Asia in 500, showing the Hephthalite Khanate at its greatest extent. The peak of Hephthalite power came in 522, with territories from Dzyngaria to northern India, but the empire collapsed quickly after that. In 532 a coalition of Hindu peoples expelled them from India and the Hephthalites disappeared altogether after unsuccessful wars against the Sassanids that took place between 557 and 561.

A nomadic confederation of unknown ethnic and linguistic origins that raided South and Southwest Asia in the fifth century CE, in the process defeating the Persian Sasanian armies in several military confrontations and establishing a large and powerful empire that lasted for more than a century. The Hephthalite Empire was eventually destroyed in a joint military campaign organized by the Western Turk state, based in Central Asia, and the Persian Sasanians.

In the fifth century CE, the southern regions of Central Asia and the eastern provinces of the Persian Sasanian Empire were attacked by nomadic groups called Hephthalites. The ethnic and linguistic origins of the Hephthalites remain unclear. Initially, many scholars regarded the Hephthalites as a branch of the Hun people who invaded and wreaked havoc on Europe under their leader, Attila the Hun (r. ?–453 CE). The proponents of this theory argued that the Hephthalites were most probably from a Tibetan or Turkic ethnic stock. This theory was reinforced by statements from Byzantine historians such as Procopius. In describing the Hephthalites, he wrote that the Hephthalites were of “the stock of the Huns in fact as well as in name; however, they do not mingle with any of the Huns known to us, for they occupy a land neither adjoining nor even very near to them; but their territory lies immediately to the north of Persia. … For they are not nomads like the other Hunnic peoples, but for a long period have been established in a goodly land. … They are the only ones among the Huns to have white bodies and countenances which are not ugly. It is also true that their manner of living is unlike that of their kinsmen, nor do they live a savage life as they do; but they are ruled by one king, and since they possess a lawful constitution, they observe right and justice in their dealings both with another and with their neighbours, in no degree less than the Romans and Persians” (Procopius: I.iii. 2–7).

In 1959, the Japanese scholar Kazuo Enoki utilized Chinese, Greek, and Persian sources to argue that the Hephthalites were a northeastern Iranian people who had originated from Tokharestan, the region formerly known as Bactria that corresponded with the territory of northern Afghanistan. More recently, several scholars have argued that the Hephthalites should be viewed as a heterogeneous tribal confederation, not as a homogenous ethnic and linguistic group.

Beginning in the fifth century CE, the eastern provinces of the Persian Sasanian Empire were invaded by the Hephthalites. The Sasanian monarch Bahram V (r. 421–439 CE) tried to slow down the Hephthalite invaders by building towers to protect the northeastern provinces of his empire from the new invaders. His successors, particularly Yazdegerd II (r. 439–457 CE), spent much of their time on the throne preventing the Hephthalites from entering the northeastern province of Khorasan. One of Yazdegerd’s successors, Peroz (r. 459–484 CE), mobilized his army and fought the Hephthalites several times. In one campaign, he was defeated and captured by the Hephthalites and was forced to pay a substantial ransom for his release. After a second defeat, Peroz was forced to leave his son Kavad as a hostage with the Hephthalites. To avenge the humiliation he had suffered and against the advice of his close advisers, Peroz attacked the Hephthalites again in 484. This time the Sasanian monarch was defeated and killed on the battlefield. The victory over the Sasanian army and the death of the Persian king forced the Sasanian state to sue for peace and agree to pay an annual tribute. The Hephthalites began to interfere in the internal affairs of the Sasanian state and manipulate the civil war between the contenders to the throne in order to expand their own influence. For example, Kavad, who had grown up as a hostage among the Hephthalites, sought their assistance when he was deposed in 496 CE. With support from the Hephthalites, he raised an army and regained his throne in 499. In a series of campaigns from 560 to 563, Kavad’s son and successor, the Sasanian monarch Khosrow I Anushiravan (r. 531–579 CE), defeated the Hephthalites and put an end to their rule. The Persian monarch achieved this victory with significant support and assistance from the Western Turks, who imposed their political and military domination over much of Central Asia. The emperor of the Western Turks, Ishtemi (r. 553–? CE), attacked from the north, capturing Chach (present-day Tashkent, the capital of Uzbekistan), crossing the Jaxartes River (Syr Darya), and defeating the main Hephthalite army near Bokhara, forcing them to retreat southward. The Sasanian army had, however, occupied much of the southern regions of Central Asia, and the Hephthalites did not have any other alternative but to accept defeat. Squeezed between the Turk Empire to the north and the Persian Sasanians to the south, the Hephthalite state disintegrated. At the height of their power in the late fifth and early sixth centuries, the Hephthalites had ruled a vast empire that incorporated the entire territory of present-day southwestern China and much of present-day Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, and Afghanistan. They also penetrated northern India through Gandhara and defeated the Gupta Empire.


Persian king of kings who ruled the Sasanian Empire from 459 to 484 CE. When the Sasanian monarch Yazdegerd II died in 457, a battle for succession erupted between his two sons. At Ray, south of present-day Tehran, the older son, Hormozd, ascended the Sasanian throne, while the younger son, Peroz, fled to the eastern province of Khorasan to raise an army with assistance from the Hephthalites based in Tokharestan (present-day northern Afghanistan). Meanwhile, Denag (Dinak), the mother of Hormozd and Peroz, was ruling the empire from its capital at Ctesiphon, in present-day southern Iraq (Tabari: Tarikh-e Tabari, 2.628). The reign of Hormozd III proved to be short-lived. In 459 Peroz attacked Hormozd and defeated his brother, seizing the Sasanian throne and proclaiming himself the king of kings.

The reign of Peroz began with a devastating drought that lasted for seven years. Rivers, springs, water wells, and underground irrigation systems dried up (Tabari: Tarikh-e Tabari, 6.629). The drought significantly diminished water levels even in the Tigris River. Cattle and other livestock and farm animals perished. Famine spread across the empire, and rural communities began to suffer from starvation. Having secured the throne, Peroz tried to relieve the pain and suffering of his people by temporarily halting collection of taxes by the central government. He also ordered all storehouses and pantries to open their doors and distribute their food reserves among the suffering populace. Peroz threatened that if he ever received news of one single individual dying in a city or a village from starvation, he would punish that community with the full force of the law. The gallant efforts of the Sasanian monarch paid off. According to the historian Tabari, despite enormous hardship and suffering brought about by the drought and famine, with the sole exception of a single village in the province of Fars, no one else suffered (Tabari: Tarikh-e Tabari, 2.629–630). Though he was forced to focus on the devastating impact of the drought and famine on his subjects, Peroz could not ignore the threats posed by internal rebellions and foreign invasions, particularly by nomads penetrating the eastern frontiers of the Sasanian Empire.

The Persian king first led his forces to Albania, which had declared its independence from the Sasanian state. The territory of Albania corresponded with Iranian Arran and the present-day republic of Azerbaijan in the southern Caucasus region north of the Aras River. The Sasanian army suppressed the rebellion. Though he had reestablished Persian rule over the region, Peroz adopted a tolerant policy vis-à-vis the non-Zoroastrian communities, particularly the Armenian and Albanian Christians. He switched his focus from the Caucasus to the empire’s eastern provinces, which had been invaded by the Hephthalites. His campaigns against the Hephthalites brought the Sasanian state to the verge of extinction. The Hephthalites, who were called White Huns, had breached the eastern frontiers of the Sasanian state, particularly Tokharestan (ancient Bactria), which corresponded with today’s northern Afghanistan (Procopius: I.ii.1). The campaigns of Peroz against the Hephthalites, who had supported him in his campaign to seize the Sasanian throne, proved to be disastrous for the Persian monarch and the Sasanian Empire. In the first campaign the Sasanian army suffered a humiliating defeat, and Peroz was captured. The Persian king was released after he agreed to pay a substantial ransom. To avenge the humiliation he had suffered, Peroz attacked the Hephthalites for a second time. Once again the Persian monarch was defeated. This time, he could not pay the heavy ransom demanded from the Hephthalites. As a compromise, he was forced to leave his son Kavad, a daughter, and the chief Zoroastrian priest as hostages with the Hephthalites. But Peroz refused to accept defeat. He therefore organized a third campaign and, against the advice of the members of the Persian nobility at court, attacked the Hephthalites for a third time in 484. Once again, the Sasanian army suffered a humiliating defeat. Peroz and several of his sons were killed on the battlefield (Tabari: Tarikh-e Tabari, 2.628). The entire Sasanian royal harem, including all of the king’s wives and one of his daughters, as well as the chief Zoroastrian priest, were captured by the Hephthalites. The death of the Persian king and the disintegration of his formidable army enabled the Hephthalites to invade and occupy the eastern provinces of the Sasanian Empire. The Sasanians had no other alternative but to sue for peace and agree to pay an annual tribute.

The relegation of the Sasanian Empire from a superpower to a tributary state of the Hephthalite Empire was one of the lowest points in Sasanian history. The growing weakness of the Sasanian central government allowed the powerful members of the Persian nobility to reemerge and interfere in the decision-making process at the royal court. Historical sources mention Zarmehr Sokhra, of the Karen family, who fought the Hephthalites courageously after the death of Peroz on the battlefield and saved the Sasanian army from total annihilation at the hands of the enemy. Mention has also been made of Shapur, a member of the powerful Mehran family, who blamed Peroz for his tyrannical behavior and his refusal to consult the nobility before embarking on adventurous military campaigns. When a son of Peroz, Zarer, attempted to seize the throne after his father’s death, the powerful members of the nobility murdered him and instead installed Balash (Valakhsh), a brother of Peroz, on the throne. Balash, who has been described as a mild-mannered and peace-loving king, displayed his benevolence toward his Christian subjects by allowing them to practice their religion without fear of persecution. Despite his best efforts to restore peace and tranquility in his empire, however, the Sasanian state remained in dire straits. The treasury loomed empty, and the king of kings could not pay the salaries of his troops. Once again Zarmehr Sokhra and Shapur acted as the king makers, deposing Balash and passing the throne to Kavad, “the youngest son of Peroz,” who for a time had been a hostage with the Hephthalites (Procopius: I.iv.34–35).

Further Reading

Frye, R. N. “The Political History of Iran under the Sasanians.” In The Cambridge History of Iran, Vol. 3(I), edited by Ehsan Yarshater, 116–180. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1983.

Litvinsky, B. A. “The Hephthalite Empire.” In History of Civilizations of Central Asia, Vol. III, 138–165. Paris: UNESCO Publishing, 1996.

Procopius. History of Wars, Books I–II. Translated by H. B. Dewing. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2006.

Agathias. The Histories. Translated by Joseph D. Frendo. Berlin: Walter De Gruyter, 1975.

Procopius. History of the Wars, Books I–II. Translated by H. B. Dewing. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2006.

Shahbazi, A. Shapur. “Sasanian Dynasty.” Encyclopaedia Iranica, 2005, http://www.iranicaonline.org/articles/sasanian-dynasty.

Tabari. The History of al-Tabarī, Vol. 5, The Sāsānids, the Byzantines, the Lakhmids, and Yemen. Translated by C. E. Bosworth. Albany: State University of New York Press, 1999.

Tabari. Tarikh-e Tabari, Vol. 2. Translated from Arabic into Persian by Abol Qassem Payandeh. Tehran: Asatir Publications, 1984.


Ancient Egyptian Fortresses


This was a site between the second and first cataract of the Nile near WADI HALFA, settled as an outpost as early as the Second Dynasty (2770–2649 B.C.E.). This era was marked by fortifications and served as a boundary of Egypt and NUBIA (modern Sudan) in certain eras. The New Kingdom (1550–1070 B.C.E.) pharaohs built extensively at Buhen. A Middle Kingdom (2040–1640 B.C.E.) FORTRESS was also discovered on the site, with outer walls for defense, bastions, and two interior temples, following the normal pattern for such military structures in Egypt. HATSHEPSUT, the Queen- Pharaoh (r. 1473–1458 B.C.E.), constructed a temple in the southern part of Buhen, with a five-chambered sanctuary, surrounded by a colonnade. TUTHMOSIS III (r. 1479–1425 B.C.E.) renovated the temple, enclosing a complex and adding porticos.

The actual fortress of Buhen was an elaborate structure, built partly out of rock with brick additions. The fort was set back from the river, giving way to a rocky slope. These walls supported external buttresses, which were designed to turn south and east to the Nile. A ditch was added for defense, carved out of rock and having deep sides that sloped considerably and were smoothed to deter scaling attempts. A gateway in the south wall opened onto an interior military compound, which also contained the original temples. AMENHOTEP II (r. 1427–1391 B.C.E.) is credited with one shrine erected there.


The defence of Egypt and its soldiers took various forms, including defensive building works (such as fortresses, walls, and border posts), the use of personal shields by soldiers, and, arguably, through political manoeuvres by Egypt’s rulers. One of ancient Egypt’s largest defensive projects was the building of border fortresses. There were several examples of these built throughout Dynastic Egypt’s history on the orders of several pharaohs. One of the most famous Pharaohs, Ramesses II, ordered the building of a line of such fortresses along Egypt’s northwestern coast in a bid to prevent further infiltrations into his lands by the ‘Sea Peoples’.

As previously discussed, prior to the New Kingdom, Egypt usually had a policy of defending its existing borders rather than looking outwards at the state’s geographical and political expansion. As a result of this particular outlook, Egypt had no standing army, but instead relied almost exclusively on provincial militias and conscription when threatened with invasion. One example of this took place in the Sixth Dynasty (during the reign of Pepi I) when an attempted invasion by the ‘sand-dwellers’ or ‘Shasu’ threatened his eastern borders. The force raised by Pepi I was led by Weni, a court official with no previous military leadership experience. With numbers on his side Weni’s lack of experience was overcome, leading to a successful outcome for Egypt. Due to this Weni was then appointed as the army commander for at least four more operations against the ‘sand-dwellers’. It would seem that Pepi I was perfectly content to leave his army’s activities at defensive manoeuvres and had no desire, and perhaps no resources, to expand Egypt’s borders at that time. So did Old Kingdom military/defence attitudes influence the building of fortresses? Fortresses certainly do not seem to have been designed specifically for outward invasions.

Fortresses (rather than fortified towns) were built by the ancient Egyptians in order to guard and control Egypt’s vulnerable northern and southern frontiers. These, primarily mudbrick, structures could hold up to a few hundred troops (occasionally comprising Nubian, Philistine, or Libyan soldiers), serving for up to six years at a time. According to the Semna Papyri (reports that were sent by the commander of the fortress at Semna to the military headquarters at Thebes during the reign of Amenemhat III), these troops had to carry out surveillance and reconnaissance patrols of the surrounding areas at regular intervals. There were examples of fortresses (called the Walls of the Prince) that were built in the eastern Delta during the reign of Amenemhat I (1991-1962BC), which were designed to defend the coastal route from the Levant. This was at around the same time as a fortress was built at Wadi Natrun, which was designed to defend the western Delta region against invading Libyans. These sites were maintained and improved during the New Kingdom, perhaps as a way to prevent reinvasion by the Hyksos, who had ruled this area of Egypt in the Second Intermediate Period between the Middle Kingdom and the New Kingdom.

The mudbrick fortress of Buhen, in Lower Nubia (in the Second Cataract, 156 miles upstream of Aswan), is one of the most well-known and impressive of these structures. Buhen was one of the most elaborate of ancient Egypt’s fortresses and united all the Second Cataract fortresses under its command by the time of the New Kingdom. Initially founded in the Second Dynasty, the site was established early on as a trade centre, becoming known for copper-smelting in the Fourth and Fifth Dynasties. It was during the Middle Kingdom that the fortress was enlarged and strengthened in order to become a frontier fortress, one of a string of eleven in the area. These improvements took the form of mudbrick ramparts added to the 4m thick outer western wall, which itself incorporated five large towers. There was also a large central tower that served as the main entrance (comprising two openings with double wooden doors) and a drawbridge. The inner fortress was built along a more regular square plan and had towers at each corner along with bastions that were at 5-metre intervals.

While fortresses always played a defensive role to some extent, there are many interpretations as to their core role, both in terms of function and symbolism. Shaw is of the opinion that these Nubian fortresses were not designed for border defence but were, in fact, to protect Egypt’s monopoly on exotic trade goods (such as gold and ivory) which were brought up through Nubia into Egypt.412 Archaeologists generally believe that fortresses such as Buhen were designed for propaganda reasons, with elaborate crenellations, bastions, and ditches. As Buhen was built on flat ground with a square ground-plan it would have looked very impressive but, arguably, would have been difficult to defend effectively as it lacked any advantage, such as being built on top of a hill or other elevated land. Certainly by the New Kingdom, Buhen had become a primarily civilian settlement, as Egypt’s frontiers were pushed further south.

Arguments on their exact role aside, the importance of fortresses cannot be ignored and the erection of new fortresses (or rather forts and walls) continues long throughout the New Kingdom and beyond. Some of the most notable include the string of forts along the Mediterranean coast of the Delta that were commissioned by Ramesses II and the forts at Qasr Ibrim and Qasr Qarun that were built by the Roman rulers in the Graeco-Roman Period of Egypt’s history. During periods of great disturbance (such as the Third Intermediate Period and the Late Period) there was an increase in the building of fortifications. The Kushite King Piye even boasted on his stele at Gebel Barkal of his defeat of the Egyptians in 734BC, which includes a mention of Middle Egypt and its nineteen fortified settlements along with various walled cities in the Egyptian Delta.416 This boasting by Piye shows the importance of fortresses in the defence of ancient Egypt, at least in the minds of Egypt’s enemies.

The fortress of Mirgissa

Egyptian Fortresses

Egypt’s Largest Ancient Fortress Unearthed


The most complete depiction of the arms and armour of the Seleucid cataphract is located on the Balustrade Reliefs of the temple of Athena Polias Nikephoros at Pergamum. One of the most impressive features shown among the armament is a metal mask with an incredibly detailed face, including a sculpted beard that was attached to the helmet of the rider. The rest of the cataphract armour included a Hellenistic-style cuirass with traditional pinions and pteruges (strips hanging from the shoulders and lower edge respectively) attached, as well as laminated armour that covered the entire arm (manica) that was made of articulated metal or rawhide hoops that overlapped down the limb and were often riveted to inner straps.

The Seleucid Empire

Shortly after King Arsaces conquered Parthia and seized it from the Seleucid Empire, the rebel governor of Bactria, Diodotus II, named himself the new king of his province around 235 BC. The Bactrian ruler then also entered into a peaceful agreement with the Parthian king, because both men knew they would soon face the wrath of the Seleucid emperor. The two new kings did not have to wait long, for later in the year King Seleucus II (r. 246-225 BC) launched a campaign in the east to reclaim his lost territory. Unfortunately for the Hellenistic ruler, his attempts to reclaim Parthia and Bactria ended in failure and he was forced to return in order to deal with a turbulent Babylon. A couple of decades later, Seleucus’ son, Antiochus III (r. 223-187 BC), was ready to succeed where his father had failed. After stabilizing the western half of the empire, Antiochus the Great made extensive preparations for an eastern campaign. His aim was to either completely retake land or at least force the eastern rulers to submit and become client kings as well as give tribute to their acknowledged overlord. In 209 BC, the Seleucid emperor carried out a campaign against the fledgling kingdom of Parthia with a large army of around 15,000 heavy infantry, 6,000 cavalry and over 12,000 peltasts and other light infantry.

Before Antiochus began his eastern expedition, King Arsaces was succeeded by his son, Arsaces II (r. 211-185 BC), whose soldiers attempted to slow or halt the Seleucid invaders by first preventing them from gaining access to all of the wells or other sources of fresh water in their path, and then by sending men to raid and harry the Hellenistic forces as they marched. None of these actions stopped the Seleucid army from advancing further into Parthia. Antiochus continued to overcome further resistance, then successfully besieged more than one fortified settlement and captured several towns before he and the Parthian king agreed to meet and make peace terms. In the agreement, Arsaces was allowed to keep his kingdom as long as he became a vassal and paid tribute to the Seleucid emperor. Additionally, the Parthians lost the important city of Hekatompylos, along with much of the former region of Hyrcania, to the Seleucids.

With Parthia made into a client kingdom, Antiochus moved on to deal with Bactria next. Yet before he reached the former province of the empire, the new rebel ruler of the Greco–Bactrian kingdom, Euthydemos, confronted the Seleucid army at the Arios River on the border. The Bactrian forces consisted primarily of cavalry that may have numbered as many as 10,000 men; thus, Antiochus proceeded with his horsemen, especially his 2,000–strong royal guardsmen, supported by many light infantry peltasts. Even though they were outnumbered, the Seleucid cavalrymen achieved victory against the Bactrian horsemen, forcing Euthydemos to retreat back to his capital city of Bactra. After a lengthy siege of two years, along with further violent encounters, Antiochus eventually gave in and expressed his desire to make peace with the Greco–Bactrian king. Similar to the terms made with Arsaces, Euthydemos was allowed to retain his kingship in exchange for a pledge of loyalty and the payment of a large tribute. Antiochus also confirmed his control over the regions of Margiana and Aria. Parthia and Bactria were the primary targets of Antiochus’ eastern expedition and, although he did not fully recover the lost territories, he forced their rulers into a state of vassalage, which was enough to satisfy the Seleucid emperor. Antiochus was then free to return to the west in order to settle unfinished business with a rival Hellenistic kingdom ruled by the Ptolemies in Egypt.

Earlier in his reign, several years before he left for his campaigns in the east, Antiochus had been defeated by Ptolemy IV Philopator (r. 221-204 BC) at the Battle of Raphia in 217 BC. The news that a rebel– lion had broken out in Egypt reached Antiochus in 206 BC, which was one of the reasons that the Seleucid emperor wished to end the siege of Bactra. In 204 BC, the death of Ptolemy only fueled Antiochus’ desire to seek revenge against the rival kingdom while it was weak and vulnerable. As he prepared in the years before his ultimate confrontation with the Ptolemaic Kingdom, Antiochus the Great created a new type of mounted warrior inspired by his combat experiences in the east, which later became known as the cataphract.

Although the Parthians and Bactrians that Antiochus faced in his eastern campaigns certainly utilized heavily armoured cavalry like their predecessors, it is unknown whether one or both regions had begun fielding riders and steeds armoured to the extent of the new Seleucid cataphracts. Whether Antiochus simply copied Parthian or Bactrian troops or innovated by developing the idea further, the new cavalry that would fight the Ptolemaic Egyptians at the Battle of Panion were definitely the first to be called cataphracts.

The events leading up to the confrontation at Panion resulted from Antiochus’ moves to reclaim the region of Coile–Syria from the Ptolemies in 202 BC. The Seleucid emperor began his campaign with the seizure of the city of Damascus, which was accomplished in the first year. By 201 BC, Antiochus had not only captured Gaza, but he had also taken much of the land in between the two cities, which gave him control over Palestine, a large part of Coile–Syria. However, by the end of that year, the Aetolian mercenary commander of the Ptolemaic army, Skopas, managed to recruit a large number of mercenaries, which he combined with the native Ptolemaic forces. Then, early in 200 BC, Skopas launched a campaign to retake Palestine during winter in the hopes of catching the Seleucids off guard. The ploy worked; the region was soon back in Ptolemaic hands because the Seleucid army was still away in its winter quarters. In response, Antiochus quickly gathered the largest army he could muster and then marched south from Damascus until he met the Ptolemaic forces near Panion later in the summer.

Within the ancient written records, there is one description of the Battle of Panion in Book XVI of the Histories written by Polybius. However, the account is not a full description of the events but rather a criticism of the report written by Zeno of Rhodes that described the conflict. Yet the information that the critique of Zeno’s account has provided, combined with the study of the local topography where the battle most likely took place from scholars such as Bezalel Bar-Kochva, is sufficient to construct a rough outline of the major events that occurred during the battle. The Seleucid army, comprised of as many as 60,000 sol– diers, reached the site of the battlefield first. As the Seleucids travelled the route to Gaza, Antiochus halted the southward march of his forces to the south of Mount Hermon, near the town of Panion. After making a camp for the baggage, most likely located adjacent to the settlement, the army divided into two groups so that it could occupy the entire field to the southwest of the town because the Banias River cut through the level ground. One contingent, consisting of some of the infantry– men, cavalrymen and elephants, remained on the rougher terrain of the same side of the river as Panion in order to guard the camp. It was in this southern arena that Antiochus’ son, Antiochus the Elder, took an elevated position atop the hill of Tel–Fakhr. Meanwhile, the majority of the army crossed the Banias River so that it could occupy the more level ground of the Banias Plateau on the north side of the waterway.

In the northern arena, King Antiochus the Great commanded most of the Seleucid phalanx and the elephant line in front of the infantrymen located in the centre, while he sent his right–wing cavalry to take control of the hill of Tel–Hamra to the north, `among which were the cataphracts, under the sole command of the younger of the king’s sons Antiochus’. Polybius used the Greek words kataphraktoi hippoi to describe the new cataphract troops, which is the first time the term has appeared in the historical record. While in his account of the earlier Battle of Raphia, the ancient writer uses the term hippoi for all of the cavalrymen in the Seleucid army, the fact that Polybius added the word kataphraktoi to describe a specific unit of cavalrymen at the Battle of Panion suggests that the heavy horsemen were covered with more extensive armour than was ever worn before by the Seleucid cavalry. Opposing the Seleucid troops north of the river were the main body of the Ptolemaic phalanx, along with every elephant in their army because the Egyptian kingdom had fewer of the huge warbeasts than their eastern Hellenistic rival. Like Antiochus, Skopas led from the centre and sent the majority of the Aetolian mercenary cavalry to the left wing in order to face the horsemen of Antiochus the Younger, which included the unique unit of cataphracts. The Aetolian horsemen were considered the best cavalry of Greece at the time, thus Skopas hoped they would be able to overcome their more heavily armoured opponents. In the southern area, on the other side of the Banias River, the Aetolian mercenary infantrymen, supported by further Ptolemaic cavalrymen, were placed there in order to attempt to break through the Seleucid lines defending the route to Panion and try to seize the Seleucid army camp that contained the valuables of the baggage train.

The combat commenced to the north when the Indian elephants of the Seleucids engaged the Ptolemaic African elephants and drove them off, allowing the Seleucid phalanx to slam into the front lines of the Ptolemaic infantry. Meanwhile, Polybius also states:

Antiochus the Younger and the cataphracts charged down from the high ground and put to flight and pursued the cavalry under Ptolemy, son of Aeropus, who was in command of the Aetolians in the plain on the left wing.

After the cataphracts managed to drive off the formidable Aetolian horsemen, the young prince then led his cavalry in a charge against the rear of the Ptolemaic phalanx as they were fighting the Seleucid infantrymen. The Ptolemaic forces had much more success in the southern arena for they managed to rout both the Seleucid cavalry and infantry, yet the wall of elephants stationed as a rearguard behind the Seleucid troops then successfully blocked the Ptolemaic advance. Unable to break through the elephants and capture the Seleucid camp in the southern arena, the Ptolemaic army was ultimately defeated, for their main phalanx was surrounded and crushed on the northern side of the river. Skopas was able to escape with 10,000 of his men, mostly Aetolian infantry from the southern arena, and reach the refuge of Sidon. However, King Antiochus was not far behind and soon put the city under siege, until it was taken by the summer of 199 BC and Skopas was forced to surrender. Antiochus had won a spectacular victory at Panion that more than made up for his humiliating defeat at Raphia nearly twenty years before. The emperor’s new creation, the cataphracts, were the main component contributing to the Seleucid success, which would not be forgotten by Antiochus who used the unit in much the same manner in his next major battle a decade later.

By 198 BC, Antiochus the Great had conquered all of Syria, but the conflict was not yet over with Ptolemaic Egypt, because the fighting merely shifted to Asia Minor and Thrace to the north. The Seleucid Empire eventually defeated the Kingdom of Egypt but their actions in the northern territories soon threatened the expanding Roman Empire that just recently had begun to take a major interest in the region. Rome publicly desired to protect its Greek allies who felt endangered by the encroaching actions of Antiochus near their borders, but it is also safe to assume that the imperial aspirations of both the Seleucids and the Romans meant that an eventual war was unavoidable. As both sides prepared for their inevitable clash, it became clear that the Seleucid Empire was far superior in terms of cavalry; a fact that was exploited in attempts to intimidate the Romans, as stated in the account of Livy:

The ambassador of Antiochus was heard before the Aetolians. He, a boaster like most who are maintained by a king’s power, filled seas and lands with an empty sound of words: an uncountable number of cavalry was crossing the Hellespont into Europe, partly equipped with breastplates-these they call the cataphracti-partly those who use arrows from horseback, and as a result of which there is no protection against them, since they aimed quite accurately backwards while fleeing on their horses.

The cataphracts were a major part of the threatening propaganda used by the Seleucids because their heavy metal armour made them look nearly invincible on the battlefield and they had already proven their worth against the Aetolian cavalry that was renowned throughout the ancient world. The fact that they were a new creation of the Seleucids probably only added to the fear they invoked before they were actually seen in person, for such heavily equipped horsemen were a rarity in the west. However, according to Plutarch, the Roman’s responded in typically arrogant fashion to the threat of the new cataphracts and the rest of the enormous Seleucid army:

When King Antiochus was coming upon Greece with great forces, and all men trembled at the report of his numbers and equipage, he [Flaminius, the Roman consul] told the Achaeans this story: `Once I dined with a friend at Chalcis, and when I wondered at the variety of dishes, my host said, “All these are pork, only in dressing and sauces they differ”. And therefore be not you amazed at the king’s forces, when you hear talk of cataphracts and men–at–arms and choice foot– men and horse–archers, for all these are but Syrians [Seleucids], with some little difference in their weapons’.

Although obviously propaganda, these quotes do not portray the fear and doubt that was probably felt by many on both sides for each empire had already proved to be extremely dangerous to their enemies. What is important to note regarding the cataphracts in both of these statements though, is that the latest addition to the Seleucid cavalry was quickly seen as one of the most lethal units in the imperial army. The History of Rome of Livy was also the first time that the cataphracts were written about in Latin, therefore, the Roman historian changed the Greek words kataphraktoi hippoi into the Latinized spelling of cataphracti in order to describe the revolutionary unit of horsemen to his Roman readers.

After Antiochus failed to invade Greece in 190 BC, he retreated with his army back to Asia Minor. The Roman response was quick for they sent an army under the command of the renowned general, Scipio Africanus, and his brother Lucius Scipio, which reached the Seleucid forces at Magnesia. Both armies were roughly the same size, especially regarding the infantry of each side, at around 50,000 men each; however, the Seleucid army certainly had a significant advantage in the number of cavalry with around 12,000 horsemen compared to around 3,000 cavalrymen in the Roman army. The centre and the left wing of the Roman army was comprised of heavy infantry legionaries with their left flank protected by the ancient course of the Phyrgios River, while nearly all of their cavalry was placed on the right wing. The Seleucid forces that opposed them were arrayed with the heavy infantry pikemen in the middle, which were supported by cavalry and light infantry on either side of them. Among the cavalry, there were 6,000 cataphract troops that were divided evenly between each wing, as stated by Livy:

On the right side of the phalanx, he placed five hundred Gallograecian horsemen. To these he joined three thousand horsemen clad in complete armour, whom they call cataphracti.

And in his description of the left wing:

Then, three thousand cataphracts; then, one thousand other horsemen, being a royal cohort, equipped with lighter coverings for themselves and their horses, but, in other respects, not unlike [the cataphracts].

As his son did at Panion, Antiochus led the cataphracts and the rest of the cavalry stationed on the right wing.


While the infantry centres of both armies collided, the battle was decided by the actions of the cavalry of each side. First off, the cataphracts and the right-wing cavalry led by Antiochus charged into the Roman legionaries stationed on the left with such force that they not only broke through the frontlines, but also then completely routed the Roman infantry contingent. Most likely due to his Roman pride, Livy downplayed the collapse of the Roman legion in question, yet still made it known that Antiochus and the cataphracts were very successful in the attack as he recounted the significant event:

For Antiochus, who commanded the right wing, having observed that the enemy, through confidence in the river, had placed no reserve there, except four troops of horse, and that these, keeping close to the infantry, left an open space on the bank of the river, made a charge on them, with a body of auxiliaries and cataphracts. He not only attacked them in front, but having surrounded the wing in the direction of the river, pressed them in flank also; until the routed cavalry first, and then the infantry that were next to them, fled with precipitation to the camp.

Although Livy mentions cavalry, it is important to note that the vast majority of the Roman left wing that the cataphracts overcame was comprised of legionaries. In The Syrian Wars, Appian reinforced Livy’s account, for he also stated that `Antiochus, on the right, broke through the Roman line of battle, dismembered it, and pursued a long distance’. This feat alone was particularly impressive for at this point in history, Roman legionaries were definitely considered some of the best, if not the best, infantry troops in the world; a legion defeated by a frontal assault in that manner was a rarity for the time. However, Antiochus followed up that brilliant action by attacking the Roman camp, which was guarded by Thracian and Macedonian allies of Rome, instead of striking the legionaries of the centre in the rear or the flanks. If he had done that, victory could have easily belonged to the Seleucids at that moment, but instead Antiochus and his cavalry were tied up in their combat with the camp garrison and the remainder of the routed legionaries who managed to rally and come to the aid of their allies at the fortified camp.

At the same time that Antiochus led his charge on the right wing, the chariots he had placed in front of his left wing simultaneously advanced towards the Roman right wing, predominately composed of cavalry forces. Yet the light infantry stationed among the horsemen of the Roman army launched such a devastating barrage of javelins and arrows that the Seleucid charioteers were unable to withstand it, and thus they were forced to retreat with their vehicles back into their own lines. Chaos ensued, for the cataphracts were preparing to make their assault right as the chariots came rushing back towards them, which caused the armoured horsemen to completely lose their momentum. This allowed the cavalry on the Roman right flank to fully exploit the confusion on the Seleucid side and quickly overcome the lumbering heavy cavalrymen stuck in their tracks. Livy recounted the disastrous sequence of events for the Seleucids, emphasizing the amount of armour worn by the cataphracts as a major contributing factor to the defeat of the Seleucid left wing:

But that futile affair was soon the cause of real loss. For the auxiliaries in reserve, which were posted next, being terrified at the turn and disorder of the chariots, betook themselves to flight, leaving all exposed as far as the post of the cataphracts; to whom when the Roman cavalry, after dispersing the reserves, approached, they did not sustain their first onset. Some fled, and others, being delayed by the weight of their coverings and armour, were put to the sword. The whole left wing then gave way, and the auxiliaries, posted between the cavalry and the phalanx, being thrown into confusion, the terror spread even to the centre.

In his account of the battle, Appian also stated that the heavy weight of the cataphract armour prevented them from successfully reacting to the unexpected retreat of the Seleucid chariots:

The horses being wounded in great numbers charged with their chariots upon their own ranks. The dromedaries were thrown into disorder first, as they were next in line to the chariots, and after them the cataphracts who could not easily dodge the scythes on account of the weight of their armour.

Appian continued to stress how much their extensive armour negatively affected the cataphracts:

[The Roman cavalry] made so heavy a charge that they put to flight not only those, but the adjoining squadrons and the cataphracts, who were already thrown into disorder by the chariots. The greater part of these, unable to turn and fly quickly, on account of the weight of their armour, were captured or killed.

After crushing the cataphracts, and the rest of the Seleucid forces of the left wing, the horsemen of the Roman army did what Antiochus failed to do to achieve victory by slamming into the flank of the Seleucid phalanx. Yet, miraculously, the Seleucid pikemen held firm and withstood the onslaught from the legionaries in the front and the Roman cavalry attacking the flank. However, Antiochus had placed a small reserve of elephants to protect the rear of the army, which was then the target of severe missile fire from the archers and javelineers within the Roman ranks. It did not take long for the barrage to cause the huge beasts to panic and then rampage into their own infantry troops in front of them, causing the Seleucid phalanx to collapse. The routed Seleucid infantrymen fled to their camp, which was stoutly defended first by the reserves and then by the flood of retreating men who poured into the encampment, allowing many of the pikemen to escape the slaughter; although thousands of the Seleucid troops were slain on the field. The Romans had won the battle.

Magnesia was only the second major battle that the new Seleucid cataphracts had participated in and for the first time their major weakness was fully exposed. Although nearly invulnerable due to their extensive armour, those same defences could also be their Achilles’ heel, for it drastically limited their mobility, normally one of the greatest assets of cavalry troops. From battles such as Magnesia, and in future conflicts, the later kingdoms and empires that utilized cataphracts had to learn that for the elite heavy cavalrymen to be the most effective, they must be supported by light infantry and/or cavalry in order to protect their flanks, or even more importantly, to drive off attacks whenever the armoured horsemen were immobile. On the other hand, the cataphracts’ spectacular charge that caused the rare collapse of a Roman legion also reinforced how deadly the new heavy cavalry troops could be when used properly on the battlefield with shock tactics.

As the first cataphracts ever created, the least is known about the Seleucid version of the heavy cavalry warriors. The most complete depiction of the arms and armour of the Seleucid cataphract is located on the Balustrade Reliefs of the temple of Athena Polias Nikephoros at Pergamum. One of the most impressive features shown among the armament is a metal mask with an incredibly detailed face, including a sculpted beard that was attached to the helmet of the rider. The rest of the cataphract armour included a Hellenistic-style cuirass with traditional pinions and pteruges (strips hanging from the shoulders and lower edge respectively) attached, as well as laminated armour that covered the entire arm (manica) that was made of articulated metal or rawhide hoops that overlapped down the limb and were often riveted to inner straps. An almost complete set of cataphract armour featuring physical remains of iron manica, like those depicted on the Pergamum frieze, have been found during excavations carried out by the French at the site of Ai Khanoum, an ancient Hellenistic city located in modern day Afghanistan. Similar laminated armour that covered the arms probably also protected the legs as well, along with Hellenistic–style greaves. A figurine of a warrior from Syria, now located in the Louvre, has also been discovered and is depicted wearing similar armour to the images on the reliefs at Pergamum. The figure is shown wearing a Hellenistic-style cuirass as well, most likely made of leather, with pteruges, and the arms of the heavily armoured soldier were covered with manica. Last but not least, the helmet of the Syrian figurine has the same metal face mask with the intricate sculpted beard. However, the armour of the cataphract slightly changed in the later years of the Seleucid Empire by the reign of Antiochus IV Epiphanes (r. 175-164 BC), in that the type of cuirass had been exchanged to mainly become a Roman type of mail coat instead of the previous Hellenistic corselet.

The primary weapon wielded by the mounted warrior may have first been the lighter xyston-style lance but later it predominately became the kontos (heavy lance) that was most likely similar in length, at around 3.6 m (12 ft.), but may have been thicker and weighed more. The horse of the Seleucid cataphract also wore a metal facemask, but for the steed it was most likely constructed of bronze and ornamented with a feather crest. It is also clear that the heavy warhorse was provided with lamellar armour to protect the chest; however, it is likely that the armour was even more extensive for the cataphract than what is depicted on the reliefs at Pergamum. The further protection was probably either a half–trapper or even a full body trapper worn by the horse, made of metal scales that overlapped upon a fabric backing, which fastened over the chest of the beast. The half–trapper only covered the shoulders and chest of the mount, while the full trapper provided armour for nearly the entire body; remains of horse trapper armour of the fuller type has been found at sites such as Dura Europos. Another possible addition to the cataphract equipment was an armoured saddle that provided a defence for the thighs of the riders, influenced by earlier Achaemenid models. A fragment dated to either the 4th or 3rd century BC from a terracotta relief flask found at the site of Khumbuz–Tepe, located in southern Khwarezm, contains a depiction of this unique heavy cavalry equipment.

It is probable that the Seleucid cataphracts were predominately recruited from among the Iranian population of the empire, not the ruling Macedonian/Greek people. Not only did the Iranian peoples have a much stronger background in cavalry warfare than the Hellenistic westerners, but they had also faced cataphract–type soldiers in combat on many more occasions, and their ancestors may have even fought as the elite heavy cavalry troops before the conquest of Alexander the Great that resulted in the creation of the Seleucid Empire. On the other hand, it is curious to note that when Livy described the cavalry units at the Battle of Magnesia in 190 BC, he clearly identifies the origins of many of them, but does not do so in his description of the cataphracts. Similarly, when the cataphracts are mentioned in the accounts of Polybius, he also does not use an ethnic term to describe them, which he often does for many other contingents of warriors. Therefore, it may also be possible that the cataphract units were comprised of regulars, primarily of Macedonian origin, that were recruited from the military colonies, not foreign allies or mercenaries. Yet regardless of their origin, the cataphracts were most likely provided with armour in the style of the region the soldier fought in; in the east, the armour would have been predominately lamellar and scale armour types, while plate armour cuirasses were more common in the west.

After the Battle of Magnesia, the Seleucids continued to utilize cataphract troops, yet due to their expensive cost to maintain in the field, there numbers were reduced. As a result of their defeat to the Romans, the empire lost important territory, specifically Asia Minor, as well as a significant portion of its army, and was, therefore, greatly weakened. With fewer available men and decreased resources, the amount of cataphracts in the Seleucid army may have been reduced by thousands of soldiers. However, the empire was still powerful and the new emperor, Antiochos IV, attempted to prove that with a grand display of his military might. In 166 BC, the emperor held a festival at the city of Daphne in Syria with games and a majestic parade of all his best troops in their finest armour. In the account of Polybius, the cataphracts made an appearance in the procession:

Next came the cataphract cavalry, both men and horses acquiring that name from the nature of their panoply; they numbered 1,500. All the above men had purple surcoats, in many cases embroidered with gold and heraldic designs.

It is possible that the number of cataphracts was cut drastically from the 6,000 soldiers at Magnesia down to 1,500 men at Daphne, though there is also a chance that the heavy cavalrymen at the parade were only the base unit, while the overall numbers of the cataphracts were increased during times of war.

The cataphracts continued to fade within the Seleucid army as the empire declined throughout the later half of the second century and into the first century BC. After the Romans seized much of the western territories of the empire, the Parthians then conquered substantial Seleucid lands in the east. The empire fractured into several different kingdoms after the death of Antiochus IV in 164 BC, allowing the Iranian tribal kingdom to easily conquer each former Seleucid region individually. From 160 to 140 BC, the ruler of the Parthians, Mithridates I (r. 165-132 BC), managed to seize most of the eastern regions, including Media, Persis, Elymais, Characene, Assyria, Babylonia and Gedrosia, transforming his kingdom into a full-fledged empire. The Seleucids first attempted to retake their lost territories in a failed campaign led by King Demetrius II (r. 146-138 BC) in 138 BC, and then again in 129 BC by his brother, Antiochus VII Sidates (r. 138-129 BC). After some initial success, however, Antiochus VII ultimately failed to overcome the Parthians. By the first century BC, the once–formidable Seleucid empire was so weak that its land was reduced to the royal city of Antioch and part of Syria. In 96 BC, King Antiochus VIII Grypus (r. 125-96 BC) was murdered, which plunged the fragile kingdom into a state of anarchy that it would never recover from. Once the powerful king of Armenia, Tigranes the Great (r. 95-55 BC), was made aware of the chaotic situation in the Seleucid lands, he quickly exploited the situation and took control of the dying kingdom in 83 BC. Even though the Seleucids underwent a minor resurgence a little over a decade later and regained their autonomy, Roman general Pompey the Great annexed Syria in 63 BC, thus the Seleucid Empire finally ended. Yet even though the Hellenistic state had collapsed, the Seleucids had certainly made their mark on the militaries of the ancient world with the creation of the cataphracts. When Asclepiodotus wrote his military treatise, Tactica, in the first century BC, the ancient writer made sure to include the new heavy cavalrymen in his work:

Now the cavalry, which fights at close quarters, uses a very heavy equipment, fully protecting both horses and men with defensive armour, and employing, like the hoplites, long spears.

The Hellenistic Period – Weapons 400–150 BC I

This follows the great changes in Greek warfare that occurred in the fourth century under the influence of Iphicrates of Athens, Epaminondas of Thebes, and Philip II and Alexander the Great of Macedonia. These led to the hoplite and peltast being replaced by infantry wielding a two-handed pike called a sarissa, and to the greater use of heavy cavalry. The third century saw the rise and fall of the use of elephants and, to a much lesser extent, the use of chariots again. Finally, the second century marked the rise of Rome and the demise of the Greek kingdoms as an effective military force. The same period also saw the development of siege artillery (catapults), which will be touched on.

The evidence for this period is widespread across the three spheres of artistic representations, archaeological artefacts and literary evidence, but there are still major problems with interpretation. Rather than the vase painting of the Archaic and Classical periods, it is sculpture and, to a lesser extent, coinage that provide the best artistic evidence for the period. These start with Athenian funerary monuments and the Alexander Sarcophagus, and end with the great Hellenistic monuments such as the Artemision at Magnesia-on-the-Meander and the altar friezes at Pergamum.

Of the archaeological finds, pride of place must go to the ones from the royal tombs at Vergina in Macedonia; but there have also been outstanding finds of an iron muscle cuirass from Thesprotia in north-west Greece, and cataphract armour from Ai Khanum in Afghanistan.

As for literature, we have good secondary sources in Diodorus and Arrian for the earlier period, and an excellent primary source in Polybius for the later period. There are also an increasing number of useful contemporary inscriptions, like that from Amphipolis referring to military equipment under Philip V.

Another difference in this period is the geographical coverage. Apart from Greece and the islands, this chapter includes Macedonia in north Greece to a much greater extent. Philip II of Macedonia conquered the rest of Greece and then his son, Alexander the Great, conquered the Persian Empire, including Egypt, and pushed on to India. After his death, various generals – the Successors – quarrelled over the spoils. These disputes eventually settled down into new kingdoms: Macedonia itself, the Ptolemaic Empire of Egypt, the Seleucid Empire of Syria and the East, and several smaller kingdoms that came and went. The Greek states of mainland Greece obtained varying degrees of freedom, but were generally under the Macedonian yoke. This means that much of the evidence for later Greek warfare comes from Egypt, Asia Minor, the Near East and the Far East – even as far as Afghanistan. These Hellenistic kingdoms used the same troop types as one another, with minor differences. Mainland Greece tended to continue with peltast and hoplite warfare using the ordinary spear, but most changed eventually to the sarissa and Macedonian-style warfare. After Alexander they played a small part in warfare, which was dominated by the larger Hellenistic states.


We have seen how light troops called peltasts had been effective against the Spartans at Sphacteria in the Peloponnesian War. The Athenians repeated the feat in 390 when Iphicrates defeated a unit of Spartan hoplites in the field with a force of peltasts (Connolly 1998, p. 49). He later campaigned with his peltasts in Egypt and, after returning from there in 373, he apparently instituted some military reforms. We do not have a contemporary source for this fact, but only the later reports of Diodorus Siculus (Diodorus XV, 44, 2–4) and Cornelius Nepos (Life of Iphicrates XI), which are so similar that they must have copied the same earlier source. The following is Best’s translation of Diodorus (Best 1969, pp. 102 ff.):

Soldiers who used to carry the aspis (hoplite shield) and were called hoplites, now carried the pelta and were called peltasts. Their new spears were half as long again or even twice as long as before. Sword length was doubled. He introduced a new type of boot called the Iphicratid, and linen corslets replaced the bronze cuirass.

The original author of this can have known nothing of the military practices of the early fourth century as it is full of errors, leaving interpretation difficult. The first clear misconception is that hoplites became peltasts. We have seen that these two infantry types had co-existed since the Peloponnesian War. The other misconception concerns the corslet. Linen corslets had replaced bronze cuirasses for most hoplites at the end of the sixth century. By 400, if not earlier, it seems that the leather spolas was the main body armour of choice, apart from cavalry and officers who wore a bronze cuirass as well. It may be that Iphicrates had come across linen corslets on his campaign in Egypt, where the material originated, and brought back some to give body armour to peltasts for the first time, but there is no other corroborating evidence for this. Parke (1993) accepted these reforms as a bringing together of hoplites and peltasts to form one infantry type, with peltasts adopting the spear instead of javelins, and hoplites adopting the lighter shield of the peltast. Best (1969, plates 3, 4) has shown, however, that a thrusting spear was sometimes used by peltasts in the fifth century, although perhaps Iphicrates made it more common. Both Parke and Best accept the idea of hoplites discarding bronze cuirasses for linen, which we have shown to be incorrect and which is a problem in the original source. Many peltasts were mercenaries from Thrace, and Thracian hoplites did still wear bronze cuirasses throughout the fifth century (see below). It is possible, then, that Iphicrates took a force of Thracian hoplites as well as peltasts to Egypt, or perhaps he was put in charge of some on his return, and it was they who discarded bronze cuirasses for linen corslets and became peltasts. The Iphicratid boot sounds very much like the high boots often worn by peltasts as early as the fifth century, and there is no reason why it should not have been worn instead of greaves. It may have been adopted from the cavalry boot mentioned by Xenophon. The lengthening of the spear suggests a forerunner of the Macedonian sarissa, or pike, and this will be looked into when we examine infantry weapons.

The main infantry body of troops, the phalanx, continued to be made up of soldiers called hoplites throughout the rest of the fourth century, and it is uncertain whether these new peltasts existed outside one or two campaigns of Iphicrates. Some of the ideas certainly stuck, however, and we shall be examining those as they occur. The main body of this chapter concerns the armies of Macedonia and the successor Hellenistic kingdoms, which consisted of many different troop types. We will look at the infantry first.


Hoplite spears seem to have been about 7 or 8ft in length from the limited evidence we have (Anderson, in Hanson 1991, pp. 22–3), so the doubling by Iphicrates would give a length of 14 – 16ft. This approaches the length of the later Macedonian sarissas and makes the spear a two-handed weapon. Whether Iphicrates’ peltasts ever used a two-handed pike like this is doubtful. It would have removed the mobility of the soldier. It is possible that our late sources are exaggerating the lengthening of the spear and that Iphicrates did lengthen it, but not by so much. Spears up to about 13–14ft long can be managed with one hand, especially if used underarm.

In 371 BC the Thebans defeated the Spartans at the Battle of Leuctra, much to everyone’s surprise. The main reason for their victory was that they had a phalanx that was fifty men deep instead of the usual eight to twelve, and they put their crack troops, the Sacred Band, on their left wing. This put them opposite the Spartan king and his bodyguard, and the depth of the Theban phalanx simply steamrollered the Spartans. The rest of the Spartan army (made up of allies) melted away. It is possible that an additional reason for this victory was that the Thebans were using longer spears, of the Iphicratid model. It seems most likely that the hoplite phalanx charged with the spear underarm, and a longer spear would have presented more spear points to the enemy (Hanson 1989, p. 162). A possible argument against this is that in 377 the Thebans were certainly still using normal hoplite spears, as they threw some at the Spartans like javelins (Anderson, in Hanson 1991, p. 20). The main argument in favour is that Philip II of Macedonia, in north Greece, was a hostage at Thebes at the time of their victories after Leuctra, and when he returned to Macedonia he built up an army which eventually included the two-handed sarissa. It seems likely that he got the idea from the Thebans, or developed it from what they had already achieved. It is still not certain that the sarissa in Philip and Alexander the Great’s time was two-handed, but given the fact that both men used the phalanx – now generally sixteen men deep – as a holding force while attacking with cavalry, it does seem likely (Sekunda 1984, p. 27).

The length of the sarissa has caused much academic argument over the years. Theophrastus, writing in the late fourth century, mentions that the Cornelian cherry tree, whose wood was commonly used for spears, grew to a height of 12 cubits, the length of the longest Macedonian sarissa (Theophrastus 3.12.2). Polybius, writing in the second century, states that the sarissa was 14 cubits long. Ten of these cubits projected in front of the soldier, and the spears of the first five ranks projected in front of the phalanx (Polybius XVIII, 29, 2–30, 4). Twelve and 14 cubits are commonly translated as 18 and 21ft, as the cubit is to be regarded as the Attic cubit, a standard measurement. Tarn (1930, pp. 15–16) argued that the measurements were shorter Macedonian cubits, giving a Theophrastan length of only 13ft. He suggested this because the sarissa was used by cavalry under Alexander, as well as by the infantry, and 18ft would have been an impractical length. However, it is unlikely that an author like Theophrastus would use anything other than the standard Attic cubit, as he was writing for an Athenian audience. Also, it seems likely that the cavalry sarissa was a different weapon, the word sarissa simply meaning ‘a long spear’ (see below). Studies of the sarissa have also been hampered by Markle’s reconstructions (1977 and 1978) in the 1970s. Connolly (2000, pp. 105–8) has shown that the sarissa head used by Markle is in fact a heavy butt end, and that sarissas had much lighter heads to aid balance. He has also shown that the sarissa was not of uniform thickness all along its length, but tapered from butt to point, also as an aid to balance. Using these criteria, Connolly has reconstructed 12-cubit sarissas weighing only just over 4kg, about two-thirds that of Markle’s reconstruction. We still have to consider the difference between the lengths given by Theophrastus and Polybius. This seems entirely chronological, as Polybius himself says that sarissas were longer in earlier times (Polybius XVIII, 29). So we might suggest that the sarissa used by Philip and Alexander was 18ft long; in the third century it grew to perhaps 24ft, the longest manageable pike; and that by Polybius’s time in the third century, it had reduced again to 21ft. It seems likely that the earliest sarissas were of Cornelian cherrywood, which is hinted at by Theophrastus, but that later examples – too long to be easily obtained from that tree – were much more likely to be made of ash, like sixteenth- and seventeenth-century pikes. Ash has the added advantage of being a lighter wood, and so longer sarissas could be made which were no heavier than the shorter cherrywood ones (Lumpkin 1975, p. 197).

The Macedonian phalanx was organised into units of 256 men, called syntagmas or speiras (Connolly 1998, p. 76). These were generally arranged in blocks of sixteen by sixteen, although at Magnesia in 190 Antiochus III arranged his phalanx to a depth of thirty-two men. The overall size of the phalanx was also larger, as Philip II had more men at his disposal. Philip’s phalanx was usually 20,000 men, supported by 2,000–3,000 horse. Alexander would invade Persia with a phalanx of 32,000 and 5,100 horsemen. As was mentioned earlier, the points of the sarissas of the first five ranks projected in front of the phalanx. The other men held their sarissas upright to avoid spearing their own men, and this also helped to break up missile attacks. This new style of phalanx was much more unwieldy than the hoplite phalanx had been, and Connolly (2000, p. 111) has demonstrated the difficulties of manoeuvring it into position. With its sarissas lowered the phalanx was a formidable fighting machine, which held up the Persian armies with ease while Alexander won his victories with the cavalry. Later Hellenistic battles, such as Ipsus in 301 and Raphia in 217, had huge phalanxes locked in combat almost to no avail, while the battles were won and lost by cavalry encounters. The Battle of Ipsus, when Antigonus fought Seleucus and Lysimachus, featured a staggering clash of 70,000 men in each phalanx, supported by 10,000 cavalry. It was the Romans who finally showed the weakness of this type of phalanx. Because of the need for cohesion, battles tended to be fought on flat ground, where the phalanxes could manoeuvre carefully. The flexible Roman legionaries could fight anywhere and, when they drew the Macedonian phalanx onto rough ground at the Battle of Pydna in 168, they annihilated it and put an end to the Macedonian kingdom. In his campaigns in Italy in the 270s, Pyrrhus tried to add flexibility to his phalanx by inserting bodies of Italian light troops in between each phalanx block, which seems to have been fairly effective but was not copied elsewhere. At the Battle of Magnesia in 190, Antiochus III inserted elephants and their light troop guards in between phalanx blocks, but that became a disaster when the Romans attacked the elephants with archers and javelin men and panicked them. They then routed and broke up the Greek phalanx.

Apart from the phalanx, Alexander the Great also had a body of men called the hypaspists (shield-bearers). These men were often used for scouting manoeuvres and usually formed up in battle between the cavalry and the phalanx. They were apparently lightly armoured, therefore, although the name suggests they carried substantial shields. The warriors on the Alexander Sarcophagus (which dates to the late fourth century, and was the tomb for King Abdalonymus of Sidon) carry large hoplite shields of c. 85–90cm and must therefore have been using a spear rather than a sarissa. It is possible that these men are meant to be hypaspists (Sekunda 1984, pp. 28–30)

Newcastle University has a bronze spear butt in its collection, which is marked ‘MAK’, showing it was an official Macedonian issue. It must be from a spear rather than a sarissa, and may therefore be from one of those used by the hypaspists. There is also the possibility that it comes from a cavalry spear. The Macedonian army was issued with all its equipment by the state, though this is the only known marked item apart from sling bullets and ballista bolts marked with Philip’s name.


In the reforms of Iphicrates mentioned by Diodorus and Nepos, swords were also apparently doubled in length. However, there appears to be no real archaeological evidence for this, and the two types of hoplite sword – the straight sword and the recurved machaira or kopis – continued in use. By the second century the latter sword was certainly the more popular, and Polybius mentions that the Romans reinforced their shields with iron to withstand them. Most surviving machairas are 35 to 70cm long, although the example from the cuirass tomb in Thesprotia (see below) is 77cm (Choremis 1980, pp. 15–16). These longer examples are almost certainly cavalry versions, and a sword length of under 50cm for infantry seems more likely. At their widest point these blades measure about 5cm, and the bone or wood handles are usually in the form of animal heads. Examples on the Pergamum frieze have elaborate scabbards decorated with tassels (Jaeckel 1965, figs 5–7). The straight sword is also featured on the Pergamum reliefs and on the tomb paintings of Lyson and Kallikles (Hatzopoulos and Loukopoulos 1980, pp. 60–1), dating to the early second century BC. The latter have sword handles of a Celtic style, no doubt adopted following the Celtic invasions of the early third century.


The Macedonian shield has been studied at length by Liampi (1998). The adoption of the two-handed sarissa by the infantry obviously necessitated a change in the shield, as the left hand now needed to be able to protrude beyond the shield rim to grasp the sarissa. Surviving shields seem to suggest a diameter of c. 65–75cm. At the top end of this range they may have been cavalry shields, but Connolly (2000, pp. 109–10) has successfully used 63cm shields in a reconstructed phalanx, and the pictures suggest that larger shields of up to 70cm would not have been a problem. The shield seems to have had a shoulder strap, which would also have taken some of the weight of the sarissa in the lowered position, while it also enabled the shield to be carried on the back, leaving both hands free to manoeuvre the pike. A hoplite grip was still employed, with the hand also slipping through the handgrip to grasp the sarissa. This also meant that, should the sarissa be lost or broken, the grip could be used like a hoplite grip and the sword drawn, as is shown on the second-century Aemilius Paullus monument (Kahler 1965, plate 12).

Third-century depictions of this shield show it to have been very convex and there must have been quite a lot of padding behind the metallic face, which cannot all have been a wooden core. The bronze facings that survive, and the literary mentions of ‘bronze-shields’ and ‘silver-shields’, show that these shields cannot have been wicker peltast ones, as suggested by Plutarch at the Battle of Pydna. He also mentions small daggers as compared to Roman swords, and is clearly indulging in literary exaggeration. By far the commonest designs on Macedonian shields are geometric. A small shield from Olympia, and the paintings in the tomb of Lyson and Kallikles (Liampi 1998, plates 1, 3), show a large central circle and smaller circles around the edge. These were all embossed onto the bronze sheet. Occasionally the shields feature a central Macedonian star or head of a god or, on one occasion, an eagle (Liampi 1998, plates 2, 14); but what is most remarkable is the uniformity of design from 300 down until 150. The Lyson and Kallikles paintings show us that, apart from the embossing, these shields were painted as well. Sometimes different regiments, or wings of the phalanx, were distinguished by their shields. Livy describes the two halves of the Macedonian phalanx as ‘bronze-shields’ and ‘white-shields’. The phalanx of Antiochus III, the Seleucid king in the late third and early second centuries, all had bronze shields, although he had a separate guard unit called the ‘silver-shields’, a name which had been used for a corps of elite troops since Alexander the Great’s time. In 167 at the Daphne parade (Polybius XXX, 35.3), Antiochus IV showed off a phalanx of 20,000. Part of this, or possibly in addition to this, was a unit of 5,000 ‘bronze-shields’, some (5,000?) ‘silver-shields’, and perhaps some ‘gold-shields’, although there are difficulties with the text (Sekunda 1994b, pp. 14–15).

The shields of the hypaspists shown on the Alexander Sarcophagus have very elaborate portraits of gods and goddesses painted on, and one has an apparent portrait of Alexander the Great as King of Persia (although these have all virtually completely faded away now). Although Sekunda suggests these are regimental devices, I cannot see such devices being applied to the army in general, owing to the time and expense of applying such decoration. I think they are far more likely to be elaborate pictures dreamed up by the artist of the sarcophagus (Sekunda 1984, plates F, G, H). The shield from the tomb of Philip II is a highly elaborate affair covered in gold and ivory, although the basic structure was of wood covered with leather. It tells us little about the decoration of combat shields (Vokotopoulou 1995, pp. 157–8).


The soldiers of the phalanx had a wide variety of helmets to choose from, and these same helmets were also worn by the heavy cavalry, and so they will all be discussed here following the designations and order given by Dintsis. The Boeotian helmet was mentioned in Chapter 4, and it continued to be worn throughout the period: indeed, until about 50 BC. Usually thought of as a cavalry helmet, it was possibly worn by infantry from the third century onwards. Later versions are shown on coins and sculpture with cheek pieces and horsehair crests coming from a central knob. Alexander’s companion cavalry almost certainly wore this helmet (Sekunda 1984, plates A, C, D).

The Phrygian helmet appeared from about 400 and lasted until c. 100. It is similar to the Thracian helmet, but its most conspicuous feature is a high crown very similar to a Phrygian cap. It usually has a peak, cheek pieces, and sometimes an extra brow guard. An example in the Ioannina Museum in north Greece shows tubes at the sides and at the top of the crest to hold plumes (Sekunda 1984, p. 26). Other examples from Thrace are decorated with silver appliqués (Webber 2001, pp. 11, 23, figs 2, 4). Nearly all the infantry on the Alexander Sarcophagus are wearing this type of helmet, and it also seems to have been the favoured cavalry helmet under Philip II (Sekunda 1984, plate D). It is being worn by soldiers on the Pergamum frieze, too.

The tomb of Philip II produced an iron helmet of this type, where the crest is a raised, flat piece of iron rather than the hollow crest of the bronze Phrygian helmets, and this is no doubt because of the difficulties in working in iron. The reinforcement crests on the front of these and other Hellenistic helmets seem to appear first in the third century, and Connolly (1998, p. 80) has suggested that this was a response to the Celtic invasions of that time. The Celts wielded long slashing swords, and extra reinforcement would have been a useful addition.

The Pilos helmet (Fig. 48) also continued in use until about 150. After Alexander, this helmet incorporated the wavy lower edge of the Boeotian helmet, and is called a ‘Cone’ helmet by Dintsis. There is a fine example of this type in the Ashmolean Museum. An example with a Celtic-style crest knob is shown being worn by an officer, possibly from the cavalry, on the Artemision at Magnesia-on-the-Meander dating from the early second century BC.

The Corinthian helmet, which by 400 had degenerated into a cap called by Connolly (1998, p. 110, no. 5) an Italo-Corinthian helmet, seems to have remained popular in Sicily and south Italy, but not among the Hellenistic states, although there is one example on the Pergamum frieze (Jaeckel 1965, fig. 25). Cheek pieces also appeared later with this type of helmet, and it sometimes had a fore-and-aft crest or a metal ridge in place of a crest.

The Attic helmet also continued throughout this period. It features on the Alexander Sarcophagus, and developed into Dintsis’s Pseudo-Attic helmet, which is generally called Thracian by other modern writers. A good number of examples are known from Thrace, but it does seem to be an Attic derivative and not to have derived from Thrace. This helmet has a peak and cheek pieces, and third-century and later examples have a brow protector. Instead of a crest it usually has a fore-and-aft ridge for added protection. An example from Thrace is of the usual bronze, but originally it had iron cheek pieces (Webber 2001, p. 24), and two wonderful iron specimens are known from a cuirass tomb at Prodromi in Thesprotia near Epirus (Choremis 1980, pp. 13–14). These are both very similar in design, but one has been completely sheathed in silver, and so it seems that we have here examples of a battlefield helmet and a parade helmet. They date from about 330. The warrior in this tomb was certainly an officer and probably a cavalryman, but Thracian helmets are also seen being worn by infantry soldiers on the tomb of Antiochus II, dating to 246 (Head 1981, figs 8–10).

A final item of headgear that warrants a brief mention is the kausia. This is a traditional Macedonian hat rather like a beret. It features on the Alexander mosaic at Pompeii, being worn by a light infantryman who may be a hypaspist (Sekunda 1984, p. 30). A kausia is also pictured on the victory frieze at Pergamum, but I think it unlikely that it was used as a regular item of protective headgear for the phalanx, since we have so many references to the use of helmets. It was possibly worn off duty, like an army forage cap, and was clearly a very popular item. Kings of the Greek Kingdom of Bactria, in what are modern-day Pakistan and Afghanistan, are often shown wearing the kausia on coins as late as 100 BC.

Helmets were also frequently painted, and the tomb of Lyson and Kallikles is our best evidence for this. One helmet is coloured red with a black peak, yellow cheek pieces and crest, whereas the other is yellow with a black and a red stripe, silver peak and cheek pieces and a large orange plume. I would suggest that the yellow paint on these helmet pictures shows the original bronze, with the rest being painted additions on the helmets.

We have already mentioned the use of iron helmets, of which that from the tomb of Philip II is the earliest known. The expense of these meant that they were unlikely to have been used for the general rank and file, but could have been purchased by wealthy officers, perhaps especially among the cavalry. They would certainly have been stronger helmets, if rather heavier than bronze. The Roman army did not equip their legionaries with iron helmets until the time of Marius or Caesar (first century BC), and it is unlikely that any of the Hellenistic kingdoms could have been more generous. There are ambiguities with a couple of sculptures, which use blue paint. The soldiers on the Alexander Sarcophagus have blue helmets, which Sekunda (1984, plates F, G) interprets as having been painted blue, but there is a slim chance that they are meant to be iron helmets. There is also a third-century grave stele from Ptolemaic Egypt showing an officer with a helmet and a muscle cuirass both painted blue, which Head (1981, p. 24) has interpreted as representing iron. The fact that we are dealing with an officer here, both items are painted blue, and we are fifty or so years later in date, all make this a far more likely candidate for the use of iron armour.


As with helmets, the body armour in use at this period was not generally specific to either infantry or cavalry, so both cuirasses and corslets will be discussed here. While most scholars agree that Alexander’s Companion cavalry and later Hellenistic cavalry wore cuirasses, there remains some doubt as to what was worn by the infantry, and whether that changed over time.

We will look at metal cuirasses first. Macedonia and Thrace were somewhat backward compared to southern Greece in the Classical period, but in the later sixth century they adopted bronze armour in the form of the bell cuirass and the Illyrian and Corinthian helmets, just as these forms were dying out in the south. Because Thracians often buried their warriors with their armour, we have a series of nine cuirasses from c. 500 to c. 350 that throw light on the metal working of northern Greece of the fifth and fourth centuries (Ognenova 1961, passim). The bell cuirasses of the early fifth century have simple lines with wide bottom flanges and a minimum of anatomical decoration, but it is the cuirasses of the later fifth and early fourth centuries that are most interesting. The cuirass from Dalboki, now in the Ashmolean Museum, has been dated to the early fifth century by Vickers (2002, p. 62), although the tomb it comes from is clearly after 430. Ognenova dates the cuirass to c. 400 and the similar ‘Basova Mogila’ cuirass to c. 380, and this seems more likely to me. Unlike the earlier Thracian cuirasses, these have no high collar but a large semi-circular neck opening instead, and also much larger armholes. The edges are also not rolled over bronze wire, but consist of a flattened border over 1cm wide, marked every 2–3cm by an iron nail. At first sight it seems that these borders may have been for the folding over of a linen or leather lining, but the wide neck hole seems very vulnerable and Ognenova (1961, pp. 528, 533; see also Webber 2001, plate E) suggests this was covered by an iron pectoral. Ognenova herself points out, however, that iron pectorals are sometimes found without a bronze cuirass, and vice versa. The example from Dalboki had a gold pectoral with traces of iron on the back, so this may have been an example of the pectoral as iron armour. Traces of iron at the neck and armholes of the Dalboki cuirass, and especially on the ‘Basova Mogila’ cuirass, do not appear to be from pectorals, however. They seem to me to suggest that these bell cuirasses were half bronze and half iron. The bronze survives better and we are missing an iron collar, iron-reinforced armholes and an iron flange at the bottom. This is reminiscent of the bronze Thracian helmet with iron cheek pieces mentioned above, and shows that Thracians were working in iron fifty years before the first pieces of armour completely made of iron appeared. However, it is important to note that this evidence exists mainly because of Thracian burial customs. It seems highly likely that other areas in Greece experimented with bronze and iron cuirasses, and helmets in the later fourth century, but there just isn’t the evidence because such pieces were hardly ever buried. If they were offered at sanctuaries they would have rusted away before disposal, and sanctuary offerings were severely on the decline by then. The three Greek iron helmets and two iron cuirasses we have come from two tombs: that of Philip II and the cuirass tomb from Prodromi in Thesprotia.


The Hellenistic Period – Weapons 400–150 BC II


The muscle cuirass continued to be used as the most elaborate piece of body armour available to wealthier officers. It was presumably this type of cuirass that Epaminondas was wearing when he was injured ‘through the breastplate’ at Mantinea in 362 (Diodorus XV, 87.1). On the Nereid monument from Lycia, which dates to about 400 and is now in the British Museum, over 80 per cent of the soldiers are wearing simple material corslets, with only officers in muscle cuirasses. These cuirasses have the abdominal dip of the earlier cuirasses and are now depicted with anatomically correct pectoral muscles, rather than the spiral designs seen in the previous century. These Lycian models also appear without pteruges or shoulder flaps and must have had a fitted padded lining.

In the later fourth century there was an increase in the depiction of the muscle cuirass on the funerary monuments of Athens, which is thought to have been caused by the muscle cuirass having been reintroduced after a period when not much armour was worn. Sekunda suggested this might have been as a result of the defeat of Chaeronea in 338, when Athens and Thebes and their allies lost to the Macedonians, who were using the new sarissa-armed phalanx and heavy cavalry. However, several of the monuments can now be dated to before this. Sekunda (2000, p. 62 and plate J) still sees this as a general rearmament, and suggests that whole armies of Athenian hoplites and indeed Macedonian pikemen were equipped with the muscle cuirass. I think this is highly unlikely. We have seen that this form of cuirass was an expensive item and that at this time arms and armour were provided by the state. I do not see how either Athens or indeed Philip II of Macedon could have afforded large numbers of this form of cuirass for the ordinary soldier. This state funding, for Athens, probably began after Chaeronea and we know it consisted of just a shield, cloak and spear (Sekunda 1986, p. 57). The few stelai we have that feature this cuirass can easily be accounted for by officers, who could personally afford the cuirass (and indeed the grave stele).

These mid- to late-fourth-century cuirasses had separate shoulder pieces giving a double thickness of bronze (or iron) at this point, which now became a standard feature of the muscle cuirass. They were obviously copied from linen and leather shoulder-piece corslets. An example of a bronze-plated iron cuirass of this type was found in Tomb II at Amathus in Cyprus, but may be of Roman date (Gjerstad et al. 1935, vol. II, p. 14, no. 77). The British Museum has a pair of bronze shoulder guards, from Siris in Italy, which are very elaborately decorated. They are probably from the fourth century and so Greek rather than Roman. The only complete surviving muscle cuirass of this type from this period was found in 1978 at Prodromi, near Thesprotia in southern Epirus. The two iron helmets found in this tomb have already been mentioned, and the cuirass is also of iron, dating from about 330. The contemporary iron cuirass from the tomb of Philip II, which is discussed below, is made up of fairly manageable flat plates except at the shoulders, and it is this Prodromi cuirass which shows the real skill in iron working that the Greeks were now attaining. Iron is much harder to work than bronze, but it is a much stronger defence. The drawback is that it is also much heavier, especially because it was hard to work into thin sheets. No width measurements are given for the Prodromi cuirass in its original publication (Choremis 1980, pp. 10–12), but the cuirass of Philip II is 5mm thick compared to the usual 1–2mm for bronze cuirasses.

The Prodromi cuirass clearly reached down at the front to protect the belly, although some of it has broken away here. The edges at the neck and armholes are rolled over for added strength and the cuirass is hinged on the right side and at the shoulders. Straps passing through gold loops fastened the left side. The nipples are marked out in gold and next to these are gold rosettes with loops. Gold lion heads and loops on the shoulder flaps show that this is where the shoulder flaps were fastened down; the lion heads are identical to those on Philip II’s cuirass. The cuirass is very wide in the hips to allow the wearer to ride a horse, and the length of his machaira, 78cm, shows that this man was a cavalry officer. Another proof for this was the absence of greaves from the tomb, although they were not always a prerequisite for infantry at this time, as we have seen. It is an unusual, isolated tomb and Choremis, the excavator, has suggested it was possibly a battlefield burial.

Nothing remained of the pteruges in the Prodromi tomb, and we must return to the Athenian funerary monuments such as the tomb of Aristonautes (Snodgrass 1967, plate 56) and another well-known example from Eleusis (Sekunda 2000, p. 62). Both these monuments show three sets of pteruges protruding from the bottom of the cuirass, rather than the two sets that are more usual in fifth-century depictions. These fourth-century pteruges are also much shorter than earlier ones, barely covering the groin, let alone the thighs. Later illustrations, such as those on the Alexander Sarcophagus and the Alexander mosaic, show two sets of pteruges, one short and one long, frequently with pteruges at the armholes as well. These are material corslets, probably made in one piece, although they are perhaps evidence for a separate arming tunic that could be worn under a cuirass, like Xenophon’s spolas. Russell Robinson (1975, p. 148) illustrates a similar doublet, with one set of short and one set of long pteruges. As he explains, the upper short set of pteruges would have had to be carefully cut if they were to follow the curving, lower abdominal dip of a muscle cuirass, and this might have been a later Roman development. The fourth-century Athenian representations have no pteruges at the armholes, which seems to suggest that the three short rows of pteruges were attached directly to the cuirass or, to be more exact, to its lining. In this case one might have thought that two rows would have been sufficient, one covering the gaps in the other. The lower two rows seem to conform to this pattern but the upper row is generally much shorter, and I would suggest that only this row was attached to the cuirass. The lower two rows are more likely to have been part of an arming tunic, to help cushion the weight of the cuirass, rather than having the cuirass itself padded. Evidence for this (apart from Xenophon and his spolas) comes from the Amphipolis inscription dating from the time of Philip V, c. 200. This has a list of fines for soldiers and officers who needed replacement equipment, which is further evidence for the supply of equipment by the state. Here, ordinary soldiers were issued with a kotthubos for body armour, while officers received a cuirass or ‘half-cuirass’ as well as a kotthubos, suggesting that the two could be worn together. This suggests that the kotthubos was some sort of leather armour like the spolas, over which a metal cuirass could be worn.

There is little pictorial evidence for the use of the muscle cuirass under Philip II and Alexander. One is being worn by a warrior on the Alexander Sarcophagus, but Sekunda (1984, p. 33 and plate H) has shown that he is an allied Greek, not a Macedonian. It is an interesting example, since it has no pteruges and no shoulder guards and so is somewhat old-fashioned. Maybe the sculptor was using an old prop. It seems likely, however, that some of Philip II and Alexander’s soldiers did wear the muscle cuirass, especially the Companion cavalry. The muscle cuirass persisted in art through the third and second centuries and it is clear that wealthier Greeks and Macedonians continued to wear it. The victory frieze at Pergamum, which is now generally dated to c. 170 and celebrates the victory of Eumenes and the Romans over Antiochus III at Magnesia in 190, illustrates captured Seleucid and Galatian armour, and the scenes include three muscle cuirasses. Two are similar to the Prodromi cuirass apart from the shoulders. Instead of being tied down to the chest, the shoulder flaps have a central hole which passes over a stud or loop on the chest through which a securing thong is tied (Jaeckel 1965, pp. 103–4). Both cuirasses have two rows of pteruges at the waist, but only one has shoulder flaps. These are bordered and tasselled, and seem to be made of leather covered with fabric. The third muscle cuirass is shown without pteruges, which may be further evidence for their having been attached to a separate jerkin at this time: or perhaps we are again dealing with an old-fashioned cuirass, since it has no shoulder flaps. A Macedonian officer on the Aemilius Paullus monument also wears a muscle cuirass (Kahler 1965, plate 12), and there are at least four shown on the Artemision at Magnesia. This dates from after 150, and is a little confusing in that all the soldiers, not just those in muscle cuirasses, seem to be wearing officers’ sashes around the waist. Although these soldiers are shown on foot, one at least is clearly wearing boots and may therefore be a cavalry officer (Yaylali 1976, p. 106 and fig. 26.1).

These muscle cuirasses all have clean, unadorned lines (apart from the Siris shoulder flaps), but later Roman muscle cuirasses are often highly embossed. Indeed, some of the relief work is so high that it seems to consist of separate pieces of bronze sculpture, soldered onto the body and shoulder flaps of the cuirass (Russell Robinson 1975, pp. 149–52). This work was probably still further enhanced by painting. The Siris bronzes and a cuirassed statue from Pergamum (Journal of Hellenic Studies, 1985, pp. 77–8) suggest that these elaborate embossings may have begun in the Hellenistic period, but most of our evidence is Roman.


The cuirass from the royal tomb at Vergina, which is almost certainly that of Philip II, merits a section on its own, because it is an iron cuirass but in the shape of a material shoulder-piece corslet. It has not been fully published yet, but has been well illustrated in several books (Andronikos 1977, pp. 26–7; Hatzopoulos and Loukopoulos 1980, p. 225, plate 127; Vokotopoulou 1995, pp. 156–7; Connolly 1998, p. 58). It is made of plates of iron, four forming the body, and two hinged, curved plates coming over the shoulders from the backplate, which itself curves outwards to allow space for the broadening upper back. The iron is 5mm thick, a good deal thicker than was usual for bronze cuirasses, and would have given a good deal of protection, perhaps even being catapult-proof (Plutarch, Life of Demetrius 21). The cuirass is decorated with gold bands around the borders of each piece, and a wide gold band around the body of the cuirass. Decorative gold panels are attached to each side, and there are six gold lion heads on the front of the cuirass. The middle pair and the top two, which are on the shoulder guards, hold gold rings in their mouths, through which straps fastened down the shoulder flaps. The pteruges no longer survive, but they were covered with gold strips which do, showing that there were originally fifty-six of them in two rows. Remains of cloth were found on the inside of the cuirass, which came from the padding or an arming jack, but more interesting was the fact that remains of material were found on the outside of the cuirass, adhering to the iron. It is clear that the outside of the iron was covered with decorative cloth, making it difficult to distinguish this cuirass from the linen and leather corslets also in use at this time.

This suddenly opens up the possibilities mentioned in the last chapter: that artistic depictions of shoulder-piece corslets may show iron or bronze cuirasses covered with cloth, rather than the material corslets most people accept them for. Sekunda advanced this thesis in Greek Hoplite (2000), but there really is no evidence in the form of other surviving metal plates. I think, given the evidence of the Philip II cuirass, that we must accept that such cuirasses may have existed in the Hellenistic period – unless the Philip II cuirass really is a ‘one-off’; but I don’t think we can backdate the idea to the fifth century.


Information regarding material corslets comes mainly from sculptures, in which cuirasses of a shoulder-piece variety are often shown being worn. These were always generally assumed to be linen, or more likely leather, just like those of the fifth century, but the cuirass of Philip II shows us that some examples may be metal.

For the end of the fourth century the main source is the Alexander Sarcophagus, which shows several infantry soldiers and one cavalryman. The flexible positions of the infantry show that the shoulder-piece corslets they are wearing are surely leather. These corslets have two sets of pteruges, one perhaps attached to the corslet, the other a separate skirt, and were originally coloured purple and gold – although to what extent these reflect actual uniforms is uncertain (Sekunda 1984, plates E, F, G). In contrast, the cuirass of the cavalryman is plain white so may be linen, but could also be a material-covered metal cuirass (Schefold 1968, plate 51). Before the Battle of Chaeronea Philip II equipped both infantry and cavalry with cuirasses, but of what sort is unknown. The cavalry were the main strike force of the army and were more likely to be issued with metal cuirasses, especially as they would be less of an encumbrance for horsemen. When Alexander the Great and his army reached India, the phalanx corslets had worn out and 25,000 new sets were issued. The old corslets were burned (Sekunda 1984, p. 27). All these facts – that the corslets had worn out, that Alexander could get hold of 25,000 replacement sets almost immediately, and that the old sets were burnt – strongly suggest that the original infantry corslets were leather ones.

Further evidence for the use of material-and-metal corslets and metal cuirasses comes from an inscription from Amphipolis dating from the period of Philip V at the end of the third century (Feyel 1935, passim). This inscription concerns military regulations for the Macedonian garrison at Amphipolis and includes a list of fines for lost equipment. Soldiers were fined three obols for the loss of a sarissa or sword, one drachma for the loss of a shield, and two obols for the loss of greaves, a helmet or a kotthubos. Officers were fined double the amount for these items, either because they were supposed to be more careful or because their equipment was of better quality. Also, officers were fined one drachma for a half-cuirass and two drachmas for a cuirass.

This leads one to the assumption that only officers wore cuirasses; but what then are ordinary soldiers wearing when they are pictured in shoulder-piece corslets on various monuments? We must assume that it is the kotthubos. This word was interpreted by Feyel as being a set of pteruges, and it is true that the officers had them in addition to the cuirass (or half-cuirass), but the word equates with kossimbos, a shepherd’s leather coat, and could have meant a leather shoulder-piece corslet and pteruges. This could still have been worn by officers, as well as the cuirass, since it would have acted as an arming jack, and it equates much better with the sculptural representations that we have.

The cuirass mentioned in the Amphipolis inscription is generally assumed to be the muscle cuirass, with the half-cuirass being perhaps a breastplate only, which is certainly feasible. The number of officers to be so equipped is unclear but, if we count officers as file leaders and above, then we are looking at about 1,000 cuirasses and half-cuirasses for a phalanx of 16,000 such as Philip V had at the Battle of Cynoscephelae. I still think 1,000 is too great a number of muscle cuirasses to be state supplied and that we must be looking at a simpler type of cuirass. The alternative, of course, is provided by the cuirass of Philip II. A cuirass like that, made up of simple plates covered with material, could be supplied by the state in quantity. The designations of cuirass and half-cuirass may refer to the amount of each cuirass reinforced with metal. The cuirass worn by Alexander on the Alexander mosaic appears to show an iron plate on the upper part of the body, with the lower part protected by scales. Varieties such as these could easily have been known as half-cuirasses. The Artemision at Magnesia shows men in what are clearly material cuirasses, and some officers in muscle cuirasses; but it also shows some officers (with officer’s sashes) who wear shoulder-piece cuirasses, which are clearly made of metal. They have large armholes and the figures are shown in stiffer positions. Similarly, several of the shoulder-piece corslets on the Pergamum friezes could be metal-plated cuirasses. These are all depicted with officer’s sashes attached. Such adjustable corslets remind us of the fifth-century composite corslets, with their mixture of material and metal defences. Removing all the detailed work of the muscle cuirass meant that simple metal cuirasses, covered with material, could be afforded by many more soldiers – although I am personally tempted to connect such a corslet to the ‘half-cuirass’ of the Amphipolis inscription, and see its use restricted to cavalry and officers. I am sure that phalanx troops, and perhaps the hypaspists, only wore the leather shoulder-piece corslet for body armour.


The popularity of greaves continued to decline under Philip II and Alexander, when the introduction of state-supplied equipment seems to have taken its toll on this optional item. The tomb of Philip II contained three pairs of bronze greaves, and a further pair of gilded bronze greaves was placed in the antechamber; but the Athenian funerary stelai of the same period, which show muscle cuirasses, show no greaves. Two of the soldiers on the Alexander Sarcophagus are wearing greaves and both originally had feathers in their helmets, indicating that they were officers. Sekunda (1984, pp. 38–9) suggests that the soldier in bronze greaves is a half-file leader, whereas the other, who wears silvered greaves (possibly iron), is of a higher rank. These greaves, like those from Philip II’s tomb, show little anatomical detailing and are purely functional. Those on the Alexander Sarcophagus have a red lining and a red strap going right around the greave just below the knee, to help secure the greave to the leg. This evidence seems to suggest that only officers wore greaves; but the Amphipolis inscription of the late third century mentions fines for soldiers for lost greaves, showing that the phalanx of Philip V was equipped with greaves, though not necessarily in its entirety. A collection of lead tokens from Athens, which seem to be concerned with the state supply of equipment, suggest that Athens also supplied greaves to her heavy infantry (Kroll 1977, passim). The soldiers shown on the tomb of Antiochus II (third century) are not wearing greaves, and neither are the soldiers on the Artemision at Magnesia. Some 15 per cent of the soldiers on this latter monument are wearing high boots, but it is likely that they are dismounted cavalry. The frieze at Pergamum dating from the early second century shows just one pair of greaves which have two straps, one below the knee and one near the ankle (Jaeckel 1965, fig. 40). With the possible exception of the Macedonian phalanx of Philip V (and the new Achaean, sarissa-armed phalanx of c. 200), the evidence does seem to show that greaves were restricted to officers throughout the Hellenistic period. Since armour was then provided by the state, greaves were seen perhaps as too expensive a luxury for everyone to have. There is no certain evidence for greaves ever having been worn by the cavalry, who wore the high boot as recommended by Xenophon.


Nearly all the light infantry who fought for the Hellenistic kingdoms were mercenaries, although under Alexander some may have been allied contingents, like his Cretan archers. At Raphia 5,000 Greeks fought for Antiochus III and they were probably peltasts, since they fought with the other light troops. After the Celtic invasion of Greece and the subsequent removal of some Celts (the Galatians) to Asia Minor in the 270s, Greek light troops seem to have stopped using the pelta, and adopted instead the large, oval Celtic shield with a central spine. This shield was called in Greek the thureos, and so the soldiers are often called thureophoroi. Mercenary Greeks armed with this shield, and javelins or spears, also fought at Magnesia in 190. Some parts of Greece, especially in the North Peloponnese, had never adopted hoplite warfare because of the terrain; they always fought as peltasts and, later, as thureophoroi. Plutarch tells us that the Achaeans fought like this until shortly before 200, when they decided to adopt the sarissa, helmets, greaves, the Macedonian shield and Macedonian tactics (Plutarch, Philopoemen 9.1–5).

We are fortunate to have a surviving thureos from late second-century Egypt. Although both Connolly (1998, p. 131) and Sekunda (2001, pp. 81–2) suggest that this shield is Roman, and the excavator thought it was Celtic (belonging to a Celtic mercenary), there really is no problem, since both Roman shield and thureos were derived from the Celtic long shield. The Egyptian example cannot be Roman, as Romans did not reach Egypt for another 100 years. Sekunda’s explanation is that late Ptolemaic (and Seleucid) armies adopted Roman equipment. This will be discussed later. The thureos from Egypt is about halfway between a rectangle and an oval, and is 128cm high and 63.5cm wide with a slight concavity. It is made up of three layers of wooden laths each 2–3mm thick, constructed in a form similar to plywood for extra strength. It has a central handgrip, protected by a boss with a long vertical spine, and the outside was originally covered with felt. It would have given much greater protection to light troops than the smaller pelta did, especially now that missile weapons were far more common on the battlefield. There is little evidence about whether these thureophoroi wore helmets or not. It is probably a case of yes, if they bought them themselves or picked them up after a battle. They were probably not issued with them. They certainly seem to have worn no other body armour.

Northern Greece also provided javelineers and slingers called Agrianians (Polybius V, 79, 6). These men may have continued to use the small pelta shield, and there is an example from Olympia of a small ‘Macedonian’ shield, only 33.8cm in diameter, which could have been used by such troops (Liampi 1998, p. 51, plate 1.1). At the Battle of Raphia in 217 Antiochus III had 5,000 light troops, 2,000 Agrianian and Persian archers and slingers, and 2,000 Thracians. Thracians armed with the rhomphaia, a large, single-edged cutting weapon (Webber 2001, p. 39), were used by Perseus at the Battle of Pydna in 168 (Plutarch, Aemilius Paullus XVIII, 3) and a novel weapon, also used in this war by Perseus, was the cestrus. This was rather like a catapult bolt, or large arrow, but was fired from a special type of sling (Polybius XXVII, 1; Livy XLII, 65, 9).

As mentioned above, Agrianian archers featured at the Battle of Raphia in 217, but most archers continued to be supplied by Crete. Both Cretans and Neo-Cretans fought at Raphia. Neo-Cretans were probably ‘newly armed’ Cretans, rather than ‘newly recruited’ or ‘newly arrived’ (Griffith 1935, p. 144), and so it may have been at this time, rather than under Alexander, that Cretan archers were armed with a small shield and sword for close combat (Sekunda 1984, pp. 35–6). Antiochus III also had 2,500 Mysian archers at Raphia, and in general the Seleucids had much greater access to native missile and other light troops from their cosmopolitan empire.


Cavalry played a much more important part in Greek warfare in the fourth century and later. Philip II and Alexander the Great used large squadrons of heavy cavalry to break the enemy line while the phalanx held them up. In the later Hellenistic kingdoms the infantry had more of a role in both Macedonia and Ptolemaic Egypt. This was because Macedonia had not the funds any more to equip a large force, whereas Egypt did not have the breeding grounds. Only in the Seleucid Empire, and later the empire of Pergamum, did cavalry form a high percentage of the army as a whole.

Nearly all this cavalry fought with the spear, but there was a unit of cavalry under Alexander called sarissophoroi, who obviously used the sarissa as an offensive weapon. This cannot possibly have been the infantry sarissa of 18ft in length, because that would have required two hands to wield it, which was not an option in a period before decent saddles had been devised. Connolly (2000, pp. 107–9) has reconstructed a cavalry sarissa 16ft long, weighing just over 3.5kg, which in trials was successfully used both underarm and overarm with one hand. There are no later mentions of sarissophoroi, and it is likely that all later Hellenistic cavalry used the xyston, a spear about 9ft long. As a sidearm, the cavalryman used the single-edged, recurved sword, the machaira or kopis. This was recommended by Xenophon for cavalry use, and several surviving examples – generally the longer ones – have horse-head handles implying cavalry use. Cleitus cut off the arm of Spithridates the Persian at the Battle of the Granicus with his machaira, during a cavalry engagement (Arrian 1.15.8), and all the wounds received by Alexander in cavalry fights were caused by swords. It seems likely that the cavalry spear often broke following the initial charge, and so the sword was certainly a vital second weapon to have.


Cavalry played a much more important part in Greek warfare after 400. We have already noted the amount of armour recommended by Xenophon for cavalry use, and heavily armoured cavalry became the new force in warfare, in addition to the light cavalry that was still used. Philip II of Macedon had a force of 3,000 Macedonian and allied Thessalian cavalry when he conquered the rest of Greece, and Alexander took 5,100 horse to conquer Persia. The early battles of the Successors in the late fourth century feature anything from 6,000 to 11,000 cavalry per side. While 5,000–6,000 is the norm through most of the third century (at least where we have any information about numbers), Antiochus III was able to raise a large force of over 12,000 for the Battle of Magnesia in 190. Much of this was due to the consolidating campaigns Antiochus had carried out in the east of his empire. These enabled him to field 1,200 Dahae mounted archers and other native troops, as well as to afford Galatian mercenaries and call in other allies. While light cavalry was used for scouting and skirmishing, the armoured cavalry was used for attack, especially on the flank of the opposing phalanx. The men of this heavy cavalry wore helmets and cuirasses, and used the spear.

It is almost certain that the cavalrymen of Alexander did not carry shields, despite occasional references to them by later authors who are confusing them with later Hellenistic cavalry (Plutarch, Alexander of Macedon XVI, 4). Cavalry shields are not shown on the Alexander mosaic or on the Alexander Sarcophagus, as the rider needed his left hand to hold the reins and also to help him to stay on the horse – not easy with a primitive saddle and no stirrups. Cavalry shields first appeared with the arrival of the Celts in Greece and Asia Minor in 275. Celtic horsemen carried their round shields with a central handgrip, and must have controlled their horses entirely by leg movements. They could have taught Greek cavalrymen to do the same, and they probably also introduced the much more effective Celtic saddle, which had pommels at the four corners to help keep the rider on his mount (Connolly 1998, p. 236). Greek cavalry then adopted the round Celtic shield, but seem to have added a Greek grip with a central armband and a handle at the rim, and made the shield slightly concave rather than flat (Jaeckel 1965, figs 44–7). One example on the Pergamum frieze has the barleycorn boss, like the thureos from Egypt; this may have been a Celtic (Galatian) shield, since this monument shows arms of Antiochus III’s Galatian allies as well as Greek equipment. A Macedonian cavalryman on the Aemilius Paullus monument also has this type of shield boss, however, and so it is clear that the Greeks used Celtic shields, as well as those of their own design (Coussin 1932, plate 40; Liampi 1998, fig. 11.3).

Macedonian cavalry-shield designs were similar to the infantry, consisting of geometric circle and half-circle patterns (Head 1982, p. 113). These feature on both the Pergamum frieze and the Aemilius Paullus monument, and appear to be about 70 to 75cm in diameter (Liampi 1998, pp. 53–6 and fig. 11.1).

The various helmets available to the cavalry have been mentioned in the infantry section. No helmets seem to have been specific for one branch or the other, but the monuments we have been discussing seem to suggest that Hellenistic cavalry preferred open-faced helmets like the Boeotian and Cone helmets. Similarly, all the body-armour types have been mentioned in the section dealing with infantry. The information put forward there, and the use to which heavy cavalry was put, strongly suggest that they were armoured with metal breastplates. Cavalrymen were generally drawn from the wealthier aristocracy (men who could ride!) and so were able to provide themselves with equipment to supplement any provided by the state. It is significant that the latest muscle cuirasses from south Italy, and the example from Prodromi, are all made so that the wearer could ride a horse – either by being made with a wide flange at the bottom or by being short and ending at the waist (Connolly 1998, p. 56).

Apart from the muscle cuirass, shoulder-piece corslets made of metal – like that from the tomb of Philip II – also seem to have been worn, most notably by Alexander on the Alexander mosaic. However, it is also true that some of Alexander’s cavalry made do with linen corslets, as he did himself at the Battle of Gaugamela, although this was a Persian corslet and was perhaps worn for that reason. As noted above, greaves seem never to have been worn by cavalry. They would have interfered too much with the horseman’s grip, especially once the shield had been adopted. Other pieces of body armour seem to have been used only by cataphract cavalry and perhaps chariot drivers, and will be discussed below; the only notable exception is a throat guard that Alexander also wore at Gaugamela.

The Hellenistic Period – Weapons 400–150 BC III


Light cavalry of the Hellenistic period were generally mercenaries, called Tarentines. Although originally from Taras in south Italy, the name came to mean just a type of light cavalry armed with javelins and a small shield (Head 1982, pp. 115–16). The small shield of Macedonian style from Olympia, mentioned in connection with Cretan archers, could equally have been used by a Tarentine cavalryman. It is a moot point as to whether they wore helmets. We might presume that those who could buy their own helmet would have done so, but that they were not essential. Apart from battles, these soldiers were used chiefly for scouting by all the Hellenistic kingdoms and many Greek states.

A final type of cavalryman, who appears to have been used only by the Seleucid and Bactrian kingdoms, is the cataphract. This was a very heavily armoured cavalryman, who was covered from head to foot with armour, and who rode a horse that was also armoured. They were probably developed by the Parthians, and adopted by the Seleucids and Bactrians, the Greek kingdoms to their west and east in the later third century. Antiochus III had none at the Battle of Raphia in 217, but he did have 6,000 at the Battle of Magnesia in 190. He probably first recruited them following his travels through the eastern provinces in the late third century. There are no clear illustrations of cataphracts from this period, but there are illustrations of their armour on the Pergamum friezes, and an important find of actual armour has been made in Afghanistan (Bernard et al. 1980, passim).

The cuirass for the cataphract could have been of any of the metal types we have already looked at, no doubt fitted with pteruges, but the example from Ai Khanum in Afghanistan, which dates to the second century, is most unusual in that it is made of iron scales. The surviving shoulder piece is made of iron lamellar strips and came down onto the chest with a stud attachment, just like earlier shoulder-piece corslets and the Prodromi cuirass, to be secured with a thong. Various pieces of leather, linen and felt seem to have formed a separate arming jack, and were not directly attached to the cuirass as has been surmised for other metal cuirasses (Bernard et al. 1980, p. 61).

As for helmets, it seems that cataphracts wore a masked helmet which completely encased the head. An example is shown on the Pergamum frieze, and a possible Hellenistic example is in Belgrade’s Archaeological Museum (Russell Robinson 1975, pp. 107, 112). Such helmets were also apparently worn by chariot drivers (Sekunda 1994b, plates 4–5). Whoever wore them, they must have restricted vision dreadfully.

For arm and leg protection, tubular laminated guards were worn. These arm guards are depicted on the Pergamum friezes, and the Ai Khanum find has produced a leg guard made of iron. This guard was for a left leg, with the strips of iron overlapping upwards for greater flexibility like later Roman guards (Russell Robinson 1975, plates 502–4). The topmost part of the thigh was protected by a semi-circular plate, and there was a further plate covering the foot. Earlier arm and leg guards could well have been made of bronze. A small statuette from Syria also exists, which seems to show both arm and leg guards of this style (Sekunda 1994b, figs 32–3).

The Pergamum reliefs also show horse armour in the form of a chamfron (face guard) and plastron (chest guard) and these too are likely to have been for cataphracts, or perhaps for scythed chariots (Sekunda 1994b, fig. 54, plates 4–5). A further piece of armour from Ai Khanum, made up of very thin iron lamellae in a rough square shape, appears to be a horse plastron, although the excavator thought it might be a parameridion or thigh guard (Bernard et al. 1980, p. 61). Given the fact that the rider’s legs were already protected by the tubular leg guards and possibly pteruges, I think a plastron is more likely. It is highly unlikely that cataphracts used a shield as well as all this armour, and most probably they were armed with a spear for frontal assault. The Battle of Magnesia saw the cavalry and cataphracts of Antiochus III’s right wing break through the Roman line and pursue the fugitives to the camp. They were unable to return in time to salvage the collapse of the infantry phalanx, and one reason must surely have been that the cataphract horses would have been exhausted after one charge. The weight of armour, especially if much of it was in iron (not necessarily the case until well after Magnesia), would have protected rider and horse from missiles, and made them a formidable strike force, but must also have exhausted the cataphracts very quickly. The timing of their charge needed to be exact, as they probably could not have been manoeuvred again for any further action.


The chariot had gone out of use among the Greeks when horses had been bred that were big enough and strong enough to be ridden as cavalry. The same had happened in Persia, where chariots no doubt continued in use for ceremonial purposes; but, sometime before 400, the chariot made a comeback as a weapon of war. This new chariot was very different from those of former times. It was a four-horse chariot, whose horses and drivers were heavily armoured. The chariot itself was covered with scythes, and was designed to smash through enemy formations. Scythes projected in front of the chariot from the yoke poles, and also sideways from the yoke, one pointing horizontally, the other downwards. Two more scythes were attached to the axle, again horizontally, and pointing downwards. This latter probably revolved with the wheel to catch both ‘duckers’ and ‘jumpers’ (Livy XXXVII, 41). Persian chariots mentioned by Xenophon in his Anabasis had scythes projecting from under the box of the chariot, but these are not mentioned by Livy describing the Seleucid version and may have been dropped by then. It seems likely that they would have often got caught in the ground if the surface was at all uneven, and that may have been the main reason why Darius III had to level the ground for his chariots before the Battle of Gaugamela. It seems that the horses and drivers of these chariots were armed in much the same way as cataphracts.

Scythed chariots have usually been dismissed as a gimmick that did not work. Livy (XXXVII, 41) describes them at the Battle of Magnesia as ‘farcical’, but they remained in use by Persian and Seleucid armies for over 200 years. Their first known appearance at Cunaxa in 400 failed against disciplined Greek hoplites, who moved aside to let them pass, but in 395 at Dascyleum they scored a victory against hoplites who were panicked by the sight of them. Alexander the Great managed to break up the Persian chariot attack at Gaugamela with light troops, and this became the standard defence. Molon, a Seleucid rebel, used them against Antiochus III in 220, but Antiochus himself never used them against other Greek armies because he thought they could be easily countered. Against Rome at the Battle of Magnesia he thought the element of surprise would count in his favour, but Eumenes, King of Pergamum, was on the Roman side and told them how to deal with the chariots. They were again broken up using light troops. At the Daphne parade in 166, Antiochus IV had 100 six-horse scythed chariots and only 40 four-horse versions, so it is possible he was trying to make them more effective by increasing their size. It is difficult to be sure because this was a parade and not a battle (Sekunda 1994b, p. 26). Chariots continued to be used by the Seleucids until after 150, but are unlikely to have lasted into the first century BC, when the Seleucid Empire had been reduced to a Syrian rump. There is no evidence for scythe-chariot use by other Greek states. Livy (XXXVII, 41) states that Eumenes of Pergamum knew about how they worked in war, but does not suggest that he actually had any himself. There is a slight possibility that they were used by the Bactrian kingdoms in the east, but the terrain there is not really suitable for chariotry.


Elephants were used by the Indian army of Porus, which fought Alexander the Great in 326. Although Alexander was victorious, the elephants had caused heavy casualties among his men. It was rumours of larger elephant armies in India that caused the army’s revolt soon after. Alexander saw the advantages of the elephant, and began to recruit an elephant corps into the Macedonian army. Originally the elephant itself was the weapon, and it was made as imposing as possible. The elephants of Eumenes and Antiochus III had purple trappings, and Antiochus decorated his elephants with gold and silver and awarded them medals for bravery (Scullard 1974, pp. 238–9). If elephants were wounded they had an unfortunate tendency to run amok so, as well as the driver, a soldier or two was mounted astride the elephant’s back, armed with missiles to help protect it.

Later on, elephants were issued with armour, consisting of head pieces like horse chamfrons and leg armour similar to that worn by cataphract troops, although perhaps leather rather than metallic (Sekunda 1994b, plate 7). Livy (XXXVII, 40, 4) mentions headpieces with crests on them. Scale body armour for elephants was also used and features on a damaged statuette of uncertain provenance (Sekunda 1994b, figs 52–3). For offensive purposes the elephants’ tusks could be sheathed in iron (Arrian, Punica IX, 581–3).

As well as breaking up elephant charges with light troops and missile weapons, elephants could be disrupted by weapons placed in front of them. The elephants of Polyperchon (regent in Macedonia after the death of Antipater in 319) were once disrupted with planks lying on the ground, with nails pushed through them from underneath (Scullard 1974, p. 248). Ptolemy improved on this at the Battle of Gaza in 312 by attaching a series of caltrops (sets of spikes) to chains. These could then be quickly moved to where an elephant attack might come.

The best tactic was to make sure you had more and bigger elephants than the enemy. At Magnesia in 190 the Romans had sixteen elephants, but did not bother to use them as Antiochus III had fifty-four. Ptolemy’s elephants at Raphia in 217 were defeated because he had only 75 to Antiochus’s 102, although Ptolemy won the battle in the end. Ptolemy’s elephants were also defeated because they were African bush elephants, which are much smaller than the Indian elephants used by Antiochus. (Connolly 1998, p. 75). After Raphia, Ptolemy captured some Indian elephants, which he used in his army, and in 145 Demetrius II of Syria captured some African elephants from Egypt, which he also used in his army. Generally, however, early Hellenistic kingdoms – including Pyrrhus of Epirus – used the Indian elephant; only the Ptolemies of Egypt, cut off from supply by the Seleucid Empire, were forced to rely on smaller African elephants.

The idea of defensive troops sitting on elephants’ backs was enhanced in the early third century by placing small wooden towers on the animals’ backs. These enabled more men to be carried, and gave those men greater protection. As well as elephant defence, these men now became part of the offensive capability of the elephant. The mahout, or elephant driver, still had to sit outside the tower, astride the elephant’s neck. The earliest representations of towers are both from about 275. A plate from south Italy shows an Indian elephant with a tower containing two soldiers and may represent one of Pyrrhus’s elephants (Connolly 1998, p. 75, fig. 2). A statue of similar date shows an elephant attacking a Celt, and has been dated to the ‘elephant victory’ of the Seleucids against invading Celts in 273. The towers may well have been first used by Pyrrhus at the Battle of Heraclea in 280, but were soon adopted by other Hellenistic kingdoms (Scullard 1974, p. 104).

There are two basic types of tower: the original large tower for the Indian elephant, and a smaller type devised by Ptolemy IV for his African elephants. The Indian-elephant tower, as used by Antiochus III at Raphia in 217 and Magnesia in 190, is as wide as it is high and has three merlons per side in the crenellations. The early plate, sculpture, and an elephant medallion in the Hermitage all show this (Connolly 1998, p. 75, fig. 3). The African-elephant tower has a much smaller base to enable it to sit on the smaller elephant, but is twice as high as it is wide, to make up for the lesser height of the elephant, and it has only two merlons per side (Connolly 1998, p. 75, fig. 1). Livy (XXXVII, 40, 4) states that the elephants at Magnesia had four men in each tower and this is supported by the ‘elephant victory’ statuette, which has two shields attached to each side of the tower. Four armed men in a wooden tower is certainly possible, but was probably the maximum allowed. The statuette of the African elephant shown by Connolly has only one shield each side and suggests a crew of only two.

Ptolemy’s elephant crew at Raphia were armed with sarissas to poke at the opposition, but Antiochus III’s elephant crew probably had two sarissa men and two archers or javelineers. Large amounts of missile weapons could certainly be stored in the tower (Scullard 1974, p. 240). Fear was the elephants’ strongest weapon, but they did have other uses. Perdiccas used his elephants to assault the Camel fort of Ptolemy where they tore up palisades and threw down parapets (Diodorus, XVIII, 34, 2), but they were ineffective against stonework. Horses could not stand the sight or smell of elephants unless they were specially trained. After Demetrius the Besieger had been victorious with his cavalry on the right wing at the Battle of Ipsus in 301, he found himself cut off by Seleucus’s screen of elephants and unable to return to the battle (Diodorus XX, 113–XXI, 2). At the Battle of Magnesia, Antiochus had his horses trained to work with elephants, and each cavalry wing was supported by sixteen of them. To try and prevent light troops from getting close to an elephant and hamstringing it, each elephant was provided with a guard of forty to fifty men, usually archers or slingers (Polybius XVI, 18, 7). Also at Magnesia pairs of elephants and their guards were stationed in between blocks of the pike phalanx, to try and add some flexibility to this formation and to protect the flanks.

After Magnesia, Antiochus III was required to have all his elephants destroyed, but at the Daphne parade in 166 Antiochus IV still had thirty-six elephants equipped for war, as well as a four-elephant chariot and a two-elephant chariot – these last two items surely for parade purposes only (Sekunda 1994a, p. 27). Whether the Romans had not got around to making sure the elephants were destroyed, or whether Antiochus IV had been able to obtain more from Demetrius of Bactria, is uncertain. In 162 Gnaeus Octavius was sent out by Rome and he did destroy the elephants, although it cost him his life at the hands of an outraged elephant lover (Green 1990, p. 437). Further elephants do continue to appear in the sources, although some sources are unreliable. It seems unlikely that either the Seleucid or Ptolemaic Empires used them after c. 140. By then Parthia had blocked off supplies from India, and the African bush elephant was on its way to extinction. Pyrrhus of Epirus had famously used elephants against the Romans in the 270s, but there is no evidence for Epirote use after this time, and none for their use by Macedonia, Pergamum or any of the southern Greek states. It is almost certain that the Greek states of Bactria and India used them throughout their period of existence (down to perhaps AD 10), but their coins show only elephants, elephant heads and elephant scalps on helmets. They do not show elephants with towers or soldiers, which would prove the case.

As has been said earlier, surprise and the fear they caused were the greatest weapons of the elephant. These were the main factors in the elephant victories of the early third century. But when soldiers knew how to deal with them, they were easily managed and became an expensive liability. Once enraged or wounded, they were just as likely to inflict heavy casualties upon their own side as on the enemy. Neither the Romans nor indeed the Parthians ever really bothered with them.


Nearly all of our evidence for Hellenistic artillery – that is, bolt-throwers and stone-throwers – is literary. We have surviving Hellenistic manuals and descriptions in Arrian, Polybius, Livy, etc., of the equipment in action at the various sieges. Parts of some catapults have been found, mostly dating to the Roman period, and these also help with reconstructions. The main archaeological finds are the projectiles. At Rhodes and in other places, round boulders of specific weights, fired from catapults, have been found, and catapult bolts inscribed with Philip II’s name are also known (Connolly 1998, pp. 282–3).

According to Diodorus, the catapult was invented in 399 for Dionysius I of Syracuse (Campbell 2003, p. 3). Unfortunately, we don’t know quite what this machine was. The forerunner of the earliest catapult was the gastraphetes or ‘belly-bow’ devised by Ctesibius, probably towards the end of the fifth century. This was a large, composite bow mounted sideways on a stock, rather like a large crossbow. The arrow or bolt rested on a slider, which moved up and down the stock. The slider was pushed forward until a catch on it was fastened onto the bow string. The end of the slider was then rested on the ground, and the operator pushed with his stomach into the crescent-shaped end of the stock, using his weight to force the slider back, thus drawing the bow. An arrow could then be fitted and the catch released to fire it. It was a very slow and cumbersome effort.

The machines probably presented to Dionysius were similar but mounted in a base, with the slider being drawn back by a winch system. Biton describes four of these machines in his treatise, the first two designed by Zopyrus. The first, still called a gastraphetes, had a 9ft-long bow, and fired two 6ft bolts simultaneously. The second was a smaller version for easy transport to sieges and was called the mountain gastraphetes. The third machine was a stone-thrower, designed by Charon of Magnesia, which could fire a 5lb stone. The last, by Isidorus of Thessalonika, could fire a 40lb stone, using a 15ft bow. These stone-throwers had a sling fitted with a pouch, instead of the normal bowstring. All four machines were mounted on the base by a universal joint, which allowed the machine to be traversed, depressed and elevated with relative ease by one man.

These bow catapults, or ballistas, developed during the first half of the fourth century into the torsion catapult. In this design the bow was replaced by two wooden frames on either side of the stock, each containing twisted bundles of hair or sinew. A wooden arm was inserted into each bundle, and these formed the arms of the bow. After a few shots the elasticity of the bundles slackened, and iron levers were inserted top and bottom in order to retighten them (Marsden 1969, p. 81). It seems that machines of this type, capable of throwing stones, were not developed until the time of Alexander the Great. The last development seems to have been the use of curved arms for extra springiness. The first evidence for this is on the Pergamum frieze, so an introduction date of c. 200 seems likely. The earlier bow catapults continued to be used down until about 240.

The range of bolt-throwing catapults was about 500 yards, with the bolts being 2–5ft long, but they were really accurate only up to about 100 yards. Stone-throwers had a range of about 300 yards – perhaps only 200 yards for the largest – and came in a variety of sizes. The most popular engines seem to have been ten minas (4.4kg), thirty minas (13.1kg) and one talent (26.2kg) machines, these weights being the weight of the projectiles. Stones larger than that have occasionally been found, but they were probably for lifting and dropping by cranes, as Archimedes did at Syracuse in 212 (Polybius VIII, 5). Further developments, mentioned in the treatises we have, never seem to have got off the drawing board. Ctesibius mentioned a catapult with bronze springs, which did not slacken like the sinew or hair in the torsion catapults, but they seem to have proved to be too expensive to manufacture. He also designed a catapult operated by compressed-air-powered springs. This was fine on the drawing board, but could not be accurately manufactured with the techniques available at the time. The final invention in this field was a repeating catapult designed by Demetrius of Alexandria, but this machine was a failure because it was too accurate; all the bolts hit the same target and did not disperse. Its range was also somewhat limited.

Although these machines were designed principally for attack and defence during sieges, they were occasionally deployed on the battlefield. At Mantinea in 207 Machanidas the Spartan stationed catapults, probably bolt-shooters, all along his line in an experiment to counter greater Achaean numbers. Philopoemen and the Achaeans charged the catapults as soon as they saw them and, since they were difficult to move, they were almost immediately destroyed or overrun and played no further part in the battle. In 198 and 191 Philip V and Antiochus III, respectively, used catapults in defensive positions against the Romans at the Aous Gorge and at Thermopylae. In both cases, the Romans found it hard to approach these defences from the front, but they were easily outflanked and captured. These would have been expensive losses, since the price for these machines appears to have been about 500–2,500 drachmas each (Philon 62, 15). For the most part the machines were installed in fortifications for defensive purposes, and could also be used in attack against such fortifications. The best-known Greek attack was that by Demetrius the Besieger against Rhodes in 305–4, at which he used a huge tower filled with catapults and ballistas of all sizes (Connolly 1998, pp. 281–5). The best-known defence was that of Archimedes at Syracuse in 213. Apart from a vast array of bolt-throwers and stone-throwers, Archimedes also had cranes which dropped huge boulders on the attacking Romans, and giant grappling hooks which pulled Roman ships out of the water and then dropped them (Connolly 1998, p. 294).


The Hellenistic warfare we have been describing in this chapter, principally the pike phalanx and the heavy cavalry, was an effective form of warfare that lasted successfully until 168. In that year, the Romans annihilated the army of Perseus, King of Macedon, at the Battle of Pydna. The legionary army proved itself more effective on the day, and this has led Sekunda (1994b, 1995, 2001) to suggest that the remaining Ptolemaic and Seleucid kingdoms in Egypt and Syria remodelled their armies on Roman lines. The evidence for this is actually slim.

A stele from Hermopolis describes new ranks and names for formations, which Sekunda (2001, p. 21) argues is the adoption of the Roman maniple or double century, but the top and bottom of the stele are broken and we do not know what sort of soldiers these are. The semeia which is mentioned could simply be a new word adopted for the syntagma or speira, words previously used to describe a phalanx block of 256 men. The later tacticians like Asclepiodotus and Aeneas use the word semeia, but they are still describing a Hellenistic pike phalanx. The use of the word semeia does suggest, however, the use of standards, so it may be that military standards were introduced into the Ptolemaic army at this time.

Further evidence for this ‘reform’ is provided by the Kasr-el-Harit shield and various stelai from Sidon. The Egyptian shield has already been mentioned by me as a descendant of the Greek thureos, and the soldiers depicted on the stelai are also mercenary thureophoroi, who have no relation to the regular Hellenistic phalanx (Sekunda 2001, pp. 65, 80).

The evidence for the Seleucid Kingdom is almost entirely contained in a sentence of Polybius (XXX, 25, 3), where he is describing the Daphne parade of 166. Here he says that there were 5,000 men equipped in the Roman manner with chain mail. These marched separately from the 20,000 men of the phalanx, and were clearly a different unit. Some commentators have suggested these men were just a bit of a gimmick, like the elephant chariots that also featured in the parade, but Sekunda is surely right when he states that they were a genuine military component. They were not armed as Roman legionaries, however. Apart from the chain mail, there was nothing to suggest that these men used the Roman pilum or shield, or fought in maniples. A unit of 5,000 men could easily be part of the phalanx, but the fact that they were placed at the front of the parade with other obviously mercenary troops – Mysians, Thracians and Galatians – suggests that these men were mercenary thureophoroi, armed with the thureos shield and spears.

A final pointer which seems to confirm that the Seleucid and Ptolemaic kingdoms did not reform along Roman lines was that the Macedonian-style pike phalanx continued to be used, both in the later campaigns by the Seleucids against the Jews and in Mithridates of Pontus’s campaigns against Rome. Mithridates did arm half his army in Roman fashion, but he also seems to have been the last man to employ the Hellenistic pike phalanx.


Further mention should be made of chain mail as a form of body armour, as it was clearly used by some soldiers in the Seleucid Kingdom. Apart from the Daphne parade mentioned above, some or all of the Seleucid phalanx was armoured with chain mail at the Battle of Beth-Zacharia in 162 (Maccabees I, 6.35). Appian (Syrian Wars 30–6) also suggests that cataphracts may have worn chain mail at Magnesia in 190, but he seems to confuse Celtic cavalry with cataphracts, so this idea is perhaps best ignored.) One of the stelai from Sidon mentioned above also has a soldier in chain mail, which may indicate use by the Ptolemaic Kingdom as well (Sekunda 2001, front cover, p. 69).

Chain mail was a Celtic invention of about 300, consisting of rows of interlocking iron rings, each ring passing through two above it and two below it to give a strong but flexible defence. Rows of punched rings usually alternated with rows of butted or riveted rings (Connolly 1998, p. 124), the latter being stronger. Each ring is usually 8–9mm in diameter. The shape of the later mail cuirasses adopted by both Romans and, presumably, Greeks was similar to the shoulder-piece corslet, with two shoulder flaps coming over the shoulders and being fastened down onto the chest. Chain mail corslets appear on the Pergamum frieze, where they probably represent armour captured from the Galatians. The date of c. 170 for this monument shows that this would have been the type of cuirass adopted by the Seleucids in the 160s. Wealthier Roman soldiers wore this form of cuirass, and it seems likely that all legionaries were issued with chain mail in c. 123, after Rome had inherited the wealth of the new province of Asia. It would have been very expensive for Antiochus IV to equip 5,000 soldiers in chain mail for the Daphne parade, which is one reason why Polybius remarks upon it.

Chain mail is an excellent defence, combining the flexibility of leather with the resilience of iron plate, and it lasted as a defence until the Middle Ages. It was even revived as a defensive material for tank crew in the First World War. It would have been quite heavy to wear a knee-length corslet of mail, but the defensive capabilities were excellent. Pointed weapons would be caught in a ring and held, while edged weapons also would not have much penetrative power, especially as the mail would have been worn over a leather jack. As far as the Greeks go, however, it was the last innovation before impotence led to a gradual absorption into the Roman Empire. Macedonia and Greece were annexed in 148, Seleucid Syria in 64 – although it had ceased to be any sort of power since the 120s – and Egypt in 30, although it too had existed since 168 only by the will of Rome.