Syracuse Hoplites

Beneath the top tier of the diadochi–the senior Macedonian military commanders who had carved up the great empire between them–was a jostling group of minor princes, junior officers and other adventurers, many with the most tenuous connections to Alexander. Self-conscious about their peripheral position on the fringes of this gilded world, some ardently desired to be included in the dazzling club of A-list Hellenistic monarchs. Such a figure was Agathocles, a dashing cavalry commander with a shady past that included spells in exile and as a mercenary captain, who had risen to autocratic power in Syracuse in the 320s through popular demagogy and military thuggery.

The conscious connection that had been made by Alexander between his great victories in the East and the earlier Persian invasion of Greece (at first he mooted his campaigns in Asia as a revenge mission) also breathed new life into the perennial conflict between Carthage and Syracuse. Once more the totally erroneous but seductive idea that the Sicilian wars were a western extension of the age-old struggle between the civilization of Greece and the dark forces of the barbarian East would have renewed capital. Throughout a long and eventful career, Agathocles consistently chose to present himself as the western heir to Alexander. His coinage, like that of other post-Alexander Greek leaders, self-consciously reproduced the motifs favoured by the Great King of Macedon and self-styled Lord of Asia.

However, Agathocles’ talent stretched to more than an ability to present himself as the heir to Alexander in the West. Carthage’s long sojourn on Sicily meant that many Sicilian Greeks had a very good knowledge of Carthaginian military institutions. Indeed, one of Agathocles’ most potent weapons was his understanding of Carthage and his awareness of the tensions that existed between the city and its army in Sicily. Carthage’s use of mercenaries to fight its wars engendered a feeling of suspicion towards its generals, and the ruling elite in particular felt threatened by the perceived unconstitutional ambitions of the men who were sent to command the Carthaginian armies. During the fourth century BC it appears that Carthage’s generals, particularly in Sicily, had acquired a wide range of powers that allowed them to operate with a certain amount of autonomy while on campaign, including the authority to negotiate for peace and to form alliances (although it is likely that these agreements then needed to be formally ratified by the Council of Elders, who also approved the resupply of armies). Indeed, such was their mandate for independent action that the fourth-century-BC Athenian politician Isocrates was moved to comment that the Carthaginians were ‘ruled by an oligarchy at home, by a king in the field’

Faced with this desperate situation, Agathocles would decide upon a course of action so bold and indeed reckless that he caught the Carthaginians completely by surprise. He would take the war to the Carthaginians where they least expected it: in the Punic heartlands of Africa. Once more Agathocles showed a sound understanding of Carthage and its people. He knew that most Carthaginians had no experience of war. Their armies were made up largely of mercenaries, and as yet they had never been forced to fight any major conflicts in their North African homeland. By launching a surprise attack there, he would be able quickly to acquire supplies and booty, and thus pay his troops from land that had, unlike Sicily, been spared the ravages of war. He was also hopeful that the Libyans, for so long discontented by the treatment that they had received from the Carthaginians, would rise up and join with him. Faced with such a crisis at home, he reasoned, Hamilcar and his forces would quickly be compelled to evacuate Sicily.

Agathocles quickly recruited Syracusan levies, mercenaries and even slaves to serve in his army. Money for the expedition was acquired by murdering his surviving aristocratic opponents and confiscating their property, pillaging orphans’ inheritances, appropriation of temple offerings and women’s jewellery, and compulsory loans. After assembling a fleet of 60 ships and a very modest force of 13,500 men, Agathocles managed to slip through the Carthaginian blockade. Carefully disguising their route to ensure that the Carthaginians remained oblivious to the real objectives of the mission, in 310 the Syracusan flotilla landed on the Cap Bon peninsula a mere 110 kilometres from Carthage, after six days at sea. Knowing that he was finished if this venture failed, Agathocles set fire to the ships so that any thought of escape was discounted. He dedicated them to the goddesses Demeter and Core–surely as a way of propagandizing this campaign as Sicilian Greek revenge for previous outrages committed by the Carthaginians on their island. After a final exhortation to his troops, they moved against and captured with ease the towns of Megalopolis and Tunes (Tunis).

Buoyed by the ease of these successes, Agathocles’ army then pitched camp not far from Carthage, whose citizens started to panic because they wrongly assumed that Agathocles’ presence in Africa meant that the Carthaginian forces in Sicily must have been totally destroyed. Male citizens were now drafted into the army under the joint command of two political rivals, Bomilcar and Hanno. The campaign opened disastrously for the Carthaginians, with a heavy defeat in which their most able commander, Hanno, was killed. Bomilcar, seeing this as an opportunity to seize autocratic power for himself, retreated to Carthage with his troops.

Diodorus recounted how, with their city under siege and their best general far across the sea in Sicily, the Carthaginians sent a large sum of money and expensive offerings to the temple of Melqart at Tyre, in the belief that their present misfortunes were due to the god being disgusted with the miserly nature of their recent tithes. Now the terrified Carthaginians were also supposed to have tried to appease their vengeful gods by offering up 200 high-born children for sacrifice. Later another 300 citizens, who were thought to have particularly offended the gods, were reported to have voluntarily sacrificed themselves in the fire. In perhaps a further sign of the Carthaginians’ fears of having provoked divine anger, an inscription dated to around this period refers to the construction of new temples to the goddesses Tanit and Astarte, replete with decorations, gold statuary and furniture. Tellingly, the inscription also refers to the construction of fortification walls around the sanctuary, and probably also around the hill where it was sited.

Soon disastrous news arrived in Carthage from Sicily. Its general Hamilcar had been captured and killed while attacking Syracuse, with the result that the Carthaginian army in Sicily had fragmented into several warring factions. Agathocles was said to have carefully displayed Hamilcar’s head, which had been sent over from Sicily, within sight of the already demoralized Carthaginians.

On the brink of a great victory, it is perhaps hardly surprising that Agathocles’ Alexander complex became ever stronger. Certainly his coins from the period clearly aped those of the Macedonian king, especially in their use of the thunderbolt as a motif. His troops, however, mutinied, upset by their general’s pretensions and increasingly high-handed behaviour and, more importantly, by his failure to pay them. The Carthaginians now quickly seized on Agathocles’ difficulties and offered the leaders of the mutiny enhanced pay and a bonus if they brought the Sicilian Greek army over to them. Agathocles, whose troops still held him in great esteem, only just managed to save the situation by theatrically threatening to commit suicide.

After once more bolstering his position by defeating a Carthaginian force, Agathocles, distrusting the local Libyans and Numidians, cast around for an additional ally with whom to deliver what he believed would be the final victory. He successfully enticed Ophellas, the ruler of the Greek city of Cyrene and a man with a real Alexandrian pedigree (he had served in the army of the Macedonian king), to join the campaign with the promise of all the Carthaginian territory in North Africa if they were successful. However, true to form, Agathocles quickly murdered his new ally and incorporated his large and wellequipped army into his own forces. Yet the greatest danger to Carthage would come from those whom it had entrusted with its own defence.

The Carthaginian general Bomilcar, who had long held autocratic ambitions, at last judged the time had come to act. First he sent out a force made up of many of Carthage’s most distinguished citizens to fight against the Numidian tribes, thereby removing from the city many of those who might oppose his coup. He then mustered his troops, made up of citizens and mercenaries, in an area of Carthage called the New City. Diodorus left a vivid account of what occurred next:

Dividing his troops into five groups, he sounded the attack, massacring those who opposed him in the streets. Since an extraordinary disturbance broke out everywhere in the city, the Carthaginians at first thought that the enemy had broken in, and that the city had been betrayed. When however the true situation became known, the young men gathered together, formed groups, and moved against the tyrant. However, Bomilcar, slaughtering those in the streets, moved quickly into the marketplace. Discovering many unarmed citizens there, he killed them. The Carthaginians, however, took over the tall buildings around the marketplace, and hurled down missiles which struck the rebels. Hard-pressed, the plotters closed ranks and forced their way through the narrow streets of the New City, all the time being struck by objects thrown from the houses that they passed by. Once they had occupied higher ground, the Carthaginians, who had now mustered all the citizens, rallied their forces against the rebels. At last, sending older citizens as envoys, and offering an amnesty, terms for surrender were agreed. Against the rebels they demanded no restitution, on account of the dangers presently facing the city, but Bomilcar himself was cruelly tortured and then put to death, with no attention being paid to oaths that had been given. Thus, in this way, the Carthaginians, having faced the gravest danger, saved the constitution of their forefathers.

Diodorus, whose sources were ever hostile to Carthage, could not resist the temptation of highlighting the treachery of the Carthaginians at the end of this account, although on this occasion the victim was a traitor. There is, however, no reason to dispute his account of the attempted coup.

Although he now found himself in control of a huge swathe of Carthaginian territory in North Africa, Agathocles now received alarming news of renewed conflict in Sicily, where several vassal cities had decided to take advantage of the lengthy absence of the Syracusan army to declare their independence. Agathocles was forced to return to try to retrieve the situation, leaving his son Archagathus, who had inherited little of his father’s political or military talents, in command of his army.

The Carthaginians, clearly re-energized by the defeat of the coup and the absence of their talismanic opponent, intelligently refocused their military strategy away from set-piece battles, in which they had fared so badly. They now split their forces into three combat groups with explicit areas of operation: the coast, the interior and the deep interior. Faced with this fresh challenge, Archagathus made the catastrophic decision to match this move by dividing his own forces in the same way. Soon the two battalions that had been sent into the interior to hunt down their Carthaginian foes were ambushed and cut down.

Deserted by his fickle Libyan allies, Archagathus rallied the remainder of his forces at Tunes, and sent messages to his father requesting urgent help. Although Agathocles did return, he found the situation irretrievable. A further defeat at the hands of the Carthaginians was followed by a terrible conflagration, which Diodorus–surely fancifully –states was started by the Carthaginians incinerating the fairest of their Greek captives as sacrificial victims to their gods. Many Sicilian Greek troops were killed, which led the Syracusan general to decide to leave Africa. Knowing that a large-scale evacuation would quickly come to the attention of the Carthaginians and lead to an attack, after one failed attempt to flee, Agathocles eventually managed to slip away, leaving his army and at least two of his own sons behind. This last detail, probably taken from Timaeus, whose loathing of Agathocles made him want to portray him in as poor a light as possible, may well have been false. A Roman account, clearly using other sources, related that Agathocles tried to take Archagathus with him, but they became separated during the night and the latter was captured and brought back to the Syracusan camp.

After killing their erstwhile general’s progeny, Agathocles’ deserted army swiftly negotiated surrender with the Carthaginians. The latter offered them generous terms: all the army received cash donatives, and those who wished to be were co-opted into the Carthaginian army; the remainder were transported to Sicily and allowed to settle at the Punic city of Solus. Those who, out of misguided loyalty to their old leader, refused to cooperate were set to work to restore the lands which as soldiers they had laid waste. The most recalcitrant were crucified.

After settling with his troops, the Carthaginians then concluded a peace with Agathocles himself, which superficially offered surprisingly generous terms. Carthage agreed to pay Agathocles a large amount of gold and grain, in exchange for which he would recognize Carthage’s rights over all the territory that it had previously controlled in Sicily.

Sicilian Wars (409-307 BC)


Caesar Besieged in Alexandria

“Battle of Alexandria Caesar left behind his purple cloak which was later captured by the Alexandrians as a battle trophy”

Shortly after Cleopatra’s October 48 BC arrival, Caesar moved from the villa on the royal grounds to the palace proper. Each generation of Ptolemies had added to that sprawling complex, as magnificent in its design as in its materials. “Pharaoh” means “the greatest household” in ancient Egyptian, and on this the Ptolemies had delivered. The palace included well over a hundred guest rooms. Caesar looked out at lush grounds dotted with fountains and statuary and guesthouses; a vaulted walkway led from the palace complex to its theater, which stood on higher terrain. No Hellenistic monarchs did opulence better than the Ptolemies, the preeminent importers of Persian carpets, of ivory and gold, tortoiseshell and panther skin. As a general rule any surface that could be ornamented was—with garnet and topaz, with encaustic, with brilliant mosaic, with gold. The coffered ceilings were studded with agate and lapis, the cedar doors with mother-of-pearl, the gates overlaid with gold and silver. Corinthian capitals shimmered with ivory and gold. Cleopatra’s palace boasted the greatest profusion of precious materials known at the time.

Insofar as it was possible to be comfortable while under siege, Cleopatra and Caesar were well accommodated. None of the extravagant tableware or plush furnishings of their redoubt detracted, however, from the fact that Cleopatra—virtually alone in the city—was eager for a Roman to involve himself in Egyptian affairs. The rumbles and jeers outside, the scuffling in the street, the whizzing stones, drove that point home. The most intense fighting took place in the harbor, which the Alexandrians attempted to blockade. Early on they managed to set fire to several Roman freighters. The fleet Cleopatra had lent Pompey had moreover returned. Both sides jockeyed for control of those fifty quadriremes and quinqueremes, large vessels requiring four and five banks of rowers. Caesar could not afford to allow the ships to fall into enemy hands if he expected to see either provisions or reinforcements, for which he had sent out calls in every direction. Nor could he hope to man them. He was seriously outnumbered and at a geographic disadvantage; in desperation, he set fire to the anchored warships. Cleopatra’s reaction as flames spread over the ropes and across the decks is difficult to imagine. She could not have escaped the penetrating clouds of smoke, sharp with the tang of resin, that wafted across her gardens; the palace was illuminated by the blaze, which burned well into the night. This was the dockyard fire that may have claimed some portion of the Alexandrian library. Nor could Cleopatra have missed the pitched battle that preceded the conflagration, for which the entire city turned out: “And there was not a soul in Alexandria, whether Roman or townsman, except for those whose attention was engrossed in fortification work or fighting, who did not make for the highest buildings and take their place to see the show from any vantage point, and with prayers and vows demand victory for their own side from the immortal gods.” Amid mingled shouts and much commotion, Caesar’s men scrambled on to Pharos to seize the great lighthouse. Caesar allowed them a bit of plunder, then stationed a garrison on the rocky island.

Also shortly after Cleopatra’s arrival, Caesar composed the final pages of the volume we know today as The Civil War. About those events he would have been writing in something close to real time. It has been suggested that he broke off where he did—with Arsinoe’s defection and Pothinus’s murder—for literary or political reasons. Caesar could not easily discourse on a Western republic in an Eastern palace. He was also at that juncture in his narrative briefly in possession of the upper hand. Just as likely Caesar found himself with less time to write, if not overwhelmed. He was indeed the man who famously dictated letters from his stadium seat, who turned out a text on Latin while traveling from Gaul, a long poem en route to Spain. The murder of the eunuch Pothinus had galvanized the opposition, however. Already it included the women and children of the city. They had no need of wicker screens or battering rams, happy as they were to express themselves with slingshots and stones. Sprays of homemade missiles pelted the palace walls. Battles flared night and day, as Alexandria filled with zealous reinforcements and with siege huts and catapults of various sizes. Triple-width, forty-foot stone barricades went up across the city, transformed into an armed camp.

From the palace Caesar observed what had put Alexandria on the map and what made it so difficult to rule: its people were endlessly, boundlessly resourceful. His men watched in amazement—and with resentment; ingenuity was meant to be a Roman specialty—as the Alexandrians constructed wheeled, ten-story assault towers. Draft animals led those mammoth contraptions down the straight, paved avenues of the city. Two things in particular astonished the Romans. Everything could be accomplished more quickly in Alexandria. And its people were clever copyists of the first rank. Repeatedly they went Caesar one better. As a Roman general recounted later, they “put into effect whatever they saw us do with such skill that it seemed our troops had imitated their work.” National pride was at stake on both sides. When Caesar bested the seafaring Alexandrians in a naval battle, they were shattered. Subsequently they threw themselves into the task of building a fleet. In the secret royal dockyard sat a number of old ships, no longer seaworthy. Down came colonnades and the roofs of gymnasiums, their rafters magically transformed into oars. In a matter of days, twenty-two quadriremes and five quinqueremes materialized, along with a number of smaller craft, manned and ready for combat. Nearly overnight, the Egyptians conjured up a navy twice as large as Caesar’s.*

Repeatedly the Romans sputtered about the twin Alexandrian capacities for deceit and treachery, which in the midst of an armed conflict surely counts as high praise. As if to prove the point, Ganymedes, Arsinoe’s ex-tutor and the new royal commander, set his men to work digging deep wells. They drained the city’s underground conduits, into which they pumped seawater. Quickly the palace water proved cloudy and undrinkable. (Ganymedes may or may not have known this to be an old trick of Caesar’s, who had similarly annoyed Pompey.) The Romans panicked. Did it not make more sense to retreat immediately? Caesar calmed his men: Fresh water could not be far off, as veins of it reliably occurred near oceans. One lay just beyond the palace walls. As for withdrawal, it was not an option. The legionnaires could not reach their ships without the Alexandrians slaughtering them. Caesar ordered an all-night dig, which proved him correct; his men quickly located fresh water. It remained true, however, that on their side the Alexandrians had great cleverness and plentiful resources, as well as that most potent of motivations: their autonomy was at stake. They had distinctly unfavorable memories of Gabinius, the general who had returned Auletes to the throne. To fail to drive Caesar out now was to become a province of Rome. Caesar could only remind his men they must fight with equal conviction.

He found himself entirely on the defensive, perhaps another reason the account of the Alexandrian War that bears his name was written by a senior officer, based on postwar conversations. Caesar indeed controlled the palace and the lighthouse in the east, but Achillas, Ptolemy’s commander, dominated the rest of the city, and with it nearly every advantageous position. His men persistently ambushed Roman supplies. Fortunately for Caesar, if there was one thing he could count on as much as Alexandrian ingenuity it was Alexandrian infighting. Arsinoe’s tutor argued with Achillas, whom he accused of treachery. Plot followed counterplot, much to the delight of the army, bribed generously and in turn more generously by each side. Ultimately Arsinoe convinced her tutor to murder the redoubtable Achillas. Cleopatra knew well what their sister Berenice had accomplished in their father’s absence; she had badly blundered in failing to prevent Arsinoe’s escape.

Arsinoe and Ganymedes turned out to be no favorites of the people, however. This the Alexandrians made clear as reinforcements approached and as Caesar—despite a forced swim in the harbor and a devastating loss of men—began to feel the war turning in his favor. To the palace came a delegation in mid-January, shortly after Cleopatra’s twenty-second birthday. They lobbied for young Ptolemy’s release. Already the people had tried unsuccessfully to liberate their king. Now they claimed they were finished with his sister. They yearned for peace. They needed Ptolemy “in order, as they claimed, that they might consult with him about the terms on which a truce could be effected.” He had clearly behaved well while under guard. Generally he left no impression of fortitude or leadership, though petulance came naturally to him. Caesar saw some advantages in his release. Were the Alexandrians to surrender, he would need somehow to dispense with this extraneous king; Ptolemy could clearly never again rule with his sister. In his absence Caesar would have better reason to deliver up the Alexandrians to Cleopatra. And were Ptolemy to continue to fight—it is unclear if the rationale here was Caesar’s, or attributed to him later—the Romans would be conducting a war that was all the more honorable for being waged “against a king rather than against a gang of refugees and runaway slaves.”

Caesar duly sat Cleopatra’s thirteen-year-old brother down for a talk. He urged him “to think of his ancestral kingdom, to take pity on his glorious homeland, which had been disfigured by the disgrace of fire and ruin; to begin by bringing his people back to their senses, and then save them; and to trust the Roman people and himself, Caesar, whose faith in him was firm enough to send him to join enemies who were under arms.” Caesar then dismissed the young man. Ptolemy made no move to leave; instead he again dissolved into tears. He begged Caesar not to send him away. Their friendship meant more to him even than his throne. His devotion moved Caesar who—eyes welling up in turn—assured him that they would be reunited soon enough. At which young Ptolemy set off to embrace the war with a new intensity, one that confirmed that “the tears he had shed when talking to Caesar were obviously tears of joy.” Only Caesar’s men seemed gratified by this turn of events, which they hoped might cure their commander of his absurdly forgiving ways. The comedy would not have surprised Cleopatra, well accomplished in the dramatic arts, and possibly even the mastermind behind this scene. It is conceivable that Caesar liberated Ptolemy to sow further dissension in the rebel ranks. If he did so (the interpretation is a generous one), Cleopatra presumably collaborated on the staging.

Fortunately for Caesar and Cleopatra, a large army of reinforcements hurried toward Alexandria. The best help came from a high-ranking Judaean official, who arrived with a contingent of three thousand well-armed Jews. Ptolemy set out to crush that force at nearly the same moment that Caesar set out to join it; he was for some time frustrated by the Egyptian cavalry. All converged in a fierce battle west of the Nile, at a location halfway between Alexandria and present-day Cairo. The casualties were great on both sides, but—by storming the high point of the Egyptian camp in a surprise early-morning maneuver—Caesar managed a swift victory. Terrified, a great number of the Egyptians hurled themselves from the ramparts of their fort into the surrounding trenches. Some survived. It seemed Ptolemy did not; he was probably little mourned by anyone, including his advisers. As his body never materialized, Caesar took special pains to display his golden armor, which did. The magical, rejuvenating powers of the Nile were well known; already it had delivered up queens in sacks and babies in baskets. Caesar did not want a resurrection on his hands, though even his meticulous efforts now would not prevent the appearance of a Ptolemy-pretender later.

With his cavalry Caesar hurried to Alexandria, to receive the kind of welcome he had doubtless expected months earlier: “The entire population of the town threw down their weapons, left their defenses, assumed the garb in which suppliants commonly crave pardon from their masters, and after bringing out all the sacred objects with whose religious awe they used to appeal to their displeased or angry monarchs, went to meet Caesar as he approached, and surrendered to him.” Graciously he accepted the surrender and consoled the populace. Cleopatra would have been ecstatic; Caesar’s defeat would have been hers as well. She presumably received advance word but would in any event have heard the raucous cheers as Caesar approached on horseback. His legions met him at the palace with loud applause. It was March 27; the relief must have been extreme. Caesar’s men had given him more than a decade of service, and on arrival in Alexandria believed the civil war to be over. They had by no means counted on this last, little understood exploit. Nor were they alone in their consternation. Rome had heard nothing from Caesar since December. What was keeping him in Egypt, when all was off-kilter at home? Whatever the reason for the delay, the silence was unsettling. It must have begun to seem that Egypt had claimed Caesar as it had Pompey and—as some would argue—in an entirely different way, it ultimately would.


Diodorus’ account of the relationship between the Carthaginians and the cult of Demeter and Core was in fact very partial. The goddesses had long been worshipped by the Punic population of Sicily as fertility and underworld deities, and it was most likely from this source that the cult had first come to Carthage. Core, in particular, became a ubiquitous presence on Carthaginian coinage. The two goddesses were two of the most popular motifs of the Punic world–especially on terracotta incense-burners, where they were depicted wearing concave headdresses in which perfumed pellets were placed. Indeed, within a very short period of time during the fourth century BC the cult would also proliferate across other Punic areas of the western Mediterranean, such as the rural shrine of Genna Maria in Sardinia, where the worship of Demeter was clearly amalgamated with that of indigenous deities. What is also clear is that, despite Diodorus/ Timaeus’ insistence to the contrary, this was no mere replication of the Greek cult, but one that had already been mediated through the extensive cultural and religious borrowings that had been taking place between the diverse communities that inhabited the island of Sicily, before being tailored to the diverse religious needs of its adherents across the Punic world.

Then there was the syncretistic figure of Heracles–Melqart, who became increasingly popular in Carthage during the third century BC. Of particular significance are a series of engraved bronze hatchet razors (a traditional part of the Punic funerary assemblage) dating to this period and found in the cemeteries that ringed the city. Although the images that were engraved on many of the blades of these hatchets show traditional Levantine representations of Melqart dressed in a long tunic and headdress, with a double-sided axe resting on his shoulder, new representations of the god had also begun to appear. Indeed, one particular example shows Heracles complete with a lionskin, a club and a hunting dog at his feet, in the classic iconography of the hero that had developed in the Greek cities of southern Italy. Yet, as the French scholar Serge Lancel has rightly observed, this was really only an ‘Italianate veneer’ on Punic Melqart. For on the reverse side of the blade was an image of Ioloas, Heracles’ nephew and companion, holding a branch from the kolokasion plant in one hand and a quail in the other. This was a Greek interpretation of the Phoenician/Punic rite of egersis. The story, preserved by the Greek writer Athenaeus, summarizing a story told by an earlier fourth-century Greek author, Eudoxius of Cnidus, told how ‘Tyrian’ Heracles lay dying and was soothed by his faithful companion with the leaves from the kolokasion plant, before being brought back to life by the smell of roasting quail meat. Another hatchet razor dating to the third century BC found in Carthage displays a possible Sardinian connection, with an engraving of Heracles naked under his lionskin leaning on his club on one side of the blade, while on the other side Sid, wearing a plumed headdress, spears a kneeling figure wearing a breastplate and a short tunic.

Thus, rather than proving the existence of an unbridgeable divide between Greek and Punic populations in the West, Timaeus and the other Sicilian Greek historians used by Diodorus represented a shrill xenophobic reaction to the growing political, cultural and religious syntheses that governed not only their home island, but also the whole central Mediterranean. For Timaeus in particular, the attraction of this model of ethnic conflict between Greeks and barbarians was clearly the result of his long absence from Sicily and the continually shifting compromises and allegiances that made up the political landscape there.

Depiction of a bust possibly belonging to Agathocles


Despite the fact that these sweeping generalizations bore little resemblance to the geopolitical realities on the ground, they did increasingly have an impact on the local Sicilian potentates who were Carthage’s rivals on the island: much better to portray oneself as the saviour of western Hellas from oriental barbarism than as yet another feuding warlord. After Alexander’s untimely death, his generals had quickly divided up his vast dominions in Asia, Europe and Egypt, and many bullishly adopted the heroic public persona of the Great King. As Peter Green has remarked, ‘They stood long after his death, in his [Alexander’s] tremendous shadow still. He made them what they were: and however consciously they might try to jettison his alleged ideals . . . their fierce ambitions forced them to follow where he had led.’

Beneath the top tier of the diadochi–the senior Macedonian military commanders who had carved up the great empire between them–was a jostling group of minor princes, junior officers and other adventurers, many with the most tenuous connections to Alexander. Self-conscious about their peripheral position on the fringes of this gilded world, some ardently desired to be included in the dazzling club of A-list Hellenistic monarchs. Such a figure was Agathocles, a dashing cavalry commander with a shady past that included spells in exile and as a mercenary captain, who had risen to autocratic power in Syracuse in the 320s through popular demagogy and military thuggery. Like Gelon and Dionysius, Agathocles would use the almost continuous round of warfare that he provoked with the Carthaginians as a way to consolidate his regime.

The conscious connection that had been made by Alexander between his great victories in the East and the earlier Persian invasion of Greece (at first he mooted his campaigns in Asia as a revenge mission) also breathed new life into the perennial conflict between Carthage and Syracuse. Once more the totally erroneous but seductive idea that the Sicilian wars were a western extension of the age-old struggle between the civilization of Greece and the dark forces of the barbarian East would have renewed capital. Throughout a long and eventful career, Agathocles consistently chose to present himself as the western heir to Alexander. His coinage, like that of other post-Alexander Greek leaders, self-consciously reproduced the motifs favoured by the Great King of Macedon and self-styled Lord of Asia. A century later, the Roman playwright Plautus would mockingly refer to Agathocles’ desperation to ape the imagery and antics of Alexander.

However, Agathocles’ talent stretched to more than an ability to present himself as the heir to Alexander in the West. Carthage’s long sojourn on Sicily meant that many Sicilian Greeks had a very good knowledge of Carthaginian military institutions. Indeed, one of Agathocles’ most potent weapons was his understanding of Carthage and his awareness of the tensions that existed between the city and its army in Sicily. Carthage’s use of mercenaries to fight its wars engendered a feeling of suspicion towards its generals, and the ruling elite in particular felt threatened by the perceived unconstitutional ambitions of the men who were sent to command the Carthaginian armies. During the fourth century BC it appears that Carthage’s generals, particularly in Sicily, had acquired a wide range of powers that allowed them to operate with a certain amount of autonomy while on campaign, including the authority to negotiate for peace and to form alliances (although it is likely that these agreements then needed to be formally ratified by the Council of Elders, who also approved the resupply of armies). Indeed, such was their mandate for independent action that the fourth-century-BC Athenian politician Isocrates was moved to comment that the Carthaginians were ‘ruled by an oligarchy at home, by a king in the field’.

Although these generals were drawn from Carthaginian ranks, they had been chosen not by the Tribunal of One Hundred and Four, but by the whole citizenry of Carthage in the Popular Assembly. This fact alone placed them under suspicion by the elite. The development of the Carthaginian army in Sicily into a quasi-independent institution with its own coinage and administrative structure made the situation even more tense. The ports of Sicily were hundreds of kilometres away from Carthage, and news of events on the island was sporadic and often inaccurate. In such circumstances it was easy for a military commander to forget that he was answerable to his peers.

Though Carthaginian army commanders made decisions with considerable autonomy while on campaign, these decisions were retrospectively subject to a rigorous audit carried out by the Tribunal of One Hundred and Four. Many years of campaigning in Sicily meant that these generals could scarcely have failed to notice how some of their Syracusan equivalents–men who like themselves had first gained their commands through their popularity with the general citizenry –had managed to shed the awkward scrutiny to which they were subjected by their peers by seizing autocratic power. The harsh punishment of military commanders who had failed to show sufficient skill or courage on the battlefield was a long-standing feature of Carthaginian political life. The Carthaginians were certainly not the first in the ancient world to use crucifixion; however, whereas others reserved this horrific punishment for the lowest of the low–runaway slaves, common criminals, and foreigners–Carthage would periodically nail its generals to the cross. This was not just a grim warning against failure, but also acted as a gruesome form of political decapitation.

The feelings of distrust were reciprocated by the military commanders themselves, who complained of the hostile treatment that they received from their fellow citizens on their return from campaign. As Diodorus/Timaeus acutely observed when providing an explanation for a later attempted army coup:

The basic cause in this matter was the Carthaginians’ severity in inflicting punishments. In their wars they advance their leading men to commands, taking it for granted that these should be the first to brave the danger for the whole state; but when they gain peace, they plague these same men with suits, bring false charges against them through envy, and load them down with penalties. Therefore some of those who are placed in positions of command, fearing the trials in the courts, desert their posts, but others attempt to become tyrants.

On one occasion early in his career, in the 320s BC, when his hopes of political power in Syracuse had been seemingly dashed, Agathocles raised an army of discontented Sicels with the intention of seizing the city with violent force. Finding that a large Carthaginian army was blocking his path, Agathocles used his considerable talent for diplomacy with the Carthaginian commander, Hamilcar. Learning that Hamilcar had ambitions of seizing autocratic power in Carthage, Agathocles agreed a secret arrangement with him whereby the Carthaginian army would stand aside so that he could take Syracuse, in exchange for which he would help the general in any future attempt to seize power in his home city. Indeed, Hamilcar went even further in his cooperation with Agathocles, by supplying him with 5,000 troops to assist in the massacre of his political opponents in Syracuse. A peace treaty was then agreed that appeared to be immensely favourable towards Agathocles, even though he was hardly in a strong position. Under its terms, the eastern Sicilian cities were compelled to acknowledge Syracusan suzerainty, while the Carthaginians gained nothing aside from confirmation of the territory that they had already held before the conflict. The situation was made even worse by Hamilcar’s appearing to turn a blind eye to Agathocles’ continued harassment of Carthage’s Sicilian allies.

The Greek and Roman sources which record this pact suggest that the crafty Agathocles duped Hamilcar. A more realistic explanation may be that continued violence and instability in Sicily was in the interests of both the Carthaginian army and Agathocles. The instability was an indication both of the lack of control that Carthage had over its army and of the level of collusion between its forces in Sicily and its Syracusan foes. The reaction of the Carthaginian Council is revealing. Rather than recalling Hamilcar and openly confronting him with his treachery, the Council voted on the matter but suppressed their judgement until such time as they felt confident to act against him. The Carthaginian army in Sicily was beginning to act as a semiautonomous force, and its supposed masters in Carthage had little power to control it.

In fact Hamilcar died before justice could be dispensed, and the confrontation that the Carthaginian Council had obviously feared was avoided. In an attempt to seize back the agenda, the Council sent a delegation directly from Carthage to warn Agathocles that he should respect the existing treaties between the two states. But, in an effort to reassert the Council’s authority over their forces in Sicily, a fresh army was recruited under a new commander, Hamilcar, son of Gisco.

Hamilcar’s campaign did not get off to an auspicious start. As the army crossed over to Sicily, a number of ships carrying Carthaginian noblemen were sunk in a storm. However, on his arrival on the island, in 311, Hamilcar quickly proved to be an excellent general. After winning a comprehensive victory, the Carthaginians managed to blockade Agathocles and the remainder of his forces in Syracuse. Hamilcar then followed up these military successes with a diplomatic initiative among the Greek Sicilian states which left Agathocles increasingly isolated. In a marked departure from his predecessors, Hamilcar attempted to end the war through the final defeat of Agathocles and the capture of Syracuse.

Agathocles was portrayed by Diodorus (as usual taking his information from earlier Sicilian Greek sources) as ruthlessly exploiting the tensions between the Carthaginian generals and the politicians at home. In this he was following historians such as Timaeus (who particularly disliked Agathocles because he had been responsible for the exile of the historian’s father), who showed Agathocles in a poor light as a political opportunist who willingly entered into compacts with the hated Carthaginian intruders. However, it also points to Agathocles’ understanding of the fears and ambitions of the Carthaginian military commanders on Sicily as a key element in his own rise to power.


During a twelve-year period in the 330s and 320s BC, a young Macedonian king, Alexander (‘the Great’), had by the tender age of 31 succeeded in becoming master of an empire that stretched from Greece to Pakistan. Many of Alexander’s contemporaries and those who came after him understandably struggled to make sense of his extraordinary success. After all, what Alexander had achieved had never been done before and, it was thought, could never be matched again. Stories swirled around the towns and cities of the ancient Mediterranean and Near East that Alexander was not just descended from celestial lineage, but was actually a god himself.

His meteoric career would be marked out not just by an astounding sequence of military victories, but also by an ability to write his own headlines. Alexander’s ‘heroic’ image was carefully worked on by the coterie of advisers, diarists and historians who accompanied him on campaign. Portrayed as the new Heracles, he had stormed across Asia capturing all in his path. After he stopped his great march eastward in what is now Pakistan, the question for all the peoples of the West was whether they would be the next targets in his seemingly endless thirst for glory and conquest. The terrifying speed with which Alexander had built up his huge Asian empire meant that the idea of his turning his attention westward was a distinct and unsettling possibility. Alexander made the world seem like a small place.

Envoys from all over the lands of the western Mediterranean therefore made the long and arduous journey to the royal court at Babylon to strike up friendly relations with Alexander and to find out what his future intentions were. From Italy there came Bruttians, Lucanians and Etruscans. From the northern climes there were Celts and Scythians. Iberians came from the far West, and Nubians from the depths of Africa. Among this gaggle of supplicants was a Carthaginian, Hamilcar ‘Rodanus’, who had probably learned his Greek while living on the island of Rhodes. Unlike the others, however, Rodanus had not been sent to find out if Alexander wished Carthage well: events at the finale of the siege of Carthage’s mother city of Tyre had emphatically answered that question.

Alexander and his armies had approached Tyre in 332 BC. After being refused entry to the sacred sanctuary of Melqart, Alexander had besieged and then sacked the city, massacring its defenders and enslaving its remaining population. Melqart, the god whose annual cycle of death and rebirth took place in the heat of the sacred fire, would be smothered in the smoking ashes of the city which had for centuries nurtured him. Generations of Tyrian tradition and religious observance would be buried under the martial pomp of self-consciously Greek/ Macedonian ceremonial: military parades, gymnastic competitions, and a torchlight procession of Alexander’s army. The solemn burning of the effigy of Melqart would be set aside for yet another set of anodyne athletic competitions in honour of the Hellenic Heracles. Alexander also seized the sacred boat in which the Carthaginians had first brought their offerings to Melqart many centuries ago, and inscribed it with a Greek dedication.

Diodorus, clearly following Timaeus, digressed from the history of his Sicily to tell how a group of thirty Carthaginian emissaries, who had brought the annual tithe from their city to be offered to Melqart, had found themselves stranded in the besieged Tyre. When the city fell, Alexander had spared the Carthaginians’ lives, sending them home with the ominous warning that Carthage’s turn would come once the conquest of Asia was complete. So Rodanus’ mission at the court in Babylon was to discover quite when rather than if Alexander would launch an attack on Carthage.

According to the Roman historian Justin, Rodanus, considering it unwise to present his credentials in the normal fashion, managed to secure an audience with Alexander by convincing his close associate Parmenion that he was in fact an exile and that he wished to join the Macedonian army. On finding out the Great King’s intentions, Rodanus sent secret missives back to Carthage. However, such was the paranoia that had gripped the panic-stricken city that no one was above suspicion. Rodanus would be rewarded on his return from this potentially perilous mission with execution, because his fellow citizens were convinced that he must have tried to betray Carthage to the Macedonian king.

Alexander’s early demise, in Babylon in June 323, has made it impossible to know if he really did plan to attack Carthage. However, western-Greek and, later, Roman historians certainly wanted their readerships to think so. It suited their anti-Carthaginian agenda to conflate Alexander’s war against the Persian Empire with the Syracusan struggle against Carthage. During his long years of exile in Athens, Timaeus had become deeply influenced by the increasingly hawkish attitudes towards Persia that many Athenian writers had developed against the backdrop of Alexander’s great campaigns in the East. It is highly pertinent that Diodorus, once more following Timaeus, described how, after capturing Tyre, Alexander liberated a statue of the god Apollo which had been sent as an offering to Tyre by the Carthaginians after they had plundered it from the Greek Sicilian city of Gela. Diodorus also took from Timaeus one of the temporal synchronicities of which the latter was so fond, namely that the capture of Tyre had occurred on exactly the same day of the month and hour of the day as when the Carthaginians had stolen the statue from Gela.

Diodorus/Timaeus, like other eastern-Greek commentators, was aware of the association between Melqart and Heracles. He states that it had been Alexander’s initial intention to ‘sacrifice to the Tyrian Heracles’. However, he was certainly not inclined to dwell upon the syncretism that had developed between the Greek hero and the Phoenician god in the minds of many in the Mediterranean world. Instead, as the Carthaginian military became a permanent presence on Sicily, he and other Sicilian historians promoted the association between Carthage and that other supposed great enemy of the Greek world, Persia.

To that end, we know from Diodorus that Timaeus restated the old fabrication that Himera had been the western front of a coordinated attack on the Greeks organized between Carthage and their Persian allies. Then, by pushing back the date of the battle so that it now fell on the same day as Thermopylae, when 300 Spartans had heroically resisted but eventually been overwhelmed by a huge Persian force, Timaeus could portray Himera as the vital turning point in this Mediterranean-wide war between the barbarians and the forces of Hellas. Moreover this also obscured the Syracusan tyrant’s failure to send any help to the mainland Greeks by creating enough delay for a further fabrication: that Gelon had actually sailed to Greece to help the war effort against the Persians, only to be conveniently met by news of the great victory at Salamis.

In Timaeus’ account of the later wars between Carthage and Syracuse, the complex strategic reasons why it was important for Carthage to intervene militarily in Sicily, like those of the Persians in Greece, were reduced to little more than a wish to enslave Hellas, beautifully articulated in one episode by the apparent discovery of 20,000 pairs of manacles in the Carthaginian camp after a Greek victory, or simply a hatred of all Greeks. In another wonderfully evocative but surely manufactured vignette, Timaeus described how Greek mercenaries fighting for Syracusans while fraternizing with their fellow countrymen who were in the employ of the Carthaginians asked them how they could serve a state whose sole aim was to barbarize a Greek city.

Yet what remains of Sicily’s material culture tells a very different story from the tales of ghastly inter-ethnic conflict and total war propagated by hostile Sicilian Greek historians. Decades of bloody conflict had in fact done little to impede the processes of acculturation and accommodation between the Greek and Punic communities on the island. Indeed, the wars between Carthage and Syracuse had directly led to the export far beyond its shores of the religious and cultural syncretism that was long one of the defining characteristics of colonial Sicily. In particular, such ideas had found fertile ground in Carthage, where they had probably been introduced both by members of the Carthaginian elite who had served as officers in the army in Sicily and by the sizeable Sicilian Greek community who were now resident in the city.

One particularly prominent example was the growing prominence in Carthage of the cult of the Greek deities Demeter, a fertility goddess, and her daughter Core, the consort of Hades, king of the underworld. In his history, Diodorus, thought to be following Timaeus, strongly emphasized the Sicilian Greek origins of the cult by insisting that the abduction and rape of Core by Hades actually took place on the island, even though Greek cities in southern Italy had claimed that the heinous event had taken place there. When in 396 BC the cult was officially adopted in Carthage, Diodorus later portrayed this merely as a panic-stricken attempt to appease the goddesses after they had punished the Carthaginians with a visitation of the plague, after the sacking of their temple at Syracuse by the hapless general Hamilcar. At the same time, Diodorus emphasized the indelibly Hellenic nature of the cult by reporting that the Carthaginian authorities had sought out Greeks living in Carthage and assigned them to the service of the goddesses, while those aristocratic Carthaginians who were appointed to be priests of the cult were instructed to follow ‘the ritual used by the Greeks’.

The Campaigns Of Tuthmosis III

After they expelled the foreign rulers (the Hyksos) from Egypt, the kings of Dynasty 18 became aware of a need for a national army. Prior to this, there had been no standing army: whenever the king decided to fight or launch campaigns, his district governors simply conscripted peasants from the local population. However, the kings now recognized the need to maintain a standing army so that they could foil any future attempted invasions. The earliest rulers of Dynasty 18 therefore set out to organize an army on a national basis, manned by officers who were professional soldiers.

This standing army was probably started by King Amosis I. He and his immediate predecessors had successfully driven the Hyksos from Egypt, and he completed the task by pushing them back into southern Palestine where he finally subdued them so that they could not regroup and return to Egypt. He also dealt with an insurrection in Nubia. With Egypt’s northern and southern borders secured, Amosis I’s successors were now ready to conquer foreign lands and establish an Egyptian empire.

Some evidence about military expeditions and campaigns comes from scenes and inscriptions on tomb and temple walls. The most significant account of the expulsion of the Hyksos is preserved in an autobiographical account inscribed on the walls of the tomb of Ahmose, son of Ebana, at El Kab. The text relates events in the life and career of Ahmose, a professional soldier who fought against the Hyksos and was rewarded by the king. Following this, he accompanied the king to Sharuhen in Palestine, where again the army was successful:

‘Then Sharuhen was besieged for three years. His Majesty despoiled it and I brought booty away from it: two women and a hand [i.e., the hand of a slaughtered captive]. Then the gold of favour [i.e., a royal reward] was awarded to me, and my captives were given to me as slaves.’ (The Autobiography of Ahmose, Son of Ebana. Author’s translation)

This inscription also provides information about Ahmose’s illustrious career: at first, he served on board a ship, but when King Amosis became aware of his ability, he had him transferred to take part in military action against the Hyksos:

Now when I had established a household [that is, he had married], I was taken to the ship ‘Northern’ on account of my bravery. I followed the ruler on foot when he rode around in his chariot. When the town of Avaris was besieged, I fought bravely on foot in His Majesty’s presence.’ (The Autobiography of Ahmose, Son of Ebana.)

Once the Hyksos problem had been resolved, Ahmose accompanied the king to Nubia on a campaign to put down a local insurrection. He continued his career under the kings who succeeded Amosis I – Amenhotep I and Tuthmosis I – and took part in these rulers’ Nubian campaigns to subdue local rebellions. Finally, he accompanied Tuthmosis I’s campaign to the River Euphrates in northern Syria, a military action which was part of Egypt’s new strategy to establish an empire.

Ahmose was rewarded with promotion to the rank of ‘Commander of the Crew’, and received a royal gift of land in his hometown of El Kab. His career was typical of the new professional soldier: promoted from the ranks, he spent his whole life in the armed forces, serving a succession of rulers. Ultimately, the king rewarded his loyalty and ability with a high-level position and considerable wealth, which he was able to pass on to his family. His grandson, Paheri, eventually built the best tomb at El Kab, and became mayor of two towns.

In the early part of Dynasty 18, Egyptian rulers were primarily concerned with establishing their power in Syria/Palestine. At the beginning of this dynasty, ethnic movements in the Near East had created a power vacuum, and a new kingdom – Mitanni – had established itself in the land of Naharin, situated between the rivers Tigris and Euphrates. The population of Mitanni consisted of a ruling aristocracy of Indo-Aryan origin, and the Hurrians – people who had branched out in c.2300 BCE from their original homeland situated south of the Caspian Sea.

The Mitannians were one of the most powerful enemies that Egypt faced in Dynasty 18, although eventually the two countries became allies. The Egyptians wanted to set their own northern boundary at the Euphrates, so when Mitanni first began to push southwards, this led to direct conflict. Northern Syria became the main focus of Egypt’s campaigns and the most significant arena of warfare. However, the princedoms and city-states which occupied Palestine and the rest of Syria at this time were also drawn into the conflict; although they presented no cohesive threat to Egypt or Mitanni, both sides tried to coerce them into becoming vassal states.

Amenhotep I left no record of his military activities in this area, although he may have taken preliminary actions which laid the foundations for Tuthmosis I’s new, aggressive policy. Tuthmosis I, the first Egyptian king to launch a major offensive in Syria, led an expedition across the Euphrates into Naharin, where he set up a commemorative stela. His army killed many of the enemy and took others as prisoners before it returned home through Syria, where the king celebrated his success by organizing an elephant hunt at Niy. Wall inscriptions in tombs at El Kab belonging to Ahmose, and a relative, Ahmose Pennekheb, provide details of the roles these men played in the campaign.

Tuthmosis I also fought in Nubia, extending Egypt’s power as far as the region of the Fourth Cataract, where he built new fortresses. He established control over an area that stretched from this part of Nubia to the Euphrates in the north – the ultimate limits of Egypt’s empire. His policies were continued by his son, Tuthmosis II, who campaigned in Palestine and overthrew a rebellion in Nubia, but it was his grandson, Tuthmosis III, who ensured that Egypt became the greatest military power in the region.

Since Tuthmosis III acceded to the throne as a minor, his stepmother Hatshepsut had the opportunity to seize power and, for a time, she ruled in his stead. During Hatshepsut’s reign, some city-states in Syria/Palestine had formed alliances with the Mitannians, while others declared themselves independent of Egypt’s influence. However, once Tuthmosis III established himself on the throne, he wasted no time in reasserting Egypt’s supremacy. In Year 23 (the first year of his independent reign), he mounted a campaign against Mitanni and a coalition of city-states led by the Prince of Kadesh, a city on the River Orontes. The Egyptian armies were able to capture the city of Megiddo, a victory which formed the basis for future expansion in Syria/Palestine.

Tuthmosis III sent a further sixteen campaigns to Syria over the next twenty years, which successfully sacked the city of Kadesh twice, and crossed the Euphrates to penetrate deep into Naharin. In the eighth campaign, which took place in Year 33, the Egyptians resoundingly defeated the Mitannians, but despite some significant successes there was no outright winner in this contest and, ultimately, the two powers were forced to recognize that neither would ever win a conclusive victory. Therefore, towards the end of Dynasty 18, they changed their policies and became allies. Tuthmosis III also reasserted Egypt’s control of Nubia, leading campaigns as far south as the Fourth Cataract. His excellent strategies and well-executed campaigns ensured that he is now appropriately recognized as Egypt’s greatest military ruler.

Wall inscriptions in some temples preserve historical accounts of military exploits undertaken by kings of the New Kingdom.6 However, these often provide propagandist versions of events, their main aim being to record the pharaoh’s glory and battle prowess. The campaigns of Tuthmosis III are described in wall-scenes and inscriptions found in the Temple of Karnak, and on two stelae: one comes from Armant, and the other was set up in the king’s temple at Napata (Gebel Barkal), near the Fourth Cataract. Taken together, these literary sources provide sufficient information for Egyptologists to reconstruct some events in Tuthmosis III’s campaigns.

One of the Karnak records, carved on the walls of two halls situated behind the Sixth Pylon in the temple, is known as The Annals. These provided a factual account of Tuthmosis III’s annual campaigns; they give most information about the first one, and the others are recounted more briefly. Another inscriptional source, the so-called Poetical Stela of Tuthmosis III, was placed in a court in the same temple. This hymn of triumph, written in terms of a speech given by the god Amen-Re, also recounts the king’s victories.

According to these sources, the king’s campaigns were all successful. The Annals relate how his first campaign was undertaken in the fourth month of winter; he set out through Palestine, and by the first month of summer had reached Gaza. He took this city and then marched to Megiddo where a group of princes, led by the ruler of the city of Kadesh, awaited him. Through his own great personal valour and clever tactics, the king achieved victory and the enemy was routed, but this was followed by a seven-month siege of Megiddo. The Annals go on to describe the preparations his army took before attacking the city.

An important feature of Tuthmosis III’s military strategy was subjugation and provisioning of harbours along the Palestine/Syria coast; this was undertaken in order to support his campaigns in the hinterland. The inscriptions relate that, in the sixth campaign, some of the Egyptian forces were transported by ship to the Palestine/Syria coastal area. In the seventh campaign, Tuthmosis III sailed along the coastal cities, proceeding from one harbour to the next; he subdued and equipped them with provisions which would support his army’s actions in the hinterland. Inspecting and supplying the harbours became a regular feature of Egyptian warfare.

Tuthmosis III’s eighth campaign, which he undertook in Year 33, made use of boats to cross the River Euphrates and defeat the Mitannians. According to the Gebel Barkal Stela, these vessels were built every year at Byblos. They formed part of the annual tribute that Byblos, a vassal-city, paid to Egypt. These measures ensured that Egypt, although deficient in its native wood supplies, was still able to build up an adequate fleet. However, on the eighth campaign, the boats were not sent by sea from Byblos to Egypt; instead, they were transported overland to the Euphrates on wheeled wagons drawn by oxen.


In the fateful year 614 the armies of the Sassanian king Khosroes II set up siege towers outside Jerusalem, breached its walls, and invaded the city. With due allowance for the partisan and rhetorical exaggeration in our sources, it is safe to say that this invasion was the most devastating event to befall this ancient and holy city since the Roman forces had brought to an end the rebellion of Bar Kokhba in 135 and expelled the Jewish population. The Persians had made their way to Jerusalem after assaulting Syrian Antioch and moving southwards by way of Caesarea-on-the-sea. Apart from marauding monks, Samaritan uprisings, a minor disturbance under the Caesar Gallus, and the indeterminate mischief wrought by the apostate Julian, Palestine had not seen such violence or devastation for well over four centuries. Although the Christian population grew in number over this period, the region had been generally hospitable to indigenous Jews, who flourished particularly in the Galilee and nourished an increasingly large cadre of rabbinical scholars. Traditional local pagan cults continued to flourish along with traditional Hellenism, which had in late antiquity led to the widespread designation of pagans simply as Hellenes. The invasion of the Sassanian Persians delivered a shattering jolt to this world after so many centuries and, in retrospect, foreshadowed another great invasion just over two decades later. The relation between the Persian capture of Jerusalem in 614 and the Muslim seizure of the city in 638 has nourished endless scholarly and homiletic debate. We have finally reached a point at which once-fashionable dogmas have spectacularly dissolved one after another.

It will no longer do to claim that the Persian devastation left the region so physically, economically, and spiritually ruined that it was inevitably receptive to the armies of the Prophet, nor will it do to claim that the Muslims wiped out the vestiges of the old symbiosis of Jews, Christians, and pagans. What happened between 614 and 638 was undoubtedly traumatic, but the wounds that Jerusalem and Palestine suffered were by no means mortal. It has gradually become apparent that the cultural, economic, and religious landscape did not look very much different after 638 from what it had done before 614. The religious and ideological impulses behind the momentous upheavals of that period spawned such varied and often contradictory narratives of what had just happened that only the most arduous exercise of historical source criticism and archaeology can make sense of it all. And everyone knows that historical source criticism and archaeology have not always been the most congenial or accommodating allies.

The Persian arrival in Jerusalem had its ultimate origin in the murder of the Byzantine emperor Maurice in 602 through the intrigue of the usurper Phocas. The king of Persia, Khosroes II, had owed his throne to the favorable intercession of Maurice at a difficult time, and so when Maurice was removed by a usurper, Khosroes rightly saw an opportunity to avenge his benefactor’s death by taking advantage of the new weakness of the Byzantine Empire. He began a formidable campaign of aggression that constituted the greatest incursion of Persian forces into Syria, Asia Minor, and Palestine since the conquests of Shapur I in the third century. The dormant hostility of the Sassanians, which Maurice had successfully used to his own advantage, now became terrifyingly active. This initiative not only opened the way for the removal of Phocas by the exceptionally astute Heraclius in 610. It also brought the two empires into direct conflict under the personal leadership of their emperors. In 613, Khosroes inflicted a crushing defeat upon Heraclius in Asia Minor. He subsequently moved on into Syrian Antioch, which had barely recovered from the devastation of a Persian sack of the city in 540. The taking of Antioch was an ominous prelude to the taking of Jerusalem in the following year.

Up to the moment of Maurice’s death, the Sassanian Empire, which had long been Byzantium’s rival in the Near and Middle East, had been quiescent during the aggressive expansionism of Justinian, and the two empires had pursued their interests obliquely by supporting client tribes such as the Jafnids (or Ghassānids) in Syria and the Naṣrids (or Lakhmids) in the south. In the Arabian peninsula the Persians had, as we have seen, brilliantly exploited the ambitions of the Arab converts to Judaism in Ḥimyar. With the rise of a strong king in Ethiopia who promoted an irredentist claim to recover former Ethiopian dominions in Arabia, the Christian negus in Axum was able to further his ambitions by coming to the aid of Christians across the Red Sea when they were suffering a cruel persecution at the hands of the Jewish Ḥimyarites. We have seen in the previous lecture that this gave the Persians an opportunity to reassert their support of the Jews in opposition to the Christians, whose final operations in the Arabian peninsula had received explicit encouragement from the Byzantine emperor. The Chalcedonian beliefs of the New Rome did not at all stand in the way of using the monophysite Ethiopians as a buffer against the Persians, who were more worried about the Byzantine state than its doctrinal position. The Nestorian Christians in the Sassanian realm were rarely a pawn in sixth-century power politics. But Sassanian support of the Jews served as a banner of anti-Byzantine policy. It was only to be expected that when the Ethiopian Abraha, whom Axum had duly installed as its Christian ruler in Ḥimyar, lost his grip and fell from power, he was soon replaced by a Persian client, who remained there throughout the last decades of the sixth century.

By the time that the army of Khosroes stood outside the walls of Jerusalem, it could hardly have been a secret that Jews had every reason to expect the support of the invaders. Persian sympathy for Jews in the Arabian peninsula was firmly on record, and it is likely that Jewish Ḥimyarites in Palestine, such as those whose tombs have been found at Bet She’arim, would have been well aware of what their co-religionists owed to the Persians. Not far from Jerusalem itself, the recently discovered epitaph for a certain Leah points to an even closer link to the holy city. It has a bilingual text, starting with a quotation from Daniel, in mixed Aramaic and Hebrew and, below it, a text in South Arabian Sabaic.

It is clear from two surviving texts that were composed within a few decades of 614 that the Jews were not disappointed in any hopes they may have placed in the Persian invaders, and that the Jews in Jerusalem, for their part, did what they could to support the Persian presence. Despite the ancient history of the Babylonian Captivity, the Jews had had a long presence in Mesopotamia, and we should not be altogether surprised that the Jews in Jerusalem in 614 cooperated willingly with the Persian invaders.

If we can find some kind of historical explanation for the role of Jews during the capture of Jerusalem in 614, even after discounting the tendentiousness of the story of the reservoir as narrated by Strategios, we are still left with a wealth of topographical details about mass burials and devastated churches, and these details have long colored modern accounts of the capture of the city. The numbers of the Christian dead are given in the tens of thousands, which is intrinsically improbable. The Nea Church of the Theotokos, the Church of Holy Zion, the Church of the Probatica, and the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, as well as churches on the Mount of Olives, figure prominently in modern accounts. Many of these sites appear, with an appeal to archaeological remains, in Ben Isaac’s comprehensive introduction to Jerusalem’s history at the beginning of the first volume of the recently published Corpus of inscriptions of Judaea and Palestine. But we now owe to Gideon Avni a thorough and definitive report on the archaeological evidence both for mass burials and the destruction of churches. With the data and support supplied by many of his colleagues, he makes a powerful case against the historical value of much of Strategios’ evidence, without, as in Strategios’ comments on the Jews, rejecting it altogether.

Avni observes that a certain Thomas, according to Strategios, organized the burial of the Christian dead in Jerusalem in thirty-five different locations. Although some of these locations can be correlated with known sites, overall careful archaeological examination of the stratigraphy either shows no evidence for destruction layers at the time of the Persian invasion or lacks ceramic materials that might be used to date any burnt layers. As for actual burials, only seven sites of Byzantine date have been discovered, and these are all outside the Old City. The one secure correlation with the information in Strategios occurs in the case of a rock-cut cave in Mamilla, some 120 meters west of the Jaffa Gate. Strategios states that masses of Christians assembled in the Mamilla pool were massacred, and that the pious Thomas removed their corpses to a nearby cave. The cave that has been excavated at Mamilla proved to be full of human bones, and a small chapel in front of it was decorated with Christian symbols, including three crosses. Anthropological analysis of the bones has suggested that most of the hundreds of skeletons in the cave were the remains of young persons, with women outnumbering men. Avni writes, “All this suggests that the deceased met a sudden death.”

In the Mamilla cave, as well as in the six other mass burials of the same period, the method of burial, as Avni has stressed, is very different from other Byzantine burials in Jerusalem. These normally were in spaces devoted to a family or in crypts within the grounds of a monastery. So the seven mass burials are indeed exceptional, indicating a hasty removal of corpses and reasonably pointing to the time of the Persian invasion. But, with that said, it is clear that the number of deaths and sepulchres is far less than Strategios has described, and this encourages skepticism about his reports of the devastation of buildings, especially churches. Despite previous archaeological claims of evidence for this devastation, Avni stresses that the interpretations were inaccurate because there was no reasonable ceramic classification to provide a credible chronology. The recent and extensive analysis carried out by Jodi Magness now reveals a remarkable continuity of pottery types, as well as coins, that has suggested to many historians in recent years an uninterrupted occupation across and beyond the Persian conquest, as well the Islamic.

Robert Schick has emphasized in his invaluable work on the Christian communities of Palestine that the Church of the Holy Sepulchre is often said to have been set on fire and seriously damaged, providing an opportunity for the holy Modestus to make major repairs with the help of donations from the pious. But we now know that there was no significant damage to the Church in the early seventh century, nor were there any substantial repairs or renovations. Thanks to Leah Di Segni’s acute analysis of monograms inscribed on the Byzantine capitals of the Church, we learn that the emperor Maurice installed the capitals during repairs at the end of the sixth century. These were left untouched by the Persian invaders. Similarly, Avni has demolished the archaeological conclusions, on which Ben Isaac had relied, for the destruction at the Church of Holy Zion as well as Eleona and Gethsemane on the Mount of Olives.

It will always be possible that whatever damage the Persians did in Jerusalem was so rapidly repaired that no traces remained, but the odds are against this when such a partisan source as Strategios can be convicted of exaggeration and error in both his numbers of the dead and the location of mass burials. But recent excavations on the northwest side of the City of David hill provide an instructive modification of this conclusion. A horde of 264 mint-condition gold coins has been discovered in what seems to have been an administrative building. These coins are unique, representing a hitherto unknown variant of Heraclius’ coinage as it appears between 610 and 613. The 264 unexampled coins, all including a particularly egregious error in which the first letter of Heraclius’ name appears as an A rather than an H, look to excavators, with good reason, as if they were struck locally in a temporary mint in Jerusalem that was set up to provide cash for the Byzantine occupation force. If so, the horde represents a desperate effort to salvage the money when the building itself was destroyed, as it seems to have been. Because the date would evidently be soon after 613, we may well have in this new discovery a trace of the Persian invasion in 614, but if so, this was clearly not a violation of a sacred building. The scholars who have published this new horde ask whether the coins could have come from a Byzantine treasury used for paying troops, and that, of course, may be precisely why the Persians might have wanted to break up the building. Holy places and sectarian struggles do not seem, however, to have had any part in the Persian action at the site, and to that extent the new excavations, while documenting destruction in 614, in no way alter the picture that archaeologists have constructed in the last few years for Jerusalem’s tombs and churches.

In fact, the picture that has now emerged of the holy city after the Persians moved on into Egypt bears a startling resemblance to the one that Clive Foss sketched nearly a decade ago for all the places through which the armies of Khosroes II passed after the usurpation of Phocas. It had become commonplace to assume, as Kondakov and Vasiliev had done long ago, that the Persian invasion wiped out the civilization of the region, as well as its agriculture, its cities, and its trade. This apocalyptic vision has not only informed subsequent scholarship but has led archaeologists to interpret their data in accordance with it. It dominated the fundamental study of Scythopolis by Gideon Foerster and Yoram Tsafrir in 1997. The devastation of the Persian invasion seemed to many to have facilitated the early Islamic conquests.

While acknowledging that the various fragmentary chronicles upon which historians are obliged to rely often suggest that Persian rule “was a disaster for the local populations, featuring bloodshed and extraordinary exactions,” Foss meticulously documented the systematic retention of local administrative structures by the Persians and the modest scope of their more violent acts, usually in response to resistance. In Armenia, for example, after an initial deportation of the citizens of Theodosiopolis, the Persians secured the city to such an extent that a new church could be dedicated and the cathedral restored. Similarly at Edessa in Mesopotamia, Khosroes’ initial savagery was followed by a benevolent administration that recognized ancestral landholding and supported the local Monophysites. The Persian invaders understandably won the allegiance of Christians who believed that their new masters would keep the Byzantine Chalcedonians out. After the first jolt, life in Edessa was not much altered.

At Caesarea-on-the-sea, to judge from the survival of the churches of Christ and of St. Cornelius and the Tetrapylon, a similar picture of continuity after initial disruption emerges. While some continue to believe that the Persian raids had a substantial impact on the city and its population, recent work, particularly by Jodi Magness, seems clearly to move in the opposite direction. Overall, as Foss observed, the archaeological record “offers little corroboration for notions of widespread destruction at the hands of the Sassanian invaders. On the contrary, as in the case of southern Syria, evidence from the outlying regions of the Holy Land reveals normal activity continuing through the occupation, with numerous inscriptions dated to the period 614–630.” This revisionist account of the Persian invasion in the seventh century has encouraged a new consensus about the Near East on the eve of the Islamic conquests. Instead of lying desolate and ready for new rulers, it can be seen as already experienced in survival under a foreign power, and therefore all the more likely to be accommodating when a new one arrived. Since the Persians generally supported the Monophysites, they were able to maintain their struggle against Byzantium in a doctrinal way that was not unlike their support of Jews in Jerusalem in their opposition to the orthodox Christians they found in the city. Certainly the Christians suffered grievously, but there is little indication that either the Jews or the pagans did.

The aftermath of the Persian capture of Jerusalem was, above all, the occupation of Egypt. Alexandria had received mostly Chalcedonian refugees, who were uncomfortable in Palestine with a foreign administration that supported Monophysites, but the arrival of the Persians exiled these Chalcedonians yet again. Such a dedicated Christian as John the Almsgiver, orthodox patriarch of Alexandria from 610 to 617, chose to leave his flock and flee to Cyprus, where he died in 619. Even the future patriarch of Jerusalem, Sophronius, who had recently come to Alexandria and had written—or would soon write—such eloquent verses about the capture of the city, decamped as well for Rome. The Persians cleverly exploited the confessional confusion of near-eastern Christendom in their war against Byzantium. This meant that the brunt of the invasion fell upon the Chalcedonians and the emperor Heraclius, against whom the Sassanians were waging their war. In pacifying and administering the regions they had conquered, they created a world that was not much different from what it had been before, with its rich traditions of Judaism, Christianity, paganism, and Hellenism.

Accordingly when the armies of Muḥammad arrived, they did not find a shattered civilization and a ruined economy. They found Christian communities that the previous invaders had supported, as well as Chalcedonians like Sophronius, who had returned peacefully to Jerusalem in 619 to bury his friend John Moschus. At some point after his exile in Alexandria, Sophronius included among his Anacreontic poems on church feasts not only his bitter lamentation over the Persian invasion, but also two further poems that were a detailed and nostalgic celebration of the city’s principal monuments and holy places. Exactly when he wrote these is unclear, but we know that he was back in Jerusalem by 619. He had either experienced the events of 614 in person or was well informed about them, and five years later he certainly saw the condition of the city at that time with his own eyes. Since he is unlikely to have been composing fancy Greek verses when Moschus was dying in Rome, the odds are that the Anacreontics about the glories of Jerusalem were written after he had actually returned to the city. The poems themselves imply, by their impassioned longing to see the various monuments, that he was away when he was writing them, or perhaps, by a common literary artifice, imagined he was away. But, in any case, absolutely nothing in the two poems about the holy places of Jerusalem suggests that Sophronius was aware of the slightest damage or destruction to any of them.

Meanwhile, the Arabs in Arabia showed little interest in the quarrels of Monophysites and Chalcedonians, and there was no reason why they should. They could remember that the monophysite negus of Ethiopia had gladly made common cause with the orthodox emperor in Constantinople, and that refugees from the civil strife in the Prophet’s city of Mecca had fled for safety, at an early stage, to Axum. At the moment of Muḥammad’s emigration (hijra) from Mecca to Medina in 622, the superpowers of the Near East were still Sassanian Persia and the state that we call Byzantium, but was known everywhere in the region simply as Rome. One of these was soon to be annihilated. Neither of them could possibly have expected that. But the hagiographical tradition suggests that the holy Anastasius, who had been a Zoroastrian in the Persian army at Ctesiphon when the fragments of the True Cross arrived there from Jerusalem after 614, was moved to convert to Christianity, and he, so we are told, at least at the time of his subsequent martyrdom, allegedly foretold the death of Khosroes and the end of his empire.

The British Forces at the Time of the Invasions – the View from the Other Side?

It is clear that British Iron Age warriors were seen as a considerable fighting force by Caesar and subsequent generals.

It should be stressed from the beginning that there probably never was a typical Iron Age British warrior. Iron Age studies increasingly point to substantial differences in the material culture and, therefore, we assume in the everyday life of the people inhabiting Iron Age Britain. Thus so far four to six different cultural groupings have been identified in Scotland, and at least two significantly different archaeological groups in Wales, while in England nearly a dozen different groups are known, who can be differentiated by their use (or not) of pottery, their settlement types, their burial rites, their use (or not) of coinage, as well as their art styles. We assume that for the most part they spoke a language derived from the same language family as Welsh and Irish, but whether even in this respect the use of the term ‘Celtic’ is justified is still debatable. They also differ in their range of contacts with the Continent or the rest of the British Isles, particularly Ireland. During the Late Iron Age the British ‘cultures’ also appear to have been in a state of rapid development; the world of the Early Iron Age is different from the world Caesar encountered, and for the southern British tribes, things changed before and after Caesar’s campaigns.

This is not the place for a complete review of the Iron Age cultures in Britain between 100BC and 60AD, and readers are advised to turn to the more general introductions on the topic for further information. What is worth mentioning here is our understanding of Celtic warfare and the result of the Caesarian campaigns on the southern tribes of Roman Britain.

Strikingly, at the time of Caesar’s conquest, only the central southern zone of England was still employing hill forts, as well as some parts of Wales. Much has been made of these large southern hill forts being statements of power and/or influence, but they also document a substantial level of military sophistication, especially in the defences. In addition, Cunliffe (1995, 94) has demonstrated that the few Iron Age graves known in this area have clear indications of wounds inflicted by sharp objects, such as long swords. Throughout Southern Britain weapons as well as substantial amounts of horse harness are found in graves and other sacrificial contexts. It seems, therefore, likely that the possession of weapons (and by implication the ability to use them) was part of the self-definition of at least the elite of British tribes. The weapons most commonly encountered are swords, spears and shields as well as possibly slingshot (which can be hard to differentiate from plain small sized pebbles). Cunliffe suggested that some of the high quality of the weaponry, as well as the levels of injury encountered may be linked to periods of warfare or at least raiding, although historical records suggest that in many periods of British history the two are a continuum rather than two distinct phenomena. By drawing on the evidence on the Continent (mainly preserved by the writing of the Romans and Greeks that encountered them), central and western Europe was dominated by power structures that encouraged individuals to be powerful/successful warlords, whose campaigns allowed them to maintain a warband, which was paid/rewarded out of the booty gained. It is possible that the same model applied in Britain. Cunliffe draws attention that from c.120BC onwards the increased trading in slaves with the Continent may have encouraged further raiding as a way of obtaining slaves as exportable wealth.

It is in this context interesting to note that the area with the most militaristic features, central southern England also appears to be the area with the strongest trade links to the Continent in pre-Caesarian times. Slave trading communities in other parts of the world (e.g. Africa and also parts of North America) frequently display similar features, as the source of their wealth can only be obtained at the price of the higher than usual military force, frequently coupled with substantial investment in defensive features to prevent revenge attacks or hostile takeovers. This analogy, however, while offering an interesting theory is not currently provable from either the historical or the archaeological record for Iron Age Britain.

On the basis of these general ideas suggested by the archaeology, the depiction of the engagements with the British tribes and their fighting technique as described by Caesar are clearly of importance.

This description of the British tribes needs to be taken with some caution. Due to the history of research in this area we understand the Iron Age of central southern England better than the Iron Age of Kent or to a lesser extent the same period north of the Thames, so there are still some question marks as to whether Cunliffe’s insights as described above are necessarily relevant to the area Caesar was passing through. In addition to the normal danger of misinterpreting features in a hitherto unfamiliar culture, the Romans had very clear prejudices of what they were likely to encounter north of the Alps and how these people lived.

One of these is the theory that the further away you are from Civilization, i.e. Rome, the more likely you are to encounter strange habits. Some of these are stories that can already be found in Herodotus, the Greek historian of the fifth century BC. Some of these preconceptions are that at the far end of the world live people with their faces on their chests or only one eye. Luckily for our account, the Romans did not believe Britain to be this far removed from Civilization. Caesar was, however, quite prepared to credit people in Britain with sharing wives between different men and expected the Britons not to be able to farm by working fields (i.e. agriculture in the narrow sense) and thus to live on meat and flesh and to clothe themselves in skins, at least further inland than Kent and Cassivelaunus’ area north of the Thames, where the opposite was clearly observable, the latter is possibly the reason why Kent is compared to Gaul. (BG V, 14).

Other details, however, cannot be explained by reference to these stereotypes, such as woad and the fact that all Britons are clean-shaven except on their head and upper lip. The problem for the modern reader (and possibly for the ancient Roman too) is to separate the two strands of prejudice/tall story and observed fact in Caesar’s account. This is particularly true of the British fighting techniques. The fighting skills of the Gauls, of which the British were apparently considered a subset by Caesar, were proverbial. Rome had had a series of very bad military experiences on the hands of the Gauls, such as the sack of Rome by Brennus in 387BC and the battles for northern Italy leading up to the eventual Roman victory at Telamon in 225BC, both of which had left Rome’s communal psyche with nightmares. It, therefore, did not need stressing that the Britons were expected to be equally fierce fighters, although the prejudice ran that they were very aggressive but not very sophisticated in their strategies. However, Caesar provided a series of observations that suggest he came to judge the fighting abilities of the British during the two campaigns very differently. While in the first campaign the British are portrayed as an homogenous group acting together; towards the end of the second campaign, Caesar had begun to differentiate between tribes that appeared to have different agendas (e.g. the Trinovantes vs Cassivelaunus or the Cantii with their multiple subkings). This suggests that Caesar was becoming increasingly aware of the complex political situation that he had literally walked into.

Caesar describes three separate kinds of British forces: infantry, cavalry and charioteers (essedarii). During the second season he describes the general fighting technique that the British used as the army being deployed into small widely spaced groups. This would theoretically offer a good counterweight to the closed ranks of the legions, who might be induced to follow and break up their closed formation (one of Rome’s best assets when fighting) to engage the enemy.

Concurrently the British cavalry appears to have focused on drawing out parts of the Roman forces in pursuit, before turning on them. The essedarii or charioteers were clearly the unit that caught Caesar’s attention, probably because they were so different from any other form of unit he had encountered to date. He describes them in detail during his first season in Britain (BG IV, 33):

First of all they drive in all directions and throw missiles and so by the mere terror that the teams inspire and by the noise the wheels generate they throw ranks into confusion. When they have worked their way in between the troops of cavalry, they leap down from the chariots and fight on foot. Meanwhile the charioteers retire gradually from the combat, and dispose the chariots in such a fashion that, if the warriors are hard pressed by the host of the enemy, they may have a ready means of retirement to their own side. Thus they show in action the mobility of cavalry and the stability of infantry; and by daily use and practice they become so accomplished that they are ready to gallop their teams down the steepest of slopes without loss of control, to check and turn them in a moment, to run along the pole, stand on the yoke, and then, quick as lightning, to dart back into the chariot. (trans. H.J. Edwards).

This very vivid description might explain why the essedarii eventually became part of the teams of the Roman gladiatorial combat: the colourful account clearly fired the imagination of Caesar’s readers in this respect. And Caesar’s statement that Cassivelaunus could command 4000 of these charioteers was clearly meant to inspire awe in his readers, especially as Caesar was still victorious.

In many ways what is even more inspiring than their armament and battlefield tactics is the clearly successful strategy and diplomatic solutions employed by the British during the two summers. Even with Caesar controlling the narrative, unlike earlier encounters in Gaul, the impression remains that Caesar in Britain very quickly lost the initiative and rarely managed to reacquire it. In 55BC the British were clearly anticipating the landing and were ready and waiting for Caesar, having correctly predicted the likely landing site. The British reaction to the storm damage and their successful attacks on the foragers suggests that the British forces were clearly keeping a very close eye on Caesar during his stay, exploiting Caesar’s lack of cavalry as much as possible and penning him into a small corner of Kent.

The situation during the second campaign is even more impressive. Instead of meeting Caesar on the beach this time, they prepared a defensive position further inland and let Caesar come to them. When Caesar returned to campaigning after the repairs of the second storm damage, the British appear to have been more than ready for him. Not only have they managed to organize an alliance involving at least two, perhaps more tribes (the Cantii and Cassivelaunus’ tribe, which is never actually named), but they are also able to have an overall commander of some experience (judging by his track record of having killed the king of the Trinovantes) to set against Caesar.

What is, however, more striking is the overall level of command and control. During his march to the Thames, Caesar wrote that the Britons had detachments posted along the way to cover each other in turn and provide mutual reinforcements; they also accompanied Caesar along the route and attacked the foraging parties. When Caesar reached the Thames he found the ford blocked with obstacles.

This suggests a considerable amount of foresight and planning on the part of the British. Assuming that, as in the medieval period, more than one ford existed allowing the crossing of the Thames, it can only be assumed that Caesar’s route must have been predictable. We have seen earlier that to a certain extent this is so due to the geography, but the resulting corridor is quite wide and to deploy detachments might suggest that Caesar more or less found himself herded towards a particular ford.

On the far side of the ford Cassivelaunus’ decision to withdraw livestock and population from the Roman path sounds like an early version of scorched earth tactics used by the Russians during Napoleon’s withdrawal from Moscow. The stratagem clearly had some success, as Caesar’s comments concerning the confinement of the looting parties to the immediate areas surrounding the legions’ march still betrays, 2000 years later, the frustration felt by the commander. The whole campaign appears to have been designed by somebody who was aware that he had little to gain from a head-on confrontation with the Romans. Instead we see a guerrilla campaign using the British superior knowledge of terrain and the advantages of their mobile units (cavalry and chariots), while we hear little about their infantry.

The most daring manoeuvre is, however, the attack on the main Roman supply base by the Kentish kings as orchestrated by Cassivelaunus. Potentially this could have destroyed Caesar’s supply chain as well as his escape route. And while it would be easy to suggest that the British warriors were not very likely to succeed in this, it needs to be pointed out that manoeuvres like this are often designed to deflect or disarm an attack elsewhere, in this case the intention may have been to get Caesar to stop taking his advance any further into Cassivelaunus’ territory. If Rice Holmes (1907) is right, then Caesar’s presence back with the ships at the beginning of August might suggest that this objective at least may have been achieved.

It could be argued that these may have been quite sophisticated stratagems, but that in the end they did not work. Cassivelaunus still lost a stronghold and had to sue for peace. But it is the only one mentioned and the fact that Cassivelaunus was still able to negotiate might suggest that this was not the only power base in his territory. And if viewed from the British side, the fact that Caesar did not come back in the coming years meant that their aims were more successful than those of the Romans (who on this occasion failed to find out where the silver and gold of the island came from).

Whatever view you take on the success of these manoeuvres during the second campaign, there is too much evidence of generalship, of design and planning. The intelligence is too good, too much effort is expended to set traps such as the one at the Thames or the small hill fort on the first night, to suggest that the British warriors of Caesar’s period were either unsophisticated or inferior to the Roman army. Caesar’s inability to continue his campaigning in Britain allowed both sides to claim a victory; one for scaring off an enemy, the other for beating the opposition in battle and receiving tribute.