First Contact: Rome and Carthage

Rome’s war against that infamous Hellenistic condottiere King Pyrrhus of Epirus in 280 to 275 that finally brought Rome fully into the purview of Hellenistic international relations. Pyrrhus at the battle of Ausculum.

The Carthaginians had commercial interests in Etruria (low-cost iron and copper) and had combined with the Etruscans to challenge the Greeks of Massalia (Latin Massilia, modern Marseilles) in a naval engagement off Corsica in 535 BC, thereby preventing them from establishing themselves at Alalia (Aleria) on the east coast of the island. This was also the end of the Greek dream of tapping into the Iberian copper and silver trade, with the river the Greeks knew as the Iber (Latin Iberus, modern Ebro) becoming the effective dividing line between Carthaginian and Greek (i.e. Massiliote) spheres. Archaeological excavations in a sanctuary at Pyrgi (Santa Severa), the port of the Etruscan city of Caere, have uncovered three gold plaques inscribed, two in Etruscan and one in Punic, with a dedication made to the Semitic mother-goddess Astarte and her Etruscan equivalent, Uni, by the ruler of Caere. They can be dated early in the fifth century BC.

This evidence gives us the context for the first of three treaties made between Rome and Carthage before the First Punic War. Dated, according to Polybios, to the beginning of the Republic and twenty-eight years before Xerxes’ invasion of Greece (i.e. 508 BC), our Greek historian had difficulty reading this fascinating document on which he found the date because of its archaic Latin, which ‘differs from the modern so much that it can only partially be made out’. To the best of his understanding it said the Romans and their allies must not sail beyond the Fair Promontory unless forced to do so by storm or by enemies, and that they must follow certain regulations if they want to trade in Africa or Sardinia, though not with Carthaginian Sicily, where they enjoyed equal rights with others. The Carthaginians, for their part, agreed not to injure any Latin community or to establish a fort in Latin territory. Polybios tells us that the Fair Promontory, Pulchri Promontorium to the Romans, was on the African coast, lying ‘immediately to the front of Carthage to the north’, in other words the modern Cap Farina or Rass Sidi Ali el Mekki, the western horn flanking the Gulf of Tunis, the eastern one being Cap Bon or Rass Adder, the ancient Hermaia Promontory.

Polybios says the treaty names praetors but neither a king nor two consuls, while the spheres of influence defined for both Carthage and Rome only fit this period (viz. the first years of the Republic) and Carthaginian interest in the area has been confirmed by the Pyrgi inscriptions. So the treaty of 508 BC was precisely drawn up to delimit the sphere of commercial activities of the Romans, who were excluded from trading along the African coast west of Carthage. More important, the actual conditions of the treaty give us a vivid glimpse into the way that the Carthaginians tried to exercise economic control in the western Mediterranean.

In 348 BC the Romans and their allies made a second treaty with Carthage and its allies, also reported but not dated by Polybios. The terms of this treaty bound both sides not to harm the friends or allies of either, and again regulated the circumstances in which the Romans could trade in Carthaginian territory, but also adds southern Iberia to the original exclusion zone. The Romans are also prevented from marauding along the North African coast, implying those Phoenician cities such as Utica was now within the Carthaginian sphere, and if the Carthaginians capture any city in Latium, which is not subject to Rome, they may keep the captives and the booty, but must hand over the city. The advantage in the treaty again seems to lie with Carthage as the dominant power.

All this time the real enemies of the Carthaginians were the Greeks, and the real reason for this, as we shall soon discover, is not difficult to appreciate, namely the island of Sicily. A third and final treaty reported by Polybios was made at the time of the Pyrrhic War (280-275 BC) and ‘before the Carthaginians had begun their war for Sicily’. This probably places the signing of the treaty after Pyrrhus’ two victories at Herakleia (280 BC) and Asculum (279 BC) when the Carthaginians must have feared that the ‘elephant king’ would cross to Sicily, as he would in the following year when he would almost drive them out of the island. In the treaty both sides confirmed their previous agreements, and added that if they should make an alliance against Pyrrhus each side shall provide help to the other, the Carthaginians especially by sea. The chief interest of the treaty, from our point of view, is the total lack of Roman naval forces it implies. This situation continued until the outbreak of the First Punic War.

So in 279 BC relations between Rome and Carthage (more friends than rivals) were reasonably good, albeit under a common threat. But following Pyrrhus’ withdrawal from Italy after his defeat at Malventum (275 BC), the Romans planted two Latin colonies, Cosa and Paestum, on the west coast of the peninsula (273 BC). Was Rome afraid of Carthaginian seapower? To return to the third treaty, according to Justin, the Carthaginians despatched one Mago with 120 ships (Valerius Maximus says 130) to aid the Romans, but the Senate, while expressing their thanks, rejected the aid, whereupon Mago sailed away to negotiate with Pyrrhus6 This treaty between Carthage and Rome would thus appear to have been negotiated after these events; ‘perhaps’, as Lazenby says, ‘after Pyrrhus had rejected some offer by Mago’. It appears Mago had made his point. The 120 warships could be thrown into either scale.

North from Carthage, across 140km of water, lay the triangular-shaped island of Sicily, the key to the western Mediterranean as it commanded the narrow sea between the toe of Italy and the northernmost tip of the North African coast. Initially, Carthage had not been strong enough nor even interested in acquiring the island, despite its good harbours and its fecundity. To quote Thucydides on the pre-Greek settlers of Sicily:

There were also Phoenicians living all around Sicily. The Phoenicians occupied the headlands and small islands off the coast and used them as posts for trading with the Sicels. But when the Greeks began to come in by sea in great numbers, the Phoenicians abandoned most of their settlements and concentrated on the towns of Motya, Soleis, and Panormus, where they lived together in the neighbourhood of the Elymi, partly because they relied on their alliance with the Elymi, partly because from here the voyage from Sicily to Carthage is shortest.

From his account, despite its brevity, we learn that the early Phoenician traders in Sicily were not forcibly driven to the western end of the island by an advancing tide of Greek colonists, as some scholars have held, but merely abandoned what were no more than trading stations. The value and accuracy of Thucydides’ passage, in the light of archaeological discoveries, has become increasingly evident.

However, sometime after 580 BC, Carthage was finally enticed into what would become troubled waters for it. As we have discussed elsewhere, the first Carthaginian army to land in Sicily was possibly under a general named Malchus. Anyway, whatever he did or did not achieve there, for the first hundred years Carthage was happy to maintain a low-key approach to Sicily, but the year 480 BC saw its first large-scale attempt at imperial expansion. Gelon, tyrant of Syracuse, was making moves to unite the island under his military leadership, and in doing so was menacing the Phoenician inhabitants of the south and west. Carthage responded, and despatched an expeditionary force under Hamilcar, son of Hanno, to meet this threat. In fact the Carthaginian armada was so formidable that contemporaries compared it with the host of Xerxes then being marshalled in the east. It was to suffer a similar fate. Hamilcar landed at the Punic city of Panormus (Palermo), only to be resoundingly defeated by Gelon near Himera on, it is said, the same day as the Persians were licked at Salamis.

So great was the loss for Carthage at Himera (Hamilcar himself had died fighting), it seems to go into a decline over the next few decades. The war was ended by this one blow. Carthage sued for peace, paid a large indemnity, and in the event, despite consistent rumours of invasions, left Sicily alone for seventy years. Meantime back home, the ruling Magonid dynasty was ousted from the executive and the aristocracy seized power. Relations with sub-Saharan Africa were strengthened, a region known for its gold-bearing rivers, and, most especially, Carthage fell back on the flat, fertile seaboard of North Africa, taking over a vast surrounding area for livestock-raising and fruit groves.

In 409 BC, however, Carthage had recovered enough to intervene once more in Sicilian affairs. Under Hannibal, grandson of Hamilcar, a Carthaginian punitive force was successful in capturing Selinous (Selinunte) while the Greek relieving force was still at the stage of preparation. Next Hannibal broke into Himera, and having destroyed the city and slaughtered 3,000 Greek captives at the scene of his grandfather’s death, took his army home to Carthage laden with much booty. The principal foe, Syracuse, was however still untouched, and three years later, a second Carthaginian expedition, again led by Hannibal, landed on the island to spread terror anew through the Greek cities. The Carthaginians, however, soon found themselves dogged by ill fortune. A ‘plague’ decimated their ranks, even killing Hannibal as his besieging army lay rotting below the walls of Akragas (Latin Agrigentum, modern Agrigento). Although his successor, Himilco, son of Hanno, succeeded in capturing both that wealthy city and Gela and defeating a Syracusan relief attempt, a return of the pestilence left his command so weakened that in 405 BC he signed a peace accord with Dionysios of Syracuse. The newly established tyrant was more than happy for the respite. Equally contented with the outcome, Himilco sailed back to Carthage with the survivors of his anaemic army.

Seven years later Dionysios felt strong enough to renew hostilities with Carthage. The war was popular, and the Greeks began it with a massacre of all the Carthaginians and Phoenicians in their cities. Dionysios secured Greek Sicily and, the following year, marched on the Punic stronghold of Motya (Mozia). This well walled offshore island fell with the help of a formidable array of siege machinery, including recently invented non-torsion catapults. But this sparked off a new Carthaginian effort, in which Himilco not only retook Motya but also sacked Messina on the other side of the island and finally, after a decisive naval victory, drove Dionysios back to face a siege in Syracuse itself. This expedition, however, also ended in a complete disease-ridden disaster and the loss of the entire army, which in turn sparked off a revolt by Carthage’s African subjects.

An agreed frontier was drawn up between the two spheres and an uneasy truce was to last over the next half century. But by now Sicily was an obsession. The astonishing seesaw continued when a third major attempt at its conquest was launched in 341 BC, and once again it ended in disaster and defeat. Yet despite this, the lack of unity amongst the Sicilian Greeks enabled Carthage to hold tight the extreme western end of the island. ‘No land was more productive of tyrants than Sicily’, wrote Justin, and it is generally agreed amongst modern commentators that the Sicilian tyrannies owed their outmoded existence at least in part to the need of a strong hand and central control against the Carthaginians. Nonetheless, after the breakdown in the second generation of the tyranny established by Dionysios, the Corinthian Timoleon sought to purge the island of its larger-than-life warlords and their roughneck private armies, and revive the autonomy of the Greek city states. But though he was successful in beating the Carthaginians more decisively than they had been since Gelon’s time, no long-term political stability was achieved for the war weary island. The liberty Timoleon offered was liberty in the old city-state style, and Greek Sicily had no longer the vitality to make use of it. Tyranny reappeared on the island.

In 311 BC Agathokles, whose dream was the complete unification of Sicily under thef aegis of Syracuse, attacked the last of these Punic possessions, but was heavily defeated and driven all the way back to Syracuse, most of the island falling into Carthaginian hands. In an act of sheer desperation, though others would argue this was true strategic insight, the tyrant loaded 14,000 troops, mercenaries mostly, onto 60 ships, slipped out of the harbour, and set course for Africa, hoping by this bold counterstroke to save the situation. In this he was successful. Having literally burnt his boats, he defeated a Carthaginian army, conscripted in haste, which stood against him and thus was able to move at will through the fertile countryside and the undefended cities. Thence caught on the back foot, Carthage had to recall troops from Sicily to deal with the invader. However, Agathokles failed to take well-walled Carthage itself and eventually peace was made in 307 BC, which left the Carthaginians in control of most of western and southern Sicily. Although Agathokles’ daring African expedition failed, later it was to influence the Romans in the Punic wars.

Carthage had one more foe to face before the curtain went up on the struggle with Rome. In 280 BC the Italian-Greek city of Taras (Latin Tarentum, modern Taranto), under threat from the Romans, had called in Pyrrhus of Epeiros, an outstanding mercenary warrior-king, to assist them. His first bloody victory over Roman troops was near Taras’ colony, Herakleia, after which he dashed northwards to Rome and sent his trusted diplomat Kineas to extend terms to the Senate. He offered to restore all prisoners and to end the war, if the Romans would make peace with Taras, grant autonomy to the Italian Greeks, and return all territory taken from the Samnites and Lucanians, Oscan peoples recently conquered by Rome. These terms would have severely limited the spread of Roman involvement in the south and have created a Tarentine supremacy there. He was refused bluntly and sent packing by the Senate, and he was said to have reported to his king that Rome was like a many-headed monster whose armies would keep on being replenished. If this was true, then Kineas, erstwhile pupil of the great Athenian orator and democrat Demosthenes, was a shrewd judge of Roman manpower.

After this refusal Pyrrhus won a second bloody victory at Asculum, a ferocious two-day engagement, in which his elephants of war played a major role. Each one carried a tower, or howdah, strapped to its back as a fighting platform protecting two men armed with javelins. This is our first reliable reference to the howdah, and Pyrrhus may have invented it. In any event, only when a heroic (or foolhardy) legionary hacked off the trunk of one elephant were the Romans said to have realized that ‘the monsters were mortal’. Nonetheless, they still terrified the enemy cavalry. Once again, the casualties on both sides were heavy. ‘Another such victory’, Pyrrhus is said to have remarked, ‘and we shall be lost’, whence our saying ‘a Pyrrhic victory’ for any success bought at too high a price. As was becoming painfully clear, the Romans could afford such losses better than Pyrrhus could, as they had much of Italy from which to recruit, whereas the highly skilled professionals of Pyrrhus’ Macedonian-style phalanx were irreplaceable.

In 278 BC Pyrrhus faced a choice: either to turn to Macedonia, where recent events gave him hope of the throne there, or else to Sicily, in keeping with his former marriage to a Syracusan princess, none other than the daughter of Agathokles, Lanassa. While continuing to protect Taras, he chose to go south to Sicily where he now promised ‘freedom’ from the Carthaginians, who had high hopes of winning the whole of the island. For three years he showed no more commitment to real freedom than any true Hellenistic king and failed in his hopes. The plans of Carthage were indeed thwarted, the Carthaginians having been swept out from the island except for the one stronghold Lilybaeum (Marsala), but the autocratic Pyrrhus overstayed his welcome, and his Sicilian-Greek supporters, who were no keener to surrender their freedom to Pyrrhus than to Carthage, turned against him. On his return voyage to Italy he lost several of his precious elephants when he was soundly trounced by the Carthaginian navy, losing 70 out of his 110 ships, and he failed to win the third crucial encounter against the Romans at Malventum. So Pyrrhus left a substantial garrison at Taras and sailed back across the Adriatic.

In the meantime the status quo in Sicily was restored, and the Carthaginians and Greeks were once again at each other’s throats, oblivious to the world around. Pyrrhus’ meteoric career there had prevented it from becoming a Carthaginian province, and on his departure he is said to have described the island as the ‘future wrestling-ground for Rome and Carthage’. At first, Rome and Carthage had reasserted their old alliances in the face of the new invader. But within a dozen years they would be locked in war, as Pyrrhus predicted. On and off, it was to last for more than six decades. As for Taras, its days of freedom were to be over. Three years after Malventum, in 272 BC, the Romans took control of troublesome Taras, allowing the garrison that Pyrrhus had left there to withdraw on honourable terms. Definitely crushed, its territory was confiscated and made ager publicus, state land. The plunder of Taras, according to the Hadrianic author and poet Florus, was enormous and its acquisition would be a turning point in the Republic’s history:

So rich a spoil was gathered from so many wealthy races that Rome could not contain the fruits of her victory. Scarcely ever did a fairer or more glorious triumph enter the city. Up to that time the only spoils that you could have seen were the cattle of the Volsci, the chariots of the Gauls, the broken arms of the Samnites; now if you looked at the captives they were Molossians, Thessalians, Macedonians

[i.e. soldiers from Pyrrhus’ army who had remained in Taras]

, Bruttians, Apulians and Lucanians [i.e. Italic peoples and Italian Greeks]; if you look upon the procession, you saw gold, purple, statues, pictures and all the luxury of Taras. But upon nothing did the Roman people look with greater pleasure than upon those huge beasts [i.e. Pyrrhus’ elephants], which they had feared so much, with towers upon their backs, now following the horses [i.e. Roman citizen cavalry], which had vanquished them, with their heads bowed low, not wholly unconscious that they were prisoners.

With the taking and sacking of Taras, continues the baroque Florus, ‘all Italy enjoyed peace’. Peace, however, would be short lived, as the Romans soon afterwards occupied Rhegion (Reggio di Calabria) on the straits of Messina, opposite Sicily. As fate would have it, the rival powers of Rome and Carthage were now face to face and about to cross swords.


The restless career of Pyrrhus of Epeiros epitomizes the age of Alexander’s Successors. In spring 280 BC the king crossed into Italy and confronted the Romans for the first time with first-class professional soldiers who had been trained in the world-conquering tactics of Alexander the Great. He also brought another Hellenistic novelty: twenty war elephants.

But Pyrrhus was also a throwback; he was the last great rival of Homer’s heroes. Like his cousin Alexander, he matched himself with Achilles, his assumed ancestor, and set off to fight a new Trojan War against the Romans of ‘Trojan’ descent. The prince shone in the front line of battle in his ornamented armour and laurelled helmet. Yet he was no tinsel hero. He revelled in single combat and it is said that once, with a single swipe, he hacked a savage Mamertine mercenary in half. But he was not just a heroic hooligan either. He was the most famous general of his day He wrote a treatise on tactics and a set of personal memoirs, and was later admired for his siegecraft and diplomacy.

Nowadays, in the public imagination at least, it is Hannibal who is remembered as the celebrated user of pachyderms, probably first popularized as such when the embittered satirist Juvenal lampooned him as ‘the one-eyed commander perched on his gigantic beast!’ As we shall discover later, this is something of a paradox, since elephants figured only in his earliest victories, the Tagus (220 BC) and the Trebbia (218 BC), and then, damagingly, at Zama (202 BC). In point of fact, Pyrrhus deployed them in far more settings, including the Italian peninsula, throughout his full and eventful career. In the west, he, not Hannibal, is the true ‘Elephant King’, and it is interesting to note that the Carthaginian genius classed Pyrrhus as second only to Alexander in his hierarchy of top-flight generals. A similar sentiment was expressed by Antigonos Gonatas of Macedon, for when the king was asked who the best general of his day was, he replied, ‘Pyrrhus, if he lives to be old enough’ As Justin was to write later, ‘all Greece in admiration of his name and amazed at his achievements against the Romans and the Carthaginians was awaiting his return’ And return he did.

After Italy Pyrrhus ended up fighting first in Macedon, then in Sparta and Argos. In Macedon he replenished his elephants by a victory over Antigonos Gonatas, and then took them down to the Peloponnese. When Areus was chosen as king of Sparta, his uncle Kleonymos, who thought he had a better claim, went off to fight for Taras as a mercenary. Later, having seized Corcyra for himself, he signed on with the power most likely to help him to higher things, hence Pyrrhus’ invasion of the Peloponnese during the spring of 272 BC, but his attempt to place Kleonymos on the throne by force of arms failed. Later in the same year, while his stampeding elephants blocked the gates at Argos, he was knocked senseless by a roof-tile, apparently hurled from a housetop by the mother of an Argive he was trying to kill, and he toppled from his horse. In the confused street fighting, a soldier of Antigonos dragged him into a doorway and decapitated him. His head was brought to Antigonos, who was said to have rebuked its bearer, his son, and wept at the sight of the ashen visage. Pyrrhus’ head and trunk were soon reunited and cremated with full honours.



Late Minoan warrior, 1,700 – 1,450 BC.

Minoan soldiers parading captured Libyan enemies through the streets of Akrotiri, Thera.

A reconstruction of a padded Minoan helmet made of leather, linen, or felt.

A reconstruction of a Minoan crested boar tusk helmet, in purple and white. .

A Minoan charioteer in battle by Giuseppe Rava.

A reconstruction of the bronze helmet from Knossos.

A reconstruction of the Minoan finned helmet.

To judge from the available evidence, which is far from complete, the towns of bronze age Crete were not fortified. As yet no traces have been found of city walls or defensive towers at Knossos or at any of the other Minoan centres. We may be lulled by this into believing that life on Minoan Crete was entirely peaceful. In fact many of the sites were destroyed by burning and we have no way of knowing whether those fires were accidental, starting as a result of carelessness, or deliberate acts of arson by an enemy, or precipitated by a convulsive earthquake upsetting lamps and domestic hearths. The archaeological evidence is often ambiguous. On the other hand, destruction in about 1700 BC seems to have been very widespread and yet there was cultural continuity after the event: it seems much more likely that these destructions were the result of an earthquake rather than war or invasion.

Even so, we should not rule out the possibility – likelihood, even – of warfare between one Cretan city-state and another. It is known from documentation (e. g. Diodorus Siculus Book XVI and Polybius IX) that the Cretan city-states of the third and fourth centuries BC were at war with each other constantly, struggling for supremacy. Bitter fighting over long periods may leave no archaeological trace. We also know that the Minoans were equipped for war. Linear B tablets mention tunics reinforced with bronze, and the Minoans probably had their own version of the corslet, to judge from the tunic ideograms. Bronze helmets were made in eight pieces: four to make the conical crown with its mount for a horsehair or feathered plume, two cheek-pieces which hung down in front of the ears, and two other pieces which may have protected the back of the neck; one such helmet was found at Sanatorion near Knossos. Similarly shaped helmets were also made out of boar’s tusks, just as depicted in an ivory plaque of a warrior’s head from Arkhanes and as described by Homer on the Cretan hero Meriones. Asocket on the helmet’s crown was a mount for a crest or plume. Remains of a Minoan boar’s tusk helmet were found in a tomb at the Zafer Papoura cemetery at Knossos.

The Lion Hunt Dagger from Shaft Grave IV at Mycenae, dating to around 1550 and produced in Crete, shows three shield shapes: the figure-of-eight shape which appears in Knossian frescoes, rectangular and rectangular with a curved raised section on the top. These shields were light and made of cattle hides stretched over wooden frames, with at least one handle-strap on the back. The hair was left on the hides, presumably for the sake of the texture and pattern and perhaps also for totemic reasons. The lion hunters are shown with their shields hung over one shoulder, the handle-strap over their heads, to free both hands for spear-throwing. Shields are never mentioned on archive tablets, unlike other items of weaponry, which suggests that every man was allowed, and probably expected, to keep and maintain his own shield.

The Minoans had daggers and swords, some of them richly decorated. At Mallia a beautiful matching set of sword and dagger was found. The sword handle was covered in gold sheet decorated top and bottom with an incised herringbone design, the pommel being fashioned out of a large piece of rock crystal. Since the sword and dagger were found close to a ceremonial leopard-axe, it may be that all these weapons from the Mallia temple had a ceremonial rather than a military use. A pair of long, rapier-like swords with rounded hilts was also found in the Mallia temple, buried, perhaps as a deliberate foundation offering, below the latest paved floor in the northwest quarter. They are of a type which is known to have been in use by 1500 BC and which is also found in Mycenean shaft graves. One of the sword-hilts was richly decorated with a circular gold sheet showing a short-haired acrobat performing a somersault. It is possible that some of the acrobats performed gymnastic feats with swords, perhaps doing handstands and somersaults over swords planted point-upwards in the ground.

A plain and functional hilt on a short sword from the Zafer Papoura cemetery is interesting because of its laminated construction. The bronze of the blade and handguard continues through the centre of the hilt and pommel as a central layer, which must have given it far greater strength than some of the ornamental swords. Shaped ivory plates were riveted to each side of the bronze sheet to thicken the handle and make it comfortable to hold; additional pieces of bone were stuck on to the outside of the ivory plates to make the rounded shape of the pommel. Functional and tough, this may well have been a standard design for a ‘working’ sword.

One of the finest pieces of Minoan weaponry to have survived in Crete is the sword from the so-called Chieftain’s Tomb at Knossos. The sword hilt is superb, with a delicately worked detailed pattern covering the whole surface of the goldplated handle and a carefully turned piece of agate for a pommel.

The design consists of a lion hunting and bringing down a goat in a mountain landscape – a classic struggle scene – edged with a border of running spirals. Some very fine Minoan gold sword hilts were found at Mycenae. One clasped the top of the blade with two eagles’ heads, and the gold plate was patterned with scale-like depressions soldered to hold inlays of lapis lazuli.

Some of the Minoan daggers exported to mainland Greece and probably Anatolia had bronze blades decorated with inlays of gold and silver against a background of black niello. The Lion Hunt Dagger is the finest of these, with a scene on one side of five Minoan hunters facing a charging lion, while two other lions run away towards the dagger point. The hunters are armed with spears, shields and a bow. On the other side a lion seizes a gazelle, while four other gazelles escape. These superb Minoan daggers and swords were undoubtedly highly prized in the ancient world. A tablet found far away at Mari in Mesopotamia mentions a weapon adorned with lapis lazuli and gold and describes it as ‘Caphtorite’. The Egyptians called Crete ‘Kefti’, ‘Keftiu’ or ‘the land of the Keftiu’, while in the Near East Crete was known as ‘Caphtor’: it is as Caphtor that ancient Crete appears in the Old Testament. ‘Caphtorite’ clearly means ‘Cretan’. The similarity of the words ‘Caphtor’, ‘Caphtorite’ and ‘Keftiu’ strongly implies that the Minoans themselves used something like the word ‘Kaftor’ as a name for their homeland.

The Minoans used chariots in battle. The shape of their chariots is clearly shown in the ideogram for ‘chariot’ on the Linear B tablets. The Minoan chariot was the same as the Mycenean chariot depicted on a fresco at Pylos. It had a lightweight body, with sides and front possibly made of wickerwork or layers of hide on a wooden frame, and two simple four-spoked wheels mounted on a central axle. A wooden bar or frame extended forwards between the two ponies who drew the chariot along. It seems from the detailed descriptions of chariot spare-parts at Pylos as if the aristocracy had chariots equipped with special wheels; they are described as ‘Followers’ wheels’. Whether these had extra fittings such as silver inlays on the spokes or were painted a different colour is not known.

The earliest renderings of these very lightweight and probably fast war chariots appear on sealstones of the New Temple Period. Professor Stylianos Alexiou suggests that both the chariot and the horse were introduced from Egypt; they had been introduced to Egypt by the Hyksos kings who came from Asia, and contact between Hyksos Egypt and Knossos has been proved from other finds. Certainly the development of Minoan technology was in many ways stimulated by contacts with other cultures

Warfare in Ancient Mesopotamia and Egypt: The World’s First Armies

The almost constant warfare among the Sumerian city-states for 2,000 years spurred the development of military technology and technique far beyond any similar development found elsewhere in the Near East at that time. The first Sumerian war for which there is detailed evidence occurred between the states of Lagash and Umma in 2525 b. c. e. In this conflict Eannatum of Lagash defeated the king of Umma. The importance of this war to the military historian lies in a commemorative stele that Eannatum erected to celebrate his victory. This stele is called the “Stele of Vultures” for its portrayal of birds of prey and lions tearing at the flesh of the corpses as they lay on the desert plain. The stele represents the first important pictorial portrayal of war in the Sumerian period and portrays the king of Lagash leading an infantry phalanx of armored, helmeted warriors, armed with spears as they trample their enemies.

The rise of the world’s first civilizations in southern Mesopotamia and Egypt in the late fourth millennium bce also begins the history of organized warfare in western civilization. The creators of the first Mesopotamian civilization were the Sumerians, a people whose origins still remain unclear. By 3000 bce they had established a number of independent walled city-states in southern Mesopotamia, including the cities of Eridu, Ur, Uruk and Lagash. As the number of Sumerian city-states grew and expanded in the third millennium bce, new conflicts arose as city-states fought each other for control of local natural resources or united against the persistent threat of barbarian raiding and invasion.

With the rise of civilization and organized violence came the experimentation with metal alloys in a search for harder, more lethal materials to make weapons. As early as 6000 bce in Anatolia, Neolithic man experimented with copper tools and weapons. But it was not until the fourth millennium bce that tin was added to copper to produce a superior alloy, beginning the Bronze Age. Roughly contemporary to the rise of civilization in Mesopotamia, the Bronze Age made warfare a much more dangerous activity than it had been before in the neolithic period. From the back of their bronze-gilded war chariots, Mesopotamian kings and, later, Egyptian pharaohs made war and carved empires, bringing civilization to newly conquered regions.

The Sumerians are credited with inventing numerous military technologies, including the war chariot, bronze maces, sickle-swords, socket spears and axes, and the defensive technologies of copper and bronze helmets, armoured cloaks and bronze armour. Many of these weapons, such as the mace, spear and axe, were present in the pre-neolithic and neolithic periods as stone weapons, but the Sumerians improved their lethality by making them out of copper and, later, bronze. In response to the increased lethality of metal weapons, personal body armour was developed, made first out of leather, then copper and, later, bronze. By 2100 bce, bronze scale-armour had been developed, and by 1700 bce was widely used by Mesopotamian and, later, Egyptian armies.

The standard shock weapons in Sumerian armies were the long heavy spear, battleaxe and the dagger. The effectiveness of the heavy thrusting spear on the battlefields of Mesopotamia affected the tactical development of ancient armies more than any other weapon. If soldiers armed with the spear were to fight effectively in groups, they had to arrange themselves in close-order formation, giving rise to the first heavy-infantry battle-square in western civilization. Unfortunately, historians know very little about ancient Mesopotamian military formations and tactics because kings used writing to commemorate significant military victories, not the manner in which the battle was fought. Occasionally, the same events were recorded in pictorial form. The most impressive of these early illustrations of the Sumerian army at war is provided by the Stele of Vultures from the city-state of Lagash, dating from around 2500 bce.

The Stele of Vultures commemorates a victory of King Eannatum of Lagash over the king of Umma and takes its name from a section of the stele depicting a defeated enemy whose abandoned bodies are shown being picked at by vultures and lions. The battle scene shows the army at the moment of victory, marching over the bodies of their defeated and slain enemies. In the upper register the king leads a troop of heavy infantry, while in the lower register the king is shown riding in a four-wheeled battle chariot pulled by four onagers in the van of a troop of light infantry.

The Sumerian light infantryman is depicted without protective equipment and armed with a long spear in the left hand and a battleaxe in the right. It is not known whether these unarmoured light infantry used their spears for shock combat or as throwing weapons. The Sumerian heavy infantry are portrayed in formation, with the unnamed sculptor carving helmeted spearmen, organized six files deep with an eight-man front, with the front rank bearing large rectangular shields. What is interesting is the apparent standardized equipment and number of spears projecting between the shields. The common panoply and close order suggests that these soldiers were well trained, uniformed and equipped to fight as a corps, anticipating later Greek, Macedonian and Roman heavy infantry formations. Still, without corroborating textual evidence it is unknown whether this early battle square was a common battlefield formation, if it was capable of offensive articulation, or if it served primarily as a defensive formation.

Eventually, the Sumerian civilization would fall to the inventor of imperium, Sargon the Great, around 2340 bce (Map 1.1). During his fifty-year rule, the Akkadian king would fight no fewer than thirty-four military campaigns and carve out an empire that would include all of Mesopotamia, as well as lands westward to the Mediterranean, inspiring generations of Near Eastern rulers to emulate his accomplishment.

During the Sargonid period (c.2340–c.2100 bce) the Akkadians contributed another major innovation in weaponry: the composite bow. Although it is likely that the Sumerians utilized the simple bow in warfare, no textual or pictorial evidence exists to support this claim. The first evidence of the bow being used in collective warfare is found during the reign of Sargon’s grandson Naram Sin (2254–2218 bce), though it is possible that Sargon himself utilized the weapons in his own campaigns.

The impact of the composite bow on the battlefields of the Near East was significant. While the simple self-bow (a bow made of a single piece of wood) could kill at ranges from 50 to 100 yards, it could not penetrate even simple leather armour at these ranges. The composite bow, with a pull of at least twice that of a self-bow, could easily penetrate leather armour, and perhaps the bronze armour of the day. The reason for this increased performance was the unique construction of the bow. The composite bow was a recurve bow made of wood, horn and tendons from oxen, carefully laminated together to create a bow of superior strength, range and impact power.

Possibly invented on the Eurasian steppes and brought to the Akkadians by mercenary nomads, the composite bow quickly became an important asset on the battlefields of ancient Mesopotamia. Aiming against packed heavy-infantry formations, light infantry archers could fire withering barrages of arrows, causing gaps and tears and eroding the morale of the foot soldiers. Although we have no descriptions of Mesopotamian battles from the Bronze Age, it is safe to assume that the co-ordination of heavy infantry and light infantry archers working together on the battlefield represents a combined-arms tactical synthesis, perhaps the first in the history of western civilization.

Once created, the composite bow spread quickly to other armies over the next 500 years, appearing in Palestine around 1800 bce and introduced to Egypt and the Aegean region by 1600 bce. In New Kingdom Egypt (1567–1085 bce), the improved archer was placed in an improved war chariot, combining for the first time a powerful weapon with increased tactical mobility. Composite bow-wielding light infantry and cavalry would remain a persistent adversary to the heavy-infantry-based armies of western civilization for the next two-and-a half millennia (c.1000 bce–c.1500 ce).

Perhaps no other single military invention is as closely associated with the ancient period as the war chariot. The military application of the wheel came quite early in the development of civilization, with the first chariot integrated into Sumerian battle tactics around 3000 bce. These early chariots were either of the two- or four-wheeled variety, were manned by a crew of two, and were pulled by a team of four onagers. The wheels were constructed of solid wood sections held together by pegs, while the placement of the axle either in front or in the middle of the chariot itself made the Sumerian war chariot heavy and unstable at speed. The absence of a mouth bit made controlling the wild asses very difficult, and it is unlikely that these machines could have moved at more than 10 miles per hour.

Armed with javelins and axes, Sumerian charioteers used their weapons to deliver a shock attack, driving into opposing heavy infantry formations and scattering enemy footmen. The Sumerian machine, pulled by wild asses, was too heavy and cumbersome to offer effective pursuit. Still, the Sumerian chariot served as the prototype for wheeled shock combat for the next thousand years. In the early centuries of the second millennium bce, two different innovations appeared in significant conjuncture to create a superior chariot: the widespread use of the domesticated horse and the new technology of lightweight, bentwood construction.

Although horses were raised as food in central Asia as early as the fourth millennium bce, it was only in the second millennium bce that domesticated equines spread throughout Europe and the Near East. At first too small to be ridden as a cavalry mount, the even-tempered horse was originally used as a replacement for the onager, harnessed to chariots, usually in teams of four. The development of bentwood techniques allowed for the construction of the spoked wheel with a rim of curved felloes and the manufacture of lightweight chariot bodies. At the same time, the appearance of the horse bit improved the control of the animal teams at higher speeds. This lightweight chariot with spoked wheels drawn by teams of horses provided for the first time a fast, manoeuvrable chariot, one that could be used as a firing platform for composite-bow-wielding archers.

By the fifteenth century bce, the Egyptians had modified the chariot into the finest machine in the world. The Egyptian chariot was made entirely of wood and leather and was so light that two men could carry the body over rough terrain. The Egyptians improved the control, manoeuvrability and speed of the chariot by moving the axle to the very rear of the carrying platform. But manufacturing and maintaining a chariot corps was a very expensive endeavour, the prerogative of rich and powerful kingdoms. The chariots’ presence on the battlefield was supported by the complex logistics of horse breeding and training, a small army of wheelwrights and chariot builders, bowyers, metalsmiths and armourers, and the support teams on campaign who managed spare horses and repaired damaged vehicles. Moreover, the chariots’ position as the pre-eminent weapon system in ancient warfare required continued access to strategic materials, specifically the light and heavy woods required for bentwood construction. In the case of Egypt in the late Bronze Age and Assyria in the early Iron Age, this meant access to the famous cedars of Lebanon. It is no wonder why both of these empires expended so much effort maintaining their presence in Lebanon, the chief source of wood for the armies of the Near East.

How chariots were employed in battle in the late Bronze Age (c.1600–c.1100 bce) is a matter of some debate. One view holds that the Bronze Age kingdoms used war chariots as a thin screen for massed infantry formations, with chariots moving laterally across the front of their own infantry and the chariot archers shooting – at a right angle – their arrows against the enemy infantry. A second view suggests that chariots were held in reserve until the infantry engagement reached a decisive point. At this moment, commanders would commit their chariots and win the day.

A more recent interpretation has opposing chariot forces lining up in long, shallow formations, then hurtling toward each other as archers fired over their teams and into enemy chariot formations. As enemy horses were killed and wounded, chariots veered, slowed and eventually stopped. At this time, friendly infantry ‘runners’ would finish off enemy chariot crews whose machines had been immobilized. Infantry may have also served as a cordon, a haven for damaged chariots to return to after battle. Because there is no evidence for a clash of close-order infantry formations in late Bronze Age warfare, it is believed the infantry of the period was lightly armoured and unarticulated, and was most probably used in direct support of chariot charges, to fight in terrain unfavourable to chariot warfare and to garrison cities. During the Egyptian New Kingdom period these new chariots would help pharaohs carve an empire stretching from the Libyan Desert across the Sinai to the Orontes River in Syria.

Invaders from the Sea

The biggest threat to it and indeed to the whole Syrian and Levantine coast-and for that matter, to the southern Anatolian coast, Cyprus, and the Egyptian Delta-came from the sea. Throughout the Late Bronze Age, and in many earlier and later periods as well, the eastern Mediterranean was a dangerous place for travel. That was partly because of the natural hazards of sudden storms, which left many a merchant ship and other vessels at the bottom of it. But also because of piracy. In the mid-14th century, Akhenaten had written to the king of Alasiya (= Cyprus or part thereof) complaining about the seabooting activities of the notorious Lukka people operating from bases on the southern Anatolian coast and attacking cities on the shores of Egypt. He accused the Alasiyan king and his subjects of complicity in the attacks. The Alasiyan king objected strongly. His cities too, he declared, had suffered annual raids by pirates. We also hear of raids upon the Egyptian coast by buccaneers called Sherden, in the reigns of Amenhotep III and Ramesses II. And in the last years of the Late Bronze Age, what was almost certainly another pirate group, called `the Shikila who live on boats’, appears in a letter sent by a Hittite king (probably the last one, Suppiluliuma II) to a Ugaritic king (probably the last one, Ammurapi). The letter shows deep interest in these boat-people. Its author had learnt that a citizen of Ugarit called Ibnadushu had been captured by them, but was subsequently released or escaped his captivity. He requested that Ibnadushu be sent to Hatti for debriefing, with the promise that he would be returned home safely afterwards. The Great King was understandably anxious to find out more about the size and the movements of pirate operations in the eastern Mediterranean. Largely, it must be, because of the serious threat they posed to the safety of transport ships in the waters of this region and the increasingly vital role these ships were playing in the struggle `to keep alive the land of Hatti’.

Ugarit’s final days provide a microcosm of the forces of upheaval and destruction that engulfed much of the Near Eastern world in the late 13th and early 12th centuries. For the Syrian coastal kingdom, the dangers came particularly from the sea. Ammurapi kept a squad of coastwatchers on constant alert, scanning the horizon. Then came the news he most feared: enemy ships had come into view just off his kingdom’s shores and were heading directly for the capital. Ammurapi wrote to the Carchemish viceroy, Talmi-Teshub, begging for assistance. Perhaps out of pique for Ugarit’s earlier lack of cooperation, but more likely now because he had no choice, Talmi-Teshub wrote back offering nothing but advice: `As for what you have written to me: “Ships of the enemy have been seen at sea!” Well, you must remain firm. Indeed for your part, where are your troops, your chariots stationed? Are they not stationed near you? No? Behind the enemy, who press upon you? Surround your towns with ramparts. Have your troops and chariots enter there, and await the enemy with great resolution.’ In other words, you’re on your own. Make the best of what resources you already have. These were little enough. We have noted that Ammurapi had responded positively to a Hittite demand to send his troops and chariots to Hatti, even though what he sent was considered inadequate and second-rate. And after a second demand was made of him, by Suppiluliuma II, he had sent his fleet to the coast of Lukka in south-western Anatolia- for reasons scholars are still debating. We can understand the desperateness of Ammurapi’s appeal to the viceroy.

It was to no avail. Ammurapi was left defenceless. With part of his land forces and all his navy elsewhere, he had no chance of repelling the seaborne marauders now rapidly descending upon his kingdom. He wrote to the king of Alasiya, with whom he seems to have had close ties, describing how critically dangerous his situation was: `My father, the enemy’s ships have been coming and burning my cities and doing terrible things in my country. All my troops and chariots are in the land of Hatti, and all my ships are in Lukka. My land has been left defenceless!’ Though the letter’s precise date is uncertain, its words of despair and abandonment could have been among the very last Ammurapi put to tablet. Indeed, so sudden was the final enemy onslaught upon his kingdom that letters ready for despatch from the capital never left it. They were found by archaeologists in the house of a scribe called Rapanu – graphic evidence in themselves of the city’s sudden, violent end. Ammurapi’s royal seat, centre of one of the most prosperous kingdoms of Late Bronze Age Syria, was looted and abandoned. There was no Iron Age successor. Ugarit would never rise from its ashes.

Its destruction belongs within the context of the general waves of upheavals and devastations that brought the Late Bronze Age civilizations to an end in both the Aegean and the Near Eastern worlds. Environmental catastrophes (earthquakes, prolonged droughts, and the like), new waves of invaders from the north, the collapse of central administrations, disruption of international trading links, and economic meltdown (to give a modern ring to our tale) have all been suggested as factors contributing to the disintegration of the Bronze Age world. These possibilities will no doubt continue to be debated by scholars, inconclusively and endlessly. But Egyptian records, supported to some extent by archaeological data, specifically associate the devastations with large groups called `peoples from the sea’, a motley conglomerate of marauders who travelled by land as well as by sea as they swept across and destroyed much of the Near Eastern world early in the 12th century. Already in the reign of the pharaoh Merneptah (1213-1203), groups of invaders called Sherden, Shekelesh, Lukka, Ekwesh, and Teresh had attacked the coast of Egypt.

Merneptah managed to repel the intruders, but their attacks on Egypt were merely a prelude to the invasions of the eastern Mediterranean countries during Ramesses III’s reign (1184-1153). On the walls of his funerary temple at Medinet Habu at Thebes in Uppper Egypt, Ramesses graphically records the trail of ruin left by these peoples: `The foreign countries made a conspiracy in their islands. All at once the lands were removed and scattered in the fray. No land could stand before their arms, from Hatti, Qode, Carchemish, Arzawa and Alasiya on, being cut off at one time. A camp was set up in one place in Amurru. They desolated its people, and its land was like that which has never come into being. They were coming forward toward Egypt, while the flame was prepared before them. Their confederation was the Peleset, Tjeker, Shekelesh, Denyen, and Weshesh, lands united. They laid their hands upon the land as far as the circuit of the earth, their hearts confident and trusting: “Our plans will succeed!”

These invasions were not simply or even primarily military operations. They involved mass movements, both by land and by sea, of peoples who were most likely the victims rather than the causes of the disasters that brought about the collapse of the Late Bronze Age civilizations. Displaced from their homelands, they had sought new lands to settle, taking on a marauding character as they did so. What happened to them after they were beaten off by Ramesses III? Some like the Shekelesh, the Sherden, and the Teresh may have gone west, perhaps to Sicily, Sardinia, and Italy. A proportion of the Sherden may have stayed on in Egypt, becoming mercenaries in the pharaoh’s armies. Another group, the Peleset, almost certainly became the people well known from biblical sources as the Philistines.

The Philistines

`An uneducated or unenlightened person; one indifferent or hostile to culture.’ Thus the Shorter Oxford English Dictionary defines the term `Philistine’ as we use it today. In so doing, it provides a classic example of the powerful influence the Bible has exercised on Western civilization’s vocabulary and ways of thinking. The Philistines figure prominently in biblical tradition as the archetypal enemies of the early Israelite rulers. Their origins can be firmly linked to the historical record, for their ancestors, called the Peleset in Egyptian records, were among the Sea Peoples who pillaged their way through much of the Near Eastern world before being stopped by the pharaoh Ramesses III. In Egyptian reliefs from Ramesses’ reign, the Peleset are depicted wearing tasselled kilts and what appear to be feathered headdresses. After the Sea Peoples’ break-up and dispersal, these proto-Philistines finally settled in south-western Palestine, on that part of the southern coastal plain that came to be called Philistia. Five cities, the so-called Philistine Pentapolis, provided the focal points of Philistine civilization. They were Ashdod, Ashkelon, Ekron, Gaza, and Gath.

It is not surprising that the Philistines, the Israelites’ arch-enemies and a people who in their victories could be as brutal and destructive as any of their contemporaries, should get a bad press in our biblical sources. But to portray them as crude, uncivilized barbarians really flies in the face of the facts. The material remains of their civilization provide ample evidence that they were a highly cultured people, with advanced architectural, engineering, and technological skills, and a high level of attainment in the arts and crafts. It was perhaps partly their refined, urban-based civilization that roused the moralistic ire of the Israelites. Especially those Israelites who had led an ascetic existence in the hill-country of Palestine before descending on the plains, where they sought a more secure, settled way of life. In the process, they came into conflict with the Philistines.


These were the unfortunate occupants, in biblical tradition, of the `Promised Land’, the land vouchsafed by God to the Israelites after their return from Egypt, as recorded in the biblical story of the Exodus. It lay in the region covered in part by modern Israel and Lebanon. With the go-ahead given by God, the returning Israelites virtually obliterated the Canaanites to provide themselves with their own living space, bringing them, as a consequence, into contact and conflict with the Philistines. In a broad sense, the term `Canaanite’ is sometimes used to refer to all the ancient peoples of the Levant, up to the last decades of the 4th century bc. But these peoples were divided into a number of tribal groups, city-states, and kingdoms, each of which developed its own political and social structures, and a number of its own distinctive cultural traits. They identified themselves, and were almost always identified by others, not as Canaanites but by the names of the specific tribal and political units to which they belonged. This explains why in the ancient sources `Canaanite’ is rarely used as a generic designation for them, outside the Bible. The first clearly attested use of the term occurs in the 18th-century archives of Mari on the Euphrates, and there are occasional references to Canaan and Canaanites in later Bronze Age texts; for example, we have seen that Canaan was the place of exile of Idrimi, later king of Alalah, while he was on the run after fleeing his city Aleppo. Canaanites were among the prisoners-of-war deported to Egypt by the 15th-century pharaoh Amenhotep II, and in the following century, Canaan appears several times in the Amarna letters. Subsequently Canaanites are attested in biblical sources as the pre-Israelite occupants of the `Promised Land’. Some scholars have argued that the Israelites themselves, despite their `biblical’ loathing for every aspect of Canaanite culture, were in fact a sub-branch of the Canaanite peoples who withdrew to the Palestinian hill-country during the unsettled conditions in Syria-Palestine and elsewhere at the end of the Late Bronze Age.

Mesopotamian linear barriers


1. Muriq Tidnim (conjectural)

Babylonian Line 1

2. Nebuchadnezzar’s Babylon to Kish Wall (conjectural)

Babylonian Line 2

3. Habl es-Sakhar (Nebuchadnezzar’s Sippar to Opis Wall, Median Wall)

Line 3 (uncertain)

4. El-Mutabbaq

5. Sadd Nimrud (also called El-Jalu)

6. Umm Raus Wall (site of Macepracta Wall(?), Artaxerxes’ Trench(?))



Mesopotamia and the Rivers Tigris and the Euphrates

Egypt shows that the conjunction of irrigated lands and nomads produced linear barriers – even if the evidence might seem elusive and inconclusive. Therefore, might also then Mesopotamia, with the similarly intensely irrigated Tigris and Euphrates Rivers, produce evidence of walls in the presence of nomads?

In Mesopotamia, the area of irrigated lands runs along the flood plains of the Tigris and the Euphrates up to, and somewhat beyond, the convergence points of the rivers between ancient Babylon and modern Baghdad. Above that point the alluvial plain peters out and the land becomes too hilly to allow for intense irrigation. From the north-east flows the Diyala River which passes through the Zagros Mountains to join the Tigris, linking the high Persian plateau to Mesopotamia. Around the river was especially valued irrigated land. The area of convergence of the Tigris and Euphrates constituted a constricted land corridor. Local nomads and semi-nomads would have been expected to press particularly hard on the rich and productive irrigated lands of Mesopotamia.

As in Egypt, civilisation, sustained by the irrigated lands of Mesopotamia, came early, in the fourth millennia BC, with the Sumerians. Again, as with Egypt, there is evidence of climate change. In the last century of the third millennium BC the stream flow of the Euphrates and the Tigris was very low, according to analysis of sediments in the Persian Gulf. The end of the Akkadian era, due to defeat by the hated Gutian peoples from the mountainous east in the twenty-second century BC, coincided with a few decades of intense drought which was followed by two to three centuries of dry weather. Ur revived and under Ur-Nammu defeated the Gutians and established the third dynasty of Ur, commonly abbreviated to Ur III, in 2112 BC. The Sumerians initiated a short period of cultural renaissance in a time of constant conflict with the semi-nomadic Martu – more familiar as the biblical Amorites.

Indeed, Ur III may have faced two reasonably distinct threats. From the north-west there was the Martu whose aim may in part have been to gain sustenance for their herds in times of drought. The direction of the threat that they posed would have been through the relatively flat lands between and to both sides of the convergence point of the Euphrates and the Tigris. To the north-east were the Elamites and Shimashki confederation in the highlands to the east of the Tigris. Their lines of attack would have been more focused down river valleys – perhaps the Diyala River flowing through the Zagros Mountains to the Tigris.

Mesopotamian linear barriers

In this early period there is only textual evidence for linear barriers, based on letters that remarkably survive from the third dynasty of Ur. These writings between Sumerian kings and their often disobedient generals and officials, are called the Royal Correspondence of Ur (abbreviated to the RCU). Much of the correspondence in the twenty-two or so surviving letters was about defence against the Martu. There was also information about linear barriers in the year names of Sumerian king lists (Mesopotamian kings named each year of their reigns after some major event).

The Sumerian kings Shulgi (2094–2047 BC), Shu-Sin (2037–2029 BC) and Ibbi-Sin (2028–2004 BC) were mentioned in the context of three walls:

bad-mada/Wall of the Land – The Wall of the Land is known only from one reference in the king lists: ‘Year 37: Nanna (the god) and Shulgi the king built the Wall of the land.’10 Shulgi was on the throne for forty-seven years so the wall belongs to the last quarter of his long reign. This was a time of increasing pressure on central and southern Mesopotamia from the Martu.

bad-igi-hur-sag-ga/Wall Facing the Highlands – In the RCU there are several references to bad-igi-hur-sag-ga – both during Shulgi’s reign and that of his successors, Shu-Sin and Ibbi-Sin. The bad-igi-hur-sag-ga has been variously translated as the Wall, Fortress, or the Fortification facing the highlands or mountains – making it uncertain whether this was a continuous linear barrier. If, however, Shulgi really did build a long wall then he has the distinction of being the first known builder of such a barrier. This obstacle possibly faced a threat coming down the Diyala River as it faced the Highlands, presumably the Zagros Mountains.

Muriq Tidnim/Fender off of the Tidnim – There are three references to Muriq Tidnim, or fender (off) of the Tidnim and Shu-Sin. First, the king lists of his fourth regnal year said: ‘Shu-Sin the king of Ur built the amurru (Amorite) wall (called) ‘Muriq Tidnim/holding back the Tidanum’’ Second, there is an inscription in a temple built for the god Shara: ‘For Shara Shu-Sin built the Eshagepada, his (Shara’s) beloved temple, for his (Shu-Sin’s) life when he built the Martu wall Muriq Tidnim (and) turned back the paths of the Martu to their land.’ Third, the most informative reference to the Muriq Tidnim is in a letter from Sharrum-bani, an official of Shu-Sin. ‘You sent me a message ordering me to work on the construction of the great fortification Muriq Tidnim … announcing: “The Martu have invaded the land.” You instructed me to build the fortification, so as to cut off their route; also, that no breaches of the Tigris or the Euphrates should cover the fields with water … from the bank of the Ab-gal watercourse to the province of Zimudar. When I was constructing this fortification to the length of 26 danna, and had reached the area between the two mountain ranges, I was informed of the Martu camping within the mountain ranges because of my building work.’

In this letter, the construction is described as ‘great’. Whatever the uncertainties about Shulgi’s earlier edifices, it is difficult not to interpret this passage as describing a major continuous linear barrier. In the west the Ab-gal canal is associated with an earlier western course of the Euphrates and to the east the province of Zimudar is identified as being on the east side of Tigris in the region of the Diyala river. A danna is about two hours march so 26 dannas may be over 150 kilometres. Therefore, the edifice appeared to extend from the Euphrates to the other side of the Tigris because its length was much greater than the distance between the two rivers. The instructions to build the walls specifically cite stopping the semi-nomadic Martu from overwhelming the fields by a breach between the Tigris and the Euphrates, showing that irrigated land was perceived as particularly vulnerable.

Analysis – Ur III

In the hillier east controlling access down the Diyala river area there may have been a single fortification, the bad-igi-hur-sag-ga or the Wall/Fortress facing the Highlands, first built by Shulgi, which might or might not have been part of another system bad-mada (the Wall of the Land) built in the flatter west. During the reign of Shu-Sin it seems more likely that a linear barrier called Muriq Tidnim was built from new, or it consisted of earlier lines that were linked and much reinforced including Shulgi’s Wall of the land. This is all speculation but there is good if circumstantial literary evidence that Ur III’s strategy for defence against the Martu involved the construction of what would be the first recorded long continuous non-aquatic linear barriers.

There does seem to be a fairly general academic acceptance that under Shulgi and Shu-Sin long walls were built and their purpose was to keep out nomads. For example: ‘Even as early as year 35 of Shulgi, the (nomad) problem was becoming so grave that Shulgi constructed a wall to keep them (pastoral and semi-nomadic Amorites) out, and Shu-Sin built another barrier, called “fender off of Tidnim,” 200 kilometres long, stretching between the Tigris and the Euphrates across the northern edge of the alluvial plain.’ Also: ‘Yet despite Shulgi’s talents, within a few years of his death in 2047 BC his Empire, too, imploded. In the 2030s raiding became such a problem that Ur built a hundred-mile wall to keep the Amorites out.’

Later Mesopotamia

Looking at later Mesopotamia, after the fall of Ur III, how did it defend itself in times of necessity? What emerges is three intense periods of barrier building: firstly, that already discussed, during the short lived Ur III period; secondly, in the neo-Babylonian period associated with Nebuchadnezzar in the sixth century BC; and thirdly, later in the fourth century, aquatic linear barriers were built by the Sasanians. There are also a number of major but little studied walls, discussed below, north of the Tigris and Euphrates convergence point, which are not clearly dated.

After Ur III fell to the Elamites and the Shimaskhi confederation, the so-called Amorite dynasty of Isin completed its breakaway. Given that lower Mesopotamia had fallen to peoples from outside the region there was no reason for a barrier between the north and southern Mesopotamia. Also, Martu or Amorite semi-nomads were becoming increasingly sedentarised. Subsequently, the Babylonians of the era of Hammurabi were able to project their power well to the north of Babylon. The Assyrians, coming from the north, had no need for walls around 700 BC to defend Babylon in this region as they controlled the regions to its north and south.

The neo-Babylonians recovered control of their city in the sixth century BC and made it the capital of the region. The second period of major barrier building materialised in this later Babylonian period, associated with Nebuchadnezzar and textually with Queens Semiramis and Nitocris. Nebuchadnezzar II ruled for forty-three years from 604 to 562 BC. The Medes’ conquest of Lydia made Nebuchadnezzar suspicious of their intentions and this led him to strengthen his northern border. Behind the Medes loomed the Persians. This was clearly seen, rightly as it turned out, as a real, unpredictable threat – and one that prompted the construction of a comprehensive linear barrier system. Notwithstanding this attempt, in 539 BC Cyrus the Great led the Medes and the Persians into Babylonia which was absorbed into the Achaemenid Empire.

Linear barriers – survey

There were three lines of barriers at and above Babylon looked at here, starting in the south and going to the north.

Babylon to Kish – Line 1

Two walls of Nebuchadnezzar (604–562 BC) are known from a clay cylinder, dated to 590 BC when relations between the Babylonians and the Medes had deteriorated. (These compose Line 1 and Line 2 in this and the next section.)

Nebuchadnezzar’s Wall from near Babylon to Kish – This cylinder is inscribed: ‘In the district of Babylon from the chau(s)sée on the Euphrates bank to Kish, 4 2/3 bēru long, I heaped up on the level of the ground an earth-wall and surrounded the City with mighty waters. That no crack should appear in it, I plastered its slope with asphalt and bricks.’ A bēru is the distance which could be travelled in two hours so is variable according to terrain. At five kilometres an hour this barrier would be about 47 kilometres long. The problem is that this is considerably longer than the distance between Babylon and Kish – which is little more than 10 kilometres – unless the barrier followed a particularly circuitous route. Also, it would seem a fairly pointless military exercise building a barrier from Babylon to Kish leaving the flood plain open to the east from Kish to the Tigris. Using up the surplus kilometres would take the wall further east to Kar-Nargal, near an earlier channel of the Tigris, hence blocking the land corridor between the Euphrates and the Tigris. No physical evidence of this wall has been identified.

Opis to Sippar – Line 2

The second line ran between the cities of Sippar, above Babylon on the Euphrates, and Opis on the Tigris, the precise position of which has been lost. A number of walls are associated with this location in texts and there is a surviving wall called Habl-es-Sakhar.

Nebuchadnezzar’s Wall from Sippar to Opis – Nebuchadnezzar’s inscribed cylinder described the second wall as follows: ‘To strengthen the fortification of Babylon, I continued, and from Opis upstream to the middle of Sippar, from Tigris bank to Euphrates bank, 5 bēru, I heaped up a mighty earth-wall and surrounded the city for 20 bēru like the fullness of the sea. That the pressure of the water should not harm the dike, I plastered its slope with asphalt and bricks.’ This Opis to Sippar wall would have been about 50 kilometres long. Both the Babylon to Kish and the Opis to Sippar walls were water-proofed by asphalt so they must have been built in proximity to water – possibly water-courses like canals or in flatlands prone to flooding or swamping.

Wall of Semiramis – The geographer Strabo, citing Eratosthenes, when describing Mesopotamia, said the Tigris, ‘goes to Opis, and to the wall of Semiramis, as it is called.’ Therefore, this wall was in the region of the Tigris and the Euphrates’ convergence point. (Herodotus mentioned Semiramis’ works but did not specify a wall. Rather he described levees which controlled flooding.)

Wall of Nitrocris – Herodotus also described a Babylonian queen called Nitocris – possibly the daughter of Nebuchadnezzar and the mother of the Book of Daniel’s King Belshazzar brought down by Cyrus – whose constructions in Babylon were mainly connected with diverting the Euphrates. Nitocris built works in the entrance of the country (which is clearly a description of a land corridor) against the threat of the Medes. ‘Nitocris … observing the great power and restless enterprise of the Medes, … and expecting to be attacked in her turn, made all possible exertions to increase the defences of her empire.’

Wall of Media – In the Anabasis, Xenophon described how he led the 10,000 Greeks back from Mesopotamia. In it he encountered the Wall of Media twice. Here what is described is the second occasion when Xenophon actually crossed the wall itself following the battle of Cunaxa in 401 BC. ‘They reached the so called Wall of Media and passed within it. It was built of baked bricks, laid in asphalt, and was twenty feet wide and a hundred feet high; its length was said to be twenty parasangs, and it is not far distant from Babylon.’ Assuming that a parasang is the same as a bēru or a danna, that is a two hours march, then the wall was about 100 kilometres long.

Habl-es-Sakhar – There is a surviving wall in the vicinity of Sippar. In 1867 one Captain Bewsher described the ruins of a wall then called Habl-es-Sakhar – which translates from the Arabic as a line of stones or bricks. ‘The ruins of this wall may now be traced for about 10½ miles and are about 6 feet above the level of the soil. It was irregularly built, the longest side running E.S.E. for 5½ miles; it then turns to N.N.E. for another mile and a half. An extensive swamp to the northward has done much towards reducing the wall.… There is a considerable quantity of bitumen scattered about, and it was probably made of bricks set in bitumen. I can see nothing in Xenophon which would show this was not the wall the Greeks passed, for what he says of its length was merely what was told him.’ The description of the ‘baked bricks laid upon bitumen’ is like Nebuchadnezzar’s description of his wall between Opis and Sippar: plastered with asphalt and bricks.

In 1983 a joint team of Belgian and British Archaeological Expeditions to Iraq investigated the ruins of Habl-es-Sakhar. This confirmed that Habl-es-Sakhar was built by Nebuchadnezzar, for bricks marked with his name were found during its excavation. The team reported that Habl-es-Sakhar is the name of ‘a levee 30 metres wide and 1 metre high which could be followed for about 15 kilometres. A trench across the levee to the north of the site of Sippar revealed baked brick walls (largely robbed) on either side of an earth embankment. The earth core was about 3.2m wide and the brick walls about 1.75m in width. Between the brick courses was a skin of bitumen. On the bottom of each brick was a stamp of Nebuchadnezzar. If the wall extended to the ancient line of the Tigris it would have been nearly 40k long.’

The wall stood astride the northern approaches to Babylon itself. The wall’s function appeared primarily to have been military as it was not well situated to protect land against the flooding of the Euphrates which lay to the south. It is ‘beyond reasonable doubt’ that Habl-es-Sakhar is Nebuchadnezzar’s wall and Xenophon’s Wall of Media due to the location north of Sippar, the details of the construction, and the stamped bricks set in bitumen. This is rather satisfying because a surviving wall has been matched up with literary text.

Umm Raus to Samarra – Line 3

A third line of walls runs from Samarra on the Tigris to Ramadi on the Euphrates which delineated the upper limits of the alluvial plain where intense irrigation was possible. Here the fertile plain is not continuous between the Tigris and the Euphrates but the regions close to the rivers fit the description of valued irrigated land. As the rivers have diverged already significantly in the area of the third uppermost line, compared to the lower two lines, a wall that extended the whole distance would have had to have been much longer. Central sections might also have been purposeless as there was little valued, highly irrigated, land to protect and attackers would not have wanted to stray too far into less fertile land. This area is the site of two walls described in ancient texts and three surviving linear barriers.

Trench of Artaxerxes – In the Anabasis Xenophon described the march along the Euphrates, at the point where canals began, thereby indicating intense irrigation: ‘Cyrus … expected the king to give battle the same day, for in the middle of this day’s march a deep sunk trench was reached, thirty feet broad, and eighteen feet deep.… The trench itself had been constructed by the great king upon hearing of Cyrus’s approach, to serve as a line of defence.’ The trench does not appear to have survived but the site might have been reused to build later walls – the first being the Wall of Macepracta, discussed next, and second the surviving wall at Umm Raus.

Wall of Macepracta – Ammianus Marcellinus, describing the assault in AD 362 by the apostate Emperor Julian on the Sasasian Empire of Shapur II, wrote: ‘our soldiers came to the village of Macepracta, where the half-destroyed traces of walls were seen; these in early times had a wide extent, it was said, and protected Assyria from hostile inroads.’

There is a surviving belt of linear barriers which extends – with long gaps – between the Euphrates and the Tigris. The three walls mark the line where the fertile Babylonian plain peters out. There is the rampart starting at Umm-Raus which extends east from the Euphrates; El-Mutabbaq is a burnt brick wall with towers running west from the Tigris; and between them is a dyke named Sadd Nimrud (also called El-Jalu). Their dating is very uncertain.

Wall at Umm Raus – The wall, running east from the Euphrates, has been described: ‘From Umm Raus we see the wall running inland for a distance of about 7 miles, with rounded bastions at intervals for 2½ miles.… The wall appeared to be about 35–45 ft broad, with bastions projecting about 20ft. to 25ft., set at a distance of about 190 feet axis to axis. At its highest point the mound made by the wall is about 7 to 8 feet high. From the air it can be seen that there are about forty buttresses in all.’

The line may follow that of Artaxerxes’ trench. It is not a brick wall but an earth rampart. It was ‘never defensible, perhaps never finished’. Also: ‘This wall must have been designed … to protect the suddenly broadening area of fertile irrigated land to its south from raids and infiltration; large armies entering Iraq by the Euphrates would not have found it a serious obstacle.’

Again, there is the explicit mention of defending irrigated land. The Umm Raus rampart must date between 401 BC, as it is not mentioned by Xenophon, and AD 363, when a ruined wall was described at Macepracta by Ammianus Marcellinus.

El-Mutabbaq – The modern name, El-Mutabbaq, means built in layers or courses of bricks. This is a massive rampart lying at the boundary of the irrigatel alluvium of the widening Tigris valley south of Samarra and the desert to the north-west. It is about forty kilometres long and ‘has traces of turrets and moat on the north-west side and follows … the natural contours of the land. The rampart was four to six metres high, thirty metres wide at the bottom.’ It is, ‘a mud-brick wall three and a half bricks wide behind which is 10.5m of gravel-packing held in by a small mud-wall. The gravel packing was compartmented by mud-brick cross walls. There are projecting towers at regular intervals and a ditch about 20 to 30m. wide which is now about 2m. deep.’

The following description shows El-Mutabbaq as being designed to protect valued land against a nomad threat: ‘Herzfeld (a German explorer and historian) attributed construction to the threat of the Bedouin invading the fertile area along the Tigris by the river Dujail.’ These walls were seen as intended to stop nomads thereby affirming their ineffectiveness against great armies: ‘Cross-country walls of this type are notoriously inefficient at stopping great armies; this particular example could be outflanked without any difficulty at all. A stronger objection to any theory that it was designed to stop a great army is that it blocks the one route into southern Mesopotamia which, because of natural obstacles north of Samarra, invading armies have preferred never to use.’ The walls were intended to defend irrigated land: ‘El-Mutabbaq was more probably intended to help protect the irrigated land from unwanted settlers and raiding parties coming from the desert.’ There is no consensus as to the builder although they are described as Sasanian. Basically, these linear barriers do not seem to have been examined since the 1960s and remain effectively undated.

Sadd Nimrud – A dyke called Sadd Nimrud or El-Jalu, which is about forty kilometres long, that lies to the west of El-Muttabaq. This linear barrier does not extend the full distance between El-Muttabaq and the Wall at Umm Raus: ‘The fortification in the central area peters out in the direction of Falluja – perhaps as a considerable gap did not need to be defended – as armies could not advance far into the desert away from water.’ No date, other than this possibly being pre-Islamic, has been suggested.

Analysis – three lines at the Euphrates and Tigris convergence point

These three barriers between the Tigris and the Euphrates present a very baffling picture. They follow roughly the line where intense irrigation ceases. Rather than being a single response, however, they seem to be three discrete AD hoc reactions to separate threats to irrigated lands near the rivers Tigris and Euphrates. They can lay claim to being among the longest and oldest walls outside China, excepting certain Roman and Sasanian walls, yet there appears to have been no very detailed study of them. The attribution is generally vague – with comparisons made to features on Sumerian to Sasanian walls, in other words millennia apart. Generally commentators do regard them as forming part of a local response to the need to protect valued irrigated land in the immediate vicinity, rather than as having any strategic purpose to block routes into central and southern Mesopotamia.

Sasanian aquatic barriers

In the early fourth century AD a semi-nomadic people, the Lakhmid Arabs, who were originally from the Yemen, emerged as a serious threat to Sasanian Mesopotamia.

Khandaq-i-Shapur – Arab tradition associates Shapur II (AD 309–379) with a defensive dyke that reputedly ran west of the Euphrates, from Hit to Basra. This barrier is looked at again later when Sasanian barriers are discussed. It is clear however that the linear barrier was built to hinder the nomadic Arab people from the desert. Although this Khandaq is much later than the Egyptian Walls of the Ruler, it throws an interesting perspective on it. Firstly, there is neat symmetry. In the face of a threat from nomadic Asiatics, the response to both the east and the west of the Arabian Desert was to build a moat or canal. Secondly, the historian Yāqūt, writing later in the Islamic period, said that Anushirvan (531–579) who rebuilt Shapur’s earlier work, ‘built on it (the moat) towers and pavilions and he joined it together with fortified points.’ Therefore, this was a continuous fortified aquatic linear barrier. The fact that such a barrier was constructed by the Sasanians perhaps meant that Egypt’s early Walls of the Ruler were also a continuous aquatic barrier, strengthened by forts.

Battle of the Delta

Battle of the Delta was a sea battle between Egypt and the Sea Peoples, circa 1175 BCE when the Egyptian pharaoh Ramesses III repulsed a major sea invasion. Illustration by Igor Dzis

A contingent of the Sea Peoples Invasion came by water. The Ramesses III reliefs text at Medinet Habu, Western Thebes, states that there was a naval encounter at the mouths of the Nile in the Delta. The king’s defensive measures included a stockade of lances that was set up on the shore to impede the enemy ships. At the minimum, this was done to prevent the Sea Peoples from landing their troops. In the accompanying reliefs, perhaps reflecting artistic sensibility, only four Egyptian ships attack five Sea Peoples war vessels. The king remained on land while his archers provided the necessary attack force. No chariots were employed because the battle was fought from shore to ship and from ship to ship. The naval victory was celebrated at a coast fortress. Ramesses III indicates the types of ships employed in this defense, and that they were also divided into three groups: ordinary transporters, galleys, and coasters. The first term was the most common one, and we can assume that the king requisitioned all types of Nile-bound vessels in order to provide his defense. The second refers to cargo ships whereas the third was employed for naval vessels undertaking lengthy voyages in the Mediterranean along the eastern coastline of Palestine and Syria.

The naval battle, quite rightfully, has been the subject of much study. The ships of the enemy reflect an Aegean tradition, one that was based on relatively long sea voyages across a large extent of water. In other words, they were not mere coasters or trading vessels. The hulls of the enemy fleet were angular and the prows and sternposts vertical. In addition, it seems that the Egyptian fleet blockaded the river outlets in order to prevent the enemy from escaping. This novel interpretation implies that Ramesses purposely waited until the enemy was close to disembarking and then, after having trapped them between shore and sea, attacked. In the scenes of battle, the enemy ships are stationary and within range of the land-based archers. Their vessels appear slender and lower in the water than the Egyptian ones, but a problem remains concerning the artistic impression. The Egyptian ships, on the other hand, reveal quite astounding details. Their high angular sternpost has no native parallel. The aftercastles were built with two stories, thereby providing a higher base for the naval archers and giving the helmsman a better position. But the high bulwark that protects the rowers is not known in the Nile Valley even though it was commonplace among the Aegean Bronze Age galleys. The low prow may imply the practice of ramming and therefore reflect a technological defense against the maritime activities of the Sea Peoples. This interpretation, however, seems questionable. Under Ramesses II and III the Egyptians began to employ a type of merchant ship hitherto unknown within the Nile Valley. These ships, called menesh, were probably built in the royal dockyards. But they were not developed from local sailing vessels known to the Egyptian for many centuries earlier. Lucien Basch has proposed that these menesh were derived from the north, and he pinpoints Syria, although Phoenicia is meant, as the origin. Known from the early years of Ramesses II, these ships were also present in the naval battle of Ramesses III against the Sea Peoples but operated as well in the Red Sea for voyages to the fabulous land of Punt, inland from the Somali coast or, as has been recently argued, along the southern coastline of Arabia. By and large, it seems reasonable that in Dynasty XIX, if not somewhat earlier, the flotilla of Egypt was reorganized according to the naval traditions of the Phoenicians. Their ports had close connections with various peoples traversing the eastern Mediterranean, and possibly their shipwrights had developed the high prows and sterns of other foreign sea cruisers. Moreover, these high prows were also common in scenes of the Syrian ships that unloaded their produce at Thebes in Dynasty XVIII. It appears reasonable to conclude that the Egyptian state improved its own merchant and combat navy during the second half of Dynasty XVIII and the first part of the succeeding dynasty in order to transport soldiers and to deliver “tribute” from Asia. Later, however, they would be used in sea combat.

The reliefs show that the fighting was mainly hand-to-hand, notwithstanding the presence of Egyptian archers on land and in the ships. Many of the Sherden and other enemies are carved in the position of captives. Their hands are constrained within wooden shackles. Some Egyptians have spears whereas others brandish swords. The Peleshet, Sherden, and other sea enemies mainly depended upon spears, swords, and protective shields. The reliefs depict one enemy ship captured by Sherden “mercenaries,” and we can see their round shields, medium but thick swords, and distinctive helmets. (Note that the Sherden do not appear to have been part of the archer contingent of the Egyptian army.) Here, an Egyptian with shield is about to climb into an enemy ship. In another location one vessel has already been seized. Avner Raban, after subjecting the scenes of warfare, concluded that Ramesses’ flotilla may have been built upon the lines of the Sea Peoples’ fleet. We can add that it is equally possible that the Egyptians, with the Sherden for instance, may have reorganized their ships along more up-to-date military lines. Whether or not this was a contemporary innovation must remain open, especially because the encounter between Ramesses II and the Sea Peoples early in his reign could have provided such an impetus. At any rate, the juxtaposition of both fleets is so close that we must conclude that only the final hour of the battle is pictorially recorded. The melee appears similar to a land battle, with the tactics of the Egyptian navy dependent upon the use of archers, thereby reflecting the New Kingdom tradition of the composite bow. In other words, just as with chariots, bows and arrows provided the main element of fighting.

Although the navy (such as it was) was certainly not as extensive as the navies of contemporary nations/states. For much of the Dynastic Period, shipping in the Mediterranean was mostly commercial, not military, but this seemed to change towards the latter part of the New Kingdom, when the Delta coastline was under threat from several seaborne foreign armies. For example, there was a raid by Sherden pirates in the second year of Ramesses II’s reign; these pirates were not only defeated, but were also incorporated into the Egyptian military as mercenaries. However, Ramesses II’s reaction to this seemed to be the building of multiple fortresses along the coastline, rather than increasing the number of military ships.

Most of the time, the ancient Egyptian fleet seems to have been used more for the transport of troops to battlefields as quickly as possible for the active engagement in naval battles. For example, towards the end of the Second Intermediate Period, Kamose (making a point to emphasise the amount of timber to be used in the construction of the flotilla) arranged for his fleet to lay siege to the Hyksos capital of Avaris, the soldiers and war supplies being transported to the site more quickly than they could be by marching overland. This would change to some extent later in the New Kingdom, but not hugely.

Much of the evidence for actual naval battles and warships seem to come from the reign of Ramesses III, when (in the eighth year of his reign) the Sea Peoples attacked at the Delta border. They came first over land (but were defeated in a single battle at the northern edge of the Sinai desert) and then by sea, where they were defeated in what seems to have been a fairly epic naval battle. This naval battle is portrayed at the mortuary temple of Medinet Habu, where the relief depicts handto-hand combat between the Sea Peoples (on five boats) and the Egyptians (on four boats which were, naturally, larger than their Sea Peoples counterparts). Ancient Egyptian artistic sensibilities and aesthetics must be taken into account here and it is safe to say that perhaps the numbers of vessels depicted on the reliefs do not accurately reflect the actual numbers that took part in the battle. It is possible, as with the smiting scenes discussed elsewhere, the artists were instructed to portray the superiority of the Egyptian fleet, or maybe there simply was not enough room on the relief to fit in the correct numbers of vessels.

The Egyptian vessels have rows of up to twenty-two oarsmen along with archers and foot-soldiers (although the exact numbers are difficult to discern with any precision), outnumbering the people on board the Sea Peoples vessels, where it is argued that the figures on-board must have doubled-up as warriors and rowers. The Egyptian vessels are described as having low prows, high, angular sterns, with ‘aftercastles’ of two storeys, and a high bulwark. The Sea Peoples boats were angular, with vertical prows and sterns (very much in the tradition of Aegean ships), designed to do well on long sea voyages. One of the Sea Peoples vessels has seemingly capsized or been brought down by the Egyptian flotilla and the Sea Peoples dead are seen floating in the surrounding water. As with the Sherden pirates discussed above, the Sea Peoples were apparently also assimilated into ancient Egyptian empire after Ramesses III’s victory, although in the long-term this solitary victory was only putting-off the unavoidable as the region of Canaan was lost to the Sea Peoples by the end of the Twentieth Dynasty.

It would seem that most of the time, particularly during the latter part of the Dynastic Period, any Egyptian fleet was mostly used to protect and enforce Egypt’s trade interests. For example in the Twenty-Sixth Dynasty, the Saite pharaohs created a large fleet of war-galleys, in the style of Graeco-Phoenician ships, in order to regain (albeit temporarily) control of trade in the Levantine.

Despite this evidence for some aspect of naval warfare later on in Dynastic Egypt, throughout most of the Dynastic Period Egypt’s military forces were chiefly land-based, resorting to naval battles rarely, with the flotilla mostly being used to transport equipment and soldiers to battles. Certainly, there is a dearth of evidence for Egypt’s flotilla in the New Kingdom, but there is a wealth of evidence for the land-based forces; this either suggests that the sea-based military was not as important or developed as the land-based army, or that there is simply an annoying lack of primary resources providing relevant information. The former is the most likely explanation, with the land-based military indeed being far more advanced and essential to Dynastic warfare than the ancient Egyptian navy (such as it was).

Sea Peoples by Johnny Shumate.

Sea Peoples

They were a confederation of various groups who were active as pirates and marauders in the Ramessid Period, the Nineteenth Dynasty (1307-1196 B. C. E.) and the Twentieth Dynasty (1196-1070 B. C. E.). RAMESSES II (r. 1290-1224 B. C. E.) sought a pact with the HITTITE ruler HATTUSILIS III, in defense against these wide-ranging attackers, and MERENPTAH (r. 1224-1214 B. C. E.) faced one contingent of them during his reign. The actual listing of the Sea Peoples, however, dates to RAMESSES III (r. 1194-1163 B. C. E.), who destroyed them.

The Sea Peoples recorded on the walls of MEDINET HABU at THEBES include the Ekwesh, believed to be Greek Achaeans; Teresh, Anatolian sailors, possibly the Tyrrhenians; Lukka, an Anatolian coastal people; Sherdana, probably a group of Sardinians; Shekelesh, identified as members of the Sicilian Siculi; Peleset, from Crete and the ancestors of the Philistines. Others not identified with certainty were the Kizzuwatna, Arzawa, Zakala, Alasiya, Tjeker, and Denyen. The MESHWESH, Libyans who were always active in Egypt’s Delta, were also listed.

Originally some of the groups had fortified cities and worked copper mines. Displaced, the Sea Peoples conquered CYPRUS and blockaded Syrian ports. They began their first campaigns near their homelands. The Mycenean Greeks repulsed them, but other nations, including the Hittites, endured their aggression.

In Ramesses III’s eighth regnal year, the Sea Peoples had attacked Cilicia, CARCHEMISH, Palestine, Arzawa, CYPRUS, Amurru, and the HITTITES and had arrived in the Delta region with the Libyans. These marauders came in carts, bringing their entire families to the invasion. They wore kilts and headdresses of feathers or pleated stiffened cloths and they carried spears, short swords, and round shields. The Great HARRIS PAPYRUS adds other details.

Ramesses III met the Sea Peoples who were entering Egypt as migrants, not as marauders. Crop failures in the eastern Mediterranean region caused these nomads to destroy entire cities in their movement. They sought the safety of the Nile, and Ramesses III had to repel land and sea assaults. He moved defensive units to the eastern border and fortified the Nile branches in the Delta. By allowing the Sea Peoples to enter certain Nile branches and then moving floating islands and debris behind them, Ramesses III trapped entire contingents and annihilated them. Others he took as prisoners and forced them into his armed forces or made them slaves.

Egypt withstood their assaults, but the Sea Peoples changed the political matrix of the Mediterranean. One group that managed to escape Ramesses III’s assaults were called the Peleset. These are believed to have been the Philistines documented in Palestine. Some records indicate that the Peleset, or Philistines, were sent into Palestine to control the area there for Egypt.

The Imperial Roman High Command

The aspirations of soldiers who wished to enter into the militiae equestres highlight the often strange and convoluted path to advancement in the Roman army and administration. The usual pattern of promotion from the ranks of the army (via the primipilate and the Rome tribunates) bypassed the equestrian officer commands in the militiae and instead led to the procuratorial career. The opportunities for a former soldier to be placed in direct command of troops at a more senior level included the posts of praefectus classis, praesidial procurator, or the prefectures of the vigiles and praetorian guard. However, there are few indications that the Roman administration actively preferred former soldiers for these posts, and many a primipilaris is later found in financial procuratorships. The senior legionary and provincial commands were restricted to senators; experienced primipilares, as middle-aged men, were not normally suitable for entrance into the senate. This meant that there was no coherent career path from soldier to general in the principate. The promotion of former soldiers into the militiae equestres represented one challenge to this system, but it was not enough in and of itself to prompt the overhaul of the military career structure. This only happened gradually over the course of the late second and third centuries AD.

The emperors traditionally invested military authority in their senatorial legates, both the governors of consular and praetorian provinces, as well as any senators appointed to ad hoc supra-provincial commands, as in the case of Cn. Domitius Corbulo or C. Avidius Cassius. Important campaigns requiring significant forces, such as Trajan’s Dacian and Parthian Wars, saw the emperor and his senatorial generals assume primary command of the legions. Equestrian officers, usually in the militiae equestres, were placed in control of auxiliary troops or smaller detachments. For example, in the Parthian War of Lucius Verus, M. Valerius Lollianus, prefect of the ala II Flavia Agrippiana, was appointed praepositus of vexillations of auxiliary units in Syria. During this campaign Lollianus answered to the senior senatorial commanders: the governor of Cappadocia, M. Statius Priscus Licinius Italicus, and M. Claudius Fronto, who was legatus Augusti in charge of an expeditionary army of legions and auxiliaries. The majority of Marcus Aurelius’ senior commanders during his German wars, which occupied most of the 170s, were likewise senatorial generals. The praetorian prefects, who commanded the cohortes praetoriae and the imperial horse guard (equites singulares Augusti), were the exception to this roster of senatorial commanders. The praetorian prefect was occasionally entrusted with more senior authority, as when Domitian gave Cornelius Fuscus control over the conduct of his First Dacian War after the senatorial governor of Moesia, Oppius Sabinus, was killed in battle. Marcus Aurelius likewise invested his prefect Taruttienus Paternus with command of an expeditionary force at the beginning of his Second German War in AD 177. These shortterm appointments did not in and of themselves bring about a change in senatorial military authority.

There was a clear military hierarchy for senators: they could serve as military tribunes, then as legionary legates, then govern a two- or three legion province. There was no such well-defined path for equites, and no opportunity for talented equestrians to lead large expeditionary forces at a high rank. This meant that ad hoc solutions had to be devised, as happened in the 160s-170s AD during the reign of Marcus Aurelius. M. Valerius Maximianus, who began his career in the militiae equestres, was placed in charge of cavalry units sent to the eastern provinces to assist in suppressing the revolt of Avidius Cassius. Since he had advanced beyond the militiae, Maximianus’ higher standing was recognised by giving him the status of centenarius, the equivalent of a procurator. The same type of promotion was employed for his contemporary, L. Iulius Vehilius Gallus Iulianus, who had also advanced beyond the militia quarta. Iulianus was granted the exceptional title of `procurator Augusti and praepositus of vexillations’, as a way of recognising his seniority in several campaigns during this period. These commissions at procuratorial rank represented an attempt to create an equestrian equivalent to the senatorial legionary legate. The only alternative would have been to promote these equestrians into the senate at the rank of expraetor. This did eventually occur in the case of M. Valerius Maximianus and two of his Antonine contemporaries, P. Helvius Pertinax and M. Macrinius Avitus Catonius Vindex. But Iulianus remained an eques, eventually ascending to the praetorian prefecture under Commodus.

It must be emphasised that these promotions did not represent any attempt to advance hardened soldiers from the ranks to senior commands. Maximianus was from the curial class of Poetovio in Pannonia, while Vindex was the son of the praetorian prefect M. Macrinius Vindex. Pertinax was the son of a freedman, but had obtained equestrian rank and a commission in the militiae thanks to prominent senatorial patrons. The origins of Iulianus are unknown, but he certainly began his career in the militiae. There was only one seasoned solider on Marcus Aurelius’ staff: the praetorian prefect M. Bassaeus Rufus, who was from a poor and humble background, and had risen via the primipilate and a procuratorial career. The wars of Marcus Aurelius therefore introduced some important innovations, which highlighted notable problems with the developing equestrian cursus. The second century AD had witnessed the consolidation of the equestrian aristocracy of service, men who were prepared to serve the state domi militiaeque in the same manner as senators. Yet there was no clear way for these men to assume high military commands as equites, resulting in the creation of ad hoc procuratorial appointments.

The reign of Septimius Severus witnessed important developments for the Roman military establishment, and the place of the equestrian order within it. Severus created three new legions, the I, II and III Parthica, each of which was placed under the command of an equestrian praefectus legionis, not a senatorial legate. The first and third Parthian legions were stationed in the new province of Mesopotamia, which was entrusted to an equestrian prefect on the model of the province of Egypt. The commanders of the legions therefore had to be equites in order to avoid having a senator answer to an equestrian governor. This had been the practice of Augustus when he installed the legio XXII Deiotariana and the legio III Cyrenaica in Egypt under equestrian prefects. The same command structure was maintained in the legio II Traiana, which was the sole legion stationed in Egypt in the Severan age. The third new legion founded by Severus, the legio II Parthica, was quartered at Albanum just outside Rome, and thus became the first legion to be permanently stationed in Italy. One prefect of the II Parthica, T. Licinius Hierocles, is recorded with the exceptional title of praefectus vice legati (`the prefect acting in place of the legate’), though this was probably only a formality, since no senatorial legates are on record.

The career paths for the officers of the Parthian legions followed the pattern of the legions stationed in Egypt. Their tribunates were integrated into the militiae equestres, with some tribunes of the Parthian legions going on to procuratorial careers in the usual manner. The traditional route to the prefecture of the legio II Traiana in Egypt was via the primipilate and the Rome tribunates. The command of this legion ranked as a ducenarian procuratorship by the Antonine period, and the same status was given to the prefects of the new legiones Parthicae. The first prefect of a Parthian legion, C. Iulius Pacatianus, was promoted from the militiae equestres, but thereafter the commands appear to have been given to primipilares, following the Egyptian precedent. This suggests that Septimius Severus was following traditional status hierarchies when establishing his new Parthian legions. There was certainly no move to replace senatorial legates with equestrian prefects elsewhere in the empire. This had been attempted by Sex. Tigidius Perennis, Commodus’ praetorian prefect, after the British legions acclaimed the senatorial legionary legate Priscus as emperor. When Perennis tried to place equestrians in command of the legions, this punitive measure provoked a military revolt that eventually led to his downfall. Severus was not about to repeat this mistake, and therefore his new legions fitted with existing equestrian paradigms and career paths.

The foundation of the Parthian legions did, however, lead to changes in the expeditionary forces, particularly their overall command structure. The legio II Parthica was designed to accompany the emperor on campaign, a role it performed during Septimius Severus’ two Parthian wars and his British expedition. The question of whether the legion came under the direct command of the praefectus praetorio is a vexed one. In Cassius Dio’s Roman History the character Maecenas advises Octavian that the praetorian prefect should control all the forces stationed in Italy, a statement that could be taken refer to the situation in Dio’s own lifetime. As an official imperial comes during Severus’ Parthian campaigns, the prefect Fulvius Plautianus certainly joined the emperor in the east, but he is not mentioned in any specifically military capacity, in contrast with the abundant evidence for Severus’ senatorial generals leading troops in battle. It seems likely, therefore, that the authority of the praetorian prefect over the legio II Parthica evolved gradually. During Caracalla’s campaign against the Parthians his expeditionary force was composed of the legio II Parthica, the cohortes praetoriae, and the equites singulares Augusti, as well as vexillations of legions based on the German, Danubian and Syrian frontiers, totalling some 80-90,000 soldiers. This is what scholars call a `field army’, a modern term of convenience used to describe a large force composed of vexillations from a range of legions and auxiliary forces, which accompanied emperors or their leading generals on campaigns. Apart from the legio II Parthica, the only other legion that may have participated in Caracalla’s campaign as a complete unit was the legio II Adiutrix of Pannonia. This meant that the legio II Parthica was effectively the central core of the force and – although no ancient source explicitly attests this – the logical commander of the field army would be the praetorian prefect. Both of Caracalla’s prefects, M. Opellius Macrinus and M. Oclatinius Adventus, are known to have accompanied him to the east. This necessitated the appointment of a substitute prefect in Rome to handle the judicial responsibilities of the position (a problem we examined earlier in the chapter).

The legio II Parthica later formed the core of the forces marshalled by Severus Alexander and Gordian III for their eastern campaigns against the revived Persian empire. Indeed, it is during Gordian III’s reign that the connection between the legion and the praetorian prefect is shown clearly for the first time. Both the emperor’s praetorian prefects, C. Furius Sabinius Aquila Timesitheus and C. Iulius Priscus, formed part of the retinue that left Rome for the Persian front in AD 242. In the same year, Valerius Valens, praefectus vigilum, is attested in Rome `acting in place of the praetorian prefect’ (vice praef(ecti) praet(orio) agentis). In this capacity he oversaw the discharge of the veteran soldiers of the legio II Parthica. These men had originally enlisted in AD 216, and had been left behind in Rome rather than journeying to the east. The prefects on campaign with their emperor became enormously powerful individuals: C. Iulius Philippus, who succeeded Timesitheus, was able to arrange the downfall of Gordian III in the east, and returned to Rome as emperor. Successianus, an equestrian commander on the Black Sea in the 250s, was summoned by Valerian to serve as his praetorian prefect in the east, where he commanded the field army against the Persians. The composition of Valerian’s army is strikingly demonstrated by the account of the Roman forces in the account of the Persian king Shapur, known as the Res Gestae divi Saporis. This includes the detail that the praetorian prefect was captured by the Persians in AD 260 alongside the emperor and members of the senate. The employment of the legio II Parthica as a permanent core of the emperor’s own field army enhanced and consolidated the position of the praetorian prefect as a senior military commander in addition to the senatorial generals.

The rise of the field armies attached to the emperor and the praetorian prefect sometimes offered new opportunities to soldiers of other ranks. In the previous section we observed the marked correspondence between soldiers who served in the praetorian guard, the equites singulares, and the legio II Parthica, and those who obtained advancement into the militiae equestres or the promotion of their sons to equestrian rank. Proximity to the emperor and his senior staff on campaign evidently had its advantages. The same phenomenon can be observed in the careers of prefects of the legio II Parthica, which, since it accompanied Caracalla to the east, was intimately bound up with the political machinations of the years AD 217-18. In this period the empire passed from Caracalla to his prefect Macrinus and then to the boy emperor Elagabalus, with the crucial battles all happening in Syria. The commanders of the legio II Parthica included Aelius Triccianus, who had begun his career as a rank-and-file soldier in Pannonia and ostiarius (`door-keeper’) to the governor. Other ostiarii are attested as being promoted to centurion, so it is likely that Triccianus himself became a centurion and primus pilus, a career path attested for comparable equestrian legionary prefects. This was a spectacular career, but not unprecedented or improper. The same can be said for P. Valerius Comazon, who served as a soldier in Thrace early in his career, before rising to become praefectus of the legio II Parthica. Again, there is nothing truly exceptional in and of itself about soldiers who ascended to the Rome tribunates or camp prefecture via the primipilate. But the command of the legio II Parthica offered connections to the imperial court, and the favour of Macrinus and Elagabalus, respectively, enabled Aelius Triccianus and Valerius Comazon to enter the ranks of the senate. Their promotion earned the ire of the senatorial historian Cassius Dio, who disliked the progression of soldiers into the amplissimus ordo. Dio did not resent the advancement of equestrians per se, but the elevation of soldiers who were able to enter the equestrian order and then into the curia. Triccianus and Comazon were quite different from M. Valerius Maximianus, who originated from the curial classes of Pannonia. Such opportunities would only become more common as emperors spent more time on campaign with their field armies.

In addition to the creation of the Parthian legions and the growing importance of the field army, the first half of the third century AD witnessed equites appointed to ad hoc procuratorial military commands. We have already noted this phenomenon in the wars of Marcus Aurelius, when M. Valerius Maximianus and L. Iulius Vehilius Gallus Iulianus commanded army detachments with the rank of a procurator, as a way of compensating for the lack of any defined military pathway for equestrians after the militiae. In the reign of Severus Alexander, P. Sallustius Sempronius Victor was granted the ius gladii with a special commission to clear the sea of pirates, a command that was probably associated with his existing procuratorship in Bithynia and Pontus. This creation of new military commands within the procuratorial hierarchy can also be seen vividly in the case of Ae[l]ius Fir[mus]. Following a series of financial procuratorships in Pontus and Bithynia and Hispania Citerior (high-ranking posts in and of themselves), Fir[mus] was placed in charge of vexillations of the praetorian fleet, detachments of a legio I (possibly Parthica or Adiutrix), and another group of vexillations, in the Parthian War of Gordian III. In this capacity he ranked as an army commander and procurator at the ducenarian level, without actually holding a standing military post (such as fleet prefect, praesidial procurator or praetorian prefect). The adaptability of the equestrian careers to meet the new demands is demonstrated by the case of a certain Ulpius [-].227After series of administrative procuratorial positions, Ulpius was praepositus of the legio VII Gemina. Since this legion was normally stationed in northern Spain, Ulpius probably commanded vexillations of the legion in a war conducted in the reign of Philip. He then returned to the usual procuratorial cursus, serving as sub- praefectus annonae in Rome.

Some equestrians were given special appointments as dux with responsibility for a specific province or series of provinces. This can be observed in Egypt, where generals with the title of dux or σρατηλάτης [commander] appear in the 230s-240s. The archaic Greek word σρατηλάτης is rarely used in the imperial period before the third century AD; the only exception is inscribed account of the career of the Trajanic senator and general C. Iulius Quadratus Bassus at Ephesus. But it makes a reappearance in the third century AD to describe senior equestrian military commanders. The first Egyptian example is M. Aurelius Zeno Ianuarius, who replaced the prefect in some, or probably all, of his functions in AD 231. His military responsibilities should be connected with the beginning of Severus Alexander’s Persian War. The second dux/σρατηλάτης mis attested ten years later, in AD 241/2, which is precisely when war broke out between Romans and Persians again under Gordian III. This time, the dux was Cn. Domitius Philippus, the praefectus vigilum, who appears to have been sent directly to Egypt while retaining his post as commander of the vigiles. In both cases the new military command was an ad hoc addition to their usual equestrian cursus. The final example occurs in the 250s, when M. Cornelius Octavianus, vir perfectissimus, is attested as `general across Africa, Numidia and Mauretania’ (duci per Africam  Numidiam Mauretaniamque), with a commission to campaign against the Bavares. This substantial command was in succession to his appointment as governor of Mauretania Caesariensis. Octavianus then departed to become prefect of the fleet at Misenum, working his way to a senior post in the equestrian procuratorial cursus. All these cases show the essential adaptability of the imperial system, which allowed third-century emperors to appoint equestrians to senior military commands when it suited them. This may have been because an equestrian was the person the emperor trusted most in the circumstances; for example, Cn. Domitius Philippus, as praefectus vigilum, was one of the most senior officials in the empire. This represents the same pragmatic approach we saw in the appointment of equestrians as acting governors. On a practical level, it did not matter whether an army commander was an eques Romanus or a senator, because the military tasks that he was capable of performing, and was entrusted with by the emperor, were essentially the same. The new ad hoc army commands gave members of the equestris nobilitas further opportunities to serve the state domi militiaeque alongside the senatorial service elite.

At the same time, it is necessary to point out that these changes did not lead to senators being ousted from military commands prior to the reign of Gallienus. Rich epigraphic evidence, combined with the testimony of Dio and Herodian, preserves a long list of Septimius Severus’ senatorial generals. P. Cornelius Anullinus, L. Fabius Cilo, L. Marius Maximus, Ti. Claudius Candidus and L. Virius Lupus commanded Severus’ troops as duces or praepositi in one, or both, of his civil wars against Pescennius Niger and Clodius Albinus. Candidus also participated in the emperor’s Parthian campaigns, alongside Ti. Claudius Claudianus, T. Sextius Lateranus, Claudius Gallus, Iulius Laetus and a certain Probus. These senators were rewarded with a range of honours, from consulships and governorships to wealth and property (the sole exception was Laetus, who was executed for being too popular with the troops). In the face of such overwhelming testimony, it proves difficult to marshal support for the still-popular scholarly argument that Severus prioritised equestrian officers over senators. Equestrian commanders continued to participate in campaigns as subordinates to the senatorial generals, as we see in the case of L. Valerius Valerianus, who commanded the cavalry at the Battle of Issus under the authority of the consular legate, P. Cornelius Anullinus.

The same pattern can be found in Severus Alexander’s Persian War of AD 231-3. Herodian’s History, our major historical account of this conflict, is notoriously deficient in prosopographical detail. Yet senators are attested in inscriptions, as in the case of the senior consular comes, T. Clodius Aurelius Saturninus, who accompanied Alexander to the east. The senator L. Rutilius Pudens Crispinus, praetorian governor of Syria Phoenice and legate of the legio III Gallica, also served as a commander of vexillations during this conflict. But we only know about Crispinus’ command from an inscription from Palmyra, which recounts the assistance rendered by the local dignitary Iulius Aurelius Zenobius to Alexander, Crispinus and the Roman forces. The inscribed account of Crispinus’ career from Rome merely states that he was legatus Augusti pro praetore of Syria Phoenice. It is probable that senatorial governors, such as D. Simonius Proculus Iulianus, consular legate of Syria Coele, continued to play important roles in eastern conflicts under Gordian III. Indeed, the evidence for equestrian procurators acting vice praesidis in Syria Coele, discussed above, suggests that the procurator assumed judicial responsibilities while the consular governor was preoccupied with warfare. This indicates that senatorial governors continued to play a major part in military campaigns, even if it was not specifically noted in inscriptions recording their cursus.

This argument is supported by the literary sources that show senators assuming military commands through to the middle decades of the third century AD. We can observe this in particular in the Danubian and Balkan region, which was a near-continuous conflict zone. Tullius Menophilus fought against the Goths as legatus Augusti pro praetore of Moesia Inferior in the reign of Gordian III. During the incursion of the Goths under Cniva in AD 250/1, the Moesian governor C. Vibius Trebonianus Gallus successfully defended the town of Nova. In AD 253 M. Aemilius Aemilianus, governor of one of the Moesian provinces, pursued the fight against the Goths, before being acclaimed emperor. Senators also continued to receive special commands, as in the case of C. Messius Quintus Decius Valerinus and P. Licinius Valerianus, both future emperors, who were placed in charge of expeditionary forces by the emperors Philip and Aemilius Aemilianus, respectively. In Numidia, the governor C. Macrinius Decianus conducted a major campaign against several barbarian tribes in the middle of the 250s. In fact, if we examine the backgrounds of the generals who claimed the purple up to and including the reign of Gallienus, the majority of them were actually senators, a fact obscured by the common use of the term `soldier emperor’ for rulers of this period. Decius, one of the few known senators from Pannonia, successfully allied himself with an Etruscan senatorial family when he married the eminently suitable Herennia Cupressenia Etruscilla. His successor, Trebonianus Gallus, was of remarkably similar background to Etruscilla, coming from Perusia in central Italy. The emperor Valerian likewise had close links with the Italian senatorial aristocracy, marrying into the family of the Egnatii. Some of the more ephemeral emperors deserve notice too, such as Ti. Claudius Marinus Pacatianus, the descendant of a Severan senatorial governor, who rebelled in the reign of Philip. P. Cassius Regalianus, who was probably consular legate of Pannonia Superior when he began an insurrection against Gallienus in 260, was himself descended from a Severan suffect consul. These men were not soldiers promoted from the ranks, but senatorial generals who used their positions to make a play for the imperial purple.

The Roman military hierarchy in the first half of the third century AD was therefore characterised by a mixture of continuity and change. The creation of the legio II Parthica, and the necessity for the emperor and his praetorian prefects to campaign on a regular basis, meant that emperor was in close contact with members of the expeditionary forces. Officers in the field army could receive imperial favour and embark on spectacular careers, like Aelius Triccianus or Valerius Comazon, or even Iulius Philippus, the praetorian prefect who snatched the purple from Gordian III while in the east. It is no coincidence that many of the soldiers’ sons attested with equestrian rank belonged to the praetorian guard, the equites singulares and the legio II Parthica. At the same time, the imperial state tried to create senior army roles for promising equites in a manner analogous to senatorial legates by instituting ad hoc procuratorial commands (as seen in the case of Valerius Maximianus and Vehilius Gallus Iulianus). This gave members of the equestris nobilitas, the equestrian aristocracy of service, access to army officer commands beyond the militiae equestres. It should be noted that for the most part these men were not lowborn ingénues from the ranks, but members of the municipal aristocracy who served the res publica in a comparable manner to senators, as their predecessors had before them. It is also imperative to point out the endurance of tradition within the high command. Senatorial legates and generals still commanded armies in the emperor’s foreign wars on the Rhine, Danube and Euphrates frontiers. Their military authority continued to make them viable and desirable candidates for the purple in the first half of the third century AD. There was as yet no attempt to undermine the positions of senatorial tribunes or legionary legates. It was the dramatic developments in the 250s-260s that provided the catalyst to set the empire on a radically different path.