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.


The Hyksos Seize Egypt


Between 1782 and 1630 BC, Western Semites capture the throne of Egypt, and the Middle Kingdom ends.

The prosperity of the Middle Kingdom lasted for a relatively short time. The rule of Senusret III’s son, Amenemhet III, was its high point. When he died, the power of the pharaoh to hold the country safe against invaders, and united with itself, began to fade.

Once again the Nile was lapping at the feet of the pharaoh. After reaching its highest point during the high noon of Amenemhet III’s reign, the flood began to decrease year by year. As always in Egypt, the dropping of the Nile and a diminishing of royal power went hand in hand.

Troubles with the succession probably had something to do with the slump as well. Amenemhet III ruled for forty-five years; by the time he died, his heir apparent was not only quite old, but also childless. Amenemhet IV, who had waited his whole life to ascend the throne, died almost as soon as he was crowned, and his wife, Queen Sobeknefru, took his place. Few details from the queen’s reign have survived; but in ancient Egypt, a woman on the throne was a sign of serious palace trouble.

Manetho begins a new dynasty after Queen Sobeknefru, since there was no male heir waiting in the wings. The king who does eventually ascend the throne to begin the Thirteenth Dynasty is a nonentity, a shadowy figure followed by a handful of even more obscure personalities.

Down in Nubia, the governors who watched over the southern lands for the crown began to act with more and more independence; the Nubian lands that Senusret III had trampled on with such ferocity during the Twelfth Dynasty were easing out of the crown’s grip. There was trouble in the north as well. Ruins show that the border fortresses on the eastern border between the Delta and the “land of the Asiatics” were crumbling. The border had once been so well protected that the courtier Sinuhe had trouble getting out of Egypt. Now the “Asiatics,” those wandering Western Semitic nomads, came into the Delta in increasing numbers. Some of them settled down to live side by side with the Egyptians. Others were less domesticated; around 1720, sixty years or so after the Thirteenth Dynasty began its ineffectual rule, a particularly aggressive band of nomads invaded and burned parts of Memphis, the old Egyptian capital. Unlike the Egyptians, they fought with horse and chariot, an advantage that offset their relatively small numbers.

Despite this humiliation, the Thirteenth Dynasty managed to keep temporary control of the country. But their hold on Egypt was so shaky that historians have traditionally considered the Thirteenth Dynasty the end of the Middle Kingdom and the beginning of the Second Intermediate Period. Near the end of the Thirteenth Dynasty, the pharaoh’s power had wilted so drastically that a second royal family appeared. We know almost nothing of this “Fourteenth Dynasty” except that it existed alongside the Thirteenth for some years. While the Thirteenth Dynasty pottered around in the Middle Kingdom capital Itj-taway, doing nothing useful, the so-called Fourteenth Dynasty claimed the right to rule the eastern reaches of the Nile Delta.

Some thirty or forty years later, yet another dynasty appeared alongside the waning Thirteenth and Fourteenth Dynasties. This Fifteenth Dynasty had its headquarters at the city of Avaris, which lay in the desert just east of the Delta. The first Fifteenth Dynasty king, a man named Sheshi, organized his followers into an army and began to spread his rule to the west and the south by force. Some twenty years later, around 1663, the Fifteenth Dynasty had managed to destroy both the Thirteenth and Fourteenth, and ruled supreme.

According to Manetho, Sheshi was a foreigner; he and his followers belonged to a race called the “Desert Princes,” or Hikau-khoswet: the “Hyksos.” Manetho describes the Hyksos takeover as a violent and sudden overwhelming of Egyptians by savage invasion:

For what cause I know not, a blast of the gods smote us; and unexpectedly, from the regions of the East, invaders of obscure race marched in confidence of victory against our land. By main force, they easily overpowered the rulers of the land; they then burned our cities ruthlessly, razed to the ground the temples of gods, and treated all the natives with a cruel hostility, massacring some and leading into slavery the wives and children of others, and appointing as king one of their number.

Manetho, an Egyptian, can perhaps be excused for believing that his great ancestors could only have been overcome by a sudden and vigorous attack. But the traces left behind by these Fifteenth Dynasty rulers suggest that most of the Hyksos had actually been in Egypt for quite a while. Semitic names begin to appear in Middle Kingdom inscriptions and lists well before the 1663 takeover. So many Western Semites settled at the town of Avaris (the name means something like “Desert Mansion”) that, over time, it became almost entirely Semitic. When the Thirteenth and Fourteenth Dynasties divided the already weakened leadership of Egypt between them, the inhabitants of Avaris took the opportunity to claim their own piece of the pie. The invasion of Egypt by foreigners was real, but it was primarily an invasion from within.

Manetho’s hyperbole aside, the Hyksos—who, after all, had more likely been in Egypt for at least a generation or two—didn’t raze too many cities. Although their names are Semitic, they had already adopted Egyptian dress and Egyptian customs. Egyptian continued to be the official language of inscriptions and records; Egyptians served the Hyksos as administrators and priests.

Despite the destruction of the Thirteenth and Fourteenth Dynasties, the Hyksos were never in sole possession of the country. A vassal line of kings ruled, probably with Hyksos permission, in the northwest; few names survive, but Manetho calls them the Sixteenth Dynasty. More serious was the announcement of the Egyptian governors of Thebes, to the south, that they would not submit to Hyksos rule and that true Egyptian authority was now centered in Thebes. This is the “Seventeenth Dynasty” of Manetho: the Fifteenth, Sixteenth, and Seventeenth Dynasties all existed side by side.

The Hyksos kings, aware of their own limitations, do not appear to have made a serious push to the south. The Egyptian rulers of Thebes controlled Egypt as far as Abydos; in this southern kingdom, the Middle Kingdom traditions carried on, free of foreign influence. But there was no peace between the two. Manetho writes, “The kings of Thebes and the other parts of Egypt made an insurrection against the foreign princes, and a terrible and long war was made between them.”

The long-distance hostility between the two dynasties is revealed by the determined attempt of the fifth Hyksos king, Apepi I, who probably ruled around 1630, to pick a fight with the king of Thebes. A papyrus in the British Museum preserves part of a letter sent by Apepi I all the way down to Thebes and addressed to Sequenere, the Seventeenth Dynasty king currently occupying the Theban palace. “Get rid of the hippopotami at Thebes,” the letter demands, imperiously. “They roar all night, I can hear them all the way up here at Avaris, and their noise is ruining my sleep.”

Sequenere, five hundred miles away, took these as fighting words. His body, now in the Cairo Museum, suggests that he went and rounded up an army and started to march north. When he encountered the Hyksos border guard, he led his soldiers into battle. During the fight, Sequenere fell, his skull crushed by a mace. While he lay on the ground, he was stabbed and hacked with dagger, spear, and axe. His body was embalmed in a hurry, after a fair amount of decomposition had already set in; apparently the Theban pharaoh lay on the battlefield for several days before the Hyksos backed off enough for the southern soldiers to gather it up.

The skirmish did not, quite, turn into a war. The Hyksos and Theban armies apparently retreated back to their home ground. Sequenere’s older son Kahmose took the throne in Thebes, and began to lay plans to avenge his father’s death.

The First Civil War


In Egypt, between 3100 and 2686 BC, the First Dynasty pharaohs become gods, the Second suffer civil war, and the Third rule a reunited Egypt.

The battling cities of Mesopotamia had no national identity; each was its own little kingdom. At the beginning of the third millennium, the only nation in the world stretched from the southern shores of the Mediterranean Sea at least as far upriver as the city of Hierakonpolis. Egypt was a kingdom like a knotted piece of string, over four hundred miles long, and so narrow in places that an Egyptian could stand on the desert that marked its eastern border and see right across the Nile to the wastes beyond the western frontier.

The nation’s capital, the white city of Memphis, lay just south of the Delta, on the border between the ancient Lower and Upper Kingdoms. The site had little else to recommend it; the plain was so wet that, according to Herodotus, Narmer’s first job was to build a dam to keep the water back. Even twenty-five hundred years later, Herodotus adds, “this bend in the Nile is closely watched…they strengthen the dam every year, because if the river decided to burst its banks and overflow at this point, Memphis would be in danger of being completely inundated.”

Narmer’s unification, and his establishment of Memphis as a single Egyptian capital, brings an end to predynastic Egypt. His son followed him to the throne, and was in turn succeeded by six more kings assigned by Manetho to the so-called First Dynasty of Egypt; an actual, formalized, royal succession.

What these eight kings were up to, in the six hundred years that they governed over unified Egypt, is more than a little obscure. But we can glimpse the growth of a centralized state: the establishment of a royal court, the collection of taxes, and an economy that allowed Egypt the luxury of supporting citizens who produced no food: full-time priests to sacrifice for the king, skilled metalworkers who provided jewelry for the court’s noblemen and women, scribes who kept track of the growing bureaucracy.

The third king of the dynasty, Djer, sent Egyptian soldiers out on the first official expeditions past the borders of Narmer’s kingdom. On a rock 250 miles south of Hierakonpolis, near the Second Cataract, an engraved scene shows Djer and his army triumphant over captives; these were most likely the indigenous people of Lower Nubia, who before long would be entirely gone from the area, driven out by bad weather and Egyptian invasions. Egyptian troops also marched northeast, along the coast of the Mediterranean, towards the area which would later be called southern Palestine.

Den, two kings later, extended another cautious finger outside Egypt’s borders. He led his men over into the Sinai peninsula, the triangle of land between the northern arms of the Red Sea. Here Den, according to a carved scene in his tomb, clubbed the local chieftains into submission, in a victory labelled, “The first time that the east was smitten.”

These victories were theoretically won on behalf of all Egypt, both north and south. But in death, the First Dynasty rulers reverted to their Upper Egyptian identity. They were buried in their homeland: at Abydos, far, far south of Memphis.

This was no simple graveyard. Common Egyptians might still be laid at the desert’s edge in the sand, faces turned west. But Egyptian noblemen, society’s second rank, lay in a grand graveyard on the high desert plain of Saqqara, just west of Memphis. And the kings buried at Abydos were entombed in brick or stone rooms sunk into the ground, surrounded by a positive embarrassment of human sacrifice. Almost two hundred dead attendants cluster around Den, while Djer was buried in the company of three hundred courtiers and servants.

These kings may have been uneasy about the loyalty of the north, but in their deaths they wielded a startling autocracy. Any man able to compel the deaths of others as part of his own funerary rites has advanced well beyond the tentative force employed by the earliest Sumerian rulers.

It isn’t easy to tease out exactly why this power was expressed by way of human sacrifice. By the time that the pharaohs of the Fifth and Sixth Dynasty were laid to rest, the Egyptians were carving along the walls of their tombs an entire postburial agenda for the dead: the ascent from the pitch-black chambers of the pyramids to the sky, the crossing of the waters that divide life from afterlife, a warm welcome from the waiting gods. But these “Pyramid Texts” date, at the earliest, from half a millennium after the sacrificial burials at Abydos. When the First Dynasty kings were interred, the Egyptians had not even begun to embalm their dead. The royal bodies were wrapped in rags, sometimes soaked in resin, but this did nothing to preserve them.

We can deduce, though, that the kings were going to join the sun in his passage across the sky. Buried beside the kings at Abydos lie fleets of wooden boats, some a hundred feet in length, in long pits roofed over with mud brick. On First Dynasty engravings, the sun-god is shown travelling across the sky in a boat. Presumably the pharaoh and the souls buried with him would use their boats to accompany him (although one of the grave complexes at Abydos has, not boats, but a herd of sacrificial donkeys for the king’s use, suggesting that he at least might have been heading somewhere else).

Assuming that the kings reached the next life on the other side of the horizon, what were they going to do there?

Possibly, the pharaoh would continue his royal role; we have no Egyptian proof for this, but Gilgamesh, once dead, joined the gods of the underworld to help run the place. If the early pharaohs were believed to continue their kingly functions in the afterworld, the sacrificial burials make a kind of sense. After all, if a king’s power only lasts until his death, he must be obeyed during his life, but there is no good reason to follow him into death. If, on the other hand, he’s still going to be waiting for you on the other side, his power becomes all-encompassing. The passage to the undiscovered country is simply a journey from one stage of loyalty to the next.

Given the tensions between north and south, the First Dynasty kings needed this kind of authority to hold the country together. The theological underpinnings for the king’s power are laid out by the “Memphite Theology,” written on a monument called the Shabaka Stone (now in the British Museum). The stone itself dates from much later in Egypt’s history, but the story it bears is thought by many Egyptologists to go all the way back to the earliest Egyptian dynasties.

There are many later elaborations of the tale, but its center is simple. The god Osiris is given the rule of the entire earth, but his brother Set, jealous of his power, plots his death. He drowns Osiris in the Nile. The wife (and sister) of Osiris, the goddess Isis, hunts for her missing husband-brother. When she finds his drowned body, she bends over him and half-resurrects him. Osiris is alive enough to impregnate her, but not quite alive enough to stay on earth. Instead he becomes king of the underworld. The son born to Isis after Osiris descends to his new realm, Horus, becomes king of the living realm.

As king of the living, the god Horus was associated with the sun, the stars, and the moon: in other words, he was (as Egyptologist Rudolf Anthes suggests) “that celestial body which appeared conspicuous either at day or night…the permanent ruler of the sky, who unlike the sun did not vanish at night time.” The power of Horus did not wax and wane.

The early pharaohs of Egypt claimed to be the earthly embodiment of Horus, carrying with them that power which does not “vanish at night time,” or with death. Nevertheless, all kings die. So Egyptian theology adapted to the inevitable. When the pharaoh died, he was no longer considered to be the incarnation of Horus. He became instead the embodiment of Osiris, who was both king of the underworld and the father of Horus, king of the living realm. The earthly son of the dead pharaoh now took on the role of the incarnate Horus, which demonstrates the practical uses of such a system; it provides a neat way to legitimize succeeding rulers. The new king wasn’t just the son of the old king. He was, in a sense, his father’s reincarnation. Pharaohs might die, but the real power of kingship never bit the dust. The king of Egypt was not, first and foremost, an individual: not Narmer, or Den, or Djer. He was the bearer of a Power.

Sociologists call this arrangement “positional succession.” It explains the growing tendency of Egyptian kings to claim the names of their predecessors; these names aren’t just names, but descriptions of particular aspects of the undying kingship. It also makes a little more sense out of the tendency to marry sisters (and sometimes daughters). When a pharaoh succeeds his father, his mother (the previous pharaoh’s wife) is, in a sense, his wife as well; he has, after all, become (in some sense) his father. It is still a number of centuries before Oedipus runs into difficulties over this. For the Egyptians, family was the obvious place to find a wife.

Adjib, the fourth king of the First Dynasty, added a new descriptive title to his royal appellations: the nesu-bit name. Although these two Egyptian words have the sense of “above” and “below,” nesu-bit doesn’t express the pharaoh’s rule over Upper and Lower Egypt. Rather, the nesu-bit seems to refer to the realms above and below. The nesu is the divine power of government, the above kingship that passes from king to king; the bit is the mortal holder of this power, the king below.

Adjib, the first king to claim this title, had trouble hanging onto the bit; perhaps the first historical example of protesting too much. His grave is surrounded by sixty-four sacrificed Egyptians, tribute to his position as holder of the kingship above. On the other hand, his tomb, the earthly monument to the king below, is the shabbiest at Abydos. Worse, his name has been chipped away from various monuments where it was originally carved.

The man who did the chipping was Semerkhet, the next pharaoh. His removal of his predecessor’s name was his attempt to rewrite the past. If the names that the pharaohs gave themselves expressed their eternal hold on the kingship above, writing them down, in the magically powerful signs of the hieroglyphs, carved them into the fabric of the world below. To deface the written name of a pharaoh was to remove him from earthly memory.

The attempt to erase Adjib suggests that Semerkhet was a usurper at best, and an assassin at worst. His seizure of the kingship below seems to have succeeded; he built himself a lovely tomb, much bigger than Adjib’s, and poured so much sacred incense into it that the oil soaked three feet down into the ground and could still be smelled when the tomb was excavated in the early 1900s. But his efforts to claim the nesu, the kingship above, were less triumphant. “In his reign,” Manetho records, “there were many extraordinary events, and there was an immense disaster.”

This cryptic remark isn’t glossed by any later commentator. But the land around the Nile reveals that towards the end of the First Dynasty, the Nile floods lessened dramatically. By the Second Dynasty, the flooding was, on average, three feet lower than it had been a hundred years before. If lessening floods had slowly pinched Egypt’s farmers in a vise of lessening harvests, a tipping point of discontent might have arrived just as the usurping Semerkhet was busy defacing Adjib’s monuments all over Egypt.

Egypt relied for its very life on the regular return of the Nile flood, an event which varied from year to year in its details, but remained essentially the same. In his role as sun-god, Horus carried with him the same combination of change and stability: each sunrise and sunset is different, but each morning the sun reappears on the eastern horizon. The title of nesu-bit suggests that the king himself had begun to represent this doubleness of unchanging eternal power and its mutating, earthly manifestation. The king, buried, came back again as his own son, like but different. He was like a perennial plant that returns with a different color of flower but the same root.

For Semerkhet to be erasing a pharaoh’s name—the first time, so far as we know, that this happens—must have been a shocking insult to this budding conception of kingship, a little like the sudden discovery that a pope who has been issuing ex cathedra declarations for years was elected by a miscount of the College of Cardinals. If the Nile flood then began to drop, with no apparent end to the receding waters in sight, one of those unchanging verities which the king was supposed to embody was also suddenly in flux. What would happen next; would the sun fail to come up?

Semerkhet’s reign ended with an upheaval in the royal house extreme enough to cause Manetho to start a “Second Dynasty.” Most ominous of all—for the pharaohs, if not for the courtiers—the sacrificial burials stop.

It’s unlikely that the Egyptian kings suddenly developed a new respect for human life, as some historians tend to imply (“The wasteful practice of human sacrifice ended with the First Dynasty”). More likely, the believability of the claim to the unquestioned power of Horus took a nosedive. The Second Dynasty king could no longer compel human sacrifice, perhaps because he could no longer guarantee that he and he alone held the position of nesu-bit. He could no longer promise that he had the undoubted right to escort those souls past the horizon in royal procession.

In this Second Dynasty, which is generally considered to have begun around 2890, an indeterminate number of kings reigned. Following on the drought (proof of the king’s uncertain control over life and death), civil war broke out and raged for years. The war reached its height during the reign of the next-to-last king, Sekemib, when an inscription notes that the southern army fought “the northern enemy within the city of Nekheb.”10 Nekheb, the ancient city of the vulture-goddess, was the eastern half of Hierakonpolis. It lay over a hundred miles south of Abydos, far into Upper Egypt. For a northern, Lower Egyptian rebellion to get this far suggests that during the Second Dynasty, the southern, Upper Egyptian hold on the empire was almost broken.

Although Sekemib himself was a southerner, the inscriptions that bear his name suggest that he may have been a ringer: a northern sympathizer, perhaps even of northern blood. Instead of writing his titles with the sign of the god Horus beside them, he wrote them next to the sign of the god Set.

Set, the brother and murderer of Osiris (and the enemy of Osiris’s son Horus), had always been more popular in the north. In later years he was pictured with red hair and a red cloak, reflecting the color of the Red Kingdom, Lower Egypt. He was the god of wind and storm; the bringer of clouds and sandstorms, the only powers strong enough to blot out the sun and bring it to the horizon before its time.

Set’s hatred for his brother Osiris and for his brother’s son Horus was more than simple jealousy. After all, Set was a blood relation of the king of the gods. He too felt that he had a claim to rule over Egypt. Old tales assured the Egyptians that, even after the murder, Set and Horus quarrelled over their competing claims to be the strongest, the most virile, the most deserving of rule over the earth. At one point, their arguments degenerate into a wrestling match. Set manages to tear out Horus’s left eye, but Horus gets the better of his uncle; he rips off Set’s testicles.

It’s hard to imagine a less ambiguous resolution. The two, both kin and enemy, are struggling over the right to pass along the succession. Horus removes his uncle’s ability to do so, and eventually inherits the throne. But Set’s jealousy has already led him to commit the world’s most ancient crime, the murder of a brother.

The hatred between Set and Horus is a reflection of the hostility between north and south, between two peoples with the same blood. Sekemib’s allegiance to Set rather than Horus shows that the quarrel over who should control Egypt was alive and well. And when he died, a Horus-worshipper named Khasekhem came to the throne and took up the sword. He rallied the southern army and, after vicious fighting, overcame the northern enemy. Two seated statues of this triumphant king, both found at Nekhen (the western half of Hierakonpolis), show him wearing only the White Crown of Upper Egypt; around the base of his throne, the broken bodies of northerners lie in defeated heaps.

Egypt had survived its first civil war. Under Khasekhem, a king who deserves to be better known, it entered into the Third Dynasty, a time of peace and prosperity during which Egypt’s pyramid-builders were able to develop their art.

The Third Dynasty owed its wealth to Khasekhem’s efforts to rebuild Egypt’s trade routes. Armed excursions out of the Delta had been abandoned, but during Khasekhem’s reign inscriptions at the coastal city of Byblos, which did a huge trade in cedar logs cut from the mountain slopes nearby, began to record the arrival of Egyptian merchant ships. It owed its existence to Khasekhem’s political marriage; he took as wife a princess from Lower Egypt, Nemathap, whose name and identity have survived because she was later given divine honor as the Third Dynasty’s great founding matriarch. And it owed its peace not only to Khasekhem’s generalship, but to his shrewdness in dealing with the Set problem.

After the war’s end, Khasekhem changed his name. But rather than adopting a northern name that would honor Set, or claiming another title that would glorify the southern Horus, he chose a middle course. He became known as Khasekhemwy, “The Two Powerful Ones Appear”—a name which was written with both the Horus falcon and the Set animal above it. Temporarily, the two powers had been reconciled.

The reconciliation is reflected in the ancient myths as well. After the battle between Horus and Set, Horus recovers his missing eye from Set and gives it to his father, now ensconced as Lord of the Dead, as tribute. But Set also gets his own back; he rescues his testicles.

The conflict between the two powers, while balanced, has not gone away. Horus manages to keep hold of his power over Egypt, but Set, whose ability to father heirs is (theoretically, anyway) restored, continues to plot a hostile takeover. In a whole series of stories from a few centuries later, Horus and Set carry on an ongoing battle of wits that involves, among other things, Horus’s sperm and a piece of lettuce. The jokes, which almost always involve someone’s genitals, cover a real and present threat. Set’s power doesn’t diminish. He never leaves. He’s always there, hovering, threatening to upset the orderly passing down of the nesu-bit name by pressing his own claims.




The first battle of Philippi.


By the spring of 42 B.C., Cassius had joined his army with that of Brutus in Macedonia. With twenty legions they encamped at Philippi, today’s Filippoi, stretching entrenchments between their hilltop camps, which straddled the Agnatian Way, and all the way to their supply base of Neapolis, modern Kavala, eight miles away on the coast.

In the summer, Antony and Octavian landed in Greece with their army. With Octavian ill, Antony advanced into Macedonia with nineteen legions, and in mid-September built two camps facing the Liberators’ Philippi positions. Octavian, too weak to walk, arrived ten days later, in time for his twentieth birthday. Antony built entrenchments toward the Liberators’ lines. Then, one day at the beginning of October, with the armies of both sides lined up on the plain in battle order, Antony led nine legions in an unexpected assault on the defenses below Cassius’s camp.

The 4th Legion, which had fought against Antony at Mutina, now fought for him, on his left wing. It was soon overwhelmed by Brutus’s right wing. Two of Brutus’s legions broke through and took Octavian’s camp. Octavian escaped with his life, having just previously left the camp. Antony, meanwhile, led a breakthrough on his right wing that took Cassius’s camp, forcing Cassius to flee to a hilltop. From the hill, Cassius could see nothing of the hectic battle below because it was obscured by a huge dust cloud raised by the feet of the 250,000 infantry and cavalry involved in the largest battle to that time between Roman armies. Seeing his camp taken, Cassius thought the battle lost. At Cassius’s command, his armor bearer Pindarus killed him.

In fact, the battle ended in a stalemate. Once the dust had literally cleared, Antony had taken Cassius’s camp and Brutus had Octavian’s camp. The Triumvirs had lost 16,000 men; the Liberators, 8,000. That same day, a convoy bringing 2,000 Praetorians and 2 legions, including the Martia, to Greece as reinforcements for the Triumvirs was intercepted on the Adriatic by Statius Murcus with 130 Liberator warships and was almost entirely destroyed. Of the two sides, that of the Liberators had fared the better on both land and sea. But Cassius was by far the better of the republican generals, and his loss was sorely felt by Brutus and his subordinates.

For close to three weeks both sides now faced off, with Brutus prepared to wait it out until the Triumvirs’ growing supply problems weakened them. But his officers urged him to attack, warning him that his confident troops might mutiny if he did not lead them against the enemy. Brutus gave in to his officers, and on October 21 led his legions out to do battle a second time. Octavian and Antony accepted the challenge and also drew up their legions.

Both sides charged simultaneously. The troops on Octavian’s wing eventually drove the opposing line back until it gave way. While Octavian’s troops surrounded Brutus’s camp, Antony chased Brutus and several legions to the mountains. There, Brutus and fourteen thousand surviving Liberator troops were surrounded.

After Brutus’s legionaries refused to execute his plan for a breakout, calling instead for surrender terms from Antony, Brutus said to his friends, “I am no use to my country any longer if this is the attitude even these men take.” He ordered Strato of Epirus to kill him, and as Brutus looked the other way, Strato reluctantly plunged a sword into Brutus’s side, near the left nipple, piercing his heart.

So died the leader of the conspiracy to kill Julius Caesar. He and Cassius were men of “unchallenged virtue,” according to Appian, although Plutarch did not believe Cassius to be Brutus’s equal “in proved virtue and honor.” In the summation of Velleius, “Cassius was the much better general, as Brutus was the better man. Of the two, I would rather have Brutus as a friend, but would stand more in fear of Cassius as an enemy.” Brutus, he said, had “kept his soul free from corruption until this day”—the Ides of March—when “the rashness of a single act” robbed him of his virtue. Mark Antony had Brutus’s body reverently cremated and his remains sent to his mother, Servilia.

A number of Caesar’s assassins fought at Philippi alongside Brutus and Cassius. Labeo also committed suicide following the defeat, as did Quintillius Varus, father of the general of the same name who would famously lose three legions to the Germans in the Teutoburg Forest in A.D. 9. Other assassins, and leading supporters of the Liberators including Marcus Favonius, were taken prisoner. Most were immediately executed by Antony and Octavian, among them Quintus Hortensius; months before, after hearing of Cicero’s decapitation, Hortensius had executed Antony’s brother Gaius in reprisal.

Some Liberator supporters escaped and survived, including Cicero’s son Marcus, who, years later, was made a consul by Augustus. Of the men who had physically taken part in the assassination of Caesar, the last to die was another Cassius, Gaius Cassius Parmensis.

In the summer of 43 B.C., not long after Brutus fled Italy, his unhappy wife, Porcia, unable to bear separation from the husband she loved, had painfully committed suicide at Rome by swallowing hot coals. Junia Tertullia, Brutus’s sister and Cassius’s wife, lived at Rome for many more years, passing away in her eighties or nineties in A.D. 22. The emperor Tiberius permitted a funeral oration for her in the Forum and other honors, including a funeral procession in which the busts of twenty illustrious Romans were carried before the dead woman. But the busts of her famous husband and brother were banned. And for this very reason, said Tacitus, that day “Cassius and Brutus outshone them all, from the very fact that their likenesses were not to be seen.”

Gaius Asinius Pollio, who crossed the Rubicon at Caesar’s side and served under him faithfully until his death, also would claim that he did not approve of the Civil War. He said that he chose a side on which he had the least enemies, as an act of self-preservation, and was “forced along a path far from pleasing to myself” by Caesar.¹¹ In both these cases, the unspoken plea, the Caesar’s henchman plea, seems to have been one of “I know what Caesar did wasn’t right, but it was right for me at the time.”

Half a century after Caesar’s assassination, in August A.D. 14, his ultimate successor, Octavian, who became the emperor Augustus, also died, but from natural causes. As the day for Augustus’s funeral approached, his successor, Tiberius, issued a proclamation warning the Roman populace “not to indulge in that tumultuous enthusiasm which had distracted the funeral of the Divine Julius [Caesar].”

As leading Roman historian Tacitus, himself a closet republican, made it clear, half a century after Caesar’s murder the opinion of the people of Rome was split between those who thought his assassination justified and the assassins heroes, and those who reviled both the act and its perpetrators. Tacitus wrote, “On the day of the funeral [of Augustus], soldiers stood round as a guard, amid much ridicule from those who had either themselves witnessed or who had heard from their parents of the famous day when slavery [of Roman citizens] was still something fresh, and freedom had been resought in vain, when the slaying of Caesar, the Dictator, seemed to some the vilest, to others, the most glorious of deeds.”

There can be no escaping the fact that by any definition Caesar was a tyrant: he gained power via a bloody premeditated coup; employed brutal force; suppressed democracy; and, brooking no opposition, ruled through fear. Furthermore, he may have been a tyrant suffering from brain disease who had come to think of himself as immortal. However, at a distance of more than two thousand years, and without an accurate medical diagnosis, we can only speculate on the state of his mental health.

Yet, despite the fact that he was a tyrant and the possibility that he might have been mentally ill, what did the murder of Caesar achieve? Cicero wrote glumly to Cassius the year following the assassination,

“We seem to be rid of nothing except our detestation for a vile being and indignation under tyranny, while the country lies still prostrate amid the troubles into which he plunged her.”

Caesar opened historical floodgates, washing away the old democratic system. Modern scholars suggest that the republican ideal for which Brutus, Cassius, and Cicero gave their lives was an illusion, that one strongman or another would always rise to power within Rome’s republican system. Perhaps so. But after taking power, Sulla soon bowed to the system and retired, and Pompey was tamed by it. Only Caesar overthrew the system, and buried the ideal. And to this day many a patriot, misguided or not, still will give his or her life for an ideal.

The most striking thing about the more than sixty assassins is that in putting their lives on the line to join the conspiracy, none asked for anything; all were content simply to take the appointments that Caesar had laid out for the next five years. They merely wanted to be rid of Caesar, the man Cicero described as “odious.” Only a barely concealed hate of Caesar and a driving lust for his removal can explain why the assassins were blind to what would follow his death.

The Liberators were seasoned politicians, some were hardened generals, yet none properly thought through Caesar’s removal. Even if Brutus and Cassius had made more careful provision for the return to democracy, backed by the military—and it is astonishing that they thought the system would simply right itself once Caesar was removed—and even if they had murdered Antony at the same time, Caesar had shown that the legions were more powerful than the Constitution, that the man who commanded the loyalty of the legions could rule Rome.

All the evidence shows that Caesar precipitated his own violent death. Not only did he make some poorly calculated moves in the last weeks of his life, he also was a poor judge of character, trusting men who ultimately participated in his murder or who failed to warn him and allowed it to take place. Dolabella is said to have been aware of the assassination plot and done nothing to warn Caesar. It is possible that Antony likewise knew but did nothing, in hopes of himself taking power. Yet if that were the case, like Brutus and Cassius, Antony made no preparations to win the allegiance of the legions, as he must.

As Shakespeare was to write, Brutus was an honorable man. Brutus was also compassionate and well intentioned. Cassius was none of these things, and his brutal rule in the East during 43-42 B.C. suggests that had he and Brutus defeated Octavian and Antony, he may have rid himself of Brutus, taken sole power for himself, and been just as oppressive a ruler of Rome as Caesar, Antony, and Octavian.

In the end, Caesar’s murder achieved nothing more than opening the door to the next tyrant, Antony, and then the next, Octavian, and imperial rule. One hundred twenty years later, when the emperor Nero considered executing all potential claimants to his throne, Seneca dissuaded him with the reminder that a ruler can never kill his successor, for the line of successors waiting outside a tyrant’s door is endless.

The end of the Liberators spelled the end of the Republic. Octavian, Antony, and Lepidus jointly ruled the Roman Empire until 36 B.C., when Lepidus made a miscalculated grab for power. The legions deserted Lepidus, and Octavian exiled him to a remote Italian village for the rest of his days, permitting him to retain his post of pontiff maximus until he died in 13 or 12 B.C.


Octavian and Antony fell out several years later, after Antony allied himself with Cleopatra and deserted Octavian’s sister Octavia, whom he had married to cement their alliance. They went to war in 31 B.C., with Octavian emerging victorious at the Battle of Actium. After Antony and Cleopatra committed suicide in 30 B.C., Octavian ruled as Rome’s first emperor for the next forty-three years. Like Caesar, Octavian would be offered many honors by a compliant Senate after he became sole ruler, but unlike Caesar he wisely declined most of them. Most notably, he accepted the title of Augustus, or “revered,” rather than that of “king”; took the veto powers of the tribunes of the plebs for himself; and asserted the right to personally appoint all consuls.

Octavian’s rule and the end to hopes of restoring the Republic were inevitable. Julius Caesar had been grooming Octavian to be his successor, and it is not unlikely that had Caesar not been murdered in 44 B.C., Octavian would still have succeeded him, only some years later.


The Romans’ success in conquering and maintaining their enormous empire lay partly in their military culture, their weapons and their training. Rome’s ability to provision large armies at long distances was, however, equally as, or more important to its success. The military history of Rome is not one of continuous victory: indeed the Romans often won wars because, after losing battles—and sometimes entire armies and fleets—they could keep replacing them until the enemy was defeated. Polybius, a keen observer of the Roman military at its height, remarked that “the advantages of the Romans lay in inexhaustible supplies of provisions and men.”

A sophisticated logistical system allowed the Romans to exploit their military resources effectively. The Romans recognized the importance of supply and used it both as a strategic and a tactical weapon and the necessities of military supply influenced and often determined the decisions of the Roman commanders at war. Plutarch even mentions the military slang term for such tactics: “kicking in the stomach” (eis tên gastera enallonomenos). Frontinus cites Caesar, certainly Rome’s greatest general, on the use of logistics in military strategy:

I follow the same policy toward the enemy as did many doctors when dealing with physical ailments, namely, that of conquering the foe by hunger rather than by steel. Logistics in Campaign Planning Traditionally, Roman campaigns began on March 1st: in part to ensure the availability of fodder.

The Romans paid close attention both to raising armies and to the preparations for supplying them. Their habitually careful arrangements made a strong impression, and, given the general neglect of logistics in military history, our sources mention such planning remarkably often. For example, Polybius describes the large-scale Roman preparations for a Gallic invasion as early as 225 B. C.:

[The consuls] enroll[ed] their legions and ordered those of their allies to be in readiness. . . . Of grain, missiles and other war materiel, they laid in such a supply as no one could remember had been collected on any previous occasion.

There are many other examples both in the Republican and the Imperial periods.

Commanders naturally wanted to complete their logistical preparations before operations began. When Quinctius Flamininus was preparing his campaign against Nabis, the tyrant of Sparta, in 195 B. C., the arrival of allied troops, including Macedonians, completed his authorized force. Nevertheless, he still waited until the arrival of the supplies (commeatus) requisitioned from the neighboring Greek states before beginning his offensive. At times, troops were moved first and supplies sent after them. When Sulla had obtained the command of the First Mithridatic War, he marched his army over to Greece and then summoned money, auxiliary troops and supplies from Aetolia and Thessaly.

Some wars broke out unexpectedly and preparations had to be made in haste. Sallust notes that when the consul Spurius Postumius Albinus determined to reopen hostilities with Jugurtha, he “hastened to transport to Africa provisions (commeatus), money for paying the soldiers, and other apparatus of war.” The frequency of Roman conflict, and the experience of Roman officials with warfare, made such impromptu preparations much easier. Other times, military campaigns were planned years in advance.

The Security of Supply Lines

Ensuring that the army continued to receive supplies, despite an enemy’s attempts to interrupt them, remained an important priority in Roman warfare in every period. Provisions reached the army in a variety of ways: by sea and river, overland and through foraging and requisition. In each of these circumstances, enemy action was a threat, and the Romans had to deploy military forces, as well as the application of strategy and tactics, to meet this threat. Rome often found it necessary to prevent the enemy plundering Roman or allied territory: it is noteworthy that the fleet of Gaius Duilius, which won the first major Roman victory of the First Punic War at Mylae (260 B. C.), was sent out to prevent the Carthaginians from plundering the territory of a Roman ally.

Security of Waterborne Transport

Protecting sea-borne transport was vitally important in wartime: enemy action could seriously threaten the army’s supply shipments. There are many instances of such threats. In 217 B. C., for example, the Roman grain fleet supplying the army in Spain was captured by the Punic fleet. A Roman task force was immediately mobilized to set out in pursuit, but the damage had already been done. Plutarch notes that the Macedonian king Perseus during his war against the Romans (172–167 B. C.):

. . . made an unexpected attack upon the Roman fleet which was lying at anchor near Oreus, seized twenty ships of burden with their car- goes, and sank the rest together with the grain that filled them. . . .

The navy of Antiochus III, operating from the Hellespont and Abydos during the war of 192–189 B. C., made frequent raids (excursiones) against Roman cargo ships (onerariae) supplying their army in Greece. Later, Mithridates used his naval superiority in the eastern Mediterranean to cut off supplies to Sulla’s forces in Greece in 87–85 B. C. Attacks on sea-borne supply were important elements in the Civil Wars of the Late Republic. In 42 B. C., a Republican fleet under Statius defeated Dolabella’s fleet at Laodicea, cutting him off from supplies. When Octavian sent a large force by sea to reinforce and resupply the Caesarean army at Philippi, it was attacked and destroyed by the Republican navy.

The Romans routinely used their fleet to protect supply transports in wartime. As early as the First Punic War, the Romans assigned a fleet of 120 warships to provide a convoy for merchant ships bringing supplies for the siege of Lilybaeum (249 B. C.). When the commander of the fleet in 209 B. C., Marcus Valerius Laevinus turned some ships over to the consul Quintus Fabius Maximus for use in the assault on Tarentum, they are called by Livy “the ships which Laevinius had for protecting the supply lines (tutandis commeatibus).” Such protection continued in the late Republic: Sallust, in a speech attributed to the consul Gaius Cotta, and set in 75 B. C., refers to the fleet which “guarded our supplies (commeatus tuebatur).”

Such naval escorts were not always successful. The convoy protecting supplies going to Lilybaeum in 249 B. C., mentioned above, did not prevent the Carthaginians from attacking and seizing several of the merchant vessels. The threat of attack was sometimes more destructive than the attack itself: trying to avoid attack by Carthaginian warships, a Roman supply fleet placed its ships in a dangerous anchorage where a storm destroyed the entire fleet including all the army’s supplies. Whenever possible, a fleet put supplies put ashore before a battle. To prevent them from falling into enemy hands commanders of escorts might scuttle conveyed merchant ships, as the Pompeian admirals Lucretius and Minucius did during the Dyrrachium campaign of 48 B. C. 26 Despite the dangers of attack, supplies transported by sea were generally safer from attack than those sent overland, a point made by Tacitus.

Security of Overland Supply

The army provided escorts for supply convoys bringing provisions to troops in garrison even during peacetime, albeit on a limited scale. An incident from the anti-Roman uprising of Athrongaeus in Palestine around 4 B. C. illustrates the small size of such peace- time escorts. Josephus reports that a single century (80 men at full strength) was escorting a convoy of grain and arms to a legion stationed in Jerusalem, when the rebels ambushed the column near Emmaus. The Romans lost half the century and only the intervention of King Herod’s army saved the rest.

Obviously, moving provisions from the operational base to the army over supply lines provided ample opportunities for attack. Due to the increased danger in war, convoy escorts were, of course, considerably larger than in peacetime. A tribune commanded the forces that escorted a supply convoy bringing provisions to the army of Pompeius Aulus in Spain in 141 B. C. Appian does not give the size of the escort, but a tribune would have commanded at least several centuries and possibly a cohort or more.

An escort’s size was not the only factor in successful defense of a convoy. While accompanying a supply convoy to Lucullus’s army from Cappadocia in 71 B. C., a Roman force defeated an attack by Mithridates’s cavalry: the Pontic force had attacked the convoy in a defile, a more easily defensible position, instead of waiting until it reached open country. An escort also had to maintain a disciplined defense cordon, even if the column was proceeding to pick up sup- plies. Tacitus notes the lack of security in an unloaded supply column going to Novaesium from the Roman forces at Gelduba in 69 A. D., during the revolt of Julius Civilis. The troops assigned to defend it moved as if there were no danger:

. . . the cohorts escorting [the convoy] were proceeding as if in time of peace, that there were few soldiers with the standards, that their arms were being carried in carts (vehicula) while they all strolled along at will, he drew up his forces and attacked them, sending first some troops to occupy the bridges and narrow parts of roads.

The column was unable to make it to Novaesium and had to fight its way back to Gelduba without fulfilling its mission. In order to secure its supply lines, an army had to pacify the area between the operational base and the tactical base. This is why Vespasian did not immediately attack Jerusalem when he arrived on the scene in 67 A. D.: if he left hostile forces behind him, in Galilee and Samaria, the rebels would have been in a position to cut off his supply lines. Therefore, he spent an entire campaigning season taking important fortresses in the north of Palestine.

Providing a series of depots between the operational and tactical base was not only a question of “leap-frogging” supplies forward. Depots were generally placed within fortifications, as at Rödgen and South Shields and they served to secure provisions from enemy attack. Therefore, the sources often refer to them as “forts” (castella or phrouria). Vegetius describes this practice:

Among the things particularly incumbent upon a general . . . is to see that the transportation of grain and other provisions . . . is rendered secure from hostile attack. The only way to achieve this is to plant garrisons at suitable points through which our supply-trains pass. These may be cities or walled forts. If no old fortifications are available, temporary forts (castella) are established in favorable positions [and] a number of infantry and cavalry stationed in them on outpost duty provide a safe passage for supplies.

Brutus used fortified lines to protect his supply lines at Philippi (42 B. C.).

The use of fortified depots considerably reduced the risk of attack to supply lines. Once a rear area had been pacified, though, the danger of convoyed supplies, which at first glance seem very vulnerable, was actually rather small. Lacking firearms or explosives, the ambushing party in antiquity usually had to rely on superior numbers to overwhelm a convoy. Even if the enemy knew the likely route of a convoy, the exact time of its movement would not be predictable, so a large ambushing force would have had to wait in enemy territory, itself vulnerable to surprise attack.

Naturally, armies have a tendency to use their worst troops to garrison depots and operational bases, not to mention escort duty, leaving the best soldiers for combat. Livy explicitly states that after the consuls filled their legions with the best troops, they assigned the “surplus” (ceteri ) to garrison duty. In the Republican period, the Romans sometimes used their least reliable Italian allies to defend supply lines, sometimes with unfortunate results. In 218 B. C., Dasius of Brundisium commanded the garrison of Clastidium, in which a great quantity of grain had been stored for the Roman army. He betrayed the city to Hannibal for 400 gold pieces. The city’s capture not only hurt the Romans, but relieved the Carthaginians of considerable supply difficulties. When Manlius Vulso set up an operational base on the Lake of Timavus in his Istrian campaign of 178 B. C., he garrisoned it with a single reserve cohort (repentina cohors) and a few legionary centuries. The Istrians, seeing the weakness of the Roman defense, attacked the base and captured it. Only the barbarian drunkenness that followed, and the timely arrival of Gallic auxiliaries and of part of another legion (which had been foraging nearby) restored the situation, and the base, to the Romans.

Since Roman marching camps also functioned as supply bases, camp security was especially important. The Romans were justifiably famous for their security measures while encamping. Such measures involved both fortification and maintaining the discipline necessary to proper security. This system sometimes broke down, as it did in Albinus’s army in Numidia. Sallust notes that in this case:

. . . [his] camps were not fortified, nor was watch kept in a military fashion, men absented themselves from duty whenever they pleased.

It was no doubt at least partly for logistical reasons that the consul Caecilius Metellus reestablished security in his famous reform of the army in 109 B. C.

Shalmaneser III



The Campaigns of Shalmanesar III.

Constantly on the battlefield, starting his campaigns from Nineveh or from one of his provincial palaces, Ashurnasirpal’s son, Shalmaneser III (858 – 824 B.C.), appears to have spent only the last years of his life in Kalhu. Yet it is from that city and its neighbourhood that come his most famous monuments. One of them is the ‘Black Obelisk’ found by Layard in the temple of Ninurta over a century ago and now in the British Museum. It is a two-metre-high block of black alabaster ending in steps, like a miniature ziqqurat. A long inscription giving the summary of the king’s wars runs around the monolith, while five sculptured panels on each side depict the payment of tribute by various foreign countries, including Israel, whose king Jehu is shown prostrate at the feet of the Assyrian monarch. More recent excavations at Nimrud have brought to light a statue of the king in the attitude of prayer, and a huge building situated in a corner of the town wall, which was founded by him and used by his successors down to the fall of the empire. This building, nicknamed by the archaeologists ‘Fort Shalmaneser’, was in fact his palace as well as the ekal masharti of the inscriptions, the ‘great store-house’ erected ‘for the ordinance of the camp, the maintenance of stallions, chariots, weapons, equipment of war, and the spoil of the foe of every kind’. In three vast courtyards the troops were assembled, equipped and inspected before the annual campaigns, while the surrounding rooms served as armouries, stores, stables and lodgings for the officers. Finally, we have the remarkable objects known as ‘the bronze gates of Balawat’. They were discovered in 1878 by Layard’s assistant Rassam, not at Nimrud, but at Balawat (ancient Imgur-Enlil), a small tell a few kilometres to the north-east of the great city. There Ashurnasirpal had built a country palace later occupied by Shalmaneser, and the main gates of this palace were covered with long strips of bronze, about twenty-five centimetres wide, worked in ‘repoussé’ technique, representing some of Shalmaneser’s armed expeditions; a brief legend accompanies the pictures. Besides their considerable artistic or architectural interest, all these monuments are priceless for the information they provide concerning Assyrian warfare during the ninth century B.C.

In the number and scope of his military campaigns Shalmaneser surpasses his father. Out of his thirty-five years of reign thirty-one were devoted to war. The Assyrian soldiers were taken farther abroad than ever before: they set foot in Armenia, in Cilicia, in Palestine, in the heart of the Taurus and of the Zagros, on the shores of the Gulf. They ravaged new lands, besieged new cities, measured themselves against new enemies. But because these enemies were much stronger than the Aramaeans of Jazirah or the small tribes of Iraqi Kurdistan, the victories of Shalmaneser were mitigated with failures, and the whole reign gives the impression of a task left unfinished, of a gigantic effort for a very small result. In the north, for instance, Shalmaneser went beyond ‘the sea of Nairi’ (Lake Van) and entered the territory of Urartu, a kingdom which had recently been formed amidst the high mountains of Armenia. The Assyrian claims, as always, complete success and describes the sack of several towns belonging to the King of Urartu, Arame. Yet he confesses that Arame escaped, and we know that during the next century Urartu grew to be Assyria’s main rival. Similarly, a series of campaigns in the east, towards the end of the reign, brought Shalmaneser or his commander-in-chief, the turtanu Daiân-Ashur, in contact with the Medes and Persians, who then dwelt around Lake Urmiah. There again the clash was brief and the ‘victory’ without lasting results: Medes and Persians were in fact left free to consolidate their position in Iran.

The repeated efforts made by Shalmaneser to conquer Syria met with the same failure. The Neo-Hittite and Aramaean princes whom Ashurnasirpal had caught by surprise had had time to strengthen themselves, and the main effect of the renewed Assyrian attacks was to unite them against Assyria. Three campaigns were necessary to wipe out the state of Bit-Adini and to establish a bridgehead on the Euphrates. In 856 B.C. Til-Barsip (modern Tell Ahmar), the capital-city of Bit-Adini, was taken, populated with Assyrians and renamed Kâr-Shulmanashared, ‘the Quay of Shalmaneser’. On top of the mound overlooking the Euphrates a palace was built, which served as a base for operations on the western front. But whether the Assyrians marched towards Cilicia through the Amanus or towards Damascus via Aleppo, they invariably found themselves face to face with coalitions of local rulers. Thus when Shalmaneser in 853 B.C entered the plains of central Syria, his opponents, Irhuleni of Hama and Adad-idri of Damascus (Ben-Hadad II of the Bible), met him with contingents supplied by ‘twelve kings of the sea-coast’. To the invaders they could oppose 62,900 infantry-men, 1,900 horsemen, 3,900 chariots and 1,000 camels sent by ‘Gindibu, from Arabia’. The battle took place at Karkara (Qarqar) on the Orontes, not far from Hama. Says Shalmaneser:

I slew 14,000 of their warriors with the sword. Like Adad, I rained destruction upon them…. The plain was too small to let their bodies fall, the wide countryside was used up in burying them. With their corpses, I spanned the Orontes as with a bridge.’

Yet neither Hama nor Damascus were taken, and the campaign ended prosaically with a little cruise on the Mediterranean. Four, five and eight years later other expeditions were directed against Hama with the same partial success. Numerous towns and villages were captured, looted and burned down, but not the main cities. In 841 B.C. Damascus was again attacked. The occasion was propitious, Adad-idri having been murdered and replaced by Hazael, ‘the son of a nobody’. Hazael was defeated in battle on mount Sanir (Hermon), but locked himself in his capital-city. All that Shalmaneser could do was to ravage the orchards and gardens which surrounded Damascus as they surround it today and to plunder the rich plain of Hauran. He then took the road to the coast, and on Mount Carmel received the tribute of Tyre, Sidon and Iaua mâr Humri (Jehu, son of Omri), King of Israel, the first biblical figure to appear in cuneiform inscriptions. After a last attempt to conquer Damascus in 838 B.C. the Assyrian confessed his failure by leaving Syria alone for the rest of his reign.

In Babylonia Shalmaneser was luckier, though here again he failed to exploit his success and missed the chance which was offered to him. Too weak to attack the Assyrians and too strong to be attacked by them, the kings of the Eighth Dynasty of Babylon had hitherto managed to remain free. Even Ashurnasirpal had spared the southern kingdom, giving his contemporary Nabû-apal-iddina (887 – 855 B.C.) time to repair some of the damage caused by the Aramaeans and the Sutû during ‘the time of confusion’. But in 850 B.C. hostilities broke out between King Marduk-zakir-shumi and his own brother backed by the Aramaeans. The Assyrians were called to the rescue. Shalmaneser defeated the rebels, entered Babylon, ‘the bond of heaven and earth, the abode of life’, offered sacrifices in Marduk’s temple, Esagila, as well as in the sanctuaries of Kutha and Barsippa, and treated the inhabitants of that holy land with extreme kindness:

For the people of Babylon and Barsippa, the protégés, the freemen of the great gods, he prepared a feast, he gave them food and wine, he clothed them in brightly coloured garments and presented them with gifts.

Then, advancing farther south into the ancient country of Sumer now occupied by the Chaldaeans (Kaldû), he stormed it and chased the enemies of Babylon ‘unto the shores of the sea they call Bitter River (nâr marratu)’, i.e. the Gulf. The whole affair, however, was but a police operation. Marduk-zakir-shumi swore allegiance to his protector but remained on his throne. The unity of Mesopotamia under Assyrian rule could perhaps have been achieved without much difficulty. For some untold reason – probably because he was too deeply engaged in the north and in the west – Shalmaneser did not claim more than nominal suzerainty, and all that Assyria gained was some territory and a couple of towns on its southern border. The Diyala to the south, the Euphrates to the west, the mountain ranges to the north and east now marked its limits. It was still a purely northern Mesopotamian kingdom, and the empire had yet to be conquered.

The end of Shalmaneser’s long reign was darkened by extremely serious internal disorders. One of his sons, Ashurdaninaplu, revolted and with him twenty-seven cities, including Assur, Nineveh, Arba’il (Erbil) and Arrapha (Kirkuk). The old king, who by then hardly left his palace in Nimrud, entrusted another of his sons, Shamshi-Adad, with the task of repressing the revolt, and for four years Assyria was in the throes of civil war.

The war was still raging when Shalmaneser died and Shamshi-Adad V ascended the throne (824 B.C.). With the new king began a period of Assyrian stagnation which lasted for nearly a century.

Military Strength and Weakness of the Imperial Roman Army




The gradual changes in the nature of the Roman army between the time of Tiberius and 235 certainly affected both Roman society and the empire’s internal power-struggles. Did they also affect Rome’s strength at the periphery? The really big changes were three, though they had all started well before Tiberius’ accession. The first was the regular organization of ‘auxiliary’ troops into quasi-permanent units in which they would normally serve for twenty-five years before being made Roman citizens on discharge, a system set up by Augustus and refined by his successors. As in centuries past, such troops often outnumbered the legionaries, and their effectiveness was of profound importance.

That leads, secondly, to the matter of recruitment. In the era of the civil wars of 49 to 31 bc, and under Augustus, provincials had entered the legions in large numbers. Recruits came from Roman-colonial or Romanized communities, but also from others: thus an inscription of the early Principate (ILS 2483) shows that almost all the soldiers in the two legions stationed in Egypt had been recruited in non-citizen communities in the eastern provinces (their lingua franca was Greek). All over the empire, the more Romanized provinces provided more and more of the legionaries, while Italians – who made up the bulk of the better-paid praetorian guard – provided fewer and fewer. The authorities were now quite willing in practice to recruit non-citizens, giving them citizenship when they were sworn in. This ‘provincialization’ probably reflected some Roman/Italian reluctance to serve (Italy was too prosperous) but also some intention on the emperors’ part to bring provincials into the mainstream. From Hadrian’s reign on, the normal pattern (though not in Britain) was to recruit legionaries in the provinces where they were needed, but from relatively Romanized/Hellenized elements (and legionaries were more likely than ‘auxiliaries’ to be literate). This was by and large a well-organized and disciplined force; and fighting spirit was probably not lacking either, at least down to Trajan’s time – when battle-commanders chose to entrust the initial impact of the fighting to ‘auxiliary’ units and keep the legionaries in reserve, a procedure that is first attested in a major battle at Idastaviso in Germany in AD 16 (Tacitus, Annals 2.16.3), there could be a variety of tactical reasons.

‘Auxiliary’ recruitment was quite different: the government concentrated on fringe areas such as Iberian Galicia and Thrace, simply supplying officers from the core area of the empire; such units were commonly posted away from their home areas, Britons for example in Upper Germany, while the auxilia in Britain itself might, for example, be Batavian or Syrian. Eventually, but unfortunately we do not know when, Rome also began to employ soldiers who are unlikely to have felt themselves to be Roman subjects: Marcus sent 5,500 cavalry of the Transdanubian Iazyges, whom he had just subdued, to serve in Britain (Dio 71.16). There were Goths garrisoning Arabia in 208, and Goths later took part in Valerian’s war against the Persians. This was probably an increasing trend, but it is hard to tell how much the armies of, say, Constantine and Licinius were really dependent on Goths or Arabs, whom they are known to have made use of.

The other military change of potentially great importance in the period prior to 235 was not so much that many units in the Roman army became ‘sedentary’ from generation to generation, becoming deeply involved in essentially administrative duties, but that many Roman soldiers never experienced battle. This army had never been invincible, but its deplorable failure to protect the Danube frontier in 170–1 suggests significant changes for the worse. Enemy forces reached northern Italy for the first time in some 270 years, while others, as already mentioned, raided as far south as Attica. Our sources on all this are poor, but it may be conjectured that a shortage of officers and soldiers seasoned by warfare had a great deal to do with Rome’s failure, and this in turn was the indirect result of conscious policy. In other respects, the Romans were normally at an advantage: throughout this period they were superior to their opponents in important areas such as artillery and engineering (‘the soldiers are always practising bridge-building’, Dio 71.3).

Temporary causes admittedly contributed, and the Danube line still had a long future. Marcus Aurelius, as we have seen, had had to raise two new legions about 165 to replace the three which his co-ruler Verus had taken from the Rhine and Danube to the east in order to fight the Parthians. Shortly thereafter, the Roman military in the north suffered seriously from the Great Pestilence, as recent studies have demonstrated. Marcus himself had had no military or even provincial experience before 168 – and it showed. Imperial coin-types furthermore had often exaggerated the emperors’ military achievements, and there was a risky deception involved when coin-types absurdly declared in 172–4 ‘Germania subacta’ – ‘Germany has been vanquished’.

Few historians have really tried to evaluate the Severan army, and the evidence is slippery. Even republican armies sometimes mutinied, and there were whole rhetorical topoi about undisciplined soldiery. But an army stationed in Mesopotamia that was mutinous enough to assassinate the provincial governor (about 227, Dio 80.4.2) was a very negative symptom (and see below on the year 235).

We have quite a lot of information about how the Roman army changed between Severan times and Constantine, but assessing its ability to do its job is nonetheless difficult. On the one hand it never, unlike the republican army, won battles it might well have lost, on the other it never, unlike the late-antique Roman army, lost battles that it ought to have won. We have little option but to judge it by its results, though these may be mainly attributable not to its own qualities but to those of its generals, or its logistics, or its enemies, or to any combination of these factors. Recent accounts of Rome’s military performance in this 100-year period are unsatisfactory, but our sources are admittedly tenuous to a degree, whether it is for the defeat at Abrittus in 251 or the battle nine years later in which, or after which, the Persians captured the emperor Valerian (some Roman sources naturally preferred to claim that he was captured by trickery).

Tiberius already knew that it was worth keeping two legions in Dalmatia partly in order to back up the legions on the Danube (Tacitus, Annals 4.5). Later Roman emperors eventually concluded that the long-standing dispositions of the Roman army, with the great majority of the soldiers stationed on or near the frontiers, were ill adapted to resisting major invasions that might come from different directions. It had always been necessary to balance the needs of the Danube frontier and the Euphrates frontier, but both became more dangerous in late-Severan times. Once Rome surrendered the initiative, the distances involved presented an almost insoluble problem: it took something over two months, for example, for troops to travel from Rome to Cologne. The best that could be done was to create a reserve army that could be sent wherever it was needed without weakening some vital garrison. It appears to have been Gallienus who created a central cavalry force (cf. Zosimus, New History 1.40, Cedrenus, i, p. 454 Bekker). The development of these comitatenses, as they came to be called, is impossible to follow in any detail, but Constantine apparently expanded their role (Zosimus 2.21.1 may refer to such troops), while also centralizing the command structure of the army by means of an overall infantry commander (the magister peditum) and a parallel cavalry commander (the magister equitum). Nonetheless it remained difficult to counter any large invasion once it had passed the northern or eastern frontiers. An enterprising governor might raise a local militia (populares: AÉ 1993 no. 1231b shows us a governor of Raetia doing this in 260), but they would be largely untrained and untried.

The reliefs on the Arch of Constantine distinguish between his Roman and his ‘barbarian’ troops, which raises again the complex question of whether Rome was now relying too much on troops who were merely mercenaries. According to the emperor Julian (Caesars 329a), Constantine ‘practically paid tribute’ to the barbarians, and modern accounts suppose that he and his rival Licinius made Rome significantly more reliant on German and other non-Roman troops than any previous ruler; but the ill effects do not yet seem to be visible.

The strength of the Roman Empire’s numerous and various neighbours to the north, east, and south can only be judged, once again, by the results, their aims likewise. From Tiberius’ time to Trajan’s, those who kept their freedom from Rome and their territorial integrity were doing well; this applies mainly to the Romans’ failure to advance far beyond the Rhine and to hold on to Mesopotamia. The incursions of the 160s–70s and of the 240s–60s showed a great deal of vigour. The invaders’ goal was often plunder, including human beings, which the Roman Empire offered in abundance. Dio (71.16) asserts that the Iazyges had taken far more than ‘ten myriads’ of prisoners in Roman territory – a five- rather than a six-digit number, one might think. (Some of the third-century booty has been recovered from the bed of the Rhine, rafts having apparently sunk). Not even Sasanian Persia, the most powerful external enemy Rome faced in this period, showed any determination to hold on to any Roman province, and in fact it had no reliable means of protecting its own core area against Roman forces that were always relatively near. But northern peoples had already in the second century extracted territorial concessions of a sort, obtaining lands within the Roman frontier. This practice went back to Julio-Claudian times. Initially the advantages to Rome probably outweighed the disadvantages; whether that continued to hold true in and after Marcus Aurelius’ time we shall consider in a moment. It certainly looks like a major surrender to strong outside pres- sure. Purchasing the docility of outside enemies by means of payments, unless it was a short-lived tactical expedient, was likewise a recognition of real enemy strength: this started with Domitian, but involved Trajan, Hadrian, and many later emperors. Yet from a Roman point of view, this was by no means an irrational policy, within limits.

Fundamental changes had taken place by the time the conglomeration of Germans known as the Alamanni (‘All Men’), who are first attested in a Roman source in 213, inflicted quite serious harm in 232–3. This was nothing less perhaps than the birth of a new national formation. What made a difference here was probably in the end quite simple: such a new grouping, like the Franks from about 260, could put larger forces into the field than any single German people. But the tetrarchs and Constantine could always, it seems, defeat the northern peoples on the battlefield.