Rome’s Manipular Army

The Second Samnite War was the background which Livy, our only major literary source for this period, used to describe the changes in Rome’s army during the fourth century BC and the advent of the so-called ‘manipular legion’. In the following passage, which is arguably one of the most famous and important relating to Rome’s early military development during the Republic, Livy offers a general description of Rome’s military development to that time along with one of the most detailed descriptions of Rome’s military tactics:

The Romans had formerly used small round shields; then, after they began to serve for pay, they made oblong shields instead of round ones; and what had before been a phalanx, like the Macedonian phalanxes, came afterwards to be a line of battle formed by maniples, with the rearmost troops drawn up in a number of companies. The first line, or hastati, comprised fifteen maniples, stationed a short distance apart; the maniple had twenty light-armed soldiers, the rest of their number carried oblong shields; moreover those were called ‘light-armed’ who carried only a spear and javelins. This front line in the battle contained the flower of the young men who were growing ripe for service. Behind these came a line of the same number of maniples, made up of men of a more stalwart age; these were called the principes; they carried oblong shields and were the most showily armed of all. This body of thirty maniples they called antepilani, because behind the standards there were again stationed another fifteen companies, each of which had three sections, the first section in every company being known as pilus. The company consisted of three vexilla or ‘banners’; a single vexillum had sixty soldiers, two centurions, one vexillarius, or colourbearer; the company numbered a hundred and eighty-six men. The first banner led the triarii, veteran soldiers of proven valour; the second banner the rorarii, younger and less distinguished men; the third banner the accensi, who were the least dependable, and were, for that reason, assigned to the rear-most line. When an army had been marshalled in this fashion, the hastati were the first of all to engage. If the hastati were unable to defeat the enemy, they retreated slowly and were received into the intervals between the companies of the principes. The principes then took up the fighting and the hastati followed them. The triarii knelt beneath their banners, with the left leg advanced, having their shields leaning against their shoulders and their spears thrust into the ground and pointing obliquely upwards, as if their battle-line were fortified with a bristling palisade. If the principes, too, were unsuccessful in their fight, they fell back slowly from the battle-line on the triarii. (From this arose the adage, ‘to have come to the triarii,’ when things are going badly.) The triarii, rising up after they had received the principes and hastati into the intervals between their companies, would at once draw their companies together and close the lanes, as it were; then, with no more reserves behind to count on, they would charge the enemy in one compact array. This was a thing exceedingly disheartening to the enemy, who, pursuing those whom they supposed they had conquered, all at once beheld a new line rising up, with augmented numbers. There were customarily four legions raised of five thousand foot each, with three hundred horse to every legion.

Although Livy seems to suggest that many of the changes he described took place half a century earlier, back in the early fourth century, many scholars have argued that the Samnite wars may have also played a significant role in the development of Rome’s equipment and tactics. As the Romans were traditionally thought to have fought in a phalanx formation, a catalyst or impetus was needed to break apart this formation into the more flexible and fragmented army which historians, such as Polybius, describe for the third and second centuries BC. The phalanx formation had been proven to be incredibly successful across the Mediterranean, so long as armies were fighting on reasonably level terrain – like the great coastal plain of Latium. However, moving into the rugged and mountainous land of south-central Italy where the Samnites lived would have been problematic for a phalanx, and it was suggested that this is why the Romans may have struggled in the middle years of the war. These issues, along with the precarious position in which the city found itself in 311 BC, might have led to the Romans breaking up their phalanx into the manipular formation – a loose checkerboard made up of groups of 120 men of various equipment types. An army broken up into maniples or manipuli, which literally means ‘handfuls’ in Latin, would have been able to maintain tactical cohesion across broken terrain far more easily than a phalanx. Additionally, texts like the Ineditum Vaticanum, which purportedly records an interaction between a Roman envoy and the Carthaginians before the start of the First Punic War, have provided fuel for this fire.

The Ineditum Vaticanum records the Carthaginians asking the Romans why they think they can engage in a naval war with them when the Romans have no experience of naval combat, and indeed no fleet. The Romans respond that they have long excelled by learning from their opponents, adapting to new types of warfare and borrowing tactics and equipment when it suited them – becoming ‘masters of those who thought so highly of themselves’. This speech and the idea of the student overcoming the master is quite clearly a rhetorical trope, although it is one in which the Romans seem to have believed – at least in the late Republic – as it generally sums up the broad narrative of military development which we find in other sources as well. Looking specifically at the manipular legion, this passage suggests that the Romans acquired oblong shields and javelins – two key pieces of equipment used by the manipular legion – from the Samnites, furthering the association between the adoption of this formation and this period. Our changing understanding of the Roman army in the fifth and early fourth century BC, however, coupled with some interesting developments in archaeology, has suggested a somewhat messier, but far more organic, sequence of development.

The traditional starting point for the Roman army in the early fourth century – as a civic militia fighting in a hoplite (or possible Macedonian) phalanx formation – has generally been discarded by most modern scholars for a number of very good reasons. As a result, entering the fourth century BC there is no need to search for a reason to ‘break up’ the phalanx into a more flexible formation, as it is likely that the Roman army – based previously on a collection of disparate clans – already deployed in something resembling a manipular formation. Although they may have stood next to each other on the battle field, Rome’s military was probably still organized in small groups (based on either clans or curiae), was used to engaging in raiding activities which favoured small flexible groups and so was most likely made up of a number of individual and independent units – or manipuli – anyway. The real change in the fourth century BC was therefore not the breaking up of the phalanx, but actually bringing these various units, or manipuli, together into a single entity and fighting consistently under a single banner.

The real strength or advantage of Rome’s manipular army was not new equipment or tactics per se, although the structure did allow for these, but its ability to include and incorporate a range of different units into a single military structure. This ability to integrate new groups and units seems to have originated within the community of Rome itself, as the Romans needed to have a military system which allowed her clan-based units to fight alongside community-based units, although during the course of the fourth century BC the system was also required to integrate an increasing number of allied units – most notably the Latins, but also, by the late fourth century BC, Greeks. Each of these groups seems to have had their own tactics and style of combat, in addition to different goals and aims, and the Roman system had to be able to accommodate this while still fielding an effective overall fighting force. The result was an incredibly flexible system, particularly in the fourth century BC, where the Roman army would have resembled a patchwork of different units when mobilized on the battlefield: Roman and Latin gentes, equipped in their classic equipment; soldiers from the city of Rome itself, likely equipped in newer and perhaps lighter equipment; Campanian horsemen, etc. – all drawn up in their individual groups. Each unit would then go on to fight and act largely independently, utilizing their individual strengths and abilities for often quite personal gains (spoils and booty, acquired in individual combat, were still key), albeit generally working together for a common victory. Indeed, there seems to have been quite a bit of space within the Roman battle line (if this term can even be used), as the sources are full of stories of individuals and war leaders seeking each other out, riding up and down (and sometimes through) the army while it was evidently engaged, even at this late date.

While the Roman army of the fourth century BC seems to have featured a number of different troop types, this sort of open formation would have also made quite a bit of sense given what the archaeology suggests was occurring in terms of military equipment in Central Italy. The region’s archaic gentes seem to have preferred fighting with large, circular shields (the aspis or hoplon), heavy body armour and thrusting spears. Although these pieces of equipment became associated with the hoplite phalanx and hoplite warfare in Greece, evidence suggests (as argued convincingly by van Wees, amongst others) that this type of equipment was initially designed to provide optimal protection in individual combat. In fact, once a dense formation is adopted, much of the defensive equipment usually associated with hoplites becomes redundant (the formation providing the bulk of the defence), as seen in the gradual removal of equipment in Greek hoplite armies – when Athens distributes equipment to hoplites for the first time in the late fourth century BC it is just a helmet and shield – and in the ‘enhanced’ phalanx deployed in Macedon where the armour is almost entirely removed in favour of a dense formation armed with sarissae. It is probable that the archaic Roman and Latin gentes continued to equip themselves in this manner in the fourth century BC, in large part because this was the equipment they already owned, and fought in a similar manner on the battlefield.

Romans and Latins who had not regularly participated in warfare previously (or who at least did not have their own equipment) but who wanted to (or were expected to) join the army in the fourth century BC would have had a few more options – and it seems that quite a few adopted a new style of equipment which was increasingly in fashion at the time. Most likely introduced by the Gauls (there is extensive archaeological evidence for this type of equipment in southern Austria and other Gallic regions going back to the late Bronze Age), this equipment featured a handful of javelins and an oblong shield (offering better protection against thrown javelins, particularly for the legs). Far cheaper than the heavy bronze equipment which had been used in the Archaic period by the gentilicial elite, this new panoply was gradually adopted throughout Central Italy during the course of the fourth century BC – and particularly by the Lucanians and Samnites of South-Central Italy. The Roman association between the Samnites and this style of equipment is somewhat fitting then, although it seems as if they were not its point of origin. Instead, the Samnites could possibly be described as ‘early adopters’ – perhaps because they lacked a strong, alternative tradition of military equipment from the Archaic period. This new reliance on the javelin throughout Central Italy, albeit likely in conjunction with a backup weapon like a sword or axe, would have also encouraged a more open and flexible battle order. Unlike the Roman armies of the late Republic – where it is often thought that the Romans would follow a hail of pila with a charge and direct, hand-to-hand combat – the javelin-armed soldiers of the fourth century BC seem to have been far more lightly armed and armoured (if the depictions from tombs at sites like Paestum can be trusted). As a result, it is likely that a battle would have featured several volleys of javelins before more direct battle was eventually engaged – if it ever was. In order to allow as many units, let alone individuals, to throw their javelins as possible (and to avoid hitting allied units) a fairly loose battle order would have made sense – and here some parallels can be drawn from tribes like the Yanomamo in Brazil, which still featured this type of javelin-based warfare (including oblong shields) well into the twentieth century.

The manipular army of the fourth century BC should therefore not be seen as the highly regimented and organized Roman legion described in Livy 8.8, although one can see hints of the truth behind Livy’s anachronistic façade. Livy’s velites, hastati, principes, triarii, etc. are likely the later formalizations of what were originally de facto divisions or troop types; the triarii representing the archaic warbands, with their heavy armour and long tradition of warfare, while the other groups represented various cultural, ethnic or merely economic groups, featuring the equipment which they had traditionally utilized or which they could now afford. Amongst these other groups the javelin was clearly key, although they also probably utilized a range of other equipment types and varying levels of armour. Over the course of the fourth and third centuries BC, things were gradually formalized and standardized, and the massive impact of battles like Cannae – where a generation of soldiers and a huge amount of equipment was lost – cannot be overstated, but the army’s origins seem to have been far more fluid.

Despite these more organic (and possibly less impressive) origins, the development of the manipular legion in the fourth century BC still represented a major achievement. It should be noted that the ability to effectively combine units of different types, and from a number of different socio-political entities, in a single army was not unknown at this time. Indeed, the army of Philip II and Alexander the Great of Macedon arguably represents another example of this ‘combined arms’ approach – with the army unified by both the promise of payment and, later, the charisma of the leader. And of course the use of mercenaries in the Greek world more generally in the fifth and fourth centuries BC, particularly with regards to light infantry (peltasts), would have offered another example. But what made Rome’s manipular army so interesting and effective was its ability to effectively combine various units into a single army without relying on payment by the state. Instead, Rome seems to have relied upon a sense of obligation (civic duty for her citizens and treaties for her allies), along with the promise of booty after the war which included both the usual forms of portable wealth (gold, silver, arms, armour, etc.) and increasingly land (although this was reserved for her own citizens during this period). But this system allowed Rome to have an almost endless supply of soldiers for her armies, which was not limited by troop type, organization, tactics or formation, or even state finances. The strength of the system was not in its inherent tactics, formations or equipment, but actually the absence of these things. The Roman military system, like Roman society at this time, was all about integration and incorporation.



The Huns

SHORT COMPOSITE BOW: right drawn, centre normal and left spent.

This illustration shows the short composite bow of wood, horn and sinew, held together by animal glue. All the materials were obtainable in the steppe lands of Inner Asia. Curved bows like this were immensely powerful and short enough to be fired from horseback.

The origins of the Huns are shrouded in mystery, not just for us but also for contemporary observers, who frankly admitted that they had no idea where these people had appeared from. It was clear that they had come from the east and there was a persistent but improbable story recounted to explain how they were first encouraged to move west. According to this legend, the Huns and the Ostrogoths lived in neighbouring territory separated by the Strait of Kerch, which is the entrance to the Sea of Azov: the Ostrogoths in the Crimea on the western side and the Huns in the steppes to the east. However, neither group knew of the other’s existence. One day a cow belonging to a Hun was stung by a gadfly and swam across the strait followed in hot pursuit by her master. He found himself in a rich and inviting land and when he returned to his own people he told them about it and they immediately moved to take it for themselves.

The historical reality seems to be that the Huns, a Turkic people from the Central Asian steppes, began to move west around the year 370 and attack the Ostrogothic kingdom in the area of the modern Ukraine. What caused this movement is unclear, but it may have been pressure from other tribes further east. The Ostrogoths were defeated again and again and forced to leave their homes and farms in panic. A vast number of them crossed the Danube into the Balkans, still ruled at this time by the Roman Empire. Here the fugitive Goths, in their desperation, inflicted a massive defeat on the Roman army at Adrianople In 376, when their cavalry ran down the last of the old Roman legions.

Now that their horizons were expanded there was no stopping the Huns. They raided the Balkans in the aftermath of the Roman defeat but also attacked the rich provinces of the east, coming through the Caucasus and Anatolia to pillage the rich lands of Syria. St Jerome, the translator of the Bible into Latin, was living as a hermit near Jerusalem at the time and he has left us one of the first contemporary accounts of their cruelty:

Suddenly messengers started arriving In haste and the whole east trembled for swarms of Huns had broken out from (behind the Caucasus). They filled the whole earth with slaughter and panic as they flitted here and there on their swift horses. The Roman army was away at the time and detained in Italy owing to civil wars … they were at hand everywhere before they were expected: by their speed they outstripped rumour, and they took pity on neither religion nor rank nor age nor wailing childhood. Those who had just begun to live were compelled to die and, in ignorance of their plight, would smile amid the drawn swords of the enemy. There was a widespread report that they were heading for Jerusalem and that they were converging on that city because of their extreme greed for gold.

Jerome takes up a number of themes which were to echo through the centuries as people of the settled lands recounted with horror the arrival of nomad warriors: their speed and the fact that they caught unsuspecting people by surprise, their readiness to slaughter entire populations and their blatant and overwhelming greed for gold.

Another theme repeatedly taken up by observers of the Huns was their alleged ugliness. Ammianus Marcellinus, the late fourth-century military historian, who is one of our most important sources for the earliest stages of the Hunnic invasions, commented that they were ‘so prodigiously ugly that they might be taken for two-legged animals or the figures crudely carved from stumps that one sees on the parapets of bridges’, while Jordanes adds that they caused men to panic by ‘their terrifying appearance, which inspired fear because of its swarthiness and they had, if I may say so, a sort of shapeless lump rather than a head’. These impressions probably reflect the eastern Asiatic features of the Mongols which made them clearly distinct from their Germanic rivals and neighbours (about whom the Roman sources do not make the same comments).

Their physical appearance was not made more attractive to the Romans by their clothes. These seem to have been chiefly made of bits of fur and later of linen, presumably captured or traded because the Huns themselves certainly did not make their own textiles. Along with their ragged clothes and wearing their garments until they disintegrated was their habit of never washing. The effect of these on the fastidious Roman observers who encountered them may easily be envisaged. However critical, their enemies recognized their extreme hardiness for, as Ammianus Marcellinus observed, ‘They learn from the cradle to the grave to endure hunger and thirst.’ Not for them the heavy, slow-moving supply trains that delayed the movements of Roman armies for they carried all that they needed with them on their swift and sturdy ponies.

That the Huns were ferocious and very successful warriors is evident. It is less clear exactly why they were so. Our knowledge of both their tactics in battle and their equipment is very patchy. The main first-hand account, the work of Priscus, describes the Huns at leisure and pleasure but not at war, and the descriptions of battles from other sources are both later and too vague to be of much use. There is no known contemporary representation of a Hunnic warrior of the period. A few swords from the time, which mayor may not be Hunnic, survive but there are no archaeological traces of the famous bows.

Ammianus Marcellinus, himself an experienced military officer, wrote of them in 392:

When provoked they sometimes fight singly but they enter the battle in tactical formation, while the medley of their voices makes a savage noise. And as they are lightly equipped for swift motion, and unexpected in action, they purposely divide suddenly in scattered bands and attack, rushing around in disorder here and there, dealing terrific slaughter; and because of their extraordinary speed of movement, they cannot easily be seen when they break into a rampart or pillage an enemy’s camp. And on this account, you would have no hesitation in calling them the most terrible of all warriors. At first they fight from a distance with arrows with sharp bone heads [instead of metal ones] joined to the shafts with wonderful skill. They then gallop over the intervening spaces and fight hand to hand with swords, regardless of their own lives. Then, while their opponents are guarding against wounds from sword thrusts, they throw strips of cloth plaited into nooses [i. e. lassos] over their opponents and so entangle them and pin their limbs so that they lose the ability to ride or walk.

Although Ammianus’ account was derived second-hand from Goths who had fought against the Huns, the picture clearly shows them as nomad warriors in the military tradition which was to be followed by the Turks and Mongols. The emphasis on manoeuvrability, their role as mounted archers and use of lassos all form part of that tradition.

As with all steppe nomads, observers were struck by their attachment to their horses. Jerome says that they ate and slept on their horses and were hardly able to walk on the ground. Ammianus Marcellinus noted that they were ‘almost glued to their horses which are hardy, it is true, but ugly, and sometimes they sit of the woman-fashion (presumably side-saddle) and so perform their ordinary tasks. When deliberations are called for about weighty matters, they all meet together on horseback’. The Gaulish aristocrat Sidonius Apollinaris (d. 479), who must have seen Hunnic mercenaries on many occasions, notes that their training began very young. ‘Scarcely has the infant learned to stand, without its mother’s help, when a horse takes him on his back. You would think that the limbs of the man and horse were born together, so firmly does the rider always stick to the horse. Other people are carried on horseback; these people live there.’ Being well versed in classical mythology, he goes on to compare them with the mythical centaurs, half man and half horse. Commentators on nomad warriors are almost always impressed by this connection with their horses. No matter how early sedentary people learned to ride, or how well trained they were, they never seem to have acquired the mastery of horses that the nomad peoples had. This mastery always gave them the advantage in endurance and in the art of mounted archery which others could never attain.

The late Roman military tactician Vegetius whose book Epitoma rei militaris (Handbook of Military Science) is one of our main sources on the late Roman army, discusses the horses of the Huns and how they differed from the Roman ones. He describes them as having great hooked heads, protruding eyes, narrow nostrils, broad jaws, strong and stiff necks, manes hanging below the knees, overlarge ribs, curved backs, bushy tails, strong cannon bones, small rumps and wide-spreading hooves. They have no fat on them and are long rather than high. He adds that the very thinness of these horses is pleasing and there is beauty even in their ugliness.

Apart from their physical appearance, like little ponies compared with the larger and more elegant Roman horses, what impresses Vegetius most is their toughness. He notes their patience and perseverance and their ability to tolerate extremes of cold and hunger. Vegetius was concerned at the decline of veterinary skills among the Romans of his day and complains that people were neglecting their horses and treating them as the Huns treated theirs, leaving them out on pasture all year to fend for themselves. This, he says, is not at all good for the larger and more softly bred Roman horses. There is an important point here: Roman horses needed to be fed and so the army had to carry fodder with it; Hunnic horses , by contrast, lived off the land and were used to surviving on what they could find. This gave them an enormous advantage in mobility and the capacity to travel long distances without resting. It was one of the secrets of their military success.

The question of whether the Huns used stirrups remains doubtful. We can be certain that stirrups were unknown in classical antiquity. We can also be certain that they were widely known in east and west from the eighth century onwards. The evidence for the intervening period is very problematic. There are no representations of horsemen using stirrups from the Hunnic period, nor have any metal stirrups been found in graves. If they had used a new and unfamiliar device like this, it seems most unlikely that Priscus and other classical commentators would have neglected to mention (and copy) this. It is therefore extremely unlikely that they had metal stirrups. It is possible that they may have had fabric or wooden stirrups, both of which are attested for in later periods, but again, the fact that these are not mentioned in sources makes it improbable. Mounted archers such as Scythians and Sarmatians, who preceded the Huns, were able to shoot from the saddle without the stabilizing effect of stirrups, and there is no reason why the Huns should not have done likewise. Indeed, the absence of stirrups for both sides would simply have emphasized the superiority of Hunnic horsemanship.

The Huns did not use spurs either but urged their horses on with whips; whip handles have been found in tombs. Gold and silver saddle ornaments discovered in tombs make it certain that some wealthy men rode on wooden saddles with wooden bows at front and rear to support the rider. Common sense suggests, however, that many poorer Huns must have made do with padded cloth or skin saddles or even have ridden bareback. Their most characteristic weapon was the bow. This was the short, but very powerful composite bow, perhaps 5 feet or more in length, made from wood, bone and sinews. The range would have been 200 to 300 yards, the maximum effective range of any medieval bow. In the early days at least, the arrowheads were made of bone, not iron. All the materials could be found on the steppes and the bow was the Hunnic instrument par excellence. Like the Turks and Mongols of later centuries, whom they so much resemble, it was their abilities as mounted archers that made them so formidable in battle. Better equipped Hunnic warriors would also have had swords and it is clear that Attila wore his sword even in the comparative safety of his own compound. Swords and their scabbards, like saddles, could be expensively decorated. Unlike the bows, which were peculiar to the Huns, the swords seem to have followed the standard Roman and Gothic forms, with short hilts and long, straight blades.

Confused by their speed, and perhaps hoping to account for their military success, contemporaries often gave very large numbers for armies of Huns: Priscus is said to have claimed that Attila’s army in 451 had 500,000 men. If this were true, it would certainly explain their successes in battle but, in reality, these numbers must be a vast exaggeration. As we shall see when considering the Mongols, limitations on grazing for the animals must have placed severe restrictions on the numbers of Huns who could work together as a unit. Even in the vast grasslands of Mongolia, it is unlikely that Mongol gatherings ever numbered much more than 100,000: in the more restricted areas of the Balkans and western Europe numbers must have been much smaller. Before they invaded the Empire, the Huns, like other nomads, probably lived in fairly small tenting groups, perhaps 500-1,000 people, who kept their distance from their fellows so as to exploit the grassland more effectively. Only on special occasions or to plan a major expedition would larger numbers come together and even then they could only remain together if they had outside resources. The image of a vast, innumerable swarm of Huns covering the landscape like locusts has to be treated with some scepticism.

The late Roman Empire was a society based on walled towns and the Huns soon developed an impressive capability in siege warfare. This was surely not something they brought with them from the steppes. They almost certainly employed engineers who had learned their trade in the Roman armies but now found themselves unemployed and looking for jobs. The Huns were much more successful than previous barbarian invaders had been at reducing cities. This was especially important in the Middle Danube area around modern Serbia, where cities which had successfully held out for many years were reduced to uninhabited ruins. Sometimes, as at Margus, betrayed by its bishop, this was the result of treachery, but on other occasions the Huns were able to mount a successful assault. Priscus gives a full account of the siege of the city of Naissus (modern Nis in Serbia) in 441. While the narrative certainly has echoes of classical historians, especially Thucydides (for Priscus was an educated man and keen to show it), the description probably reflects the realities of siege warfare at the time:

Since the citizens did not dare to come out to battles, the [Huns], to make the crossing easy for their forces bridged the river from the southern side at a point where it flowed past the city and brought their machines up to the circuit wall. First they brought up wooden platforms mounted on wheels upon which stood men who shot across at the defenders on the ramparts. At the back of the platform stood men who pushed the wheels with their feet and moved the machines where they were needed, so that [the archers] could shoot successfully through the screens. In order that the men on the platform could fight in safety, they were sheltered by screens woven from willow covered with rawhide and leather to protect them against missiles and flaming darts which might be shot at them. When a large number of machines had been brought up to the wall, the defenders on the battlements gave in because of the crowds of missiles and evacuated their positions. Then the so-called ‘rams’ were brought up. A ram is a very large machine: a beam is suspended by slack chains from timbers which incline together and it is provided with a sharp metal point. For the safety of those working them, there were screens like those already described. Using short ropes attached to the rear, men swing the beam back from the target of the blow and then release it, so that by its force, part of the wall facing it is smashed away. From the wall the defenders threw down wagon-sized boulders which they had got ready when the machines were first brought up to the circuit. Some of the machines were crushed with the men working them but the defenders could not hold out against the large number of them. Then the attackers brought up scaling ladders so that in some places the walls were breached by the rams and in other places those on the battlements were overcome by the numbers of. the machines. The barbarians entered through the part of the circuit wall broken by the blows of the rams and also by the scaling ladders set up against the parts which were not crumbling and the city was taken.

The attackers were using siege towers and battering rams but they do not seem to have had any artillery to fire stones at the walls or into the city. Later conquerors, notably the Mongols, were to use such catapults to great effect. In contrast, the Mongols do not seem to have used wheeled siege towers, at least in their Asian campaigns.

In addition to the machines, Attila was evidently prepared to sacrifice large numbers of men, probably prisoners or subject peoples, in frontal assault. The results were very impressive and most of the major cities of the Balkans, including Viminacium, Philippopolis, Arcadiopolis and Constantia on the Black Sea coast fell. Attila’s campaigns mark the effective end of Roman urban life in much of the area.

One feature which marked out the Huns and other nomad warriors from the settled people was the high degree of mobilization among the tribesmen. When Priscus, a civil servant who accompanied the East Roman ambassador to Attila’s court, was waiting for an audience with the great man, he was talking to a Greek- speaking Hun who gave him a lecture on the virtues of the Huns and Hunnic life as opposed to the corrupt and decadent ways of the Romans. He explained:

After a war the Scythians [i. e. the Huns: Priscus uses the ancient Greek term for steppe nomads] live at ease, each enjoying his own possessions and troubling others or being troubled not at all or very little. But among the Romans, since on account of their tyrants [i. e. the emperors] not all men carry weapons, they place responsibility for their safety in others and they are thus easily destroyed in war. Moreover, those who do use arms are endangered still more by the cowardice of their generals, who are unable to sustain a war.

This passage forms part of a speech which is really a sermon on the virtues of the ‘noble savage’ lifestyle and Priscus attempted, rather lamely, to counter his views. But the Hun was making an important point about the enduring difference between the nomad society in which all adult males bore arms and a settled population who relied on a professional army. In absolute terms, the Huns may never have been very numerous but because of the high degree of participation in military activity, they could field a large army. They were, in fact, a nation in arms.

After Actium…

Cleopatra’s men sighted Antony’s quinquereme following them and she ordered them to make a signal of recognition. Probably they slowed and he was able to come on board. His mood was grim and he refused to speak to his lover. The pause in their flight seems to have allowed some enemy ships to catch up. These were of a type known as Liburnians, which were small, but fast. For a while his energy returned and Antony boldly faced about to meet them. One ship was lost, but the pursuit was also broken. Afterwards, he is supposed to have sat alone at the prow of the queen’s ship. Plutarch, who tells the story, says that he did not know whether Antony was consumed with shame or rage. On the third day they landed at one of the southernmost points of the Peloponnese. Cleopatra’s two closest attendants, probably her maids Charmion and Iras, managed to persuade him to join her. The lovers talked, ate together and slept together for the remainder of the journey. They were joined by some transport ships and also a few more galleys that had managed to escape from Actium, and perhaps this encouraged Antony. He took the money carried aboard one of the transports and gave generous gifts to his remaining followers.

They sailed to the North African coast, landing at Paraetonium (modern-day Mersa Matruh), some 200 miles west of Alexandria, where they separated. Cleopatra went back to her capital city, while Antony looked to rally his only remaining army of any significance. Four legions had been left in Cyrenaica under the command of Lucius Pinarius Scarpus — a great-nephew of Julius Caesar, who had been mentioned as a minor heir in the dictator’s will. It was a very modest force to set against the armies of Octavian, who controlled a much larger army than Antony even before he had enlisted the latter’s legions left behind in Greece. Pragmatically, Pinarius now changed sides, declaring allegiance to Octavian and executing the handful of his officers who resisted. The vast majority had no great desire to die for a lost cause. When the news reached Antony, his companions had to restrain him from killing himself.

Cleopatra remained far more determined. When her ships sailed into the Great Harbour at Alexandria, their prows were garlanded and musicians played. There was probably always ceremony when one of the Ptolemies entered or left the city, but in this case these were symbols of victory. Confident that news of Actium would not have preceded her, the queen took up residence in her palace. Yet she knew that her position was weak and promptly ordered the execution of many prominent Alexandrian aristocrats before any tried to challenge her. They were killed and their property confiscated. Much of her war chest must already have been spent to fund the campaign, and it was clear that nothing could be achieved without substantial money. Gold and other treasures were levied from the survivors and also taken from her country’s many temples. Artavasdes of Armenia, kept prisoner since 34 BC, was also executed, perhaps in an effort to please the king of Media and so secure his support, or possibly to take his remaining treasure. A late and rather questionable source claims that priests from southern Egypt now offered to fight for her. For some this is taken as a sign of her widespread popularity amongst Egyptians. If it in fact occurred, the fear generated by her recent purge would have provided as strong an incentive.

Antony came to Alexandria, but once again sank into depression. A mole extended into the great harbour, from a point near the temple to Poseidon. Antony either converted an existing royal house built on the end of this or had a new structure built onto it. Giving up for the moment on being Dionysus or Hercules, he aped a famous – and semi-mythical – Athenian named Timon, who lived virtually as a hermit, lamenting his sorrows and loathing his fellow citizens. (Shakespeare’s Timon of Athens was later inspired by the stories told of this man.) For a while Antony indulged himself in self-pity and bitterness, living in relative, although no doubt fairly comfortable, solitude.

There was opportunity for such theatrical displays, because in the aftermath of Actium Octavian had not launched a concerted pursuit. The immediate priority had been to deal with the Antonian fleet and the legions left behind. After the latter defected, Antony ceased to be a serious military threat. It was more important to secure Greece. Very quickly the various communities sent representatives to make their peace with the victor. The inhabitants of Charonea had been about to make another trek, carrying grain to Antony’s camp, when news arrived of Actium. They stayed at home and divided the stockpiled grain amongst themselves.

Octavian was generous to most of the communities of Greece and the eastern provinces. Some were again called upon to give money or art treasures to another Roman leader to gain his support. Antony’s appointees to the thrones of the eastern kingdoms all switched sides in the months after Actium. Herod was one of the last, and sent the royal regalia to Octavian, before presenting himself in person. It was important to keep the provinces and allied kingdoms stable and, apart from that, the men appointed by Antony had generally done all that the Romans required of them. They had obeyed him because he had represented Roman authority throughout the region. None saw any reason to lose power and perhaps their lives now that his strength was broken. Nor did any see the civil war as a chance to throw off the Roman yoke, any more than they had done in previous Roman conflicts.

In the middle of winter, at a time when sea travel was normally avoided, Octavian hurried back to Italy to deal with a crisis. There was continued discontent over the taxes he had raised for the war and, in response, he now drastically reduced his demands. Maecenas claimed to have discovered and suppressed a plot to seize power led by Lepidus’ son, who was promptly executed. More serious was discontent amongst soldiers due for discharge. Now that he had taken on responsibility for Antony’s nineteen legions in addition to his own forces, this task was massive in scale, but the veterans were impatient at any delay. Octavian had to appease the mutineers in person, but he needed money to fund the generous land allocations he had just promised. Seizing the wealth of Egypt became all the more pressing.


Cleopatra was far more active than her lover: she ordered the construction of ships at one of the ports on the Red Sea coast and some of her existing vessels were dragged overland from the Nile to join them. The labour involved was massive, adding to the already major task of moving her treasury to the port. From there she – and presumably Antony – could sail away, with enough wealth to ensure their comfort and sufficient courtiers and mercenaries to protect them. They might live in luxurious exile or even carve out a small kingdom in India. Perhaps she even dreamed of returning from exile, as she had done almost two decades before. For these plans her money was spent and the toil of her subjects expended. It was not to be, however. King Malchus – the Nabataean ruler whose lands Antony had ceded to Cleopatra – had little love for the queen and a natural desire to ingratiate himself with Octavian. Malchus attacked and burned the ships before the project was complete.

Cleopatra had not left Alexandria and was able to coax Antony into rejoining her in the palace. Canidius arrived to tell of the loss of the army and there was continued news of defections. There were still moments of optimism and grand plans. They may have considered sailing to Spain in the hope of reviving the war there. Unlikely though this sounds, one of Octavian’s officers was busy building fortified positions on the Spanish coast. It was probably too great a distance to travel without secure bases en route and, for whatever reason, the idea was abandoned.

Antony was happy to revel in luxury once more. Cleopatra arranged a grand celebration for his birthday on 14 January 30 BC. He was fifty-three. She let her own birthday pass in far more modest fashion, eager to focus attention on him and rebuild his confidence. The queen was thirty-nine. Their society of Inimitable Livers’ was disbanded and instead they formed a new club – the Sharers in Death’. The name was inspired by a play, telling of lovers who believed that their deaths were certain, although on the stage the story ended in a last minute reprieve.

The state of mind of both Antony and Cleopatra in the winter and spring of 30 BC is harder to judge and no doubt their moods swung. Both had survived apparently hopeless situations in the past and perhaps this encouraged them to cling on to hope now. The queen is supposed to have taken an interest in poisons, allegedly watching tests on condemned prisoners to see how quickly and reliably they died and the degree of pain and discomfort involved. Death was another form of escape, but neither of them was inclined to rush to that fate or to fail to explore other possibilities. Cleopatra made arrangements for Caesarion to be sent with treasure and an escort to India, doing on a smaller scale what she planned for all of them.

Caesarion was now about sixteen, and in a public festival Antony and Cleopatra celebrated his coming of age. He was enrolled in the ephebeia at the gymnasium, a quintessentially Greek ceremony. At the same time Antyllus, who was about fourteen or fifteen, also became formally a man, donning the toga virilis. It was seen as a promise that even if Antony and Cleopatra should die, then their heirs were ready as adults to take over their power. In particular, the promotion of Caesarion was intended to assure her subjects that the regime was stable. Perhaps it was also hoped that there would be more chance of his being allowed to remain as king if he was already firmly established.

Both Antony and Cleopatra repeatedly and independently wrote and sent messengers to Octavian in an effort to bargain. She assured him of her loyalty to Rome and at some point copied Herod’s gesture of sending the royal regalia, including the throne, sceptre and diadem. No doubt there were generous gifts and the promise of far greater wealth if either she or her children were permitted to keep some or all of her kingdom. Antony employed a friendlier version of his bluff style, now hearty in talking of their former friendship and amorous adventures they had shared in the past. He offered to go into retirement, asking permission to live in Athens if he was not allowed to stay with Cleopatra in Alexandria.

Octavian made no concrete offer to either of them, at least publicly, although Dio claims that he secretly promised Cleopatra her kingdom if she killed Antony. Much of the negotiation was done by freedmen from their respective households, although Antony also sent Antyllus on one occasion. The youth brought gold, which Octavian took, before sending the boy on his way without making any concrete proposal to carry to his father. It is interesting that Antony and Cleopatra chose to contact their enemy independently, and that he preferred to reply in the same way. In his case, Octavian clearly hoped to encourage suspicion between the lovers that the other might make a separate deal.

One of Octavian’s representatives to the queen was a freedman called Thrystus, a man of charm and clear diplomatic skill. He was granted long private audiences with Cleopatra, prompting a mistrustful Antony to have him flogged and sent back to Octavian. Antony said that if the latter wanted to respond he could always give Hipparchus a whipping – referring to one of his own freedmen who had long since defected to the enemy. On another occasion he sent a different type of present, his envoys bringing a captive Turullius, last but one of Caesar’s assassins. The prisoner was sent to Cos and executed there, both for the murder and his desecration of the sacred grove.

Antony had little to offer, apart from voluntary retirement and a quick completion of a war that in any event could not last very long. His armies had dwindled away and the only group to declare open allegiance to him was a force of gladiators at Cyzicus in Asia Minor. Condemned to die in the arena, these men seem to have hoped to be turned into soldiers and win their freedom from Antony. Eventually they were suppressed and, although promised life by their captors, they were treacherously executed. Lepidus had been allowed to live, although the recent conspiracy involving his son may have made Octavian question the wisdom of this. Antony had always been a stronger figure and he had two Roman sons, one of whom had just come of age. To spare his beaten opponent would have been a great display of clemency, but also a gamble.

Cleopatra was better placed. Octavian needed to draw on the wealth of her kingdom, and she was in a position to make this easier for him. If she chose to resist, then in the short term she could also rob him of the revenue he desperately needed to provide for his veterans. Since her return to Alexandria, the queen had gathered a great deal of the readily accessible wealth of the kingdom. Much of this she stored in the mausoleum she was preparing for herself— the location is unknown, but it was near a great temple to Isis. Combustible material was piled inside the tomb, so that the building and its treasure could easily be destroyed if she issued the order. Even if the precious metals could be retrieved, it would take time before they could be restored to usable form. The preparations were not kept secret. Cleopatra was preparing for her death at the same time as she bargained for life.

In the summer of 30 BC Octavian attacked Egypt from two directions. An army came along the coast from Cyrenaica in the west, supported by a fleet. It included the four formerly Antonian legions and probably some of Octavian’s own troops. The whole force was under the command of Caius Cornelius Gallus, a descendant of Gallic aristocrats who had been brought into public life by Caesar. Octavian himself advanced from Syria in the east, marching overland to Pelusium along the traditional invasion route. Antony had whatever legionaries had been carried on board the ships from Actium, along with whatever forces had been stationed in Egypt or had been raised since his return. At most he is unlikely to have been able to muster a force equivalent to a couple of legions and auxiliaries, along with a small navy.

Antony first confronted the force approaching from the west, hoping to persuade his men to return to their former allegiance. Gallus is supposed to have had his trumpeters sound a fanfare to blot out the words. Antony attacked and was repulsed, then Gallus managed to lure the enemy ships into attacking the harbour and trapped them there. Antony and the remnants of his forces withdrew. In the meantime, Pelusium had fallen, apparently without a fight. Dio claims that Cleopatra had betrayed the fortress to the enemy. The commander of her garrison there was named Seleucus and Plutarch says that she had this man’s wife and children executed for his failure. This may have been genuine anger, an attempt to quash the rumour or even to conceal her involvement.

Coming back from his defeat, Antony bumped into Octavian’s vanguard and was able to rout some cavalry. He had archers shoot arrows into the enemy camp, each with a message tied to the shaft, offering the soldiers 1,500 denarii each if they came over to his side. None did. Even so, Antony returned to Alexandria – the action had been fought on the outskirts of the city – and without bothering to take off his armour, embraced Cleopatra and kissed her in suitably Homeric fashion. One of his cavalrymen had distinguished himself in the skirmish and Antony presented the man to the queen, who rewarded him with a helmet and cuirass decorated with gold. Perhaps the soldier was one of the bodyguard of Gauls he had given to her some years before. Whatever his background, he deserted to the enemy that night.

‘The Sharers in Death’ held a last feast that night. It was lavish in scale, but tearful, with Antony talking openly of his desire for an heroic death – scarcely an encouraging topic for the night before a battle. Overnight, it was said people heard music and chants, just like one of the Dionysiac processions so favoured by the two lovers. The sound seemed to leave the city, as if the god was abandoning it. The Greeks and Romans were inclined to believe that the deities associated with a place left before a disaster. The Roman army regularly performed a ceremony intended to welcome the gods of a besieged city into new homes freshly prepared for them by the besiegers.

Antony had planned an ambitious combined attack for the following day, 1 August 30 BC. It would begin with warships attacking the enemy fleet and this would be followed by an assault on land. There was no realistic chance of victory, or at least not of any success that might actually turn the tide of the war. This may explain what happened next. Antony watched as his warships closed with the enemy, but was amazed to see them stop and raise their oars out of the water, a gesture of surrender. Closer to him, his cavalry followed their example, choosing this moment to defect. His infantry – less able to move quickly, less sure of each other’s mood or truly loyal –remained. They attacked and were quickly beaten. Antony returned to the palace and Plutarch claims that he was yelling out that the queen had betrayed him. Dio simply states that Cleopatra had ordered the ships’ captains to defect.

Most of the ships to escape from Actium were hers. Some may have been lost in the attempt to reach the Arabian coast, but any built to replace them were constructed and crewed at her expense. In most respects the naval squadrons were hers rather than Antony’s and so it is certainly possible that she had arranged their defection in secret negotiations. Most modern historians dismiss this as propaganda aimed at blackening her reputation. They may be right, and the truth in such cases was unlikely to have been widely known even at the time. However, there was absolutely nothing to be gained by fighting. Possessing the fleet gave a bargaining counter and giving it up could well have been a gesture of faith. Unconditional surrender either then or in the past months meant simply trusting to the mercy of the conqueror. Cleopatra hoped to persuade Octavian to make her a deal and that meant conceding slowly, demonstrating both her capacity and willingness to be of assistance. Giving up Pelusium, and later ordering the surrender of her fleet, would make sense as gestures, making Octavian’s conquest easier and less costly in lives. These would be coldly pragmatic decisions, but they were certainly not impossible ones.

Cleopatra was a survivor who had clung on to power for almost twenty years amidst all the intrigues of the Ptolemaic court and the chaos of Roman civil wars. It would have been out of character for her to despair and it is clear that she had not yet done so. She might be able to save something of her own power, or if not then secure the position of some or all of her children. Caesarion was vulnerable after the emphasis on his paternity in the struggle with Octavian, but he had already been sent away on the long journey that should eventually take him to India. Her children by Antony might well be more acceptable to the young Caesar, and the Romans liked to employ client rulers. Their father may already have been beyond salvation.

Canaanite Warfare and Conflict during the Middle Bronze Age

A Maryannu warrior, elite of the Canaan army.


The armies of the city-states of Canaan and Syria after the fall of some of the Amorite dynasties to the Hittites, and occupation of resulting power vacuums by possibly Hurrian rulers commanding chariot-riding Maryannu. These city-states were usually in this period vassals of one of the great powers competing in the area, viz. Mitanni, Egypt, the Hittite Empire and Assyria. Canaanite tactics relied on the use of high quality Maryannu skirmishing chariotry similar to that of Mitanni. Captured equipment listed by the Egyptians after Megiddo in 1445 BC suggests about half the Maryannu were then armoured. Infantry had a purely subsidiary role.

Evidence for conflict during the Middle Bronze Age comes from both archaeological remains and text. As for archaeological evidence, weapons such as daggers and spearheads made from the state-of-the-art metal, bronze, have been found at virtually all of the major cities. Horses were sometimes included in the warrior burials and were probably used to drive chariots. If the earthen ramparts were built in response to a need for defensive systems, it is still un clear whether the threat was internal, that is, from conflict between rival Canaanite cities, or external. Clearly, the infiltration of Asiatics into the Delta did not please the Egyptians, and texts dating to this time reflect growing animosity toward these intruders. The term “Hyksos,” which comes from the Egyptian hekau khasut, literally, “foreign rulers,” refers to the Asiatics who founded the Fifteenth Dynasty in Lower Egypt (c. 1750 b. c. e., MB2b). That these Asiatics were Canaanites in origin is indicated by the Semitic form of Hyksos names as well as from the evidence of material culture at sites such as Tel el-Yehudiyeh and Tel el-Dab’a (Avaris) in the Delta. At the latter site, Canaanite material of the MB1 appears in the early phases (Str. F-G), suggesting a gradual and peaceful migration into the Delta (Dever 1991). By the middle of the period (MB2), the city’s population grew, and Avaris (Tel el-Dab’a, Str. E) came to be dominated by Asiatic rulers who usurped political control over the Delta and established the Fifteenth Dynasty (c. 1650 b. c. e.). Archaeological evidence for this phenomenon can be observed in the burial of royal and/or noble family members in underground vaults. According to the literary tradition, the Hyksos were defeated at Avaris in about 1550 b. c. e. Following their expulsion from the Delta, a vindictive Egyptian army, led by the pharaoh Ahmose, pursued them into southern Canaan, destroying the city of Sharuhen, which is usually identified as Tel el-Ajjul. The destruction of such an important city would have had a major impact on southern Canaan and beyond. The demise of several southern cities, including Tel el-Far’ah South, Tel Masos, and Tel Malhata, has also been attributed to the Egyptians, though it is likely that the Canaanite cities were already in a state of decline well before the time of the presumed Egyptian invasion.

By the late Middle Bronze Age (MB3, c. 1650-1550 b. c. e.), sociopolitical complexity in the southern Levant had peaked, and with this rapid expansion in population and exploitation of arable land, the Canaanite societies may have reached a critical point where agricultural production failed to keep pace with demand. The very wealth and power of these Canaanite city-states may have contributed, in the end, to their own undoing. Investment in monumental public works continued while the hunt for tin was on. It is conceivable that the demands of both religious and political institutions resulted in an irreversible diversion of resources, ultimately putting a strain on the agricultural base that was too difficult to sustain.

Bible battle accounts mention some Canaanite cities most of which were superbly fortified. An additional wall called a “glacis”, which would slope down towards a moat, served to reinforce further an already strong city wall made of rock. The glacis was made up of layers of pounded earth, clay and gravel coated with plaster. Its angle was perfect to repel cavalry as well as siege engines such as battering rams. Hazor is the best example of this defence method.

Monumental Architecture

In the absence of direct evidence for specific kings and political institutions, archaeologists may infer from the wealth of evidence for monumental architecture that some political body was able to command the contacts and resources necessary for sponsoring extensive public projects. Such projects are seen throughout Canaan. Palaces and “governors’ residences” have been excavated at sites such as Tel el-Ajjul, Kabri, Hazor, Lachish, Megiddo, and Aphek. At the latter site, two governors, Takuhlinu and Haya, are mentioned by name in cuneiform tablets dated to about 1230 b. c. e. (Singer 1983; Beck and Kochavi 1985). These massive buildings, some larger than 1,000 square meters (nearly 11,000 sq. ft.), were elaborate in design, with broad, pillared halls, multiple storage rooms, and large courtyards. At both Megiddo and Shechem, the palace was located in the vicinity of the temple, though it is not clear that there was a direct connection. A northern influence is observable in a number of Canaanite palaces, particularly at Tel el-Ajjul and Lachish, which incorporated massive sandstone slabs, or orthostats, reminiscent of those in Syrian palaces. It would appear, therefore, that Canaanite kingship was modeled at least in part on the political structures of Syrian city-states. The massive earthworks that surrounded many Middle Bronze Age cities also point toward the existence of centralized power structures. They represent a significant investment of resources, above all, labor. The construction of the ramparts at Shiloh required an estimated 250,000 workdays-that is, it would have taken some 3,000 laborers roughly five years to complete the project- and the earthworks at Tel Dan would have taken an estimated 1,000 workers some three years. In a number of cases, such as Dan and Yavne-Yam, small populations relative to the size of the ramparts suggest that much of the labor force responsible for their construction was drawn from beyond the city itself. Those overseeing these projects would also have had access to the expertise of specialists (for example, designers and architects) as well as various other resources, including draft animals and building materials. The function of these massive rampart systems, however, is not always clear. Traditionally, it has been held that the earthen ramparts served as fortification systems, yet recent scholarship has challenged this view. For instance, what armies and types of attack were these structures built to defend against (for example, battering rams)? And would they have been successful against a siege? Numerous other questions have been raised. At Ashqelon, the earthen ramparts were capped by walls, yet it is not clear whether this system was intended to defend against surface attacks or against tunneling meant to penetrate the city surreptitiously (Stager 1991). Some of these ramparts were actually built prior to urban development within them.

Other explanations tend to emphasize the symbolic aspects of these structures. In the central hill country, ramparts formed small citadels, or “highland strongholds,” that served primarily as political centers, hosting large public buildings, temples, and storage facilities. In some cases, such as Ashqelon and Dan, elaborate gates were built into the ramparts, serving, on the one hand, as prestige architecture, and, on the other, as an effective way to monitor the movement of goods and people in and out of the city.

Regardless of their specific function, these massive constructions would have stood as highly visible symbols of power. Surely, there were rivalries between neighboring city-states as they vied for grazing and farmland as well as for access to trade networks. Monumental architecture served to enhance the status of local leaders and the cities in general while fostering a strong sense of identity based on location (for example, hailing from a certain city). The ruling political bodies of the city-states thereby engaged in “competitive emulation” or “one-upmanship.” Visible from afar, these imposing fortresses and lofty citadels could have facilitated the extension of political power from the cities out into the surrounding regions. In the words of one researcher, the massive rampart systems represented “dynastic propaganda typical of early states striving for legitimacy” (Finkelstein 1992a).

Political Organization

Early in the second millennium b. c. e., urbanism once again took hold throughout much of the southern Levant. A hierarchical relationship in the size of settlements indicates that large urban centers served as the seat of political power for what may be loosely described as city-states, though there is disagreement with regard to the degree of political complexity reached during the Middle Bronze Age. What would ultimately evolve into one of the great urban cultures of the second millennium b. c. e. had its roots in the tribal societies of the preceding Intermediate Bronze Age and early Middle Bronze Age. For instance, many of the large earthworks that surrounded the later Canaanite cities were actually established prior to urban development, serving, perhaps initially, as enclosures for the tents and semi-permanent structures used by semi nomadic tribal groups.

Information about political organization in the early Middle Bronze Age is also offered by Egyptian texts. The “Tale of Sinuhe” refers to pastoral groups with an internal sociopolitical structure, sometimes including several tribal leaders. The most important source of textual information for this period comes from the Twelfth Dynasty Egyptian inscriptions known collectively as the “Execration Texts.” This series of curses on foreign places and peoples considered enemies of Egypt in effect creates the equivalent of a rough geopolitical map for Middle Bronze Age Canaan. More important, the texts all date from the mid-twentieth and mid-nineteenth centuries b. c. e. (that is, c. 1950 b. c. e. and 1850 b. c. e., following Kitchen 1989), thereby providing a before-and after picture for the process of urbanization. The earlier texts, on one hand, tell of tribes, sometimes with multiple leaders, and a landscape dotted with but a few cities (for example, Ashqelon and Jerusalem). The later group, on the other hand, lists the names of numerous cities, including Acre, Hazor, Jerusalem, Laish, Qadesh, and Shechem, conveying a sense of widespread urbanization.

By the later Middle Bronze Age, the Canaanite countryside was divided up into a series of territorial units, probably distinct city-states or kingdoms resembling “early state modules,” as described by Colin Renfrew (1971; also Finkelstein 1992a). Evidence from archaeological surveys reflects an eight-tier settlement hierarchy system by the later MB2 (MB2b-MB2c). Hazor and Avaris (Tel el-Dab’a) alone may be classified as first-order gateway cities, and both are entirely unique cases. Hazor, which reached some 80 hectares, was more akin to Syrian cities of northern Canaan, while Avaris was a Canaanite city established in northern Egypt. Ashqelon (60 ha), Yavne-Yam (65 ha), and Kabri (35-40 ha), all located in coastal areas or along central routes, are considered second-order gateway cities. Third-order gateway settlements, such as Tel Dan (16 ha) and Tel Dor (10 ha), also situated along land and sea routes, were smaller, though perhaps equally wealthy. The inland valleys were dominated by regional centers such as Megiddo (more than 20 ha, including the upper and lower cities), Acco, Beth Shean, Kabri, Shimron, and Shechem. Primary centers of the coastal plain and Shephelah also included Tel el-Ajjul, Aphek, Gezer, Lachish, and Tel es-Safi. Survey data from this period also indicate a rise in the number of rural settlements, suggesting that there were a few relatively large centers surrounded by numerous small villages and farmsteads.

The Second Urban Revolution

By the middle of the Middle Bronze Age, Canaan was divided into distinct political units subsuming urban, rural, and non-sedentary populations. These polities ranged from large chiefdoms to some of the region’s first true city states. Jericho, for example, was a small, autonomous community organized according to family and kinship structures, led, perhaps, by a council of clan heads. Shechem had broad influence in the hill country, which also played host to several autonomous polities of moderate size. Several vast city-states with large urban centers emerged. Hazor, all but abandoned during the Intermediate Bronze Age, saw rapid growth, developing into a bustling urban center that was the core of the consummate Canaanite city-state. In

Syrian texts from this time, Hazor is often mentioned as a contemporary of other kingdoms such as Carchemish, Ugarit, Babylon, Eshnuna, Qatna, Yamhad, and Kaptara (Cyprus or Crete). Reference is also made to emissaries from Babylon who took up long-term residence at Hazor, suggesting that there may have been formal standing political ties between the various city-states. Owing to its status and location, Hazor occupied a unique position as media tor between the Canaanite kingdoms and those of Syro-Cilicia. In many ways, Hazor was more similar to city-states of the Syro-Mesopotamian world system than to the rest of the southern Levant, and it was exceptional with regard to political organization. Avaris (Tel el-Dab’a) may have played a similar role as Hazor’s southern counterpart, mediating between Canaanite city-states and Egypt. In both cases, political development in Middle Bronze Age Canaan must be understood in the context of a land situated between two developed states.

The Canaanite city-states no doubt had kings, but it is not until the end of the Middle Bronze Age, when local Canaanite/Amorite texts first appear, that it becomes possible for historians and archaeologists to speak of specific rulers. Textual sources show that kingship in Syria was passed down along descent lines, and mortuary evidence from the southern Levant suggests that descent groups were recognized and that status was hereditary; it is unclear, though, how this figured into the structure of political power. A number of cylinder seals and at least one scarab with the name of Hyksos rulers (for example, Aa user-re) discovered at Tel el-Ajjul point to political ties between Egypt and southern Canaan. “Warrior burials” may represent the graves of individuals who served some royal court or guard.

Qin Wars of Unification (230–221 BCE)

Map of Zhou China c.400 BC

The Late Zhou period also heralded the ‘Warring States Era’ which saw almost three centuries of bitter rivalry and warfare between a mass of fractured Chinese kingdoms. Eventually the kingdom of Qin, on the western edge of early China would conquer the rest, while the Shu and Ba people were also brought into the kingdom for the first time.

Combatants Qin vs. Han, Zhao, Wei, Chu, Yan, Qi

Principal Commanders Qin: King Ying Zheng (Emperor Qin Shi Huang), Wang Jian, Wang Ben, Li Xin

Other States: King An, King Qian, Li Mu, King Fuchu, King Xi, King Jia, Xiang Yan, King Tian Jian

Principal Battles Daliang

Outcome The seven states of central China are formed into one state. The short-lived Qin dynasty gives its name to China and establishes the concept of a unified state


The Qin Wars of Unification of 230-221 BCE were the direct result of the efforts of King Ying Zheng of Qin (later emperor as Qin Shi Huang) to control all northern China. Born Ying Zheng in Handan in 259 BCE, Qin Shi Huang (Ch’in Shih-hung) was nominally the son of the king of Qin but may have actually been the offspring of his father’s powerful chancellor, Lü Buwei. Regardless of his patrimony, Ying Zheng succeeded to the throne at age 13 in 245 on the death of his father and assumed his personal rule at age 22 in 231 when he seized full power and dismissed Lü Buwei, who had been acting as regent.

As ruler, Ying Zheng put down a number of rebellions. He also built up the army, emphasizing the cavalry, and carried out a number of reforms, especially in agriculture. The king was determined to expand Qin territory. Most of the smaller states of northern and central China, such as the Ba, Shu, Zhongshan, Lu, and Song states, had already been absorbed by their more powerful neighbors, and by the time Ying Zheng had come to the throne there were seven major states in northern China: Qin, Han, Zhao, Wei, Chu, Yan, and Qi. Having consolidated his own kingdom, Ying Zheng now proceeded to conquer the other remaining feudal states of the Yellow River and lower and middle Yangtze River valleys in a series of campaigns from 230 to 221 BCE. His strategy was to attack and defeat one state at a time, described in one of the so-called Thirty-Six Stratagems as “befriend a distant state while attacking a neighbor.” This meant first allying Qin with the Yan and Qi states and holding at bay the Wei and Chu states while conquering the Han and Zhao states.


Han was the weakest of the seven states and had previously been attacked by Qin. In 230 led by Minister of Interior Teng, a Qin army moved south across the Huang He (Yellow River) and invaded Han. Cavalry played a major role in the campaign. That same year the Qin army captured the Han capital of Zheng (today Xinzheng in Zhengzhou in southern Henan Province). With the surrender of King An of Han, the whole of Han came under Qin control.

Zhao was the next state to fall. Qin had invaded Zhao before but had not been able to conquer it. Zhao, however, was struck by two natural disasters-an earthquake and a famine-and in 229 the Qin armies again invaded, this time in a converging attack by three armies on the Zhao capital of Handan. Capable Zhao general Li Mu avoided pitched battle, however, choosing to concentrate instead on the construction of strong defenses, which indeed prevented the Qin armies from advancing farther. Ying Zheng then bribed a Zhao minister to sow discord between Li Mu and Zhao King Qian, who as a result came to doubt his general’s loyalty. Indeed, Li Mu was subsequently imprisoned and executed on King Qian’s order. Learning of Li Mu’s execution, in 228 the Qin armies again invaded Zhao. After several victories against the Zhao armies, Qin troops captured Handan and took King Qian. Ying Zheng then annexed Zhao.

That same year, 228, Qin general Wang Jian prepared for an invasion of Yan. Ju Wu, a Yan minister, suggested to Yan King Xi that he ally with Dai (present-day Yu, Zhangjiakou, in Heibei), then ruled by Prince Jia, the elder brother of the former king of Zhao, and also Qi and Chu. Crown Prince Dan opposed this course of action, however, believing it unlikely to succeed. Instead he sent an emissary, Jing Ke, to Qin with the head of a turncoat Qin general and orders to assassinate Ying Zheng. The assassination attempt failed, and Jing Ke was killed.

Using the attempted assassination as an excuse, Ying Zheng then sent an army against Yan. The Qin defeated the Yan Army, which had been strengthened with forces from Dai, in a battle along the east ern bank of the Yi River. Following their victory, the Qin army occupied the Yan capital of Yi (present-day Beijing). King Xi and his son Crown Prince Dan then withdrew with the remaining Yan forces into the Liaodong Peninsula. Qin general Li Xin pursued the Yan forces to the Ran River (present-day Hun River), where they destroyed most of the remaining Yan forces. To save his throne, King Xi ordered the execution of his son Crown Prince Dan, then sent his head to Qin in atonement for the assassination attempt on Ying Zheng, who accepted this “apology” and made no further military effort against Yan at this time.

In 222, however, Wang Ben led Qin forces in renewed warfare against Yan. The Qin army invaded the Liaodong Pen insula and captured King Xi. Yan was then annexed to the expanding Qin Empire.

In 225 Qin moved against Wei, first sending an army under Wang Ben that reportedly numbered 600,000 men to take more than 10 cities on the border with Chu in order to prevent that state from invading while the attack on Wei was proceeding. Wang Ben then moved against Daliang. It had natural defenses in that it was located at the confluence of the Sui and Ying Rivers. The city also had a very wide moat and four drawbridges that provided access to the city proper. Given the difficulties of taking Daliang, Wang Bei decided on an attempt to redirect the waters of the Yellow River and the Hong Canal in order to flood Daliang. It took his men more than three months to accomplish this considerable engineering feat while at the same time maintaining the Siege of Daliang. Wang Bei’s plan worked. Reportedly, more than 100,000 people lost their lives in the flooding of the city. King Jia of Wei then surrendered, and Wei was added to Qin.

Chu was next. In 224 Ying Zheng called a conference to discuss the plans for the invasion. General Wang Jian said that no fewer than 600,000 men would be re quired, but General Li Xin claimed that 200,000 men would be sufficient to conquer Chu. Ying Zheng then appointed Li Xin and Meng Wu to lead 200,000 men in two armies against Chu, while Wang Jian retired from state service, supposedly the result of illness.

The Qin armies enjoyed initial success. Li Xin’s men took Pingyu, while Meng Wu captured Qigiu. After then taking Yan (all three cities in present-day Henan), Li Xin led his army to rendezvous with Meng Wu. However, the Chu army, under Xiang Yan, had been avoiding a decisive encounter and was waiting for the opportunity to launch a counterattack. Xiang Yan’s army now pursued Li Xin during a three-day period, catching up with him and carrying out a surprise attack, joined by forces under Lord Changjing, a relative of Ying Zheng, a descendant of the Chu royal family. The two Chu armies effectively destroyed Li Xin’s army.

Informed of the crushing Chu victory over Li Xin, Ying Zheng then traveled to his retired general Wang Jian’s residence and personally apologized for having doubted his advice. Wang Jian agreed to return to government service, this time in command of the force of 600,000 men he had initially recommended. Meng Wu became Wang Jian’s deputy.

In 224 Wang Jian’s army invaded Chu territory and made camp at Pingyu. Chu general Xiang Yan assembled the entire Chu army and attacked the Qin encampment but was repulsed. Wang Jian then held his position, refusing to attack the Chu force as Xiang Yan had wanted, and it subsequently withdrew. As the Chu army was doing so, Wang Jian launched a surprise attack and then pursued the Chu army into Qinan (northwest of present-day Qic hun County, Huanggang, Hubei), where it was defeated and Chu commander Xiang Yan was killed in action.

In 223, Qin forces again invaded Chu and captured the capital city of Shouchun (present-day Shou in Lu’an, Anhui). King Fuchu of Chu was among those taken prisoner. Qin then annexed Chu. The next year, Wang Jian and Meng Wu attacked the Wuyu region (present-day Zhejiang and Jiangsu). It became part of the Qin territorial holdings.

In 221 BCE, Qi was the only state of north China not conquered by the Qin. Ying Zheng had early on bribed Qi chancellor Hou Sheng into advising King Tian Jian of Qi not to assist the other states, which were being conquered by Qin. Too late, King Tian Jian recognized the threat and sent his army to the border with Qin. Ying Zheng then used the excuse of Tian Jian’s refusal to meet with the Qin king’s envoy as justification for an invasion.

Avoiding the Qi forces massed on the border, commander of the Qin invasion force general Wang Ben moved his army into Qi from Yan territory. The army there fore met little resistance before arriving at the Qi capital of Linzi (north of present day Zibo, Shandong). Taken by surprise, King Tian Jian surrendered without a battle. Qi was then absorbed by Qin.

Qin expansion had, however, eliminated the buffer zone between the Chinese states and the nomadic peoples of present day Inner and Outer Mongolia, thus creating the need for the system of defensive fortifications known as the Qin Great Wall.

Upon absorbing Qi, Ying Zheng established the Qin dynasty, assuming the throne name of Qin Shi Huang (meaning “First Emperor of China”). As the first emperor of China, he had an enormous impact on the future of China and on the Chinese people. A reformer but also a strong-willed autocrat, he and his chief adviser Li Si pushed through a series of changes designed to solidify the unification. To diminish the threat of rebellion, the emperor required members of the former royal families to live in the capital of Xianyang, in Shaanxi Province.

Qin Shi Huang also abolished feudal ism and divided his territory into 36 prefectures and then divided the prefectures into counties and townships, all of which were ruled directly by the emperor through his appointees. A uniform law code was established, and Qin Shi Huang decreed a standardized system of Chinese characters in writing. A new tax system was put in place that is said to have exacted a heavy financial toll on the Chinese people. Qin Shi Huang also established a uniform system of laws, weights and measures, and coin age. In an attempt to silence any criticism of his rule, in 213 Qin Shi Huang ordered the burning of all books in the empire and records of all other dynasties and the execution of those scholars who opposed him, along with their families. Stories that he ordered some 460 Confucian scholars buried alive in Xianyang are probably not true, however.

Qin Shi Huang and Li Si also undertook a series of mammoth construction projects, including setting hundreds of thousands of men to work building the great defensive wall that incorporated older walls. This wall served as a precedent when later re gimes, most notably the Ming, also built systems of fortified walls as a means of defense against nomadic peoples to the north. The emperor also oversaw construction of a system of new roads designed to unify China economically and facilitate the passage of goods and troops radiating from the capital of Xianyang. Qin Shi Huang is now also known for having ordered construction of his large mausoleum in Xian, guarded by life-sized terra-cotta warriors and horses. Discovered in 1974 and opened to the public in 1979, the 800 warriors and their horses guarding the tomb are regarded as one of the greatest archaeological finds of all time.

Around 212 BCE, Qin Shi Huang subsequently expanded Qin territory to the south (i. e., south of the Changjiang [Yangtze or Yangxi River]). His generals Meng Tian and Zhao Tuo conquered northern Korea (Goryeo, Koryo) as well as the areas later known as Fujian, Guangdong, Guangxi, and Tonkin (Tongking) in north ern Vietnam.

Seeking to extend his life, Qin Shi Huang had been taking a medicine prescribed by his doctors that contained a small amount of mercury. He died, apparently of mercury poisoning, while on a tour of eastern China in Shaqiu Province in 210. In short order there was a strong re action to his autocratic regime. His second son and successor, Hu Hai (Qin Er Shi), proved to be an inept ruler, and a great peasant rebellion, led by Chen Sheng and Wu Guang, soon began. This sparked a series of rebellions that, combined with in fighting at court, brought the Qin dynasty to an end in 206 BCE.


The Qin Wars of Unification joined the seven states of central China into one state. Although the Qin dynasty itself was short lived (221-206), it gave its name to China and produced the concept of a unified Chinese state.

Further Reading Bodde, Derk. “The State and Empire of Qin.” In The Cambridge History of China, Vol. 1, The Ch’in and Han Empires, 221 B. C.-A. D. 220, edited by Denis Twitchett and Michael Loewe, 21-102. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1987. Clements, Jonathan. The First Emperor of China. Stroud, Gloucestershire, UK: Sutton, 2006. Tianchou, Fu, ed. The Underground Terracotta Army of Emperor Qin Shi Huang. Beijing: New World Press, 1988. Wood, Francis. The First Emperor of China. London: Profile Books, 2007. Zilin Wu. Qin Shi Huang: The First Emperor of China. Hong Kong: Man Hei Language Publications, 1989.

Third Samnite War – Battle of Sentinum 295 BC I

JD19 Sentinum (295 BC)

The essedarius (from the Latin word for a Celtic war-chariot, essedum).

With regard to other possible sources of information on a military role for chariots in Italy, texts written by later Roman and Greek authors frequently refer to warfare in Italy at the time of the (Etruscan) kings and the Republic of Rome, but usually do not mention vehicles as being involved.  Clearly, not only the Romans of that time but also other Italic peoples relied on infantry and, to varying degrees, on mounted troops. When wheeled vehicles are mentioned – in the battles at Sentinum in Umbria (in 295), Telamon in Toscana (in 225) and Clastidium in Emilia Romagna (in 222) – they belong to invaders: Gauls, i. e. Celtic tribes. Unfortunately, the texts yield no information on what these vehicles looked like or on their numbers. As to the way in which the vehicles were employed, Livy, in his account of the battle at Sentinum, refers to a sudden attack by Gauls with two types of vehicles (the terms used are essedum and carrus) on the mounted troops on the Roman left wing. Tough Livy’s account provides no details of their tactics, the headlong attack clearly took the Romans by surprise, quite probably because of their unfamiliarity with military vehicles. At Telamon in 225 BC, the chariots were on the flanks of the infantry and the cavalry used in a single independent mass, supported by the light troops. This would support the view that chariots were rarely put to active use in battle in Italy.

The Romans first came face to face with a modern Hellenistic army in 280 BC when Pyrrhus came to the aid of the Greek city of Tarentum in Southern Italy in its conflict with Rome. After two major defeats, the Romans were finally able to defeat the King of Epirus in 275 at Malventum, but the stubborn resilience of Roman legionaries had more to do with this success than any inspired generalship. In many respects the Roman style of command belonged to an older, simpler era, with far less expectation of prolonged manoeuvring prior to a pitched battle as each side searched for as many little advantages as possible. Yet once the fighting started, the behaviour of the Roman general differed markedly from his Hellenistic counterpart. A magistrate rather than a king, the Roman had no fixed place on the battlefield, no royal bodyguard at whose head he was expected to charge. The consul stationed himself wherever he thought the most important fighting would occur and during the battle moved along behind the fighting line, encouraging and directing the troops. Hellenistic armies rarely made much use of reserves, but the basic formation of the Roman legion kept half to two-thirds of its men back from the front line at the start of the battle. It was the general’s task to feed in these fresh troops as the situation required.

Rome had certainly not abandoned all heroic traditions and at times generals did engage in combat. Many aristocrats boasted of the number of times they had fought and won single combats, although by the third century BC at the latest they had most likely done this while serving in a junior capacity. At Sentinum in 295 BC one of the two consuls with the army – an exceptionally large force to face a confederation of Samnite, Etruscan and Gallic enemies – performed an archaic ritual when he ‘devoted’ himself as a sacrifice to the Earth and the gods of the Underworld to save the army of the Roman People. Once he had completed the rites this man, Publius Decius Mus, spurred his horse forward into a lone charge against the Gauls and was swiftly killed. Livy claims that he had formally handed over his command to a subordinate before this ritual suicide (a gesture which was something of a family tradition, for his father had acted in the same way in 340 BC). Sentinum ended in a hard fought and costly Roman victory.


In the Third Samnite War (298–290 BC), Rome faced an alliance of Etruscans, Umbrians, Samnites and Gauls; and the war would culminate in one of the most decisive battles in Italian history: a battle, in effect, to decide whether or not the whole of Italy would become Roman.

Such was its geographical extent, the enemy coalition had the Roman line across Italy stretched thin, and in 296 BC the main Samnite army broke through, moved north, and linked up with the Etruscans, Umbrians and Gauls. The following year, they repeated this feat, and this time turned on the pursuing Roman army and crushed it at the Battle of Camerinum. The Roman state was plunged into crisis. The constitution was suspended as special commands were created and incumbent officeholders continued beyond their normal terms. Older men and ex-slaves were mobilized to fill the ranks of new legions, and another two consular armies, 35,000 men in total, were sent into the field before the end of the summer of 295 BC. Even so, as the Romans approached the coalition army encamped at Sentinum on the border between Umbria and Picenum, they were heavily outnumbered. To improve the odds, a detached Roman force invaded Etruria, hoping that the threat of devastation would draw off the Etruscan and Umbrian forces; which it did. Despite this, when the Romans offered battle, the remaining Samnites and Gauls accepted the challenge (an almost essential precondition of combat in ancient warfare, since an army which chose to remain in its fortified camp, often defensively sited, could be attacked only at grave disadvantage).

The Samnites were deployed on the coalition’s right flank, facing the consular army of Quintus Fabius, the Gauls on the left, facing the consul Publius Decius. Roman military doctrine was essentially offensive, though it counselled caution in preparing for this and choosing an opportune moment. On this day, the older consul Fabius represented caution, his younger colleague Decius the spirit of the offensive. Fabius was determined to hold back on the left, confident that the enthusiasm of the barbarian warriors opposite would erode more quickly in a long wait than that of the stolid citizen-peasants of Latium. But Decius was determined to attack on the right as soon as the battle opened.

The Roman army that fought at Sentinum was very different from the hoplite phalanx of the 5th century BC. A century of wars against lightly equipped enemies who fought in more open, fast-moving formations, wars often fought in difficult terrain favourable to the guerrilla and the skirmisher, had transformed Roman equipment, organization and tactics. The Second Samnite War may have completed the transition. The dense blocks of men with spears and overlapping shields who had formed the phalanx had become looser formations of men armed mainly with javelin (pilum) and a lighter oval or rectangular shield (scutum). Large units – the legion (legio) of approximately 4,200 men – were divided into small subunits of 120 called ‘maniples’ (manipuli means ‘handfuls’), and these were deployed in an open chequerboard formation and trained to manoeuvre independently. The new legions were designed for mobile, offensive warfare. Unlike the relatively slow, cumbersome and defensive phalanx, they were expected to deploy, advance, wheel and, if necessary, alter front rapidly; and when the time came to close, they would hurl javelins to disorganize the enemy ranks, and then charge in with sword and shield.

Even so, Sentinum was hard-fought. Decius’ attack on the right was soon bogged down in a head-on clash with the Gallic line, and when he unleashed his cavalry on the far right in an effort to turn the enemy flank, they were met by the Gallic cavalry and, once embroiled, counter-charged and routed by the Gallic chariot force. The panic quickly began to infect the legionaries, and, as it did so and their line faltered, the Gallic infantry pushed forwards. Decius, unable to shore up the collapsing Roman right, was soon lost to a bizarre religious frenzy. Calling on Mother Earth and the Gods of the Underworld to accept the legions of the enemy along with himself as a sacrifice, he galloped his horse into the Gallic line and perished. Fabius offered more practical help. Detaching units from the rear line of his legions on the left, he was able to stem the rout and launch a counter-attack on the right – a complex sequence of manoeuvres made possible only by the greater flexibility of the new legions. The Gallic advance was halted, and, as the Romans reformed and renewed their attack, the Gallic warriors formed a defensive shield-wall. Meantime, probing on the left, Fabius found the spirit of the Samnites in front of him flagging – as anticipated. Launching his infantry frontally and his cavalry on the left flank, he broke the Samnite line after brief resistance, leaving the Gallic shield-wall isolated on the battlefield. Mentally and physically exhausted by hours of fighting and now surrounded, the Gallic units disintegrated and fled. The carnage of battle and pursuit claimed, it is said, 25,000 Samnites and Gauls, with another 8,000 taken prisoner; but Roman losses, at 9,000, were also heavy, especially in the wake of yet heavier losses at Camerinum earlier that year. Nonetheless, Sentinum had secured Roman hegemony in Italy.

Events between 293 and 264 BC are obscure, since the relevant parts of Livy’s History of Rome, our principal source, are lost. But if we do not know a precise chronology, the overall thrust and outcome are clear. Sentinum left the anti-Roman coalition broken backed, and relentless year-on-year Roman offensives thereafter precluded any possibility of its restoration. Samnium, Etruria, Umbria, and the land of the Gallic Senones were conquered and made subject to Rome, mainly as ‘allies’ bound by treaty, though some land was annexed to the Roman state or settled with Latin colonists. Victory at Sentinum made the Roman Republic the only Italian superpower, and within a generation it had absorbed most of the minor states. Some still clung to independence – such as the Greek cities of the far south, foremost among which was Tarentum. Others, unwilling allies of Rome, still aspired to break free – the democrats ruled by pro-Roman oligarchs in the cities of Campania, and many among the Oscan-speaking peoples of the central and southern Apennines. But, too weak to take on Rome alone, rebels against the Pax Romana were forced to look abroad for a more powerful ally. The Greeks, at least, soon found one – a latter-day Alexander, a military adventurer and would-be champion of Greek ‘freedom’: King Pyrrhus of Epirus.


In 296 BC Appius’ legions bore the numerals I and IV, but when Rullianus assumed command they were renumbered. At Sentinum, Rullianus’ legions had the numerals I and III but we cannot be certain that both were the regiments originally enrolled by Appius, as one may be the legion with extra cavalry that Rullianus recruited from volunteers in Rome. Scipio Barbatus’ imperium allowed him to assume command of one of Rullianus’ three legions and take it over the Apennines to defend Camerinum, Rome’s key Umbrian ally. This legion had the numeral II.

The circumstances that took Barbatus and the Second Legion to Camerinum are uncertain. Egnatius certainly moved his army into Umbria, maybe with the intention of forcing Camerinum to join him, or simply to let his plunder-hungry troops sack it, but Barbatus got there before him. A possible scenario is that the consuls received intelligence of Egnatius’ intention, but for some reason their armies were unable to march, so Rullianus made Barbatus propraetor and invested him with imperium. Barbatus then made a rapid march over the Apennines with legio II and established a camp in the vicinity of Camerinum. The consuls followed up when they able to do so.

The propraetor was probably the first of his branch of the Cornelii clan to bear the famous cognomen Scipio. It is conceivable that he took the name when elected consul; a scipio was a staff that signified magisterial rank. His other cognomen tells us that he was bearded (barbatus). The elogium inscribed on his sarcophagus declares that the bearded propraetor was as handsome as he was brave, but caution was the better part of valour when Egnatius’ host loomed into sight. We do not know if Barbatus’ small army included allies, but it was clearly no match for the great forces arrayed against it. Fearing his camp would be overrun, Barbatus abandoned the position and made for a hill sited between it and Camerinum. The hill would be easier to defend, but the wily Egnatius anticipated the Roman general and had already sent troops to occupy the summit of the hill. Barbatus failed to send scouts (exploratores) ahead to reconnoitre the position. His troops ascended the hill and found themselves face-to-face with Samnite and Gallic warriors. The rest of the confederate army swarmed up behind the Romans. Barbatus, the Second Legion, and any allied cohorts he had, were trapped.

Meanwhile, Rullianus and Mus were following up with their consular forces. As they neared Camerinum, Gallic horsemen rode up to taunt and harass the Roman marching column. The Senonian troopers had freshly severed heads impaled on their spears or hanging from their horses’ tack. It is uncertain how long Barbatus and his small army were trapped on the hill, but when the consuls appeared the legion was almost destroyed and the propraetor was surely anticipating death or ignominious capture. Luckily for Barbatus, Egnatius withdrew his troops before they were in turn trapped by the new Roman army. The Samnite general then marched to Sentinum, some 50 miles to the north and made ready to give battle. The Four Nations were again divided between two camps, the Samnites and Senones in one, and the Etruscans and Umbrans in the other. Egnatius planned to engage one consular army with his Samnites, and the Senones would fight the second. While the Romans were fully occupied, the Etruscans and Umbrians would emerge from their entrenchments, skirt around the embattled armies and capture the lightly defended Roman camp located 4 miles away, thus leaving the legions and allied cohorts with nowhere safe to retreat to and vulnerable to attack from the rear. Egnatius may have hoped that this would be enough to cause the Roman army to surrender or flee. Livy informs us that deserters from Egnatius’ army brought news of this plan to Rullianus and the consul therefore sent orders to Megellus and Centumalus to leave their positions above Rome and invade the territory of Clusium in Etruria. This diversionary attack has the effect of persuading the Etruscans to hurry back home. They do not feature in Livy’s account of the Battle of Sentinum (the principle account), nor do the Umbrians, some of whom may have opted to aid the Etruscans (more natural allies than Samnites or predatory Gauls), while other Umbrian contingents, seeing the coalition weakened, chose to depart to their home towns.


Hasdrubal and Hannibal

Hannibal presented with the head of his brother Hasdrubal.

When Hannibal left Spain for Italy, he placed his younger brother Hasdrubal in command of the Carthaginian-controlled portion of the country. Hasdrubal was tasked with holding southern Spain, upon whose vast mineral wealth and manpower reserves Carthage depended to fuel the war against Rome. For ten years, Hasdrubal kept the Spanish tribes nominally under his control and the Romans at bay. Then in 208 B.C. Hannibal sent word to his brother to bring reinforcements to Italy. Hasdrubal was the equal of Hannibal in all respects: character, courage, skill, and ability to command. He was, as the Roman historian Livy commented, “a son of Hamilcar Barca, the thunderbolt,” and as dynamic and experienced a leader in battle as Hannibal. Hannibal in Italy was trouble enough for the Romans, but now the second son of the thunderbolt was about to bring another army of mercenaries and elephants over the Alps to reinforce his brother.

Polybius had similar praise for Hasdrubal, characterizing him as a brave man, to be admired for his abilities as a commander, and not dismissed out of hand because he lost and died at the battle of the Metaurus. Hasdrubal stands out because he kept the Romans at bay in Spain for ten years, brought his army over the Alps intact, increased its size with Gauls, and nearly reached his brother. He could see beyond the short-term rewards of victory in battle, glory, and profit and formulated a contingency if things, as they often do, should go wrong. This was something that Polybius found to be a rare and valuable characteristic in leaders of his day.

Both Polybius and Livy praised Hasdrubal for having made it over the Alps with his army—more rapidly than Hannibal, and with significantly fewer losses. It was an accomplishment on a par with Hannibal’s but has been overshadowed and relegated to the footnotes of history. Hasdrubal moved quickly through Gaul and over the Alps, due perhaps to better weather conditions. The Gauls probably allowed Hasdrubal, with nearly twenty thousand soldiers and a contingent of elephants, to move through their territory safely, but we do not know for sure if the passage was entirely without difficulties. Hasdrubal reached Italy more quickly than his brother had expected, which may account for the coordination problems that developed between them.

The Roman army was waiting for Hasdrubal at the Metaurus, a river that begins in the heights of the Apennine Mountains and flows east into the Adriatic Sea at Fano, just north of the modern-day port of Ancona. The Romans won that day and their victory was the turning point in the war. The Metaurus is one of the greatest battles in ancient history, yet it has been given remarkably little attention by scholars, overshadowed as it is by Hannibal’s crossing of the Alps, and his victories at Trasimene and Cannae. Hasdrubal’s defeat and death were significant because they sealed Hannibal’s fate in Italy and condemned him to lose the war. The Romans won at the Metaurus because of the competence and effective coordination of the two consuls in command, Gaius Claudius Nero and Marcus Livius Salinator. Of the two, Nero is probably the unsung hero of the battle, and, in some respects, of the Second Punic War. Because of his initiative, boldness, and drive, he turned the tide of the war in Rome’s favor and, like Hasdrubal, he has been relegated to history’s footnotes. Claudius Nero took a gamble and made a bold move, which deceived Hannibal and defeated Hasdrubal.

The Romans needed competent leaders, one to deal with Hannibal in the south and another to stop Hasdrubal in the north. Many of Rome’s most experienced commanders had been killed in prior battles, including the Scipio brothers in Spain. It was the law of Rome that one of the two consuls elected each year to command the armies of the republic had to come from the lower plebeian class and one from the aristocratic patrician class. The patrician candidate for office in 208 B.C. was Claudius Nero, whose descendant some two hundred years later would become the infamous Julio-Claudian emperor. Claudius Nero, whose cognomen or nickname can mean the powerful one or the dark one, depending on the context, was an experienced commander who had fought against Hannibal in Italy and Hasdrubal in Spain.

The plebeian candidate for the consulship was Marcus Livius Salinator, nicknamed the salt man. Salinator had commanded Roman forces in Illyricum but had been censured and then exiled for a term for using his position to enrich himself. Because Rome was critically short on experienced commanders, he was allowed to return and run for the consulship. The two men hated each other because Nero had been one of Salinator’s most vocal and strident accusers when he came to trial. After the election, when the senate awarded them their commands and sought to reconcile them, Salinator rebuffed the overture and commented it would be best if they remained enemies. The hope of Rome, now at its most perilous hour since Cannae, rested on two men who detested each other. Salinator took command of the forces in the north, tasked with blocking the Alpine passes through which Hasdrubal had to pass, while Nero was given command in the south against Hannibal. But Hasdrubal, in command of a force now estimated to have grown to some thirty thousand, had moved far more quickly than expected. He came down from the Alps and was on the plains of Italy before Salinator could put his own forces in place to stop him.

In the south, Nero moved his army of forty thousand to Venusia in Apulia, looking for Hannibal, who began playing a game of cat and mouse with his Roman adversary. There were minor skirmishes where Hannibal’s soldiers apparently suffered more casualties than the Romans. The fact that Hannibal avoided engaging Nero leads to speculation that his army may have been weakened considerably by this point in the war. Hannibal eventually retreated farther south on the Italian peninsula to Metapontum, where the ranks of his army were increased with new recruits from Bruttium enlisted by his nephew Hanno. Only when his army was reinforced did Hannibal move it back to Venusia, where he waited for Nero to make his next move. Hannibal had become uncharacteristically passive.

In the north, Hasdrubal avoided the Roman army, and instead of crossing the Apennine range by the same route Hannibal had taken earlier, he moved by way of Bologna, directly to Ariminum (Rimini) on the Adriatic coast. Ariminum had been established by the Romans in 268 B.C., shortly before the First Punic War, as the terminus for the recently completed Via Flaminia, an ancient version of a superhighway. The highway led from Rome, over the Apennine Mountains, to the east coast of Italy. At Ariminum, Hasdrubal posed a direct threat, as he was now, by way of the Via Flaminia, less than two hundred miles from the city. The Roman senate, on the advice of Nero, sent an army to block the route. As Hasdrubal moved south along the Adriatic coast looking for his brother, another smaller Roman army, led by the praetor Lucius Porcius Licinius, the pig man, moved into position and began to shadow him from the north.

Anxious to establish contact with his brother, Hasdrubal sent six horsemen south along the coast with orders to find him. Riding day and night, the couriers covered nearly four hundred miles from Ariminum to just north of Tarentum without being detected. Just short of reaching Hannibal, who had retreated to the coastal city of Metapontum, their luck gave out when they came upon a detachment of Roman soldiers who were foraging in the countryside for supplies. Captured, they were taken to Nero, who ordered them tortured until they revealed the details of their mission as well as the size, composition, and route of Hasdrubal’s army.

Nero was now faced with a dilemma. Could he trust the information that had fallen into his hands by luck—a gift from the gods—and act on it? Or was this a Carthaginian trick intended to lure him into the kind of trap Hannibal was famous for setting? While everything about these messengers seemed genuine, down to the fact that their horses were worn out from days of hard riding, the year before, a Roman force commanded by Marcellus, one of Rome’s best generals, was ambushed on the border between Apulia and Lucania. Marcellus was killed in the fighting, and Hannibal used the consul’s signet ring to forge documents in an effort to retake the city of Salapia. The attempt failed when the Roman garrison commander became suspicious about the authenticity of the documents.

Nero put his reservations aside and acted decisively to stop Hasdrubal from reaching his brother. Taking a portion of his army, essentially his best soldiers, he led them north in a forced march to reinforce Salinator at the Metaurus River. Nero’s plan was to quickly defeat Hasdrubal and return south before Hannibal even knew he had left. It was a bold gamble with high stakes. If Hannibal learned that Nero was gone and attacked his weakened army in the south, it would be a disaster. Then there was the question of whether Nero’s soldiers could be force-marched over such a long distance, fight a major battle, and then force marched back to fight again. How much could human endurance be taxed? Nero sent couriers to Rome to advise the senate to send a legion from Capua to reinforce the soldiers securing the Via Flaminia and then assembled his expeditionary force; six thousand infantry and one thousand cavalry. Marching them day and night, north from Tarentum, through the center of Italy, they arrived where the Metaurus River enters the sea at Fano.

Nero and his army covered the distance in a remarkable seven days. Each soldier carried only the bare minimum—mainly his weapons. Messengers were sent ahead of the army to mobilize the people who lived along the route to prepare food and provide supplies for the soldiers as they passed. In that way, the army could move without being encumbered by baggage, supplies, and camp followers. As Nero’s army moved north, volunteers along the route, moved by patriotism and caught up in the emotions of the moment, joined them, swelling their ranks. What Nero was doing went against Roman law. As a consul, he was forbidden to leave his assignment without senatorial permission. Recognizing the potentially devastating consequences of the Carthaginian brothers joining forces or attacking Rome from two different directions, and the need for decisive action, Nero circumvented the law and acted on his own volition.

Livius Salinator, on the other hand, was taking a very cautious approach relative to Hasdrubal and his army. He allowed the Carthaginian army to cross the river and move south along the coast, without engaging them. With the army of Licinius behind him, Hasdrubal camped just a half-mile or so to the north of Livius. Nero arrived with his army late at night and led his soldiers into the Roman camp quietly so as not to raise an alarm among Hasdrubal’s sentries. Nero was constantly worried about Hannibal, and despite a long and tiring march, he insisted on fighting Hasdrubal the next day so he could return south as quickly as possible.

The next morning, Hasdrubal awoke to find two Roman armies in front of him and one behind. Overwhelming forces were converging on him at the Metaurus, and this caused him to conclude that Hannibal might already have been defeated in the south. How else could the Romans have been able to bring together so many soldiers against him in the north? Hasdrubal remained safely within his camp and pondered his options. The rest of the day passed without event, as Salinator and Licinius, in spite of Nero’s pressure for them to engage in battle, refused to advance on Hasdrubal’s fortifications. Nero argued that they could not remain passive, waiting for Hasdrubal to make the first move. All three recognized the urgency of the situation and that time was crucial. Once Hannibal learned that the Roman army in southern Italy was without its commander and weakened in number, he was sure to attack it. The only option open to the Roman commanders was to move quickly against Hasdrubal, destroy him, and release Nero to return south.

Hasdrubal on the other hand had no desire to engage the Roman armies. His mission was to reach his brother with his army intact, so when nightfall came he led them out of camp with the intent of recrossing the river and retreating north as quickly and quietly as he could. Once safely over the Metaurus and well away from the Romans, Hasdrubal planned to try once more to establish communication with Hannibal even though he had only a vague idea of where he might be or even if he was still alive. As the night wore on, Hasdrubal’s problems multiplied. His local guides deserted him, leaving him lost in the darkness, trying to find a safe place for his army to cross the swiftly flowing river. A combination of melting snows from the nearby Apennines and spring rains had caused the river to flood, trapping his army on the south shore as his scouts frantically searched up and down the riverbank in the darkness for a place to cross. Many of the Gauls began drinking and in short order became disorderly. Like most Carthaginian armies, Hasdrubal’s was a mix of cultures and included the same Iberians, Ligurians, Gauls, and Africans as Hannibal’s army.

The first light of morning found Hasdrubal’s army in disarray. It was trapped with its back against the banks of the flooded Metaurus, and there were three consular armies converging on it. When the Roman commanders realized Hasdrubal was cornered, they moved their infantry up into position. Hasdrubal’s cavalry, the one section of his army that was superior to the Romans and on which he depended heavily, was essentially useless in the confined and hilly countryside around the Metaurus. In a bad position and with no alternative left, Hasdrubal gave up looking for a crossing point and ordered his army to turn and prepare to face the advancing Romans. How many soldiers clashed that day is uncertain, but numbers given by the ancient sources tend, as they usually are, to be underestimated, inflated, or contradictory. The Greek historian Appian, for instance, writes that the Carthaginian force numbered forty-eight thousand infantry, eight thousand cavalry, and fifteen elephants. Livy claims that there were more than sixty-one thousand slain or captured Carthaginian soldiers at the end of the battle and still more who escaped the slaughter. Those numbers indicate an army of far more than Appian’s fifty-six thousand. Polybius reported that ten thousand of Hasdrubal’s men were killed in the fighting versus only two thousand Romans.

Hasdrubal’s army probably numbered thirty thousand including his Gauls, and Livius had roughly the same number. The praetor Licinius commanded an additional two legions, probably ten thousand men, so between them the Roman army might have come to forty thousand including their Italian allies. However, the numbers of the allied contingents fighting with the Romans could have been lower, since some of the confederation members in central Italy, weary with the long and indecisive war against Hannibal, had begun to refuse Roman demands to provide auxiliaries and to pay additional war taxes. Adding Nero’s seven thousand troops to the Roman mix, what is certain is that Hasdrubal and his Carthaginians were outnumbered at the Metaurus.

When Hasdrubal’s army turned to face the Romans, his right flank, where he placed his best horsemen, was pressed against the river while his left flank was in hilly terrain, which proved to be a mixed blessing. Hasdrubal’s most experienced and reliable troops, his African and Iberian infantry, were placed on the right flank as well—the section of the battle line where Hasdrubal now placed all his hope for a victory. The center was composed of Ligurians, who, though not as skilled and well trained as the veterans on the right-flank, could be savage fighters in short bursts of combat. Hasdrubal intended for them to absorb the initial Roman assault and keep his center together until the Africans and Spaniards could turn the Roman flank and carry the day.

On his left, Hasdrubal placed the Gauls, his least reliable soldiers, who would be protected by a deep ravine in front of them and hills behind them. By this point, many of them were, according to Polybius, “stupefied with drunkenness.” Hasdrubal had ten elephants, which he used to reinforce the center. However, once the fighting began, the animals quickly became a liability. Frightened by the din of battle, many panicked, and while some charged the Roman line, others turned on their own soldiers. Six elephants were killed and the remainder ran off the field later to be captured or killed by the Romans.

Licinius deployed his infantry directly in front of Hasdrubal’s Ligurians, while Salinator took command of the Roman cavalry on the left flank and Nero positioned himself on the right facing the Gauls. The battle commenced with the Roman left flank charging the Carthaginian right, followed by the advance of the Roman center. The outnumbered Carthaginian horsemen fell back while their center held its ground. Finally, overcome by sheer numbers, the center began to give way. Nero tried to attack the Gauls, but the hilly terrain and the ravine made it difficult for his troops to reach them. Then he made a decision that changed the course of the battle. Taking roughly half a legion with him, Nero broke off the attack and led his troops behind the Roman center to strike hard at the Carthaginian right flank. The Carthaginians broke ranks under the assault, and, with Hasdrubal trying in vain to force them back into the fight, their line disintegrated. Panic ensued, followed by desertions. The Romans chased the fleeing Carthaginians, meeting almost no resistance, and according to the ancient sources this is where most of the casualties among Hasdrubal’s soldiers occurred. The Carthaginian center, now in disorder, faced a three-pronged attack: Licinius from the front, Livius and Nero from the right. Hasdrubal, seeing that there was nothing more he could do, and presumably doubtful of his own prospects of escape or simply unwilling to be taken captive, charged into the thick of the fighting to meet a warrior’s death.

The Romans severed Hasdrubal’s head from his body and brought it to Nero as a trophy. Nero ordered it placed in a sack and given to a courier with instructions to ride south, find Hannibal, and throw the head into his camp. This was barbaric and contrary to Hannibal’s honorable treatment of Roman officers who had died in battle at Trasimene, Cannae, and even in southern Italy. He had been scrupulous in his treatment of their bodies, giving the dead burial with full military honors and often sending their ashes and personal effects back to Rome. Nearly a decade had passed since Hannibal had last seen his brother, and when the head was brought to him, he recoiled at the sight and groaned. The severed head was the harbinger of worse things to come. The war had turned.

Nero ordered the Carthaginian prisoners executed except the most prominent among them, who could be held for sizable ransom. The success of the legions at the Metaurus filled the Romans with hope and gave them confidence that Hannibal could not remain in Italy much longer. Nero changed the course of the war, forcing Hannibal to retreat into the most southern portion of Italy, Bruttium (Calabria), where he remained isolated until he was recalled to North Africa four years later.

With Hasdrubal’s defeat, the war in Italy was essentially lost for Hannibal. Any chance he had of building a force strong enough to even bring the Romans to the conference table was gone. With a Roman naval presence off the coast of Sicily, Hannibal’s chances of reinforcements reaching him from North Africa by sea diminished, and the war in Italy became a sideshow compared to the larger conflict that was now being waged in Spain and soon to reach North Africa. With Hannibal confined to Bruttium, the next four years were ones of relative inactivity in Italy—except for a second attempt to reinforce Hannibal which occurred in in 205 B.C.

This attempt was made by Hannibal’s youngest brother, Mago, who, like Hannibal and Hasdrubal, was dedicated to the struggle against Rome. Mago was an experienced and competent commander who had crossed the Alps with Hannibal in 218 B.C. and was largely responsible for the victory over the Romans at the Trebbia. He distinguished himself at Cannae and later raised additional troops for Hannibal in Bruttium. Mago was sent to Carthage to report on the victory at Cannae and then to Spain in 215 B.C., where, along with his older brother Hasdrubal and another Hasdrubal, son of Gisco, he conducted the war against the Roman commanders Gnaeus and Publius Scipio (215–212 B.C.). When the Romans launched a major offensive in 211 B.C., Mago was instrumental in their defeat and the subsequent deaths in battle of both Scipios.

In the summer of 205 B.C., Mago left Spain for Italy. Instead of attempting another overland trek and Alpine crossing, he chose a sea route leaving a flotilla of some thirty warships and fourteen thousand soldiers on board. Since Hannibal was confined to the extreme tip of southern Italy on the Adriatic coast, reaching him by sea from Spain would have been nearly impossible. The journey would have been too long and dangerous, both because of the risk of storms and the patrolling Roman navy. Instead, Mago chose to hug the Ligurian coast and landed at Genova (Genoa). From there, he moved overland into northern Italy and, like Hasdrubal, recruited as many Ligurians and Gauls as possible to supplement his army. Since Roman armies controlled both sides of the Apennines and blocked the routes south, Mago and his army remained in northern Italy for the next two years, conducting largely guerilla operations. Then, in the summer of 203 B.C., outside of Milan, the Romans forced Mago into a decisive battle. With a force composed of Numidian and Spanish cavalry, infantry, and elephants, supplemented with Ligurians and Gauls, Mago engaged four Roman legions. During the battle, he was badly wounded in the thigh and retreated to Genova and the safety of the ships that awaited him there.

At Genova, messengers from Carthage were waiting with orders for him to return with his army to North Africa. Mago left behind an officer named Hamilcar with a small force to continue guerilla activities against the Romans in northern Italy. Mago died at sea from his wound, just as his fleet passed the island of Sardinia. Hannibal was confined to a narrow area in Bruttium between the Adriatic coast and what today comprises a series of Italian national parks known as the Sila. Crotone is where Hannibal chose to reside—a Greek city famous for philosophers like Pythagoras and athletes like Milo, the Olympic champion and most renowned wrestler in antiquity. In luxury, cultural refinement, and amusement, Crotone was the equal of Capua, and it was there that Hannibal spent the next two years, 205 B.C. until 203 B.C., while the Romans shifted the focus of the war to Spain and North Africa. Isolated, with one brother dead and another one about to die, his forces considerably diminished in numbers, and resources scarce, Hannibal was no longer driving the war but forced to sit on the sidelines and await developments.

To help keep Hannibal contained, a Roman army under the command of the young Scipio moved from Sicily across the Strait of Messina into southern Italy and captured the Greek port city of Locri, just south of Crotone. The port had been important to Hannibal earlier in the war, and even though he launched a counterattack, he was unable to retake the city. A few miles south of Crotone is Cape Lacinium, or as it is known today, Capo Colonna. Among the sparse ruins on its shores is a solitary marble Doric column that looks out over a vast and desolate sea and gives its name to the present-day cape. That column is all that remains of a once magnificent temple built by the Greeks to honor the goddess Juno Lacinia. Among the most prized treasures of the temple was a column made of gold, which Hannibal allegedly probed to determine if it was solid or merely coated. When he discovered it was solid, he contemplated having it melted and cast into ingots or bricks for his personal use until the goddess came to him in a dream and threatened to take away his one good eye if he dared to desecrate her temple.

It was at this temple, at the end of his campaign, that Hannibal allegedly had a bronze plaque erected. It was inscribed in Greek, the universal language of the ancient world at the time, and in Hannibal’s native Punic. On that plaque Hannibal recounted his exploits in crossing the Alps, his battles in Italy, the size of his army, and the numbers of men he had lost. Such tablets, or as the Romans called them, res gestae, were commonplace in the ancient world. They were personal monuments of sorts to the ambitions and egos of important men. While Hannibal’s tablet has never been found and there are only literary references to its existence, it has given rise to speculation that he had come to regard himself as a king, perhaps the regent of southern Italy, and the plaque was left behind so posterity would not forget his accomplishments, victories, and aspirations.

At the same time, that plaque can be interpreted as Hannibal’s tacit acknowledgment that the war in Italy had ended and he no longer had the manpower or the resources to take on the Roman armies. His Macedonian ally, Philip, had failed to deliver, and the last straw came when some eighty Carthaginian cargo ships trying to reach him with provisions were blown off course by a storm and captured by the Romans. The loss of those ships sealed Hannibal’s fate, and in 203 B.C. he was ordered to return to North Africa.

When the Carthaginian envoys arrived and relayed the order to return, Hannibal was barely able to contain his rage. He gnashed his teeth and cried out that he had been betrayed, defeated by the aristocratic faction in Carthage, led by Hanno, not by the Romans he faced on the battlefield. He bemoaned that he would fail in this war for the same reasons his father had failed forty years before—lack of support from home. Several towns in Bruttium, seeing the writing on the wall, deserted Hannibal and tried to make their peace with Rome. In response, he dispatched the weakest of his soldiers, those he classified as “unfit for duty,” to garrison some of them, which he now held, more by force than loyalty.

“The Carthaginian Wars 265-146 BC: • Samnite heavy infantryman • Campanian cavalryman • Lucanian heavy infantryman”, Richard Hook

In preparation for his return to Africa, Hannibal ordered timber cut from the forests of Bruttium and transported to Crotone for use in building ships. The completed transports would be escorted on their voyage home by a few warships from Carthage that had eluded the Roman navy and made it to Crotone. Hannibal carried out his preparations with “bitterness and regret.” He assembled the elite of his army, some twenty thousand of his veterans, who by this point must have been mostly Italians from Bruttium and Lucania, and announced their departure for North Africa. Their response bordered on mutiny. What the ancient sources refer to as a large number refused the order and barricaded themselves in the temple of Juno Lacinia, where they sought sanctuary. Confident that Hannibal would never violate the sanctity of a holy place, they misjudged the man who for his entire adult life apparently had no fear of the gods. Hannibal had the temple surrounded and, according to one of the sources, thousands of rebellious soldiers slaughtered along with horses and pack animals.

The scope of this massacre has often been regarded by scholars as an exaggeration in the ancient sources that probably stems from the reported slaughter of three thousand horses that could not be taken on board the ships to Africa. There certainly may have been mutinous soldiers at that point in the war, and Hannibal may well have had them executed. But the Italian contingents in Hannibal’s army were his core, his veterans, and he needed them. By this time, few, if any, of the mercenaries who crossed the Alps with him could have been left. It would be the Italians, those who had fought with him in southern Italy and who were prepared to accompany him to North Africa, who would prove to be his most reliable soldiers in the next and final stage of this long and destructive war.