Vercingetorix’s Army I

‘In Gaul there are factions not only in all the states, and in all the cantons and their divisions, but almost in each family, and of these factions those are the leaders who are considered according to their judgment to possess the greatest influence, upon whose will and determination the management of all affairs and measures depends. And that seems to have been instituted in ancient times with this view, that no one of the common people should be in want of support against one more powerful; for none [of those leaders] suffers his party to be oppressed and defrauded, and if he do otherwise, he has no influence among his party. This same policy exists throughout the whole of Gaul; for all the states are divided into two factions.’

[Caesar, The Gallic War, VI. 11]

When we try to understand the form of Vercingetorix’s army, we are faced with a number of problems. Documentary records provide some descriptions, but not even Caesar describes Vercingetorix’s army in detail. On the whole, the information sources for Gallic society and warfare are problematic: they mainly come from ancient authors who rarely provide us with the type of perspective we require to place the Gauls correctly in context. Often the sources themselves are not first-hand, being repetitions of other authors or uncritical retellings of travellers’ stories. However, Caesar’s Gallic War, along with other ancient sources, provides us with some useful descriptions of the Gallic peoples, although we must be wary of accepting his descriptions in too unquestioning a manner.

Caesar had his own reasons for writing his works: they promoted his image and presented Roman actions positively. In addition, Caesar gained much of his information on the battlefield or in the political arena – hardly the place to discover the nuances of a nation’s culture. And so, like other authors before him, he resorted to using previous works to fill in the gaps of his experience. The physical appearance of ‘Celts’ given by Caesar matches authors such as Strabo, Diodorus Siculus, and Pliny. These all focus on the remarkable aspects of the Celtic appearance that were unusual to Mediterranean eyes: fair skin, hair and blue eyes. The descriptions of Gauls are often derived from those peoples closest to Roman provinces and show little of the range and complexity of the Celtic societies further away. By portraying the Gauls as ‘barbarians’, the Romans could focus attention on certain Gallic attributes for their own purposes, sometimes to contrast how well the Romans behaved, sometimes to show how badly. There was a certain contradiction in this, as the Romans sometimes ridiculed behaviour in the Gauls that the Romans themselves engaged in.

‘These [nobles], when there is occasion and any war occurs (which before Caesar’s arrival was for the most part wont to happen every year …), are all engaged in war. And those of them most distinguished by birth and resources have the greatest number of vassals and dependants about them. They acknowledge this sort of influence and power only.’

[Caesar, The Gallic War, VI. 15]

Vercingetorix’s army was based on the ad hoc accumulation of willing participants organized along tribal lines, in contrast to the Roman army’s formal standing armies with strict military structures. One way to understand how Vercingetorix’s army functioned, therefore, is to understand the structure of wider Gallic society. A problem when attempting to reconstruct Vercingetorix’s army in this context is the fact that Gallic society had little homogeneity. At the time of Caesar’s invasion, Gallic culture was still rooted in prehistoric religious and tribal customs, which differed from tribe to tribe. The role of the ‘king’ is a good example. It sometimes commingled the role of leader with that of high priest. In many tribes, however, attempts were made to keep these two roles separate. Religion still played a dominant role in Gallic life and priests took the role of wise arbitrators seriously, attempting to balance military and civilian leadership by halting the unrestrained power of either. By Caesar’s invasion, kingship in some tribes was starting to be replaced by elected positions, much like the process that had happened previously in classical Mediterranean civilizations. The Aedui (whose capital at Bibracte was used as the focal point of the Alesia Campaign) seem to have been one of the most advanced along this process, although many other tribes were also developing similar mechanisms. At the time of the Alesia Campaign the Aedui had developed a constitution and had an elected magistrate called a vergobret, who functioned in the role of king. Separate from this civilian magistracy there was also a growing military magistracy. In charge of these was a military chieftain – a role that separated the military and political functions of the leaders, thus preventing the concentration of power in a single person’s hands. A larger group formed solely from the nobility of the villages formed a ‘senate’ that would decide the grander fate of the tribe as a whole, such as whether it went to war or the election of magistrates. Nobles tended to come from kin groups with a long history of noble or renowned ancestors and marriage between these noble families helped maintain their status. Vercingetorix’s attempt to unify Gaul was therefore seen by some Gauls as an attempt to circumvent the new structures and revive a system of hereditary kings that would place him foremost.

‘the commonality is held almost in the condition of slaves, and dares to undertake nothing of itself and is admitted to no deliberation. The greater part, when they are pressed either by debt, or the large amount of their tributes, or the oppression of the more powerful, give themselves up in vassalage to the nobles, who possess over them the same rights without exception as masters over their slaves.’

[Caesar, The Gallic War, VI. 13]

Although social divisions were clearly demarcated, the struggle for power within these groups was inevitable. Even within noble families, members would compete with each other for support in order to gain supremacy. However, Gallic clientage was where the real social power was held and this was based on how many supporters an individual could accumulate. This system enabled wealthy chieftains to extend their control over large numbers of followers with little regard to social standing, tribal boundaries or definitions. Honour was a major feature of this relationship and this meant commoners had to be protected by their leaders. If they failed, they lost their honour and also their clients. This was a mutually beneficial system whereby wealthy individuals would protect their ‘clients’ and, in return, would be supported by them. Caesar makes note of this system, describing it as an ancient Gallic custom, but it was also very similar to Roman practice. So long as a leader could guarantee support and protection to his clients he would be maintained as leader. These social distinctions exhibited in the political system were apparent in the military system. At Alesia, the tribal leaders used this relationship to gather bands of warriors, calling upon those who owed them allegiance.

The Gallic tribes, like all ‘Celtic’ peoples, had a society based on warrior ideals. War was not only seen as destructive, but also productive. The necessary hierarchies required for military combat reinforced the social ties and structures they were formed from. In order to fight, a Gaul had to have achieved puberty and be wealthy enough to own his own arms. This mechanism guaranteed that each warrior had a stake in the successful outcome of the battle. At the top of the social pyramid was the military chieftain, a post that was annually elected and maintained only a controlling position over the ‘armed council’ that decided matters of warfare. These were made up of the nobility, who held the most prestigious place in battle, due in part to their ability to furnish themselves with both horse and complete panoply of the best quality armour. At the bottom were various levels of commoners who were mainly consigned to the ranks of the infantry, although they were not confined to that status – the possibility was always open to them to improve their position. In times of social upheaval it was not unknown for commoners to be a central part of societal transformation. Commoners retained their rights as freemen, whether they were well off and landed or part of the underclass. On the other hand, slaves were non-citizens with no rights. Often either captured or bought outsiders, their role was servile. Although their position could be changed and their lowly status was not always passed on to their offspring, only in extremis were slaves allowed to fight.

At the outset of hostilities the council called together an assembly of all the warriors, usually at a central place in the tribal region. During the Alesia Campaign, the hill fort at Bibracte was used as the focal centre, not only for the Aedui tribe, but also for the whole of the rebellious tribes of Gaul. With all of the available warriors armed and drawn together, the armed council could assess the state of readiness of the army.

These events could also be an opportunity for intertribal competition through the display of prowess and equipment, showing their readiness and willingness for war. Weapons were not only used for war but also could signify an individual’s status within society. The type of weapon a warrior had and how elaborate or decorated it was influenced how others interacted with him.

‘The nation of all the Gauls is extremely devoted to superstitious rites; and on that account they … who are engaged in battles and dangers, either sacrifice men as victims, or vow that they will sacrifice them, and employ the Druids as the performers of those sacrifices; because they think that unless the life of a man be offered for the life of another man the mind of the immortal gods cannot be rendered propitious, and they have sacrifices of that kind ordained for national purposes.’

[Caesar, The Gallic War, VI. 16]

Before battle it was not uncommon for rites and rituals to be performed and augurs to divine the fate of the battle. The Gauls had a range of gods forming an organized system of belief, depending on tribal preference. Many of the Gallic gods were directly associated with sky gods, the war god being one of the greatest. Usually the war god also had a male and female appearance and these often had positive and negative characteristics, which manifested as constructive or destructive traits. By the Roman invasion of 58BC, the Roman and Gallic gods were very similar in general terms, showing something of their shared Indo-European origins. After the assimilation of Gaul into the Roman Empire, these shared origins led to the relatively easy incorporation of the Gallic gods within the Roman pantheon.

‘Mars presides over wars. To him when they have determined to engage in battle, they commonly vow those things they shall take in war. When they have conquered, they sacrifice whatever captured animals may have survived the conflict, and collect the other things into one place. In many states you may see piles of these things heaped up in their consecrated spots; nor does it often happen that any one, disregarding the sanctity of the case, dares either to secrete in his house things captured, or take away those deposited; and the most severe punishment, with torture, has been established for such a deed.’

[Caesar, The Gallic War, VI. 17]

Particularly common war gods were Teuates, Esus and Taranis; these gods usually had a physical manifestation, particularly on the battlefield.

War gods also tended to be bloodthirsty and some writers suggest that they were only appeased with human sacrifice. Examples of such sacrifices were the drowning of a man in a tub to appease Teuates, hanging a man from a tree and pulling him to pieces to encourage Esus and encasing several people in a hollow tree and burning them to satisfy Taranis. Rites attributed to war gods often focused on the ritual deposition of war booty and sacrifice of captives.

‘According to their natural cruelty, they are impious in the worship of their gods; for malefactors, after that they have been kept close prisoners five years together, they impale upon stakes, in honour to the gods, and then, with many other victims, upon a vast pile of wood, they offer them up as a burnt sacrifice to their deities. In like manner they use their captives also, as sacrifices to the gods. Some of them cut the throats, burn, or otherwise destroy both men and beasts that they have taken in time of war.’

[Diodorus Siculus, Historical Library, II]


Vercingetorix’s Army II

Gallic gods were worshipped in religious sanctuaries often cut off from the outside world by large walls and ditches filled with ritual offerings. At Beauvais and Amiens, enclosures have been found with 30–50m-long sides surrounded by palisades, ditches and banks. A wooden temple in the centre of the enclosure was decorated with paintings, sculptures and weapons. Caesar and Livy both suggest that temples were used to display human and animal trophies of war until they decomposed and then were ritually destroyed in enclosure ditches. Animal bone and human sacrifice have also been discovered in these enclosure ditches. One of the largest was at Ribemont-sur-Ancre in the Somme, where remnants of over a thousand individuals aged between fifteen and twenty years old were found. They were probably sacrificed, possibly to war gods, and their bones were stacked criss-cross in a pile.

‘They [the druids] wish to inculcate this as one of their leading tenets, that souls do not become extinct, but pass after death from one body to another, and they think that men by this tenet are in a great degree excited to valour, the fear of death being disregarded.’

[Caesar, The Gallic War, VI. 14]

This treatment was not confined to sacrificial victims. Warriors also were given sacrificial treatment. Community ossuaries are known, where dismembered bodies were laid on the ground and skulls detached and treated ritually. These practices may be connected with cult practices and much of the skeletons show evidence of wounds that do not suggest a natural death. One ancient author, Nicander of Colophon, noted that the Celts practised a form of divination at tombs of dead warriors. In the south of France, a whole range of stone sculptures from sanctuaries reveals that the development of a hero cult was widespread in the centuries before the Roman invasion. Entremont, Roquepertuse and Glanum, all in Provence, are some of the best known Celtic sanctuaries in the world, due mainly to the cult of the head found at these places. Headhunting seems to have occupied a curious place in Gallic religion, and commonly occurs in art as carved stone severed heads with half closed eyes. There are historic accounts of how Gauls collected human heads and hung them from their horse’s necks or nailed them up as trophies. An explanation has yet to be found for the practice, although the cult must be linked with the concept of the spirit residing in the head and may even be linked to the ritual wearing of a torc necklace.

‘Their hair was of gold, their clothing was of gold and light stripes brightened their cloaks. Their milk-white necks had gold collars around them, a pair of Alpine spears glinted in each warrior’s hands, and their bodies were protected by tall shields.’

[Virgil, Aeneid, VIII. 659–62]

Certain warriors would wear chunky neck rings called torcs, usually made of gold or bronze and very rarely of silver, and these would reflect the noble status of the individual. Torcs represented the epitome of the Celtic craftsman’s skill and are well represented in Gallic and Classical art. After the Gallic Wars, many torcs were taken from the defeated warriors. In the Roman military torcs came to be used as a symbol of rank and achievement, finally being incorporated into the military decorations of the Roman army. Clearly the torc was a significant part of the Gallic warrior’s dress. So important, in fact, that some Gallic warriors wore only the torc. For religious reasons these warriors, called gaesatae, went to war naked. However, it is unlikely gaesatae were present at Alesia because Caesar would have mentioned them given their specific religious connections and unusual appearance.

‘For they [the Gauls] were most excellent fighters on horseback, and were thought to be specially superior as such …’

[Plutarch, The Parallel Lives, 6]

In ancient sources the Gauls were famed for their excellence as cavalry and the quality of their horses. It is likely that they carried small shields, in either geometric shapes or simply round. Although the cavalry wore no clothing specific to their rank, we can assume that their higher status meant that their equipment was of better quality. Excavation at Alesia has revealed the advanced nature of Gallic horsemanship. Two types of horse bit were found, one a simple snaffle-bit of a common form used across Europe at the time. The other, a complex curb bit, is a form invented by the Celts only a hundred years before the Battle of Alesia and would have given the rider complete command of the horse with one hand. The Gauls were also credited with inventing spurs, although of the six spurs originally discovered at Alesia only two remain, one of iron and one of bronze. The Gauls were also notable for having developed an ingenious form of saddle, one reason for their renowned cavalry skills. Unfortunately no saddle remains have been discovered at Alesia, but contemporary examples show they had four pommels that held the rider on the horse without the need for stirrups.

‘The Gauls are tall, with moist white flesh; their hair is not only naturally blond, but they also make artificial efforts to lighten its colour by washing it frequently in lime water. They pull it back from the top of the head to the nape of the neck … thanks to this treatment their hair thickens until it is just like a horse’s mane. Some shave their beards, others let them grow moderately; nobles keep their cheeks clean shaven but let their moustaches grow long until they cover their mouths … they wear amazing clothes: tunics dyed in every colour and trousers that they call bracae [breeches]. Their pinstriped clothes in winter and light material in summer, decorated with small, densely packed, multicoloured squares.’

[Diodorus Siculus, World History, V. 28. 30]

This description from a Roman source gives a general likeness of the Gallic men. Some of these characteristic features are mentioned by other authors and so are likely to be applicable to Vercingetorix’s army as a whole. Long hair seems to feature strongly, often as a wild swept-back mane or lime washed and drawn into a horse-like mane. Likewise, with this long hair comes a long curving moustache, often covering the mouth and sometimes with a small beard. In the main, the Gallic warrior’s dress was similar to peoples across northern Europe at the time, consisting of tight breeches with a long shirt with sleeves, and slits on the sides to help movement. Light cloaks were also worn, sometimes fastened by bronze brooches with elaborate decoration and coral or enamel inlay. Clothing was usually manufactured from woven wool and when different dyed wools were used this would produce attractive multicoloured plaid or striped patterns. This could be enhanced with embroidery and belts with gold and silver ornamentation. In wartime the wealthier members of Gallic society would have worn coats of mail. Unfortunately, not even the smallest scrap of mail has been recovered from Alesia, although a number of mail coat fasteners have been recovered, confirming they were in use, no doubt this was because of their high value.

‘Meanwhile the King of the Gauls espied him, and judging from his insignia that he was the commander, rode far out in front of the rest and confronted him, shouting challenges and brandishing his spear. His stature exceeded that of the other Gauls, and he was conspicuous for a suit of armour which was set off with gold and silver and bright colours and all sorts of embroideries; it gleamed like lightning.’

[Plutarch, The Parallel Lives 7]

Weapons found at Alesia provide us with excellent examples of late La Tène (first century BC) metalwork. Unfortunately, the location of the weapons recovered from Alesia were not recorded to modern standards, being simple lists attributed to ditches without any complex stratigraphic analysis. However, on the basis of coin dates, from more recent excavation it has been shown that these ditches are contemporary with the Battle of Alesia. Regrettably, only the ironwork from the Gallic warrior’s assemblage of equipment survives, as the wood and leather has long since decomposed in the moist soils. Nonetheless, taken as a whole, the weapons provide a useful cross-section of the iron weapons used at Alesia.

‘These are the creatures who assail you with such terrible shouts in battle, and clash their arms and shake their long swords and toss their hair.’

[Appian, History of Rome: Gallic Wars]

The ideal Gallic warriors were, above all, swordsmen. Their swords were long, often close to a metre in length, and were not used for thrusting but for a slashing style of fighting. The ferocity of these assaults meant that Roman legionaries had to be trained to overcome the fear that these wild charges created. By the late La Tène period swords were becoming shorter than they had been in the past, but swords as long as 0.75m were common. These longer blades have been attributed to the cavalry, but this is not necessarily the case as earlier Gallic swords had much longer blades. The Gallic peoples liked elaborate metalwork, and so swords and scabbards have been found with ornate patterned and inlaid designs. At Alesia, twenty-one swords have been found, in some cases still in their original sheaths. In general, these swords are typical of other European examples from the late La Tène period. The swords have blades with either rounded or pointed tips, with the wider examples having acid-etched decorations on them. Examples of sheaths show they originally had oval U-shaped fittings on one side, for attachment via straps to the belt. There they would be worn on the right hip. These belts could be made of linked iron rings or loops, but more commonly would be simple leather straps. Sword handles were wooden and so now are lost, but their bent W-shaped guards still occur, usually made of iron, but sometimes made of bronze. The parts of twenty-one swords found at Alesia present a broad spectrum of sword evolution, indicating they were in use over a long period of time, perhaps representing their prior use as heirlooms or the desperate use of any weapon available, even if it was old and damaged. Remarkably, two more unusual types of sword were uncovered deliberately intertwined with a sword sheath and buried in a ditch. This behaviour hints at possible ritualistic practices that were carried out after the battle, the ditches of the circumvallation perhaps being seen in Gallic eyes as enclosure ditches around the sanctuary of Alesia, a place where so many Gauls had sacrificed themselves.

‘[The Gauls] … wear bronze helmets with large projecting figures which give the wearer the appearance of enormous size. In some cases horns are attached so as to form one piece, in others foreparts of birds or quadrupeds worked in relief.’

[Diodorus Siculus, History, 30.2]

Gallic helmets came in a variety of forms, from simple bronze bowls to elaborately decorated tall bronze helmets with coloured inlays on them. The more simple helmets were plain bronze bowls with short protruding neck guards, called ‘Montefortino’ or ‘Coolus’ types, after the place of their original identification. More elaborate versions had decorative edges and domes and cheek pieces decorated with multiple circular bosses. Sometimes the wealthiest individuals would have taller pointed domes to their helmets, enhanced with pink coral or red enamel inlays, ornately decorated horns, statuettes or horsehair plumes. None of these more elaborate helmets were discovered at Alesia, presumably because such expensive items would only be attainable by a few commanders and as such would be too valuable for Roman soldiers to leave behind. A further type of helmet was developed in the late La Tène period, which was made of iron. This ‘Agen-Port’ form of helmet became the forerunner to the imperial Gallic helmet that was popular in the Roman army for the next 200 years. Agen-Port helmets had corrugated reinforcements and wide strengthening brims. The Gallic helmets found at Alesia are of a very similar form that was widespread in Gaul. Indeed, their importance is such that they were named the ‘Alesia’ type. The inner domes of the helmets were discovered to have the remains of organic materials still adhering to their sides, indicating that leather or wool was used to pad them out. Twenty cheek pieces, some highly elaborate, suggest that some of the helmets were richly decorated and probably belonged to noble warriors. Only tribal chiefs and cavalrymen are likely to have worn these helmets.

‘[The Cimbri] … wore helmets, made to resemble the heads and jaws of wild beasts, and other strange shapes, and heightening these with plumes of feathers, they made themselves appear taller than they were. They had breastplates of iron, and white glittering shields; and for their offensive arms, every one had two darts, and when they came hand to hand, they used large and heavy swords.’

[Plutarch, Lives of the Noble Greeks and Romans, 25]

Sculptural and archaeological evidence points to the Gauls using long wooden shields about one-half to three-quarters the length of the body. These could be oval, round or geometric in shape, with iron bosses covering the handgrip, and, more rarely, iron edging strips. Parts of shields that have been discovered suggest they were made of a tough wood like oak, about 1.2m long and 1.2cm thick at the centre, with the addition of a thick wooden spine. Roman shields of this type date to about 300 years before the first Gallic examples, so it is likely that the Gauls adopted the shield form after their invasion of Italy in the fifth century BC. It is thought that in rare cases the fronts of Gallic shields were decorated in elaborately decorated bronze sheet with inlays. Although nothing like this has been found at Alesia, this is no surprise, as richly decorated shields would have been removed as booty. Most Gallic shields of the period had either round or ‘butterfly’ bosses, made from a single piece of beaten iron. Seventeen dome-shaped shield bosses were discovered at Alesia, all conforming to these descriptions. Although the wood does not survive, the iron shield bosses, nails, edging strips and ornamentation have been discovered. The bosses are typically Gallic, occurring in a wide circular form with large attachment nails and a butterfly form with small nails. We have no evidence of the colours that shields were painted, but sculptures hint they were very ornate, which seem to match the Gallic love of intricate design as manifest in their beautiful metalwork.

‘The spears of the Gauls were not like javelins, but what the Romans called pila, four-sided, part wood and part iron, and not hard except at the pointed end.’

[Appian, History of Rome: Gallic Wars, 1]

Although the Gallic warrior is described by the ancient sources as predominantly a swordsman, for the poorer Gallic warrior the most fundamental part of his equipment was his spear. A warrior would be able to obtain a spear before a shield, sword or helmet. Spears tend to be split between the heavier forms and lighter throwing spears or javelins. The larger spears can range up to 2.5m long, the heads being almost 0.5m alone. Smaller spears are assumed to be throwing javelins. Almost 400 fragments of weapons have been found at Alesia, 140 of them being javelins and 180 being spears. The huge number of missile weapons discovered suggests that this form was the predominant weapon used at Alesia. Often the ends are bent and the edges are damaged by cut marks. Similarities in the manufacture of these weapons mean they could be Gallic, but they could also be Roman or German in origin. This is particularly the case with the leaf-shaped blades that are 15cm to 30cm in length. The larger acid-etched and wavy bladed spears are probably Gallic, although some of these may also be German in origin. The identifiably Gallic spears are of the long thrusting type, with a heavy median vein for strength. The concave section of the blades at the tip, along with many traces of cut marks, indicate that these weapons were used for thrusting as well as cutting. The majority of these larger blades have some form of acid etching, either circles, triangles, zigzags or lattice designs. With these decorated spearheads, comes a series of wavy edged spears, which would inflict particularly grievous wounds. Some spears also have cross guards towards their sockets. These guards led excavators working for Napoleon III to think of them as small stabbing swords. It is likely, however, that the cross guard was part of the offensive use of the spear, enabling a shield to be pulled down before the spear was thrust into its victim. As such, these are very similar to medieval spears of similar form. Pila have also been found at Alesia, and although usually attributed to Romans, some authors have suggested that they could also be of Gallic origin, as a few examples have been discovered in Gallic oppida. This is not too far-fetched, as it is known that the Germans at the time used a similar type of weapon, and so the Gauls may also have been employing related forms. The truth is that in a time of need, all forms of weaponry, whether indigenous or foreign, were put to use.

The Gauls were not famed for their archery but Caesar mentions Vercingetorix found archers for his army. Presumably these archers were made up from the lower classes of Gallic society, although their presence in the battle played a more significant role than this rank would suggest. More than forty examples of arrowheads have been recovered from Alesia, with either one or two barbs, and many can be paralleled by examples coming from other Gallic oppida. It is clear that the Gallic army also contained bands of slingers, but as yet evidence of their presence at Alesia is yet to come to light. This may be because their shot was usually simple rounded stones and so their presence elsewhere has usually only been confirmed by the occurrence of large piles of such material.

The First Incendiary Missiles

The first incendiary missiles were arrows wrapped with flammable plant fibers (flax, hemp, or straw, often referred to as tow) and set afire. Burning arrows of these materials could be very effective in destroying wooden walls from a safe distance. Indeed, Athens was captured by flaming hemp arrows in 480 BC, when the Persians invaded Greece. Xerxes had already destroyed many Greek cities with fire and, as the grand Persian army approached Athens, the populace was evacuated to the countryside. A few priests and poor and infirm citizens were left behind to defend the Acropolis. These defenders put up barricades of planks and timber around the Temple of Athena and managed to hold off the Persians for a time by rolling boulders down the slopes of the Acropolis. But, in the first recorded use of fire projectiles on Greek soil, the Persians shot fiery arrows to burn down the wooden barricades. The Persians then swarmed over the Acropolis, slaughtering all the Athenians in the temple and burning everything to the ground.

But simple flaming missiles of straw were “insufficiently destructive and murderous” to satisfy ancient strategists for long, notes Alfred Crosby. They were not much use against stone walls, and ordinary fires could be doused with water. “What was wanted was something that would burn fiercely, adhere stubbornly, and resist being put out by water.” What kinds of chemical additives would produce fires strong enough to burn walls and machines, capture cities, and destroy enemies?

The first additive was a plant chemical, pitch, the flammable resin tapped from pine trees. Later, distillations of pitch into crude turpentine were available. Resinous fires burned hotly and the sticky sap resisted water. Arrows could be dipped in pitch and ignited, or one could set fires fueled with pitch to burn the enemy’s equipment. Other mineral accelerants for making hotter and more combustible weapons were discovered, too.

The earliest evidence that flaming arrows were used by a Greek army appears in Thucydides’ History of the Peloponnesian War. In 429 BC, the Spartans besieged the city of Plataia, an ally of Athens, and used a full panoply of siege techniques against the stubborn Plataians. We know the Spartans used fire arrows, because the Plataians protected their wooden palisades with what would later become the standard defense against flaming projectiles—they hung curtains of untanned animal skins over the walls. Then, the Plataians lassoed the Spartans’ siege engines, winching them into the air and letting them crash to the ground. With their machines smashed and with their archers unable to ignite the rawhide-covered walls, the Spartans advanced beyond mere flaming arrows, into the as-yet-unexplored world of chemical fuels. This event occurred just two years after Euripides’ play about Medea’s mysterious recipe for “unnatural fire.”

The Spartans heaped up a massive mound of firewood right next to the city wall. Then they added liberal quantities of pine-tree sap and, in a bold innovation, sulphur. Sulphur is the chemical element found in acrid-smelling, yellow, green and white mineral deposits in volcanic areas, around hot springs, and in limestone and gypsum matrix. Sulphur was also called brimstone, which means “burning stone.” Volcanic eruptions were observed to create flowing rivers and lakes of burning sulphur, scenes that corresponded to ancient visions of Hell with its lakes of fire. In antiquity, clods and liquid forms of sulphur had many uses, from medicine and pesticides to bleaching togas. Sulphur’s highly flammable nature also made it a very attractive incendiary in war. “No other substance is more easily ignited,” wrote Pliny, “which shows that sulphur contains a powerful abundance of fire.”

When the Spartans ignited the great woodpile at Plataia, the combination of pitch and sulphur “produced such a conflagration as had never been seen before, greater than any fire produced by human agency,” declared Thucydides. Indeed, the blue sulphur flames and the acrid stench must have been sensational, and the fumes also would have been quite destructive, since the combustion of sulphur creates toxic sulphur dioxide gas, which can kill if inhaled in large enough quantities. The Plataians abandoned their posts on the burning palisades. Much of the wall was destroyed, but then the wind reversed and the great fire eventually subsided after a severe thunderstorm. Plataia was saved by what must have seemed to be divine intervention against the Spartans’ technological innovation. Notably, this also happens to be the earliest recorded use of a chemically enhanced incendiary that created a poison gas, although it is not clear that the Spartans were aware of that deadly side effect when they threw sulphur on the flames.

Defenders quickly learned to use chemically fed fires against besiegers. Writing in about 360 BC, Aeneas the Tactician’s book on how to survive sieges devoted a section to fires supplemented with chemicals. He recommended pouring pitch down on the enemy soldiers or onto their siege machines, followed by bunches of hemp and lumps of sulphur, which would stick to the coating of pitch. Then, one used ropes to immediately let down burning bundles of kindling to ignite the pitch and sulphur. Aeneas also described a kind of spiked wooden “bomb” filled with blazing material that could be dropped onto siege engines. The iron spikes would embed the device into the wooden frame of the machine and both would be consumed by flames. Another defense strategy was to simply “fill bags with pitch, sulphur, tow, powdered frankincense gum, pine shavings, and sawdust.” Set afire, these sacks could be hurled from the walls to burn the men below.

During the grueling year-long siege of the island of Rhodes by Demetrius Poliorcetes (“The Besieger”) in 304 BC, both sides hurled resinous missiles—firepots and flaming arrows. On moonless nights during the siege, wrote Diodorus of Sicily, “the fire-missiles burned bright as they hurtled violently through the air.” The morning after a particularly spectacular night attack, Demetrius Poliorcetes had his men collect and count the fire missiles. He was startled by the vast resources of the city. In a single night, the Rhodians had fired more than eight hundred fiery projectiles of various sizes, and fifteen hundred catapult bolts. Rhodes’ resistance was successful, and Poliorcetes withdrew with his reputation tarnished, abandoning his valuable siege equipment. From the sale of his machines, the Rhodians financed the building of the Colossus of Rhodes astride their harbor, one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World.

Technological advances in fire arrows were reported by the Roman historians Silius Italicus and Tacitus, who describe the large fire-bolt (the falarica), a machine-fired spear with a long iron tip that had been dipped in burning pitch and sulphur. (The opening scene of the 2000 Hollywood film “Gladiator” showed the Roman falarica in action in a night battle in Germany). The burning spears were “like thunderbolts, cleaving the air like meteors,” wrote Silius Italicus. The carnage was appalling. The battlefield was strewn with “severed, smoking limbs” carried through the air by the bolts, and “men and their weapons were buried under the blazing ruins of the siege towers.”

Machine-fired fire-bolts and catapulted firepots of sulphur and bitumen were used to defend Aquileia (northeastern Italy) when that city managed to hold off the long siege by the hated emperor Maximinus in AD 236 (his own demoralized soldiers slew him in his tent outside the city walls). Later, incendiary mixtures were packed inside the hollow wooden shafts of the bolts. Vegetius, a military engineer of AD 390, gives one recipe for the ammunition: sulphur, resin, tar, and hemp soaked in oil.

Ammianus Marcellinus (fourth century AD) described fire-darts shot from bows. Hollow cane shafts were skillfully reinforced with iron and punctured with many small holes on the underside (to provide oxygen for combustion). The cavity was filled with bituminous materials. (In antiquity, bitumen was a catchall term for petroleum products such as asphalt, tar, naphtha, and natural gas.) These fire-darts had to be shot with a weak bow, however, since high velocity could extinguish the fire in the shaft. Once they hit their target, the fire was ferocious. They flared up upon contact with water, marveled Ammianus, and the flames could only be put out by depriving the blaze of oxygen, by smothering it with sand.

The fire-dart sounds similar to the Chinese fire-lance, invented in about AD 900. This was a bamboo (later, metal) tube with one opening, packed with sulphur, charcoal, and small amounts of the “fire chemical” (explosive saltpeter or nitrate salts, a key ingredient of gunpowder). The tube was affixed to a lance with a kind of pump, which Crosby describes as “a sort of five-minute flame thrower.” At first, they “spewed nothing but flame,” but soon the Chinese added sand and other irritants like sharp shards of pottery and metal shrapnel, and many different kinds of poisons, such as toxic plants, arsenic, and excrement, to the saltpeter mixture. As Robert Temple, historian of ancient Chinese science, remarked, “Bizarre and terrible poisons were mixed together” to make bombs and grenades. “Practically every animal, plant, and mineral poison imaginable was combined,” for “there hardly seemed to be a deadly substance unknown to them.”

In India, a military manual by Shukra, the Nitishastra (dated to the beginning of the Christian era) describes tubular projectiles thrown by devices used by the infantry and cavalry. The tube, about three feet long, contained saltpeter, sulphur, and charcoal, with other optional ingredients, such as iron filings, lead, and realgar (arsenic). The tubes shot iron or lead balls by “the touch of fire” ignited “by the pressure of flint.” Shukra remarked that “war with [these] mechanical instruments leads to great destruction.”


Cyrus the Great wanted to use more mounted soldiers because he knew how important they were especially since two of his greatest enemies used cavalry or soldiers on horseback. The Persian army was organized in a new fashion. The cavalry flanked both sides of the army in the middle which comprised of archers who attacked first from a distance. Afterwards, the horsemen attacked anyone left standing in the opposing army by throwing javelins, which were light spears thrown by hand.


The Iranian-speakers who migrated into the land of Iran and the surrounding area in the years before 1000 BC were not one single tribe or group. In time some of their descendants became known as Medes and Persians, but there were Parthians, Sogdians, and others, too, who only acquired the names known to us later in their history. And even the titles Mede and Persian were themselves simplifications, lumping together shifting alliances and confederacies of disparate tribes.

From the beginning, the Medes and Persians are mentioned together in historical sources, suggesting a close relationship from the very earliest times. The first such mention is in an Assyrian record of 836 BC—an account of an extended military campaign by the Assyrian king Shalmaneser III and several of his successors that was waged in the Zagros mountains and as far east as Mount Demavand, the high, extinct volcano in the Alborz range. The accounts they left behind listed the Medes and Persians as tributaries—those paying tribute to the stronger Assyrians. The heartlands of the Medes were in the northwest, in the modern provinces of Azerbaijan, Kurdistan, Hamadan, and Tehran. In the region of the Zagros south of the territories occupied by the Medes, the Assyrians encountered the Persians in the region they called Parsuash, which has been known ever since as Pars or Fars.

Within a century or so, however, the Medes and Persians were fighting back, attacking Assyrian territories. Later traditions recorded by Herodotus in the fifth century BC mention early kings of the Medes, called Deioces and Cyaxares, who appeared in the Assyrian accounts as Daiaukku and Uaksatar; and a king of the Persians called Achaemenes, who the Assyrians called Hakhamanish. By 700 BC the Medes—with the help of Scythian tribes—had established an independent state, which later grew to become the first Iranian Empire. In 612 BC the Medes destroyed the Assyrian capital, Nineveh (adjacent to modern Mosul, on the Tigris). At its height the Median Empire stretched from Asia Minor to the Hindu Kush, and south to the Persian Gulf, ruling the Persians as vassals as well as many other subject peoples.


Around 559 BC a Persian prince named Cyrus (modern Persian Kurosh), claiming descent from the royal house of Persia and from its progenitor Achaemenes, became king of Anshan upon the death of his father. Persia and Anshan, at that time, were still subject to the Median Empire, but Cyrus led a revolt against the Median king Astyages, and in 549 BC captured the Median capital, Ecbatana (modern Hamadan). Cyrus reversed the relationship between Media and Persia—he crowned himself king of Persia, making Persia the center of the empire and Media the junior partner. But he did not stop there. He went on to conquer Lydia, in Asia Minor, taking possession of the treasury of King Croesus, legendary for his wealth. He also conquered the remaining territories of Asia Minor, as well as Phoenicia, Judaea, and Babylonia. This created an enormous empire that stretched from the Greek cities on the eastern coast of the Aegean Sea to the banks of the river Indus—in extent perhaps the greatest empire the world had seen up to that time.

Cyrus’s empire took on much of the culture of previous Elamite, Assyrian, and Babylonian empires, notably in its written script and monumental iconography. But without romanticizing Cyrus unduly, it seems that he aspired to rule an empire different from others that had preceded it in the region. Portentous inscriptions recording the military glory of kings and the supposed favor of their terrible war-gods were commonplace in the Middle East in the centuries preceding Cyrus’s accession. In the nineteenth century an eight-sided clay object (known since as the Taylor Prism, after the man who found it), measuring about 15 inches long by 5.5 inches in diameter, covered in cuneiform script, was discovered near Mosul. When the characters were eventually deciphered, it was found to record eight campaigns of the Assyrian king Sennacherib (705 BC–681 BC). An excerpt reads:

Sennacherib, the great king . . . king of the world, king of Assyria, king of the four quarters . . . guardian of right, lover of justice, who lends support, who comes to the aid of the needy, who performs pious acts, perfect hero, mighty man, first among all princes, the flame who consumes those who do not submit, who strikes the wicked with the thunderbolt; the god Assur, the great mountain, has entrusted an unrivaled kinship to me . . . has made powerful my weapons . . . he has brought the black-headed people in submission at my feet; and mighty kings feared my warfare. . . .

In the course of my campaign, Beth-Dagon, Joppa, Banaibarka, Asuru, cities of Sidka, who had not speedily bowed in submission at my feet, I besieged, I conquered, I carried off their spoils. . . . I approached Ekron and slew the governors and nobles who had rebelled, and hung their bodies on stakes around the city. . . .

As for Hezekiah the Jew, who did not submit to my yoke: 46 of his strong, walled cities . . . by means of ramps and by bringing up siege-engines . . . I besieged and took them. 200,150 people, great and small, male and female, horses, mules, asses, camels, cattle and sheep without number, I brought away from them and counted as spoil. . . .

The way the pharaohs of Egypt celebrated their rule and their victories was very similar to this, and although Hezekiah, the king of Jerusalem, appears on the Taylor Prism as a victim, some parts of the Bible describing the Israelites and their God smiting their enemies do not read very differently, either.

By contrast, another clay object, about 9 inches by 4 inches, also discovered in the nineteenth century and covered in cuneiform script, tells a rather different story. The Cyrus cylinder, now in the British Museum, was found where it had been deliberately placed—under the foundations of the city wall of Babylon. It has been described as a charter of human rights for the ancient world, which is an exaggeration and a misrepresentation. But the message of the cylinder, particularly when combined with what is known of Cyrus’s religious policy from the books of Ezra and Isaiah, is nonetheless remarkable. The kingly preamble from the cylinder is fairly conventional:

I am Cyrus, king of the world, great king, rightful king, king of Babylon, king of Sumer and Akkad, king of the four quarters (of the earth), son of Cambyses, great king, king of Anshan, grandson of Cyrus, great king, king of Anshan, descendant of Teispes, great king, king of Anshan of a family that always exercised kingship. . . .

But it continues, describing the favor shown to Cyrus by the Babylonian god Marduk:

When I entered Babylon as a friend and when I established the seat of the government in the palace of the ruler under jubilation and rejoicing, Marduk, the great lord, induced the magnanimous inhabitants of Babylon to love me, and I was daily endeavouring to worship him. My numerous troops walked around in Babylon in peace, I did not allow anybody to terrorize any place of the country of Sumer and Akkad. I strove for peace in Babylon and in all his other sacred cities . . .

and concludes:

As to the region . . . as far as Assur and Susa, Agade, Eshnunna, the towns of Zamban, Me-Turnu, Der as well as the region of the Gutians, I returned to these sanctuaries on the other side of the Tigris, the sanctuaries of which had been ruins for a long time, the images which used to live therein and established for them permanent sanctuaries. I also gathered all their former inhabitants and returned to them their habitations. Furthermore, I resettled upon the command of Marduk, the great lord, all the gods of Sumer and Akkad whom Nabonidus had brought into Babylon to the anger of the lord of the gods, unharmed, in their former chapels, the places that make them happy.

Like the proud declarations of Sennacherib, this is propaganda—but it is propaganda of a different kind. It shows Cyrus in a different light, and according to a different scale of values. Cyrus chose to present himself showing respect to the Babylonian deity, Marduk. Perhaps it would have been different if Cyrus had conquered Babylon by force, rather than marching into it unopposed (in 539 BC) after its inhabitants revolted against the last Babylonian king, Nabonidus. Cyrus was a ruthless, ambitious man; no one ever conquered an empire without those characteristics in full measure. But we know that he permitted freedom of worship to the Jews, too. Cyrus and his successors permitted them to return home from exile and to rebuild the temple in Jerusalem. For those acts they were accorded in the Jewish scriptures a unique status among gentile monarchs.

The logic of statecraft alone might have suggested that it would be more sustainable in the long run to let subjects conduct their own affairs and worship as they pleased. But that policy had to be acceptable to the Iranian elite, including the priests—the Magi. Leaving aside the question of Cyrus’s personal beliefs, which remain unclear, it is reasonable to see in the policy some of the spirit of moral earnestness and justice that pervaded the religion of Zoroaster. The presence of those values in the background helps to explain why the Cyrus cylinder is couched in such different terms from the militaristic thunder and arrogance of Sennacherib. The old answer was terror and a big stick, but the Persian Empire would be run in a more devolved, permissive spirit. Once again, an encounter with complexity, acceptance of that complexity, and a response. This was something new.

Unfortunately, according to Herodotus, Cyrus did not end his life as gloriously as he had lived it. Having conquered in the west, he turned to campaign east of the Caspian. According to one account he was defeated and killed in battle by Queen Tomyris of the Massagetae, another Iranian tribe who fought mainly on horseback, like the Scythians.

The Massagetae are interesting because they appear to have maintained some ancient Iranian customs that may shed light on the status of women in Persian society under the Achaemenids. There are signs in Herodotus (Book 1:216) that the Massagetae showed some features of a matrilineal, polyandrous society, in which women might have a number of spouses or sexual partners, but men only one. Patricia Crone has suggested that this feature may resurface in men’s apparent holding of women in common as practiced later by the Mazdakites in the fifth century AD, and by the Khorramites after the Islamic conquest. Mazdaism certainly permitted a practice whereby an impotent man could give his wife temporarily to another in order to obtain a child; it also sanctioned the marriage of close relatives. But in general, Persian society seems to have leaned toward limiting the status of women, following practices elsewhere in the Middle East. Royal and noble women may have been able to own property in their own right—and even, on occasion, to exert some political influence. But this seems to have been an exception associated with high status rather than indicative of practices prevalent in society more widely.

Cyrus’s body was brought back to Persia, to Pasargadae, his capital, to rest in a tomb there. That tomb, which can still be seen (though its contents have long since disappeared), is massively simple rather than grandiose—a sepulchre the size of a small house on a raised, stepped plinth. This tomb burial has raised some questions about the religion of Cyrus and the other Achaemenid kings. Many of his successors were placed in tombs of a different type—rock tombs halfway up a cliff face. Tomb burial was anathema to later Zoroastrians, who held it to be sacrilege to pollute the earth with dead bodies. Instead they exposed the dead on so-called Towers of Silence, to be consumed by birds and animals. Could the Achaemenid kings really have been Zoroastrians if they permitted tomb burial?

Some have explained the inconsistency by suggesting that different classes of Iranian society followed different beliefs—different religions, effectively. As we have seen, there probably was some considerable plurality of belief within the broad flow of Mazdaism at this time. But it seems more likely that the plurality was socially vertical rather than horizontal—a question of geography and tribe rather than of social class. Perhaps an earlier, pre-Zoroastrian tradition of burial still lingered and the elevated position of all the royal tombs was a kind of compromise. Halfway between heaven and earth—itself a strong metaphor. Around the tomb of Cyrus lay a paradise, a garden watered by irrigation channels (our word paradise comes, via Greek, from the Old Persian paradaida, meaning a walled garden). Magian priests watched over the tomb and sacrificed a horse to Cyrus’s memory each month.

Cyrus had been a conqueror, but a conqueror with imagination and vision. He was at least as remarkable a man as that other conqueror, Alexander, whose career marks the end of the Achaemenid period just as that of Cyrus marks the beginning. Maybe as a youth Cyrus had a Mazdaean tutor as remarkable as Aristotle, who taught Alexander.

The Legacy of the Hellenistic Pike-Phalanx




Diodorus declared that ‘Macedonian spears had conquered Asia and Europe’. The organization of Hellenistic pike formations into units and sub-units, combined with an elaborate and symmetrically distributed command structure, made the pike-phalanx a very ordered instrument of war – one that was mutually supporting, offensively and defensively strong, and adaptable to the varied tactical requirements of the ancient battlefield. Phalangite formations, for example, could be deployed to different depths, with the most common being that of sixteen ranks deep, but could also be arranged in deeper or shallower configurations depending upon the terrain, the size of the opposing force, the decisions of those in command and the situation of the day.

Similarly, the interval that each man and file occupied within the pike-phalanx could also vary depending upon what action was to be performed. The 48cm close-order interval, on the one hand, was only adopted by a pike formation to undertake manoeuvres such as wheeling as the more compressed nature of this close interval meant that the formation had less distance to travel as it changed direction. Importantly, in this order, the pikes of the phalanx had to be held vertically due to its compact nature and, as such, the close-order formation could not be used offensively. The intermediate-order interval of 96cm per man, on the other hand, provided enough space for the weapons held by the first five men of each file to be lowered for combat. In contrast, the open-order interval of 192cm per man was too open to be effective in combat and would have only been used by armies on the march as the larger amount of room between each man facilitated ease of movement while carrying a panoply of equipment in excess of 21kg, including a long pike.

The length of the sarissa meant that the majority of combat in the Hellenistic Age (at least initially) was conducted at ‘pike length’ with the opposing sides separated by several metres. This was due to the way in which the sarissa was employed to hold an opponent at bay, and gave the Hellenistic pike-phalanx a great tactical advantage over opponents who carried weapons with a much shorter effective reach. If an opportune target did present itself, it was the members of the front ranks of the phalanx – the only ones with the freedom of movement to actually thrust their weapon forward – who would have been able to exploit it. For the other members of the phalanx, their role was to cover the gaps between each file, to engage prone opponents and to provide density and reserves to the formation as a whole while the enemy was held back.

The ability to engage an enemy from a safe distance, one where that opponent could not reciprocate offensively, allowed the pike-phalanx to effectively pin an enemy formation in place as part of the standard tactic of pike-phalanx combat – that of the hammer and anvil. Across the entire Hellenistic Period this tactic of using the pike-phalanx in the centre to hold an enemy formation (or part thereof) in position while other, more mobile, troops swept around to strike from the flanks remained unchanged. This in itself demonstrates the integral part that the pike-phalanx played in the conflicts of this time period.

While the functionality of the phalangite remained little changed across the Hellenistic Period, the tools and strategies of war constantly developed in attempts to overcome the advantages held by the pike-phalanx, particularly during the time of the Successors following the death of Alexander the Great in 323BC when pike-phalanx fought pike-phalanx and a decisive tactical advantage of some kind was required to secure victory. Consequently the sarissa itself became longer to outreach an enemy armed in a similar fashion, and beasts such as elephants were more regularly employed to try and smash an opposing formation apart. Many of these tactical ‘experiments’ met with mixed results; the pike could only be increased in length until a point was reached where it was almost impossible to wield, and contingents of elephants could be countered with other elephants, a solid wall of pikes, missile troops or other measures. As a result, the phalangite, and the pike-phalanx, retained its position of supremacy on the battlefield.

Yet for all of its advantages, the pike-phalanx did have its limitations. This was mainly the potential for gaps to open in the line – due in part to the phalanx being comprised of semi-independent units and sub-units. If such gaps could be exploited by a more mobile opponent, one who could get inside the rows of projecting pikes, this was when the pike-phalanx was most vulnerable as the long sarissa made the phalangite a very ineffective individual combatant, and larger units were incapable of turning to meet threats from the sides once their pikes had been lowered. It was the ability of the Roman legionaries to take advantage of this inherent weakness in the Hellenistic pike-phalanx which ultimately led to the formation’s demise.

Yet the defeat of Hellenistic pike-phalanxes by the Romans at Cynoscephalae in 197BC and then at Pydna in 168BC did not see the total removal of the Macedonian way of war from the battlefields of antiquity. In 86BC the legionaries of Rome fought against the pike-phalanx (and other troops) of the Pontic king Mithridates at the second battle of Chaeronea. Much like the phalangites of nearly three centuries earlier, Plutarch describes the Pontic phalangites as being equipped with bronze shields and pikes.² During the battle, and in actions reminiscent of the engagement at Pydna, the Romans are said to have cast their javelins, drawn their swords, and ‘struggled to push aside the pikes so that they could get to close quarters as soon as possible’. As if to confirm that very little change had taken place in both the use of the pike-phalanx and the Roman methods of countering it, the Pontic army was defeated by independent Roman units pressing their advantage along different parts of the line as the pike-phalanx began to break up. The second battle of Chaeronea was the last real offensive action that a Hellenistic-style pike-phalanx would undertake. As has been noted, by a strange quirk of fate, the location of this encounter was very close to the battlefield where, in 338BC, Philip II fought against the Greeks with the new Macedonian army and ushered in the Hellenistic Age and the rise to dominance of the pike-phalanx for almost the next century and a half. Three hundred years after the first battle of Chaeronea things had now come full circle and the demise of this style of warfare would occur in almost the exact same place.

Even this defeat was not the last time the ancient world saw a Macedonian-style phalanx. In AD66 the Roman emperor Nero enrolled recruits into ‘The Phalanx of Alexander the Great’ for an intended campaign against the Parthians. This expedition never occurred and the ‘phalanx’ does not seem to have seen any action. It is also uncertain exactly how these troops were armed. Bennett and Roberts, for example, suggest that they were actually equipped as standard Roman legionaries. There are, however, clues as to their equipment which suggest otherwise. As well as a Parthian campaign, Nero had also planned expeditions to Greece and Alexandria. Both of these locations had strong connections to Alexander and Nero may have been entertaining dreams of attempting to emulate the former conqueror. Additionally, the Parthians were the descendants of the Persians and, if Nero was attempting to emulate Alexander, he may have thought that the best way to defeat the Parthians was with the very instrument that Alexander had used to defeat Persia: a pike-phalanx.

In AD217 the emperor Caracalla, also thinking himself to be the ‘New Alexander’, similarly created a phalanx for a Parthian campaign. Cassius Dio states:

Caracalla was so enthusiastic about Alexander [the Great] that he used certain weapons and cups that he believed had once been his, and he also set up many likenesses of him in both army camps and in Rome. He organized a phalanx, composed entirely of Macedonians, 16,000 strong, named it ‘Alexander’s Phalanx’, and equipped it with the arms that warriors had used in his day. These consisted of a helmet of raw oxhide, a three-ply linen cuirass, a bronze shield, long spear, short spear, high boots and sword. Not even this, however, satisfied him, but he had to call his hero ‘the Augustus of the East’; and once he actually wrote to the senate that Alexander had come to life again in the person of the Augustus, and that he might live on once more in him…

Herodian states:

At times we saw ridiculous portraits [of Caracalla], statues with one body which had on each side of a single head the faces of Alexander and the emperor. Caracalla himself went about in Macedonian dress, especially the broad sun hat and short boots. He enrolled picked youths into a unit which he called his Macedonian phalanx; its officers bore the names of Alexander’s generals.

Cowan suggests that the short spear mentioned by Cassius Dio as part of the panoply for these new phalangites could have been a javelin. This would then find parallels with the ‘regular’ Macedonian equipment carried by Horratus/Coragus in his heroic duel with the Athenian Dioxippus in 326BC as recounted by Curtius and Diodorus. Such equipment would then supply a close connection between a description of one of Alexander’s troops and those of Caracalla who was trying to emulate them. Furthermore, the number of men in Caracalla’s ‘phalanx’ (16,000) bears close similarities with the size of the numerically perfect phalanx (16,348) that is outlined in military manuals such as that of Aelian which, although written a century before the reign of Caracalla, reported to be writing about the army of Alexander the Great.

Cassius Dio reports seeing the training of Caracalla’s phalangites in Nicomedia.¹⁴ However it is still uncertain exactly how such troops were armed. An epitaph from Apamea, for example, refers to a trainee ‘phalangarius’ from Legio II Parthica which had been raised by Septimius Severus in AD197. However, the term ‘phalangarius’ has two meanings – both of which have military connotations. The first is a reference to a member of the phalanx. Yet many Greek writers of the middle empire use the term phalanx to refer to a Roman battle line without specifically meaning that the men within it were armed as pikemen. The other definition refers to someone who carries equipment on a long pole. This last definition bears many similarities to the ‘Marian Mules’ of the late Roman Republic who had to carry their personal equiment suspended from a long pole slung over their shoulder – an operational aspect of the Roman army that was kept in place at least into the second century AD. Consequently, the phalangarii of Legio II Parthica could simply be troops within the standard battle line, or troops porting their own equipment (or both), but they may not have necessarily been armed as pikemen. Cowan suggests that these phalangarii may have been the cause for the brief resurgence of the spear-wielding triarii around AD300. If so, then the phalangarii may have been spearmen rather than pikemen.

Additionally, reports of the Romans fighting in Parthia suggest that they may not have been using long pikes. Both Herodian and Africanus state that the Roman weapons were not long enough to counter the Parthian cavalry lances. This again would suggest that the phalangarii may have been spearmen rather than pikemen.

It seems that the Macedonian-style pike-phalanx itself had disappeared from the battlefields of the Roman Empire, but its prestige, titulature and even some of the materials that its shields had been faced with remained. The achievements of Alexander the Great also remained as a benchmark which Roman emperors attempted to surpass. In the third century AD for example, Severus Alexander:

made every effort to appear worthy of his name and even to surpass the Macedonian king, and he used to say that there should be a great difference between a Roman and a Macedonian Alexander. Finally, he provided himself with soldiers armed with silver shields and with golden [shields], and also a phalanx of 30,000 men, whom he ordered to be called phalangarii, and with these he won many victories in Persia. This phalanx, as a matter of fact, was formed from six legions, and was armed like the other troops, but after the Persian wars received higher pay.

This is a clear demonstration that the soldiers of Severus’ army, while imitating many aspects of the army of Alexander the Great, were armed in their standard fashion rather than as pikemen. As such, if the term phalangarii is not just an anachronistic appellation, it would seem that these troops may have been carting their own equipment which would then warrant such a title.

However, the Macedonian way of war also continued to provide inspiration following the fall of Rome. The Byzantine emperor Leo IV (reigned AD866-912), for example, incorporated much of the content of Aelian’s manual on the Hellenistic pike-phalanx into his own version of the Tactica in the late ninth century AD. An Arabic version of Aelian was also published around 1350. While the Byzantines and the Muslims did not put the principles of the Hellenistic pike-phalanx into widespread practice, the fact that these texts were copied so extensively in Europe and the Middle East attests to the pride of place that an understanding of the Macedonian way of war had in the development of later military institutions.

More than three centuries later, the large European pike and musket armies of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries would be heavily modelled on the Macedonian system and the works of Asclepiodotus, Aelian and Arrian became popular once again as instructional manuals for the reigning monarchs of the time. This would be the last time an army armed and organized (if only in part) in the Macedonian manner would fight on the world stage.

With the defeat of the Pontic army of Mithridates by the Romans at the second battle of Chaeronea in 86BC the use of the pike-phalanx, at least one that would have seemed familiar to Philip, Alexander and the Successors, came to an end. The pike-phalanx was defeated once and for all by an opponent who employed and transmitted a very different way of fighting – one that, as with all developments in the arts and technologies of war, outclassed that which had come before it. Yet in an ironic turn of fate, the pike-phalanx was eclipsed by a culture which still held the principles of the army of Alexander the Great in high regard and which, through the continued emulation and study of it, left the ideals of the Hellenistic pike-phalanx as a lasting legacy which directly influenced western warfare for centuries to come. This, more than anything else, highlights the important part that the ‘invincible beast’ of the Macedonian pike-phalanx has had on shaping the world as we know it.

A Grand Strategy for Lacedaemon


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

Sparta was the one city-state in Greece that deviated from the pattern of warfare described above. By the sixth century BCE, the Spartans had established the only real standing army in Greece, training hoplites who can be classified as professionals. Sparta’s deviation from the norm stemmed from a war fought in the eighth century in which Sparta had defeated neighboring Messenia. Sparta had then reduced many of the citizens of that region to the status of serfs, called helots. The helots, who lived quite a distance from Sparta, had to turn over half of their produce to their Spartan masters. In the middle of the seventh century, the helots, emboldened by a Spartan defeat at the hands of rival Argos, rebelled against Spartan control. The uprising by the Messenians nearly ended in defeat for the Spartans, but they were able to put down the rebellion. Afterward, Spartan attitudes hardened, and the Spartan system of the classical period developed.

Herodotus once described Sparta as a kósmos, and Plutarch later followed his lead. It was not always such. But, in the course of the archaic period, with the establishment there of the condition of good order and lawfulness that the ancients from Homer, Hesiod, Tyrtaeus, and Alcman on called eunomía, this is precisely what Lacedaemon became: a meticulously, more or less coherently ordered whole—apt to elicit admiration. As a ruling order, the Spartiates constituted a seigneurial class blessed with leisure and devoted to a common way of life centered on the fostering of certain manly virtues. They made music together, these Spartans. There was very little that they did alone. Together they sang and they danced, they worked out, they competed in sports, they boxed and wrestled, they hunted, they dined, they cracked jokes, and they took their repose. Theirs was a rough- and-tumble world, but it was not bereft of refinement and it was not char­acterized by an ethos of grim austerity, as some have supposed. Theirs was, in fact, a life of great privilege and pleasure enlivened by a spirit of rivalry as fierce as it was friendly. The manner in which they mixed music with gymnastic and fellowship with competition caused them to be credited with eudaimonía—the happiness and success that everyone craved—and it made them the envy of Hellas. This gentlemanly modus vivendi had, however, one precondition: Lacedaemon’s continued dominion over Laconia and Messenia and her brutal subjection of the helots on both sides of Mount Taygetus.

The grand strategy the Lacedaemonians gradually articulated in defense of the way of life they so cherished was all-encompassing, as successful grand strategies often are. Of necessity, it had domestic consequences on a considerable scale. As we have seen, its dictates go a long way toward explaining the Spartans’ aversion to commerce; their practice of infanticide; their provision for every citizen of an equal allotment of land and of servants to work it; the city’s sumptuary laws; their sharing of slaves, horses, and hounds; their intense piety; the subjection of their male offspring to an elaborate system of education and indoctrination; their use of music and poetry to instill a civic spirit; their practice of pederasty; the rigors and discipline to which they habitually subjected themselves; and, of course, their constant preparation for war. It accounts as well for the articulation over time within Lacedaemon of a mixed regime graced with elaborate balances and checks. To sustain their dominion in Laconia and Messenia and to maintain the helots in bondage, the Spartans had to eschew faction; foster among themselves the same opinions, passions, and interests; and employ—above all, in times of strain—procedures, recognized as fair and just, by which to reach a stable political consensus consistent with the dictates of prudence.

Not surprisingly, this grand strategy had serious consequences for Lacedaemon’s posture in the international sphere as well. The Spartans’ perch was precarious. The Corinthian leader who compared their polity with a stream was right. Rivers really do grow in strength as other streams empty into them, and the like could be said of the Lacedaemonians: “There, in the place where they emerge, they are alone; but as they continue and gather cities under their control, they become more numerous and harder to fight.” Even when their population was at its height, the Spartans were few in number, and the ter­ritory they ruled was comparatively vast. The underlings they exploited were astonishingly numerous and apt to be rebellious. In Messenia, if not also in Laconia, the helots saw themselves as a people in bondage, and geography did not favor the haughty men who kept them in that condition. The Spartans could look to the períoikoi for support, and this they did. But the latter were not all that numerous, and it was never entirely certain that they could be re- lied on. They, too, had to be overawed. In the long run, the Spartans could not sustain their way of life if they did not recruit allies outside their stronghold in the southern Peloponnesus.

As we have seen, it took the Lacedaemonians some time to sort out in full the implications of their position. Early on, at least, trial and error governed their approach to the formulation of policy. But by the middle of the sixth century, Chilon and others had come to recognize that, if their compatriots did not find some way to leverage the manpower of their neighbors, they would themselves someday come a cropper. And so the Spartiates reluctantly abandoned the dream of further expansion, repositioned themselves as defenders of Arcadian autonomy, and presented themselves to the Hellenic world as the scourge of tyranny, the champions of liberty, the friends of oligarchy, and the heirs of Agamemnon. It was under this banner that they rearranged the affairs of their fellow Peloponnesians to their liking and founded a grand alliance designed to keep their Argive enemies out, the helots down, and the Arcadians, above all others, in.

Taken as a whole, the grand strategy of classical Lacedaemon was brilliantly designed for the purpose it was intended to serve. It had, however, one grave defect. It presupposed that for all practical purposes, under Sparta’s hegemony, the Peloponnesus was a world unto itself—which, of course, it was . . . at the time that this strategy was first formulated. If, however, there ever came a moment when a power equal to or greater than Lacedaemon appeared in force—or even threatened to appear—at or near the entrance to that great peninsula, the Spartans would have to rethink this strategy and recast it to meet an unanticipated challenge.

It was in or quite soon after the mid-540s that such a prospect first loomed in the distance on the horizon. As we shall see, although the Spartans were by no means slow to take note of the challenge they faced, they were exceedingly cautious in the mode of proceeding that they then adopted.

Dionysius’ Early Career Up to the Battle of Gela (405)



Dionysius, son of Hermocritus, was born c. 430, and the controversy that surrounds him begins with his ancestry. Sources describe him either as the scion of a respected family or as a man of an undistinguished origins who started his career as a lowly scribe. Like Themistocles, he may have belonged to the ruling class but not to its top ranks. His first taste of war probably came in his teens, when the Athenians tried and failed to capture Syracuse in 415–413, but nothing is known about his role then. His first recorded military experience was in 406 at Acragas (Agrigentum) during the so-called First Carthaginian War (407–405). The Carthaginians had renewed their large-scale military operations in the island in 409. They put Acragas in western Sicily under siege in 406, and Syracuse came to its rescue with large infantry and cavalry forces. In spite of an initial victory and their subsequent harassment of the enemy with their cavalry, the Syracusans were unable to save Acragas. Dionysius is said to have shown exceptional courage in the campaign, although it is unknown under what circumstances. Personal valor would also characterize him later as a commander of troops.

Dionysius rose to power in 406–405, but his ascendance tells nothing about his style of command as distinct from his artful politics. He charged his fellow generals with corruption and treason, accusations that found fertile ground in the Syracusans’ expectation of a Carthaginian attack and disappointment with the city’s military leadership. Dionysius was elected as supreme general (strategos autokrator), which perhaps remained his official title throughout his reign. Now and later, he used the conflict with Carthage to justify his rule, presenting himself as the only man who could win it. Among his first measures was to double the payment of the mercenaries, who had shown that their loyalty depended on timely payment, and to increase their numbers with additional men and exiles. To secure the city of Leontini, north of Syracuse, he called on Syracusans under forty years old to muster there, each with thirty days’ provisions. The city was a Syracusan outpost full of political exiles and non-Syracusans, and lay potentially on Carthage’s warpath. At home, Dionysius obtained a bodyguard of 600–1,000 men, whom he selected and armed, and appointed his own officers to the Syracusan armed forces. One source presents these and similar actions as designed to create a personal cadre loyal to Dionysius and his tyranny. He was certainly looking to strengthen his position, but all his measures also made good military sense in preparation for a campaign against Carthage. His army would fight a very large and well-financed force, and Dionysius needed all the men, provisions, and good will he could get.

Indeed, the Carthaginians had done very well up to this point. Under their aging general, Hannibal (an ancestor of his more famous namesake), and his co-commander Himilco, they had destroyed Himera in the north and Selinus in the south, and had later captured Acragas in spite of substantial Syracusan help and even an initial defeat (above). In 406, Carthage reinforced its invading army with 120,000 infantry and cavalry (according to one account), or 300,000 men (according to another). Both figures appear inflated; modern estimates reduce the size of the entire force to 60,000, and that of the army that soon marched on Gela to 45,000. The sources report the origins of the new recruits, but not their capacities. Their use elsewhere suggests that the mercenaries from the Balearic Islands excelled as slingers, and those from Iberia served as infantrymen, while recruits and allies from North Africa joined the infantry and the cavalry. Carthage also sent 1,000 transport ships and ninety triremes, fifteen of which were destroyed by a Syracusan navy at the start of the invasion.

Around the spring of 405, a Carthaginian army led by Himilco (now in sole command after Hannibal’s death) marched to southern Sicily against Gela, a close ally of Syracuse. Gela was built on a ridge near the shore. It was bounded to the east by the River Gela, whose outlet to the sea served the city’s port, and by a fertile plain and the Gattano River (modern name) to its west. It appears that the Carthaginians arrived without their ships, whose absence, perhaps due to the lack of a safe anchorage, proved costly later. Historian Diodorus suggests that Himilco and his army set up camp on the river Gela, but this location cannot be reconciled with the movements and actions of Dionysius’ forces in their later attack, which makes a site on the River Gattano more likely. The Carthaginian camp stretched from the sea inland and was defended by a trench and a wooden palisade.

Soon after arriving, the Carthaginians raided the territory around the city all the way to Camarina and tried to breach the western city walls with rams. The Gelans defended themselves successfully by rebuilding portions of the wall and by attacking marauding units in the countryside. Their hopes of salvation rested, however, on the arrival of Dionysius and his army. Dionysius probably now presented himself as an all-Greek champion against the common Carthaginian enemy, if he had not done so earlier. It was a role that he continued to foreground, sincerely or opportunistically, throughout his career. When he arrived at Gela—he was later charged, perhaps unjustly, with procrastination—his army included Italian and Sicilian Greeks in addition to Syracusan recruits and his mercenaries. Altogether, he commanded 50,000 or 30,000 infantrymen, 1,000 cavalrymen, and fifty cataphract ships, a type of vessel whose top deck and screens sheltered the rowers. The year before he took power, a Syracusan army that went to help Acragas included 30,000 soldiers, 5,000 cavalrymen, and thirty triremes. Dionysius’ army, if 30,000 strong, had the same number of infantry, more ships, and fewer cavalrymen. Perhaps he was unable to recruit more cavalrymen, who came from the well-to-do class that opposed him and would later rebel against him. In any case, the man who cried foul against the previous leaders of the war, especially in Acragas, seems not to have enlarged the army, and would also lead his troops to defeat.

Dionysius camped by the sea, probably near Gela’s port. For the first twenty days, he attacked the enemy’s lines of supply, having probably gotten the idea while serving in the Syracusan expedition to save Acragas the year before. There the general Daphnaeus had almost managed to starve the Carthaginians by cutting off their supplies with his cavalry, and only a Carthaginian seizure of Syracusan ships carrying provisions to Acragas reversed the situation, eventually leading to the evacuation of the city by its residents. Dionysius also sent out light-armed troops, cavalry, and ships to disrupt the Carthaginian lines of supplies by land and sea. The tactic carried little risk, but it also failed to achieve the success of Daphnaeus or to move the enemy to ease its pressure on Gela. Dionysius then opted for a frontal attack on the Carthaginian camp that resembled the tactics of the Athenian general Demosthenes in its originality, ambition, and execution—and which failed for much the same reasons as Demosthenes’. Dionysius devised no fewer than four simultaneous prong attacks. Diodorus reports that he divided his infantry into three divisions: he told one, made up of Sicilian Greeks, to march to the enemy camp keeping the city to its left; the second, made up of Italian Greeks, was to go there along the shore with the city on their right. He was to take a mercenary group through the city towards where the Carthaginian siege engines were. His cavalry was to cross the River Gattano and overrun the plain, joining the fighting if successful or shelter battle refuges in case of a loss. His marines aboard the ships were to attack the camp as soon as the Italian Greeks (his second column) launched theirs.

Dionysius could not or would not meet the Carthaginians in a pitched battle, because of his smaller force and his preference for other modes of combat, which we shall see again later. His plan aimed to overcome three main challenges: the enemy’ superiority in numbers, its occupation of a well-protected camp, and the presence of additional enemy forces around Gela’s walls. Accordingly, he split his army into four separate attacking units, in the hope that by keeping the Carthaginians busy in different places, he would create confusion and reduce Himilco’s ability to send aid where it was needed. He also believed that a Syracusan victory in one place would have a rolling effect elsewhere because the victorious troops could join the fighting where it was successful, undecided, or difficult. It was an ambitious plan that showed a readiness to take risks and an urgent need to win.

The most problematical aspect of Dionysius’ plan was its dependence on successful synchronization and coordination of the different units. These included hoplites, light infantry, cavalry, and marines, who were spread over different locations. The plan’s originality lay in dividing rather than concentrating his power. It called for assigning separate key missions to seconds in command, whom the sources leave anonymous, and on whose success Dionysius relied for victory. A multi-pronged attack also meant that he had to give up direct control of the entire battle. Instead, he settled for leading his mercenaries through the city in a surprise attack on the Carthaginian siege engines, probably near the western walls and gate. It was arguably the least difficult assignment in the plan.

At first, success smiled on the attackers. The Syracusan ships charged the unprotected part of the enemy camp on the beach and landed marines and probably other crewmembers. Himilco must now have sorely regretted his lack of ships to oppose the landing. The Carthaginians rushed to meet the disembarking soldiers, weakening the camp’s line of defense and allowing the contingent of Italian Greeks, who must have hurried their march along the shoreline, to overcome the depleted enemy forces and enter the southern part of the camp. It was a short-lived victory, however, because the Carthaginians had enough soldiers of high quality to recover quickly. Himilco sent a large force led by Iberian and Campanian troops against the Italian Greeks, who were now pressed between a trench in front of the camp and an acute angle of the palisade. There was no help in sight. The Syracusans who had disembarked from the ships could not join them, probably because the enemy did not allow it. (Their hold on the beach was precarious anyway.) The Sicilian Greeks, who marched behind or on the ridge of Gela to the right of the city and into the plain, did well against their Libyan opponents and penetrated the northern part of the camp. They were even joined by many Gelans, and Dionysius’ cavalry surely helped the effort by engaging enemy forces on the plain. Yet even these units could not come to the rescue of the Italian Greeks, because they arrived at their destination late and were busy fighting their opponents. Dionysius could provide no assistance either. He got stuck in the streets of Gela (he should have known better, having been there before), and even if he completed the mission of destroying the Carthaginian siege engines, it was too late to do anything else. Some of the Gelans tried to help the Italian Greeks, but, fearing for their walls, they would not venture beyond them. One thousand Italian Greeks fell, and the rest fled to the city under the protection of arrows that the ships’ crews shot at their pursuers. Their escape freed the Campanians, Iberians, and other enemy combatants to return and help the Libyans against the Sicilian Greeks, who also retreated to Gela, after losing 600 men. The Syracusan cavalry, whose role was auxiliary to begin with, also fled to the city for shelter.

The defeat was not heavy or even inevitable. Yet it took a great deal of youthful daring and optimism to assume that a coordinated attack of four separate forces could succeed despite the delicacy of their interdependence. A win at one point could not be sustained without a decisive victory at, and help from, another, and the whole scheme required, not just simultaneous attacks and good communication, but also an enemy who would become flustered and despondent. None of this happened. Dionysius underestimated the Carthaginians’ ability to recover from a setback and to use reserves effectively (as they did earlier in 409 in a campaign against Himera). An anecdote related to the earlier battle of Acragas is illuminating. It tells how the Syracusan general Daphnaeus on the right wing of his phalanx heard a commotion on his left wing where the Italian Greeks were fighting. He hurried there, saw them losing, and ran back to the Syracusans on the right to tell them falsely that the Italians were winning. The message energized his soldiers, who went on to defeat the enemy. Even if the story is suspect, it highlights the importance of commander’s presence at the scene of the fighting. But Dionysius was stuck in town.

The defeat decided Gela’s fate. As much as the Gelans (and even Dionysius, who could ill afford failing in his first lead command) may have wished to offer another battle, the unanimous opinion in his war council was that he should retreat. He organized a mass evacuation of the city by night, under a ruse designed to convince the enemy that he was still in the city. The trick was probably superfluous, because the Carthaginians must have been happy to take and despoil Gela without a fight. Ancient and modern critics have argued that Dionysius should have offered a more stubborn resistance and that he erred in evacuating Gela and then Camarina, whose people he told to move to Syracuse. But the later desertion of his Italian Greek allies suggests the defeat undermined his authority over the coalition army that he needed for a fight over both cities. Besides, Syracuse with its walls, army, and navy offered a better chance of withstanding the Carthaginian offensive.

Dionysius’ defeat and the unpopular evacuations of Gela and Camarina encouraged members of the Syracusan cavalry to rebel against him. They burst into his house and gang-raped his wife, who subsequently killed herself. Dionysius rushed back to the city and, with the help of his bodyguard and mercenaries, put down the revolt ruthlessly. What saved him and Syracuse, however, was a recurrent plague in the Carthaginians’ camp, which killed half their men. Cutting his losses, Himilco signed a peace treaty with Dionysius that confirmed Carthaginian control over western Sicily, allowed refugees from the cities Carthage had conquered to return as autonomous but tribute-paying residents, and arranged for the exchange of prisoners and captured ships. Dionysius was recognized, at least de facto, as the ruler of Syracuse. For some contemporary observers, the treaty begot or confirmed the idea that he used Carthage and the fear of it to become the lord of Syracuse and later of Sicily.