has been recovered from the bed of the Rhine, rafts having apparently sunk). Not even Sasanian Persia, the most powerful external enemy Rome faced in this period, showed any determination to hold on to any Roman province, and in fact it had no reliable means of protecting its own core area against Roman forces that were always relatively near. But northern peoples had already in the second century extracted territorial concessions of a sort, obtaining lands within the Roman frontier. This practice went back to Julio-Claudian times. Initially the advantages to Rome probably outweighed the disadvantages; whether that continued to hold true in and after Marcus Aurelius’ time we shall consider in a moment. It certainly looks like a major surrender to strong outside pres- sure. Purchasing the docility of outside enemies by means of payments, unless it was a short-lived tactical expedient, was likewise a recognition of real enemy strength: this started with Domitian, but involved Trajan, Hadrian, and many later emperors. Yet from a Roman point of view, this was by no means an irrational policy, within limits.

Fundamental changes had taken place by the time the conglomeration of Germans known as the Alamanni (‘All Men’), who are first attested in a Roman source in 213, inflicted quite serious harm in 232–3. This was nothing less perhaps than the birth of a new national formation. What made a difference here was probably in the end quite simple: such a new grouping, like the Franks from about 260, could put larger forces into the field than any single German people. But the tetrarchs and Constantine could always, it seems, defeat the northern peoples on the battlefield.

The Army Phillip Built


Phillip and his Companions. Johnny Shumate


The Macedonian phalanx by A. Karashchuk

Phillip was himself fortunate to be operating in the comparatively permissive environment of a Hellenic world destabilized by 150 years of major warfare that began with the First Persian Invasion about 492.

The Persian threat forced sweeping economic and political change on the deeply conservative Greeks. Before they could adjust fully to the new social realities, internecine Greek warfare reached apotheosis in twenty-seven years of titanic and suicidal struggle for domination between Sparta and Athens known as the Peloponnesian War. These conflicts left the former great powers of Greece diminished and vulnerable. Weakened classical Greek power, however, modifies, but does not entirely explain Phillip’s accomplishments. He still had to subdue numerous Hellenic states for whom war had become a near constant occupation and who could avail themselves of the impressive military innovations and refinements which desperate conflict had driven. To accomplish that, Phillip imaginatively combined, refined, and improved on the best military practices of his age.

In forging the Macedonian military machine Phillip created the first truly professional army in the Western world and established the template upon which all current conventional armies are based. He standardized equipment within formations organized according to their intended tactical function. The rank and file (volunteers as well as conscripts) were issued their kit gratis from government-operated armories and manufactories. Pay and remuneration were standardized according to military rank and duty without excessive regard to private status. Command and administrative structures were rationalized and made permanent with reasonable opportunity for advancement and recognition based (in part) on merit and demonstrated ability. Institutionalized provision was made for the full range of support functions from commissary through medical services to disability and veterans’ pensions. Indirect command and control was exercised through a regular and consistent chain of command from army down to squad with orders relayed by an elaborate system of voice commands, visual signals, and music. In contrast to the rather xenophobic and ad hoc tendency of the Southern Greeks, Phillip adopted and institutionalized the best innovations from both Greek and barbarian military practice, recombining these elements into a singularly effective and synergistic whole.

The Macedonian tactical system was based on four fundamental elements: Heavy Infantry, Light Infantry, Light Cavalry and Heavy Cavalry, but it also made indispensible use of traditionally armed troops, artillery and engineers, naval forces and the specialized skills of local troops as they were available. Phillip modeled his Heavy Infantry after the concepts of the mercenary general, Iphicrates, who had extended the traditional hoplite seven-foot stabbing spear into an eighteen- to twenty-foot pike. In order to effectively manage this heavy and awkward weapon with two hands, individual body armor was greatly reduced or eliminated and the large hoplon shield, from which Greek infantrymen (“hoplites”) derived their name, shrunk to a light buckler that could be suspended from the neck. The members of these modified phalanxes gained protection from the standoff provided by the deep hedge of iron-tipped pikes. Groups of heavy infantrymen were organized into disciplined “syntagma” or companies composed of 256 pikemen arrayed in ranks and files of 16 men each. The heavy Macedonian phalanx had relatively little tactical flexibility and was slow moving, but it could generate enormous momentum in the attack and could establish a formidably intractable defensive base.

Also following the ideas of Iphicrates, The Macedonians fielded large formations of Light Infantry – primarily missile troops called “peltasts” – who rapidly deployed in amorphous, but regulated formations to shower enemy troops with barrages of arrows, javelins, and lead sling bullets, relying on their own agility and mobility for protection. Light Cavalry also relied primarily on missiles as their primary weapons; either short javelins or arrows launched from composite bows. They performed the same range of critical tasks – scouting, flank security, envelopment, and pursuit that modern armies rely upon mechanized cavalry to perform. Under the right tactical circumstances they could even join a general assault against disorganized or badly positioned infantry.

Heavy Cavalry, although perhaps inspired by the eccentric practice of some wealthy steppe warriors, was Phillip’s unique military innovation and was a key to the Macedonian approach to set-piece battle. These were relatively heavily armored horseman armed with a 12-foot lance and a heavy slashing saber. They were mounted on large powerful horses selected for their aggressive spirit and conditioned through patient training to be steady in the confusion of close-quarters combat. Phillip used his heavy horse in the then-non-traditional role of mounted shock troops. He is even credited with developing the remarkable mounted wedge formation designed to penetrate and disrupt enemy infantry and cavalry lines. Although these heavy horsemen were originally drawn from the sons of the aristocratic elite (hence their famous status as “Companions”), they were eventually expanded to include formations comprising the “able” from more modest backgrounds and designated “hetairoi.” The same regularity and consistent command and control Phillip had imposed on his infantry was extended to his cavalry, which were organized into squadrons of 200-300 riders each divided into troops of 50-60. These innovations gave Macedonian cavalry a high degree of flexibility in deployment. They were capable of rapid changes in direction of maneuver and attack with minimal disruption to their formation. In addition to his role as overall commander, Alexander generally led the senior squadron of heavy cavalry as “Hipparch” and placed himself at the very tip of the lead assault formation.

As well as these basic tactical elements, the Macedonian system also comprised significant formations of medium infantry equipped similarly to the traditional Greek hoplite, but under more uniform organization and training. These medium phalanxes provided greater flexibility and mobility than the heavy pikemen and provided the essential connective link to the cavalry formations. They were also indispensible for specialist tasks such as leading a breach assault or escalading a wall in a siege, serving as marines in a naval fight, or providing a rapid infantry reaction to an unexpected threat or opportunity. Phillip also created the first regularly organized corps of engineers whose technical prowess and creativity transformed the ancient practice of siege craft. Under assault from the formidable Macedonian machines directed by highly skilled specialists, Phillip and Alexander successfully concluded their sieges not in months or years, as had been the traditional norm, but often in weeks – sometimes days. The equipment and techniques they developed continued to define siege warfare for millennia until they were eclipsed by the introduction of gunpowder weapons in 13th Century AD. The engineers were also critical in sustaining mobility over difficult terrain and bridging obstacles, an essential element in Alexander’s scheme of relentless, all-season warfare.

While less frequently mentioned by historians, naval forces also represented a vitally important capability for power projection and sustainment. Although generally inferior to the largely Phoenician fleet which served the Persian Empire, the Macedonian and allied Greek fleet was nevertheless critical in securing Alexander’s supply lines and protecting the transport ships which were the most efficient and practical means of transporting the hundreds of tons of food and material required daily by the army in the field.

Under Phillip, the Macedonian nobility was, for all practical purposes, transformed into a professional officer corps. Alexander could and did rely on a large group of capable subordinate commanders and staff officers. As complement to his own remarkable skills, Alexander was well served by a group of highly competent subordinate generals many, such as Parmenion and Ptolemy, justly famous in their own right and some of whom went on to rule powerful successor empires themselves.

Together, these elements made a military machine of unprecedented agility, flexibility, and sustainability capable of adapting itself to dominate virtually any tactical situation, project power across enormous distances and maintain a high operational tempo in difficult, poorly resourced environments far from its strategic base. So sophisticated was the Macedonian system that it even had what approached an institutionalized tactical doctrine in which light forces deployed to create or to deny the enemy tactical opportunities, the heavy infantry formed a solid base of maneuver, and the heavy cavalry was used as a “hammer” to smash through the enemy line then wheel and crush the enemy force against the heavy infantry “anvil.” The medium infantry formed the flexible continuity connecting the different formations ready to provide immediate support to the cavalry and missile troops or act as a reserve. Alexander appreciated the utility of this doctrine, but never allowed himself to be rigidly bound by it. He always found his army able to adjust itself rapidly to his sudden creative insights or unconventional inspirations.

In addition to these impressive capabilities, the Macedonian Army possessed one final attribute that was equally important in explaining Alexander’s unprecedented record of achievement. The Macedonian Army was a fighting force of exceptional and terrifying ferocity. The average Macedonian soldier was, even by the standard of his time, ruthless, relentless, and remorseless. Collectively the Macedonians displayed a singular bloody-mindedness seldom exceeded by any military force in history. Terror and intimidation were primary weapons in their arsenal and they used them with unapologetic vigor. Perhaps the only fundamentally original innovation of Alexander was his technique of aggressively and relentlessly pursuing a defeated enemy. In divergence from traditional Greek warfare and in stark contrast to Asiatic practice, Alexander sought not simply to defeat his enemies, but to annihilate them lest they later discover the temerity to challenge him again. It was in pursuit operations that the inherent ferocity of the Macedonian military found its most terrifying outlet. It is not the least irony surrounding Alexander that in his campaigns – ostensibly undertaken to restore Greek honor, liberty, and fortune lost in persistent conflicts with Persia he killed more Asian and Greek soldiers than had died in the preceding 150 years combined.

For all of the Macedonian Army’s extraordinary potential, to be effective, any military force must be well-led and directed, and it was the gifts of military planning and leadership that Alexander possessed in greatest abundance. It was a legacy of traditional Greek warfare that the military commander should put himself at risk by participating personally in combat. Alexander, in this as in so much else, took the “heroic” leadership model to an extreme. He generally placed himself in the thick of the most desperate fighting and plunged into the attack with reckless disregard for his own safety in the process setting a powerful example for his men. Arrian relates that during a siege of an Indian fortress, Alexander, impatient with the progress of his men storming the enemy wall, impetuously seized a scaling ladder and clambered to the top accompanied by just two companions. In the mad rush to join their commander, the Macedonians over-crowded and broke the ladders, stranding Alexander among the enemy. His men implored him to jump back down into the many arms waiting to catch him, but, espying the enemy commander in the interior court, Alexander instead leaped inside and killed the Indian leader in personal combat. In the process, this tiny group of Macedonians became the focus of the defenders and they were showered with arrows one penetrating Alexander’s lung. Alarmed and enraged, the remaining Macedonians swarmed over the wall to secure what they assumed would be a corpse. That he survived this commonly mortal wound says much about Alexander’s physical stamina and toughness (as well as the modern tendency to underestimate the sophistication of ancient medicine). In all, the various sources record that Alexander received a total of eight major wounds in combat at least two of them very nearly fatal.

Roman Auxilia


Warrior auxiliary cohort of Batavia , the second half of the 1st century AD.



Batavian auxiliary cavalry – Pablo Outeiral


The Roman Auxilia constituted the standing non-citizen corps of the Imperial Roman army during the Principate era (30 BC–284 AD), alongside the citizen legions. By the 2nd century, the Auxilia contained the same number of infantry as the legions and in addition provided almost all of the Roman army’s cavalry and more specialised troops, especially light cavalry and archers. The auxilia thus represented three-fifths of Rome’s regular land forces at that time. These soldiers were mainly recruited from the peregrini, i.e. free provincial subjects of the Roman Empire who did not hold Roman citizenship and constituted the vast majority of the empire’s population. The Auxilia also included some Roman citizens, and in times of great need, even freed slaves and barbarians from beyond the Empire’s borders. This was in contrast to the legions, which admitted Roman citizens only.

Roman auxiliary units developed from the varied contingents of non-Italian troops, especially cavalry, that the Roman Republic used in increasing numbers to support its legions after 200 BC. The Julio-Claudian period (30 BC–68 AD) saw the transformation of these motley temporary levies into a standing corps of regiments with standardised structure, equipment and conditions of service. By the end of this period, there were no significant differences between legionaries and most auxiliaries in terms of training, or thus combat capability.

At the start of Augustus’ sole rule (30 BC), the original core auxiliary units in the West were composed of warlike tribesmen from the Gallic provinces (especially Gallia Belgica, which then included the regions later separated to form the provinces Germania Inferior and Germania Superior), and from the Illyrian provinces (Dalmatia and Illyricum). By 19 BC, the Cantabrian and Asturian Wars were concluded, leading to the annexation of northern Hispania and Lusitania. Judging by the names of attested auxiliary regiments, these parts of the Iberian peninsula soon became a major source of recruits. Then the Danubian regions were annexed: Raetia (annexed 15 BC), Noricum (16 BC), Pannonia (9 BC) and Moesia (6 AD), becoming, with Illyricum, the Principate’s most important source of auxiliary recruits for its entire duration. In the East, where the Syrians already provided the bulk of the Roman army’s archers, Augustus annexed Galatia (25 BC) and Judaea: the former, a region in central Anatolia with a Celtic-speaking people, became an important source of recruits. In N. Africa, Egypt, Cyrene, and Numidia (25 BC) were added to the empire. Numidia (modern day Eastern Algeria) was home to the Mauri, the ancestors of today’s Berber people. Their light cavalry (equites Maurorum) was highly prized and had alternately fought and assisted the Romans for well over two centuries: they now started to be recruited into the regular auxilia. Even more Mauri units were formed after the annexation of Mauretania (NW Algeria, Morocco), the rest of the Berber homeland, in 44 AD by emperor Claudius. Additionally, independent auxiliary units were often the only Roman military force present in the inermes provinciae, or unarmed provinces, such as Mauretania.

Recruitment was thus heavy throughout the Augustan period, with a steady increase in the number of units formed. By 23 AD, the Roman historian Tacitus records that there were roughly the same numbers of auxiliaries in service as there were legionaries. Since at this time there were 25 legions of 5,000 men each, the auxilia thus amounted to 125,000 men.


The Batavi were accounted indisputably not merely as the best riders and swimmers of the army, but also as the model of true soldiers. In this case certainly the good pay of the bodyguard, as well as the privilege of the nobles to serve as officers, considerably confirmed their loyalty to the Empire.

The Batavians, according to Tacitus, were the most noble and brave of all the Germans. The Chatti, of whom they formed a portion, were a pre-eminently warlike race. “Others go to battle,” says the historian, “these go to war.” Their bodies were more hardy, their minds more vigorous, than those of other tribes. In times of war their young men cut neither hair nor beard till they had slain an enemy.

On the field of battle, in the midst of carnage and plunder, they, for the first time, bared their faces. The cowardly and sluggish, only, remained unshorn. They wore an iron ring upon their necks until they had performed the same achievement, a symbol that they then threw away, as the emblem of sloth. The Batavians were always spoken of by the Romans with entire respect. They conquered the Belgians, they forced the free Frisians to pay tribute, but they called the Batavi their friends. The tax-gatherer never invaded their island. Honorable alliance united them with the Romans.

“The barbarians thought the Romans would not be able to cross this [the River Medway] without a bridge, and as a result had pitched camp in a rather careless fashion on the opposite bank. Aulus Plautius, however, sent across some Celts who were practised in swimming with ease fully armed across even the fastest of rivers. These fell unexpectedly on the enemy”.

Cassius Dio ‘ The History of Rome’.

One of the Batavians most renowned skills was the method they employed to cross wide bodies of water en-masse, such as the Ems during Germanicus’ campaigns in Germany and the Po in the civil wars of A.D.69 where several foot soldiers would swim alongside a single cavalry soldier and his horse, presumably keeping their weapons above water by using the horse as a kind of living raft. Their tactics have been identified in use under Aulus Plautius during the Battle of the Medway in AD43 and also under the governor G. Suetonius Paulinus. The auxiliary troops who crossed the Menai Straits onto the Isle of Anglesey to destroy the Druid stronghold there were in all likelihood Batavian units. It is thought that in the army of Plautius there were eight Batavian units, each five hundred strong.

The historian Cornelius Tacitus (c.55-c.120) refers to the Batavians;

“He therefore prepared to attack the island of Mona which had a powerful population and was a refuge for fugitives. He built flat-bottomed vessels to cope with the shallows, and uncertain depths of the sea. Thus the infantry crossed, while the cavalry followed by fording, or, where the water was deep, swam by the side of their horses.”

Cornelius Tacitus ‘The Annals of Imperial Rome’..

”Depositis omnis sarcinis lectissimos auxiliarium quibus nota vada et patrius nandi usus, quo simul seque et arma et equos regunt, ita repente inmisit, ut obstupefacti hostes, qui classem, qui navis, qui mare expectabant, nihil arduum aut invictum crediderint sic ad bellum venientibus”.

”After dropping all baggage he quickly sent the most elite of the auxiliaries, who were familiar with shallows and traditionally used to swimming in such a manner that they kept control over arms and horses, to the effect that the flabbergasted barbarians, who expected a fleet, who expected a ship across the sea believed that nothing was hard or insurmountable to those who went to war in this fashion”.

Tacitus ‘Agricola’ 18.4

Vegetius gives us some insight as to how the Batavians achieved such a feat:

“Expediti vero equites fasces de cannis aridis vel facere consueverunt, super quos loricas et arma, ne udentur, inponunt; ipsi equique natando transeunt colligatosque secum fasces pertrahunt loris”.

“Battle ready horsemen though have been accustomed to make bundles from dry reeds or, on these they put the body armours and weapons, in order that they do not get wet; they themselves and their horses cross by swimming and they draw the packed bundles along with them with leather straps”.

Vegetius, Epitoma rei militaris 3.7

Dio Cassius Comments upon Hadrian and the rigorous training that he insisted his troops be tutored in. In one passage he refers to the Batavians (Presumably the emperor’s personal horse guards) and their river-crossing abilities.

“So excellently, indeed, had his soldiery been trained that the cavalry of the Batavians, as they were called, swam the Ister with their arms. Seeing all this, the barbarians stood in terror of the Romans, they employed Hadrian as an arbitrator of their differences”.

(Dio Cassius Liber LXIX 9.6)

The implication is that the Batavians possessed a unique skill. However, there is a gravestone of a certain Soranus, a Syrian trooper in a Batavian milliary cohort, again, possibly the emperor’s personal horseguard. Soranus’ epitaph records that in AD118 he, before the Emperor Hadrian, swam the Danube and performed the following feats..

CIL 03, 03676 (AE 1958, 0151).

Ille ego Pannoniis quondam notissimus orisinter mille viros fortis primusq(ue) BatavosHadriano potui qui iudice vasta profundiaequora Danuvii cunctis transnare sub armisemissumq(ue) arcu dum pendet in aere telumac redit ex alia fixi fregique sagittaquem neque Romanus potuit nec barbarus unquamnon iaculo miles non arcu vincere Parthushic situs hic memori saxo mea facta sacravividerit an ne aliquis post me mea facta sequ[a]turexemplo mihi sum primus qui talia gessi

“I am the man who, once very well known to the ranks in Pannonia, brave and foremost among one thousand Batavians, was able, with Hadrian as judge, to swim the wide waters of the deep Danube in full battle kit. From my bow I fired an arrow, and while it quivered still in the air and was falling back, with a second arrow I hit and broke it. No Roman or foreigner has ever managed to better this feat, no soldier with a javelin, no Parthian with a bow. Here I lie, here I have immortalised my deeds on an ever-mindful stone which will see if anyone after me will rival my deeds. I set a precedent for myself in being the first to achieve such feats”.

The Batavians were a notable addition to the forces of the Roman army from the reign of Caesar, until the reign of Romulus Augustulus. They played an important role in the successes of – and supplementation to – the Legions of the Roman army. Our Batavian unit honours these men and perpetuates their fine tradition.

India: Chandragupta



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

When Alexander the Great withdrew from India, he left the defeated king Porus as vassal of an expanded kingdom. Porus remained loyal to Alexander and his successors, but he encouraged the Indian prince, Chandragupta, who emulated Alexander himself. Chandragupta had met Alexander and had been introduced to the Macedonian way of war, though he, and other Indian kings, preferred to continue using war elephants and chariots in a four-part division of their armies—elephant, chariot, cavalry, foot. After the death of Alexander Chandragupta raised an army and defeated the Macedonians in India. Buoyed by this success, he overthrew the king of Magadha—Magadha, centered on the Ganges and patron of the Buddha, was the most powerful state of some 120 independent kingdoms in India.

Chandragupta (reigned 321-297) expanded his power along the Ganges and into the Indus valley, where he had to contend with Seleucus Nicator in 305. The details of their battles are lost, but Seleucus ceded all territory east of the Indus and the western provinces of Arachosia and Gedrosia. In return Chandragupta presented Seleucus with 500 war elephants and took a daughter in marriage. (Seleucus was forced to keep his attention on his wars in the west and prepare for an impending battle—Ipsus—with his rivals.) Chandragupta founded the Mauryan Empire. His empire encompassed the whole of northern Indian and Afghanistan. A curious story relates that when a famine struck his kingdom, Chandragupta joined the religious sect of the Jains, abdicated, and accompanied a party of Jains south in search of better conditions. There he starved himself to death. His son (who took the title Slayer of the Enemy) increased the size of the empire and passed it on to his own son, Asoka.

Chandragupta organized his empire around the central point of his capital city, Patna. He maintained a standing army (according to contemporary reports) of 300,000-600,000 infantry, 30,000 cavalry, and 9,000 elephants. By now the chariot, though still a royal status symbol, was obsolete. Indian rulers lived a life of warfare, hunting, gambling, and sports (a race between chariots pulled by combined teams of horses and oxen was popular). Chandragupta feared assassination, as he was quite ready to encourage the assassination of rival kings, and so he did not sleep in the same bedroom two nights in a row. He was an absolute monarch at the head of a fully organized and closely controlled bureaucracy. One bureau had charge of the military and was divided into six boards controlled by five men each: navy, quartermaster, infantry, cavalry, chariot, and elephant. The army was to be recruited from “robbers, mountain men, gangs, forest people, and warrior clans.” Soldiers were to receive a regular salary and their equipment, but they had to be mindful of the guiding principle of Mauryan government—the art of government is the art of punishment.

Chandragupta’s right-hand man, Kautilya, is the supposed author of a work on politics and war (the Arthasatra) that describes, summarizes, and advises on the situation of the time of Chandragupta. There are sections on the duties of the ministers of the boards of elephants, boards of chariots, and boards of infantry—to inspect the troops, to check their equipment, their proficiency in training (“in shooting arrows, throwing clubs, wearing armor, fighting seated in a chariot, controlling the team of horses”), and their pay. Among sections on organization and punishment (appropriate tortures) are chapters on when and how to attack, to make and betray allies, to feign peace, and to use spies to gather intelligence. “If you face two enemies, one strong and one weak, which should you attack first? The strong, because once he is defeated, the weak will capitulate without a fight.”

Part 10 offers advice on war. The king’s camp should be sited by the commander, an astrologer, and the engineer. It should be divided into nine parts with six roads. The quarters for the king should be surrounded by trenches, parapets, and a wall with gates. There should be a place for his harem and the harem guard, his financial officials, the gods and their priests, stables for the royal mounts (elephants and horses), quarters for infantry, chariots, cavalry, elephants, and free labor, for merchants, prostitutes, hunters, spies and guards. People should not be allowed to come and go. Drinking, parties, and gambling are prohibited. Wells should be dug in advance all along the way.

“Armies in good locations will defeat armies in bad.” The best rate of march is ten and a quarter miles a day. There are different formations for marching. Provisions and water must be supplied in advance. “Strike the enemy when he is caught in unfavorable terrain.” Deceive the enemy, feign defeat. Look for places to put ambushes. Harass the enemy at night to prevent his sleeping. Before a pitched battle the king says to his troops, “I’m being paid just like you. You and I will both profit from this conquest.” The priests encourage the army. Priests (and poets) should say that heroes go to heaven and cowards go to hell. Offer cash rewards for acts of bravery.

The army’s back should be to the sun. “When a defeated army resumes its attack, it cares not whether it lives or dies, its fury cannot be resisted; let a defeated army flee.” The different divisions of the army do better on different terrain. The best terrain for the chariot is dry ground that is firm, level, and free of wagon ruts, trees, plants, vines, and thorns. The duties of the four armies is described in detail. The order of the army arranged for battle is: the strongest troops will lead the attack from center, left, and right. Once the enemy is broken, the weaker troops in reserve will destroy the enemy. The king should station himself with the reserve. “Never fight without a reserve.”

The moral of the Arthasatra is to deceive and divide your enemies without allowing them to deceive and divide you. “When an archer shoots an arrow, he may miss his target, but intrigue can kill even the unborn.” In part the Arthasatra is a manual of organization of the army. Chandragupta relied on a core of trained men supplemented by levies of militia and by mercenaries (independent war guilds that sold their services to the highest bidder). There were mercenary corps (guilds) of elephant troops.

The elephant was now the royal mount of the kings. Elephants were armored, had neck ropes and bells, and they carried hooks and quivers, slings, and lances. Seven men rode their backs, employing the different weapons. The elephant was used to connect different elements of the army, to guard the flanks when advancing and to guard the rear in retreat. An army might have 8,000 chariots, 1,000 elephants, 60,000 horse; an ideal division of an army would have 10,000 horse, 2,000 elephants, 10,000 foot, and 500 chariots. A unit organized to care for the wounded followed the army.

Asoka (reigned 274-232) began his reign as his father and grandfather before him—an autocrat devoted to the hunt, feasts, gambling, and war—but the campaign he led against the Kalingas (a people on the middle of the southeast coast) changed his life and the life of the whole of India. He wrote (paraphrased), “I conquered Kalinga in the eighth year of my reign (261 B. C.) and had 150,000 people carried off as prisoners, I was responsible for 100,000 slain, and many times 100,000 died. Then I suffered remorse for having conquered the Kalingas because conquest of an independent country necessitates the slaughter and the capture of the people. I regret this. Now I desire that all living creatures—even the people of the forest who I wish would mend their ways—live in peace without fear.”

True conquest (according to Asoka) depended upon the conquest of men’s hearts. Among these true conquests he included disparate people in his own domains, neighbors, and the kings of Ptolemaic Egypt, Cyrene, Asia Minor, and the Seleucid empire. Such conquests win favor in the next world, too. Asoka sponsored Buddhist missions to the Hellenistic kingdoms, to Ceylon (where they rapidly converted the inhabitants), and to east and north. As the unity of the Roman Empire in the future was to contribute to the rapid spread of Christianity, so the Mauryan unity contributed to the rapid spread of Buddhism. Asoka intended to inculcate in his people—by being accessible to them and by showing them through his own example—the three virtues, reverence to authority, respect for life, and truth. After his death in 232 the empire began to disintegrate, because of both the lethargy of his successors and the increased aggressiveness of the Seleucids.

Details of specific battles do not survive, but in the epic of the battle between the Kurus and the Pandavas an elephant battle is described. Elephant was used against elephant, but in the melee an elephant would trample and crush anything that got in its way. The most feared elephant was a male in rut. Its musk glands discharged a noxious substance that warned other elephants to give it wide berth (unless they, too, were in rut). The difficulty with elephants in rut is that they are impossible to control.



On both sides there arose a clamor, shouting, the blare of cow horns, beating drums and cymbals and tabors, and the two sides rushed upon each other. The prince’s shouts rose above the noise made by the thousands of neighing horses and filled the enemy with fear. Horses and elephants all lost control of their bladders and bowels. The sun himself was shrouded by the dust raised by the warriors.

Huge elephants with wounded temples attacked other huge elephants, and they tore one another with their tusks. They had castles and standards on their backs, they were trained to fight, and they struck with their tusks and were struck in turn, and they shrieked in agony. They were goaded forward by pikes and hooks, and so they fought each other, though it was not the mating season. Some elephants uttered cries like cranes and fled in all directions. Many elephants, bleeding from temple and mouth, torn by swords, lances, and arrows, shrieked aloud, fell down, and died.

One warrior turned his elephant with upraised trunk and rushed upon a chariot. The elephant in his anger placed his foot upon the yoke of the chariot and killed the four large horses, but the chariot warrior stayed on his chariot with the dead horses and threw a lance, made entirely of iron and resembling a snake, and he hit the elephant-warrior. The lance pierced his coat of mail; he dropped the hook and his lance and fell down from his elephant’s neck. The chariot warrior drew his sword, jumped down from his chariot, swung with all his strength, and hacked off the elephant’s trunk. The elephant’s coat of mail was pierced all over with arrows, his trunk was cut off, and he uttered a loud shriek and fell down and died.

Septimia Zenobia and Emperor Gallienus


Zenobia of Palmyra, 273 AD – Women War Queens by Gambargin


Palmyra at its greatest extent in 271 AD.


King Odenathus • Queen Zenobia • Palmyrene guardsman, Angus McBride


Arab-Palmyrene soldier, 3rd C. AD, Hatrene clibanarius, 2nd C. AD, Palmyrene soldier, Dura Europos, 3rd C. AD, Angus McBride

The whole of Emperor Gallienus’s reign played out as a series of attempts to keep control of imperial territory and bind it together in the face of repeated challenges and no certain loyalty anywhere. In 261, the Syrian proclamation of Macrianus, initially a response to the campaigns of Shapur, became more dangerous, as the two Macriani crossed from Asia Minor into Europe, seeking to establish the dynasty at Rome in the usual way. Aureolus, already victorious over Ingenuus and Regalianus, now defeated the Macriani and put them to death. It was lucky for Gallienus – and in light of recent history somewhat surprising – that Aureolus’s consistent successes did not prompt him into his own revolt. But nor was he sent east to deal with Quietus and Callistus. Instead, Gallienus entered an alliance with Odaenathus of Palmyra, granting him the title corrector totius orientis, on the model of the command that Julius Priscus had held under Philip in the same region. The reliance on such supra-provincial commanders, outranking any provincial governor, is a further sign of the breakdown of the old governing system, but it was a logical response to persistent instability. Odaenathus at once marched on Emesa, where the soldiery mutinied and killed Quietus and Callistus without taking the field against the Palmyrene.

This was the first act with which Odaenathus proved himself a powerful and reliable ally to the central emperor. He accepted Gallienus’s provincial appointees without demur, but he was also, to all intents and purposes, the independent ruler of an eastern Roman empire. In the west, in the same year 261 that saw the suppression of the Macriani, Postumus achieved the major success of bringing Spain and Britain under his control. Postumus’s emperorship is an interesting phenomenon, one that bears no relationship to the symbolic subordination but de facto hegemony of the Palmyrene leader in the east. Postumus, after all, claimed the imperial title. His full titulature was Imperator Caesar M. Cassianius Latinius Postumus, pius felix invictus Augustus, pontifex maximus, pater patriae, proconsul.

Postumus had declared himself consul at his accession in 260 and he entered a second consulate in 261, the year that all the provinces west of Italy recognised him not as a legitimate emperor, but as the legitimate emperor, a sole legitimacy which his titulature also asserted. His was a usurpation like any other, but with one major difference – successful usurpers, like the Macriani for a time, understood that the rules of the game were to secure one’s rear and then march on the reigning emperor in order to defeat him, because there could only be one emperor at a time. In the face of such a putsch, the reigning emperor was obliged to eliminate the challenge, and would inevitably make that a priority over any other threat he might face – or so it had invariably played out in the past. Postumus, uniquely in Roman history, neither attacked the Italian territories of Gallienus nor sought to legitimise his position as his co-emperor, in the way that Clodius Albinus and Septimius Severus had in the 190s and would become normal practice in the fourth century. Rather, he contented himself with ruling the provinces that had declared for him in 260 and 261, safe behind the Alps, Vosges and Schwarzwald. Gallienus was constrained to regard him as an enemy and an existential challenge simply because of his imperial claim, but he did so without any active provocation from Postumus.

As a result, it is normal to talk of a separate ‘Gallic empire’ created by Postumus and sustained under several successors until suppressed in the 270s by Aurelian. There are problems with that view, however, inasmuch as it implies a sense of separatism – the German term for the regime, the gallisches Sonderreich (‘Gallic splinter empire’), makes the point even more clearly. But evidence for separatism is hard to find. In ideological terms, Postumus and his successors at Colonia Agrippina ignored the existence of Gallienus as an imperial rival, and refused to follow the political script and pursue his defeat and destruction, but by the same token they never claimed to be anything other than Roman emperors. They simply didn’t bother to try to control Rome. The de facto result was two imperial polities in Europe, both of which regarded themselves as the Roman empire. Only one, however, viewed the other as an existential challenge, and thus Gallienus would make several attempts to eliminate the Gallic emperor in the next years of his reign.

The most significant of these was in 265. Gallienus had by that point settled matters in the Balkans to his satisfaction, touring Achaea and holding the archonship of Athens in 264, and also acknowledging the heroism of the local population in resisting the Scythian invasion of two years earlier. That done, he was able to concentrate his manpower on challenging Postumus. He personally commanded the army that crossed the Alps and won a victory over Postumus, who fled to an unknown city where his rival besieged him. During the siege, Gallienus was wounded by the defenders and called off the attack. Postumus’s regime was granted a long reprieve but, as a result of the campaign, the Spanish governors returned their allegiance to Gallienus. The year 266 is almost undocumented, but events in the east took a surprising turn in the autumn of 267, when Odaenathus, on campaign northwards to Heracleia Pontica, was murdered, possibly at Emesa. His son Herodianus, whom he had raised to co-rulership, was likewise killed. The motives and identities of their murderers are impossible to sort out from the confused sources, but it was clearly a family affair of some bitterness. The immediate beneficiary of the murders was Odaenathus’s widow, Zenobia, who was the mother of several of his children, but not the older and favoured Herodian. Under the nominal rule of her son Vaballathus, Zenobia launched a conquest of the Roman east that went beyond the classic model of usurpation, not least in its success.

That took a couple of years to prepare, and we must be careful not to romanticise what is obviously an almost unique regime. Zenobia was born Julia Aurelia Zenobia, or Bath-Zabbai in the Syriac, to the Palmyrene nobleman Julius Aurelius Zenobius. She had built up a strong power base during the lifetime of her husband, but was no doubt displeased at the pre-eminence given Herodian, the offspring of a previous marriage, over her own sons, Septimius Hairanes and Septimius Vaballathus. With Odaenathus’s death, the 7-year-old Vaballathus was given his father’s titles of rex regum (the Latin for shahanshah, ‘king of kings’) and corrector totius Orientis, but there is no evidence that Gallienus accepted this succession from competent and loyal father to pre-adolescent boy. Zenobia, for her part, began to call herself Septimia Zenobia and queen. Her regime was much aided by the disarray of Shapur’s late reign, when he faced disputes among his own heirs and a chaotic new situation on his eastern frontiers which we will look at later in this chapter. As a result, however, Shapur was unable to capitalise on the disruption in Syria as he would certainly once have done, and Zenobia’s hands were almost entirely free.

We cannot know what Gallienus’s response to these eastern events might have been, for he never got the chance to make one. In 268, the Balkans descended into violence once again, with a ‘Scythian’ invasion (this time the invaders are named as Heruli, a group well known in later history), again by ship, into Asia Minor and peninsular Greece. At the same time, Gallienus’s great marshal Aureolus revolted, clearly on his own behalf, though claiming to be doing so as an ally of Postumus and striking coins in the latter’s name at Mediolanum. It may be that Aureolus was at the time commanding a field army in preparation for another Balkan or Gallic campaign. Mediolanum would long be a centre from which to launch such ventures, commanding as it did all the key roads through the North Italian plain. Aureolus did not move swiftly enough to meet Gallienus in battle and found himself besieged in the city. What happened next is poorly documented and the sources give conflicting versions of how Gallienus came to be murdered while conducting the siege. Between them, the different accounts manage to blame almost every one of the prime movers of the next few years of imperial history: Gallienus’s praetorian prefect Aurelius Heraclianus; the generals Marcianus, Marcus Aurelius Claudius and Aurelius Aurelianus; and a regimental commander called Cecropius, otherwise unknown. Practically the only great marshal of Gallienus’s not named in one story or another is Marcus Aurelius Probus. One version has them being tricked into conspiracy by Aureolus; another has Gallienus being tricked into exposing himself to danger by Herodianus; others strive to exculpate one or another of the key players. There is no way to sort claim from counterclaim, no argument can be probative one way or another and, as with the murder of Odaenathus, we can either admit ignorance or let the question of cui bono guide our choice. If we do that, then regardless of who orchestrated the actual murder, the chief plotter will have been Claudius, because after Gallienus’s death, the army acclaimed him emperor at the gates of Mediolanum.

Aureolus died in battle shortly afterwards, and the successful Claudius made a show of honouring his predecessor, sending his body back to Rome and interring it in the family’s mausoleum on the Appian Way. He also prevailed upon the senate to have Gallienus deified. Before going to Rome himself, however, he marched north and won a victory at Lake Garda, in northern Italy, against some Alamanni who had launched an opportunistic invasion when the renewed Roman civil war offered them the chance. Claudius probably spent the winter of 268–9 in Rome, where he entered his first consulship in the company of a long-time senatorial supporter of Gallienus, Aspasius Paternus: whether from conviction or necessity, some of Rome’s senatorial grandees were content to make their peace with this new regime of the marshals.

For Claudius, there was no question but that the year 269 would bring heavy fighting. His only choice was whether to favour an internal or an external foe. The Balkans were still being devastated, whether by the Herulian raiders of the previous year or by further incursions from across the Danube – instability at the centre always encouraged such activity at the frontiers, and we also happen to learn that there was a substantial nomadic attack on the African province of Cyrenaica at just this time. Athens, too, was sacked some time in this year, perhaps in the springtime. Claudius sent his fellow general Julius Placidianus to invade southern Gaul, assigning him some sort of extraordinary command. Claudius himself set out for the Balkans, while his fellow conspirator Heraclianus went east, perhaps to deal with Zenobia. Although the sources do not say so explicitly, we should discern in all this activity the work of a military junta determined to confront the multiple threats that faced it: in a coordinated strategy, three of Gallienus’s marshals, who had in all likelihood shared in plotting his death, now each took charge of one of the three fronts with which Gallienus had been unable to deal. Outcomes, however, did not meet expectations.

Placidianus faced a confusing situation in Gaul, where one of Postumus’s officials, Ulpius Cornelianus Laelianus, had rebelled, taking the imperial title for himself at Moguntiacum in Germania Superior. Postumus rapidly defeated Laelianus, but when he prevented his troops from sacking the city, he immediately faced a mutiny. His own troops murdered Postumus and declared one Marcus Aurelius Marius emperor in his place. Marius was in turn attacked and killed by Postumus’s praetorian prefect, Marcus Piavonius Victorinus – probably a Gallic nobleman, to judge by his name. Victorinus had shared the consulship of 268 with Postumus and he now managed to hold things together longer than had his very short-lived predecessors. The invasion of Claudius’s colleague Pacatianus advanced as far as the village of Cularo (later the fourth-century town of Gratianopolis, thus modern Grenoble), but no further. Perhaps inspired by the tide of the Claudian advance, the city of Augustodunum (Autun) revolted against Victorinus but, without support from Pacatianus, it was besieged and sacked by Victorinus and this once-prosperous Gallic town lost much of its importance thereafter. Despite these losses, Victorinus was able to enter a second consulship undisturbed in 270.

Meanwhile, at Naissus in the Balkans, Claudius won a dramatic victory over the Scythians that earned him the title Gothicus maximus, joining the Germanicus maximus that he had taken the year before to celebrate his victory over the Alamanni. We do not know where in the Balkans Claudius wintered in 269–70, but the next year opened with moppingup operations against the Scythians whom we can now for convenience begin to call Goths – the victory title Gothicus demonstrates that this is how the Romans were beginning to identify the people they were fighting beyond the lower Danube.

In the east, Zenobia reacted violently to the arrival of Heraclianus. She had been claiming the title corrector totius Orientis for Vaballathus ever since the death of Odaenathus, as if it were a hereditary designation. She now began to mint coins in the name of Vaballathus, an act that could only be construed as rebellion, usurpation and treason. An obscure legend on coins may suggest that Vaballathus began to be styled vir consularis [or clarissimus], rex, imperator (et) dux Romanorum. If so, it was almost a claim to the imperial throne, but just enough short to be deniable – every title in the formulation could be explained in a relatively innocent way. What could not be explained away was the invasion of Arabia and Egypt, which Zenobia’s army, under the command of one Zabdas, undertook in 270. The prefect of Egypt, Tenagino Probus, was defeated and killed defending his province against this invasion. Zenobia appointed his deputy prefect, Julius Marcellinus, as his successor, and Egypt now fell under Palmyrene hegemony for nearly half a decade.

Heraclianus proved powerless to dent Palmyrene control over the core territories in Syria and Arabia, and Zenobia’s supporters felt emboldened to push into Anatolia. Meanwhile, in the Balkans, Claudius’s recent victory over the Goths could not save his army from devastation by a more formidable enemy: plague broke out among the soldiers during the winter months, carrying off many of them – and then the emperor himself. There is a certain poignancy in the fact that the only emperor in decades not to die by the sword should have reigned so very briefly. But death saved his reputation – when the fourth century remembered the dark years before Diocletian and Constantine, Claudius was the only emperor to be well regarded by every different historical tradition, so much so that it could seem worth fabricating a fictional descent from him. Not since Severus and Caracalla had there been an emperor whose memory held that much credit.