Battle of Kadesh

The Egyptian Empire under Ramesses II (green) bordering on the Hittite Empire (red) at the height of its power in c. 1279 BC. Kadesh marked as Qadesh.

A famous confrontation between RAMESSES II (r. 1290-1224 B. C. E.) and MUWATALLIS of the HITTITES, taking place c. 1285 B. C. E. on the Orontes River in modern Syria, the battle was recounted in 10 inscriptions, including a poetic form, bulletins, and reliefs on temple walls. Ramesses II marched out of Egypt on the ninth day of the second month of summer, stopping at Tjel, an Egyptian outpost. He had the Regiment of Amun, as well as three other major units with him, and the Sherden infantry, composing a force of 20,000 men. Reaching Ramesses-Meryamen, an Egyptian fortress in the Valley of the Cedars in modern Lebanon, Ramesses II saw no sign of the Hittites. Tricked by two “Shoshu,” Hittite spies posing as local inhabitants, Ramesses II stretched his forces 30 miles into the enemy territory, divided his forces, and then made camp. When Muwatallis began a series of raids and ambushes, Ramesses II beat the “Shoshu” and received confirmation of the Hittite trap and his peril.

Globally, Ramesses II intended to retake the city of Kadesh which had switched sides after the withdrawal of the large Egyptian army under Seti I. His strategy was a simple one: march to the city and take it. From the background to the eventual combat it is clear that Ramesses with his four divisions did not intend to meet the Hittites. The “Poem” begins the narration at the departure from Sile, and then continues with the arrival at a royal fortress in the “Valley of Cedar.” There was no opposition in Palestine; combat was expected only in Syria. He is then described as crossing the ford of the Orontes, which was south of the city and at a point where the river coursed in a westward direction, perpendicular to the march of the king.

Earlier, Ramesses had received false information from two Shasu at the town of Shabtuna (modern Ribla), who stated that his Hittite opponent, Muwatallis, with his army, was in Aleppo, north of Tunip. In other words, the king felt that he could reach Kadesh unopposed and settle for a battle or a siege. A series of background points can now be made. The first is the simplest, and one that I have referred to on more than one occasion. The war was known to all and sundry. Both the local princes in Palestine and Syria as well as the leaders of the two great states of Hatti and Egypt could not hide their feelings, their war preparations, indeed their war aims. The journey of Ramesses, though not rapid by today’s standards, nonetheless covered the same number of miles per day as, for example, Thutmose III did when approaching Megiddo. The march was thus ca. 12.5 miles/day and no lengthy delays occurred. If we allow about 10 days from Sile to Gaza, and then about 12 days to get to Megiddo, we can place him in central Palestine about three weeks after his departure from Egypt. He left Egypt approximately at the close of March to early April, following the practice of his Dynasty XVIII predecessors. On day nine of the third month of the harvest season he was at Shabtuna south of Kadesh, and about one month had passed. (The departure from Sile is dated exactly one month before the arrival at Shabtuna.) At this point he received the false news that the Hittites were not around the city of Kadesh. The Egyptians were approximately 14 km from Kadesh. Ramesses then advanced, and it would have taken at most half of a day for the first division to set up camp opposite the city.

More details help to elucidate the final stages of the march to Kadesh. In the morning the king awoke and prepared his troops for the march. Sometime after that the army reached Shabtuna. This would have taken time. Ramesses’s extended army was composed of four divisions, all marching separately and behind one another; the advance would have been slow. The temporary halt at Shabtuna did not last long. Moreover, the king discussed with his commanders the oral evidence of two Shasu “deserters” who falsely reported that the Hittites were not at Kadesh but away in the north. Again, we can assume the passing of time, at least one hour, but probably more. One line of the “Poem” (P 60) states that a distance of 1 Egyptian iter separated that ford south of Shabtuna from the position of Ramesses when the second division (Pre) was crossing the Orontes. The distance from the ford to the camp, or even to Kadesh, was at most 16.5 km. To march it would have taken 3/5 of a day. We cannot but assume that the time when Ramesses settled peacefully in his camp must have been in the afternoon. One final point needs to be brought into the discussion; namely, the length of the Egyptian iter. There were two: a larger one of about 10.5 km and a smaller, of approximately 2.65 km. It is evident that the former was employed here.

We can perhaps better understand why the Egyptian monarch failed to take cognizance of the Hittites. According to the Poem the latter were “concealed and ready to the northeast” of Kadesh. The first division of the Egyptians was at the northwest of the city, settled beside a local brook that was so necessary for the animals and men. They had pitched the tents, and from the scenes of relaxation the army had already settled down for the day. However, as one relief caption indicates, they were not completely finished with the preliminary tasks of pitching the camp.

But no attack by Ramesses was planned on day nine. The city of Kadesh was not directly approached. Indeed, the king settled down on the west, across the Orontes, and arranged his camp for the arrival of the following divisions. We must assume that either he expected a military encounter with the enemy forces stationed within Kadesh on at least the following day or that he intended a siege of the citadel. The second alternative is a secure and economical way to victory, provided that time is not of the essence. Such a blockage prevents additional men from supporting the enemy, and eventually the lack of food and water becomes a major problem for the defenders. Yet in this case there is no evidence that Ramesses immediately proceeded to invest Kadesh. Indeed, he was somewhat removed from that citadel. The topography of the region indicates that west of the city and around the Orontes there was a relatively level plain, one suitable for chariot warfare. The Egyptian camp and the advancing three other divisions were well placed to suit their purposes. If this analysis is accepted, then we may very well wonder if once more the possibility of a “pre-arranged” battle was understood. That is to say, soon after dawn on the following day, the clash of the Egyptians and the foes within Kadesh was expected, provided that no surrender took place.

The Hittites reportedly had 3,500 chariots, manned by three men each, and an infantry of 18,000 to 19,000 with auxiliary units and escorts totaling 47,500. Ramesses II, becoming alarmed, sent for the Regiment of Ptah and scolded his officers for their laxity in assessing the situation. While this was happening, however, the Hittites were cutting their way through the Regiment of Ré, sealing the trap. Hundreds of Egyptians began to arrive at Ramesses II’s camp in headlong flight. The Hittite cavalry was close behind, followed by some 2,500 chariots. The Regiment of Amun was almost overwhelmed by the panicking soldiers who had suffered the first losses in the battle. The unit therefore raced northward in the same disorder.

Undaunted, Ramesses II brought calm and purpose to his small units and began to slice his way through the enemy in order to reach his southern forces. With only his household troops, a few officers, and followers, and with the rabble of the defeated units standing by, he mounted his chariot and discovered the extent of the forces against him. His chariot was drawn by his favorite horses, “Victory of Thebes” and “Mut Is Content,” and he charged the east wing of the assembled force with such ferocity that they gave way, allowing the Egyptians to escape the net that Muwatallis had cast for them. The Hittite king watched the cream of his command fall before Ramesses II, including his own brother. The Hittites and their allies were being driven into the river, where they drowned.

Within the abandoned Egyptian camp, the enemy soldiers were looting, and they were surprised by a group of Ramesses II’s soldiers and slain. Ramesses II gathered up the victorious unit, determined to stand his ground until reinforcements arrived. The Hittite king, in turn, threw his reserves of 1,000 chariots into the fray, but he was unable to score against Ramesses II and his men. Then the banners and totems of the Regiment of Ptah came into sight and both camps knew that the Egyptian reinforcements had arrived. The Hittite cavalry was driven into the city, with terrible losses, and Muwatallis withdrew. Ramesses II did not capture Kadesh, and Muwatallis claimed a Hittite victory and the acquisition of the city of Apa (modern Damascus). Ramesses II claimed victory and executed all of the Egyptians who had not rushed to his aid. This battle would not end the conflicts between Egypt and the Hittites. Almost two decades of confrontations finally led to the Egyptian Hittite Treaty.

This war had opened with the Battle of KADESH, a military campaign commemorated in the Poem of PENTAUR (or Pentauret) on the walls of KARNAK and in the SALLIER PAPYRUS III.

This particular campaign provided a temporary truce but then continued in a series of three phases. After pushing the Egyptian domain to Beirut, (modern Lebanon), Ramesses II met the enemy at Kadesh. Later he battled to recover Palestine, which had been encouraged to revolt. Lastly, Ramesses II conquered Hittite lands far from Egypt and deep inside the enemy’s empire, bringing the Hittites to the treaty table.

Egyptian Army

With the exception of cavalry, the Egyptians developed every kind of military arm known at the time. The bulk of their forces were infantry, carrying shields and armed with lances or bows. Light infantry carried slings or javelins. For sidearms, the infantry usually carried short, double-edged swords. However, some pictures show them with a khopesh, which has a wide curved blade vaguely resembling a meat cleaver. Their shields were curved on top and straight or slightly curved along the sides, wooden and covered with leather. A shield was roughly about half the height of a man. Armor was unknown for the common soldier, his protection being little more than a quilted tunic and cap. The higher ranks are depicted in Egyptian artwork as wearing links of metal fastened loosely to permit freedom of movement. The king is usually depicted wearing a metal helmet and often carried a battle-axe or a mace. More than any other weapon, however, the Egyptians depended on the bow. The one they employed was five to six feet long with arrows up to 30 inches long.

The glory of the Egyptian army was the chariot, the weapon they had adopted from the Hyksos. Tomb paintings almost always show the pharaoh in a chariot, usually alone with the reins tied about his midriff as he defeats his enemies. This is probably artistic license, as the two-wheeled vehicles they drove were designed to carry two men, a driver and an archer, and are usually shown with attached quivers of arrows and short spears. The horses were not only decorated with headdresses, but covered at their joints with metal ornaments doubling as protection. The most famous story concerning the use of chariots in Egypt is that of the Exodus, wherein the whole of Pharaoh’s force of 600 chariots was employed in chasing the Hebrews. Although the Book of Exodus mentions cavalry, contemporary Egyptian artwork almost never shows men on horseback, and those who are depicted are usually foreigners.

The army of the New Kingdom was a thoroughly professional force, although conscripts were used: One man in 10 was liable for military service. Egyptian units were given names of gods for their titles (for example, Anubis, Phre, Thoth, etc.), which probably reflected the local divinity where the unit was raised. The divisions usually numbered 5,000, subdivided into 250-man companies and 50-man platoons. The artwork of ancient Egypt depicts the soldiers marching in order, but the battles seem to have no structure, just a melee. It is therefore difficult to know what military doctrines may have been developed in Egypt. However, as the point to the artwork was to glorify the pharaoh, the actions of the regular soldiers would not have mattered. In the depictions of attacks on fortifications, no reference exists for any sort of siege engines, like catapults or battering rams. In the pictures only arrows and extremely long pikes are being used in order to clear the walls of defenders, and scaling ladders are then employed. Art work at Abu Simbel shows how the Egyptians set up camp when on campaign. They did not dig entrenchments, but surrounded the camp with a palisade made of the soldier’s shields. The pharaoh’s tent is in the center of the camp, surrounded by those of his officers. Separate sections hold the horses, the chariots, the mules, and the pack gear. A hospital section is depicted, as well as another area of camp for drill and punishment. Outside the camp, charioteers and infantry are shown exercising. In the center of the camp is a lion, although whether this is literal or the symbol of the pharaoh is disputed.

Once liberated from the Hyksos, the Egyptians apparently understood that the more distant the frontier they could de fend, the safer would be the homeland. Thus, Egyptian campaigns began up the east coast of the Mediterranean toward modern Syria. Inscriptions of the time praise war as a high calling, whereas in previous days the main accomplishment of warfare was looting and the acquisition of wealth. (That, of course, remained a goal, and the pillage and tribute the Egyptians gathered financed the impressive buildings for which they are justly famous.) The problem they faced was that, unlike the nomads and bandits they had fought in earlier times, they now had to fight trained soldiers of other kings. The Egyptians apparently learned the art of war fairly quickly, however, for the contemporary inscriptions describe the joy the pharaoh felt when he got to go to war. “For the good god exults when he begins the fight, he is joyful when he has to cross the frontier, and is content when he sees blood. He cuts off the heads of his enemies, and an hour of fighting gives him more delight than a day of pleasure” (Erman, 1971).

The Egyptian military maintained a strong presence in the Palestine/Syria region for centuries, sometimes farther away and sometimes closer, depending on the nature of their opponents. They also expanded their borders southward at the expense of the Nubians.

Suggested Readings: Road to Kadesh a Historical Interpretation of the Battle Reliefs of King Sety I at Karnak. Chicago: Oriental Inst., 1990; Healy, Mark. The Warrior Pharaoh: Ramesses II and the Battle. London: Osprey, 2000.

Maximinus Thrax

The first emperor to rise from the ranks of the army was Maximinus Thrax (the Thracian) [Julius Verus Maximinus, Gaius]. Maximinus is not in fact recorded as Thrax before the Epitome de Caesaribus (written c. ad 395). As Syme observes, however, it is quite likely that he did come from one of the Thracian provinces, if not Thracia itself then Moesia Inferior. His father Micea was a Goth, his mother Ababa an Alan. He knew no Greek. He entered the army, serving in the cavalry before attracting attention because of his size, hence receiving a post in the bodyguard of Emperor Septimius Severus and positions of honor under Caracalla. Called “Thrax” because of his origins, Maximinus despised Elagabalus but served as a tribune in the government and was greeted with joy by the new emperor, Severus Alexander, who gave him command of the recruits from Pannonia serving on the Rhine.

He possessed enormous strength, but other qualities were presumably in evidence to allow him to reach officer status and go on to the command of a legion in Egypt. When Severus Alexander mounted his expedition to the Rhine in A D 235, Maximinus was in command of recruits from Pannonia. His military record ensured that when the young emperor was assassinated, the troops declared for him, but not unanimously.

Severus was quickly despatched, his memory condemned, and his council of advisers dismissed. Establishment resistance (two successive military revolts centred on the consulars C. Petronius Magnus and Titius Quartinus) was too late and too feeble. In the meantime, and certainly before the last week of March 235, the Roman senate formally recognized Maximinus. Eighteen years after the usurpation of Macrinus, the purple had once more passed to an equestrian. However, it must again be emphasized that, despite his success, Maximinus was an outsider; unlike Macrinus, he had not attained the rank of praetorian prefect. His unusual position helps explain his subsequent actions.

Some of the eastern soldiers were loyal to Severus Alexander, and some of the senatorial officers did not wish him well, but after eradicating all his immediate opponents, Maximinus remained emperor for another three years, campaigning successfully in Germany beyond the Rhine, finishing off what his predecessor had started. Preoccupied with these military necessities, Maximinus did not find time to go to Rome to strengthen his position. The Senate had confirmed him as emperor, but not with good grace, and a series of revolts and attempts at usurpation broke out.

The assassination (in March AD 235) and replacement of Severus Alexander by a tough career soldier from Thrace, Maximinus Thrax (r. AD 235-38), was a stark reminder that the empire needed emperors who knew the army. An equestrian outside the ruling clique, Maximinus had exploited the opportunities of the Severan army to gain numerous senior appointments.

However, the senatorial aristocracy could not agree to this particular appointment, and, after an eyeball-to-eyeball confrontation, they managed to face the army down. The subsequent run of emperors – the three Gordiani, Decius, Trebonianus Gallus, Valerianus and Gallienus – was one of ‘gentlemen officers’. Yet their military misfortunes would finally destroy the prestige of the Augustan system, leaving military rule as the only alternative. Maximinus, the Thracian soldier of obscure birth and exclusively military experience, had set the trend whereby the army called the shots, putting forward their own commanders as new emperors.

Maximinus did not follow the usual practice of successful usurpers by moving to Rome, but chose to continue the German campaign. He may, of course, have simply wanted to consolidate his standing with the army. On the other hand, that he remained three full years on the northern frontier suggests that it was an acute awareness of his political vulnerability that caused him to stay away from the capital, where senatorial power and regard for the late Severan regime were strong. Maximinus crossed the Rhine south of Mainz after midsummer 235; he traversed the Agri Decumates before engaging the enemy: there was no fighting on Roman territory, and no surrender of the southern limes. Having compelled the Germans he encountered to negotiate peace, he moved south to spend the winter of 235/6 in Raetia, possibly at Regensburg. In 236, having campaigned against the Germans from Regensburg, he moved eastward to the middle Danube, where he fought against free Dacians and Sarmatians. The move necessitated the transfer of his headquarters, probably to Sirmium. In the same year, 236 (perhaps in early spring, on the anniversary of his own accession), Maximinus designated his son, C. Iulius Verus Maximus, as his Caesar and formal successor. Maximinus passed the two following winters, 236/7 and 237/8, in Sirmium. The campaigning season of 237 saw him in action once again against Sarmatians and Dacians; that of 238 was intended to be used for a major expedition against the Germans.

Though all appeared to be going well, Maximinus was by now running into serious trouble. He might even eventually have experienced problems in his chosen role of conqueror of foreign enemies. The expedition planned for 238 may have been in response to the first major Gothic attack on the Graeco-Roman world (against the Black Sea cities of Olbia and Tyras); and the Persians were again threatening the east: in 236 king Ardashir had raided Mesopotamia and taken Nisibis and Carrhae, possibly Rhesaina, and perhaps Singara. However, it was domestic unrest that proved to be Maximinus’ undoing. Maximinus lived frugally, was disinclined to pay tribute to Rome’s enemies and, while not miserly with his troops, was no spendthrift in respect of pay and donatives. On the other hand, his constant warfare led to a significant increase in state spending which had to be met from taxation. Maximinus tightened up the collection of standard taxes and demanded extraordinary payments from rich and poor alike. Money and materials were not the only things he asked for: the levying of recruits may also have occasioned resentment. Though he became unpopular, and was branded the enemy of the well-to-do, with the right support at the centre of his empire he should still have been able to survive. It was his political weakness that allowed matters to get out of hand.

Maximinus, therefore, ought still to have been able to deal with the situation without trouble. Pupienus, Balbinus and Gordian III were for the most part, like the two Gordiani, dependent on raw conscripts and local youth militias. Against these Maximinus could throw a large, battle-hardened army and, in response to the news of the defection of Rome to Gordian I, he was already on his way. However, his judgement continued to fail him. He seems to have decided on a Blitzkrieg that would take him quickly to Rome, but he did not take into account the difficulties of deploying an army towards the end of an Alpine winter, and he found it hard to cope with the guerilla tactics employed by the defenders of northern Italy. His columns came to a halt when the city of Aquileia – important not only as a major communications centre, but now also as a repository of badly needed supplies – closed its gates to him. Instead of taking a reduced force and pushing on to Rome, Maximinus allowed his anger to get the better of him, and settled down to besiege the city. This gave Pupienus the opportunity to move north to Ravenna to co-ordinate opposition. However, the outlook for Maximinus’ foes remained uncertain. Pupienus’ troops were of doubtful quality; and the potential for division between the three leaders of the newly established regime remained great: even before Pupienus had departed from Rome there was street-fighting between the mob and the praetorian troops, possibly inspired by the Gordianic faction. Maximinus should still have been able to emerge victorious, but his excessive insistence on effort and discipline caused increasing disaffection among his hungry, tired and now demoralized troops. After about four weeks, around early June 238, Maximinus’ army mutinied, slew him and his son, and went over to Pupienus, Balbinus and Gordian III.

Maximinus Thrax had Parthian cataphracts, being mercenaries, deserters, or prisoners of war conscripted into the army, and in 238 a large force of Germanic cavalry, Gothic foederati or, more accurately mercenaries obviously hired during his Danubian war, followed him to Italy. However, foreign federate forces and hired or mobilized symmarchiarii, fellow-combatants, always fought in the wars of the empire. There were many auxiliaries in his force. The irregulars were notably conspicuous amongst them. Moors, extensively used by the Roman army over the years, were there in force. They had served Rome well in the Rhine campaigns and their leader in the 2nd century ad, Lusius Quietus, whose career is noted above, had gone on to become a consul. Now they were an integral part of Maximinus’ new invasion of Italy.

Alongside these irregulars were other units, regiments whose appearance spoke of distant cultures and frontiers. There were oriental archers with reflex bows. Cataphract cavalry, of the type Roman soldiers jokingly termed clibanarii or `oven-men’ on account of their extensive armour, were seen in flesh and metal for the first time on Italian soil. 40 If the armies of the Severans had seemed alien, that of Maximinus must have seemed still more so. Yet within these forces even more revolutionary changes were taking place. These changes again testify to the Roman tendency to incorporate men and ideas from elsewhere.

As Maximinus began his invasion of Italy, events in Africa were reaching a horrific climax. The legionary legate in Numidia remained loyal to the Danubian emperor. His forces slaughtered the Senate-backed contender, Gordian, and his son at Carthage. Then they vented their fury on the civilian population, slaughtering not only the landowners who had backed Gordian but many more besides. A couple of key points emerge from this gory tale. The first is that in the richly networked world of the Roman Empire the original uprising, with its resentments against high taxes and its strong local leadership, could never simply be a regional revolt. The disturbance had profound implications, both in terms of the reason for the taxes, the financing of distant wars, and in terms of senatorial politics. The second lesson comes from the bloodletting itself. Shaw sees it as notable that an army that had been stationed in Africa for so long could turn on the civilian population in this way. 43 Even after generations of service in the provinces, the military community was still first and foremost at the service of the emperor. It might bring, through its recruitment and through its families, many provincials ever closer into the orbit of Roman power, but its relationship with local populations was always ultimately secondary to its interdependence on imperial power.

Maximinus Thrax (235-238), on his march on Rome, had made an all-out effort to take the city with his capable and ingenious Pannonian troops:

The soldiers . . . remained out of range of the arrows and took up stations around the entire circuit of the wall by cohorts and legions, each unit investing the section it was ordered to hold. . . . The soldiers kept the city under continuous siege. . . . They brought up every type of siege machinery and attacked the wall with all the power they could muster, leaving untried nothing of the art of siege warfare. . . . They launched numerous assaults virtually every day, and the entire army held the city encircled as if in a net, but the Aquileians fought back determinedly, showing real enthusiasm for war.

Before the gates of Aquileia, where travelers descending the Alps meet the via Annia and enter the network of roads that leads to Rome. There in 238 ce civil war was averted, through an exercise of economic power on the part of a city, in the face of an emperor and his army. Maximinus the Thracian had been acclaimed emperor by his army three years earlier, after he assassinated his predecessor, Severus Alexander; but the Senate did not recognize his elevation and eventually put forward its own candidates and attempted to field its own army. Maximinus marched on Italy, but without, one might say, divine foresight: he departed Sirmium in such haste that he neglected to send the customary advance notice requesting provision, and he had to gather it en route (Herodian 7.8.10-11). He encountered serious difficulty as soon as he reached Italy: the population of Emona had abandoned their city, burning whatever supplies they could not carry, and his army went hungry (Herodian 8.1.4-5). Aquileia therefore assumed even greater importance for the provisioning of his army, but its population closed their gates against him. Maximinus, unwilling, or perhaps unable, to advance without supplies, while leaving a large, hostile city as his back, undertook a siege. His army began to starve, murdered Maximinus and his son, and reconciled with the Senate and its emperor, Gordian III.

The events that encompassed the ruin of Maximinus, and the narratives by which we know them, thus subvert, even as they illustrate, those easy attempts to equate power with force, and to locate its origins in law, violence, or wealth, that lie at the heart of most construals of what Gibbon called “the system of imperial government.” For if it was not the Senate but Aquileia that undid Maximinus, and not by force but flight, as it were, that it did so, neither did Aquileia choose its ruler. That power it ceded all the time: to the army when it chose Maximinus, to the Senate when it chose Gordian, and to the imperial system, when it accepted and with its money supported government by whatsoever Roman held the throne.

Maximinus Thrax: From Common Soldier to Emperor of Rome by Paul N. Pearson (Author)

The Power of Rhodes

One Greek constitutional state which continued to prosper and grow strong in a world of warlords was Rhodes. Like the political leagues of the Greek mainland, the Rhodian federal government enjoyed an advantage over more narrowly conceived city states. The Dorian Greek settlers of the island had originally founded three main cities: Ialysus, Lindus and Camirus. Despite its Dorian population, the island had, throughout most of the Peloponnesian War, been a member of the Athenian League. Only in 411 BC, when Athenian power was in decline and Lysander had, with Persian financial support, made Sparta a naval force in the eastern Mediterranean, did Rhodes renounce her Athenian allegiance. About this time, the cities of the island formed a federation, with a newly founded capital city and a central government. Each member city, however, preserved a large measure of local autonomy.

Rhodes had grown rich by carrying corn and other cargoes in its ships; Alexander’s destruction of Phoenician Tyre rid the island state of a dangerous trade competitor. At the same time, the Macedonian mastery of the entire Persian empire and the consequent abolition of political frontiers in the eastern Mediterranean threw open new coasts and harbours to Rhodian vessels. In the time of Alexander’s Successors, Rhodes managed to hold a balance of power and ingeniously preserved its independence. The Rhodians flattered and conciliated the contending dynasts around them, refusing to enter into any alliance with one against another. This in itself would not have been enough to secure the island’s liberty if Rhodes had not possessed a strong navy of its own. Such a navy, however, the Rhodians were wise and bold enough to maintain. In their moderate form of democracy, the rowing crews of the ships were recruited from the poorer classes, while the officers were drawn from wealthier families. They did not need to rely upon mercaneries.

Rhodes was, in fact, the successor of Athens as the leading Greek naval power. As at Athens, such power was dependent largely upon civic patriotism. But as a comparatively small island, Rhodes enjoyed some advantages which the Athenians had not possessed. The Rhodians could rely entirely upon their navy for defence. Immune to land invasion, they were not obliged to organize an army or build Long Walls to secure communications with their docks and shipyards. Indeed, the famous Rhodian slingers served for the most part as mercenaries in foreign armies and may best be considered as a source of “invisible earnings”. Moreover, the island’s rocky coast lent itself admirably to fortification against sea-borne attack, as the Crusaders of a later age were not slow to realize.

Rhodes’ naval supremacy in the eastern Mediterranean was also a bulwark against piracy. Unfortunately, any power strong enough to subdue pirates in the ancient world usually felt at liberty to behave with piratical lawlessness itself; such protection as it offered became a “protection racket”. Rhodes, however, was an exception in this respect and, deeply committed to constitutional principles, evolved a code of maritime law, which the Romans later imitated and embodied in their own laws. Indeed, modern law, based upon the Roman, may indirectly owe something to Rhodes.

The Rhodian foreign policy, bent on preserving a balance of power, could not at all times be sustained. Forced at last to take sides either with Ptolemy or Antigonus, the Rhodians considered that their best prospects lay in alliance with the former. Rhodes was accordingly blockaded and stormed by Antigonus’ celebrated son, Demetrius the Besieger (Poliorcetes). This ordeal, however, the island triumphantly survived, re-emerging with enhanced power and prestige.


Any further allusion to the siege of Rhodes is perhaps best prefaced by some general remarks on the evolution of Greek and Macedonian siegecraft in general. Even before the Peloponnesian War, Pericles had used battering rams against the island of Samos, when it revolted from the Athenian League in 441 BC, and we have already referred to the siege of Plataea (429–427 BC), in which the Spartans and their allies used rams in conjunction with an earthen ramp, flaming arrows, fire faggots and elaborate walls of circumvallation. In the fifth century BC, the advantage lay with the besieged and the prospect of taking a town by assault presented enormous difficulties. The Athenian Long Walls were never stormed and the Athenians themselves succeeded in taking Potidaea only after a long blockade. These circumstances are explained largely by the Greek weakness in archers and slingers and their general neglect of missile warfare. In default of covering fire, all siege operations were exposed to counter-attack from the besieged walls, as happened at Plataea, where the heads of the battering rams were broken off by heavy beams dropped from the fortified walls above.

With the introduction of missile warfare, the situation was crucially altered. The greater use of hand missiles was soon followed by the employment of artillery engines, depending for their projectile power on cables of twisted sinew. The introduction of the arrow-firing catapult was attributed to Dionysius I of Syracuse. This machine was a giant crossbow mounted on a heavy wooden frame, launching a correspondingly heavy-headed dart. Philip II of Macedon used such machines when he besieged Perinthus in 340 BC. But the first use of catapults to hurl rocks probably came rather later. Alexander certainly had such catapults at the siege of Tyre.

Artillery of this kind could, of course, be employed by the besieged as well as the besiegers. In fact, its use operated to the advantage of those within the walls, since their fortifications were of a more solid and permanent nature and could be built with narrow ports, embrasures and battlements, behind which the artillerymen could operate under cover. Besieging armies countered this advantage by constructing elaborate towers and penthouses, with ports for artillery which matched those of the defenders. Such structures also sheltered battering rams. The obvious way of operating a battering ram was to suspend it from an overhead beam and swing its head against the target. It could also be mounted on wheels and thrust violently against the wall under attack by a large and muscular crew. More sophisticated types were developed, in which the shaft of the ram slid in a wooden channel; it was then repeatedly winched back, as if in a catapult, and projected against the wall.

Penthouses, often on wheels, could also be used to screen the operations of minors and sappers or those who wished to fill in the fosse before an enemy rampart. Covered by artillery and missile support, assault with scaling ladders became increasingly effective. Ladders were not always of wood; a kind of leather-and-cord network ladder was also in use.

The defenders, for their part, sometimes hung on their battlements wooden placards which would be shifted in such a way as to dislodge any scaling ladders placed against them. These protective placards must, of course, in turn have been exposed to the assailants’ fire darts. As is the way of military technology, the series of devices and counter-devices was capable of endless prolongation, inevitably involving both attackers and defenders in enormous expense. A simpler and cheaper method of capturing a city was by means of treachery, and by treachery cities were often captured. This method, with all the precautions and counter-measures which we class under the heading of “security”, was allotted scientific consideration in the treatise of Aeneas Tacticus (late fourth century BC).

The Siege of Rhodes

Demetrius brought to the siege of Rhodes a vast armament of men and ships. Apart from his own fighting fleet of 200 vessels and his auxiliary fleet of more than 150, he had enlisted the aid of pirate squadrons. One thousand private trading craft also followed him, attracted by the wealth of Rhodes and the prospect of spoil. The whole operation was, in fact, a gigantic piratical enterprise. But Demetrius seems to have felt that it was “a glorious thing to be a pirate king”.

The main harbour at Rhodes, as well as the city, was fortified with towers and walls. Here the Rhodian fleet could safely rest; nor was Demetrius able to prevent ships with supplies from running his blockade. His first concern, therefore, was to capture the harbour. He at once proceeded to build his own harbour alongside, constructing a mole and protecting his seaborne siege operations from counter-attack by means of a floating spiked boom. At the same time, his army ravaged the island and built a huge camp on land adjacent to the city but out of missile range.

In the course of the siege, both sides employed the technical devices we have just described. Mining operations by the besiegers were met by the counter-mines of the besieged. At a fairly early stage. Demetrius’ men secured a footing on the mole of the main harbour, but the Rhodians prevented him from exploiting this bridgehead and he never captured the harbour. Later, as a result of a land attack, he actually penetrated the walls of the city, but the attack was contained by the Rhodians and those who had entered were mostly killed.

The most sensational feature of the siege was Demetrius’ mammoth tower, which was nicknamed the helepolis, “city-taker”, although in the event it failed to take the city. The helepolis tower was based on a huge square grille of timberwork, covering an area of 5,200 square feet (484 sq m). The tower was about 140 feet (90 cubits, 43m) high and the uppermost of its nine storeys was 900 square feet (84 sq m) in area. As a protection against fire, the tower was armoured with iron plates on its three exposed sides; it was mounted on gigantic castors, the wheels of which were themselves plated with iron. The artillery ports of the helepolis were made to open and close by mechanical means and were padded with leather and wool as a protection against the shock of missile attack. Communication with the upper storeys was by means of two staircases, for ascent and descent respectively.

The machine was moved, presumably in relays, by 3,400 specially selected strong men. Some pushed from inside the structure, others behind. Diodorus assures us that the whole monstrous contraption could be rolled in any direction very smoothly. The helepolis was in effect a mammoth tank, far larger than any that have ever been driven by petrol engines. Despite every precaution, however, the Rhodians managed to dislodge some of the tower’s iron plates; when there was a real danger of its being set on fire, Demetrius ordered it to be withdrawn from action.

The entire Greek and Macedonian world, constitutionalists and dynasts alike, sympathized with the Rhodians during the siege. The conflict was, after all, one between law and piracy. Influenced perhaps by the unpopularity of his operations and convinced at last that he could not win, Demetrius came to terms with the Rhodians and went away to look for a war somewhere else. The Rhodians, overjoyed, rewarded the sacrifice of citizens, slaves and resident aliens as they had promised.

Demetrius had left his engines strewn around the city and the scrap metal which they yielded provided material for the huge statue which the Rhodians erected at their harbour entrance: the Colossus of Rhodes, one of the Seven Wonders of the World. A prodigy itself, the Colossus was a fitting memorial to a prodigious siege.


Fortifications during the generations which followed Alexander the Great were required to meet the challenge of increasingly sophisticated siegecraft and of armies equipped with larger, more abundant and more powerful machinery. Great importance was attached to counter-attack and to the creation of vantage points from which the besieger could be threatened on his flank by missiles. With this in view, ramparts were sometimes built on a saw-tooth pattern. Either the wall itself followed a saw-tooth contour or a straight wall was given a saw-tooth facing on its outer surface. The advantage of this device was that one saw-tooth projection gave covering fire to the next. Fortifications at Samikon, in the western Peloponnese, exemplify the asymmetrical slanted pattern of saw-tooth fortification and may be contrasted with the equilateral zig-zag which was adopted, for instance at Miletus on the coast of Caria.

As a defence against the approach of siege-towers, deep moats were often dug in front of the walls of a fortified position. Such moats had been dug in front of the Athenian city walls after the battle of Chaeronea and they were improved during the course of the succeeding century. On archaelogical evidence, these moats appear to have reached a depth of 13 feet (4m) and a width of 33 feet (10m). In some instances, moats were filled with water; when they surrounded cities, further protection was often given by a wall or palisade on the inner edge.

The construction of towers on the ramparts had long been a feature of Greek cities. These frequently projected in the manner of bastions and permitted a flanking attack on the besiegers. At the same time, the missile men who garrisoned them had the advantage of superior height and were in a position to oppose any siege-towers. Such defensive towers tended to become increasingly numerous. They were also increasingly independent of the curtain walls which linked them. At Myndos, near Halicarnassus, Alexander’s besieging force managed to destroy one defence tower, but its collapse did not affect the solidity of the wall. Conversely, during the siege of Rhodes, Demetrius’ forces were able to destroy the curtain wall on each side of a tower without destroying the tower itself. Towers were square, polygonal, semicircular or horseshoe in plan. The number of artillery loopholes and embrasures introduced by the builders tended to increase. Curtains between towers must have been built higher to the extent that the towers themselves were. Archaeological evidence suggests that walls of about 29.5 feet (9m) in height were normal during the fourth century BC; if attacks by a helepolis were expected, they were probably built higher. The height of a city’s walls was sometimes increased by the defenders during the course of a siege. The summit of a wall normally provided a communicating alley between towers and also a fighting platform fronted by a crenellated parapet. Such parapets, like the towers, might support tiled roofs; in which case they featured windows.

Both at Tyre and Rhodes, the besieged walls were difficult to attack on account of the rocks which lay in front of them. Considerable use was made of sites fortified by nature, even where the most defensible points did not closely correspond with the area needing to be defended. For this reason, city walls frequently embraced an area considerably greater than the city itself. It followed that some of the most imposing fortifications were constructed in areas where nature gave little help, and much effort was needed to strengthen the position.

Mercenary Armies, Pay and Booty

The siege of Rhodes, if one disregards its political futility, offers an interesting case study, since it presents a mercenary army at war with a citizen garrison. A citizen army was at its best fighting in its own homeland, in defence of its own womenfolk, children and property. A mercenary army, on the other hand, had the greatest inducement when it was an invading army, free to plunder and live off enemy country. This situation is illustrated by a late-third-century Cretan inscription, which, in recording the terms of a treaty, specifies that a soldier’s daily ration shall be one choinix1 of corn, except when he is quartered in enemy territory from which corn can be obtained. In the fifth century BC, citizen armies and navies serving away from home, whether provided with their rations in kind or in cash, expected no more than a subsistence allowance. Persian subsidies raised the daily ration allowance for trireme rowers from a half to a whole drachma, but there was difficulty in obtaining what had been promised. The drachma may be taken as containing 66.5 grains (4.3g) of silver; readers who are accustomed to inflation accounting may calculate what this means in terms of today’s commodity values.

The main reward for mercenary service during the fourth and third centuries BC was booty, not pay. Ready cash was often inadequate to provide payment. Cleomenes III of Sparta was hurried into a disastrous engagement at Sellasia in 222 BC because he lacked cash for the retention of his mercenaries. It should be noticed that Cleomenes was conducting a defensive campaign on his own territory. In an offensive war such as he had waged earlier in Arcadia, booty had been available and mercenary remuneration could be based on results.

Prisoners might often change hands for cash ransoms. Before the siege of Rhodes, the Rhodians came to an agreement with Demetrius, according to which a freeman captured by either side should be exchanged for 1,000 drachmas and a slave for 500 drachmas. But most booty was in kind and captives were commonly sold as slaves. An invading army, as at Rhodes, was followed by a horde of expectant traders. Among these were large numbers of slave-dealers; after a victory, captives could be sold on the spot.

Apart from the inevitable fickleness of a mercenary army, its appetite for booty significantly conditioned the course of such wars as it was employed to fight. Even with citizen armies, it was hard for any commander to retain control over his men once they had fallen to plundering; for this reason a battle won in one sector of the field was often lost in another. It was an outstanding tribute to Alexander’s discipline at Gaugamela that he was able to withdraw his victorious Companions at the moment when the enemy was in flight and a rich spoil invited them, in order to help his hard-pressed left wing in that phase of the battle. Except for a small nucleus of Macedonians who perhaps felt themselves to be united with their leaders by a tie of common nationality, the armies of Alexander’s Successors depended mainly on mercenaries; this fact goes far to explaining why the wars which they fought were usually so inconclusive. A mercenary force possessed of the baggage train of a defeated army – let alone a town or territory which had sheltered the enemy – in its preoccupation with plunder would have little incentive to follow up a victory or pursue fugitives. Indeed, it was hardly in the mercenary’s interest to eliminate the opposing forces completely. By so doing, he would have deprived himself of employment and so a living.     


The battle leader, or dux bellorum, of the British in their struggle against the Anglo-Saxons. He was the leader who succeeded Vortigern (and may have been responsible for ousting him from power) and immediately preceded Arthur. It is odd that he is mentioned by the sixth-century historian Gildas, then in the eighth century by Nennius, but by no other historian until the Middle Ages. He nevertheless existed. Gildas describes him as a modest man, which is a surprising quality in a battle leader.

He appears to have been a Celtic nobleman and it has been suggested that the “Ambros” place-names may represent the stations of the units that he raised and led, styled Ambrosiaci. This is an attractive idea, but it is unclear how Amberley, deep in West Sussex and very close to the south Saxon heartland, could possibly have functioned as such a base for Celtic troops.

The Latinized form, Ambrosius, of the Celtic name Ambros or Emrys may have been given by a chronicler, or adopted by Emrys himself as a badge of formal respectability, something that many other British noblemen did. It does not prove, as some have proposed, that he was a member of a Roman family who stayed on after the Roman troops left. He represents a class of post-Roman native British aristocrats who clung to an older order of things and disapproved of Vortigern’s reckless politicking with the untrustworthy Germanic colonists.

It is likely that Ambrosius was a focus for dissent among the Britons over the way Vortigern was leading the confederation to disaster.

Gildas describes how Ambrosius’ leadership marked the beginning of a more successful phase for the British:

When the cruel plunderers [the Saxons attacking the British in about 460] had gone back to their settlements, God gave strength to the survivors [the British]. Wretched people flocked to them from all directions, as eagerly as bees when a storm threatens, begging burdening heaven with unnumbered prayers that they should not be destroyed. Their leader was Ambrosius Aurelianus, a gentleman who, perhaps alone of the Romanized Britons, had survived the shock of this great storm [the Saxon invasion of Britain]; certainly his parents, who may have worn the purple, were slain in it. Under him our people regained their strength and challenged the victors to battle.

After this the British started to win battles, and they were eventually rewarded with the overwhelming victory at Badon.

Another view of Ambrosius comes from Nennius’ Miscellany. There Ambrosius is “the great king among all the kings of the British nation.” This may mean only that his reputation grew steadily after his death, that he was promoted by history, rather as Arthur would be a little later. It may alternatively be a genuine reflection of Ambrosius’ status as dux bellorum.

Interestingly Cynan of Powys was later to be called Aurelianus, which may have been another title of the dux bellorum.

Although it is not known where Ambrosius came from or where he lived, Amesbury in Wiltshire is possible. Amesbury was spelt “Ambresbyrig” in a charter dated 880 and may derive its name directly from Ambrosius himself. If he held Salisbury Plain as his estate, or at any rate this part of it, he would have controlled the critical north-eastern corner of Dumnonia. The frontier of Dumnonia was marked by an earthwork called the Wansdyke, and it lies 7 miles (12km) north-east of Amesbury. Where Ambrosius’ stronghold was is not known, but it may have been the Iron Age hillfort known as Vespasian’s Camp, just 1 mile (1.6km) to the east of Stonehenge. This spacious fort would have made an excellent rallying-point for the forces Ambrosius gathered; it would also make sense of the otherwise inexplicable association that Geoffrey of Monmouth made between Ambrosius and Stonehenge.

From about 460 Ambrosius is said to have organized an island-wide resistance of the British to the Anglo-Saxon invasion. His campaign prospered. The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle is silent about this period, suggesting that the British were in the ascendancy; there is no boasting of a Saxon victory until 473. Gildas enthused about Ambrosius: “though brave on foot, he was braver still on horseback.” This implies a preference for cavalry action, which his successor, Arthur, would share. “The Britons fled to him like swarms of bees who fear a coming storm. They fought the war with Ambrosius as their leader.”

Fanciful legends were later embroidered round this heroic figure. It was said that in Ambrosius’ reign Merlin the magician brought the stones of Stonehenge over from Ireland and set them up in Wiltshire. This does not square with the geology or archeology of Stonehenge. The sarsen stones came from the chalk downs near Avebury; the bluestones came from Pembrokeshire. Both arrived on Salisbury Plain in the middle of the third millennium BC—and that was long, long before the time of Ambrosius Aurelianus.


At Badon, a great battle took place in which the British won a major victory over the Saxons. It was Arthur’s first recorded battle in the year 516. Its outcome was so decisive that it held back the Saxons for several decades, and it was largely due to Arthur’s exploits during this battle that he owes his reputation as a great warrior.

Several locations for Badon have been proposed, but there are early references to the city of Bath in which the name is spelt Badon—for example, in The Wonders of Britain, Nennius refers to “the hot lake where the baths of Badon are”—and so the likeliest battle site by far is Little Solsbury Hill, about 2 miles (3km) north-east of Bath. This was on the eastern frontier of Dumnonia, at the point where the old Roman road, Fosse Way, came down the eastern valley-side from Banner Down toward a crossing-place on the Avon River at Bath. In the sixth century this was a key location, right on the frontier between Celt and Saxon, and would have been a natural access point to the Celtic kingdom for an advancing Saxon army. Little Solsbury Hill, which had a small fort on its summit, was an obvious vantage point from which the British warriors could have watched the invaders approaching from the east or north-east and then descended to attack as they passed below. The Saxons would have been caught between the steep valley side and the river.

In the annals there is a strange description of Arthur carrying a cross on his shoulders. This may be explained by the misreading of the word for “shoulder.” The Old Welsh for “shoulder,” scuid, is very similar to the Old Welsh word for “shield,” scuit. Scribes regularly read whole phrases from the documents they were copying and muttered them to themselves as they wrote. It was easy to make mistakes, especially when words both looked and sounded similar to other words. So the original description may have read, “Arthur carried the cross of our lord Jesus Christ on his shield.” The image of the cross could easily have been painted onto the shield, or designed into the shield’s metalwork, or embroidered into a fabric covering for the shield. It may be significant that high-ranking officers in the late Roman army frequently carried portraits of emperors on their shields. It would be quite logical for a Christian British commander-in-chief educated in the late Roman tradition to carry an emblem of Christ: after all, he recognized no earthly overlord.

The hammering of the Saxons in the Battle of Badon brought about a major change. For a couple of decades the western frontier of the Saxon world was fixed.


A very imposing Iron Age fort on the summit plateau of a free-standing hill. The ancient fortifications are mostly tree-covered now, but the four earth ramparts are still impressive. Although often described as an Iron Age fort, Cadbury began earlier, in the Bronze Age. In the Iron Age it became a major focus for the Durotriges tribe. During the Roman occupation, the Britons were forcibly removed after a revolt in AD 61, and the site returned to agriculture.

The site was reoccupied in the fifth–sixth centuries, when the advance of Saxon settlers prompted local Britons to use it as a refuge again. Ambrosius Aurelianus lived at the right time to organize the refortification of Cadbury in around 470. Buildings were added, including a substantial Dark Age hall. The strategic position of Cadbury near the eastern frontier of Dumnonia and its huge area make it a likely muster-point for warriors assembling to do battle with the Saxons in the period 500–70.

The history of this magnificent hillfort is long and complicated, but it was a center of Celtic resistance to invaders at least three times: in the rebellion against Rome in 61, in the Badon campaign against the Saxons in 500–20, and in the Dyrham campaign in the years around 570.

In 1532, John Leland visited the site, observing:

At South Cadbyri standith Camallate, sumtyme a famose toun or castelle, apon a very torre or hill, wunderfully enstrengthenid of nature… The people can tell nothing ther but they have heard say that Arture much resorted to Camalat.

The Ionian Revolt I

Aristagoras stood down, nominally, as tyrant of Miletus and introduced democratic institutions (isonomia is used again here), which was what the Milesians wanted; he also persuaded the other cities of Ionia to follow suit. Only the geographer and historian Hecataeus, one of several ground-breaking intellectuals active in Ionia at that time, advised against taking on the might of Persia. Presciently, he argued that only control of the sea would give Aristagoras any chance of success. Aristagoras did know that he was in need of strong allies and Sparta was his first port of call:

Cleomenes was still king when Aristagoras, tyrant of Miletus, came to Sparta. When he went to speak with the king, the Lacedaemonians tell me that he had with him a bronze plate engraved with a map of the whole earth including all the seas and rivers. Aristagoras began the conversation, saying, ‘Do not let my eagerness to come here surprise you, Cleomenes, for look at what has come to pass! The sons of Ionia are slaves rather than free men, and this shames us and causes us great sorrow. And it must be the same for you, surely, above all the rest of the Hellenes, because you are the leading power of Hellas. Now, in the name of Hellas’ gods, I call upon you to deliver your Ionian kinsmen from slavery. This is a thing you can easily achieve, for your fighting qualities are superlative and the Barbarians are not brave at all. They go into battle with bows and short spears, wearing trousers and with soft bonnets on their heads, so they can be easily beaten. Also, the people who live in those lands possess more in the way of assets than the entire population of the rest of the world: gold, for a start, and silver and bronze, the finest clothing, and beasts of burden and slaves. All this can be yours if you wish. Let me show you where these peoples live in the order you would encounter them. Next to the Ionians are the Lydians, very wealthy and dwelling in a fair land.’

And, as he spoke he pointed to the map of the world he had brought with him, engraved on a bronze plate. ‘Look here to the east of the Lydians. Here are the Phrygians with more livestock and better crops than any people I know of. Next to them are the Cappadocians, whom we call Syrians, and their neighbours the Cilicians, whose land stretches to the ocean here, where the island of Cyprus lies; the yearly tribute the Cilicians pay to the King is 500 talents. After the Cilicians come the Armenians, another people rich in livestock, and then the Matieni, whose country you can see here. Next, we have the land of Cissia and, here, Susa on the banks of the River Choaspes where the Great King has his residence. The treasure-houses of his wealth are there and, if you take that city, you can be assured that your wealth will rival the riches of Zeus.

‘Now surely the time has come for you to cease fighting for small patches of valueless land with narrow borders, to cease fighting with the Messenians, who are a match for you in battle, and with the Arcadians and the Argives. These people possess neither gold nor silver, none of that treasure for which men are driven by desire to fight and die. Given this opportunity to become master of all of Asia with ease, what other choice do you have?’

That is what Aristagoras said, and Cleomenes replied, ‘Milesian guest-friend, I will put off answering you till the day after tomorrow,’ and that was as far as they took things. On the day set for Cleomenes to give his answer they met as agreed and Cleomenes asked Aristagoras how many days’ march it was from the Ionian Sea to where the Great King lived. So far, Aristagoras had been clever and misled Cleomenes completely, but at this point he slipped up. He should never have answered with the truth if he wanted to bring the Spartans into Asia, but he did, and said that it was three months’ march inland. At that Cleomenes cut off Aristagoras before he could start his detailed description of the journey, saying, ‘Leave Sparta before sunset, Milesian guest-friend. You may wish to lead the Lacedaemonians off on a three-month march8 from the sea, but there is nothing you can say that will persuade them to follow you.’ (5.49–50)

Aristagoras made a final attempt to persuade Cleomenes, approaching him as a supplicant to be on the safe side and offering larger and larger bribes. According to Herodotus the king’s eight-year-old daughter was with him and brought the discussion to an end:

‘Father!’ she exclaimed, ‘Your guest-friend is going to corrupt you if you don’t get away from him.’ Cleomenes liked the child’s advice and went off into another room, and Aristagoras left Sparta there and then. (5.51)

He went to Athens next:

The Athenians were already on bad terms with Persia when Aristagoras the Milesian arrived in their city after being ejected from Sparta by Cleomenes the Lacedaemonian. He had come there because Athens was the next most powerful city after Sparta. He stood before the people and gave the same speech as he had given in Sparta, describing the riches of Asia and declaring that the Persians could be easily defeated because they did not fight with the hoplite shield or spear. He said all this and also pointed out that the Milesians had been settlers from Athens, and that it was right and proper for the Athenians to come to their aid with their great power. In his desperation there was nothing he did not offer, and he finally convinced the Athenians. It really does seem to be easier to deceive a crowd than a single man. Aristagoras could not deceive Cleomenes of Lacedaemon, one single individual, but he succeeded with 30,000 Athenians. So led astray, the Athenians voted to send 20 ships to support the Ionians and put Melanthius, a citizen of excellent reputation, in command. Those ships were the origin of the great troubles that were to affect Hellenes and Barbarians alike. (5.97)

This episode is coloured by Herodotus’ wish to lay responsibility for ‘the great troubles’ that were now in store on Aristagoras, and by his low opinion of the man’s character. He shows him deviously underplaying Persian military might, making only a passing reference to their archery and no mention of their cavalry, vast manpower or immense navy. However, Hellenes did generally consider the bow an unmanly weapon, and trousers effeminate, and Aristagoras does correctly present the Barbarian spear as inferior to the longer hoplite weapon. But Persia’s almost unbroken run of military success over the preceding half-century should have conveyed a more intimidating message and this could have been reinforced by the experiences of the many Hellenes who had fought as mercenaries or levies alongside or against Persians in the Great Kings’ various campaigns.

In any case, Aristagoras’ geography lecture and alleged attempt to bribe Cleomenes backfired as far as the Spartan king was concerned. But, as Herodotus drily observes, the Athenians, flexing their democratic rights in their quite recently instituted Assembly, were easily gulled. On the other hand, it could be reasonably argued that their decision, misguided as it was in strategic terms, was a principled one, to join kindred Ionians in a fight against an enemy of freedom that had already reached out half-way across the Aegean in its attempt on Naxos. Their commitment of a little more than 4,000 men, including a few hundred hoplites, was not a massive proportion of their total manpower, but the 20 ships probably represented close to half of their navy. The manpower commitment would have been smaller if some or all of the ships were smaller than triremes with their complement of 200–230 oarsmen, sailors, hoplites and archers.

The Athenians arrived at Miletus with their 20 ships and with them came five triremes from Eretria. The Eretrians were not campaigning with the Athenians out of goodwill towards them but to repay the Milesians for being their allies in an earlier war that they had fought against Chalcis, when the Samians sided with the Chalcidians against the Eretrians and Milesians. So, when they and the rest of his allies had arrived, Aristagoras launched his attack on Sardis. However, he did not go off to fight himself but stayed behind and appointed two other Milesians as generals, his own brother Charopinus and a fellow citizen named Hermophantus. On reaching Ephesus with this force, the Ionians left their ships at Coresus in Ephesian territory and marched inland with a large body of men, enlisting Ephesians to be their guides. They followed the River Cayster, crossed Mount Tmolus and came to Sardis. They captured the city without any opposition, all of it except for its acropolis, which was occupied by Artaphernes himself with a substantial garrison. But the Hellenes were unable to plunder the city they had taken. A lot of the houses in Sardis were built entirely of reeds and those that were built of bricks had thatched roofs. A soldier set one of these buildings on fire and the blaze went from house to house until it had spread over the whole city. With the city burning and its outskirts all ablaze, the Lydians and those of the Persians who were with them had no way of escape. So they all streamed down to the marketplace and the banks of the Pactolus. (This river carries gold dust from Mount Tmolus and flows through the marketplace, eventually joining the Hermus, which runs down to the sea.) The Lydians and Persians, now massed in the marketplace, had no option but to stand and fight and when the Ionians saw that the enemy was going to put up a fight, and that many more were coming up in support, they took fright and fell back on Mount Tmolus. Then they set off back to their ships under cover of night. So, Sardis was burned and in it the temple of Cybele, the mother-goddess worshipped there, an act which was to become the Persians’ justification for destroying the holy places they later burned in Greece.

When the Persians who lived to the west of the River Halys heard what was happening, they gathered together and marched to support the Lydians. Finding the Ionians gone from Sardis they followed their trail and caught up with them at Ephesus. The Ionians formed up and faced them but suffered a severe defeat in the battle that followed and the Persians killed many of them, some of them famous, including Eualcides, commander of the Eretrians, a prizewinning athlete much praised by Simonides of Ceos. Those who managed to escape from the battlefield scattered, each to their own city, and that was the end of the fighting there. Afterwards the Athenians completely abandoned the Ionians and refused to help them in any way, although Aristagoras sent many pleading messages. However, despite the loss of their alliance with the Athenians, the Ionians did not draw back from war with the Great King because they had already gone so far in their actions against him. They sailed to the Hellespont and took control of Byzantium and all the other cities in that region and then went on from the Hellespont and brought most of Caria over to their side. Even the city of Caunus, which had previously refused to be part of the alliance, now joined it after the burning of Sardis. (5.97–103)

The bold, even foolhardy Hellene attack on Sardis seems to have taken Artaphernes completely by surprise. His ‘substantial garrison’ was clearly strong enough to see off the Hellenes when it actually confronted them, and the most appropriate course of action would have been to meet them outside the city, rather than to wait for them to lay siege to the acropolis. The unplanned fire may have been more of an immediate problem for the attackers than the defenders, who would presumably have been safe inside the citadel walls on the heights above the city. The spreading blaze forced the Hellenes to gather in the open spaces by the river, enabling the Persians and Lydians to assess their strength and concentrate their forces to attack them en masse. When the Hellenes withdrew, the Persians and Lydians, reinforced from further inland, regrouped and caught up with the rebels before they could board their ships. They now clearly outnumbered the Hellenes and the speed of their pursuit suggests there was a strong cavalry element. Herodotus’ only quantification of the forces involved is the 25 ships from Athens and Eretria. Their withdrawal probably did not significantly weaken the rebels, who were able to muster over 350 triremes four years later. But the early loss of their only support from the heartland must have been a blow to morale. There could have been a swift change of political mood in Athens with a desire to appease rather than provoke the Great King, but that was no longer possible.

When word came to Darius that Sardis had been taken and burnt by the Athenians and Ionians, and that Aristagoras the Milesian had led the conspirators who had hatched the plot, it is said that he was unconcerned about the Ionians because he knew they would not escape punishment for this rebellion. But he asked who these Athenians were, and, when he had been told, called for his bow. He took it, put an arrow to the string and shot it into the sky, and, as it soared up, he said this prayer: ‘O Zeus, grant me vengeance on the Athenians.’ And after doing this he gave orders that one of his servants should say to him three times whenever his dinner was set before him, ‘Master, remember the Athenians.’ (5.105)

It is unlikely that Darius needed to be told who the Athenians were, pleasing as the echo is of Cyrus’ reaction to his decades-earlier encounter with the Spartans. He probably already knew that they had reneged on their offer of earth and water to Artaphernes, and very likely knew about their subsequent refusal to reinstate Hippias, even if the ex-tyrant had less access to him than Herodotus suggests. The King’s dramatic oath has a ring of truth to it, however. He is calling on Ahura Mazda, the principal god of the Persians, regarded by the Hellenes as one and the same as Zeus. Ahura Mazda was actually an altogether more sophisticated divine being than the head of the Hellenes’ chaotic pantheon, but the two shared roots in the ancient Indo-European tradition of a supreme sky-god. The bow, symbolic of Persian military might, was an important piece of the Great King’s regalia and shooting an arrow into the sky sealed the oath powerfully.

In spite of their early setback the Ionians had quickly spread insurrection north to the Bosporus and south throughout Caria. Then all but one of the ten major cities of Cyprus rebelled, and Cyprus had been a rich and important imperial asset since the reign of Cambyses. The Ionian Revolt was no longer purely an Ionian affair, if it ever was. Since both the Carians and the Cypriots were as Asian as they were Hellene, it had become rather more than an irritating disturbance in a cluster of subject cities on one limited frontier. So Cyprus and the strategically important Hellespont region became higher priorities than Ionia. In the meantime, Histiaeus managed to persuade Darius to allow him to return home on the pretext that he would restore order. He disingenuously undertook to deliver Aristagoras for punishment, if it proved to be the case that he and the Milesians were responsible for the rebellion, and into the bargain he made a ridiculous promise to bring Sardinia, recently annexed by Carthage, into the Persian Empire.

Operations to put down the rebellion took place simultaneously in more than one theatre from 498 onwards. Herodotus does not give any precise chronology, but he deals with the suppression of Cyprus first. The Cypriots called on the Ionians for support and they sent a fleet, but declined to join in any fighting on land. The Persians had shipped a large army over from Cilicia supported by a Phoenician fleet and the two sides faced each other on the south side of the island by the city of Salamis on land and offshore:

When the Persian army arrived on the plain of Salamis, the Cypriot kings formed up their battle line. They placed the best of the Salaminians and Solians opposite the Persians with the remaining Cypriots facing the rest of the enemy. Onesilus, the Cypriot commander-in-chief, took up position opposite Artybius, the Persian commander. Now, Artybius was mounted on a horse that was trained to rear up when facing a hoplite on foot. Onesilus knew about this and said to his attendant, a Carian by birth and a famous warrior of great courage, ‘I understand that Artybius’ horse rears up and uses his hoofs and teeth to kill any man he comes up against. With this in mind, tell me which of the two you would prefer to take on, the horse or Artybius himself.’ His attendant replied, ‘I am ready to take on either or both, as your majesty wishes, but I will tell you what I think is most appropriate from your point of view. I say that it is right for a king and commander to fight a king and commander. For if the man you strike down is a commander, you do a great deed, and if, on the other hand, that man strikes you down (let this not be so!), your misfortune is halved because your death is at the hands of a worthy opponent. And it is right for a servant to fight a servant, or a horse. So don’t worry about this horse’s tricks. I guarantee he will never again rear up over any man!’ This was his response, and immediately afterwards the opposing forces engaged on land and sea.

The Ionian fleet was superb that day and defeated the Phoenicians, and the Samians fought best of all, and while this fight was going on, the two armies on shore swept together in battle. As for the two commanders, when Artybius the Persian astride his horse charged at Onesilus, the Cypriot followed the plan he had agreed with his attendant and aimed a thrust at him. The horse reared up and kicked out at Onesilus’ shield and the Carian sliced off its hindlegs with one stroke of his billhook. That is how Artybius the Persian commander met his end, he and his horse. While the rest were still fighting, Stesenor the ruler of Curium, which is said to be an Argive settlement, deserted with the substantial force under his command and, when the Curians deserted, the war-chariots of Salamis did the same. And so the Persians gained the upper hand over the Cypriots, and their army was routed with many slain. Onesilus son of Chersis, who had instigated the rebellion in Cyprus, and the king of the Solians, Aristocyprus son of Philocyprus, were among the dead. (5.112–13)

Herodotus’ tantalizingly brief account of this significant land-battle and the single combat between the two commanders has an exotic and epic flavour. However, the cities of Cyprus were capable of mustering a large army, many thousands strong. Herodotus tells us that their infantry equipment was Hellene in style except for the headgear: ‘the kings wrapped turbans round their heads, the rest wore felt caps’ (7.90). This could be counted as another victory for Asian cavalry, and medium and light infantry, over western-style heavy troops, and the Persians could reasonably consider it a better test than the battle outside Ephesus. It is the only battle in which Herodotus mentions the involvement of chariots, though elsewhere he notes that the Libyan element of the imperial Persian army included them in place of cavalry. At this time the chariot was used as an archery platform rather than as a shock weapon. That appears to have come later when the Persians developed the scythed chariot towards the end of the 5th century.

It is disappointing that Herodotus has so little to say about the simultaneous sea-battle. Two years later the rebels faced the Persians with over 350 triremes, 60 of them from Samos, but there is no indication of their strength on this occasion. It is possible that the Phoenicians, from the Mediterranean’s finest navy, were simply outnumbered here. However, with the Cypriots defeated on land, the Ionians could not exploit their victory, whatever its scale, and so sailed home. Nonetheless, it is surprising that Herodotus, with his liking for coincidences and portents, makes so little of this earlier Hellene naval victory near a place called Salamis.

All the cities of Cyprus that had rebelled were subsequently besieged and taken:

Soli held out the longest but the Persians tunnelled under its outer wall and took it after five months. And so the Cypriots, after one year of freedom, were made slaves again. (5.115–16)

At this point Herodotus jumps back to operations on the mainland immediately after the burning of Sardis:

The Persian generals Daurises, Hymaees, and Otanes, all of them married to daughters of Darius, pursued the Ionians who had marched on Sardis and drove them back to their ships. After this victory they divided the rebel cities between them and sacked them. Daurises set off for the cities of the Hellespont and took Dardanus, Abydos, Percote, Lampsacus, and Paisus, each in a single day. Then, as he marched from Paisus against Parium, word came to him that the Carians had joined up with the Ionians and risen against the Persians. So he turned back from the Hellespont and marched his army to Caria. (5.116–17)

It seems that the Persians had quickly regained full control of the Bosporus and Hellespont sea-lanes allowing Daurises to abandon operations to suppress the rebels on the Asian shore and to make the march of several hundred kilometres to the south to deal with Caria, presumably linking up with his brothers-in-law:

The Carians managed to find out about Daurises’ approach ahead of his arrival, and when they had this information, they gathered at a place called White Pillars on the River Marsyas which flows from the land around Idrias and joins the Maeander. When they had mustered there, many and various plans were proposed. The best of these, in my judgement, was suggested by Pixodarus of Cindye, the son of Mausolus24 and husband of the daughter of Syennesis, king of Cilicia. His idea was that the Carians should cross the Maeander and fight with the river at their backs so that with retreat impossible they would have no option but to stand their ground and fight even more bravely than it was in their nature to do. But this idea was rejected and the decision was taken that the Persians, not the Carians, should fight with the Maeander at their backs, the purpose being that if the Persians were defeated and put to flight, they would be hurled into the river, never to return home.

When the Persians had come up and crossed the Maeander, the Carians engaged them by the River Marsyas and fought long and hard, but in the end they were overcome by superior numbers. About 2,000 Persians fell, but close on 10,000 Carians. The Carians who got away were penned into a large sacred grove of plane trees, the sanctuary of Zeus at Labraunda. Trapped as they were, they discussed what action might give them the best prospect of saving themselves, whether they would be better off surrendering to the Persians, or simply abandoning Asia. But whilst this debate was going on, the Milesians and their allies arrived to reinforce them and the Carians immediately set these thoughts aside and prepared to do battle all over again. They charged the Persians, engaged with them, fought a second time and were more severely beaten than before. The whole army sustained many casualties and the Milesians suffered most of all. However, the Carians recovered from this setback and carried on the fight. For example, having discovered that the Persians were launching a campaign against their cities, they set an ambush on the Pedasus road and the Persians fell into the trap and were wiped out with all their generals, including Daurises, in a night attack. The ambush force was commanded by Heraclides from Mylasa. (5.118–21)

The Ionian Revolt II

Two of Caria’s most important cities, Cnidus and Halicarnassus, had been founded as Hellene settlements centuries before, and Herodotus associates his ancient compatriots with the evolution of hoplite equipment. He credits them with teaching the Greeks how to fix plumes on their helmets and paint blazons on their shields, and with the invention of the revolutionary hoplite shield-grip system. He also tells of the impression hoplites made when they raided Egypt in the 7th century: ‘an Egyptian who had never seen men in bronze armour before reported that “men of bronze” had arrived from the sea and were plundering the land’ (2.152). In the early 5th century ‘the Carians’ equipment was Hellene except for their billhooks and daggers’ (7.93). The Milesians, who joined them at Labraunda, were probably conventionally equipped hoplites. There would have been light-armed support alongside the hoplites but, it seems, no cavalry. Herodotus’ generously rounded and most likely inflated casualty figure of 10,000 suggests a substantial force, which Caria and Miletus together were capable of mustering. Apart from stating that the Persians outnumbered them in the initial clash, Herodotus offers even less information about the force the rebels faced in these two battles. It probably outnumbered them quite significantly and consisted of a core of Persian and Median infantry and cavalry with levies from Lydia and other adjacent territories that had remained loyal. The Lydians, ‘armed very much like the Hellenes’, would have been a better match for the rebel hoplites in close quarter-fighting than the less heavily armed Persians and Medes. The Carians appear to have been led by committee without a formally or informally recognized commander-in-chief, and their decision to let the Persians make an unopposed crossing of the Maeander was as poor tactically as the suggestion that they fight with the river at their backs. As it turned out, the Marsyas probably complicated their retreat after the first battle, which was fought between the two rivers. The Milesian reinforcements were clearly not sufficient to give the Carian survivors a better chance in the second battle.

Caria may have held out for two or three more years till 493, and this final episode recorded by Herodotus suggests that the conflict became ‘asymmetric’ after Labraunda. However, the defeat at Pedasa, the Persians’ only defeat on land in the whole of the Ionian Revolt, must have set counter-insurgency operations back for a while. The fact that the Carian commander was from the leading non-Hellene city in the region may indicate that the forces involved were significant, but it is equally possible that the Persian generals were caught travelling with only a modest escort.

At this point Artaphernes became directly involved and, with the general Otanes, campaigned west from Sardis and retook the important coastal cities of Clazomenae and Cyme. Herodotus brings Aristagoras into his narrative for the last time, making his opinion of him very clear:

With these cities fallen, the Milesian demonstrated what a feeble character he was. For, seeing the great chaos and upheaval he had brought upon Ionia, he now began to plan his own escape, realising that he could not possibly get the better of Darius. (5.124)

He offered to take his followers to Myrcinus, the Thracian city that Darius had given to Histiaeus as a reward for his services in the Danube campaign, or to Sardinia, where he proposed to found a colony. However, it is unlikely that the Carthaginians would have made him welcome in Sardinia. The wise Hecataeus recommended retreating to the nearby island of Leros, fortifying it and waiting there for better times in Miletus:

That was Hecataeus’ advice, but Aristagoras thought it best to take himself off to Myrcinus. So, he accordingly entrusted Miletus to an eminent citizen called Pythagoras and sailed to Thrace taking along any who would join him, and set himself up in that place as he had planned. But campaigning out of Myrcinus, he and his whole army were wiped out by the Thracians while laying siege to a town, even though the Thracians inside were willing to agree a truce and give it up. (5.126)

Aristagoras’ co-conspirator, Histiaeus, still trusted by Darius and sent from Susa to assist in the resolution of the Ionian conflict, found it rather harder to deceive Artaphernes in Sardis:

Artaphernes, who had accurate information about the insurrection, saw through his fabrications and said, ‘This is how things are, Histiaeus: you cobbled the sandals and Aristagoras strapped them on.’ (6.1)

Histiaeus slipped out of Sardis that night and was able to secure enough support amongst the Ionians to pursue his personal goal of reinstatement as tyrant of Miletus. But the Milesians had no desire for this and beat off his attempt to take the city back in a night attack. He was in communication with various Persians with whom he had already plotted, but Artaphernes intercepted the messages and had the conspirators executed. Now Histiaeus had lost most of the support he had built up in the region, but he was able to persuade the Mytileneans of Lesbos to give him eight triremes. He took these to Byzantium and used them for piracy in the Hellespont.

Dealing with Histiaeus was not Artaphernes’ highest priority:

A large Barbarian army and fleet were now bearing down on Miletus. The Persian generals had consolidated all their resources into a single task force and were leading this against that city; the rest of the rebel strongholds were a lower priority. In the fleet, the Phoenicians were the most highly motivated, but the recently subdued Cypriots and the Cilicians and the Egyptians were deployed with them. This assault on Miletus was, in effect, an attack on the whole of Ionia, and when the Ionians learned of this, each city sent delegates to the Panionium. They gathered there and conferred, and they resolved that they should not assemble an army to confront the Persians on land, but that the Milesians should defend themselves from inside their city walls while the rest of them manned all their ships, not leaving a single one in port. They were to assemble as soon as possible at Lade, a small island lying just off Miletus, and mount a seaborne defence of the city from there. And so the Ionians, including the Aeolians who lived on Lesbos, manned their ships and came to Lade.

The Hellene battle order was as follows: the Milesians brought 80 ships and were positioned on the right wing; next to them were the Prieneans with 12 ships, and the Myesians with three; next to the Myesians were the Teans with 17 ships and, next to them, the Chians with 100; then came the Erythraeans, who brought eight ships, and the Phocaeans with three; then there were the 70 ships from Lesbos and finally the Samians, positioned on the left wing with 60. In total there were 353 triremes. So that was the Ionian fleet. The Barbarians had 600 ships. When they reached Miletus and the land army had also arrived, the Persian commanders found out how many Ionian ships there were and became worried that they were not there in enough strength to defeat the Hellenes. They knew that if they did not have control of the sea, they would not be able to take Miletus, and would then face the threat of punishment by Darius. With this in mind, they gathered together the Ionian tyrants who had been removed from their positions by Aristagoras of Miletus and had taken refuge with the Medes, and had, as it happened, joined them on campaign against Miletus. The Persians summoned them all and said, ‘Men of Ionia, now is the time for you to show how you can be of good service to the House of the Great King by endeavouring to detach your countrymen from the rebel alliance. Make them this promise: if they are so persuaded by you, they shall not suffer punishment for their rebellion: their holy places and property shall not be burnt; nor shall they be treated any more strictly than before. But if they do not comply and are set on fighting, then deliver this threat: when they have been defeated, they shall be taken into captivity as slaves; we will make their sons eunuchs and carry off their maiden daughters to Bactria; and we will give their lands to others.’ This is what they said, and the Ionian tyrants passed on the message that night, each to his compatriots. But the Ionians who received the message were stubborn and none of them would contemplate such treachery, each thinking that the Persians were making this offer to him alone. This is what happened immediately after the Persians’ arrival at Miletus. (6.6–10)

Miletus occupied the tip of a promontory on the southern side of the opening of the Latmian Gulf. The city was strongly fortified on its southern landward side with two substantial natural harbours on its western side, facing the Aegean. Lade was about 4km to the west and the Hellene fleet was well placed there to command the approaches. In spite of their recent losses in Caria, the Milesians were clearly still capable of defending their city walls and manning the second-largest element of the rebel fleet; they probably operated out of their home port, which was not large enough to accommodate the rest. The Hellenes’ naval strategy, to focus on protecting the city from seaborne attack and to keep its approaches and harbours open for the delivery of supplies and reinforcements, was sound enough. But they were presumably dependent on a steady shuttle of food and drink from the mainland, and unable to close off the 16km span of the gulf to prevent the Persian fleet occupying the beaches immediately to the south and east of the city in close contact with the besieging army. In any case, this was to be a fight to the finish that the Persians could not allow the Hellenes to win.

The ousted Hellene tyrants were not with the Persians by chance but would have been enlisted by the Persians as advisers and for use as envoys or covert negotiators in their customary strategy of combining the display and application of force with diplomacy and subversion. Reinstatement to their former positions, serving the Persians as compliant vassals, would be the tyrants’ reward. Herodotus’ use of the Greek word agnomosune, ‘obstinacy’ or ‘stubbornness’, to describe the rebels’ seemingly honourable rejection of the Persian offer can be seen as criticism of their unwillingness to bow to the inevitable and makes sense as the opinion of the ‘medizing’ Hellene who may have been his source for this story; medizing was the term used for collaboration with Persia (the Medes) and could be applied to individuals or states. On the face of it ‘disdainful’ might fit the context better than ‘stubborn’. But there is a general sense that Herodotus did not think very highly of the Ionians or their conduct of this war.

The Ionian fleet’s battle order can be taken at face value. The 600 total given for the Persian fleet is a familiar stock figure. If the fleet had been that large, comprising, as it did, contingents from the four main sources of Persian seapower, its commanders would have had little cause for concern, even when bearing in mind their defeat off Cyprus. But, perhaps, their fleet was smaller or was a mix of triremes and less potent warships, and they had not anticipated how big the rebel fleet would be. It was actually almost as large as the fleet mustered by the Hellene Alliance in 480 and consisted entirely of triremes. On land the contest had for the most part been between two distinctly different methods of war, the close-quarter, close-formation shock fighting of the heavy-armed hoplite and the more fluid, long-range fighting of the lighter-armed Barbarian missile warrior, on foot or mounted. At sea, there would be little difference between the opposing forces, both consisting of triremes and with the same repertoire of tactics. The troops on board the Barbarian ships would have been a good match for the Hellenes when it came to deck-fighting. The Cypriots were very similarly equipped, and the Phoenicians and Egyptians also wore helmets and armour; the Cilicians, on the other hand, were less heavily armed:

The Egyptians carried hollow shields with broad rims, naval pikes and great battle-axes, and most of them also had body armour and long dirks … The Cilicians had their own type of helmet and their shields were not hoplite shields but made of oxhide, and they wore woollen tunics. They each carried two javelins and a short sword very similar to the Egyptian dirk. (7.89, 91)

After they had all gathered at Lade, the Ionians held meetings and amongst the several individuals that, I am sure, had their say at them, was Dionysius, the leader of the Phocaeans, and this is what he said: ‘Ionians, we are now on the razor’s edge. Are we to be free men or slaves, runaway slaves at that? If you are willing to face hardship and put in the effort now, you will be able to overcome your enemies and go on living as free men. But if you are feeble and undisciplined, I can hold out no hope that you will be saved from paying the Great King the price of your rebellion. So, put your trust in me and I promise you our enemies will not take us on in battle, or, if they do, that they shall be soundly beaten, if the gods treat us fairly.’ The Ionians heard Dionysius out and put their trust in him, so every day he took them out to sea, lined them up and had the oarsmen practise the diekplous manoeuvre on the other ships, and he also had the deck crews train and equip themselves for action. Then for the rest of the day he kept the ships at anchor and made the men carry on training. (6.11–12)

Dionysius was in command of only three ships, but Phocaea had been a leading maritime power amongst the cities of Ionia until around 540 when most of its population had migrated to southern Italy to escape Persian rule. Their new settlement, Elea, thrived and was the birthplace of an influential early 5th-century philosophical school, but the home city never recovered. Dionysius’ apparent reputation as an expert naval commander may have been acquired through privateering and mercenary activities in the Aegean and eastern Mediterranean, and perhaps he had distinguished himself in the Ionians’ victory off Cyprus. Herodotus pointedly contrasts his professionalism and dedication with the softness of most of the other Ionians and this episode allows him to present some of the reasons he assembles for the failure of their rebellion. Leaving aside the underlying weaknesses of the alliance and the faultlines that ran through it, and the prejudices of Herodotus and his sources, the beaches of the small island of Lade would have been very crowded and the sickness that broke out probably had more to do with living conditions than unaccustomed exertion. The Persians could afford to watch and wait:

For seven days the Ionians were obedient to Dionysius and carried out his orders. But they were not accustomed to such hard work and were worn out by their efforts and the heat of the sun, and this is what they began to say to each to other, ‘Which of the gods have we so offended that they force us to do this? We are out of our minds, taking leave of our senses to put our trust in this Phocaean tramp who is contributing just three ships! He has completely taken over and is inflicting terrible suffering on us. Many of us are sick already, and many more are likely to fall ill as well. We’ll surely be better off with any kind of suffering in place of our present hardship, even enduring the slavery that may be in store for us. Whatever form that suffering takes, it will not be as terrible as the burden that now weighs down on us. Come on, let’s stop obeying this man’s orders!’ That’s what they said and, from then on, no one obeyed Dionysius’ orders, and they pitched tents on the island as if they were soldiers and lay around in the shade, refusing to get on board their ships and do any more training.

When the Samian commanders became aware of what was happening in the Ionian ranks, they thought again about the message that Aeaces son of Syloson had been ordered to send to them from the Persians, calling upon them to desert the Ionian alliance. Now, having observed the total lack of discipline amongst the Ionians, they welcomed the invitation. In any case, they thought the Great King’s power was irresistible and were certain that even if they defeated the fleet currently facing them, another one five times the size of it would come along. So, when they saw that the Ionians were not prepared to do their duty, they had their excuse, and they could also see how they would benefit by keeping their temples and homes safe. Aeaces, from whom they received the message, was tyrant of Samos until he was deposed by Aristagoras of Miletus along with the rest of the Ionian tyrants.

When at last the Phoenicians put to sea, the Hellenes went out to meet them in line-ahead. The two sides bore down on each other and engaged, but I cannot say with any accuracy which of the Hellenes fought with gallantry in this sea-battle and which did not, because they now all blame each other. However, it is said that right at the start the Samians, having agreed terms with Aeaces, hoisted their sails, abandoned their positions in the line and set course for Samos, all of them except for 11 ships whose captains ignored their commanders and stayed and fought. (Afterwards the people of Samos honoured these men by setting up a column inscribed with their names and a proclamation that they had proved their gallantry, and that column is still there in the marketplace.) Seeing the ships next to them deserting, the Lesbians did the same, and so did most of the Ionians. Of those who stayed to fight, the Chians did not behave like cowards but did glorious deeds, and so had the roughest time of all. They had provided 100 ships, as already mentioned, with 40 picked men on the deck of each. When they saw the majority of their allies betraying the alliance, they were not prepared to display such cowardice. Abandoned by the rest, they fought on with the support of just a few of the allies, breaking the enemy line and taking a large number of ships, but also losing most of their own; those in the ships that survived finally made their escape and returned home.

The crews of the Chian triremes that were crippled by battle damage escaped their pursuers by making for Mycale. They beached their ships and abandoned them there and set off across the mainland on foot, and their march took them onto Ephesian soil. It was night when they reached it and the women were celebrating the Thesmophoria. The Ephesians had not yet heard what had happened to the Chians and were convinced that this was a robber band invading their territory and coming after their women. So, they came out in full force and slaughtered the Chians. As for Dionysius, when he saw that all was lost for the Ionians, he sailed off with the three enemy ships he had captured. But he did not immediately make for Phocaea because he knew very well that the city would be enslaved along with the rest of Ionia. Instead he sailed directly to Phoenicia, where he captured three merchant ships, and then on to Sicily with a load of booty. He made his base there and operated as a pirate, but only preying on Carthaginians and Etruscans, not on Hellenes. (6.12–17)

The Persians most likely had good intelligence of the condition and state of mind of a large proportion of the more than 70,000 Hellenes they were about to face and went into battle confident that their subversion had worked. They probably came out from the beaches on either side of Miletus in line-ahead and then formed into line abreast to bear down on Lade and simultaneously threaten the two harbours of Miletus. The Hellenes had no option but to come out and meet them as they would have been unable to mount any kind of defence with their ships beached or at anchor. Herodotus, for the first time in any of his dealings with sea-battles, provides some tactical information. He has already mentioned the training that Dionysius had given to the fleet. The Hellenes moved out in line-ahead, presumably led by Dionysius’ flagship, with the aim of using the diekplous manoeuvre. This tactic principally involved ramming. The Chians, with 40 hoplites on each of their ships, were also ready to fight in ‘the old-fashioned way’. After the Samians, Lesbians and ‘most of the Ionians’ had turned and run, Dionysius was probably left with considerably fewer than 200 ships, but it seems he was still able to put up a good fight, suggesting that the Persians even then did not outnumber the Hellenes by a large margin.

In the absence of any reference to its part in the fighting, it seems probable that the substantial Milesian fleet fought its way home to the city’s harbour when it became clear that the battle was lost. The explanation of the Chian survivors’ cruel fate may have been invented, although interruption of the Thesmophoria, from which men were strictly excluded, would have been an act of great sacrilege. Ephesus was one of Ionia’s foremost cities but did not have a fleet and is not mentioned as taking any part in the land warfare of the Ionian Revolt. The Ephesians may have been more sympathetically inclined towards Persia than the other Hellene cities of Asia, and the story told by Herodotus could have been created to cover up a shameful act of treachery. Dionysius’ retirement to, or resumption of a life of patriotic piracy ends the account of the battle of Lade on a happier note.

After defeating the Ionian fleet, the Persians were able to blockade Miletus by land and sea, and they undermined the walls using all kinds of siege machinery. And they took the city, town and acropolis, five years after Aristagoras’ rebellion and enslaved its people. This disaster came about as prophesied by the oracle at Delphi:

‘O Miletus, contriver of troubles!

Many shall feast upon you.

You shall become a glittering gift-offering.

Your women shall wash the feet of long-haired men

And other hands shall tend our holy place at Didyma.’

And this is indeed what happened to Miletus. Most of the men were killed by Persians, who wear their hair long, the women and children were reduced to slavery, and the holy place at Didyma, the temple and the seat of the oracle were looted and torched. I have told of the wealth of this holy place at other points in my narrative. The Milesian men who had been taken prisoner were brought to Susa and Darius the King did no more harm to them but settled them in Ampe on the Erythraean Sea close to where the Tigris flows into it.

The Ionian Revolt III

After the sea-battle off Miletus, the Phoenicians reinstated Aeaces in Samos as directed by the Persians in recognition of the great and valuable service he had done them. The Samians were the only people who had rebelled against Darius who did not have their cities and temples burned down, and this was because of their desertion with their ships in the battle. Once Miletus had been dealt with, the Persians went on to take control of Caria, some cities submitting voluntarily, others being forcibly subdued. So that was the end of it. (6.18–20, 25)

But not quite … Histiaeus, still ambitious to regain his former power, came south with his Lesbian fleet and conquered Chios, exploiting the island’s weakness after its fleet’s mauling at the battle of Lade. He then raised a larger force from Ionia and Aeolis and mounted an attack on Thasos but abandoned this when he heard that the Phoenician fleet was sailing up the Ionian coast from Miletus. He brought his fleet back to Lesbos, but food was in short supply so he took it over to the mainland to plunder the grain harvest on the plains along the River Caicus.

A Persian general called Harpagus happened to be in the area with a substantial force and attacked the Hellene landing party. He killed most of them but took Histiaeus alive and this is how it came about. The Hellenes fought the Persians at Malene and held out until the cavalry was sent in and charged them. This was decisive, and the Greeks turned and ran. But Histiaeus, confident that the King would not have him executed for his latest transgression, displayed his instinct for survival in this way: when a Persian seized him as he fled and was about to skewer him, he came out with a few words of Persian to let him know that he was Histiaeus the Milesian. (6.28)

So Histiaeus survived, but Harpagus and Artaphernes had no intention of allowing him to charm the Great King yet again. So, they took him back to Sardis and had him impaled and decapitated, then delivered his embalmed head to Darius. The King was not pleased and ordered them to give the head a proper burial because he still thought that Histiaeus had served him and Persia very well. Herodotus ends this episode with a dismissive ‘So that’s what became of Histiaeus.’ The final suppression of the Hellenes of the eastern Aegean took a little more time:

The Persian fleet wintered at Miletus and campaigned again the following year, easily conquering the islands lying off the western coast, Chios, Lesbos and Tenedos. When they had occupied an island the barbarians ‘netted’ the men on it. This is how it is done: each man joins hands with the next forming a chain from north shore to south and they work their way along the whole length of the island, flushing the male islanders out. The Persians also took back the Ionian cities on the mainland, though netting was not practicable there. And now the Persian commanders did not shy away from carrying out what they had threatened to do to the Ionians who had gone to war against them. They picked out the best-looking boys and made them eunuchs and transported the most beautiful young women from the coast to the King, and when they had done this they burned down the Ionians’ cities and their holy places too. And this is how Ionia came to be enslaved three times over, first by the Lydians then twice in succession by the Persians. Afterwards the Persian fleet sailed north and took back everything on the western side of the Hellespont. Everything on the eastern side was already under Persian control.

In the year that followed the Persians brought all hostilities against the Ionians to an end and, in fact, did some things which were very much to their benefit. Artaphernes, the governor of Sardis, summoned representatives from all the cities and, through them, required the Ionians to draw up treaties amongst themselves under which they would settle disputes through litigation rather than by rape and pillage. This is what he made them do, and he also had their land measured in parasangs (the Persian term for a distance of 30 stades). Artaphernes set the amount of tribute to be paid by each city according to this assessment of the Ionians’ property and the amounts remained much the same in living memory; they were actually not much different from what they had been before. So, there was peace.

Then, the following spring, Mardonius, son of Gobryas, came down to the coast in command of a very large land army and fleet. He was a young man who had recently married the King’s daughter, Artozostre. He arrived in Cilicia at the head of this army and there went on board one of the ships and sailed with the fleet. Other commanders led the army on to the Hellespont. Sailing along the shores of Asia, Mardonius reached Ionia and there, I tell you, he did something that will come as a great surprise to Hellenes who find it impossible to believe that Otanes, one of the seven Persians who chose Darius as King, suggested that democracy might be the best form of government for Persia. Mardonius deposed all the tyrants in Ionia and introduced democracy in place of tyranny. (6.31–33, 42–43)

In fact, tyrannies were not universally replaced with democracies and, in any case, the political systems adopted did not affect the cities’ subject status. The Persians’ priority was compliance, stability and internal order at both local and regional level, and, of course, revenue. But they appear to have made genuine efforts to address grievances and frictions that had fuelled the dissatisfaction and unrest which Histiaeus and Anaxagoras had so successfully exploited. A later, 1st-century bc source, Diodorus Siculus, involves the wise Hecataeus in this episode:

Hecataeus the Milesian, who had been sent as an envoy by the Ionians, asked Artaphernes why he did not trust them. When Artaphernes replied that he feared that they would feel bitter resentment because of the pain they had suffered in defeat, Hecataeus responded, ‘Well, if ill treatment breeds bad faith, fair treatment will surely cause our cities to be well disposed toward the Persians.’ Artaphernes agreed with this and gave the cities back their laws and assessed their tributes according to their ability to pay. (Library of History 10.25.4)

This policy was in line with present-day counter-insurgency doctrine, recognizing that lasting success is achieved not by military force but through political and social measures. However, it was clearly still thought necessary to project military power beyond the western frontiers of the empire to reinforce this newly established stability.

Mardonius pressed on to the Hellespont where a massive fleet and land army were now assembled. They sailed across the Hellespont and advanced into Europe. Their destination was Eretria and Athens, or that was the declared purpose of the expedition. In fact, the Persians’ intention was to subdue as many Hellene cities as they could. This is what they did to Thasos with their fleet and the Thasians did not lift a finger to resist, and, with their army, the Persians added the Macedonians to their stock of slaves. All the peoples closer than Macedon were already in their power. The fleet crossed over to the mainland coast from Thasos and sailed along to Acanthus, and set out from there to round the Athos peninsula. As it was on the way round, a gale struck it from the north and it was very roughly tossed about. The ships could not ride the storm out and many of them were hurled onto the coast of Athos. It is said that 300 ships were lost and more than 20,000 men. The sea around Athos is full of man-eating fish and some were snatched and killed by these, some were smashed against the rocks, some died of cold and some perished because they could not swim. So that’s what happened to the fleet. As for Mardonius and his army, the Brygoi, a Thracian tribe, killed many of them in a night attack on their encampment in Macedonia and Mardonius himself was wounded. However, the Brygoi were not to escape slavery, for Mardonius did not leave their territory until he had made them Persian subjects. After subduing Macedon, he led his command back because it had been so badly battered, the land force at the hands of the Brygoi and the fleet by the ocean off Athos. His mission had been a disgraceful failure and he withdrew into Asia. (6.42–44)

If Herodotus is right about the broad scope of this mission, Mardonius had indeed fallen short in failing to drive deep into the heartland of Hellas and, specifically, to reach and punish Athens and Eretria. However, he had re-established or at least reinforced the empire’s control of Thrace and Macedonia, securing the land route for any future thrust into Europe, and the rich island of Thasos was a substantial prize. His losses at sea may be somewhat over-dramatized, and the clash with the Brygoi did not affect the successful outcome of that piece of the campaign, so the expedition had not been a total failure. Nevertheless, Darius did not put him in command of his next thrust into Europe. Still, by the middle of the following decade, Mardonius ‘had more influence with the Great King than any other Persian’ and was to be a central figure in the campaign of 480/79.

The destruction of Miletus and the inevitable collapse of the Ionian Revolt shook Hellas:

The Athenians displayed their profound grief at the fate of Miletus in many different ways, most notably when Phrynichus put on his play The Fall of Miletus,46 and the entire audience was reduced to tears. Phrynichus was fined 1,000 drachmas for reminding the Athenians of a disaster that was so close to home, and the play was banned. (6.21)

Through this decade, the Hellenes had continued to fight their internal wars and the Persians would have looked on with interest. For example, at Sepeia in 494, the Spartans wiped out their neighbours and old enemy, the Argives, as a serious military force for a generation and consolidated their leadership of the Hellenes of the Peloponnese. However, the deposition and exile of Demaratus, one of their two kings, and the subsequent disgrace and strange and gruesome end of Cleomenes, the other, would have been seen as encouraging evidence of instability within one of the leading nations of Hellas. Darius made Demaratus welcome at court and he became an adviser to Xerxes, his successor. In the meantime, the Athenians were constantly at war with Aegina. The Persians continued to cultivate subversive links with reactionary factions in Athens through Hippias, like Demaratus a welcome Hellene exile, and his diminishing but influential body of supporters. For their part, the Athenians had been looking east, uncomfortably aware of the threat that grew as their eastern cousins, the Ionians, were progressively subdued. As in Britain in the run-up to World War II, there was a polarizing split between the forces of appeasement, spearheaded by a reactionary rearguard, who wanted to turn the political clock back, and the forces of resistance and active opposition. The latter were reinforced by the emergence of two strong war-leaders, Miltiades and Themistocles:

Miltiades had recently returned to Athens from the Chersonese and had escaped death twice before becoming an Athenian general. First, the Phoenicians had chased him as far as Imbros, making great efforts to capture him and deliver him to the Great King, but he got away from them and reached home. He thought he was safe, but then his rivals brought him to trial on a charge of ruling as a tyrant in the Chersonese. He survived this as well, and afterwards he was elected general by the choice of the people. (6.103–04)

Ironically, the aristocratic Miltiades owed his many lucrative years as an autocratic colonial governor to Hippias and had served the Great King, albeit with selective loyalty, for some of that time. Themistocles had risen from a less gilded background and was to become, in all but name, supreme commander of the Hellene fleet at one of the most critical wartime moments in the history of the western world. The war with Aegina enabled him to focus on the development of Athenian seapower, which at the end of the next decade was to lie at the core of the strategy for the defence of Hellas. Herodotus introduces him only when his narrative reaches the events of the first half of 480:

There was a certain Athenian who had recently taken his place amongst the most prominent citizens. His name was Themistocles and he was called the son of Neocles. (7.143)

This is more of a put-down than a fanfare; he is more generous in his appreciation of him later in the Historia, but Thucydides supplies important detail about Themistocles’ earlier career and neatly summarizes his strategic vision:

Themistocles persuaded the Athenians to complete the fortification of Piraeus, a project he had initiated in the year he held the office of archon.49 He saw that the place was excellently situated with its three natural harbours and reckoned that it would strongly support the efforts of the Athenian people to build the power of their city, now they had become seamen. Themistocles was the first to venture to suggest that they make the sea their own, planting the seeds of empire at that very moment … He made seapower his priority because, I think, he had noted that the Great King’s invasion force had come much closer to Athens by sea than by land. So, Themistocles considered Piraeus to be of much greater value than the upper city and he frequently gave the Athenians this advice, that if they were ever struggling to defend themselves on land, they should go down to Piraeus and their ships and then could take on the whole world. (History of the Peloponnesian War 1.93)

Persia increased the pressure on Hellas in 491. Herodotus continues:

Darius wished to find out if the Hellenes would put up a fight or surrender. So he sent heralds all over Hellas with his personal demand for offerings of earth and water. He also sent heralds to his subject cities on the coast of Asia, ordering them to build warships and horse-transports, and those cities set to work. The heralds who went to Hellas collected what the King had demanded from many of the cities of the mainland and from all the islands they visited. Aegina was one of the islands that offered earth and water to Darius and the Athenians strongly objected to this. They saw it as an act of hostility signifying their intention to side with the Persians in making war on Athens. Pleased to have this justification, the Athenians took the matter up with the Spartans and accused the Aeginetans of betraying Hellas. (6.48–49)

On the evidence of what happened at the time of Xerxes’ invasion ten years later, it is likely that most of the cities of Boeotia and Thessaly offered submission. The islands of the eastern Aegean were already under Persian control, but earth and water may have been collected from some of the Cyclades. Later in the Historia Herodotus tells the story of the Athenians’ and Spartans’ emphatic rejection of Darius the King’s command:

Xerxes sent no heralds to Athens or Sparta to demand earth and water for this reason. Ten years earlier, when Darius had sent heralds with the same purpose, the Athenians had thrown them into the Pit52 and the Spartans had thrown them down a well, telling them to get their earth and water for the Great King from there. But I cannot say what disaster the Athenians suffered for treating heralds like this. Certainly, their city and lands were laid waste, but I think that was for a different reason. (7.133)

Herodotus may be signalling a degree of scepticism here. Mistreatment of heralds was regarded as extreme sacrilege and laid the guilty open to the avenging curse of the hero Talthybius, King Agamemnon’s herald in the Trojan War. Herodotus is rather weakly arguing that, if the Athenians did suffer from a curse, it was laid on them for a different reason, perhaps their part in the destruction of the temple of Cybele in Sardis. Because of what had already passed between Athens and Persia, it could be argued that a state of war existed between them, so Darius would have had no great reason to include them in his diplomatic offensive; Marathon would give Xerxes even less reason. Retribution had to be delivered and to be seen to be delivered, but, on the other hand, it was Persian policy always to keep open the option of diplomatic resolution. However, the invitation to collect earth and water from the bottom of a well has a salty Spartan flavour to it and the sense of solidarity shared between two leading Hellene cities rings true. Whatever dealings there may have been, Herodotus does give a feel for the internal political manoeuvring of the time. A later source links Miltiades with the Athenians’ execution of the heralds. Members of the ‘war party’, including Themistocles, probably sponsored Phrynichus’ Fall of Miletus. Sparta supported Athens in the conflict with Aegina, and Corinth, another major power, also became involved. Athens, given the opportunity to exploit a planned coup on the island, took a fleet of 70 ships, 20 of them on loan from Corinth for a nominal fee, but arrived a day too late. Nonetheless, the Athenians won a sea-battle and also defeated the Aeginetans on land before losing four ships in a subsequent skirmish. This episode seems to have been inconclusive but it usefully flexed Athens’ muscles on land and sea, and affirmed the strategic stance that Miltiades and Themistocles and their supporters were promoting.

On nearly all the evidence of its campaigning over the past six decades of its existence, the Persian Empire had proved itself invincible. However, its first invasion of Europe had met with failure north of the Danube. Its second thrust to the west, the attack on Naxos in 500, had been unsuccessful and its third and most recent campaign led by Mardonius had fallen short of its objectives in mainland Hellas. The Ionian Revolt had been suppressed but operations had been stretched out over five or six years. Hellenes motivated to protect their homeland and freedoms could demonstrate that the Great King’s mighty war machine was both fallible and resistible. Some could support this belief with plausible strategic and tactical insights based on first- or close second-hand experience of the way the Barbarians waged war. They could also suggest that geography and the gods of wind and ocean would be on their side. For his part, the Great King had already established that Hellas, even mainland Hellas, would not unite against him when he launched his next attack and he could be confident that any smaller alliances that might be formed would be fragile. On the evidence of several victories won on land in the suppression of the Ionian Revolt, he could also be confident of success in any future confrontation with Hellene armies, especially as he was now able to reinforce his Asian troops with Hellene levies. Herodotus makes no comment on the apparent trust in the latter to fight kindred Hellenes with commitment and some may have been token contingents taken along as hostages, in effect, to insure against insurrection in their home cities. More value may have been attached to Hippias, now in his 80s, and presumably other Pisistratid exiles who were to sail with the invasion force to connect with the small like-minded minority that still existed in Athens and would be willing to accept Persian rule as the price of rolling back the democratic reforms of still quite recent years; they would also be restored to power as puppet rulers with Hippias, tyrant of Athens once again, as their leader, or so the old man wished. At sea, the Hellene fleets that had defeated his Phoenicians off Cyprus and posed a significant threat in the early stages of the siege of Miletus would be fighting for him or sidelined. Moreover, through the 490s and well into the 480s, even if the Hellenes of mainland Greece who had not submitted to him had combined all their fleet, it would have been only about half the size of the fleet assembled by the Ionian alliance at Lade. The Persians’ fourth campaign into Europe was to be seaborne and aimed directly at Eretria and Athens, delivering retribution for these cities’ part in the burning of Sardis, but it had the larger goal of establishing a strategic foothold in mainland Greece. The Athenians, at least, were ready.

Sassanian [Sassanid] Army Pil-savaran: The Elephant Corps

Hekmat has ascertained that the Sassanian elephant corps essentially fulfilled the same role in the spah that chariots had during the Achaemenid era. In practice the Sassanian elephant corps were entrusted with a number of duties. First, while the function of the elephant as a primary ‘Durchbruch’ (breakthrough) weapon is not altogether accurate, these animals were highly valued by the spah and did partake in a number of battles. The elephants often played the role of support and stood to the rear, providing a psychological boost for the various arms on the battlefield, especially infantry. The elephant could also be used as a psychological weapon to frighten enemies unaccustomed to such beasts. In this endeavour, the spah did employ battle elephants to target inexperienced Roman troops and Arabian warriors in attempts to influence the course of battles. Interestingly, Sassanian elephants were also used in siege operations as a type of ‘living mobile tower’ in the spah’s inventory of siege engines for the taking of cities. The elephant corps was also utilized for the transportation of men and supplies.

The Achaemenid question. The early Achaemenids did not utilize battle elephants, at least as attested by Classical sources in reference to Cyrus the Great and Darius the Great. Classical sources also make no mention of elephant units in the army of Xerxes during his invasion of Greece in 480 BC. Some Iranian historians have argued that Achaemenid expansion into western India as well as southern Egypt towards Ethiopia must have had (at least in part) the assistance of battle elephants. The Achaemenids were certainly in contact with India and would have had access to elephants. Classical sources however, fail to verify the existence of elephant corps during the early-to-middle part of the Achaemenid dynasty.

The first mention of elephants in Achaemenid service comes from Arrian (3.8.6) who cites fifteen of them in the army of Darius III (r. 336–333 BCE) at the Battle of Gaugamela (331 BCE). The elephants were employed by Darius’ Indian allies. Charles, citing mainstream Western scholarship, notes that Arrian’s account suggests that the elephants were not employed in the battle. Arrian does verify that Alexander captured Darius’ elephants along with his baggage train after the battle. Achaemenid elephants are also reported by Quintus Curtius Rufus, who noted that Alexander received a gift of twelve elephants from the satrap of Susa as Hellenic invasion forces were nearing the city. Mainstream Iranian historiography takes a different view from Classical sources and mainstream Western scholarship. The Iranshahr text, for example, claims105 (1) a total of 500 elephants in the entire Achaemenid military machine of Darius III, with at least 50 of these being present at Gaugamela; and that (2) Achaemenid elephants were a source of great anxiety among Alexander’s forces.

Origins of Sassanian elephant corps. The key question is: when did the Sassanians introduce the elephant into military service? Ardashir I’s Parthian predecessors, who had ruled Iran for nearly 500 years, are not believed to have used elephants, possibly having regarded these as unreliable battlefield weapons. The Parthians (like the Sassanians) relied primarily on cavalry forces but did introduce camel cataphracts towards the end of their dynasty.

The Historia Augusta does claim that Ardashir I had 700 elephants of which Alexander Severus allegedly killed 200 and captured 300 (18 of these were allegedly sent to Rome). Charles, however, notes that the thesis of Ardashir having had elephants is largely based on the Historia Augusta’s highly exaggerated and unreliable claims of Emperor Alexander Severus’ alleged ‘victory’ over the Sassanians. Scullard was of the opinion that Ardashir I’s son and successor, Shapur I, deployed elephants against Roman armies. Shapur is cited by the Historia Augusta as having been halted at Resaina by Gordian III, who is then described as having dispatched to Rome at least twelve elephants. Tabari also gives an interesting reference, stating ‘Shapur, the man of the armies, rode out against them with elephants covered with blankets and with heroic fighters.’ This reference would suggest that such elephants were not protected by armour but the reference to ‘heroic fighters’ is less clear as it does not specify if these are armoured knights or strictly archers.

Nevertheless, the Historia Augusta is generally no longer regarded as a reliable source for the study of Sassanian military affairs in the third century CE. The unreliability of the Historia Augusta leads Charles to ‘refrain from using this material as proof that elephants were used by the Persians in the first half of the third century CE’. Interestingly, neither the Chronica nor other sources mention any Sassanian elephants being encountered in battle by Galerius, who had been tasked with fighting the Sassanians by Emperor Diocletian (r. 284–305 CE)114 in 297 CE. The Armenian historian Moses Khorenatsi, however, notes a contemporary of Diocletian, the Armenian king Tirdad, as having battled the Sassanians and ‘scattered the ranks of elephants’.

While certainly true that the Historia Augusta is unreliable (as Charles avers), the notion that Ardashir had no elephants at all cannot be so singularly dismissed. According to Azari, ‘after his conquests of Khorasan, Khwarezm, Central Asia and Turan, Ardashir I entered northwest India and conquered the Punjab. As Ardashir advanced further he was given gifts of jewels, gold, and a large number of elephants by Junah [a local king].’ Perhaps early Sassanian armies in the third century possessed elephants with the proviso that (1) these were not available in the numbers claimed by the Historia Augusta, and (2) elephants may not have been deployed against Rome as claimed by the Historia Augusta. Support for the latter assumptions is found in Herodian (6.5.1–6.6.6) and Zonaras (12.15), neither of which mention Sassanian elephants being used in battle against Alexander Severus. Nevertheless, more research is required regarding the use of war elephants by the Sassanians in the third century as the Classical sources alone fail to settle the issue. The Islamic-era historian al-Tabari (citing the poet Amr bin Ilah), for example, writes of the fall of Hatra (cited as al-Hadr) to Shapur, which occurred in 240 CE, by stating that ‘Sabur [Shapur I] . . . attacked them [the Hatrenes] with war elephants.’ Interestingly, the Shahname reports that Ardashir I not only deployed battle elephants but that he placed these in the front line, which contradicts other reports of how these elephants were deployed by the spah.

Shapur II’s battle elephants. It is clear that Shapur II (r. 309–379 CE) not only possessed elephants but also deployed these in battle against the Romans. The Orationes of Libanius asserts that Shapur II ‘had acquired a stock of elephants, not just for display but to meet the needs of the future.’ Shapur II put his battle elephants to use in his siege of Nisibis in c. 337 CE, the year in which Emperor Constantine the Great (r. 306–337 CE) died. As noted by Theodoret, ‘Shapur used as many elephants that he could muster’ to prosecute the siege of Nisibis. Interestingly, as claimed by Theodoret, Nisibis’ defenders resorted to sending swarms of gnats to attack the trunks of the Sassanian elephants! The new Roman emperor, Constantius II (r. 324–361 CE; co-Augustus 337–350 CE) arrived at a settlement with Shapur II, which led to a temporary cessation of hostilities. Shapur and his battle elephants returned to resume the siege of Nisibis for the second time in 346 CE.

Elephants were again used by Shapur II in yet another siege of Nisibis in 350 CE. In reference to the latter event, Julian’s encomium of his cousin Constantius II declares of Sassanian battle elephants that they ‘came from India and carried iron towers full of archers’. The elephant’s high platform afforded Sassanian archers a key advantage in the delivery of precise and damaging archery. The sources also note that these elephants, acting in concert with the savaran knights, were deployed against Nisibis’ formidable walls. These describe the elephants moving in concert with armoured infantry or ‘hoplites’ who were then used to press on the attack after the savaran had been repelled with heavy losses. Interestingly, Roman sources also report of Sassanian elephants being armoured, yet these also were repelled by Nisibis’ missiles.

Sassanian battle elephants are described by Amminaus Marcellinus, a Greco-Roman warrior-historian who also partook in the battles against Shapur II. Marcellinus describes Shapur II’s 359 CE siege of Amida (modern-day Diyarbakr, Turkey) as thus: ‘With them [Sassanian army], making a lofty show, slowly marched the lines of elephants, frightful with their wrinkled bodies and loaded with armed men, a hideous spectacle, dreadful beyond every form of horror, as I have often declared.’ Shapur II captured Amida but losses to his elephants were heavy. Despite their frightening appearance, the elephants at Amida were successfully repelled by Roman forces utilizing burning torches. As noted by Azari, the siege of Amida resulted in heavy losses for the Sassanian army, with the elephants proving ineffectual during the siege.

Julian’s invasion of Sassanian Persia in 363 also witnessed the deployment of Sassanian battle elephants. The first battle in which Julian’s forces encountered the beasts was at Coche. Sassanian tactics are of interest as the heavily armoured savaran are placed at the front, followed by lightly-armoured infantry behind them with the elephants situated behind the infantry. Perhaps the elephants served a sort of ‘reserve’ option in case the savaran and infantry failed against the Romans. If this were the function, then these certainly failed as Julian is described as having defeated the Sassanians, who had no recourse but to flee to the safety of the walls of Ctesiphon. Shapur II’s elephants did little to hold the Sassanian lines against Julian’s advance, which resulted in very heavy Sassanian casualties. One theory is that the elephants may have possibly served as the Sassanian army’s baggage train. In later battles Ammianus does describe ‘gleaming elephants ’, most likely referring to the gleaming armour of the beasts. These however are not generally described as forming direct frontal attacks against Roman forces during set-piece battles. As Julian advanced deeper into Sassanian territory the Sassanian spah abandoned set-piece battles in favour of rapid lightning strikes against the advancing Roman forces. It was during one of these attacks when the savaran struck at the rear of Julian’s column. As Julian rushed to intervene against the attacking Sassanians to the rear, the centre of the Roman lines came under attack by the savaran supported by elephants. The Romans succeeded in driving off the elephants at first but when Julian was critically struck by a spear the elephants returned to the theatre. Following Julian’s death, Jovian, who was elected as the new emperor, assumed command. Apparently emboldened by the withdrawal of Roman forces from Iranian territory, the Sassanians launched a frontal attack against Roman forces followed by the thrusts of the savaran.

What is interesting in the Jovian engagement is the application of the elephant savaran doctrine of attacks. In this scenario, the elephants attack first, being apparently employed as a shock arm to cause dislocation and disarray among enemy forces. The savaran would then follow up with the intent of breaking through the Roman ranks. The main focus of these attacks was directed against Roman infantry rather than cavalry. This doctrine, however, appears to have been only applied during rapid-strike attacks rather than regular set-piece battles in 363.

Elephant warfare from Yazdegird II to Khosrow II. Elephants certainly remained within the Sassanian battle order after the long reign of Shapur II. The late Major-General Gholam-Hussein Moghtader notes of the Sassanian elephant corps that ‘the numbers of elephants during . . . the Sassanian era ranged from 200–700 . . . the Iranians were so impressed with the elephant that these would also be deployed in battles in mountainous regions obliging them in these situations to build/pave suitable roads . . . elephants were also used to besiege cities.’ Moghtader’s reference to elephants in mountain warfare refers to Sassanian military operations in the Caucasus. Referring to the works of the Armenian epic histories written in the late fifth century, the late Said Nafisi noted that ‘the elephants imported from India formed a reserve force in the [Sassanian] army with this animal causing fear in the Roman army . . . tall towers were built and placed upon the elephants; these [towers] would then be occupied by armed troops . . . these [towers] were also decorated with many banners . . . these elephants with towers would be placed to the rear of the main force to act as its guardian.’ Nafisi is referring to the role of the elephant corps acting as a kind of reserve force and probably to also help bolster morale among frontline troops (cavalry, infantry and archers). The main issue with the epic histories, however, is that it is not possible to chronologically ascertain specific events/battles as cited by the document.

Yazdegird II (r. 438–457 CE) certainly deployed battle elephants against anti-Zoroastrian Armenian forces at the Battle of Avaryr or Vartanantz (451 CE). A medieval Armenian painting of the battle depicts Sassanian battle elephants being ridden by archers and infantry. These are situated to the left of the painting. According to Armenian art historian, Vrek Nersessian, these troops represent the Sassanian Javidian or ‘Immortals’. The elephants are shown advancing very closely together with no gaps between them, as if these formed a sort of mobile wall. Also notable in the painting is the illustration of the ‘seat’ of the Sassanian troops atop the elephants. The seat is not shown with any walled protection (or indeed any protection), which would imply that the Sassanian troops atop the elephants are vulnerable to Armenian missiles. The Sassanian troops (archers and infantry) are shown wearing helmets and armoured suits stretching just below the knees. The elephant-borne archers are also shown firing a volley of missiles against the Armenian knights. While it is not clear to what extent these elephants were in the battle, the Armenian portrayal implies that either (1) they played an important role, or that (2) their portrayal was meant to distinguish the Armenian ‘cavalry only’ naxarar knights versus their savaran counterparts, whose elite units were riding elephants.

Martial feats involving elephants cite the legendary Iranian king Bahram Gur (420–438 CE), who is known for several of his daring exploits. One of Bahram’s feats involves the slaying of a dangerous rampaging elephant in India. Tabari describes Bahram as having first shot an arrow between the eyes of the beast, then, after forcing it down by pulling its trunk, finished off the animal by severing its head with a sword.

A major military encounter involving elephants in Central Asia against the Hephthalites in 484 CE ended in disaster and the death of Sassanian King Pirouz (r. 459–484 CE). The number of elephants in that debacle is variously estimated at 50 to 500 beasts. The Hephthalite leader, Kushnavaz, led the Sassanian army into a huge camouflaged ditch set with deadly traps, resulting in the destruction of the bulk of the savaran, infantry and battle elephants

On rare occasions, elephants are sometimes seen among the Sassanian’s non-Roman enemies. One example is the case of the Sassanian expeditionary force in Yemen, which had been dispatched there by Khosrow I Anushirvan (531–579). The leader of the Sassanian force, Vahriz, confronted the Abbysinian occupier of Yemen, Masrooq bin Abraha, who is described as having sat on an elephant. Khosrow I deployed battle elephants during his battles against the Byzantines, especially during the siege of Edessa in 543 CE. He also dispatched battle elephants into the Caucasus during his battles with the Byzantines for control of Lazica in 551 CE.145

The late Sassanian armies of Khosrow II (r. 591–628) also utilized battle elephants as he thrust towards Dara in late 603, which fell to him after a nine-month siege in 604. In the second of three battles for Dara after the siege, Byzantine sources report of Khosrow having ‘put together a fort with his elephants’. Perhaps this was in reference to Sassanian elephants moving very closely together (as at Avaryr in 451), these then resembling a moving fort of armoured elephants featuring turrets with archers. When the tide of war turned in Byzantium’s favour by 627 CE with the forces of Emperor Heraclius thrusting into Sassanian Mesopotamia, elephants were deployed as part of the Sassanian defence.

Elephants during the Arabo-Islamic invasions (637–651 CE). Arabo-Islamic sources provide extensive reference to Sassanian battle elephants, especially in the context of the Arabo-Islamic invasion of Iran in 637–651 CE. One of the first major battles fought between the Arabs and the spah was the Battle of the Bridges. The Arabs led by Abu Ubeidah Taghti had crossed the Euphrates. Facing the Arabs was General Bahram, who deployed a force of armoured savaran knights and battle elephants. According to Masoudi, ‘the Arabs witnessed weaponized elephants and had never seen any phenomenon such as this . . . they all fled and most of them died by the sword and even more by drowning in the Euphrates’.

Bahram’s elephants appear to have acted as ‘super-panzers’ that also doubled as missile platforms for Sassanian archers. Taghti’s Arabs soon gave way to the combined savaran-elephant thrusts. It would appear that Bahram had reacted quickly against Abu Ubeidah by not allowing his Arabs time to properly organize after landing on the eastern (Sassanian-held) side of the Euphrates. Rapid charges by the lance-armed savaran accompanied by war elephants (whose archers discharged volleys of missiles) had undermined the cohesion of Taghti’s forces. Taghti himself was killed fighting a Sassanian battle elephant. According to the Futuh ol Boldan, Taghti had gotten close to the elephant and struck with his sword at its trunk and foot; the elephant then crushed Taghti by trampling him under its feet. The death of Taghti proved too much for the Arabs. Proving unable to resist the savaran-elephant assaults, they were now forced to flee back to the western side of the Euphrates River. Arab losses are described as 1,000 killed, 3,000 drowned (during the retreat across the Euphrates), and 2,000 deserters, leaving just 3,000 men to retreat.

The four-day battle of Qadissiyah, which essentially sealed the fate of Sassanian and pre-Islamic Persia, witnessed a significant deployment of battle elephants by the spah. Tabari reports that the Sassanian general Rustam Farrokhzad deployed a total of thirty battle elephants during the battle. Masoudi’s descriptions of Rustam’s elephants state that ‘these were placed at the front . . . upon each elephant was seated 20 of their warriors with armour and horned helmets . . . around each elephant stood infantry, cavalry, and warriors’. This description conveys the impression of a ‘strike group’ not unlike the US Navy’s Second World War carrier-based strike groups in the Pacific theatre, in which aircraft carriers would be escorted by battleships, cruisers, etc. Rustam’s battle elephants were now protected by infantry and savaran. Interestingly, the infantry (most likely Dailamites) were entrusted with close-quarter combat duties, in case Arab troops attempted to close in on the elephants. Warriors aboard the elephants would be tasked with discharging their missiles at the Arabs from their elevated platform. Perhaps most significant is how (as per Massoudi’s description), the elephants were ‘placed at the front’, indicating a major doctrinal shift from the Sassanian spah’s doctrine of elephant warfare from the time of Shapur II. As noted previously, elephants would be placed to the rear of the main army, with these being used in combination with the savaran in rapid hit-and-withdraw strike packages. Rustam was now wielding his battle elephants as part of his primary strike forces against the Muslim Arabs. Nevertheless, not all thirty elephants were part of the strike package, as Masoudi cites only seventeen of the animals being employed in this fashion.

The Arabs led by Saad Bin Ebi Waqqas, however, had absorbed the lessons of their defeat at the battle of the bridges. At first, the presence of the elephants did cause consternation among the Arab cavalry. Ibn Khaldun writes that ‘the sight of the mountain-sized elephants caused the Arab horses to flee, forcing the Arabs to dismount their horses to fight.’ Numbers of these Arab troops closed in to engage and overcome the escorting infantry of the elephants. This then allowed them to get close to the elephants and tear their girths. As the elephants collapsed, the Arabs quickly killed the archers and warriors who sat atop the creatures. The Arabs devised other ingenious ways to disable Rustam’s elephants. One of Waqqas’ commanders, Ghagha bin Amr, who had arrived from Syria by the third day of the battle, thrust his spear into the eye of a white elephant, a tactic which was quickly adopted by the other Arab warriors on the battlefield. In practice, bin Amr was most likely accompanied by ex-Byzantine spearmen who knew of this tactic due to Byzantium’s past wars with the Sassanians. Yet another tactic against the elephants was offered by anti-Zoroastrian deserters of Rustam’s spah. These informed Waqqas’ Arabs of tactics for striking at the elephants’ trunks. These tactics proved immensely effective as numbers of the stricken elephants panicked and ran amuck within the Sassanian ranks. In response to this disaster, Ibn Khaldun further records that ‘the Iranians were now determined to withdraw their elephants from the battlefield.’ According to one legend, Rustam was killed by an elephant which fell over him in the fourth and final day of the battle. There are in fact several varying accounts of Rustam’s death at Qadissiyah. Another account claims that an elephant (or mule) laden with sacks of treasure fell on the unfortunate Rustam, severely injuring his arm, which allowed an Arab warrior to kill him.

Elephants as symbols of regal splendour: the case of Khosrow II. Khosrow II is well known for his love of elephants. Masoudi writes that 1,000 elephants were housed in the royal stables, while the author of the Zein ol Akhbar claims that the king kept 1,200 of the animals. So fond was Khosrow II of his elephants that he is reputed to have lamented that ‘if only the elephant were not Indian but Iranian instead’. The regal aspect of the Sassanian elephant is perhaps best immortalized at Tagh-e Bostan in western Iran where a panel depicts the royal hunt. Clearly visible in the panel are elephants that accompany the royal hunt retinue, with the beasts carrying boars recently killed during the hunt. Interestingly, the elephants also seem to combine with the trumpeters and knights in driving the herd of boars ahead of them.

The splendour of late Sassanian battle elephants was evidently appreciated by Khosrow II’s opponent and ultimate nemesis, Emperor Heraclius (r. 610– 641 CE). According to the Chronicle of Seert, Heraclius may have dreamt of Khosrow II as a warrior riding an elephant!

Strengths and weaknesses. The most potent asset of the battle elephant is perhaps psychological: its size, strength and appearance could certainly inspire dread among troops and cavalry unaccustomed to elephant warfare. The elephant’s thick hide provides a great amount of protection against most types of conventional archery and blade weapons. The elephant’s height certainly afforded Sassanian archers an excellent platform to shoot missiles onto their battlefield adversaries. But the raised position could also be an Achilles heel, as the archers and soldiers atop the elephant were themselves highly visible as targets of opportunity and vulnerable to missiles.

The elephant is also a formidable beast to control in battle. When sensing mortal danger, it has the potential to run amuck against its own armies. Exactly such a scenario is reported at the third siege of Nisibis in 350 CE. During this operation the Sassanians mounted a determined attack with their elephants against the walls of the city. The elephants then ran into soft, muddy earth as a result of the siege operations. Many of the beasts then sank into the soft terrain, which spread panic among the other surviving beasts. Instead of pressing on with the attack, these Sassanian elephants turned around to run amuck within the Sassanian ranks, crushing large numbers of troops in the process. Interestingly, nearly fourteen centuries later, Indian battle elephants of Moghul Mohammad Shah were to about-face and crush their own troops in response to the stratagems of the Iranian warlord, Nader Shah (r. 1735–1747) during the battle of Karnal.

The Sassanians certainly learned quickly from their elephant disaster at Nisibis. They later (especially during Julian’s 363 CE invasion) took the precautionary measure of placing a mahout armed with a handle fastened to his right hand. The knife would be deployed to slay the elephant by severing its vertebrae in case the beast went out of control.

Another weakness of Sassanian battle elephants was the spah’s lack of effective tactics for countering determined and experienced enemy infantry that managed to get close to the beasts. While escorting Dailamite infantry and savaran were certainly formidable, elephants were highly vulnerable if the protecting troops were overcome. As noted previously, the Arabs devised three stratagems to eliminate the Sassanian elephant threat on the battlefield: (1) launching spears into the exposed eyes of the beasts; (2) attacking their vulnerable underbellies; and (3) severing the straps of the cabs ferrying Sassanian troops, resulting in the latter spilling to the ground.

A final note of trivia in this discussion is the use of the Persian term fil (from Middle Persian: pil, elephant) for the position of bishop in shatranj, the Persian term for chess. Interestingly, the same is true in Indian chess where the term fil is also used for Bishop.