Atrax in 198 BC

At Atrax in 198 BC, Quinctius Flamininus threw up a siege embankment to carry rams up to the wall, and although his troops entered the town through the resulting breach they were repulsed by the Macedonian garrison. The siege tower that Flamininus then deployed almost fell over when one of its wheels sank in the rutted embankment, and the Romans finally gave up (Livy 32.18.3). Their failure can probably be attributed to inexperience in mechanized siege warfare: first, their siege embankment was obviously insufficiently compacted to bear the weight of heavy machinery; and second, they seem rarely to have used a siege tower before.

PHILIP V. Philip V of Macedon reigned more than a century after Alexander the Great. His family were the Antigonids, who had risen to power some 80 years before. Mercurial by nature, capable of military brilliance as well as acts of colossal stupidity, Philip was a brave and charismatic general who spent his entire reign fighting enemies to the north, south, east and west. The war with Rome was to prove his nemesis.

TITUS QUINCTIUS FLAMININUS. Flamininus was a fine example of the politician who let nothing get in his way. Serving as various types of magistrate during the war with Hannibal, he succeeded in becoming consul – one of the two most senior magistrates in the Republic – at the tender age of 30. Unusually for the time, he could write and speak Greek, but his love of all things Hellenic did not stop him spearheading a successful invasion of Macedon.

Northern Greece


Under Philip II and his son Alexander the Great, Macedon rose to a position of pre-eminence never equalled by any Greek city state before or after. By the late third century BC, the kingdom had seen better days. That said, although it was much reduced in size, it remained the dominant military power in Greece and continued to exert huge influence over the region. Naturally, this made it unpopular. Macedon ruled the central region of Thessaly, and through three well-situated fortresses (Chalcis, Demetrias and the Acrocorinth, the so-called `Fetters of Greece’) exerted military control over the area around Athens, as well as on the Peloponnese peninsula. Macedon also ruled part of the coastline of Asia Minor, as well as some of the islands in the Aegean Sea.

The rest of Greece remained divided into city states, small powers ruled by their own citizens. It’s important to stress here that there was almost no sense of `Greekness’ at this time. People identified themselves by the place they lived in, and were often at odds with those from other towns or city states. Powers such as Athens and Sparta, which had ruled supreme centuries before, were but shadows of their former selves. Thebes no longer existed, having been crushed by Alexander, and Corinth lay under Macedonian control. Aetolia, in west-central Greece, was one of the stronger city states, and a bitter enemy of Macedon. Other powers included Argos, Elis and Messenia on the Peloponnese, tiny Acarnania in southwest Greece, and Boeotia, the latter two both being allied to Macedon.

Carthage, Macedon and the Seleucid Empire – had all been beaten by Rome in war. In a mere 50 years, the Republic had morphed from a regional power with few territories into one that utterly dominated the Mediterranean world. This seismic change set Rome on the road to becoming an empire, a self-fulfilling path from which there was no turning back.

The Republic’s war with Carthage lasted for 17 bitter years, from 218 BC to 201 BC. It was a conflict initiated by the Carthaginian military genius Hannibal Barca. Invading Italy by crossing the Alps in winter, he inflicted crushing defeats on the Romans at the Trebbia, Lake Trasimene and Cannae. Yet Hannibal never succeeded in forcing his enemies to surrender. Obdurate and resilient, Rome recruited new legions to replace those that had been annihilated, and fought on. It was a long, drawn-out war that spanned four fronts: mainland Italy, Sicily, Spain and, lastly, Carthage, in what is now Tunisia.

Old grudges die hard

One might think that the Romans would have had enough of war once victory over Hannibal and Carthage had been secured. Far from it. Less than two years after the decisive Battle of Zama, the Republic opened hostilities with King Philip V of Macedon. his wasn’t a conflict that had come from nowhere, however: the Romans and Philip had history with one another.

In 215 BC, the year after the Battle of Cannae, the chance interception of a ship off the southern coast of Italy had brought to light a most unwelcome revelation. Documents seized by the Roman navy proved that Philip and Hannibal had come together in secret alliance against the Republic. The Senate immediately sent a fleet to the east, its task to contain the Macedonian King. Events in Illyria soon took on a life of their own, and in 214 BC, war broke out between Rome and Macedon.

The conflict lingered on until 205 BC, a stop-start affair that played out all around the Greek coastline. Macedon fought alone, while the Romans had allies throughout the region. here were sieges, lightning-fast raids and withdrawals, victories and defeats on both sides. When peace was finally negotiated, the Republic’s war with Hannibal was nearing its final act – it suited the Romans to end the conflict with Macedon. Aetolia, Rome’s chief Greek ally, had had enough too. Philip, on the other hand, had reason to be content, having lost none of his territories and gained part of Illyria.

In the five years that followed, Hannibal was defeated by Scipio at Zama, while Philip busied himself campaigning on the coast of Asia Minor, where he had some successes against Rhodes, the Kingdom of Pergamum and others. For every achievement, however, it seemed Philip suffered a setback. He besieged but failed to take the city of Pergamum, and in a naval battle at Chios he lost a large part of his fleet, as well as thousands of sailors and soldiers. he most humiliating incident was the six months in the winter of 201-200 BC that Philip spent barricaded in a bay in western Turkey by a Pergamene and Rhodian fleet. Finally escaping by night, slipping past the ships of his enemies, he made his way back to Macedon.

Whatever other misjudgements Philip had made, he had been astute enough to avoid conflict with the powerful Seleucid Empire, which controlled most of modern-day Turkey and sprawled eastwards into the Middle East, Afghanistan and India. He also entered into a secret agreement with the Seleucid ruler, Antiochus III, that allowed both powers to attack settlements belonging to Ptolemaic Egypt.

Rome’s revenge

Philip’s actions in Asia Minor were to have major repercussions. In the autumn of 201 BC, Rhodes and Pergamum both sent embassies to Rome pleading for aid against him. Despite having rebuffed Aetolian emissaries asking for the same help only a few years before, this time the Senate listened – but its first motion for war was rejected by the Centuriate, the people’s assembly.

It is no surprise that the very people who had bled and died in vast numbers during the struggle against Hannibal were reluctant to pick up their swords and shields again so soon, but their resistance was short-lived. Politicians have always been prone to ignoring decisions made by plebiscite, and after six months – and in all likelihood, after some significant back-room politicking – the Centuriate reversed its decision.

It was late in the summer of 200 BC before an army was dispatched to Illyria. he chosen commander was Publius Sulpicius Galba, an experienced politician and leader who had served in various positions during the war with Hannibal, including that of consul. Setting up base near the city of Apollonia by September, Galba sent a legion up one of the several mountain valleys that led to Macedon. After a short siege, the town of Antipatreia was taken and sacked. Prudently deciding to end his year’s campaign before winter arrived, Galba consolidated his position in Apollonia and waited for the spring.

Philip did the same in Macedon, but as soon as the weather began to improve in early 199 BC, he marched his army west from his capital of Pella. It was difficult to know which route Galba would use to invade; history doesn’t record whether Philip had scouts watching every valley, but it would have made sense to do so.

In the event, Galba chose the Apsus Valley. Philip rushed to defend it, but Rome’s legions smashed past his phalanx and into western Macedon. Although the defeat was incomplete – Philip’s army escaped almost entirely – this was a pivotal moment in the war, when the extraordinarily maneuverable Roman maniple proved itself superior to the rigidly structured phalanx.

Galba’s army marched eastward in search of Philip’s host, and a game of cat and mouse ensued through the summer, with each side seeking battle on its own terms. A victory for the Romans at Ottolobus, when Philip almost lost his life recklessly leading his Companion Cavalry against the enemy, was countered by a Macedonian win at Pluinna. Sadly, the locations of both Ottolobus and Pluinna have been lost to history.

The harvest of 199 BC arrived without a conclusive outcome. Galba, far from his base of Apollonia, with his supply lines at risk of being cut by snow or the Macedonians, took the sensible option and retreated to the Illyrian coast.

Titus Quinctius Flamininus

In many ways, the politics of 2,000 years ago were no different to today: the new man always likes to take control. Although it was common in the mid-Republic for a general to be left in command of the war he was prosecuting, Galba found himself supplanted by the current consul, Villius, soon after his return to Apollonia. Villius in turn was replaced only a few months later, in early 198 BC, by the brand-new consul, Titus Quinctius Flamininus thirty years old – a young age to be in command of a large army – he was a formidable figure who took the invasion in his stride. A lover of all things Hellenic, he could speak and write Greek, something unusual for Romans of the time.

Flamininus decided to try a different valley to Galba, that of the River Aous. He found his path blocked by Philip’s phalanx and an impressive series of defences, leading to a 40-day stand-off during which the Romans must have mounted many unsuccessful attacks. A dramatic meeting between Flamininus and Philip took place during this time, across the Aous. The Roman historian Livy records that Flamininus demanded Philip remove his garrisons from all Greek towns and pay reparations to those whose lands he had ravaged: Athens, Pergamum and Rhodes. Unpalatable though these demands were – being issued to a Hellenic king on his own territory by a non-Greek invader – Philip conceded. Unsurprisingly, he balked at Flamininus’ next demand, that he should surrender the towns of Thessaly to their own populations, reversing a legacy of Macedonian control of more than 150 years.

The impasse resumed, but soon after a local guide was found to lead a Roman force up and around the Macedonian positions. Attacked from in front and behind, Philip’s army broke and fled; it was thanks only to the phalanx that a complete slaughter was prevented. Pursued eastward, Philip had to abandon the same Thessaly he had refused to deliver to Flamininus only days before. It was a humiliating moment for the Macedonian King, all the more so as he had to torch his own farmland and towns to deny supplies to the enemy.

Defeat seemed imminent, but redemption was to come from an unexpected quarter. Despite the loss of the strategically important fortress of Gomphi, Philip’s forces proved victorious at another stronghold, Atrax. When the Roman catapults battered a hole in the wall and the legionaries charged in, they were faced by the phalanx in a tightly confined space. he sources are silent on details, but what happened there persuaded Flamininus to retreat from Thessaly.

Fine September weather meant that the year’s campaign did not come to an end at the usual time. Flamininus’s considerable successes saw the Greek city states, many of which had been playing neutral, move towards the Roman camp – or in the case of Aetolia and Achaea, join it outright. Several towns in Boeotia fell to the legions, and the mighty fortress of the Acrocorinth was besieged by a combined force of Romans, Pergamenes and Achaeans. his attack failed, but it signalled the end of Philip’s ability to retain territories outside Macedon. he future looked bleak.

Macedonian phalanx

The Romans had been fighting the Macedonian phalanx for more than a century. Pyrrhus defeated the Romans with it in the early third century, the Carthaginians in Africa in the middle of the century did as well, and Hannibal did the same later. In 197 bc the Romans had won a terrifying victory against Perseus’s father at Cynoscephalae, a battle that vividly illustrated the terrible power of the phalanx’s charge, even on unsuitable ground. In the year 198 bc before Cynoscephalae, the Roman siege of Atrax had failed when a Macedonian phalanx drawn up in a breach in the wall had proved quite impervious to Roman attack. Polybius’s judgment that “when the phalanx has its characteristic virtue and strength nothing can sustain its frontal attack or withstand the charge” will have been no news to Roman commanders. The phalanx’s fatal flaw, Polybius says, is that it requires flat terrain so that it can preserve its close order. Perseus’s father’s unwise decision to fight on broken ground allowed the Romans to defeat him at Cynoscephalae. But Aemilius Paullus consented to fight the Macedonian phalanx on a plain, ideally suited to it, on ground that Perseus had chosen for exactly that reason.

Crisis of conference

In likely recognition of this, Philip agreed to a conference with Flamininus and his allies in November 198 BC. It also suited the wily Flamininus to negotiate, because in Rome, consular elections were around the corner. If he was to be replaced (as he had done to Villius) then a peace treaty with Philip was the best option; if his command was renewed, on the other hand, Flamininus could fight Macedon to a finish.

Three days of heated negotiations without agreement saw Philip request to send an embassy to Rome; he would abide, he said, by the decision of the Senate. Flamininus agreed, knowing full well that once there, Philip would be asked to surrender the three fortresses that protected Macedon to the south – the so-called `Fetters of Greece’, Acrocorinth, Chalcis and Demetrias. And so it proved. Flamininus’ command was renewed, and Philip’s outwitted ambassadors could not agree to the Senate’s demand to evacuate the Fetters. Both parties retired for the winter.

In spring 197 BC, the war resumed. Rather than in mountain valleys, this year the fighting would take place in Thessaly. By May, both armies were marching towards each other on the coast. Taking account of his allies, Flamininus had about 26,000 men; Philip’s troops were of similar strength, including 16,000 phalangists.

Skirmishes and maneuvering saw both parties march westward, separated by a range of hills. As is often the case with battles of vital importance, the fighting began by accident when Flamininus’s scouts clashed with Philip’s advance force in bad weather, atop the hills of Cynoscephalae. Reinforcements were sent by both sides as the skirmish spiralled out of control and, before long, both commanders had deployed their armies.

The phalanx falters

Unhappy with the ground and lacking half of his phalanx (which was out scouting), Philip went to battle reluctantly. At first, things went well, with his phalangists driving the Roman left flank down the hillside towards their own camp. Victory might have seemed possible, but things changed fast when Flamininus led his right flank up towards the second half of Philip’s phalanx, which had arrived late to the battle. Panicked by the Romans’ elephants, these disorganised phalangists broke and ran.

Misfortune then turned into disaster for Philip when a quick-thinking Roman officer broke away from Flamininus’ position with several thousand legionaries and attacked the exposed flank and rear of the remaining half of the phalanx. Unable to defend themselves, the phalangists were slain in large numbers; the rest fled the field.

The defeat did not see Philip removed from his throne by Flamininus. Rome was well aware of the threat posed by the wild peoples to the north of Macedon and the Seleucid Empire to its east. Philip could serve nicely as a buffer, while also paying reparations and sending one of his sons to Rome as a hostage.

Effectively, Cynoscephalae signalled the end of Macedonian and Greek independence. he city states that had allied themselves to the Republic would realise this too late, and just a year later, in 196 BC, the Aetolians lamented how the Romans had unshackled the feet of the Greeks only to put a collar around their necks.



The Bactrian revolt was subsequent to the adoption of the thureophoros in the Seleucid army, and the thureophoros appears in Bactrian art. It is likely that Hellenistic colonist infantry were now similarly armed. A Bactrian army raised by Euthydemos in 208 BC to foil an attempted Seleucid reconquest consisted entirely of cavalry. The Greek cavalry were probably originally standard Hellenistic lancers, adopting the bow later in response to enemy horse archers and elephants. A Graeco-Indian coin depicts a rider in Greek armour with a bow, but also a short spear carried in his quiver. This could have been shortened to fit the available space, but the method of carriage makes it unlikely to have been long enough to be classified as a lance. Another cavalryman in Iranian dress is depicted on a silver dish with a cased bow but using a long lance in both hands as his primary weapon. This could be one of the Iranian nobility, but  has  also  recently  been  interpreted  both  as  a Chionite  Hun  and  as  a  Sassanid  Persian,  both  of  whom  occupied  Bactria  in  the  4th-5th  centuries  AD. A find of cataphract equipment in a government armoury dates to around 150 BC.

The Kushans were originally one of the five Yueh-chi clans who occupied Sogdia and overran the Bactrian Greek kingdom shortly before 130 BC. In the 1st century AD the Kushans conquered the other clans and established the Great Kushan empire over northern India, eastern Iran and much of central Asia. The Kushans became Sassanid vassals in 262 AD, revolted in 356 with Chionite help but were defeated in 358, revolted again in 370 and established their independence by 390 under Kidara, again with Chionite aid. The Chionites settled among the Kushan and became known to the Romans as “Kidarite Huns”. This new “Little Kushan” state lost its northern territories to the Sassanids after a defeat in 468, but remained in being south of the Hindu Kush until it fell to the Hephthalite Huns sometime after 477. Frescoes from a Yueh-chi palace at Khalchayan show a cataphract cavalryman and several horse archers, looking very like Parthian types. Figures equipped as Hellenistic phalangites are shown on the rare “Macedonian soldier” type of Kushan coin, suggesting that remnants of the Bactrian or Indo-Greek forces were incorporated in early Kushan armies.

Macedonian invasion of Bactria

The Macedonian invasion of Bactria heralded a new phase in the offensive in Asia, for now Alexander would be fighting Bactrians, who had played only a minor role in the Persian Wars. The burning of Persepolis and the death of Darius, the last Achaemenid king, had achieved the aims of the invasion that Philip had first outlined to the League of Corinth in 337. Bessus’s threat to the stability of Alexander’s empire was not the Greeks’ problem, but in taking his army into Bactria Alexander was moving well beyond anything the Greeks or his father had envisaged. The young king’s pothos (desire or yearning) was to create an empire that was without parallel, to outdo everyone before him including even Cyrus the Great, and to ensure his fame long after his death. Even at this time Alexander may have intended to travel to the Southern (Indian) Ocean to determine whether his old teacher Aristotle was right when he described India as a small triangular promontory on this ocean. These motives explain why he discharged some of the soldiers provided by the League of Corinth, who went home with a generous bonus; those who remained were now enlisted in his army as mercenaries. The composition of the Macedonian army was also changing. That autumn (of 330) 300 cavalry and 2,600 infantry from Lydia joined the Macedonian army. These were the first of the recruits Alexander had had trained in Macedonian tactics even as early as his campaigns in Asia Minor. The following year 1,000 cavalry and 8,000 infantry arrived from Lycia and Syria. Unfortunately, Alexander’s thirst for fighting, relentless march eastward, and integration of foreigners into his army and administration still proved to be his undoing.

With his men doubtless grumbling the army left Hecatompylus and marched north to Zadracarta (Sari), capital of Hyrcania, by the southern shore of the Caspian Sea. While en route Nabarzanes (an assassin of Darius) wrote to Alexander begging for mercy and offering his surrender. This unexpected event gave Alexander and his men cause to assume that Bessus was not as powerful after all, an assumption that received further support when Artabazus (father of Barsine) and other Persian dignitaries came to Zadracarta seeking Alexander’s friendship. They had in their armies some 1,500 Greek mercenaries, whom he incorporated into his ranks.

Alexander’s troop numbers were increasing, but not so his horses. In the past few months a goodly number of these animals had died from the forced pursuits as well as the intense heat. With this in mind he invaded the territory of the Mardi peoples of the Zagros (not to be confused with the Mardi in southern Persis, against whom he had previously campaigned), who were known for their horses and cavalry skills. In reprisal the Mardi kidnapped Bucephalas, Alexander’s horse, but quickly returned him when Alexander vowed to slaughter all of them and lay waste to their lands. They sent envoys to him who would have brought presents, presumably including horses, which replenished Alexander’s cavalry numbers.

When Nabarzanes surrendered to Alexander in Zadracarta he gave the king various presents including the eunuch Bagoas. Alexander was so taken with this extraordinarily beautiful man that he entered into a lengthy sexual relationship with him. Zadracarta was also the venue for Alexander’s alleged encounter with Thalestris, the Amazon Queen, who wanted to bear his child. She seems to have been more attracted to Alexander by his reputation than anything else, for his short stature surprised her, and she said that it did not live up to his “illustrious record.” Her insatiable sexual appetite was said to have been too much for him, and after two weeks he bade her leave.

From Zadracarta the Macedonians marched to Susia in Areia, on the crossroads of Bactria to the north, India to the east, and Drangiana to the south. There, Satibarzanes, another of Darius’s murderers, submitted to Alexander. His information that Bessus was levying more troops than Alexander had imagined, including many from the tribes living beyond the river Oxus (Amu Darya), which marked the southern boundary of Bactria, motivated him to chase Bessus as quickly as he could. Leaving behind Satibarzanes as satrap with a small garrison of 40 javelin men at the capital Artacoana, Alexander set off along the Kopet Dag massif. His treatment of Satibarzanes shows that he intended to continue using native satraps when and where he could. He had been marching three or four days and had covered about 70 miles when he received the news that Satibarzanes had thrown his weight behind Bessus after all: he had murdered the Macedonian garrison and engineered the revolt of Areia.

At all costs Alexander had to protect his rear. He immediately took a contingent of troops and in just two days was back at Artacoana. A startled Satibarzanes took flight with 2,000 cavalry into Bactria. The other troops with him were not so lucky. They took refuge on a nearby hill, but an impatient Alexander set it on fire, killing them all. With Areia now his again, Alexander installed Arsaces, another Persian nobleman, as satrap and returned to his main army. It was also at this time that the rebellious Barsaentes (also one of Darius’s murderers), satrap of Drangiana and Arachosia, was apprehended as he fled toward the Indus; Alexander wasted no time executing him, thereby removing another potential threat to the Macedonians.

At Phrada (Farah), the capital of Drangiana, Alexander halted and decided to rest his men for the remainder of that winter. Here he was faced with a conspiracy against his life that brought to the surface the critical mood of his men toward his growing orientalism.

The Seleucids

Under the Seleucids, Bactria-Sogdiana formed one vast satrapy , under the rule of a single satrap, as in the Achaemenid period. The division into several satrapies, which Strabo refers to (XI 11,2), came with the rise of an independent Bactrian kingdom. Under the Seleucids the frontier zone (to the north ) was not a cut-off point of no contact between the empire and a ‘remote beyond’ of barbarian nomads: that lay to the north of Sogdiana – the river Syr Darya , beyond which stretched the vast steppes of Central Asia and Siberia, far distant. Bactria was not on the geographic periphery of empire. Also, it must be remembered that the line between nomads and sedentary peoples is not a socio-cultural caesura (Lattimore 1979).

The revolt of Bactria

By the early 230s, on any chronology, all are agreed that a separate kingdom, claiming independence from the ruler Seleucus II, had been created by a Greek named Diodotus , who took the title basileus (king), a satrap who had usurped royal power. The chronology – tied (by inadequate sources) to revolt and to an invasion of Parthia (cf. above p. 87) – presents a mess hardly capable of being unravelled. The ‘high’ chronology sets secession in the early 240s, before the dynastic split between Seleucus II and his brother Antiochus Hierax; the lower chronology sets the revolt later (239/8). This boils down to a ‘choice’ between a time when Seleucus was facing invasion from Ptolemy III, or a time of internal upheaval (‘the War of the Brothers’). Another approach is to see it as a product of ‘neglect’ by Antiochus II (and his immediate successors) of the eastern provinces; according to this the main focus of Seleucid power was in the west. This latter solution will not do. First, it is based upon an argument a silentio; secondly, there is evidence of Seleucus II’s personal, and therefore important, action in the east, for example against the Parthians; furthermore, there is Antiochus II’s appointment of a satrap of Parthia and his rulings for Babylonia (van der Spek 1986, 241-8 (= no. 11); Falkenstein 1941, 4-5). There is no particular reason to suppose that a decision to face Ptolemy’s threats, which seems to have been given priority, meant that ‘the east’ was neglected. The wars of the Seleucids elsewhere may have provided an opportunity but that is not to say that they caused secession. But what sort of factors may have played a part in the secession?

The Successors saw the region of Bactria as a ripe plum, because of its reputed wealth and resources of manpower as a base for expansion – it was not seen as ‘the back of beyond’ (cf. D. S. XVIII 7, where it is described as the base for controlling the Upper Satrapies; Plutarch Dem. 46, noting Demetrius’ plan to carve out a kingdom for himself based on Media and regions east). The joint kingship of Seleucus I and Antiochus was linked directly to Antiochus I’s energetic activity in this region (cf. Plutarch Dem. 46). It is likely to have been the case that any Bactrian satrap was aware of the possibility of secession if he established a concordat with the Bactrian inhabitants, as Seleucus had in Babylonia. That individual ambition played a part is indeed probable, but seems insufficient as an explanation. Anti-Macedonian or pro-Greek elements (Wolski 1977) are not incredible given the massacres of Alexander’s first settlers by Macedonian soldiers, even if these were not as total as claimed in the sources (Narain 195 7; Bevan 1902, 286-7). We are not in a position to guess whether the local population had a ‘better’ deal under the Greek-Bactrians than under the Seleucids, but we can perhaps say that the old idea underlying this view, that the Seleucids were operating an anti-Iranian exclusion policy (e. g. Will and see further below) is wrong, so this approach is suspect. Rostovtzeff 1941, Will 1979-82 and Wolski 1982 tend, in general terms, to see in Bactria an exceptional symbiosis engendered by the threat of Scythian nomad tribes beyond the frontiers of the Seleucid empire (primarily beyond the Syr Darya). The idea of some sort of agreement between ruled and new rulers would follow an earlier pattern: see, for example, Antigonus’ retention of Stasanor as satrap of Bactria, and of Tlepolemos in Carmania, ‘because it was not easy to remove them by letter since their administration had been good with regard to the local inhabitants and they had many supporters’ (D. S. XIX 48,1). The process may have been comparable to that of Seleucus I in Babylonia, who used the resources and power of his position as satrap to form the basis of what was to be built into a kingdom in the end. There is no evidence of a ‘Bactrian’ independence movement, any more than in the Achaemenid period (cf. Briant 1984), because no single Bactrian ‘nation’ existed – that would be an anachronism.

As to the question of the eventual secession of Bactria from the Seleucid kingdom, which, it should be noted, was not final until the second century, many scholars see a sort of external pressure for its lasting in the supposed consequences of what is seen as a total cut-off from the Seleucid empire by Parthia. But this view is untenable: there was no impenetrable barrier erected between these regions (see above pp. 79-89) – traders were passing from Bactria to Parthia, from Parthia to Iran and Mesopotamia; economic and cultural interplay between places under Seleucid rule and the mainstream Greek world, evident in the material finds, and places under non-Greek rule (e. g. Arachosia under the Mauryas), is attested in sculptt1re (imports), pottery, jewellery and epigraphy. The idea of an Iron Curtain descending is anachronistic and out of keeping with practical realities, such as the impossibility of total surveillance of routes across ‘political’ frontiers. It is an argument a silentio in as much as there is a total vacuum of evidence on diplomatic relations between the Seleucid empire and Parthia and Bactria, while there is evidence of intercourse in terms of goods (trade) and culture. Secondly, it misconstrues the gradual course and nature of the impact of the Parthians’ capture of Parthyene a. nd of their temporary incursions into Hyrcania, which could not cut the link with north-east Iran, i. e. the routes from Iran to the eastern satrapies. Only in the course of the second century did the Parthians gain control of the southern side of the Elburz mountains (see above p. 189), winning control of the Caspian Gates (the ‘keys of the earth of Asia’, ap. Isidore of Charax), and begin territorially to occupy it by settlement. The route to the still Seleucid provinces of Margiana and Aria, and so to Drangiana, was reachable from south of the Elburz, via Meshed and Herat, or, with more difficulty, via Carmania.

A second, external danger has been conjured up to ‘explain’ secession in the spectre of ‘a powerful Chorasmian state’ north-east of the Seleucid empire at the north end of the river Amu Darya. Much is uncertain here, since we know of no single ruler or unified empire in the sources. While archaeology has shown urbanisation from the seventh century in the oases and river valleys, and therefore a sedentary population existed, the political structure is a blank, the concept of a powerful state a figment (cf. Briant 1984, 23ff. for excellent critique). What there is evidence of in this area is Greek artifacts and Greek influence in art from sites showing that contacts existed beyond areas under direct Greek-Macedonian rule (Ghirshman 1962; Will 1979, 269). While to the Greeks of the ‘old Greek world’ this area may have remained the ‘back of beyond’ it does not seem to have been so to those nearer at hand.

The ancient Greek sources, going back to the hellenistic period, billed the Greek-Bactrian kings as rulers of ‘a thousand cities ‘. Here a boast is being made in that the many villages of Bactria, including fortified ones, are called ‘cities’, and it should be stressed that these villages are not differentiated from pole is, which in Greece could be very small. However, it would suggest that, in the limited areas where settled life was possible, places organised as communities and recognised as such by Greeks existed in great numbers. This very much recalls other areas in the Seleucid empire, for example the socio-economic pattern of the Iranian region of Rhagae, which had two thousand villages according to Posidonius (in Strabo XI 9,1). Indeed 56,000 villiages have been counted in modern Iran. We may remember also the four hundred villages plundered by the Roman general, Murena, in Cappadocia (Appian Mithr. 9.65). Concentration on the large number of settled communitie s under the rule of the central authority and the perception of this as a reflection of power are not misplaced. The reality was that ‘villages ‘, like other organised communities, functioned as fiscal units and unit s of production, of great importance to the crown.

In Bactria, as elsewhere in the Seleucid empire, space was also found for the land-holdings and oikoi of the cavalry. It has traditionally been accepted that the eight thousand cavalry (a record in terms of the size of cavalry forces in ancient warfare) reputedly produced on the field by Euthydemus again st Antiochus III, were recruited from local people settled in the area. This is the basis of the symbiosis view (see above p. 108). In fact this is not peculiar to Bactria, but is found throughout the Seleucid empire (cf. pp. 55-7 ; 78).

We are thus opposed to the views of several scholars that the reason for the Seleucids ‘ failure in the eastern regions was their inability to solve two problems: first, that of the administration of satrapies at a great distance and their defence; secondly, the (bad ) relations of the rulers with the colonised. Neither of these explanations can be accepted. The first is true of all empires and has nothing specifically to do with Seleucid policy as such : maintaining control over a great distance is always a problem for imperial rulers; the second should simply be rejected as the evidence does not support it. There is no evidence that Bactria and other ‘upper satrapies’ were perceived as, in some sense, more peripheral to Seleucid interests and more difficult to deal with than, for-example, Asia Minor; while Seleucid rule had to accommodate itself to a specific complex of existing socio-economic patterns and local cultural traditions, nothing suggests that this was an unusual political problem demanding, and resulting in, a unique solution.


The Persian tribal migrations from Central Asia into present-day Afghanistan and Iran began after Alexander the Great’s conquests and a century before the Parthians blocked Crassus’s way east. From roughly 200 b. c. to a. d. 200, wave after wave of Persian-speaking Parthian, Saka, and Kushan nomads burst out of the Central Asian grasslands and attacked the Greek cities of Afghanistan. Ancient Balkh, the “Mother of all Cities” and the Bactrian Greek capital south of contemporary Mazar-i-Sharif in northern Afghanistan, was repeatedly sacked.

Credible, comprehensive written records about the varied peoples inhabiting the vast Central Asian steppe in the centuries before and after the birth of Christ are lacking. None of these cultures possessed alphabets. It is clear, however, that this region became an incubator of nomadic tribal groups contesting one another for grazing land-the climate was too harsh to permit agricultural surpluses large enough to support the growth of cities.

A population explosion may have fueled the piecemeal nomadic migration out of Central Asia into the wealthier, more settled, and more organized ancient civilization of the time, which stretched from Rome through Persia and Afghanistan to China. In Europe, German barbarians under Arminius defeated a Roman army at the Battle of Teutoburger Forest south of the Elbe in a. d. 9, driving it back to the Rhine. Thereafter, Rome was consistently on the defensive against the endless chain of tribe driving tribe stretching back through the Central Asia steppe, west into Mongolia and the Takla Mekan, a desert located in contemporary China’s far western Xinjiang Province. The nomadic invasions cast Afghanistan into a shatter zone for groups in search of booty and land. The Persian-speaking Parthian, Saka, and Kushan tribes, distant relatives of most contemporary Afghans, were the first to arrive. They attacked the Hellenistic cities established by Alexander the Great, pillaging, one by one, Balkh and then the Greek principalities at Kandahar, Ghazni, Jalalabad, Peshawar, and Badakhshan. Alexandria, near Kabul, was the last Greek city to fall in about 70 b. c., during the reign of the Greek king Hermaeus, but it was by no means the end of turmoil in the area. The Huns, and then the Turks and Mongols, continued to invade Afghanistan over the next 1,300 years.  

In the first century a. d. the Kushans overran Afghanistan and built an empire based near Peshawar in the region of Gandhara. Kushan kings adopted Buddhism. Their empire profited from its location at the center of the Great Silk Road network of trade routes linking Han China to the Roman Empire. Caravans traversed Eurasia east to west, passing through the Afghan cities of Balkh, Kabul, Bamian, and Herat, and robust trade also moved along the north-south corridors linking Balkh, Kabul, Jalalabad, Peshawar, and Delhi. During the third to fifth centuries a. d., Buddhist missionaries traveling the Silk Road carved two giant Buddha statues into the soaring mountain cliffs of the Bamian Valley about 70 miles northwest of Kabul. The two standing Buddhas, 180 and 121 feet tall, survived invading armies for 1,500 years. In March 2001, the Taliban destroyed them for inciting idolatry and blasphemy and for violating their extremist “Islamic order.”

The White Hun tribes, whom historians also identify as the Hephthaliti or Ephthalite Huns, burst out of the Takla Mekan into Central Asia and began flooding into Afghanistan in the fifth century a. d. As their name implies, the White Huns were Caucasians; according to the Byzantine historian Procopius, they had “white bodies and countenances that are not ugly.” The White Huns were unrelated to Attila’s Black Huns rampaging through Europe at the same time. They obliterated the Kushan Empire and everything else in their path as they proceeded into northern India.

The White Huns, like the Persian Parthians, Sakas, and Kushans, contributed to the bloodlines of most contemporary Afghans. Their empire, covering present-day Afghanistan, western Iran, and northern India, lasted into the second half of the sixth century. The current Pashtun tribal structure, customs, and language retain the imprint of the White Huns. They brought with them words that are prominent in today’s Pashto vocabulary, including the word for “tribe,” ulus, and khan, an honorific name for an important tribal elder or landowner. The nineteenth-century British anthropologist H. W. Bellew listed White Hun and Pashtun shared attributes: “the rigid law of hospitality, the protection given to the refugee, the jealousy of female honour, the warlike spirit and in sufferance of control, the pride of race, the jealousy of national honour and personal dignity, the spirit that loves to domineer.” Instability and political anarchy shook Afghanistan and Central Asia after the White Huns marched through. Turkish tribes invaded in the tenth century, ransacking and pillaging down to the Indus Basin and through Persia into Anatolia. (In 1453, the Saljuk Turks overthrew the Byzantine Empire and established the Ottoman Dynasty, which lasted until World War I.) The great Arab expansion after Mohammed’s death in 632 largely missed Afghanistan, but it extended into Central Asia north of the Amu Darya, converting Turkish-speaking tribes to Islam; Arab and Turkish Muslim spiritual proselytes followed the Turkic sword into Afghanistan, conveying Islam’s message. Arab Sayyids, whose name connotes ancestry extending back to the Prophet’s daughter, Fatima, went to Afghanistan to spread Islam, married locally, and settled down. Most inhabitants of Afghanistan had embraced Islam by the mid-nineteenth century.

Assyria and its Army – Sargon II’s Reign I

Sargon II

Posterity has long recognized Sargon II as one of the chief architects of the Neo-Assyrian Empire, the man who transformed a burgeoning power into the undisputed master of the Near East by continuously and successfully waging war. Despite the popular image of the Assyrians raping and pillaging their way to power and ruling through fear, the evidence reveals a complex process that not only responded to contemporary imperatives but also respected long-standing tradition. Sargon belonged to a culture more than a thousand years old, one whose war fighting reflected a common Near Eastern worldview that made the king responsible to the gods for everything that happened.

In the ancient Near East, warfare had many functions and meanings. Kings enacted political decisions through warfare, yet on another level war was an “ordalic procedure” (a trial by combat) through which rulers sought to impose order on the universe and defeat the agents of chaos. It was also a masculine contest between individual leaders and a chance for elites to prove their worth and gain status. The fortunes of war fed or depleted economies and helped the ruling class maintain power over the common people. Just as war ravaged the countryside and decimated populations, it led to the intermingling of different ethnic groups, provided opportunities for individual and group advancement, and promoted the exchange of ideas and technologies across borders and geographic zones. Then, as now, it had far-reaching consequences, not all of them negative. The ravages of war also inspired literary works such as Erra and Ishum that explored the moral implications of violence. Over time, nearly constant conflict among competing states had a homogenizing effect so that historical enemies developed similar cultures of war (rules and expectations) and methods of political discourse. Conversely, when expansion took armies into distant foreign lands, whose terrain often proved difficult and whose “barbarian” people did not share the same cultural or military practices, violence tended to escalate. In pursuing his interests, Sargon II utilized methods of warfare and imperialism that were as well known to his contemporaries as the theater of war was familiar to the Assyrians.

From the third millennium the Assyrian heartland comprised the Ashur-Nineveh-Arbela triangle roughly demarcated by the Tigris, its tributary the Lower Zab River, and the northern highlands. Over the following centuries, Assyria’s territorial influence expanded and contracted according to its political fortunes and the abilities of its kings. During the late second millennium and then again at the beginning of the first, the Assyrians won large but ephemeral empires that they ruled more through threat and armed robbery than by law and commercial development. By the middle of the eighth century, after a period of decline, they were ready to initiate a new type of empire based on their permanent presence in fully administered provinces. In the decades preceding Sargon, the Assyrians had extended undisputed control west to the Euphrates, north into upper Tigris region and east to the Zagros piedmont. By his first full regnal year, 721, the geographical area in which the Assyrian army regularly campaigned stretched well over a thousand miles, from Anatolia to the borders of Egypt, from Lake Urmia to the Persian Gulf, and from the Mediterranean Sea to Iran. As complex as it was vast, the theater of operations encompassed widely different types of terrain-rich agricultural land, rugged mountain ranges, arid plains, marshland, and unpredictable waterways-filled with a variety of flora, fauna, and natural resources. Joining Assyria in the fierce competition for control of resources and trade routes were a few other powerful states, myriad smaller polities, and various nomadic tribes, whose loyalties shifted according to the dictates of survival and opportunity.

Over the course of centuries, a pattern of interstate competition had developed. By the first millennium, much of the conflict between great powers took place in the buffer zones that separated them. Violence was not the first resort of conflict resolution, and kings often preferred diplomacy, espionage, and armed threat to direct confrontation. Nevertheless, war was endemic in all of its manifestations, including everything from less-frequent, high-intensity sieges and pitched battles to more common, low-intensity raids and skirmishes. Thus, Egypt vied with Assyria for control of Palestine; Phrygia, Assyria, and Urartu struggled over the Taurus polities and Syria; and Urartu challenged Assyria in Anatolia and competed with Assyria, Elam, and occasionally Babylonia for suzerainty over the Zagros piedmont and Median plateau. Occupying the dangerous central position in the geopolitical arena of the Near East, Assyria was surrounded by enemies yet managed through military, economic, and political prowess to extend its sphere of influence over much of the contested territory.

The primary goals of Assyrian expansion were to supply the core with vital resources that it lacked (e. g., metal, wood, and stone) and prevent competitors (other kings) from gaining power. Although ideology mandated that Assyrian kings strive to develop barren lands so that their subjects could “graze in the meadows in plenty and abundance,” taxes and a thriving textile trade provided insufficient capital for them to realize this objective. Conquest of new territory seemed to offer a solution. Since the army provided the means to this end, maintaining a military edge became a central concern. As Assyria extended its territory through annexation and by creating clients, its economic potential increased, but so did demands on its military. In response, the state gradually developed a system of governance that maximized both human and material resources. By reducing the need for armed intervention, political spectacle and diplomacy further alleviated the strain that territorial expansion put on the army.

Indeed, at the highest levels the Assyrians did not distinguish between civil and military administrations but operated under a unified system in which a handful of the king’s most trusted officials, the magnates, were involved in the whole spectrum of government, from court business, temple administration, and royal construction projects, to provincial management, diplomatic endeavors, and military campaigns. If the system encouraged the king to micromanage, it required his officials to become adept multitaskers. The royal treasurer, for example, besides handling court business, not only administered a province but oversaw the construction of Sargon’s new capital city, Dur-Sharrukin. Nevertheless, the imperial administrative structure functioned as a fully integrated, highly flexible organization designed to move resources-animals, metals, stone, wood, and people, especially craftsmen-from the provinces and distribute them among public works projects and the army. This is not to say that the provinces were bled dry. In fact, they retained much of what they produced. This way surpluses could benefit the locals as well as supply the army when it marched through their area. For the most part, it was in Assyria’s best interest to encourage the economies of both territories and clients; the more these flourished, the more they could contribute. Thus, Assyrian hegemony actually stimulated production and improved the quality of life in some areas, at least for local elites.

The number and size of imperial provinces fluctuated periodically due to territorial gains and demographic shifts. Under Sargon, there were three standard types: foreign lands annexed through new conquest and governed by royal appointees (e. g., Arpad, Damascus, and Unqi); those strategically vital territories on the northern and northeastern frontiers and in the Syrian Jazirah that the king’s magnates governed; and the heartland provinces managed by city governors. Historically the king’s magnates were the treasurer (masennu), palace herald (nagir ekalli), chief cupbearer (rab saqe), field marshal (turtanu), chief eunuch (rab sa resi), chief justice (sartennu), and vizier (sukkallu). The first four of these-the treasurer, cupbearer, palace herald, and field marshal-governed the strategically important border provinces on the heartland’s frontier and thus were instrumental in managing adjacent buffer principalities. The other three-chief eunuch, chief justice, and vizier-did not govern provinces but remained closely tied to the royal court. Table 1 outlines the duties attested for these officials as well as known office holders during Sargon’s reign. The groups of magnates had different responsibilities as well as different power bases. Those magnates who administered provinces were responsible for border security, public order, management of resources and personnel, tax collection, gathering and reporting of intelligence, building and garrisoning of forts, and construction and maintenance of dams, levies, aqueducts, and roads, as well as mustering troops and leading them on campaign. The magnates also had their own household troops-in effect small, private armies-and thus the king had always to keep these men in check.

Since land ownership paved the way to wealth and individual power, the king had to be careful lest any of his governors gain control of enough territory (and thereby resources) to challenge his authority. To this end, he made sure that their estates were scattered among several provinces rather than held as a single estate within their own provinces. For example, letters demonstrate that the chief justice, the vizier, and the governor of Calah all held land in Arzuhina province. This practice not only helped to curtail elite ambitions but also, as Raija Mattila notes, “established a network of interlocking economic interests within the provinces and tied the personal interests of the major land owners to the fate and welfare of the entire empire.” Landownership dispersal also went a long way toward solving one of the weaknesses inherent in a system whose central administration competed with an entrenched aristocracy, many of whose members had ties (and thus claims) to the throne. A further function of widespread landholding was, in effect, prebendary, as the magnates were under obligation to the crown to share key materials such as wood and stone, precious metals, and horses. In return for services and loyalty, the king bestowed grants of land and a portion of audience gifts and campaign plunder. Together the magnates’ provinces and those of the heartland comprised “Assyria proper,” and it was from these core territories that the crown enlisted the main chariotry, cavalry, and heavy infantry units of the standing army. All of the provinces provided levies for temporary duty.

Individually and as a group the magnates were vital to Assyria’s military effectiveness, but it was up to the king to direct their activities toward the fulfillment of his strategic goals. In particular, war and the conduct of war played a pivotal role in creating bonds between the king and the Assyrian elite. All of Sargon’s top officials not only benefited materially from Assyria’s wars but also were responsible for supplying and leading portions of the army on campaign. Members of the nobility traditionally formed part of the king’s chariotry and cavalry, and it is probably safe to assume that many of the army’s highest-ranking officers-among them a large number of eunuchs-belonged to the upper echelons as well. This system created a symbiotic relationship between the king and the affluent classes on the one hand and between the economy and the military on the other. Warfare played an important role in sustaining the imperial system, but it was the standing army that made it possible to rule a territorial empire of closely administered provinces, as opposed to hegemonic empire, in which the king held sway over semi-independent, tribute-paying clients. In fact, although the king managed a vast provincial system, in some areas-where strategic considerations or rough terrain made it expedient-he maintained the old hegemonic system.

During the reign of Tiglath-pileser III (745-727 b. c.), the king’s personal guard transformed into a standing army, the royal cohort (kisir sarruti), that consisted of chariot and cavalry units (including foreign elements recruited into the army after being defeated), Assyrian infantry, and auxiliary light infantry. Up until this point, economic and demographic restrictions had generally limited military operations to yearly raids aimed at collecting plunder and forcing targeted polities into paying tribute. In order to annex new territory and incorporate it into the provincial system, the army had to be capable both of extended campaigning far from the Assyrian heartland and of occupying conquered territory. For this reason and to balance the power of provincial governors, who levied and led troops for the crown, Assyria needed a fairly large force under permanent royal control. By institutionalizing the related practices of deportation and colonization, Tiglath-pileser was able to populate areas selected for agricultural or trade development and also control newly conquered peoples. Likewise, by incorporating selected units from defeated armies into his standing army, he could augment his own forces with experienced specialist units, while simultaneously crippling the ability of defeated peoples to rebel. Finally, the crown forged long-term agreements with a number of Aramaean tribes (Itu’eans and Gurreans), who provided auxiliary infantry for the standing army. Since auxiliaries and deportee troops depended on the crown for their livelihood and security, and since they had no stake in Assyrian court politics, they tended to be both reliable and loyal to the king. Thus, the allegiance of a large number of non-Assyrian troops increased the king’s power over his own officials.

Sargon’s Army

Although Sargon mainly adhered to the model established by his father, the size and organization of his army varied according to economic and political circumstances, military objectives, and the will of the king. Ancient Near Eastern societies produced no written corpus of military doctrine but carried out military operations pragmatically in accord with tradition, to meet necessity, and to exploit opportunity. What we know about the organization of Sargon’s army inevitably depends on the available sources, which in this case consist of horse inventories and personnel lists from Fort Shalmaneser (the review palace at Calah) as well as letters and a few miscellaneous administrative documents found at other sites. All of these texts lack the context that could explain their purpose and shed light on the plethora of ranks and administrative titles mentioned in them. Much of the terminology seems to be used interchangeably, and it is often impossible to detect distinctions between ranks or establish the full chain of command, hence the finer nuances of the ranking system remain stubbornly unavailable. Another oft-cited source, the sculptured palace reliefs, depicts arms and armor realistically, but offers limited insight into military organization and hierarchy. A detailed consideration of all the evidence is not within the scope of this work, and even the most thorough studies fall short of definitive answers; the sources are simply too ambiguous and fragmentary. Given the number of unresolved questions involving the structure of the Assyrian army, much of the following is necessarily provisional.

Under Sargon, the standing army consisted of the royal guards, equestrian forces (cavalry and chariotry), heavy infantry, and some units of auxiliary infantry comprised of Itu’ean archers, Gurrean spearmen, and occasionally other tribal peoples. The Assyrians did not hire mercenaries, although they did maintain a special relationship with certain tribal groups, who served the military in an auxiliary capacity. How long and under what terms permanent troops served we do not know. Nor is it clear whether these men usually lived in barracks, with their own families, or sometimes billeted among locals. The living situation probably depended on where the troops were stationed. To augment the standing army, provincial governors could levy a large temporary force, “king’s men” (sab sarri), from those liable for compulsory state service (ilku). The Assyrians also required clients to provide troops when called upon to do so. The king ultimately made all major military decisions. Directly subordinate to him were the chief eunuch, who administered the standing army, and the field marshal, who commanded a sizeable force of his own and sometimes led the magnates on campaign on the king’s behalf. As mentioned earlier, the magnates and provincial governors raised and commanded troops-their own permanent household guards and temporary levies. A precise chain of command cannot be reconstructed fully from the large number of attested officer titles, but the basic infantry organization (using modern terminology for unit types) went something like this:

Divisions of five thousand to ten thousand men commanded by a high official (magnate or provincial governor)

Brigades of one thousand men commanded by a rab 1-lim (chiliarch)

Battalions of five hundred men commanded by a rab 5-me-at (commander of five hundred)

Companies of one hundred to two hundred men commanded by rab 2-me-at (commander of two hundred), rab 1-me-at (commander of one hundred), or rab kisri (cohort commander)

Platoons of fifty men commanded by a rab hanse (commander of fifty)

Squad-level units of ten-essentially the number of men that could fit around a campfire-are sometimes attested in later texts but not so far in those of Sargon. The equestrian divisions used additional ranks such as team commander (rab urate) and chariot or cavalry commander (rab mugi), whose position in the chain of command eludes us. Some of the highest-ranking Assyrian officials and officers were eunuchs, but otherwise eunuchs do not appear to have been associated with any one particular military arm or unit. On the sculptured palace reliefs eunuchs intermingle with bearded Assyrians at sieges, and they never appear as a segregated corps. Specialized ranks and offices are discussed below within their specific military branches.

The Standing Army’s Equestrian Units

The chief eunuch was in charge of the core equestrian divisions of the standing army, including the king’s military entourage, the horse and chariot guards, foreigners recruited from conquered armies, and the “city units” (cavalry and chariot troops raised from the Assyrian heartland). There were at least two categories of royal bodyguards-the sa sepi (literally meaning “at the feet”) and sa qurbuti (“close by”)-both of which included chariotry and cavalry. These elite guards, probably recruited from the nobility, worked closely together. Of Sargon’s guards, the most prestigious corps was the one-thousand-strong cavalry troop (pethal qurubti) that always accompanied Sargon and which his brother, the grand vizier, Sin-ah-usur, commanded. That the king put his brother in charge of this elite outfit was a signal honor and a public display of trust. From a political standpoint it served to keep a potential rival at hand and content with his lot.

The sa qurbuti guards were regularly seconded to other units or sent on special-duty assignments. They occasionally oversaw the relocation of troops or operated as the king’s plenipotentiaries in the provinces. These troops acted with the full weight of royal authority, and there are several letters from governors and other high-ranking officials requesting that the king send one of these officers to resolve a dispute, evidently because a royal representative could get better results than local administrators. Certainly the presence of the king’s envoy would have helped speed up diplomatic and administrative processes that might otherwise have foundered due to communication delays. Aside from the guard units, which were something of a special case, chariots represented the most prestigious combat arm.

Chariotry had been the dominant, elite force in Near Eastern armies up until the introduction of cavalry in the ninth century. The fact that chariot contingents are always listed before cavalry and infantry in Neo-Assyrian royal inscriptions and administrative documents provides further evidence of the high status of this combat arm. Over time, war chariots became steadily larger and heavier, and by the mid-eighth century Assyrian chariots required teams of up to four horses and boasted eight-spoked wooden wheels reinforced with iron hobnails. There were several distinct chariot units in the army: the palace chariotry (gis. gigir é.gal); bodyguard chariotry (gis. gigir qurbute), the sa sepi guard chariotry (gis. gigir sa sepi), the “city units,” and some foreign contingents recruited after conquest. Each chariot normally had a three-man team: the warrior/knight (mar damqi), the driver (mukil appati), and a “third man” or shield bearer (taslisu). Chariot teams were organized into units of fifty, each with its own commander (rab hanse). Each contingent organized its men according to their function on the chariot; hence we find officers of the rank “chief third man” (taslisu dannu), “deputy third man” (taslisu saniu), and “cohort commander of the knights” (rab kisir sa mar damqa). This arrangement mirrored both social ranking and the specialized duties of the different chariot personnel. Various other official titles get mentioned in letters and administrative documents, but the context rarely (if ever) reveals the holder’s position in the hierarchy. The offices of the commander of chariotry (rab mugi sa gis. gigir. mes), chariot supervisor (sa pan gis. gigir), and overseer (?) of chariots (sa gis. gigir) thus remain something of a mystery.

While chariots were still important during Sargon’s reign, their prominence decreased as the army undertook more campaigns in mountainous territory where the use of wheeled vehicles became problematic. Nonetheless, chariots remained a valuable military asset in the more hospitable terrain of Syria-Palestine and Babylonia. When conquest delivered competent chariot troops into his hands, Sargon incorporated them into his own army. In his first regnal year he recruited fifty chariot teams (150 men) from Samaria. After his conquest of Hamath in 720, he took two hundred chariots (six hundred men), and after the conquest of Carchemish in 716, he acquired fifty chariots (150 men).36 Presumably, these men, like their Assyrian counterparts, belonged to the upper stratum of their respective city-states. By incorporating conquered elites into his army, Sargon not only allowed them to save face after defeat, but he also encouraged their assimilation into the empire. Sargon even permitted some foreigners, such as the Samarians or Chaldeans, to retain their national character and officers. Others were absorbed into the deportee (saglute) units and commanded by Assyrian officers.

According to the sculptured reliefs from Sargon’s palace, chariot personnel wore no armor other than the standard Assyrian pointed helmet, and they sometimes eschewed protective gear altogether. Aside from a whip, drivers did not wield weapons, and, although chariot fighters carried swords, they are only depicted shooting bows in battle. The chariot’s “third man” defended his compatriots with one or two shields. Some chariots carried spears and extra shields hung across the back to provide additional protection to those in the cab or to be detached for use in ground combat. The slight variations between chariot teams depicted on the reliefs do not allow us to distinguish between unit types (e. g., sa sepi or qurbute chariotry) or national origins (Assyrians, Samarians, or Chaldeans). The same may be said of the cavalry.

In addition to the horse guards already discussed, a regular cavalry (pethallu) also served in the standing army. These troopers belonged in the city units recruited from the main centers of the Assyrian heartland, including Ashur, Arbela, Arzuhina, Arrapha, and “Aramaea” (a broader, regional designator). As in the case of foreign chariotry, Sargon recruited conquered horsemen into the deportee regiments on several occasions: six hundred from the defeated army of Hamath, two hundred cavalrymen from Carchemish after that city’s defeat, and another six hundred from Babylonia after 710. As mentioned earlier, this policy allowed the king not only to augment his own cavalry force but also to foster compliance among conquered peoples, who were simultaneously prevented from fomenting rebellion in their home territories.

Assyria and its Army – Sargon II’s Reign II

During Sargon’s reign, the importance of cavalry increased a great deal due to the army’s growing need for mobility over the rough terrain north along the upper Tigris and in the Taurus regions, and east into the Zagros Mountains. Horse soldiers wore robes (hiked up in front for ease of movement), leggings, and boots, but no armor other than a standard conical Assyrian helmet of iron or bronze. At this time, riders carried lances, short swords, and bows. Although the Assyrians had neither saddles with girth straps nor stirrups, they developed a good bridle-and-rein system that allowed horsemen to fight at the gallop without losing control of their mounts. Before the invention of the rein holder, bareback riders lacked the ability to discharge a bow without dropping their reins. In the ninth century the Assyrians solved this problem by having cavalry operate in pairs, with one rider to hold the reins of both horses, while the other shot his bow. By the late eighth century, horsemen rode singly. Nevertheless, while Sargon’s cavalry are depicted on the reliefs carrying encased bows, they never appear shooting while galloping. It seems likely, therefore, that Sargon’s reign marked a period of transition for the cavalry.

Since the mounted divisions were essential to maintaining Assyria’s military edge, the acquisition and care of horses and mules were top priorities. The Assyrian army needed several different types of horses. Large and hardy, Kushite horses from Egypt made excellent chariot teams, whereas smaller horses from the Taurus and Zagros pasturage were especially desirable as cavalry mounts. Horses acquired through trade, tribute, and war fell under the purview of the chief eunuch, as did control of the system based on the regular tax collection scheme that assembled them for military use. In the off-season, the army distributed mounts to their riders, who would pasture and attend to them, while the recruitment officers (musarkisani) oversaw the process and made sure that the horses received fodder and the men remained battle-ready. At muster time in each province, two of these officers together with a subordinate team commander (rab urate) or cavalry prefect (saknu sa pethalli) organized both horses and soldiers for the mounted units of the standing army. Recruitment officers delegated horses to the cavalry and chariotry, put some out to pasture in reserve, or occasionally assigned them to work as draft horses in public building projects. Another class of high official, the stable overseers (saknute sa ma’assi), was in charge of horse care for all equestrian units on campaign. In addition to this system-perhaps for emergency needs-larger herds of horses were kept on estates in the provinces under the care of provincial governors and probably in special state-run pasturage in the heartland.

The central government put a lot of effort into making sure the army had an adequate supply of horses and pack animals (mules and sometimes camels), but the job was not an easy one. The royal correspondence attests that sometimes people had to be coerced into contributing their assigned allocation. For example, in answer to Sargon’s query about the availability of a particular kind of horse, one provincial official replied: “I sent the servants of the king, my lord, to the town, Kibatki. They became frightened and they put people to the iron sword. After terrorizing Kibatki, they got afraid and wrote to me, and I set a deadline for them.” In another case the palace instructed several officials assembling cavalry under emergency conditions: “Get together your officers plus the h[orses] of your cavalry contingents immediately! Whoever is late will be impaled in the middle of his own house, and whoever changes the [ . . . ] of the city will also be impaled in the middle of his house and his sons and daughters will be slaughtered by his order. Do not hold back; leave your work, come right away!” Given how rarely this type of threat appears in the royal correspondence, it is likely that Sargon included it to emphasize the urgency of the situation, though clearly the king expected immediate results and felt able to threaten his subordinates as necessary.

The availability of food and fodder for the equestrian divisions was also a frequent subject for complaint in letters to the king, as provincial governors had difficulty providing enough for the army without inflicting shortages on their own men. Lower-ranked officers met similar problems as they tried to supply their men and mounts. One letter, written to Sargon from the governor of Supat (in Syria), recounts a conflict over fodder:

The king, my lord, ordered [me to] give bread to the grooms. Now [PN] came (and) I told him [ . . . ] but he said: “The king has given orders to me and I will take two [ . . . ] of each (provision).” I did not agree; I did not give it to him, so he went into one of my villages, opened a silo, brought in his measurers and piled up (grain) for [x] healthy men. I went and spoke with him, saying: “Why did you by yourself, [with]out the deputy, open the king’s granaries?” He would not look me in the eye [but said]: “In the month of Nisan my fodder (supply) fell, and the horses are collapsing (before) me; I [can]not



Another official, while waiting for king’s men to muster in the northern Habur region, noted, “The horses of the king, my lord, had grown weak, so I let them go up the mountain and graze there.” In a world subject to every vicissitude of nature, the management of food and fodder for large numbers of people and animals presented a serious challenge. Facing similar obstacles, the regular infantry formed the backbone of the king’s army.

The Standing Army: Infantry

Armored spearmen and archers recruited from the home provinces and men recruited from the elite infantry of certain conquered states (e. g., Shinuhtu and Samaria), made up the Assyrian heavy infantry of the standing army. These soldiers wore the standard conical helmet and metal or leather scale armor over a knee-length tunic. Officers often carried a mace as a symbol of office and for coercive purposes, albeit probably not as a battlefield weapon. The reliefs do not show any Assyrian using a mace in battle. Additionally, archers and spearmen carried short swords or daggers, but for obvious reasons only the latter carried shields. There is no evidence for slingers during Sargon’s time, although they became prominent in the army later.

Auxiliaries made up the standing army’s light infantry divisions, each with its own distinctive costume and weaponry. The light archers, the Itu’, represented an Aramaean tribe that inhabited central Mesopotamia. After Tiglath-pileser III finally pacified them around 738, members of the tribe formed a permanent corps of the Assyrian army. Text references show that under Sargon other Aramaean tribes such as the Hallatu, Rihiqu, Litanu, and Iadaqu sometimes served as auxiliary archers as well, though only the Itu’ served continuously. On the palace reliefs, auxiliary archers always appear bare-chested and barefoot, dressed in short kilts, and wearing headbands to control their long hair. Though primarily serving as archers, they are occasionally shown using a dagger to dispatch an enemy in the aftermath of battle. Commanded by an Assyrian officer (saknu), the Itu’ean auxiliaries nonetheless retained some tribal organization under the subordinate leadership of chiefs and village headmen. The Gurrean auxiliaries fulfilled somewhat different tasks.

So far it has been impossible to identify the Gurreans’ place of origin, but based on their distinctive crested helmet and light armor it is generally agreed that they hailed from a wide area along the northern and northwestern frontier of Assyria; that is, northern Syria and central Anatolia. The term “Gurrean” seems to have been used broadly as an ethnonym and military designation rather than a specific tribal name, and texts suggest that these soldiers served under the sole command of Assyrian officers. In battle each wore a crested helmet, a small chest plate (sometimes referred to by the Greek term kardio-phylax), a knee-length tunic, and usually boots. They carried spears (their weapon of preference, judged to have been about eight to nine feet long), short swords, and round bucklers made of woven wicker or leather.

As part of the standing army, the auxiliaries owed loyalty only to the king, who often allocated them for duty in the provinces. Auxiliary troops-especially the Itu’ean archers-were in high demand as a kind of mobile military police to help with internal security and peacekeeping, border patrol, and intelligence gathering. The governor of Ashur, for example, once wrote to Sargon asking for Itu’eans to oversee some workers in his absence: “The governor of Arrapha has 100 Itu’eans standing guard in the town of Sibtu. Let them write to the delegate of Sibtu and let 50 (of those) troops come and stand with the carpenters until I return.” Both types of auxiliaries made up a significant portion of the army on campaign. On the Dur-Sharrukin reliefs, Itu’eans and Gurreans appear in nearly every combat or siege scene, and it is clear that they were an integral part of Sargon’s standing army.

 The Provincial Army: Levies

In Assyria all adult males were eligible for annual temporary service (ilku) in the army or to do work for the crown. If there were any formal criteria for eligibility, such as age and physical condition, they are not known, though texts reveal that even very young boys sometimes served, probably as substitutes for older family members or richer men who bought themselves out. Presumably, the local village headman along with the recruitment officer decided whether individuals were fit for duty, though how strict they were about it probably depended on the quota they had to fill. Levies served as infantry, cavalry, and possibly as chariot drivers and “third men.” Among those who apparently counted as king’s men and mustered for seasonal service was an ambiguous group called kallapu (plural kallapani) that appears to have formed in the eighth century after the adoption of a rein-holding device obviated the need for cavalry to ride in pairs, with one to fight and one to hold the reins. Having been made redundant, the former rein-holders became a new unit called kallapani that functioned as lancers or as a type of dragoon (mounted infantry). These troops performed a wide variety of duties, including serving as the army’s vanguard or rearguard (or both), reconnaissance men, foragers, sappers, MPs (to keep levies in line), and guards for royal messengers. As the lowest-ranking soldiers, seasonal levies receive relatively little attention in Sargon’s texts and sculptured reliefs.

Notes on Arms and Armor

Excavated examples of arms and armor dating to the late Assyrian period reveal a great variety in materials and construction and little uniformity, though certain trends emerge. As we have seen, the main weapons of the Assyrian army were spears and bows, and since both were made almost entirely of perishable materials, few traces of which have survived, analysis rests on the interpretation of blades and metal points. Despite being more expensive than bronze, harder to work, and requiring a long process of carburization, hammering, and quenching, iron was the preferred metal for swords and daggers, probably because it was strong and could be sharpened and re-sharpened easily. Iron did not entirely eclipse the use of bronze for the manufacture of military equipment, however. Lighter weight than iron, bronze was suitable as shield covering and for helmets, and, because it could be recast repeatedly, it proved particularly appropriate for the speedy production of arrowheads and spear points. Scale armor made of bronze, iron, or perhaps leather provided body protection.

Bows depicted on the reliefs appear to have been a composite, recurve type constructed of wood, bone, and sinew strips glued together. Estimations based on the length of surviving spear points suggest that shafts were about nine feet long and that both infantry and cavalry used them for close-quarter combat rather than for throwing. Judging from the reliefs and the size of the extant examples of swords and daggers, which are all quite short-no sword exceeds forty-five centimeters in length-the Assyrian soldiers used the double-edged blades should their primary weapon fail or to finish off defeated enemies in the aftermath of battle. Short swords, daggers, and spears, used for stabbing rather than slashing, delivered killing blows more effectively, penetrating stab wounds invariably being more deadly than most surface cuts. These blades also functioned as handy tools comparable to the modern marine’s KA-BAR knife or a Gurkha’s kukri, both of which are famous for their versatility as murderous weapons, entrenching tools, and path-breaking implements. Indeed, on Assyrian reliefs, sappers are often shown using their blades to undermine the walls of besieged towns, while on at least one occasion soldiers use their daggers to butcher animals.

Since few datable examples of shields have survived, most information comes from the reliefs, according to which Sargon’s army utilized a number of shield types fashioned from various materials: large, round shields made of bronze or possibly wood reinforced with bronze bands; smaller round and rectangular combat bucklers, probably made of densely woven wicker or leather; and full-length tower shields curved at the top and composed of the same woven material. All shields had one central handgrip. The material evidence, such as it is, suggests that Sargon’s army was as well-equipped as possible at the time. On campaign, accompanying craftsmen replaced or repaired the equipment that they could, while plundering soldiers carefully fieldstripped weapons and armor from dead enemies for reuse. The arms and armor plundered from captured cities that the king did not dedicate at a temple or award to the magnates filled the storerooms of a review palace (ekal masarti) for future use.

The Army on Campaign

The Assyrian army has often been portrayed as a mercilessly efficient fighting machine capable of overwhelming any obstacle, but the reality was much more commonplace and involved a great deal of human effort, effective planning, and strenuous physical labor. Warfare was seasonal, with the likelihood of good travel weather and the availability of food and water determining the duration of campaigns as well as campaign route. After careful planning throughout the winter, campaign season began in late spring or early summer with the annual muster, which could take a month or more to complete. A complicated process, the muster involved constant communication between governors, officials overseeing troop movements and logistical arrangements, and the king. A recruitment officer or cohort commander collected the enlisted men in the area assigned to him and then decided which recruits were fit to serve and which should stay in reserve. Once he had gathered his troops, he delivered them to his immediate superior, a prefect or a provincial governor, who marched them to a review palace (armory) or a destination closer to the area of operations. The Assyrians used the review palace “to maintain the camp (and) to keep thoroughbreds, mules, chariots, military equipment, implements of war, and the plunder of . . . enemies; . . . to have the horses show their mettle (and) to train with chariots.” These large, fortified complexes at Calah and Dur-Sharrukin could board three thousand or more horses. At the muster point, troops trained before being outfitted with such items as armor, packs or saddle bags, cloaks, tunics, water skins, sandals, and reserve food rations, according to the requirements of their specific units.

Much of the time, assembly went smoothly, as evidenced in a report from an official on the northeastern frontier, who calmly assured the king that “I will assign my king’s men, chariots and cavalry as the king wrote to me, and I will be in the [ki]ng my lord’s presence in Arbela with my king’s men and troops by the [dea]dline that the king, my lord, set.” Fulfillment of manpower obligations could be onerous for the officials involved, however. Several letters complain about the quality of recruits and indicate that the crown’s demands sometimes met with resistance at the local level. In a report to Sargon, for example, one official protested, “I wrote to the king, my lord, but only obtained [2]60 horses and [x number] of little boys. [2]67 horses and 28 men-I have 527 horses and 28 men altogether. I keep writing to where there are king’s men, but they have not come.” Other officers grumbled about men being late for a muster or avoiding duty completely. One frustrated official confessed, “My chariot fighter [cal]led Abu-[ . . . ]-for the second year [ . . . ] has not g[one on] campaign with me.” A similar dispatch, in which an official testified that “[120] king’s men who did not go on campaign with the king are in the presence of the governor of Arbela; he does not agree to give them to me,” suggests that high-ranking officers were sometimes loathe to turn their troops over to someone else, especially someone who might be regarded as a competitor.

The Assyrians obliged clients and allies to send men on campaign when required. Here too calls for troops were sometimes greeted with passive resistance. For example, Sharru-emurani, the governor of the Assyrian province Zamua, in the Zagros foothills, wrote to Sargon: “Last year the son of Bel-iddina did not go with me on campaign but kept the men at home and sent with me young boys only. Now may the king send me a deportation officer (literally “mule-stable man”) and make him come forth and go with me. Otherwise, he will (again) rebel, `fall sick,’ shirk, and not [go] with me, but will send only l[ittle] boys with me (and) hold back [the best men].” Foreign contingents or mercenaries could be difficult for Assyrian officers to control, and there are several letters regarding unruly soldiers. One officer, writing from Arbela, protested that “the Philistines whom the king, my lord, organized into a unit and gave me, do not agree to stay with me,” while another official indignantly reported troops “loitering in the center of Calah with their mounts like [ . . . ] common thugs and drunkards.” Unsurprisingly, most of the letters saved in the permanent archives were those that reported problems rather than those that merely confirmed positive results, and we should be cautious about reading too much into them. Nonetheless, complaints of shirking, delay, dereliction of duty, and occasionally overt resistance to imperial authority evince themselves with striking regularity.

Since muster lists are incomplete and no text explicitly states how many men went on a given campaign, it is impossible to determine the size of Sargon’s army accurately. Based on ration information given in a couple of letters, one scholar tentatively reckons that the Assyrians could have raised an army of thirty-five thousand to forty thousand for large operations. Muster lists dating to the period 710-708 tally more than twenty-five thousand men available for active duty or held in reserve, thus indicating the minimum size of the force during that time. Given the logistical constraints under which the army operated, it seems most likely that it seldom exceeded thirty-five thousand and more commonly amounted to fewer than twenty thousand men. Scattered epistolary evidence suggests that the Assyrians experienced chronic manpower shortages, especially when soldiers had to be removed from garrison duty to go on campaign. In one instance an unidentified author explained that he could not send two thousand men to the royal delegate at Der as requested, because “the men from here do not suffice (even) for the fortresses! Whence should I take the men to send to him?” Moreover, the construction of the new royal capital, Dur-Sharrukin, drained manpower and material resources from the provinces to the point that governors had a difficult time fulfilling work quotas while maintaining provincial security and military readiness. With mounting frustration the palace herald, Gabbu-ana-Ashur, wrote to Sargon protesting that “all the straw in my land is reserved for DurSharrukin (to make mud bricks) and my recruitment officers are now running after me; there is no straw for the pack animals.” He went on to demand irritably, “Now what does the king, my lord, say?” The conquest of new territories, while theoretically expanding the recruit pool, inevitably put additional stress on the standing army, though the real problems arose after the army left the muster area.

Assyria and its Army – Sargon II’s Reign III

Care and Feeding of the Army

Few studies of ancient military campaigns get into the nitty-gritty of logistics, partly because so little factual information has survived about how armies dealt with supply and partly because combat is generally considered more interesting. But those who confronted the reality of ancient warfare understood implicitly the principle that “supply is the basis of strategy and tactics” or their armies suffered the consequences. In the harsh and unpredictable climate of the ancient Near East, it had always been the case that logistical requirements-particularly the need for water-dictated routes of march as much as tactical considerations. For this reason, successful military operations depended on control of travel routes, river fords, and mountain passes. Accordingly, the Assyrian Empire spread not as a “stain” but along communication lines, which sometimes meant that Assyrian-held territory was not fully contiguous. When moving into a new area, the Assyrians first took over travel corridors and key cities that they secured with networks of forts. Rather than attempting to occupy entire conquered territories, the Assyrians left unproductive tracts of countryside alone and depopulated trouble zones.

Supplying troops and animals during the muster period posed a challenge, but provisioning a large army on the march over difficult terrain in hostile territory took months of careful preparation and organization. It is generally agreed that active duty soldiers require a minimum of three thousand calories a day plus two quarts or more of water, although the average Assyrian soldier, who was shorter, slighter, and more used to heavy labor than his modern counterpart, probably managed well on fewer calories. Horses and pack animals needed roughly eight gallons a day of water and ten pounds of straw or chaff plus another ten pounds of grain to be supplemented by pasturage when available. For an army of any size, carrying sufficient supplies for an entire campaign quickly became impossible, since sufficient food and fodder became too heavy for men and pack animals to carry. To mitigate this problem, the Assyrians created forward supply depots as part of their provincial system, while carefully choosing the route outside their territory to maximize client aid and the availability of forage. At the outset soldiers received small amounts of barley and oil to be held in reserve as “iron rations,” but the troops prepared their own victuals. There was neither a food service nor a central mess in the Assyrian army.

When traveling through the client states bordering Assyria’s outer provinces, the army could expect to be provided with necessities. In his Letter to Ashur, for example, Sargon reports approvingly of his Mannean client: “Like one of my own eunuch governors of the land of Assyria, he made provisions of grain and wine to feed my army.” The real test began when the army crossed into enemy territory, where it was sometimes impossible to find potable water and provisions. Under such circumstances, relief came only with the capture of enemy food sources. Thus, after Sargon swept through the district of Wishdish in northwestern Iran, he could celebrate only after he opened “their innumerable granaries and fe[d] my troops on immense quantities of grain.” As long as they timed things right, this type of warfare offered the Assyrians great benefit for minimal risk. Captured granaries fed Assyrian troops and deprived the enemy of food, while the application of overwhelming force terrorized locals into submission and served as an example to neighboring polities that often capitulated without a fight. From the Assyrian point of view, this sort of operation was the most cost-effective form of warfare. Hence, food became a weapon. If the king could control access to it, he could supply his own men and deprive his enemy, who might well face starvation as a result.

In addition to food, providing soldiers with clothes, equipment, weapons, and mounts was a tremendously difficult task, involving a high level of organization and numerous specialized support personnel: craftsmen to create replacement parts for arms, armor, and vehicles; engineers for bridges and siege engines; grooms; and mule drivers. The royal campaign retinue also included scribes, domestics (cupbearers, bakers, confectioners, body servants, and cooks for the king’s household), scouts, messengers, and scholars to read the omens and advise the king. The magnates and other high-ranking officers brought their own household personnel along with them. Except under extraordinary circumstances-even Sargon had to walk on occasion-the elites traveled in relative comfort, riding in chariots or on horseback during the day and spending nights in camps with large, fully outfitted tents where servants prepared meals and cared for equipment. 100 By contrast, the average Assyrian soldier walked all day and then constructed a fortified camp, erected a tent, built a campfire if that was possible, fed himself, and probably looked to his equipment before turning in for the night. The unlucky ones pulled guard duty.

Very little information has survived regarding the common soldier’s experience of war, but given the circumstances under which he served, it was sure to have been taxing. Assyrian soldiers faced many hazards in the course of their service: disease; the physical and mental stresses of campaigning; combat injuries; capture; and death. Close-quarter living, indifferent hygiene, and bad food and water almost certainly caused outbreaks of those epidemic diseases-typhus, typhoid, dysentery, cholera, influenza, and diphtheria-that plagued all premodern armies. There was not an official medical corps in the Assyrian army, though the king and other elites traveled with their own personal healers (asu and asipu), some of whom might have treated lower ranks when the need arose. The Assyrian medical literature deals with both disease and wound treatment, but it contains little (if any) specific reference to military personnel. Interestingly, the curse formula of a Neo-Assyrian treaty contains some hint of normal wound treatment: “When your enemy stabs you, may there be a dearth of honey, oil, ginger, and cedar resin to put on your stab wounds.” As honey and cedar resin are natural antiseptics, the wound victim would have stood some chance of recovery. Normally, regular soldiers probably had to treat each other with whatever medicaments they carried, without the aid of an expert.

Travel in the ancient Near East was grueling under the best of circumstances, and several letters attest to unforgiving road conditions even within Assyria. For example, the governor of Ashur, Tab-sil-esharra, warned Sargon to send his officer via an alternate route because “the


d through the province of Arrapha is very choked; there are gullies permanently filled with reed and it is getting (worse).” Another dispatch reported that a proposed campaign itinerary to the east was not feasible because “the ground is difficult; it lies between the mountains, the waters are high and the current is strong, not fit for launching either wineskins or keleks (to cross). The king, my lord, knows that the troops are unskilled (in swimming).” Similar messages spoke of travel hindered by swollen rivers, storms, and the devastating impact of snow. In order to explain his continued absence from court, the magnate Nabu-beluka”in wrote, “We are clearing the roads, but snow is filling them up. There is very much snow. . . . The year before last, there was snow like this, the rivers were frozen and the men and horses with me died in the snow.” By contrast, the Near East’s extremely hot summer temperatures proved no impediment to the hardy, well-acclimatized Assyrians, who apparently took it for granted. Debilitating heat did not get mentioned in letters or inscriptions, though the effects of drought figured periodically.

Sargon’s Letter to Ashur, the account of his campaign against Urartu in 714, offers one of the most eloquent descriptions of the rigors of mountain travel:

As for Mount Simirriu, a lofty peak that thrusts up sharp as a spear point and whose summit, the dwelling of the goddess, Belet-ili, rises over the mountains, whose topmost summits, indeed, reach to the very sky, whose roots below thrust down to the depths of the netherworld, and which, like the back of a fish, offers no way to pass on either flank, and the ascent of which, from front to back, is exceedingly difficult, on the sides of which yawn chasms and mountain ravines, a fearsome spectacle to behold, discouraging to the ascent of chariotry and to the high spirits of steeds, the worst possible going for the ascent of infantry . . . I provided my engineers with heavy copper picks, so they broke up the sharp peak of the mountain into fragments as if it was limestone, and made good going.

Even in modern times, the Zagros Mountains present a formidable challenge to nomads. For example, the documentary film People of the Wind records the annual Bakhtiari tribe’s migration to upland pasture during the 1960s. Of particular relevance are the sections that show the crossing of mountain rivers via inflated goat skins, the recutting of a path after a winter washout, and an enforced halt after rain has rendered waterlogged woolen tents too heavy for the pack mules to carry. Each of these problems-and indeed their solutions-would have been familiar to the Assyrians.

The Order of March and Battle

Those soldiers who survived the march had to face the rigors of combat. Campaign season usually began sometime in Nisan (March- April) after the celebration of the New Year’s festival and lasted until it was time for the fall planting or, more rarely, until the advent of winter precluded further action. Expeditions to the Zagros Mountains might start later, since snow could block passes as late as July. On campaign, the standing army marched in unit order under the chariot standards of prominent deities such as Nergal, Adad, Ashur, Ishtar, Sin, and Shamash. Tradition associated particular regiments with certain gods, as in the case of the royal cavalry guard and the Arbela city unit, whose patron was Ishtar of Arbela. In royal inscriptions when the king made statements such as “I prepared the yoke of Nergal and Adad, whose standards march ahead of me,” he not only referred literally to divine standards (urigallu) but tacitly indicated which divisions took the lead position. The order of march, although seldom mentioned in royal inscriptions, undoubtedly changed to meet the exigencies of war, weather, and terrain, but it was probably also contingent upon the presence of magnates, who had the right by privilege of birth, social status, or the king’s favor to travel and fight near him. While ascending a very steep mountain, for example, Sargon claimed, “I took the lead position before my army, I made the chariotry, cavalry, and my combat troops fly over it like valiant eagles, I brought after them the support troops and kallapani, the camels and pack mules frolicked over its peak, one after another, like mountain goats bred in the hills. I brought the surging flood of Assyrian troops easily over its arduous crest and made camp right on top of the mountain.” Recognizing the possibility of ambush and harassment attacks as they marched through enemy territory, the king placed himself with the best troops in the vanguard, put vulnerable baggage and noncombatants in the well-protected center of the column, and brought up the rear with the expendables.

Over the course of nearly constant campaigning, the Assyrians had developed a tripartite offensive strategy of devastation, battle, and siege. When they entered enemy territory, if an opposing army did not meet them in battle immediately, then the Assyrians would typically go for easy targets-small, poorly defended villages and towns-that they would wreck, ruin, and plunder with devastating efficiency. This technique served several purposes. First of all it was the easiest way to secure supplies, acquire plunder, and deny the enemy vital resources. Second, by terrorizing the countryside, the Assyrians could isolate and then bypass bigger settlements and cities that might otherwise prove too costly to besiege. Finally, devastation put pressure on the enemy leader(s) to fight or surrender. If opponents did not acquiesce quickly enough, then battle or siege would ensue. As we have seen, the Assyrian army typically consisted of chariot units, cavalry, archers, and heavy-armed spearmen, but just how they were deployed in battle is not well known. Sargon’s inscriptions emphasize sieges and mention only those battles that were particularly significant, omitting smaller or indecisive engagements. Moreover, the palace reliefs offer little insight into the experience of battle. They limit the scene to the moment of victory, when the elite chariots or cavalry trample fallen enemies and chase down those fleeing the field, as professional infantry dispatch the wounded and round up prisoners. There are good reasons to suppose that full-scale pitched battles were not a common occurrence and that most contests-even ones involving substantial forces-were generally of short duration.

The disposition of Assyrian troops on the battlefield and the tactics employed would naturally have depended on a number of circumstances: the morale and fitness of Assyrian troops; terrain and weather; the size of the enemy army and the unit types it employed; and the assessed quality of enemy troops and leadership, to name only the most obvious. The strict social hierarchy in Assyria probably also determined the battle array as the magnates and their troops claimed field positions by right of rank and tradition. The king in his chariot, accompanied by his brother’s elite cavalry, took the center, but just how the other magnates arranged themselves is not clear. The chariot’s function in battle is still much debated; however, by the late eighth century it had traded much of its mobility for the added security of heavier construction, and this in turn may have relegated it to a reserve or command position on the battlefield. There is no reason to doubt, however, that Sargon and his nobles actually fought. Recent attempts to reconstruct Neo-Assyrian battle tactics have had mixed results, although texts indicate that the army was capable of executing standard maneuvers such as flanking and envelopment.

Thanks to the detailed depiction of sieges on the palace reliefs and some fruitful archaeological excavations, we know a great deal more about how the Assyrians conducted siege operations than we know about how they fought battles. In the Near East all sizeable cities and towns boasted some sort of defensive system, though smaller settlements had only simple mud-brick curtain walls and perhaps a towered gateway. For large cities, however, defenses could include a sophisticated combination of double walls, moats, glacis, and towered gates from which defenders could provide enfilading fire. With stone foundations and mud-brick superstructure, city walls commonly achieved heights of thirty to forty feet and could be extremely thick-Calah’s wall was 120 feet (thirty-seven meters) deep in places. Fortification walls extended for miles in circumference, making full blockade or circumvallation highly problematic for a besieging army. In all regions of the Near East from at least the middle of the second millennium b. c., armies practiced standard siege tactics that included ruse, blockade, escalade, mining, sapping, and frontal assault using siege engines equipped with battering rams. Common counter-measures included sorties, the undermining of ramps with tunnels, and the construction of secondary walls. By the eighth century, the Assyrians had honed their siege craft to the highest standard, but because sieges could be time-consuming and result in high casualties, they did not undertake large-scale operations lightly. For attacking soldiers, a siege promised plenty of hard work, physical privation, danger, and the more attractive prospect of loot. Before committing to a siege, the Assyrians encouraged surrender or attempted to take the city by subterfuge; frontal assault was not usually the first course of action. In one letter, for example, an official writing from northeastern Babylonia reported being approached by a local faction plotting to betray their city to the Assyrians. Another letter writer suggested capturing a town by tunneling through the mud-brick wall of a house and bringing the soldiers through the breach secretly at night. One of Sargon’s siege reliefs depicts an official delivering surrender terms to the defenders from a siege tower. Sometimes, however, the army had to take a city the hard way.

Siege operations varied in scale and intensity from fast and dirty frontal assaults to protracted affairs that required ingenuity and a great deal of coordinated effort. Since most fortified cities were also located on heights, soldiers had to attack uphill over formidable obstacles. Typically, large contingents of Assyrian archers provided cover for smaller units-the Assyrian equivalent of the forlorn hope-who would leapfrog forward to attack the defenses at multiple points in preparation for a concerted assault. Assyrian spearmen with tower shields or lighter, more maneuverable bucklers protected long-range archers from counterfire and enemy sorties. Assault units operated in a variety of groupings: spearmen with shields to protect archers; spearmen together; sappers working alone or in pairs to dig through walls; and archers (usually Itu’eans) shooting without the benefit of cover. Equestrian forces probably patrolled, foraged, or acted as mobile units that could counter enemy attacks. The reliefs also depict dismounted officers and magnates-identifiable by their long robes-discharging arrows from behind covering shields. In the event that the defenses required siege engines, a ramp had to be built to bridge ditches and reach the walls. The construction of a siege ramp was not an easy task, although it did not require advanced engineering expertise or any mathematical calculations as has sometimes been asserted. Basically, soldiers got whatever dirt, rocks, wood, and other handy materials they could find, including building detritus, then piled it all up and tamped it down until they had a surface sufficient to carry the weight of siege engines. The key variables included the size of the ramp, the type and disposition of obstacles, the number of men that could be spared to work, and the abundance of available materials. All of this occurred under enemy fire, and it is likely that unburied corpses soon made the killing zone distinctly unpleasant and unhealthy. Disease posed one of the greatest risks of extended siege work.

If unfavorable circumstances (e. g., high casualties or lack of food) prevented the Assyrians from taking a city, they could choose the economical alternative, which was to ravage the countryside, cut down fruit trees, wreck irrigation canals, and destroy fields in order to cause the enemy to suffer hardship and prohibit his ability to wage war. Besides the collection of supplies, one of the main reasons to devastate small cities and towns within a target area was to reduce the enemy’s resources so that he could not field a retaliatory army for the foreseeable future. Without the means to rebel against the Assyrians, many polities had no choice but to submit. Nor did the Assyrians raze every city they besieged successfully. The fate of a captured city and its inhabitants depended on a variety of military, political, and strategic factors. Although looting was inevitable (even necessary), the Assyrians reserved burning buildings and dismantling defenses for certain circumstances. Strict attention to the wording of royal inscriptions and the details of relief sculpture reveals that a lot less violence occurred than is often assumed. Sometimes the appearance of the army inspired immediate capitulation, thus saving lives on both sides. As will become apparent in the following chapters, ancient warfare was not simply about killing as many of the enemy as possible. The Assyrians did not blindly rape, pillage, and obliterate but followed whichever course of action (including clemency) allowed them to achieve their objectives with the least cost to themselves. Whatever they did, however, they imbued with meaning expressed through religious observation.

Military Ritual

Ritual pervaded every aspect of life in Assyria (and indeed the ancient Near East in general), including military activities. Soldiers affirmed their loyalty to the king by swearing allegiance before the gods, while the king reassured his followers of divine support through constant public acts of piety (e. g., temple-building and religious festivals), and naturally everyone attempted to secure divine approval for risky undertakings such as war. Prognosticating and prophylactic rituals played a prominent part in all military endeavors. Several sculptured reliefs, for example, depict religious performance in army camps. Phrases such as “at the command of the god, Ashur, I mustered my chariots,” so common in royal inscriptions, testified to the king’s reliance on divination to secure divine approbation. Although all wars were fought in the name of the gods, they were not holy wars in the modern sense. The Assyrians did not attempt to eradicate the worship of foreign gods or impose their own gods on defeated people, though they did encourage assimilation by conflating local cults with some of their own.

Neo-Assyrian rituals dealt with every aspect of warfare. One rite called “so that in battle arrows do not come near a man” helped warriors prepare mentally for approaching combat. A cultic commentary for a ritual to be performed at the camp (madaktu) after a battle describes a ceremony in which the king symbolically defeated his enemy with the aid of the gods Nergal, Adad, and Belet-dunani (“lady of the strong,” the warrior aspect of Ishtar). During the course of this elaborate multipart ceremony, officials made sacrifices and rode the sacred chariot, the king carried out a procedure involving his bow and arrows while driving his own chariot, and officials performed a “ritual voodoo-like shooting of an enemy or his image” as onlookers and participants shouted, sang, and chanted the requisite liturgy. Subsequently the king symbolically captured his enemy, the group raised shields, and priests made more sacrifices, after which the entire party processed back to the camp to enjoy a celebratory meal in a portable sanctuary (qersu).

Religious observance informed everything from symbolic declarations of war, the surrender or execution of enemies, and the review of prisoners to the triumphant march home and ensuing celebratory banquet. Sacrifices carried out when armies mustered and before they crossed into enemy territory often alerted watchful enemies to impending attack and thus created the opportunity for legitimate war. The numerous Assyrian intelligence reports informing the king of enemy rituals almost certainly had significance beyond mere surveillance. Likewise, the akitu festivals of particular Assyrian gods have been associated with both pre-campaign ceremonies and post-campaign triumphs. It is likely that after particularly important wars, such as Sargon’s victory over Urartu in 714, the king’s representative read or recited publicly an account of the campaign in the form of a letter addressed to Ashur and the people of the city. Afterward he dedicated the text at the appropriate temple. Doubtlessly intended to secure victory as well as the king’s safety, military rituals served multiple secondary purposes: they promoted the king’s legitimacy, signaled political action, helped an ethnically diverse army establish a corporate identity, fostered good morale, and encouraged the public to view the army favorably.

On another level, all public ceremonies promoted the ideology of the Assyrian elite and helped that group maintain its hold on power. That the Assyrians were talented self-promoters is undeniable, but this should not lead us to dismiss them as cynical posturers. In Assyria, as in medieval Japan (and most early modern monarchies), pomp and ceremony were “a visual symbol of the social order and served an important function in vitalizing and renewing the polity. . . . [F]rom the very beginning, court ritual and ceremony were politics.” This principle also held true for international relations, in which every move a king or his representative made, from gift exchange, dining, and ritual to the mutilation of an enemy, sent a deliberate message to friend and foe alike. In this light, the bloodthirsty rhetoric and brutal visual imagery of Assyrian kings and warfare itself were all part of the political spectacle. Although Sargon wielded formidable military strength (as this chapter has demonstrated), he had to use it wisely. For each campaign that he undertook, he had to manage not only immediate military conditions, but also emerging threats outside the field of operations.


Boran was queen (banbishn) of the Sasanian Empire. She was the daughter of emperor Khosrow II, and the first of only two women to rule the Sasanian Empire; the other was her sister and successor, Azarmidokht. Various authors place her reign between one year and four months to two years.

Her name appears as Bōrān (or Burān) on her coinage. The Persian poet Ferdowsi refers to her as Purandokht in his epic poem, the Shahnameh. She was committed to revive the memory and prestige of her father, during whose reign the Sasanian Empire had grown to its largest territorial extent.

The Sasanian Empire conquered Jerusalem after a brief siege in 614, during the Byzantine–Sasanian War of 602–628, after the Persian Shah Khosrau II appointed his general Shahrbaraz to conquer the Byzantine controlled areas of the Near East. Following the victory in Antioch, Shahrbaraz conquered Caesarea Maritima, the administrative capital of the province. By this time the grand inner harbor had silted up and was useless, however the Emperor Anastasius had reconstructed the outer harbor and Caesarea remained an important maritime city, providing the Persian Empire with access to the Mediterranean Sea. The Sasanian Persians were joined by Nehemiah ben Hushiel and Benjamin of Tiberias (a man of immense wealth), who enlisted and armed Jewish soldiers from Tiberias, Nazareth and the mountain cities of Galilee, and together with a band of Arabs and additional Jews from southern parts of the country they marched on Jerusalem. Some 20,000 Jewish rebels joined the war against the Byzantine Christians. Depending on the chronicler figures of either 20,000 or 26,000 are given. The Persian army reinforced by Jewish forces led by Nehemiah ben Hushiel and Benjamin of Tiberias would capture Jerusalem without resistance.


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. What we learn from the history of Ḥimyar in the previous century only confirms what we find in two eyewitness sources for Jerusalem.

The first of these, on which there is much to be said, was written by a monk of Mar Saba after the return of the True Cross to the holy city by Heraclius in 630. He bears the name of Strategios, although this name has, in recent scholarship, sometimes been illicitly annexed to that of a ghostly character called Antiochus or Antiochius, whom Migne’s Patrologia Graeca has patched together from various texts. There is no doubt that Strategios was not Antiochus or Antiochius and that he wrote his narrative originally in Greek. But unfortunately for us, we know it only from Georgian and Arabic translations. The Georgian tradition is more reliable and certainly better edited. Despite the efforts of the excellent Belgian scholar Gérard Garitte in rendering the Georgian version into fluent Latin, historians down to the present have tended to favor a seriously abridged English version that F. C. Conybeare published from the initial Georgian edition early in the twentieth century. Strategios’ narrative is undoubtedly hyperbolic in places, but it is marvelously circumstantial, with many topographical details concerning recognizable places in Jerusalem as well as an explicit reference to the monk Modestus, whose correspondence with the Armenian Katholikos Komitas guarantees his historicity. Strategios strangely blamed the fate of the Christians in Jerusalem on the city’s circus factions, the Blues and the Greens, because he considered them responsible for the reckless conduct that led the Christian population into sin. He saw the Persian invasion as a divine penalty. Strategios’ reports of massacres and communal burials, as well as his claims of Persian destruction of churches and shrines, necessarily require the sober control of archaeology, and fortunately this has very recently become available.

But, before turning to that as well as to the second eyewitness source, we need to examine Strategios’ account of the Jews in connection with the argument advanced so far. Here is what he reports:

The vicious Jews, both enemies of truth and haters of Christ, greatly rejoiced as they saw the Christians handed over into the hands of the enemy. They conceived an evil plan in accordance with their ill will towards the people, for they had acquired a great reputation with the Persians as the betrayers of Christians. At that time they were standing by the edge of a reservoir and shouting to the sons of God, who were detained there, and they said to them, “If you want to avoid death, become Jews and deny Christ. Come up from there and come to us. We will buy you back from the Persians with our money, and you will thereby benefit through us.” The wicked intent of their plan was not carried out, and their effort turned out to be in vain. For the sons of the holy Church chose to die for Christ rather than to live impiously.

The tendentious character of this narrative is obvious, but there is no explicit assertion that the Persians might have been predisposed to favor the Jews, although that is more than likely. Strategios also mention another religious constituency in the city, apparently the pagans, whom he calls, in conformity with the widespread usage of the time, Greeks (Hellenes), but he accuses these people of cowardice. For Strategios the Christians, with whom the Persians struggle, are called simply Christians, and the Persians’ friends, the Jews, are called Jews. The monk Modestus had tried to mobilize an army of so-called Greeks to help, but as soon as those poor souls had taken a look at the size of the Persian force, they fled. Hence those Greeks who bolted ought probably to be local pagans. Strategios also mentions “inhabitants of the city” who were distressed by the flight of the Greeks before the Persians, and they could well have been other pagans, those whom Modestus had not recruited. Neither the Jews nor the pagans appear to receive the slightest sympathy from the Christians, even though Strategios believed that it was the Christians who had brought on the whole catastrophe through their wanton behavior as fans of the circus factions. His entire interpretation, to say nothing of his language for the various communities in the city, is open to debate, but it would nevertheless seem reasonable to assume that the Persians had indicated both their support of the Jews and their lack of hostility towards the pagans. The Byzantine Christians were their target.

At more or less the same time as Strategios was writing, a second eyewitness report came from the monk and future patriarch Sophronius, who was engaged in the composition of a series of twenty-two bravura Greek poems in the classical Anacreontic meter to celebrate liturgical feasts. Sophronius, who was also known as a sophist, was clearly steeped in Greek poetic traditions, and his twenty-two Anacreontic poems (a twenty-third is rightly considered spurious) include a piece on the Persian capture of Jerusalem, as well as two others on the city’s holy places. It is unknown whether Sophronius was in the city in 614, although he certainly had been there and was briefly in Alexandria later, where he was with his friend John Moschus. He soon left Alexandria for Rome with Moschus, who died in the city. The fourteenth of Sophronius’ Anacreontic poems is entirely devoted to the capture of the holy city, and, like Strategios’ account, appears to be based on personal experience, or at the very least on direct testimony from an eyewitness. It inveighs mercilessly against the Sassanian invaders, who are called not only Persians, but also, derogatively, Medes and Parthians. Sophronius wrote, in vivid language, “The treacherous Mede arrived from wicked Persia, fighting cities and citizens, fighting the lord of Rome (that is, Byzantium) . . . A daemon has arisen in blazing rage and envy of the knife, destroying many holy cities with bloody swords.” The poem then alludes to the Jews: “When they (the Christians) saw the Parthians at hand together with their Jewish friends, they ran off at once and fastened the gates of the city” to pray for Christ’s help.

Sophronius died in 638 after serving as the patriarch of Jerusalem for the previous four years. His poem on the Persian capture of the city cannot be dated precisely, but it obviously reflects the outrage he felt. It acquires a special poignancy when we recall that in his last year as patriarch he made a pact with the Muslim Caliph ‘Umar ibn al Khaṭṭāb to turn over Jerusalem to the Arabs. This is but another thread in the tangled web of relations among the Persians, Byzantines, and Arabs, as the struggle between the two old empires and the rising new one played itself out.

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.18 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. It seems that the Prophet Muḥammad in Mecca may have also foretold this momentous event.


In 336 BCE the aristocrat Pausanias, a member of the king’s bodyguard and reportedly also his former lover, assassinated Philip II, king of Macedon. Pausanias was almost immediately slain. Philip’s 20-year-old son Alexander III (356-323) succeeded to the throne.

Two years before, Philip had defeated the principal Greek city-states in the Battle of Chaeronea in 338 and made himself master of all Greece through the Hellenic League, an essential step prior to his planned great enterprise of invading and conquering the Persian Empire.

On ascending the throne, Alexander quickly crushed a rebellion of the southern Greek city-states and mounted a short and successful operation against Macedon’s northern neighbors. He then took up his father’s plan to conquer the Persian Empire.

Leaving his trusted general Antipater and an army of 10,000 men to hold Macedonia and Greece, in the spring of 334 Alexander set out from Pella and marched by way of Thrace for the Hellespont (Dardanelles) at the head of an army of some 30,000 infantry and 5,000 cavalry. Among his forces were men from the Greek city-states. His army reached the Hellespont in just three weeks and crossed without Persian opposition. His fleet numbered only about 160 ships supplied by the allied Greeks. The Persian fleet included perhaps 400 Phoenician triremes, and its crews were far better trained; however, not a single Persian ship appeared.

Alexander instructed his men that there was to be no looting in what was now, he said, their land. The invaders soon received the submission of a number of Greek towns in Asia Minor. King Darius III was, however, gathering forces to oppose Alexander. Memnon, a Greek mercenary general in the employ of Darius, knew that Alexander was short of supplies and cash. Memnon therefore favored a scorched earth policy that would force Alexander to withdraw. At the same time Darius should use his fleet to transport the army and invade Macedonia. Unfortunately, Memnon also advised that the Persians should avoid a pitched battle at all costs. This wounded Persian pride and influenced Darius to reject the proffered advice.

The two armies met in May. The Persian force, which was approximately the same size as Alexander’s force, took up position on the east bank of the swift Granicus River in western Asia Minor. The Persians were strong in cavalry but weak in infantry, with perhaps as many as 6,000 Greek hoplite mercenaries. Memnon and the Greek mercenaries were in front, forming a solid spear wall and supported by men with javelins. The Persian cavalry was on the flanks, to be employed as mounted infantry.

When Alexander’s army arrived, Parmenio and the other Macedonian generals recognized the strength of the Persian position and counseled against an attack. The Greek infantry would have to cross the Granicus in column and would be vulnerable while they were struggling to re-form. The generals urged that since it was already late afternoon, they should camp for the night. Alexander was determined to attack but eventually followed their advice.

That night, however, probably keeping his campfires burning to deceive the Persians, Alexander located a ford downstream and led his army across the river. The Persians discovered Alexander’s deception the next morning. The bulk of the Macedonian army was already across the river and easily deflected a Persian assault. The rest of the army then crossed.

With Alexander having turned their position, the Persians and their Greek mercenaries were forced to fight in open country. Their left was on the river, and their right was anchored by foothills. The Persian cavalry was now in front, with the Greek mercenary infantry to the rear. Alexander placed the bulk of his Greek cavalry on the left flank, the heavy Macedonian infantry in the center, and the light Macedonian infantry, the Paeonian light cavalry, and his own heavy cavalry (the Companions) on the right flank. Alexander was conspicuous in magnificent armor and shield with an extraordinary helmet with two white plumes. He stationed himself on the right wing, and the Persians therefore assumed that the attack would come from that quarter.

Alexander initiated the battle. Trumpets blared, and Alexander set off with the Companions in a great wedge formation aimed at the far left of the Persian line. This drew Persian cavalry off from the center, whereupon Alexander wheeled and led the Companions diagonally to his left, against the weakened Persian center. Although the Companions had to charge uphill, they pushed their way through a hole in the center of the Persian line. Alexander was in the thick of the fight as the Companions drove back the Persian cavalry, which finally broke.

Surrounded, the Greek mercenaries were mostly slaughtered. Alexander sent the 2,000 who surrendered to Macedonia in chains, probably to work in the mines. It would have made sense to have incorporated them into his own army, but Alexander intended to make an example of them for having fought against fellow Greeks.

Figures for the Persian losses range from 10,000 to 20,000 infantry and around 2,000 horse. These estimates are almost as incredible as the allegedly minute Macedonian losses, which have been variously put at a maximum of 30 infantrymen (minimum 9) and 120 cavalry of whom 25 were Companions killed in the first charge.

After the Granicus

The result of the Granicus battle must have reaffirmed the faith placed by the Persian king, Darius III, in Memnon. The Greek mercenary commander’s strategy had been sound. He had wished to avoid a pitched battle, conduct a scorched-earth policy in Asia, fortify maritime and naval bases on the coast and cut Alexander off from the sea. While Memnon himself survived, there were still considerable prospects of putting this plan into effect. However, many coastal cities, as well as the important road junction of Sardis, soon fell to Alexander with little or no resistance. Miletus held out in the hope of relief from a Persian force inland. It also received encouragement from Phoenician and Cyprian ships based on Mycale. But Alexander forestalled both naval and military relief and captured the city. Memnon fell back on Halicarnassus and fortified it strongly. Driven from there, he tried to establish naval bases on the major Aegean islands, not only threatening Alexander’s flank from the sea but providing a springboard for a counter-offensive against Greece and Macedon. Unfortunately for the Persians, Memnon suddenly fell ill and died. Those who inherited his command persisted for some time in the same strategy, but were eventually deterred by quite a small show of naval strength by Antipater, the Macedonian governor whom Alexander had left in charge of mainland Greece.

Alexander had left Parmenio with the main body of the army at Sardis. With his own striking force, he marched round the south-west extremity of Asia Minor and along the southern coast, digressing northward to join Parmenio again at Gordium in the interior. Strategically, the move seems superfluous, but Alexander’s expeditions sometimes wore the aspect of exploration, pilgrimage or even tourism. In any case, he lost no opportunity of acquainting himself with the features of an empire which he already regarded as his own.

Having joined forces with Parmenio, Alexander marched southward again into the Cilician plain and threatened Syria. A Persian force, inadequate to defend the vital mountain pass, fled at his approach, but the main Persian army, under command of Darius himself, was waiting farther south in Syria. At this point, Alexander was suddenly incapacitated by a bout of fever and his advance was checked.

Emboldened by the delay, Darius made a circuitous march and descended, by a northern mountain pass, on the town of Issus, where he brutally put to death the Macedonian sick who had been left there. This manoeuvre placed him at Alexander’s rear. Alexander was surprised but not dismayed at the move, for it had carried the Persian army to a point where the plain was pinched between the mountains and the sea. Here, their superiority in men and missiles could not be deployed to advantage. However, the position in some ways resembled that which the satraps had chosen at the Granicus. Darius’ army was drawn up with a river in front of it; the river was not flowing, since it was late autumn (334 BC). The king’s mercenary hoplites were placed in the centre. His cavalry held the wings, his right wing being more heavily loaded, since the mountains left little room for deployment on the left. He also hoped to break through on the right wing and cut Alexander off from the sea. It must be remembered that after Darius’ encircling march the two armies had exchanged positions.

Much of Alexander’s success seems in general to have been due to good reconnaissance work. Darius had relied on preventing an outflanking move from the Companion cavalry by posting a substantial force on the mountain slopes above. Having ascertained this plan, Alexander provided a light detachment of his own to mean and ward off the threat. He also sent the Thessalian cavalry, under Parmenio, to reinforce his left wing. It was possible for Alexander to make all such changes shortly before battle was joined; his advance was leisurely, and the Persians kept their positions, leaving him the initiative.

The battle conformed to the pattern of many ancient battles. The right wing of the Macedonian army, in encircling the enemy, placed the central phalanx under strain. As the phalangists on the right strove to maintain contact with the cavalry on the wing, they parted company with the phalangists on their left and a dangerous gap appeared, which Darius’ Greek mercenaries were quick to exploit. It then became a question of whether Alexander with his Companions could encircle the mercenaries before the mercenaries could break through the centre and encircle him. Alexander won, ploughing devastatingly into the mercenary flank and rear. In danger of capture, Darius fled precipitately in his war-chariot, and even the Persian forces of the right, who had held back Parmenio’s cavalry, soon followed their king’s example. Darius’ mother, wife and children, who had accompanied the army, were left prisoners in Alexander’s hands


Green, Peter. Alexander of Macedon, 356-323 B. C.: A Historical Biography. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1991. Hammond, Nicholas G. L. Alexander the Great: King, Commander, and Statesman. 3rd ed. London: Bristol Classical Press, 1996. Sekunda, Nick, and John Warry. Alexander the Great: His Armies and Campaigns, 332–323 B.C. London: Osprey, 1988