Second Intermediate Period—Foundation of the Egyptian Armies I

The past decade has seen a resuscitation of scholarly interest concerning the military arm of pharaonic Egypt. This reinvigoration of a perennial topic has brought with it a deeper understanding of the cultural aspects of the warrior class as well as a more fundamental perception of the archaeological implication of war logistics. The emphasis upon the Egyptian New Kingdom, nonetheless, remains strong, if only due to the wealth of textual (inscriptional and literary) information still extant and the accompanying artistic depictions. Yet one must turn back to the Second Intermediate Period in order to see the fundamental substructure of the war machine of the Egyptian empire, a foundation that owed its importance to new technology and a new ideological framework (Cavillier 2001).

The period of Hyksos domination in Egypt, traditionally placed at the end of the 13th Dynasty and running through to the reign of Ahmose, first king of the 18th Dynasty, remains a very controversial and complicated subject (Oren 1997; Ryholt 1997: 295-310). Among all of the chronological and historical uncertainties, one of the more difficult remains that of the arrival of the horse and chariot in Egypt. Not surprisingly, the origins of the words for the new modes of warfare, encompassing war material (for example, armour, swords and chariots), are either Semitic or cannot be identified.

Although it took some time for the development of a military caste of elite chariot warriors to rise within the social sphere of the Nile Valley, there is no doubt that a transformation of the state, including its king, was the outcome. In particular, we can note the new ideological flavour of the 18th Dynasty monarchs. Repeatedly, they went to war. Campaigns became part and parcel of their normal activity. When young, princes were fully integrated within the Egyptian army, learning the special crafts of charioteer warfare and being inculcated with the ideology of an expanding Egyptian state. At the same time, these men were closely associated with their non-royal compatriots, officers within the army, whose backgrounds reflected the importance of their families at home.

Because horsemanship and driving war vehicles were now a desideratum for any future pharaoh, so too was the ability to lead men and to organize, both tactically and strategically, the manoeuvres necessary to propagate this new ideal. But there was yet another embedded feature of kingship: pharaohs were now skilled archers. Their `sporting activities’ were no longer limited to hunting or fishing but now included archery, handling of horses and chariots, spear/javelin throwing, oarsmanship and the like. How much the presence of foreign specialists within Egypt aided the Egyptians to advance on their own with these new technologies is another matter. The switch from copper to arsenical bronze was accomplished in the 12th Dynasty but the introduction of `true’ bronze for use in axes, to take a case in point, was later (Davies 1987: 96-101). It is possible that the frequent numbers of Canaanites (or Syrians) who resided in Egypt in the late Middle Kingdom helped to prepare a basis of reception for the acquisition of these new military items (Sparks 2004).

In the time of the Hyksos, one type of small horse was imported into the eastern delta (Decker 1965: 35-59; Spalinger 2005: 8-15). The exact date cannot be deter mined with accuracy, despite the on-going excavation at the Hyksos capital, Avaris (Tell el-Dab’a). Coming from Western Asia, equids had been domesticated for a long time in the steppe regions of southern Russia, and slowly but surely this art moved into the Near East. Along with the horses came chariots, vehicles that at first were small and clumsy, having two wheels that were solid. Later, changes in technology as well as technique meant that by c. 1800 BC lightweight chariots with two wheels (each having four spokes), and drawn by two horses, became the norm (Littauer and Crouwel 1979). With them came a whole group of military men, the charioteers, who were to form the higher level of military society (Gnirs 1996: 17-34).

These changes can be observed by the end of the 17th Dynasty. At that time, the southern state of Thebes, controlling approximately 40 per cent of the length of Egypt, was at war with the north (the Hyksos) and the south (Nubians). The `mutually hostile state’ of Egypt’s relations with the Nubians is nowhere better seen than in the evidence from the tomb of Sobeknakht of Elkab (Davies 2003a). Earlier written evidence allows us to picture an encapsulated Theban state, beset by enemies to the north and the south, but one that was able to press forward owing to its theological political foundations (Vernus 1982; 1989a). Indeed, at this time the native southern Egyptian concept of `victorious Thebes’ became overpowering (Helck 1968: 119-20; Aufrere 2001a). True, the personalized concept of the capital of a native Egyptian state, in this case Thebes of the 17th Dynasty rulers, goes back to earlier divided times, specifically to the First Intermediate Period (Franke 1990; Morenz 2005). But in the Second Intermediate Period there was an added factor, namely the foreign occupation of Egypt. From the south, Nubians penetrated downstream, while in the north a foreign-based dynasty held power over the entire delta as well as central Egypt, ultimately controlling Middle Egypt up to Cusae. The galvanization of any political strength could only come from an amalgam of a new theological-political basis as well as the new military forms of warfare used by the Hyksos themselves.

Because of its relatively limited extent, Thebes at the beginning of the 17th Dynasty was forced to develop a new military arm, based on a large number of its young men who could use horses and chariots, but who also had to be inculcated with a messianic feeling of nationalism (Ryholt 1997: 181-3, 301-10). That there was no simple, single cause-and-effect relationship among all the developments in military technology is clear (Shaw 2001). For example, a large number of military men, the so-called `king’s sons’, proliferate in the epigraphic record at this time (Schmitz 1976; Quirke 2004a). They were personally connected to the pharaoh, not by physical birth but, rather, through social and economic dependence. Equally, the administrative set-up of the Theban state reveals that some key cities and nomes possessed garrisons and military commandants, in addition to the expected civilian mayors. It is clear that this kingdom operated in a high state of military preparedness. Yet it still retained the naval orientation of earlier times. The royal flotilla was the basis of the army, and despite the gradual increase in importance of the chariotry, the old elite of marines formed the backbone of the Theban military (Berlev 1967).

The advantages that the Thebans had over their foes in the north and the south are hard to determine. Over time, they had organized a centralized state which, owing to its geographical limitations, could be easily run on a military basis. Yet practical considerations are never the only factor determining social cohesion and success. As noted above, the kingdom was set within a theological concept that placed the city of Thebes and its god Amun at the core. The Amun theology was linked with the warrior aspect of the monarch and thus his kingdom. `Victorious Thebes’ was not merely an image: it was as much a personification as an extension of the will of pharaoh and of the Theban godhead, Amun (Assmann 1992a). This feeling, one that can be seen later in private inscriptions (such as that of the naval man Ahmose Son of Abana), indicates that Thebes was `our land’. In other words, a strong and cohesive ideological force was engendered that was able to provide this state, earlier beset by foes, with a raison d’etre for military opposition and expansion. We must remember that Thebes could rightfully claim to be Egyptian in leadership and history, and by now Amun had become, theologically, the father of the warrior-king.

This nationalistic aspect of late Second Intermediate Period Egypt is well illustrated in King Kamose’s wars against the Hyksos and also from later accounts that cover this era of foreign occupation (Habachi 1972a; Smith and Smith 1976). Kamose’s royal account, composed on two stelae by his chancellor Nehy, keenly reveals the cultural bias against Apophis, the Pharaoh’s enemy. The Hyksos ruler is always called an `Asiatic’. The dichotomy between him and the son of Amun, `Kamose-the-Brave’, is a theme that runs throughout the inscriptions. Both of them were set up within the religious precinct of Karnak. All that the god wished came to pass, the result being Kamose’s victory celebration upon his return to the capital. The purpose of the narrative account was not to describe the war in a classically narrative manner. Instead, there are various literary strands from different sources that enter into the composition. For example, we learn of a previous conflict between the Thebans and the Nubians. The remarkably swift move north by means of the royal fleet is never explained, and on the basis of a later story, Apophis and Sekenenra, it is assumed that the warfare recounted here is actually a continuance of recent conflict of Thebes versus the north (Wente 1973). But the collective memory of the entire Hyksos episode, in conjunction with the final wars of `expulsion’, was purposely kept in mind by the rulers of Thebes for some time, and indeed propagated to and by the elite (Redford 1970; Assmann 1992b, 1997). It is worthwhile to note that a later ruler of Egypt, Hatshepsut of the mid-18th Dynasty, still felt it effective to refer to Egypt’s `occupation’ by the Hyksos, in order to bolster her propaganda (Allen 2002b).

This persistent attitude of extreme hostility is the major aspect of both Kamose’s official war record and that of the soldier-sailor Ahmose son of Abana (Lichtheim 1976: 12-15). Both place emphasis upon the direct moves against the Hyksos citadel at Avaris. Kamose has his narrative interrupted by a letter from the Hyksos ruler to his Nubian counterpart, promising an alliance, and uses the event to show to the elite of Egypt how dastardly were his opponents’ plans to crush the Thebans from two directions, the south and the north. Ahmose son of Abana, on the other hand, is keen to demonstrate his ability on the field, but likewise places emphasis upon the trapped nature of the foe while proclaiming his role in terms that are overtly nationalistic and xenophobic.

But there is additional information that can be brought into the equation. After Kamose died, he was followed by Ahmose, possibly his younger cousin (Bennett 1995: 42-4). The wars in the delta still continued. We lack any narrative, literary record of war from this time, even though Ahmose published an important document, the Tempest Stela, in which the Hyksos’ control over the land was associated with a recent storm (Wiener and Allen 1998). The manifestation of `the great god’, clearly Amun, is placed at the forefront of the literary account. Ahmose, with his troops on both sides of him (note the military setting of the king) and the council to the rear, inspects his territories and later restores cult centres and ritual activities that had ceased. A new interpretation of the monument has placed emphasis upon possible unrest caused by the ongoing wars in the north with the Hyksos, and there is little doubt, when one examines the chronology, that the final conquest of the Hyksos capital took at least ten to 15 years of warfare. Evidently, the king’s presumed success was won after a long and hard-fought struggle (Spalinger 2005: 22-4, 31 note 36). The so-called Tempest Stela is significant in this context as it appears to indicate that the king’s presence away from his capital, Thebes, at least in his opening years, was considered to be a problem. The account of the `catastrophe’ was theologically interpreted as `a manifestation of Amun’s desire that Ahmose return to Thebes’ (Wiener and Allen 1998: 18). Unfortunately, the extent of the damage to the inscrip tion, as well as the difficulty in separating metaphors from their core literal meanings, hinder our understanding of this important composition.

We are fortunate to possess a series of fragments from Ahmose’s religious complex at Abydos. There, in limestone, was carved a series of narrative scenes in which the king’s final move against the Hyksos fortress at Avaris was depicted. In addition, the presence of the royal fleet reveals the enduring necessity at that time for the use of the marine-based army system for campaigns within the Nile Valley. After all, travel by water was considerably more effective in time and expense than travel by land. Because the Nile served as the umbilical cord for transportation and communication, he who had control of Egypt’s only river possessed the kingdom. Thus the traditional nature of Egyptian warfare had been ship-based, and Ahmose, in his war reliefs, indicates that this system was still in place (Harvey 1998, 2004; Spalinger 2005: 19-23). Elsewhere, the king deports himself in a chariot, shooting his arrow from his massive bow, a scene that was to be the fundamental iconic base of all Egyptian visual narratives of war (Heinz 2001). The helpless opponents flee away from the superhuman king and his army. What distinguishes these pictures from later ones is the presence of Ahmose’s fleet. Because subsequent wars of the New Kingdom were concentrated in lands to the north, south or west, such visual narratives selected the natural means of fighting: with horses and chariots, and accompanying footsoldiers and charioteers. All of the later images of power reverberate through these reliefs. The mimetic restructuring of the king no longer placed him solely, or even mainly, within cultic roles at home, but now located the ruler far away from the capital and engaging a perennial foe. The fact that Ahmose’s enemy was an Asiatic helped him to no small degree in redrawing the cultural boundaries of his nascent dynasty. Most certainly, with the fall of Avaris, the way was open for a consolidation of Egyptian trade routes and mercantile centres on the southern coast of Palestine.


Second Intermediate Period—Foundation of the Egyptian Armies II

Egyptian Infantry in the Middle Kingdom : 1. Archer, 2. Light Spearman, 3. Nubian Archer, 4. Phalanx Spearman, 5. Axeman, 6. Javelineer | Standards: (a) Standard of Hare Nome, (b) The Scepter Nome, (c) Anupu – The Black Dog Nome

Egyptian Soldiers, New Kingdom, 18th Dynasty: 1. Pharaoh Ahmose, 2. Officer, 3. Infantry, 4. Syrian Chariot Warrior, 5. Horseman, 6. High Ranking Officer, 7. Hyksos Chariot Warrior, 8. Canaanite Spearman

New Kingdom Egyptian armies added massed chariotry to the already sophisticated infantry tactics of the Middle Kingdom. Nevertheless, in contrast to the Canaanites, the Egyptians continued to rely heavily on their infantry, although both Thutmose III at Megiddo and Ramesses II at Kadesh berate their foot for lack of discipline.


It is thought-provoking to analyse the events surrounding the earlier seizure of the crucial site of Sile (Tjaru). Recent excavations have thrown welcome light on this matter, but the key point is that this fortress in the north-eastern delta served as the entrance and the exit of merchants, armies and tribes alike (Morris 2005: 46-7, 56-60). Sile, probably the second most important base of Hyksos control, fell to Ahmose before the capital itself. Located at Tell el-Hebua, it seems to have been significant from the Second Intermediate Period on, and bears witness to the intimate economic relations that the Hyksos had with their neighbours in Palestine. We can assume that the king’s troops used the numerous canals and small waterways in order to advance swiftly upon the citadel. The decisive battle, nonetheless, had to be fought outside the walls, in what was to become the standard means of military warfare: the king or his troops advance inland; they engage their opponents in the field outside a city or fortress; the fighting is chariot-based, and when the defending side loses, the city surrenders. This was the ideal system of Egyptian military conflict, one that occurs again and again in their pictorial reports carved on temple walls (Gaballa 1976).

The process of expansion by means of war rapidly became a principal raison d’etre of the re-unified Egyptian kingdom. The old conflict with Nubia never ceased, and we find not only Kamose but also his immediate successors (Ahmose, Amenhotep I and Thutmose I) pushing their fleet and army considerably upstream. To some degree, this was conceived as a reconquest of lost provinces that Egypt once held, in particular the territory between the First and Second Cataracts. That region, named Wawat, was soon to be completely incorporated into the Egyptian economy. Buhen at the Second Cataract was quickly established as the administrative focus of Egypt’s imperialistic desires. In similar fashion, the island of Sai at the Second Cataract was converted into yet another fortress-town. This practice is known only from the southern zone of Egypt’s control (Morris 2005: 112-13). Asia appears to have been another matter, probably because the logistics of political and military domination were more complex.

Under the first two rulers of the 18th Dynasty there is little evidence that the Egyptians were able to control Palestine. The need to develop a larger fighting force, composed of elite charioteers, was not at the core of the difficulty: distance and isolation were. Thus it was somewhat troublesome for King Ahmose to capture the southern Palestinian city of Sharuhen (Spalinger 2005: 34 note 31); sieges are notoriously the result of an army’s incapacity to effect a swift battlefield decision. Within Egypt proper, troops and supplies could be quickly dispatched to problematic regions with little fear of interruption, and this was also the case in Nubia. In Western Asia, on the other hand, there were no rivers that could provide such logistical support except for the faraway Euphrates in eastern Syria. Thus a different system of logistics had to be developed, one based on the active support of local cities, reinforced by key military bases. This took time.

This key difference between Asia and Nubia explains the seemingly rapid takeover of Lower Nubia (the province of Wawat) by the time of the death of Thutmose I, as well as territory south to the Third Cataract. This king even moved his flotilla far beyond the Fourth Cataract, and his exploits indicate just how effective the Egyptian logistical system was (Davies 2004). We must not assume that such an extensive voyage and the submission or defeat of the locals at the extreme limits of the known universe implies that Egypt could hold such territory. Superior military technology – in particular better bronze weapons, chariots and horses – could overwhelm the locals. In addition, the Nile was a perfect artery for expansion. Nonetheless – and the Nubian work projects of Amenhotep I and Thutmose I prove this – two key problems came to the fore. In order for Egyptian imperialism to be maintained, supply bases as well as military garrisons were needed: hence, the development of an 18th Dynasty fortress system, coupled with permanent occupation. At the same time, once the distances east and west of the Nile broadened, severe constraints were placed on Egyptian political and military control.

One reason why Middle Kingdom control over Nubia was more limited than that of the New Kingdom lies in the lower technological level at that time (O’Connor 1993; O’Connor and Reid 2003). In the 12th Dynasty, Egypt could move beyond the Second Cataract, as attested by campaigns against the Kingdom of Kerma. But Egypt could not control lands further south; hence, the major building projects of the 12th Dynasty in the Second Cataract region. This is not to deny that in the early New Kingdom major crises occurred in Nubia. One well-known case was the eruption of rebellion at the time of Thutmose I’s death (Gabolde 2004). The severity of the disturbance indicates that `pacification’ did not automatically mean control.

The first century or so of the New Kingdom may be said to have provided the bases of military and political domination over Palestine and Nubia. Equally, this period witnessed the gradual development of the Egyptian army with a more complex system of administration. By the reign of Thutmose III, the chariot divisions with their leaders had come to the fore in the military (Gnirs 1996: 12-17, 31-4). `Field marshals’ of non-royal blood ran the officer class. The gradual transformation of a marine-oriented army to a land-based one entailed the establishment of a new and increasingly important career path. The military had become a powerful corporation in its own right, and with the king leading it in person, the ethos of the army and the concept of kingship had altered (Spalinger 2005: 70-80). Now, the rulers of Egypt were expected to engage in wars, to show their virility in the field, to bring back prisoners as proof of success, and to return thanks and captives to the godhead, Amun. In fact, it seems that every campaign began in the temple of Amun where a `speech oracle’ (Schenke 1960) took place during which Amun promised victory to his son, the living king. The trip to foreign and distant lands commenced from, and returned to, the religious centre of Thebes.

All kings, including Hatshepsut, were obliged to perform military deeds. Begun as a nationalistic reaction against the internally divided nature of the home country, war now assumed a permanent aspect of society that embraced all key members, not just the king and his officers. The temples included age-old ritual smiting scenes on their walls, updated to reflect the circumstance of Asiatic and Nubian prisoners. The king comported himself in a militaristic manner, whether through his manly acts of archery and horsemanship in war or peace, or within a temple bequeathing captives to workhouses, if not death (Hornung 1982a). If the influence of the newly won empire led to independence of action and confidence in strength, it also meant that the kingdom had now become one of the superpowers of the day (Redford 1995).

The independent reign of Thutmose III is traditionally seen as the apogee of the 18th Dynasty’s military might and success. If so, and his published war record attempted to prove this, it was obtained only after many decades of continual warfare (Redford 2003; Cavillier 2003). There are two major divisions within the military reports of Thutmose III, although both were considered to belong together. The first covers the momentous campaign of the king to the central Palestinian city of Megiddo. That narration, detailed and historically sober, focuses upon the background to the war as well as the heroic deeds of the monarch. These two aspects permeate the composition. We learn that the north Syrian city of Kadesh was an active supporter of the resistance, undoubtedly hoping to deflect pharaonic strength away from itself. It is also evident from the official report that this opposition to Egyptian control had come about because of Egypt’s seemingly unopposed success at an earlier time. Even though we do not know precisely the depth of Egyptian control in Asia, it is clear that if Thutmose I was able to fight on the Upper Euphrates, none of the small city-states of Palestine and Syria was able, on its own, to resist Egypt effectively. Some have even argued that Palestine was devastated by the Egyptians in the early 18th Dynasty, a hypothesis that still needs clear proof (Spalinger 2005: 65-6 note 7 and 96-7). If so, the opposition of the Palestinian cities with support from Syria makes further sense.

These shows of armed resistance received support from the Syrian kingdom of Mitanni. Earlier, under Thutmose I, Egypt had engaged in war with Mitanni without, however, being able to achieve a decisive victory, since Mitannian power was equal to Egypt’s. Mitanni stood close to the Lebanon and maintained indirect control over central and south-eastern Syria. Any forays of Egypt into its heartland met with stiff opposition. So it is not surprising to find Mitanni actively championing a major revolt in Palestine against Egyptian control. Significantly, the subsequent northern wars of Thutmose III – Nubia had ceased to be a thorn in the side of Egypt by now – were directed inland and across Syria to the heartland of Mitanni. But before Thutmose could press his army so deep into Asia, he had to crush the rebellion at Megiddo.

In his later campaigns, all of which preoccupied him up to his forty-second regnal year, Thutmose III moved troops and war material north, through the age-old trade routes of the Via Maris on the coast, or the King’s Highway in the central valley of Palestine and Syria. Furthermore, the Egyptians secured the harbours of the Lebanon, used the ports as staging bases, and campaigned inland against Kadesh and eventually Mitanni. This intense fighting ought to indicate that neither mere heroism nor personal satisfaction was at the heart of the matter. Although the economic implications of Egypt’s hegemony over Asia are still murky, it can be argued that Egypt had become reliant upon the region for long-range trade as well as the possible importation of horses and chariots, the power force always needed for any army at this time. Egypt’s desire to maintain control of the Levantine ports further highlights its indirect economic influence over the eastern Mediterranean. Indeed, the recent argument that the port of Perunefer, Egyptian for `good departure’, was located at Avaris/Tell el-Dab#a, emphasizes even more the need that the Egyptians had for an aggressive marine policy (Bietak 2005). Finally, all of this control could only be maintained by some type of policing, a point that has been investigated in detail from the voluminous data revealed in the Amarna Letters (Pintore 1973; Na’aman 1975; Liverani 1990, 1994; Bryce 2003).

By the end of the reign of Thutmose III, a rigorous policy of garrisons had come to exist in Asia. Though small in number, such troops served as a `civil guard’ necessary to aid and support small wars. Local princes were closely watched and often deposed if they attempted to shake off Egyptian control. One new fortress in the Lebanon is known from the reign of Thutmose III (Morris 2005: 213). By this time, the personal involvement of the king was no longer significant. In the subsequent reign of Amenhotep II, for example, the king fought in person only twice, although a third war is known to have occurred when he was regent with his father. Thutmose IV went abroad once, to Nubia. The role of the various Egyptian `commissioners’ and garrison soldiers was locally based. Their duty was to keep the peace and not actively to upset any urban power, city or kingdom. Local troops would have been busy in their attempt to repel local marauders, especially the tribes circulating around the borders of eastern and southern Palestine (known to the Egyptians as `Shasu’) (Giveon 1971; Ward 1972). This persisted into the following dynasty, as the various Late Egyptian Miscellanies reveal (Moers 2001; Spalinger 2005: 267-9). The inter national correspondence of the Amarna Letters, dated to the reign of Amenhotep IV, reveals similarly parochial, though extremely bothersome, concerns.

Rome at the Cusp of Barbarian Invasion: The Vandals I



The Gathering Storm

At some point at the end of the fourth century or beginning of the fifth, the Huns moved westward again. They occupied the Hungarian plain and sent a new wave of refugees up against the Roman frontiers. This time the Vandals were amongst them. Led by Godegisel, the Asdings were probably the first to move and some were pushing up against the Danube and raiding into Raetia as early as 401. These early Vandal raiders were defeated by Stilicho and some of the survivors may have been engaged as foederati (federates), given land in exchange for military service.

It is worth pausing for a moment to consider just how momentous a decision it must have been for the Vandals to up-sticks and move. Despite their later wanderings, the Vandals were settled farmers and not nomads. They had lived in more or less the same part of central Europe for hundreds of years and by migrating westward they would leave everything that was familiar behind forever.

The decision would not have been taken lightly, nor quickly. Around the council fires there must have been many voices arguing to stay put and come to some sort of accord with the Huns. Other Germanic peoples, such as the Gepids, did take that option and in the end seem to have done fairly well by it. It may be that the decision to move was influenced by other factors than simply terror at the approach of the Huns. In all likelihood some warriors decided to strike out early, like those who raided Raetia in 401, then as conditions worsened others made the move, taking their families with them.

Procopius, writing in the sixth century, attributes the Vandal migration to famine. Perhaps there had been several poor harvests which made staying put in face of the advancing Huns a less than promising option. It is also interesting to note that Procopius also says that not all the Vandals migrated: `When the Vandals originally pressed by hunger, were about to remove from their ancestral abodes, a certain part of them was left behind who were reluctant to go and not desirous of following Godegisel.’

It is generally assumed that, unlike the Goths, all the Vandals – both Silings and Asdings, men, women and children – migrated west in the early fifth century. Archeology tends to back this up. Material goods connected with the so-called Przeworsk culture have been found in the Vandals’ central European heartland dating back centuries. Then, suddenly, from the start of the fifth century these artefacts disappear from the archeological record entirely. It may be that there was a split as Procopius says and that the end of the Przeworsk culture could be accounted for by the warrior elites moving on, leaving the others behind to fall under Hun overlordship or be absorbed by other tribes. We cannot know for certain but on balance it would seem as though most, if not all, Vandals moved west to seek a new home inside the Roman Empire. This would not have been a coordinated migration but rather decisions made by individual groups, with some moving earlier and others joining in later. As each group made their decision, they would have had to weigh up the difficulties of their present situation against the possibility of a better life in the future.

What realistic hope did the Vandals have of carving out new lands for themselves inside the Empire? Most barbarian incursions into Roman territory were doomed to failure. They might achieve initial success but eventually the Romans would prevail, destroying the invaders and following up with punitive raids against their homelands. The aftermath of Adrianople in 378 had broken this mould. When the Vandals were contemplating their options they would have been well aware that the descendants of the Gothic victors at Adrianople had both land and status within the Empire. The Franks had also been granted land on the west bank of the Rhine in exchange for military service, and all the tribes along the Rhine frontier – Franks, Burgundians and Alamanni – had done quite well out of recent treaties with Stilicho.

The Vandals must have thought that they too could hope for a similar arrangement, especially if the man in charge, Stilicho, was himself a Vandal on his father’s side. Jordanes goes as far as to say that the Vandals were invited into the Empire by Stilicho:

`A long time afterward they [the Vandals] were summoned thence [to Gaul] by Stilicho, Master of the Soldiery, Ex-Consul and Patrician, and took possession of Gaul. Here they plundered their neighbours and had no settled place of abode.’

Could there be any truth to this claim?

Gaul had been a thorn in Stilicho’s side for years. It was the place where rivals could and did rise up to challenge him and the Emperor Honorius, whom he protected. His interest was in maintaining his power base in Italy, keeping an eye on Alaric’s Goths in the Balkans and playing politics with Constantinople. The Gallic Army had been decimated in the civil wars of the late-fourth century, and in 401 Stilicho withdrew more troops from Gaul to support his struggle against Alaric’s Goths who were threatening Italy. While the Rhine defences needed bolstering, the last thing Stilicho wanted was another strong Gallic Army to challenge him. Therefore it is not beyond the realm of possibility that he would have been tempted to have his Vandal cousins move into Gaul as his surrogates. Even if Stilicho had not formally invited the Vandals, maybe there had been communications which some Vandal leaders had interpreted as an invitation, even if they were only meant as polite diplomatic words.

Virtually all modern historians discount collusion between Stilicho and the Vandals, despite the former’s ancestry and despite the fact that he did very little to oppose their crossing into Gaul. The Vandals were not the only barbarians on the move. Goths, Suevi, Alans and others were forced out of their central European homelands by the Huns, famine or both in the first years of the fifth century. Even when the Vandals crossed the Rhine, they were probably a minority partner to the Suevi and Alans. Furthermore, Stilicho’s policy had been to rely on the Franks and other western Germanic tribes to secure the Rhine for him in place of Roman soldiers. This policy seemed to have worked relatively well and there would have been no reason for him to change it. In the unlikely event that there had been any understanding between Stilicho and some of the Vandal leaders, the chain of events in the first decade of the fifth century were so cataclysmic to overwhelm all involved.

All of a sudden hundreds of thousands of people were willingly or unwillingly on the move, and the Vandals were only a small part of this movement. Most probably the decisions to migrate were sparked off by the westward expansion of the Huns, but no doubt many other factors came into play as well. These may have included food shortages, although the climatic records from around 400 do not reveal any unusual weather patterns. Probably there was also a degree of opportunism on the part of the Vandals, Suevi and Alans, as they saw how Stilicho was otherwise occupied and knew that the Rhine defences were relatively thin.

As the Huns migrated from the Eurasian steppes into central Europe, the first wave of displaced Germans to break over the Roman frontier was led by Radagasius, a Goth, who brought a large army into Italy in 405. The composition of Radagasius’ force is not known but probably it was a coalition of various Germanic peoples, possibly including some Asding Vandals. It included women and children as well as warriors, so it was a migration rather than a raiding force. Radagasius’ force was large enough to require Stilicho to call on thirty units from the Roman field army as well as Hun and Alan auxiliaries to oppose him. He also withdrew yet more troops from the Rhine frontier to bolster Italy’s defences. This probably gave Stilicho something in the region of 20-25,000 men.

It is interesting to note that, according to the Notitia Dignitatum, the Italian field army contained seven cavalry and thirty-seven infantry units in the fifth century, with another twelve cavalry and forty-eight infantry units in the Gallic Army. These were on top of the border troops stationed along the frontiers. Yet it took a great deal of time and effort to gather the thirty units needed to oppose Radagasius, leaving the invaders plenty of time to ravage northern Italy while Stilicho marshalled his forces. This is good example of just how misleading official army organizational lists can be. Unit strengths and levels of readiness can vary hugely and often only a tiny fraction of the theoretical military capability can be deployed. This remains a problem even in the modern world. If we think of the huge efforts it took by NATO nations and others to maintain relatively small numbers of troops in Afghanistan to deal with insurgents, then we have some idea of the problems facing the Romans in the fifth century.

In the end, Stilicho decisively defeated Radagaisus near Florence on 23 August 406. Then he fixed his attention firmly on the east, oblivious or unaware of the storm gathering to the north and west.

The Storm Breaks

The coalition of Asding and Siling Vandals, together with Alans and Suevi, crossed the Rhine on 31 December 406. This is the date given by Prosper of Aquitaine. In recent years some historians have made a case for the crossing taking place a year earlier – that is on 31 December 405. This is partly based on the fact that Zosimus says that the ravaging of Gaul took place in 406 and it is unlikely he would have assigned that year if the barbarians only crossed on the last day of it. Also in 406 there were a number of usurpations in Britain and these are often seen as a reaction to the lack of response to the invasion of Gaul by the Imperial authorities. To make matters more confusing, Orosius says that the Rhine crossing took place two years before the Gothic sack of Rome, which would be 408.

The arguments is for shifting the occasion of the Rhine crossing and therefore we prefer to stick with the rather precise date Prosper has given us of New Year’s Eve 406. But before trying to reconstruct the actual Rhine crossing itself, we should look at what was happening in the months that led up to it.

By the end of 405, Stilicho had defeated Radagasius and incorporated 12,000 of the survivors into his army, while others dispersed to join Alaric’s Goths in the Balkans and the westward-moving Vandals. In 406, a series of revolts took place in Britain with the British Army proclaiming Marcus and Gratian in quick succession as Emperor before assassinating their candidates when they did not do as the army wished. Towards the end of 406, the British Army settled on a soldier with the suitably Imperial name of Constantine (Constantine III), who managed to retain their approval. Meanwhile Stilicho became embroiled in a fight with Constantinople over control of the Balkans. Parts of the Balkan provinces had previously belonged to the Western Empire but had been transferred to the East several years earlier. Stilicho wanted them back as they were a prime recruiting ground for soldiers. Additionally, it would give him territory he could offer to Alaric in order to finally come to a lasting and peaceful settlement with his troublesome Goths.

Meanwhile, the Vandals had been moving slowly westward as part of a greater movement of displaced peoples. After the failure of Radagasius’ migration across the Danube, the southern route into the Roman Empire had to be ruled out, leaving the Rhine frontier as their only hope. If we discount any collusion with Stilicho, it is unlikely that the Vandals had detailed intelligence of the state of Roman defences along the west bank of the Rhine, just as Stilicho was apparently unaware of the large westward movements beyond the frontier. This does, of course, call into question whether or not there may have been some collusion.

The problem for the Vandals was that if the west bank of the Rhine may have been relatively weakly defended, the east bank was not. The powerful Alemannic and Frankish confederacies were well established on the upper and lower Rhine respectively, with the Burgundians edging into the gap between them. These tribes had been in long contact with Rome and had benefited from it. Their societies had greater material wealth than the Vandals, more developed organizational structures and they were being subsidized by Rome to hold the Rhine frontier. The last thing they would have welcomed would have been a new group of illegal immigrants knocking on their door for a piece of the action.

Rome at the Cusp of Barbarian Invasion: The Vandals II

Unsurprisingly, the arrival of the Vandal migrants led to conflict as the Franks and Alamanni attempted to close their borders. There were probably many small engagements as groups of new immigrants tried their luck, only to be repulsed. Most of these have gone unrecorded, but at some point there was a major battle between the Vandals and the Franks. Fragments of the contemporary writer Renatus Profuturus Frigeridus, preserved by Gregory of Tours, say that the Vandals were on the brink of a catastrophic defeat. Their king, Godegisel, was killed in the fighting but at the last minute the Vandals were saved by the timely intervention of a force of Alans under Respendial, who `turned the army of his people from the Rhine, since the Vandals were getting the worse of the war with the Franks, having lost their king, Godegisel, and about 20,000 of the army, and all the Vandals would have been exterminated if the army of the Alans had not come to their aid in time.’

This battle probably took place some time in the summer or autumn of 406, and it allowed the Vandals and their allies to move into Frankish territory on the middle Rhine. Although they had won a path to the Roman frontier, the new immigrants must have been in a fairly desperate state. Unable to grow or harvest crops and with no supply bases to call on, it would have been a monumental task to keep their people and livestock alive. The Vandals were a settled people with no nomadic history and no expertise in living off the land. If they managed to move up to the Rhine in the autumn of 406 they may have been able to take in some of the crops the Franks had planted, but this would at best only keep starvation at bay for a few months.

In the pre-industrial age armies rarely moved in a North European winter. Without the benefit of canned goods, mass production and mechanised transport that did not require forage, any movement of a large group of people in winter would inevitably lead to utter disaster. Yet the Asdings, Silings, Suevi and Alans crossed the Rhine in the depths of midwinter. What on earth persuaded them to do this when all sensible armies would have been in winter quarters awaiting the onset of the spring campaigning season?

The traditional view is that the winter was so cold that the Rhine froze over, giving the invaders the possibility to cross on a wide front. Although the Rhine remains open all year round in present times, it has frozen over in the past and it is not impossible that it froze in the winter of 406/7. Whether the ice would have been thick enough for tens of thousands of people with their wagons and baggage to cross is another matter. There are no contemporary accounts to support the idea of a crossing on ice, despite the fact that it has become a relatively accepted popular image.

The most evocative popular account of the crossing of the frozen Rhine is in Wallace Breem’s delightful novel Eagle in the Snow. Here we see the last remnants of the Roman frontier forces fighting a last stand, which is doomed as soon as the Rhine freezes. A story of civilization fighting off barbarism or established cultures digging in against impoverished migrants has a strong resonance today, just as it did in the eighteenth century when Edward Gibbon wrote his Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. It was Gibbon who first gave us the story of the Rhine freezing over, possibly to explain his incomprehension at how the Vandals, Alans and Suevi were able to cross over into Gaul with such apparent ease. Many modern writers have followed Gibbon, although even he himself was not definitive about the river freezing: `On the last day of the year, in a season when the waters of the Rhine were most probably frozen [my italics], they entered, without opposition, the defenceless provinces of Gaul.’

In truth, the move of tens of thousands of people with all their belongings in the depths of midwinter must have been one of desperation. The Frankish lands the migrants had occupied on the east bank would not have sustained them for long. As winter began to set in, so would the prospect of starvation. On the west bank there were well-provisioned towns and a few probing raids would have given the Vandals and their allies some indication of the paucity of Roman defences, which had been stripped to support Stilicho’s campaigns in Italy.

The crossing of the Rhine probably took place at several points, with Mainz (Mogontiacum) as the centre of axis. It did not need the Rhine to freeze over to make such a crossing possible. The Roman Rhine bridges were still standing, and if the river was open then picked warriors in makeshift boats could have gone across first to secure the bridgeheads. If the river had frozen over then this could possibly have been done over the ice. If there was even partial freezing of the river, then the Roman Rhine fleet would not have been able to intervene.

Defending the Rhine

In order to understand how easily the Vandals, Alans and Suevi crossed the Rhine once they had defeated the Franks on the east bank, we need to appreciate the Roman system of defence. The frontiers, were defended by troops deployed in fortifications along the borders of the empire. Known as limitanei (soldiers defending the frontiers, or limes) or riparienses (soldiers defending the rivers), these men occupied strongpoints along the frontiers and patrolled the borders. Deployed in relatively small detachments, they were able to deter or intervene to deal with small-scale incursions but were neither expected nor able to deal with a major invasion. To think of them in modern terms, they were more like a border force or home guard than regular armed forces, even though many of the units could trace their heritage back to the legions of previous centuries. Backing them up, in the Western Empire, there were two main field armies, one based in Italy and the other in Gaul. Each of these field armies were, on paper, about 20-30000 strong and it was their job to intervene once the frontiers has been breached to defeat the invaders and restore order. The field army units were known as palatini – the most senior units who were originally part of a central army commanded in person by the Emperor – and comitatenses – units of the regional field armies. Units of limitanei drawn from the frontier to reinforce the field armies took on the title of pseudocomitatenses.

This was the theoretical principle of defence, but in reality the field armies in the fifth century were more occupied supporting various political interests than they were in defending the empire from external threats. Stilicho had the support of the Italian field army but not that of Gaul. When Constantine crossed over from Britain in early 407, the Gallic Army went over to him.

The Gallic field army was commanded by the Magister Equitum intra Gallias who in theory had twelve cavalry and forty-eight infantry units at his disposal, with unit strengths probably averaging out at roughly 500 men each. However, we have already seen how Stilicho struggled to field an army of thirty units to fight Radagasius and so we should not assume that the Magister Equitum’s entire force could be quickly and easily deployed. Furthermore, many of these units would have been severely weakened after their defeat in the civil wars and may well not have been anything like at full strength.

The defence of the middle Rhine, where the Vandals crossed, fell to the Dux Mogontiacensis (Duke of Mainz). According to the Notitia Dignitatum, he had eleven prefects under his command. The units commanded by these prefects and their home stations are recorded as:

Praefectus militum Pacensium, at Saletio (Seltz)

Praefectus militum Menapiorum, at Tabernae (Rheinzabern)

Praefectus militum Anderetianorum, at Vicus Julius (Germersheim)

Praefectus militum Vindicum, at Nemetes (Speyer)

Praefectus militum Martensium, at Alta Ripa (Altrip)

Praefectus militum Secundae Flaviae, at Vangiones (Worms)

Praefectus militum Armigerorum, at Mogontiacum (Mainz)

Praefectus militum Bingensium, at Vingo (Bingen)

Praefectus militum Balistariorum, at Bodobrica (Boppard)

Praefectus militum Defensorum, at Confluentes (Koblenz)

Praefectus militum Acincensium, at Antennacum (Andernach)

Some of these units are also listed under the Gallic field army, which may indicate that they had been pulled back from the Rhine. Alternatively, it could also mean that a few units of the field army such as the Menapii and Armigeri (senior legions of the Gallic field army and also listed under the Dux Mogontiacensis) had been sent to reinforce the frontier. However, as the trend had been to strip the frontiers to bolster the field armies it seems that the first possibility is the most likely.

These units probably only contained few hundred men each. While they could hold the walls of a fortified strongpoint and mount patrols, there could never have been any possibility that these dispersed garrisons could block a crossing of the frontier by many thousand warriors, even if the latter were weakened by hunger and bogged down with their families and chattels. At best all these men could hope for would be to hold out behind their fortifications while the barbarians moved past, to be dealt with by the field army at a later date.

There was also a Rhine fleet, the Classis Germanica, which patrolled the river and was an integral part of the Roman defensive system. We do not know how large it was, but in 359 Ammianus Marcellinus tells us that a squadron of forty ships was used against the Alamanni. Later inscriptions testify to ongoing clashes with Germanic tribes up until the Rhine crossing in 406. If the Rhine had been frozen or partially frozen, then it would have prevented any ships from intercepting the invaders. The Classis Germanica seems to have disappeared after the Vandal invasion as there is no mention of it in the Notitia Dignitatum.

So if the Dux Mogontiacensis and his border force were never expected to hold back a major invasion, what did the Gallic field army do?

Apparently very little.

In the fourth century the Gallic capital had been at Trier on the Rhine, but by the fifth century it had moved to Arles at the mouth of the Rhone in the south. The Rhine had been abandoned psychologically, if not yet in reality. From Arles, the focus of the authorities was far more towards Italy and the Mediterranean than to the northern frontiers.

The explanation for the apparent inaction by the Gallic Army rests in the convoluted Imperial politics of the time. On paper the Gallic Army should have had enough men to deal with the barbarian incursion across the Rhine. However, as the Vandals and their allies were crossing into Gaul from Germany, so too was Constantine from Britain. Unloved and run down by Stilicho, the Gallic Army threw in their lot with Constantine and their main worry was to hold their own against the Imperial authorities with the barbarian incursion a secondary concern.

Constantine probably crossed the channel in early 407, bringing with him the last remnants of the Roman Army in Britain. He forged alliances with the Franks and Alamanni and there is some evidence that he fought against the various bands of Vandals, Suevi and Alans to bottle them up in northern Gaul for a while.

Most of the military might of the Western Empire resided under Stilicho’s command in Italy. He was about to embark on a war with the Eastern Empire over control of Illyricum. So what did he do when he learned that the barbarians were overrunning Gaul and that Constantine was doing his best to contain them?

Naturally he did what any late Roman potentate would do. He sent an army to Gaul to destroy Constantine. A usurper was, after all, a far greater threat to his power than a mere barbarian invasion. Stilicho’s army, led by the Goth Sarus, was defeated, leaving Constantine in control of Britain and Gaul, with Spain also recognizing his authority. So it was, that rather than concentrating their forces to defeat a foreign invader the Romans fought amongst themselves and left the field open to the Vandals and their allies.

The Barbarian Conspiracy

(Picts, Scotti-Irish, and Teutons) in Britain 367

Picts, Saxons, Scots Irish and Attecotti combined to raid Britain in the “Barbarian Conspiracy” of 365 to 368. Attecotti were especially savage and dreaded raiders and mercenaries, who St. Jerome wrote in 393 he had seen in his youth (probably in Gaul 365-370) indulging in canibalis “prefering the haunch of the shepherd to his sheep”, and who emigrated from Northern Ireland to Caithness, Man and the Hebrides. Sufficient Attecotti were captured by the Romans for 4 auxilia palatina to be recruited from them in the reign of Honorius (392 – 423). Insufficient is known to justify a separate list for Attecotti. They are not heard of after 406. Pictish raids on Roman Britain often outflanked Hadrian’s Wall by sea and the power of the Pictish fleet is mentioned with awe in the Irish annals of Tigernach. Whether their vessels were leather-covered curraghs like those of the Scots-Irish, or plank built, is disputed.

Scant historical accounts suggest that by the 360s military trouble had been building in Britain for some time, and the geography of the island means that this was most likely to have come either from invasion threats/raiding along the coast (with Ireland the most likely candidate) or along the northern frontier, with the Picts and possibly the Scotti or Attacotti mentioned as the enemies.

The Picti appear to have been the successors to the Caledonii and the Maeatae of the earlier period. The term ‘Picti’ became the name for a Roman perception of the situation around the frontier: that by the late third century, there was a marked difference between the British inside the province (exposed to Roman goods and Roman laws) and the British outside, the Picti, who were, from the name given to them, stereotyped as being in some way ‘painted’. Late Antiquity favours these new group names for the emerging enemies, which for the most part consist of a number of tribes. In most cases, they do not appear to represent any recognition of an early state, just a vaguely similar kind of enemy: thus Franci attack in Lower Germany across the frontier and often close to water, the Saxones are the German pirates who live beyond the Franci, Alamanni are a problem of Upper Germany and appear to be associated with the hill country on the east of the Rhine, while the Picti are the British tribes north of the border. In the case of the Picts we lack the necessary detail, but the better source situation on the Rhine clearly demonstrates that within these large ‘nationes’, several kingdoms and chains of command could exist side by side; they were thus at best acting as opportunistic short-lived federations, not as large early states.

The other tribes usually associated with trouble in Britain, the Scotti and Attacotti are in origin firmly locatable in Ireland. Since the nineteenth century there have been researchers suggesting that increasingly the Scotti may have represented Irish settlers in western Scotland. Archaeological and historical research in the last twenty years has now changed this picture markedly. It stresses that there is little or no break in the archaeological culture in the west of Scotland during the Iron Age, as would be expected from a wave of newcomers settling in the area. On the other hand, the foundation myths of the Dalriada or Gaels, as presented by Gildas, Bede and numerous other sources, have been shown to owe much more to the political realities of the sixth and seventh centuries, than to authentically transmitted oral history (Fraser 2009, 144–149). We are thus even in the last decades of Rome’s rule in Britain unable to pinpoint the exact location of Rome’s enemies.

By 367, whatever threat had been building up along the British frontier erupted into open warfare. According to Ammianus Marcellinus (27.8.1–2), who is once again the main source for events, the Emperor Valentinian heard on his way from Amiens to Trier about a Barbarian Conspiracy that had left Britain helpless. Two of the military commanders, Nectaridus, the comes of an unspecified coastal tract (which may well be the same as the Saxon Shore discussed above, although this is just one possibility), and a dux Fullofaudes, had been killed or caught in an ambush (and thus presumably also killed, but not taken prisoners as the translation sometimes appears). We have too little understanding of the military structure of Britain at the time to make a well-informed guess as to what or whom Fullofaudes was commanding, but the term in general signifies one of the highest ranking officers in the provincial armies.

For a province to lose two such high-ranking officers at the same time, suggests a serious incursion or even multiple incursions.

Valentinian’s response was to send in quick succession a series of senior officers from the court to assess and remedy the situation. The first, Severus, was Comes Domesticorum, a position that amongst others entailed command of the Imperial bodyguards. But he must have been recalled quite quickly only to be replaced by the higher-ranking magister equitum Jovinus, whose post involved command of all the cavalry in the central field army. Jovinus may have spent the summer in Britain. Ammianus mentions that both men were trying to find an army to deal with the situation, which suggests that we are dealing here with more than a set of quick raids.

Before the end of the campaigning season (so presumably by the end of August) Jovinus was replaced with the lower ranking, but better equipped dux Theodosius, a comes rei militaris, sometimes also referred to as Theodosius the Elder. His role in the pacification of Britain is given an unusually large amount of space by Ammianus Marcellinus, and most scholars agree that this was because Theodosius’ son eventually became the Emperor Theodosius the Great (379/395) and, perhaps more importantly, was the reigning Emperor at the time Ammianus was writing: thus by praising the father he may have intended to compliment the son.

In addition to the account in the Histories, there are also brief mentions of Theodosius’ campaign in the later historians Jerome, Jordanes (probably copying Jerome) and Zosimus, as well as numerous very florid mentions in the Panegyrics to his Imperial son Theodosius, and his grandson the Emperor Honorius. The latter reference suggests that the campaigns might have reached as far as Ireland, the Orkneys and even Thule, and that they involved warfare on land and sea. It is very tempting to reduce these very poetic contributions to flattery or necessary stylistic metaphors. On the other hand, they provide one of the few geographical clues as to the location of the trouble, while Ammianus appears to restrict himself to the less than helpful ‘north of London’, a geographical pointer that tells us more about the unfamiliarity of the historian with the geography in Britain than about any real location. We are thus once again left without a map to assess the scale of the problem or a means to evaluate the tactics employed by the general. It is, however, striking that the literature of the time suddenly abounds with references to the Orcadas (Orkney Islands), to the extent as we have already seen, that the contemporary historians credit Claudius with receiving the surrender of the king of the Orkneys.

Ammianus’ account (27.8.3–9 and 28.3.1–2) covered the latter part of 367 and 368 with Theodosius crossing from Boulogne to Richborough, bringing with him four units from the field army: the Batavi, Heruli, Jovii and Victores. The army progressed towards London. Here Theodosius split it into detachments and pursued and captured the raiders and their booty.

For the next part of his campaign Theodosius needed more troops and thus offered deserters immunity and recalled soldiers on leave. At the same time, he requested a new vicarius for the diocesis (a vicarius would have been the predominantly civilian governor for the island as a whole, but it is not said what happened to the old one) and a new dux (Dulcitius), presumably as replacement for Fullofaudes.

Having raised a sufficiently strong force, Theodosius set out from London. His next actions are described in the generic phrases that are frequently used for the topos of general relief operations: ‘he brought great assistance to the defeated and confused Britons’, he ‘chose locations for ambushes’, ‘he did not ask anything of the soldiers that he was not willing to do himself ’ and thus ‘routed and put to flight’ the enemy, ‘he restored cities and forts that had suffered damage’. This suggests a successful campaign, but the phrases are commonplace and it is impossible to find out what happened in detail.

In addition to pacifying the enemy, Theodosius also had to deal with an incipient usurpation, which had been started by an exile called Valentinus. The language at this point is extremely partisan, as is to be expected from an account that attempts to portray Theodosius in the best possible light. Valentinus was apparently hatching a nefarious plot and hated Theodosius, who was the only one who could deal with him, which is why Valentinus was defeated and handed over to dux Dulcitius for execution.

Theodosius was now able to prove his excellent character and military ability by forbidding any further investigations into the supporters of this usurpation. In this he behaves in the exact opposite manner to Paulus Catena earlier; and while Theodosius by behaving this way conforms to the ideal of a perfect Emperor (another topos), that was not his position and it is debatable whether this would not have exceeded his competences, had it really happened this way.

Ammianus’ account closes with a review of Theodosius’ long-term achievements: cities restored, forts garrisoned, frontiers protected with watch posts and defence works, and the restored province was now renamed in honour of the Emperor and his family (and clearly not after the usurper mentioned earlier): Valentia. He also did away with the ‘areani’, a group of people whose task it had been to ‘range backwards and forwards over wide areas and to report to our generals threatening behaviour among the neighbouring people’. Apparently in connection with the conspiracy these ‘spies’, appear to have turned double agents and handed vital information over to the enemy. Theodosius’ command came to an end about a year after he had taken office and he was recalled to the Imperial court, where he succeeded Jovinus as magister equitum.

The trouble with Ammianus’ account is not only its general vagueness, but also the fact that the original manuscript has numerous problems, with gaps and unintelligible text. As Ammianus also tends to refer back to his accounts of earlier events, we are in some cases, such as with the areani, left with problems of understanding what was really going on. Thus modern researchers commonly assume that the areani operated north of Hadrian’s Wall, where a number of the outpost forts are known to have held scouting units, with one called castra exploratorum (the Fort of the Scouts). But this would not provide information on the situation of the Scotti and Attacotti, who most academics think of as settling in Ireland at the time. Are we seeing in fact a seaborne force or an early loose network of undercover agents? The suggestions are numerous, but without Ammianus’ description of what happened under Constans, we are unlikely to move beyond pure surmise.

The episode of Theodosius’ campaign against the usurper might actually also hide a story behind the story. The account, as it stands, allows Theodosius to claim all the credit for the pacification of the province. However, modern specialists in late Roman politics have noted some time ago, that third and fourth century usurpations are not only fuelled by the need of the usurper to become the Emperor of the Roman Empire, but appear sometimes to have arisen in response to a local crisis in the province and the unwillingness or (increasingly) the inability of the Emperor to respond to this problem. The latter was possibly a contributing factor in the creation of the Gallic Empire, and very likely in the later British usurpations (such as Carausius but also Constantine III), as well as a number of usurpations in the Balkans and the East (e.g. Odenathus). Amongst the many possible readings of this passage of Ammianus’, it cannot be ruled out that Valentinus’ usurpation was a local response within Britain to the Barbarian Conspiracy and the rather convoluted sequence of fact-finding missions and possibly undermanned response teams. However, as we only have the pro-Theodosian accounts, our hypothesis has to remain exactly that for the moment.

A further problem is the scale of the operations. Ammianus’ account is willing to credit Theodosius with wide-ranging reforms and rebuilding; and in the past numerous burnt layers and refurbishment phases, including a whole phase on Hadrian’s Wall, have been claimed to show the results of this campaign. A better understanding of the pottery sequence, as well as further excavation, now leaves us with very little evidence for any of this rebuilding and construction. Even the Yorkshire coast towers, long associated with this campaign, are now seen to be about 15 years later and more likely to be associated with Magnus Maximus.

This leaves the fourth century historian with the question: how much of the historical account can be trusted? Is the account, as presented, as exaggerated as the Panegyrics, or are archaeologists just looking in the wrong place? We have seen in earlier chapters, that evidence for warfare itself can be hard to identify in the archaeological record and the Barbarian Conspiracy is no exception. In fact, because of the vagueness of the account, we cannot even be sure which parts of the province were affected. Hadrian’s Wall appears to show remarkably little damage at the period in question; so did the Picts circumnavigate the Wall, only to strike at the softer, richer targets further south? If so, it would be good to have a better understanding of the coastal defences around Britain at the time, but while we have a series of forts that could have served as such, there are still long stretches of open coast, plus, especially on the coast of North Yorkshire and County Durham, too much erosion to get a reliable picture of the system, if coastal defence at the time was indeed designed as a single system. Are we correct in reading comes tractus maritimae as a synonym for the Saxon Shore command, or should we reconsider an old suggestion that this was more likely to refer to another coastal command in the West (after all it was the Scotti who were involved in the conspiracy)? Any position chosen is likely to have serious effects on the resulting view of the province in the later fourth century, but as so often before, the amount of evidence allows for multiple valid scenarios, but not for a definitive decision as to which one is right.


The 300 Spartans takes us back a few thousand years to the invasion of the Persians. This film was a 1962 masterpiece that was shot near the Corinth canal, unlike the Frank Miller-inspired 300 which was made elsewhere.

It is an ill wind, proverbially, that blows nobody any good. Terrible and ghastly as were the tragic events of 9/11, they have also, I believe, provoked a salutary spate of Western reflection on just what it is to be ‘Western’, on what ‘Western civilization’ is or might be. The process of re-examining and rethinking what is distinctive and admirable – or at any rate defensible – about Western civilization, values and culture seems to me both to have been in itself a wholly good thing, and to have had some notably positive outcomes. One ancient Greek exemplar of that civilization, Socrates of Athens, is famously reported by Plato to have said that ‘the unexamined life is not worth living for a human being’. Rarely has the need for such cultural self-examination been more compelling.

For instance, it makes us realize that we in the West do not necessarily have all the best tunes. Concepts and practices often imagined to be uniquely ‘Western’, such as reason, freedom and democracy, have had, and still do have, their active counterparts within Eastern cultures as well. Indeed, the tradition of Western civilization has been decisively shaped or enriched by Eastern – including, not least, Islamic – contributions. Had it not been for Arabic scholars, in both East (especially Baghdad) and West (Moorish Spain), in what we conventionally call the Middle Ages, a number of key works of Aristotle would have been lost to us, and Aristotle is about as central to any construction of the Western cultural tradition as it is possible to get.

Some of us Westerners, post 9/11, were provoked specifically into wondering aloud whether any definition of our civilization and its cultural values would justify our dying for them, or even maybe killing for them – as the suicide hijackers of September 11th, or the suicide bombers of the West Bank and Gaza, clearly were and are prepared to die for their brands of Islam and freedom. Those of us who are historians of ancient Greece pondered that question with especial intensity. For the world of ancient – or Classical – Greece is one of the principal taproots of our Western civilization, as I have already implied in quoting Socrates’s famous aphorism, and the Spartans’ behaviour at Thermopylae in 480 raises sharply the contested issue of ideologically motivated suicide.

The connection between the ancient Greeks and Us was forcefully expressed by John Stuart Mill, in a review of the first volumes of George Grote’s pioneering, liberal-democratic history of ancient Greece (originally published in twelve volumes, 1846–56). As Mill put it, with conscious paradox, the Battle of Marathon – which was fought in 490 BCE by the Athenians, with support only from the neighbouring small city of Plataea, against the invading Persians – was more important than the Battle of Hastings, even as an event in English history. So too, arguably, or so at least I should want to argue, was the Battle of Thermopylae. Unlike Marathon, of course, Thermopylae was formally a defeat for the Greeks, a ‘wound’ (trôma), as Herodotus called it.1 Yet it was none the less glorious or culturally significant for that, since it was soon converted into a moral, that is a morale, victory. And as Napoleon once colourfully put it, in war the morale factor is three times as important as all the other factors put together.

Indeed, some would even say – and I am tempted to include myself in their number – that Thermopylae was Sparta’s finest hour. In any case, it’s Sparta’s Thermopylae experience that provides me with my starting-point and constant point of reference in trying to answer the question posed in this epilogue: what have the Spartans done for us? Perhaps we might begin by asking – as Great King Cyrus II, founder of the Achaemenid Persian Empire, was supposed once to have asked, in about 550 BCE – who are these Spartans?

One answer is that they were the Dorian (Doric-speaking) inhabitants of a Greek citizen-state in the Peloponnese that for many centuries was one of the greatest of ancient Greek powers. Another answer, as one of Cyrus’s successors, Xerxes, found out all too painfully, is that they were a fighting machine strong enough, skilful enough and sufficiently iron-willed to play the key role in resisting and eventually repelling even his vast hordes – and so frustrating his attempt to incorporate the mainland Greeks in an oriental empire that already stretched from the Aegean in the west to beyond the Hindu Kush. Xerxes discovered these facts about Sparta in person, at Thermopylae, and his appointed commander-in-chief Mardonius discovered them again, fatally, at Plataea the following year, when it was the Spartans under Regent Pausanias who played the lead role in that famous and decisive Greek victory.

That in turn is one, not insignificant, answer to the question why today we should care who the ancient Spartans were. For they enabled the development of the civilization that we have chosen in crucial ways to inherit and learn from. What if the Persians had won in 480–479? Either that Greek civilization would have been significantly different thereafter, or/and we should not have been its legatees in the same ways or to the same degree. Another answer to the question why the ancient Spartans matter to us today concerns the impact of what has been variously labelled the Spartan myth, mirage or tradition. To put this differently: the variety of ways in which Sparta and the Spartans have been represented in mainly non-Spartan discourses, both written and visual, since the late fifth century BCE has left a deep mark on the Western tradition, on the understanding of what it is to belong to a Western culture.

To begin with, Sparta, like some other ancient Greek places, impinges upon our everyday consciousness through enriching our English vocabulary. The island of Lesbos, for conspicuous example, has given us ‘lesbian’, the city of Corinth ‘corinthian’, the city of Athens … ‘attic’. But ancient Sparta, prodigally, has given us ‘spartan’, of course, and ‘laconic’.

To choose an illustration almost at random, a newspaper profile of Iain Duncan Smith, former leader of the Opposition, referred casually to his naval public school as being ‘spartan’ – and aptly so, in this sense: the British public school system, as invented virtually by Thomas Arnold of Rugby in the nineteenth century, was consciously modelled on an idea, or even a utopian vision, of ancient Sparta’s military-style communal education.

The Spartan etymology of ‘laconic’ is not so immediately transparent. It comes from one of the ancient adjectival forms derived from the name by which the Spartans more often referred to themselves: Lacedaemonians, or Lakones. As noted earlier, the Spartans were the past masters of the curt, clipped, military mode of utterance, which they used alike in sending written or oral dispatches from the front line or at home in snappy repartee to an insistent teacher, for instance – so much so that the ancients preserved collections of what they believed to be genuine Spartan ‘apophthegms’ (I have quoted a famous one of Leonidas’s), while we still call that manner of utterance ‘laconic’ in their honour.

Even less obviously, and much less happily, the Spartans have bequeathed us also a third English word: the noun ‘helot’. This is used today to refer to a member of an especially deprived or exploited ethnic or economic underclass. It thus reflects, accurately, the dark underside of the Spartans’ more positive achievements. The Greek word heilôtês probably originally meant ‘captive’, and certainly it was as captives and enemies that the Spartans treated the unfree subordinate population of Helots: more exactly, as if they were prisoners of war whose death sentence the Spartans had merely suspended so as to force them to labour under constant threat of extinction, in order to provide the economic basis of the Spartan way of life. Other Greek cities, not least Athens, were also of course crucially dependent on unfree labour for creating and maintaining a distinctively politicized and cultured style of communal life. But the slaves held by the Athenians collectively and individually were typical of the Greek world as a whole in that they were mainly ‘barbarians’, or non-Greek foreigners, a polyglot, heterogeneous bunch – in fact, they were mostly owned on an individual, not a collective, basis. The Helots of Sparta, by contrast, were an entire Greek people, or perhaps (if we distinguish the Laconian Helots from the Messenian) two separate peoples united by a common yoke of servitude.

These three little words – spartan, laconic, helot – are just a small linguistic token of the fact that English or British culture, indeed Western culture as a whole, has been deeply marked by what the French scholar François Ollier neatly dubbed ‘le mirage spartiate’. When he coined that phrase in the 1930s, Sparta – or rather ideas of how Sparta had supposedly worked as a society – exercised a particular fascination, as noted earlier, for totalitarian or authoritarian rulers, most notoriously for Adolf Hitler and pseudo-scholarly members of his Nazi entourage such as Alfred Rosenberg. Discipline, orderliness, soldierly hierarchy and subordination of individual endeavour to the overriding good of the state were among the Spartan virtues that the Nazis and other Fascists were most attracted by – only to put them to the most perverted uses. There are still neo-Fascist organizations (one, disturbingly, in France) that are proud to follow along this same shining path.

It is this modern totalitarian or authoritarian reception of ancient Sparta that has tarnished, probably irreparably, Sparta’s reputation as a political ideal or model in modern Western liberal-democratic societies. Yet Sparta’s idealized image had not always served such sinister or heinous purposes. In the eighteenth century, for instance, Jean-Jacques Rousseau was a huge fan of ‘the wisdom of Sparta’s laws’, and if anything an even greater fan of its legendary lawgiver Lycurgus. In Lycurgus’s ideal Sparta, Rousseau saw a society that was devoted to implementing the general will in a collective, self-effacing, law-abiding and above all thoroughly virtuous way. Rousseau helped to ensure a key role for ancient Greece (as well as ancient Rome) in the making of the modern world, and for Sparta no less than for Athens.

Rousseau was by no means the first intellectual to deploy an image or vision of Sparta as an integral component and driving force of an entire programme of social and political reforms. Among the very first on record was Plato, and it is through Plato that Sparta can claim to be the fount and origin of the entire tradition of utopian thinking and writing (utopiography). Utopia, too, acquired a bad name in the twentieth century; but in principle – the principle of hope that things can be and will be made better – it is not as bad a place as all that. In any case, it is not only for what intellectuals and others have made of Sparta, from the Classical period of ancient Greece down to our own century, that Sparta remains a choice subject of study. It is also for what the Spartans really did achieve, most conspicuously and effectively on the battlefield during the Graeco-Persian Wars of 480–479 BCE.

The Battle of Thermopylae, though a defeat, quickly became a morale victory. As such, it formed a vital and integral part of the eventual total Greek victory over the Persians. That victory, moreover, would not have been attained had it not been for the indispensable contribution made by the Spartans. The remarkably successful organization of their society into a well oiled military machine, and their development of a rudimentary multistate Greek alliance well before the Persians invaded mainland Greece, provided the indispensable core of military leadership around which a Greek resistance could coalesce. The Spartans’ heroically suicidal stand at Thermopylae showed that the Persians both should and could usefully be resisted, and gave the small, wavering and uncohesive force of patriotic Greeks the nerve to imagine that they might one day defeat the invaders. The charismatic leadership of Spartan commanders of the character and calibre of King Leonidas and Regent Pausanias crucially unified and inspired the Greeks’ land forces.

But what, if anything, did the Spartans bring to the feast of ancient Greek culture, the source of the Western legacy, beyond making the feast possible at all? Different modern interpreters emphasize different aspects of the classical Greek cultural achievement. I myself would privilege three distinguishing qualities or characteristics, above all: first, a devotion to competition in all its forms, almost for its own sake; second, a devotion to a concept and ideal of freedom; and, third, a capacity for almost limitless self-criticism as well as unstinting criticism of others (not least other Greeks).

The first two of these might be identified equally strongly in either of the two main exemplars of ancient Greek civilization, Sparta and Athens. The third, however, specifically self-criticism, was a distinctively Athenian cultural trait and apparently not a Spartan trait at all – or so contemporary Athenians liked to claim, and many have subsequently agreed. Pericles, for example, in Thucydides’s version of his Funeral Speech of 431/30, sneered at Sparta’s merely state-imposed courage; and Demosthenes a century later asserted falsely that it was forbidden to Spartans even to criticize (let alone alter) their laws.

Undoubtedly there were no Spartan equivalents of the Athenians’ democratic Assembly and popular lawcourts, nor did the Spartans enjoy the Athenians’ annual tragic and comic drama festivals, which provided state-sponsored opportunities for self-examination and self-criticism. Yet the Spartans were not quite the unhesitatingly obedient automatons that ancient Athenian and modern liberal propaganda have made them out to be. On occasion, grumbling at authority might turn into open defiance, both individually and collectively. Even Spartan kings, who were perched at the very pinnacle of the hierarchy of birth, wealth and prestige, might be brought low by being tried and fined – or, worse, exiled like Demaratus under sentence of death. It would be fairer and more accurate, then, to say that the Spartans’ culture was not one that favoured intellectual argument or even open dissent either in the agora or in any other place of public assembly.

All Greeks, probably, were passionately keen on a good contest. Their word for the spirit of competitiveness, agônia, is the root of our word ‘agony’, and that etymological connection well suggests the intense, driven quality of ancient Greek competition. A war was for the Greeks an agôn (contest), obviously enough, as was a public debate, whether real or fictional. So too was a lawsuit, but so also was any religious festival that involved, centrally or otherwise, athletic or other kinds of competition – a festival such as the Olympic Games, for example. It was in fact the Greeks ultimately who invented our idea of athletic sports, just as they invented the prototype of our idea of the theatre, and both of them within a context of religiously inspired competition and competitiveness.


The Spartan hoplite is seen here in full battle array. His Corinthian helmet is of brass and decorated with a transverse crest; his shield, with Spartan blazon, is brassfaced, as are the full-length “muscled” greaves. The white linen corslet, worn over a red tunic, replaced the heavy “bell” cuirass and was made from several layers of material glued together. The lower part was cut into strips to facilitate bending down. The corslet found favour because of its lightness but was often reinforced with plates. The red cloak seen in the illustration was the characteristic Spartan uniform. It was discarded in battle. Before the time of Alexander, beards were usually worn in Greece and long hair characterised Spartan adult men. Herodotus describes how the Spartans; awaiting the Persian onslaught at Thermopylae, passed their time in taking exercise and combing their hair. This hoplite is binding a leather handgrip around the shaft of his spear to enable him to obtain a firm purchase when thrusting it overarm over the wall of phalanx shields. Unlike other hoplites, the Spartan trained all his life as a soldier, and was thus a “professional”. His drill and weapons-skill were thus superior to, and more fearsome than, that of other hoplites.

The Spartans yielded to no other Greeks in their passionate, almost fanatical attachment to competition. They even made the very act of survival at birth a matter of public competition, by entrusting elders with the task of supervising the wine-bath tests for neonates. The practice of consigning infants showing any obvious signs of physical deformity or debility to an early death at the foot of a nearby mountain ravine was not as callous or odd as it perhaps seems to us: both Plato and Aristotle advocated such ‘exposure’ of defective newborns in their respective Ideal States. Likewise, adult status for Spartan males could be achieved only by successfully passing the series of largely physical competitive tests that constituted the unique education or group socialization known as the agôgê or ‘upbringing’. Even then, becoming a full adult Spartan citizen in terms of political standing and participation was made to depend on passing a further and final acceptance test – admission by competitive election to a communal dining group, or mess, at the age of twenty.

Those unfortunates who failed any of these educational or citizenship tests were relegated to a limbo of exclusion, of non-belonging, to permanent outsider status. Nor did internal competition for status end at the age of twenty for those who did achieve full citizenship status: far from it. Not for one moment did they cease to compete amongst themselves and against others, both abroad, in war, of course, and no less famously and successfully at the Olympic Games, but also at home – in local equestrian and athletic contests, for instance, or election to high office, or for membership of the elite royal bodyguard. One disappointed Spartan who had failed to be elected to the bodyguard in his twenties was said to have claimed he was delighted to know there were three hundred Spartans better than he; and even so, he went on to achieve high public distinction in later life.

As for the general Greek passion for freedom, it was said by the right-wing Athenian political writer and activist Critias, who wrote about the Spartan way of life in both prose and verse and thereby founded the literary tradition of the Spartan ‘mirage’, that ‘In Lakedaimon are to be found those who are the most enslaved and those who are the most free’. By ‘the most free’ he meant the Spartans themselves, or more precisely the Spartan master class, who were freed by the compulsory labour of their enslaved workforce from the necessity of doing any productive work whatsoever, apart from warfare. By ‘the most enslaved’ he meant of course the Helots. These people, as noted above, were Greeks who, despite their birthright of freedom, were collectively enslaved and treated with unusual severity by the Spartans, as a conquered but permanently threatening and subversive population.

This harsh treatment at first puzzled and later deeply disturbed the more sensitive Greek observers of the Spartan scene. Plato, for example, by no means unfriendly to Sparta in general, remarked: ‘The Helot-system of Sparta is practically the most discussed and controversial subject in Greece.’ This controversy reached a peak in Plato’s adult lifetime. For, in the aftermath of the decisive defeat of Sparta at Leuctra in 371 by the Boeotians led by Thebes, the larger portion of the Helots, the Messenians, finally achieved their longed-for collective freedom and established themselves as free Greek citizens of the restored (as they saw it) free city of Messene. I must add that the Spartans were by no means untypical, let alone unique, among the ancient Greeks in seeing no incompatibility between their own freedom and the unfreedom of a servile class, and indeed in basing the former on the latter.

These two aspects of Spartan culture and society – competitiveness and contested notions of freedom – almost by themselves make our Spartan ancestors worthy of our continued cultural interest and historical study. But they very far from exhaust Sparta’s extreme fascination. Let’s take a look at those more or less well attested Spartan social customs or practices: institutionalized pederasty between a young adult citizen warrior and a teenage youth within the compulsory framework of the state-managed educational system; athletic sports including wrestling practised officially – and allegedly in the nude – by teenage girls; the public insulting and humiliation of bachelors by married women at an annual religious festival; polyandry (wives having more than one husband each); and wife-sharing without either party’s incurring the social opprobrium or legal guilt of adultery.

One common factor runs through much of this: the unusual (indeed, by Greek and even most pre-modern standards, unique) functions, status and behaviour of one half of the Spartan citizen population, the women. The extant evidence is sufficiently plentiful to have prompted a recent book on them. This is also one of several modern studies prepared to speak of the existence of a certain ‘feminism’ in Sparta. I think, however, that we should take at least some of this highly controversial evidence with a pinch of (presumably Attic?) salt, especially where the ideological or propagandistic intention is blatant. Our written sources are exclusively male, almost entirely non-Spartan and often heavily Athenocentric. But there is enough that is reliable to enable us safely to infer that Sparta really was, in such vital areas as marriage and procreation, seriously different, even alien, from the traditional Greek norms of political and social intercourse.

And this surely does make Sparta perpetually worth studying, not only by historians, but also by comparative cultural anthropologists and sociologists, among others. Herodotus, the father of (comparative cultural) anthropology as well as of history, declared famously that he agreed with the Theban lyric poet Pindar that ‘custom was king’.

He meant that in his view every human group believes that its own customs are not only relatively better than those of others, but the best possible. Not surprisingly, he took a special interest in Spartan customs, practices and beliefs. Here are just a few related illustrations. All are taken from the seventh book of his Histories, the Thermopylae book, and all of them go to establish the point that the Spartans were not just willing, but culturally predisposed and educated, to die for their ideals: that is, to sacrifice their individual lives for the sake of some greater collective goal, whether local or national.

Shortly before the epic conflict at Thermopylae, as we saw, it was reported to Great King Xerxes by a mounted spy that the Spartans in the pass were combing and styling their very long hair. He simply refused to believe that men who coiffed like women before fighting would make serious opponents in the field. Or rather, in the case of Thermopylae, not just serious opponents but men who would of set purpose put their lives on the line in the certain knowledge that they were going to be killed. That this was indeed what lay behind the Spartans’ decision to send a specially selected taskforce of three hundred under King Leonidas to Thermopylae in 480 is proven not only by the way they fought and died, but also by the fact that the men chosen all had to have a living son, so as to prevent their family lines from dying out – in other words, after their own assured deaths.

That their mission was suicidal self-sacrifice is supported further by another story in Herodotus Book 7, recounted, significantly, not long before he tells the story of Thermopylae. In the run-up to the Persian invasion of 480 the Spartans considered how they might try to persuade Xerxes to abandon it. Being a very pious people, they thought that the invasion was at least in part heaven’s way of punishing them for the sacrilege of having killed, some years earlier, the heralds sent to them by Xerxes’s father Darius – persons whose office invested them with sacrosanctity. So they conceived the idea of making atonement to Xerxes, and of sending two Spartans to be killed by him as restitution and compensation. Call the Spartans naive – certainly, that was how their gesture was reportedly regarded by Xerxes (who simply dismissed the would-be patriotic suicides from his presence with haughty contempt). But the spirit of self-sacrifice for a larger cause, in this case the good of all Greece, not just of Sparta, shines out.

In the event Xerxes did invade Greece and, after stiff Greek resistance, forced the pass of Thermopylae. ‘Go tell the Spartans’, the beginning of Simonides’s famous epigram hymning the heroic Spartan dead in this encounter, has resonated in recent popular culture. As the epigram’s next words, ‘… passerby, / That here, obedient to their laws, we lie’, suggest, the laws of Sparta were unusually rigorous, and rigid. But another emblematic passage of Herodotus Book 7 – a supposed interview between Xerxes and the deposed Spartan ex-King Demaratus – makes clear how this last clause of the epigram was supposed to be read: as illustrating the characteristically Greek civic quality of obedience to the laws, a quality that the Spartans embodied and acted upon to the full.

Demaratus assures Xerxes that the Spartans will stand up to him, because they fear the Law more even than Xerxes’s subjects fear him. More importantly still, the Spartans, unlike them, were able to make a free choice. They established their own laws for themselves by collective agreement, and they chose to obey them. They were not compelled by sheer terror or force to obey the arbitrary and lawless whim of a despot or autocrat. That, certainly, was a biased, ethnocentric judgement by Herodotus. But it also contains an essential truth, both about the ancient Greeks as a whole and not least about the leading Greeks of the Persian War period: the Spartans.

The Spartans and their unique society occupy a central place in the utopian tradition. But Utopia, as the Greek-derived word’s inventor, Thomas More, was well aware, is formally ambiguous. Depending on how the prefix ‘U’ is taken, it can mean either ‘No-place’ (outopia) or ‘Well-place’ (eutopia). The news from the Spartan Nowhere is admittedly not always good. An article in the Times Higher Education Supplement, featuring my earlier Spartans book and TV series, was introduced editorially as follows: ‘They hurled babies into ravines and culled their workforce yearly. Historian Paul Cartledge thinks we could learn a thing or two from those Spartans.’ Nevertheless, I should still like to think, and like my readers to think too, that a Thermopylae-inspired eutopia might not be the worst place on earth to find ourselves – minus, of course, the exposure of infants and the exploitation of Helots.

At any rate, the ancient ideal encapsulated in the myth of Thermopylae still resonates today: it is the concept that there are some values that are worth dying for, as well as living for. That notion, however, can be a two-edged sword. As applied by certain suicide bombers, for example, it seems to me to be wholly repellent, however justified their cause. Yet when developed in the direction taken by the Spartans and their founder-lawgiver Lycurgus, it can generate ideals of communal co-operation and self-sacrifice that qualify for the honorific label of (e)utopia.

Traditionally, and rightly, Sparta is not commemorated as a hot-house of high culture. But there was, I think, no paradox or irony when William Golding, a future Nobel Laureate for literature, wrote in 1965 after a visit to the Hot Gates:

A little of Leonidas lies in the fact that I can go where I like and write what I like. He contributed to set us free.

It is worth bearing this judgement in mind as one contemplates the Thermopylae memorials on offer in Greece and elsewhere today, both in Sparta and, more poignantly if also more noisily, at Thermopylae itself.