TRAJAN’S PARTHIAN WAR AD 113–116 Part I

At his death in 44 BC, Julius Caesar had been days away from leaving Rome to embark on a major military operation—the invasion of Parthia. Over the next 150 years, several emperors seized on the idea of realizing Caesar’s dream of conquering Parthia. In AD 66, Nero was marshaling his forces for an invasion of Parthia when the Jewish Revolt forced him to abort the plan and divert his legions to counter the revolt. With Nero’s death, the Parthian plan died too. It seems that Trajan had also long harbored the desire to become the conqueror of Parthia. Once he had brought Dacia into the Roman Empire and had consolidated the Dacian conquest, he was able to turn his full focus to the East.

Trajan was presented with an excuse to go to war with the Parthians. The current king of Armenia, Exedares, had been crowned by the Parthian king, Osroes, and had sworn loyalty to Parthia. Traditionally, the emperors of Rome had reserved the right to choose the kings of Armenia. But Trajan had another motive. According to Dio: “His real reason was a desire to win renown.” [LXVIII, 17]

In AD 113, Trajan gave orders for the legions of the East to prepare for a major campaign the following spring. He also ordered several of his European-based legions to transfer to Syria in preparation for the new campaign. He himself set off to sail to Syria via Greece accompanied by his wife, the empress Plotina, and elements of the Praetorian Guard and Singularian Horse. They traveled aboard ships of the Roman navy’s Misene Fleet from Misenum commanded by fleet prefect Quintus Marcius Turbo, who would later become prefect of the Praetorian Guard under Hadrian. [Starr, App., & Add.] A large part of the fleet remained in the East throughout Trajan’s eastern campaign. [Starr, viii]

One of the legions sent east for Trajan’s new campaign was the 1st Adiutrix. Founded in AD 68, it would have undergone a new enlistment over the winter of AD 108–109, so by AD 113 its numbers were up and its new recruits were settled and trained. The 1st Adiutrix marched west from Brigetio in Pannonia to the next legion base on the Danube, Carnuntum, and there its column was joined by the 15th Apollinaris Legion. Both legions then marched down to Ravenna in northeastern Italy to board warships of the Ravenna Fleet, which ferried them to Syria.

The 2nd Traiana Legion, raised by Trajan in AD 105 and sent to the East to support the annexation of Arabia Petraea, came up to Syria for the offensive from its base in Egypt. At the same time, the 3rd Cyrenaica at Bostra in Arabia Petraea prepared its weapons, ammunition and stores for a campaign the following year. In Cappadocia, just to the south of Armenia, the province’s governor Marcus Junius sent word to his two legions, the 12th Fulminata at Melitene and the 16th Flavia at Satala, to be ready to march in the spring.

Word soon reached the Parthian king that Trajan was heading to the East with an army, and immediately he saw himself as the Roman emperor’s target. By the time that Trajan reached Athens in Greece on his way east, Parthian envoys were awaiting him there. The envoys offered Trajan gifts and, telling him that Osroes had removed Exedares from the Armenian throne, sought a peace agreement. As part of the Parthian peace initiative, King Osroes asked that Trajan authorize him to make his nephew Parthamasiris the new king of Armenia. “The emperor neither accepted the gifts nor returned any answer, either oral or written,” said Dio, “except the statement that friendship is determined by deeds and not words, and that accordingly when he reached Syria he would do all that was proper.” [Dio, lxviii, 31]

Trajan’s nephew Hadrian had been a consul and governor of Lower Pannonia following the Dacian Wars, but his career had slowed dramatically after that. Hadrian had a great liking for Greek customs, and by AD 112 he was archon, or governor, of Athens, and was no doubt in the city when Trajan arrived there in AD 113 on his way to Syria. It seems that Trajan added Hadrian to his party at the urging of his wife Plotina, who was close to Hadrian, giving him the post of governor of Syria, for Dio wrote that Hadrian “had been assigned to Syria for the Parthian War.” [Dio, lxix, 1]

After Trajan’s fleets arrived at Laodicea, he and the imperial party spent the winter at Antioch. The facilities at Laodicea were apparently so overburdened by the influx of naval and military personnel that sailors and marines of the Misene Fleet were quartered at the long-deserted quarters of the 10th Fretensis Legion at nearby Cyrrhus. [Starr, Add.; and AE 1955, 225]

Trajan was joined at Antioch by his lieutenants for the campaign. Chief among these was the Moor Lusius Quietus. Quietus had served Trajan so loyally and effectively throughout the Dacian Wars that the emperor had, over the past seven years, made him a praetor, consul and provincial governor. Quietus was serving as governor of Judea when the emperor arrived in the East. Trajan’s other senior general, the trusted Lucius Appius Maximus, came out from Rome with him. Like Quietus, Maximus had served Trajan well in Dacia. Trajan no longer had the services of tough old Sura, the third of his successful Dacian War generals, who had died a natural death in around AD 108.

In the spring of AD 114, leaving his wife with Hadrian at Antioch, Trajan launched his eastern offensive; as governor of Syria, Hadrian had the task of ensuring that Trajan’s lines of supply were efficiently maintained. For the first stage of the campaign, Trajan marched his army north to Melitene in Cappadocia. As the army tramped along the Roman highways at a steady 18 miles a day, Trajan neither rode nor was carried in a litter; he marched on foot at the head of his troops, bareheaded. Each day, he personally decided the marching order. [Dio, lxviii, 23]

By the end of March, Trajan had reached Melitene and added the two Cappadocia-based legions to his column; from there, he swung east, crossing the Euphrates and entering Armenia. [Guey] The summer was still young when Trajan’s troops completed the seizure of southern Armenia, driving a wedge between the Armenians to the south and the forces in the north loyal to Parthamasiris, the nephew of Osroes, whom the Parthian king had proceeded to install on the Armenian throne.

When Marcus and his army reached the Armenian city of Elegeia, Parthamasiris left the rebuilt Armenian capital, Artaxata, and came to Trajan’s camp seeking an audience. Trajan was seated on a tribunal when the young Parthian prince approached, saluted him, and removed his crown and placed it at Trajan’s feet. Parthamasiris fully expected the Roman emperor to return his crown to him, just as Nero had returned that of Tiridates fifty years before. But Trajan did no such thing. Instead, he sent the prince and the Parthian members of his entourage away under Roman cavalry escort, and told the Armenians in the party to stay right where they were, as they were now his subjects. Soon, Trajan’s legions had brought all of Armenia under Roman control.

Trajan, after crossing the Tigris river and securing key frontier cities including Nisibis and Batnae, and leaving garrisons at strategic points, marched west to Edessa, modern Urfa in southeast Turkey. Situated on the plain of Haran, the city controlled a strategic hill pass to Mesopotamia and the Parthian heartland. At Edessa, Trajan received various eastern potentates before pushing south through the pass and occupying part of northern Mesopotamia. With the end of the year approaching, Trajan left the army camped in Parthian territory and returned to Syria to winter at Antioch. As he departed the army, he left orders for the legions to fell trees in the forests around Nisibis then use the wood to build collapsible boats for the new year’s campaign in Mesopotamia.

Over the winter, Antioch and many cities of the region were hit by a severe earthquake. The Syrian capital was badly damaged, and “multitudes” killed. [Dio, lxviii, 25] Among the casualties were foreign ambassadors waiting on the Roman emperor, and Marcus Vergilianus Pedo, who had just arrived in Syria after briefly serving as a consul in Rome and giving his name to the year. Trajan himself managed to escape with minor injuries, via a window of his quarters, being led from the ruins by men “of greater than human stature”; Dio was possibly referring to large Germans of the emperor’s Singularian Horse bodyguard. [Ibid.] For some days, Trajan lived in a tent in the Antioch chariot-racing stadium, the hippodrome, as aftershocks continued to shake the region.

The spring of AD 115 saw Trajan back with the army in Mesopotamia, and again on the advance. The six legions of the task force moved east through a landscape “destitute of trees.” A convoy of wagons had brought the newly constructed fleet of collapsible boats down from Nisibis, but as Trajan tried to send his troops across a river in his path—probably the Nighr—an opposition force that had assembled on the far bank made life difficult for the invaders by peppering them with missiles. [Ibid.]

This was the first mention in Cassius Dio’s narrative of the campaign of organized resistance in the field. It turned out that Trajan’s invasion had taken place at an opportune time, for “the Parthian power had been destroyed by civil conflicts and was still at this time the subject of strife.” [Dio, LXVIII, 22] The Parthians were locked in a civil war. It is likely that the troops who opposed Trajan at this river crossing comprised the small army of the kingdom of Adiabene, a Parthian ally in northern Mesopotamia.

After assembling their vessels, Trajan’s legions began to build a bridge of moored boats across the river. In the usual Roman textbook fashion, there were several craft at the forefront of this growing bridge, equipped with towers and screens, and manned by archers and heavy infantry with javelins who rained missiles down on the enemy. At the same time, various Roman units dashed this way and that, up and down the western bank of the river, giving the impression that they were going to cross in boats at various points. This forced the outnumbered enemy to divert detachments from their army to hurry up and down the bank in order to be in position to counter these crossings. With the main enemy defense weakened, Trajan was able to send his troops across the bridge of boats in force.

There was a brief battle on the eastern side of the river, but Trajan had overwhelming numbers—his army would have comprised 60,000–70,000 fighting men at the commencement of the offensive the previous year. “The barbarians gave way,” said Dio. [Dio, LXVIII, 21] Once across the river, the Roman army quickly gained possession of the kingdom of Adiabene.

To Trajan, this was a special moment. Like so many Roman generals including Julius Caesar, Trajan had a desire to emulate the deeds of Alexander the Great. Alexander had brought his army here to Adiabene. [Ibid.] And it was here, on the plain in the vicinity of the ancient cities of Nineveh, Arbela and Gaugamela, that the Macedonian army had defeated King Darius’ Persian army in 331 BC.

Further to the south, at Adenystrae, modern-day Irbil, 70 miles (112 kilometers) north of Kirkuk in today’s northern Iraq, there was a strong Parthian fort. When Trajan sent a legion centurion named Sentius ahead to give the Adenystrae garrison a chance to surrender, the Parthian commander, Mebarsapes, rejected the offer and imprisoned the centurion. In the Adenystrae dungeon, Sentius convinced other prisoners to help him. The centurion duly escaped, found Mebarsapes, then killed him, and opened the fort gate as the Roman army approached. Centurion Sentius’ rewards from a grateful Trajan can only be imagined.

As the Roman army continued its advance down the Euphrates, “quite free from molestation” from the enemy and apparently using the collapsible boats to transport its supplies, Trajan conceived the idea of building a canal between the Euphrates and the Tigris. [Dio, LXVIII, 26, 28] This was to allow him to follow the Tigris all the way to the Persian Gulf, or the Erythreaean Sea as the Romans called it. The courses of the two rivers come tantalizingly close near where the later city of Baghdad would rise, but Trajan’s engineers warned him that his canal was not practical because the Euphrates flowed at a higher elevation than the Tigris, and a canal would only run the Euphrates dry. The determined emperor therefore had his troops drag the boats overland to the Tigris.

On the eastern bank of the Tigris, the legions came to Parthia’s winter capital, Ctesiphon. Its Parthian defenders put up some resistance, but the legions soon captured it, and, apparently, also captured neighboring Seleucia. At an assembly in Ctesiphon, Trajan was hailed imperator by the legions. It seems that Trajan and the bulk of his army spent the winter of AD 115–116 there at Ctesiphon, with Trajan occupying the palace of the kings of Parthia. From there, Trajan sent his latest dispatches to the Senate at Rome. Following the AD 114 campaign, the Senate had granted Trajan the title Optimus, meaning “Most Excellent.” When news of the emperor’s latest successes in the East arrived, especially the taking of the Parthian capital, the Senate granted him the additional title of “Parthicus.”

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TRAJAN’S PARTHIAN WAR AD 113–116 Part II

In the spring of AD 116, Trajan and part of his army sailed down the Tigris in his fleet of boats, almost coming to grief when, on reaching a point in the river’s lower reaches where the current met the incoming tide, a storm broke over the vessels. The Romans took refuge on an island in the river, Mesene, whose ruler treated Trajan kindly. Trajan continued on to the Persian Gulf. There, on seeing a ship departing for India, reminding him that Alexander the Great had marched that far, Trajan is reported to have said: “I would certainly have crossed over to the Indi, too, if I were still young.” [Ibid., 29]

The Romans then retraced their course up the Tigris. Whether on water against the current, or on land, this return progress would have been slower than the exhilarating trip down the river to the Gulf. Trajan deliberately paused at the ancient ruins of Babylon, 55 miles (88 kilometers) south of today’s Baghdad. Babylon’s original culture had been more than 1,500 years old when Alexander the Great died here during his great eastern campaign of conquest. At Babylon, Trajan was shown the room where Alexander had reputedly breathed his last, and there he conducted a religious sacrifice in memory of the great Macedonian king.

As he lingered at Babylon, Trajan received unsettling news. While he had been playing tourist and sailing down to the Gulf and returning again, “all the conquered districts were thrown into turmoil and revolted, and the garrisons placed among the various peoples were either expelled or slain.” [Ibid.] Nisibis and Edessa were among the cities that had revolted, as had Seleucia, only a comparatively short distance from Babylon. In response, Trajan quickly sent his best generals, Quietus the Moor and Maximus, hurrying north with flying columns, and dispatched a force under legion commanders Ericius Clarens and Julius Alexander to retake Seleucia, a city with a population of as many as 600,000 people.

Maximus’ troops were engaged in battle in the field by the Parthians. The Romans were defeated, the loyal Maximus slaughtered in the fighting. Lusius Quietus made up for Maximus’ failure by recovering several key cities including Nisibis and storming a stubbornly defended Edessa, which his troops sacked and left in flames. Seleucia was also recaptured, by Clarens and Alexander, and it too was put to the torch after being sacked, although it appears not to have been totally destroyed.

Trajan himself returned to Ctesiphon, the Parthian capital, and on the plain outside the city he called an assembly of his troops and of all Parthians in the vicinity. Trajan, after mounting a lofty platform in front of the assembly, told his audience of all he had achieved in this war, and announced that he had chosen a new king of Parthia—it would be, he said, Parthamaspates, a Parthian prince, whom he now produced and crowned king.

Parthamaspates was left at Ctesiphon to rule over the Parthians while vowing fealty to Trajan and Rome. Trajan, in the meantime, led his troops north to Hatra, a little west of the Tigris, where the Atreni Arab residents had also revolted and closed their gates to Romans. The city of Hatra was not large, and it sat on the edge of the desert with little water and no trees in the vicinity. But these very qualities made it difficult to besiege. Trajan had a camp built, and surrounded the city, then sent his legionaries against its walls with mining equipment.

Before long, the troops had created a breach by causing a section of Hatra’s wall to topple. Trajan, commanding the assault from the saddle and keeping close to the action, immediately sent cavalry to force their way through the breach. But the Atreni counter-attacked so fiercely that they drove the Roman cavalry back into their own camp. So that he would not be recognized by enemy archers, Trajan had removed his purple commander-in-chief’s cloak and other imperial trappings, but now, as his troopers came flooding back in disarray, the pursuing Hatran archers, “seeing his majestic gray head and his august countenance, suspected his identity” and let off a volley of arrows in his direction. Trajan himself escaped unhurt, but one of the cavalrymen of his bodyguard was killed in the deluge of arrows. [Ibid., 31]

As the siege of Hatra dragged on, the Roman besiegers were sometimes drenched with rain and pelted by hail, while at other times they endured fierce heat and were plagued by flies that settled in masses on their food and drink. With the siege making no progress, the morale of his troops drooping and the campaigning season nearing its end, Trajan gave up his attempt to take Hatra, and ordered his troops to pack up and pull out. As the army marched north, Trajan began to feel increasingly unwell.

The year had seen the legions and auxiliary units involved in the campaign suffer heavy casualties. With supplies low, Trajan, now sick and exhausted, withdrew his forces from Mesopotamia. Leaving his army in Armenia and Cappadocia for the winter, he returned to Antioch, where he rejoined his wife and nephew, who had been supervising the metropolitan rebuilding efforts in the wake of the earlier earthquake.

Early the following year, AD 117, at Antioch, Trajan was making plans for a new spring offensive in Mesopotamia when he was struck down by a serious stroke which left him paralyzed down one side. As he struggled to recover, the emperor put his Parthian plans on hold. And then, in the spring, news reached Antioch that there had been Jewish uprisings around the eastern Mediterranean. In Cyrenaica in North Africa, a reported 220,000 Romans and Greeks living in the province had been killed. In Egypt, more civilians died, and on Cyprus 240,000 people were said to have perished at the hands of the Jewish rebels. [Ibid., 32]

Now, all thoughts of resumed operations in Mesopotamia were forgotten as Trajan set out to eliminate the Jewish problem. The Jews of Judea, however, had not risen with their compatriots elsewhere in the East, so to ensure that Judea remained secure Trajan detached the 6th Ferrata Legion from his army and stationed it at Caparcotna in Galilee, just 15 miles (24 kilometers) from Nazareth, in the heart of Jewish territory.

Simultaneously, Trajan gave Lusius Quietus, fleet prefect Turbo and his other senior commanders orders to take more troops from his army and put down the Jewish rebellions elsewhere. Units quickly set off for Egypt and Cyrenaica to the south, and, by sea, for Cyprus to the west. Meanwhile, to consolidate the Roman hold on Armenia, Trajan sent the 16th Flavia Legion to the city of Samosata, in southwestern Armenia, to establish a new base there, with the 15th Apollinaris Legion making the 16th Flavia’s former base at Satala its new home.

In the summer of AD 117, Roman troops swept into Egypt and Cyrenaica to terminate the revolts, and triremes of Turbo’s Misene Fleet glided into harbors at Cyprus and disgorged thousands of troops. Under the leadership of Quietus and his colleagues, Roman soldiers who had so recently been fighting a grueling war in Armenia and Parthia swiftly and brutally put down all the Jewish uprisings. Those Jews on Cyprus not killed in the Roman reprisals would have been taken away as prisoners, for the island was cleared of Jews, who were from that time forward banned from even setting foot on Cyprus. [Ibid.]

By the middle of the summer, with his poor health sorely affecting him, Trajan decided, or was convinced by those around him, to go home to Rome. In late July, he set sail for Italy with Plotina, leaving Hadrian at Antioch still in charge of Syria. Tracing the Turkish coast, the emperor’s flotilla put in at Selinus in the province of Cilicia, today’s Anatolia region in southern Turkey. There in early August AD 117, shortly after his arrival, Trajan apparently suffered another stroke, and died.

So it was that after almost twenty years on the throne, and with his Parthian expedition up in the air, Trajan left the scene. In a letter signed by his wife but supposedly from Trajan, 41-year-old Hadrian was named as his heir. As a result, Hadrian was proclaimed the new emperor of Rome by the legions in the East, and this was subsequently endorsed by the Senate.

In the end, apart from glory for Trajan and booty aplenty for those of his troops who survived the campaign, Trajan’s Parthian War achieved nothing, at considerable cost. Many thousands of legionaries and auxiliaries perished in the campaign, and, while numerous cities and towns had been briefly occupied or destroyed, no new territory or sources of income had been acquired by Rome.

The Parthians, meanwhile, rejected and ejected Trajan’s choice for king, Parthamaspates, and appointed a new ruler of their own choice. As for the balance of power in the region, it was left unchanged. The Euphrates continued to serve as the boundary between the Roman world and the Parthian world. And the Parthians rebuilt their power in the region, to the extent that they would be in a position to invade Syria before half a century had passed.

Hadrian set off for Italy, making a leisurely perambulation through the eastern provinces. By the summer of AD 118 he had arrived in Rome. With no intention of following in Trajan’s expansionist footsteps, Hadrian officially terminated the campaign in the East and sent the 1st Adiutrix Legion back to its longtime Danube base in Moesia. Hadrian’s self-appointed task from this point on would be consolidation of the frontier throughout the empire.

Before the year was out, several of Trajan’s leading advisers and generals were arrested on what were probably trumped-up charges of conspiracy against Hadrian, and executed. Among the generals who perished in this pogrom were Palma, who had annexed Arabia Petraea for Trajan, and Quietus, the Moor who had proved to be Trajan’s most reliable and effective field commander in Dacia and the East.

As Hadrian removed Trajan men from power and put his own stamp on the Palatium, even Trajan’s brilliant but arrogant architect Apollodorus of Damascus was sidelined, and eventually executed, by the new emperor. Hadrian went as far as removing the superstructure of Apollodorus’ famed bridge over the Danube, leaving just the massive piers standing. Hadrian’s excuse for this act was a fear of barbarian invaders using the bridge to cross the river into Roman territory. Some writers have suggested he may merely have been so jealous of Apollodorus he wanted to destroy one of the greatest monuments to his genius.

Under Hadrian, Rome now moved from the financially unsustainable offensive stance taken by Trajan in both the West and the East, to one of defense. From this time on, the Roman Empire would be forever on the defensive.

THE GRECO-PERSIAN WARS I

In 480 BCE an army marched into Greece under the command of the Persian king Xerxes. His goal was to conquer Greece and make it part of the Persian Empire. In an unprecedented act of cooperation, many of the Greek poleis set aside their differences and formed a coalition to resist the Persian advance. An army of allies, under the command of the Spartan king Leonidas, took up position at Thermopylae, a natural choke point on a narrow coastal plain.

Leonidas was not the only Spartan king in the action. Demaratus, a former king of Sparta who had been exiled by his people, was with the Persians as an adviser to Xerxes. As the army approached the pass at Thermopylae, Xerxes consulted Demaratus about what his forces were about to face. According to Herodotus, the two kings discussed the Spartans. Xerxes compared his massive army with the small population of Sparta and was incredulous that the Spartans would dare to stand against him. Demaratus assured him that they would do so: “Their master is the law, whom they revere far more than your subjects revere you. They will do what it commands, and it always commands the same: not to flee, whatever the numbers, but to remain in their ranks and to triumph or be destroyed.” Xerxes remained unconvinced.

Once the battle began at Thermopylae, Demaratus was proven right. The Greeks held their defensive position and the narrow pass prevented the Persians from bringing their superior numbers to bear. The stalemate dragged on until the Persians finally learned of a mountain track that allowed them to send a contingent to attack the Greek position from behind. Leonidas ordered most of the allied forces to withdraw, but the Spartans, Thespians, and Thebans remained behind and fought to the last man. Surveying the battlefield in the aftermath, Xerxes admitted that Demaratus had been right.

The Battle of Thermopylae has come down in legend as one of the great clashes between East and West. Framed by the conversations between Xerxes and Demaratus, it has been interpreted as a test of Western democracy against Eastern tyranny. Since the only thing more romantic than a victory is a noble defeat, Leonidas has been celebrated in forms ranging from ancient hero cult to Hollywood film.

Like most heroic legends, however, Thermopylae becomes more complicated the closer we look at it. Thermopylae was a battle, not a morality play, and the choices of both sides were dictated more by practicality than ideology. Xerxes’ large army required supplies brought across the Aegean by ship, but the Mediterranean is stormy in winter and the Persians could not risk going hungry because of a shipwrecked supply fleet. A swift conquest, before winter came, was therefore crucial to Persian strategy. The Greeks knew they could not expect the army at Thermopylae to hold the Persian forces back indefinitely. Their mission was not to die nobly but to slow down Xerxes’ advance enough to strain his supply lines and make a swift conquest impossible. When the Persians turned the Greek flank, the Greeks withdrew. Those who stayed behind may have been intended only as a covering force who would withdraw last, but they ran out of time. Despite Demaratus’ assertions to Xerxes, Spartans had been known to withdraw in the face of overwhelming forces before. If Leonidas did in fact intend to fight to the death, he had strategic reasons for doing so besides romantic heroism. The greatest danger to the Greeks was always that their alliance would fall apart over old rivalries. The Athenians in particular, whose fleet was vital, were suspicious of Sparta’s commitment to the cause. By fighting to the last, the Spartans demonstrated their resolve and helped keep the alliance intact. The events at Thermopylae reflect the realities of ancient warfare, not a test of national character.

The conversations between Xerxes and Demaratus in Herodotus’ account also mean rather less than some have made them out to. Like most such dialogues in ancient histories, they were probably pure invention. Herodotus, proud of his fellow Greeks for their resistance to Xerxes, used these exchanges to make a point, but his argument is less sweeping than a cosmic opposition between democratic Greeks and despotic Persians. First of all, Demaratus is  explicit that his praise applies only to Spartans, not all Greeks. Second, it is not freedom or democracy that Demaratus points to, but self-control. The unspoken contrast is not to Persians as a culture but to Xerxes himself, whose capricious character Herodotus explored elsewhere in detail. The trouble with the Persians was not that they had a king but that they had a bad one, and bad rulers were not unique to Persia; Greeks had had plenty of their own.

The wars between Greece and Persia in the early fifth century have been hailed as the defining clash between East and West and the spark that lit the torch of Western civilization. While the events of the war were important in the history of ancient Greece, the reality is that Greece and Persia were not so starkly opposed as many have made them out to be. Greeks and Persians had much in common, and the history of their interactions turned more on the practicalities of politics and diplomacy than on ideology. The war was a painful and complicated event that provoked many different responses, but it was no clash of civilizations.

The Greco-Persian Wars in Western History

Western scholarship up to the latter half of the twentieth century was unabashedly pro-Greek and anti-Persian. The nineteenth-century German historian Barthold Niebuhr spoke for many of his peers when he wrote: “a Persian man has never been a free and proud man. . . . At the same time the Persians are exceptionally cruel. . . . The orientals are an evil and morally corrupt people through and through.” Niebuhr’s English contemporary Sir Edward Creasey began his 1851 history The Fifteen Decisive Battles of the World with the battle between a Persian expeditionary force and the Athenians at Marathon in 490 and left no doubt as to how he judged the significance of the event: “on the result of [the Greek generals’] deliberations depended not merely the fate of two armies, but the whole future progress of human civilization.” Even a century later in the 1950s, it was regarded as no more than a banal truism to state that “In 480–79 the Greeks saved themselves and the future of European civilization from Oriental conquest.”

The idea of the Greco-Persian Wars as a conflict between two radically opposed forces has lingered on in more modern scholarship but has come to be expressed in cultural rather than racial terms. One book from 1996 still described some Persian troops as “Stone Age savages” and celebrated the Greek victory as one that “continue[s] to irradiate and quicken our whole western heritage.” Books on the Battle of Salamis, from 2004, and Marathon, from 2010, both argued that the outcome saved Western civilization.

A different approach to Greece and Persia has developed with the rise of postcolonial studies. Some scholars have shifted the focus to the Persian perspective and have explained the failure of Persia’s campaigns in Greece less as the product of Greek heroism and more as the result of poor strategic planning on the Persians’ part. Others have ousted the wars from the center of Greco-Persian interactions and traced a long-term pattern of trade, accommodation, and cultural interchange in which the invasions of mainland Greece were only a brief interruption. Greek attitudes toward Persia have been examined more fully and found to be far more nuanced and multifaceted than was long assumed.

Understanding the Greco-Persian Wars requires setting aside nineteenth-century assumptions about “Oriental” races and twentieth-century arguments about Western civilization to see both the Persians and the Greeks on their own terms.

Persia

The Persian Empire arose in the context of another empire’s fall. In the tenth century BCE the old northern Mesopotamian kingdom of Assyria began to build an empire using innovative techniques of siege warfare. Walled towns that might have held out for months or years against earlier armies fell to the Assyrians’ towers and battering rams in a matter of days. Supported by its army’s expertise in capturing cities, the Assyrian Empire expanded faster and farther than any state in the region had done before, ultimately stretching from the edge of the Iranian plateau to the Nile valley.

The Assyrians faced new challenges as their army was stretched thin by its rapid conquests. To suppress rebellion, they massacred, enslaved, or forcibly resettled many conquered peoples and destroyed rebellious cities. Assyrian cruelty was a calculated political strategy, and though effective in the short term, it sowed resentment among its victims. When the empire was weakened by civil war in the late seventh century BCE, an alliance of its subjects and neighbors banded together to overthrow it. A few generations later, with the memory of Assyrian oppression still fresh, the Persians began to build a new empire.

The Persians first appear in history as nomads in the southern Iranian plateau at the fringes of Assyrian power. They allied themselves with another Iranian people, the Medes, who lived to their north. Both the Medes and the Persians were part of the anti-Assyrian coalition. In 550 BCE the Persian king Cyrus began a campaign of expansion and ultimately built an empire larger than any the world had seen before. Persian territory stretched from the Indus River in the east to Egypt and Anatolia in the west. Cyrus and his descendants, the Achaemenid dynasty, ruled over this empire for the next three centuries.

In a deliberate contrast to the Assyrians, the Persians adopted a policy of tolerance toward the peoples they ruled. Slavery was forbidden by Persian custom, and though they did not end slaveholding among their subjects, they took no slaves of their own. They never massacred a conquered people and only forcibly resettled the most persistent troublemakers. In fact, the Persians helped some displaced people—notably the Jews—return home and rebuild.

Local cultures were allowed to thrive. The Persians did not impose their customs, language, or laws on their subjects. The only demands they made were the payment of taxes and provision of soldiers for the army. In return, the Persians guaranteed peace and stability, and they supported trade through the construction of roads and the issuing of a common currency. The empire was organized into provinces ruled by governors, called satraps, who had a degree of local autonomy but were accountable to the king for the orderly administration of their territories. At a more local level, the Persians generally left peoples with their own native rulers, so long as those rulers did not support rebellion. Achaemenid royal art, such as the stairway of the ceremonial palace at Persepolis and the tombs cut into cliff faces nearby, shows the king surrounded by subjects of many different ethnicities in their own native garb, rendered in a style that combined elements from the artistic traditions of many different peoples. For the Persians, multiculturalism was both a virtue and a pragmatic policy.

Persians and Greeks

No empire has ever been created without violence. The Persian Empire is no exception. Most of the peoples over whom the Persians ruled were, most of the time, content with the arrangement and prospered from it, but some parts of the empire resisted Persian rule and threatened the stability of their satrapies. The northwestern frontier was a persistent trouble spot for the empire. The conquests of Cyrus had brought the kingdom of Lydia, in western Anatolia, into the empire in 546. Not long before, around 560, the Lydians had conquered the Ionian Greek cities on the Aegean coast. These cities now came under Persian control.

Like most other Greek poleis of the time, the Ionian cities in Anatolia had a variety of constitutions, but most allowed some degree of democratic participation. Democracy is by its nature messy and unpredictable. As practiced in ancient Greece, it was also prone to outbreaks of factional violence. Although it was the Persians’ custom to leave local politics alone, they needed a measure of stability on their frontier. They therefore supported the rise of local aristocrats who ruled the Ionian cities as pro-Persian tyrants.

The opponents of these tyrants found shelter across the Aegean in the cities of mainland Greece, especially Athens, which had strong historical ties to the Ionians. Agitation against the tyrants continued until 499 when many of the Ionian cities rose up in revolt. Athens and some other mainland Greek cities committed warships to the cause. The Athenians had their own troubled history with Persia, which helped draw them into the revolt. The former tyrant of Athens, Hippias, had fled to Persia when he was driven out of the city in 510 and had been trying for some time to engineer a return with Persian backing. Having forced out Hippias, the Athenians went through a series of internal conflicts, ending with the establishment of a democratic constitution. When Sparta tried to intervene and help some pro-Spartan aristocrats regain power, the Athenians went so far as to offer submission to Persia in return for protection. After the Spartan threat had passed, however, the Athenians wanted neither Persian rule nor the return of Hippias. Driving the Persians back from the Aegean coast must have seemed a prudent step toward avoiding both.

The Ionian revolt had some initial success, including capturing and burning down the satrapal capital at Sardis, but in the end the rebellion was a failure. Most of the Ionian cities accepted their old tyrants back on the promise that no harm would come to them. The only city to suffer reprisals was Miletus, where the revolt had begun and which held out until recaptured by force. The population of the city was forcibly resettled at the mouth of the Tigris River. The Persians’ uncharacteristically harsh treatment of the Milesians shows how vexing this frontier problem had become.

The Persians continued to try to pacify their Aegean frontier through diplomacy and targeted strikes against foreign agitators such as Athens. In 491 King Darius sent envoys to many cities on the Greek mainland and islands asking for earth and water, the traditional symbols of submission to Persia. Many cities, remembering what happened to Miletus, acquiesced. The next year, Darius sent a naval expedition across the sea against Athens and some of the other cities who persisted in resistance. Hippias, now an old man, was brought along in the hopes that he could rally local supporters and seize control of the city, but that support never materialized. After a long standoff, some of the Persian forces were defeated in battle with the Athenian army at Marathon. The rest tried to sail around Attica and attack the undefended city, but the Athenian troops raced overland in time to draw up outside the city walls as the Persian ships came into view. The Persians withdrew to Ionia.

In 486 Darius was succeeded by his son Xerxes, who decided that after some sixty years of trying to manage the Aegean frontier, the time had come to conquer and incorporate the territory. In 480, apart from the delaying action at Thermopylae, Persian forces marched largely unopposed into Greece. Most Athenians abandoned their city and fell back to the fleet. In the straits between the island of Salamis and the Attic coast the allied Greek fleet won a major battle against the Persian navy and changed the strategic calculus. Without naval superiority, the Persians could no longer count on keeping their army supplied by ship. Xerxes withdrew with most of his army, leaving a small force under his general Mardonius to overwinter in Thessaly and continue the campaign the next year. The following summer the Greeks assembled the largest army they could muster and defeated Mardonius’ troops at Plataea. Following up on the victory, the Greek forces expelled Persian garrisons from many of the cities they had occupied in their march.

Once the Persians had been driven out of Europe, Sparta withdrew its forces from the alliance. Athens instead took the lead and organized a new alliance, known as the Delian League, with the avowed purpose of carrying on the fight to liberate the Greek cities in Ionia and defend them from Persian interference. The Ionian cities seized the opportunity to rebel against Persia again and joined up with the new league. Athenian-led forces won a decisive victory against the Persians at Eurymedon in 466 that secured Athenian dominance over the Aegean for decades.

‘clibanarius’

A term associated with the heavily armoured cavalry is ‘clibanarius’, apparently from a Persian word for an oven or furnace, which must have seemed most apt under the Mediterranean or Persian sun. It is sometimes anachronistically translated as ‘ironclad’. Although probably starting as a nickname for cataphracts, some of the evidence suggests that clibanarius seems to have gained a specific and distinct technical meaning. To add to the confusion, a unit could be referred to as cataphractus clibanarius. Some scholars have suggested that clibanarii carried bows as well as the lance (as did most of the Persian horsemen) or that one had full horse armour and the other only the frontal half armour. It has also been suggested that the distinction was not one of equipment but of tactical use and training with clibanarii being trained to cooperate closely with light horse archers. By this way of thinking, a unit trained in both might operate as cataphracti on one occasion or clibanarii on another.

In addition to the variety of types in service, the main impression of the Roman cavalry that Arrian gives his reader is of a highly disciplined force, rigorously trained through constant practice. In cavalry tactics, as in so many fields, the Romans were the beneficiaries of centuries of development among many peoples, both their conquered subjects and those still beyond their borders. The eclectic range of formations and manoeuvres that the empire’s regiments were expected to master included the Celtic toloutegon, the Cantabrian gallop, the Thessalian rhombus, and of course the wedge, so valuable for cutting through enemy formations in shock action, which the Macedonians had learnt from the Thracians and Scythians.

By Hadrian’s reign, when the cataphract was finally adopted by the Roman army, the Roman Empire had reached its high watermark. As well as annexing Dacia (roughly modern Rumania), Trajan had campaigned in the east, capturing the Parthian capital at Ctesiphon and carrying the Empire’s borders to their greatest territorial extent. After that Rome was increasingly on the defensive. In Britain of course, this retrenchment was clearly embodied in the construction of Hadrian’s Wall and the other frontiers also gradually ossified into fixed defensive systems.

On the Danube, Hadrian began paying subsidies to the Roxolani and awarded citizenship to their king, Rasparagus, but other Sarmatian groups remained a major threat, despite a significant victory by the Emperor Marcus Aurelius in the winter of AD 173/174. Once more the Sarmatian dependence upon the headlong charge proved their undoing in a battle fought upon the frozen River Danube. It seems incredible that any cavalry force would willingly give battle on ice, yet, remarkably, the historian Cassius Dio claims that the lazyge raiders, who had been retreating with their loot, actually halted on the river and waited for the Romans, expecting to have the advantage ‘as their horses had been trained to run safely even over a surface of this kind’.

When the Romans came up the Sarmatians tried to employ exactly the tactics Arrian had prepared to face, with some dashing straight at the Roman centre while others attempted to envelop both flanks. The Romans, however, did not panic and ‘drew together in a compact body’; possibly a square with the cavalry in the centre since they are not mentioned in the ensuing fight. The Sarmatian assault failed to break the Roman infantry, many of the men having thrown down their shields for the front ranks to stand upon for firmer footing. The lazyges did manage to drive their horses into the waiting lines but many mounts lost their footing and went down ‘since the barbarians, by reason of their momentum could no longer keep from slipping’. Those piling in from behind became embroiled in a vicious struggle in which many were bodily hauled from their horses ‘so that but few escaped out of a large force’.

Marcus Aurelius adopted the soubriquet ‘Sarmaticus’ as a result of this victory and, after further campaigning, was able to negotiate a favourable peace two years later. The terms of this settlement illustrate how the Romans, although not expanding territorially, still sought to incorporate the manpower of defeated enemies. As a result of this defeat, the lazyges returned some one hundred thousand captives taken in raids over the years, and also undertook to furnish eight thousand cavalry for service with the Roman army, of whom 5500 were sent to Britain.

Some see a tantalizing link between this and the historical basis for the legend of King Arthur. The Sarmatians would have been horsemen, some at least clad in shining mail (though not uniquely so among Britannia’s garrison) and fighting under a dragon standard (although again not uniquely, for draco standards were widely used by the late Roman army). Add to this that Sarmatian religious beliefs, true to their Scythian roots, included the veneration of an ancient sword plunged in the ground, and connections are tempting indeed. A Sarmatian unit was still based in Lancashire in the third century and there is archaeological evidence for their presence around AD 400, just before the official Roman abandonment of Britain. At one point they were even commanded by one Lucius Artorius Castus.

The peace lasted for a generation, but a new threat was already emerging in the region.

NABOPOLASSAR AND NEBUCHADREZZAR

Babylonian Soldier.

Nabopolassar (Nabu-apal-usur, i.e. “Nabu protect the heir”), according to the Ptolemaic canon, reigned from 625 b.c. (the date of his accession thus being 626) until 605b.c., in which year he died, shortly before the victory won by his son Nebuchadrezzar over the Egyptians at Carchemish, having been in ill health before Nebuchadrezzar started for Syria. We have seen how immediately upon his accession to the throne of the Pharaohs, Neku II profited by the impotence of the Assyrian kingdom, which was enfeebled to the last degree by long years of Scythian incursions, to penetrate into the Hamath district.

[He encountered the army of Judah at Meggido—the same historical locality where, a thousand years before, Tehutimes III had vanquished the combined forces of Syria and Phœnicia. The king of Jerusalem was slain on the field, and his army, retreating in terror to the capital, made his young son, Jehoahaz, king, ignoring the claims of Eliakim, the eldest, probably because he was in favour of submitting to Neku. Pharaoh now proceeded, unmolested, to Riblah in Cœle-Syria, where he made his headquarters, and confident in his mastery over Judah, ordered Jehoahaz to appear before him. When the new king arrived he was thrown into chains and Eliakim put in his place under the name of Jehoiakim.]

Neku’s ambition was next directed to the conquest of the whole of northern Syria; a project which he actually accomplished to a great extent during the years 608 to 606, whilst the Babylonians, with their Median allies, were besieging Nineveh. He must certainly have advanced as far as Carchemish, since that was the spot where the Egyptian and Babylonian forces met in 605. The fate of Syria was sealed thereby; it became a province of Babylonia even as it had once been a province of Assyria, and Judah became a vassal kingdom to Babylonia.

Thus Nabopolassar, who died in 605, while his son was on the march for Syria, only just missed the satisfaction of seeing the new kingdom of Babylonia which he had founded enter upon the heritage of the Assyrian Empire, out of which the western province could least of all be spared. He did not see it: instead the news of his father’s death reached the young Nebuchadrezzar (Nabu-kudur-usur, i.e. “Nabu protect the crown”) shortly after the victory of the Egyptians, which decided the fate of Syria for the time being; and leaving his generals to follow up the victory, he had to return to Babylon in hot haste to assume the royal dignity that awaited him. There he received the crown at the hands of the great nobles without encountering any obstacles, and for the long period of his glorious reign, which lasted forty-two years (604-562) he guided the destinies of his country, extended and strengthened its borders, and thus made Babylonia a great power, and Babylon one of the most splendid and illustrious cities of ancient times. If we further take into consideration that it was he who likewise conquered Syria for Babylonia, we cannot but acknowledge his claim to be counted the first ruler who entered upon the full possession of Assyria and consolidated it.

Amid all the many and sometimes detailed inscriptions of Nebuchadrezzar which have been found in the ruins of Babylon and other cities, not one contains any account of his campaigns; but from a passage in the preamble of the great inscription of the kingdom, we see that in spite of his preference for building and other peaceful labours he was a mighty warrior. It runs: “Under his mighty protection (i.e. that of the god Marduk) I have passed through far countries, distant mountains, from the upper sea even to the lower sea (i.e. probably from the Gulf of Issus to the mouth of the Nile) far-reaching ways, closed paths where my step was stayed and my foot could not stand, a road of hardships, a way of thirst; the disobedient I subdued and took the adversaries captive, the land I guided aright, the people I caused to be seized; I carried away the bad and the good among them, silver and gold and precious stones, copper, palm wood and cedar wood, whatsoever was costly, in gorgeous abundance; the products of the mountains and that which the sea yielded, brought I as a gift of great weight, as a rich tribute into my city of Babylon before his (the god’s) face.” And although the different campaigns of which we know are distributed over almost the whole of his long reign, we find mention of only one short war against Aahmes of Egypt in the thirty-seventh year of it.

With regard to these wars, most of them aimed at completing the work begun at the battle of Carchemish, and more particularly at preventing further interference on the part of Egypt, and at banishing her influence completely from Babylonian territory, which had now been extended to her very frontier. It was probably in the third year after Nebuchadrezzar’s battle (therefore in 602b.c.) that Syria was completely incorporated into the Babylonian kingdom, leaving him free to think of displaying his power in the eyes of Jehoiakim, whom Neku had set up as king in Jerusalem, by advancing against him with an army. The desired result promptly followed, and from 601 to 599 Jehoiakim became tributary to the king of the Chaldeans. In the fourth year, 598, the king of Judah withheld the tribute, probably at the instigation of Egypt. When the Babylonians invaded Judah (probably at the beginning of 587) Jehoiakim was just dead; his son Jehoiachin (known also as Jeconiah) was besieged at Jerusalem and, seeing further resistance useless, surrendered to Nebuchadrezzar. He was carried away captive to Babylon with his family and nearly all the princes, warriors, masons, and smiths; but, once there, their lot was no hard one, for they were permitted to settle without molestation and to exercise their own religion. A great number of them lived thus at Tel-Abib (i.e. “heap of ruins”) on the canal Chebar [a canal found near Nippur and now called Kabaru] as we know from the chronicles of Ezekiel, who was one of them. Jerusalem was not destroyed, but Jehoiachin’s kinsman, Mattaniah (another son of Josiah), was set over the few inhabitants that remained there as a vassal of Babylonia, under the new name of Zedekiah (595-587). The newly installed sovereign was a weak man, who by his own good will would have been a loyal vassal; but ultimately in spite of the warnings of the prophet Jeremiah, who fully realised the true state of affairs, he threw in his lot with the war party, who relied on the help of Egypt, and rebelled against Babylonia.

In 589 Psamthek II (Neku’s successor) himself was succeeded by the young and warlike Uah-ab-Ra (the Hophra of the Bible and the Apries of the Greeks), who sent a fleet to the assistance of the Phœnicians in an attempt they made to revolt. Thereupon Nebuchadrezzar marched his troops into Syria and set up his headquarters at Riblah, the old headquarters of Neku, so as to operate from thence against Zedekiah, Tyre, and Pharaoh. How Jerusalem was besieged (589-587) and destroyed, how in the meantime Uah-ab-Ra’s army was vanquished, and how Tyre was then invested (the siege lasting thirteen years) and forced to pay tribute, if no more—all these events are likewise known to us only from other sources than cuneiform inscriptions, and the detailed description of them, at least in so far as they relate to the downfall of the kingdom of Judah, and thus form a part of (not the opening era of) Jewish history, lies ready to every reader’s hand in the books of the Bible of which we have given a brief outline. As for Tyre (after the siege) she remained under the rule of her own kings, though as a vassal to Babylonia. All the worse was the fate which, in 587, overtook Judah, whose hopes had been so cruelly deceived, for not only was the city utterly destroyed (see the moving laments in the so-called Book of Lamentations), and the king, blinded and fettered, carried away into captivity after seeing his sons slain before his face; but with the exception of the poor, the day labourers absolutely necessary for the cultivation of the soil and vineyards, all who had escaped the previous deportation were carried away by the Babylonian king to the “waters of Babylon” (Psalm 137).

[While his soldiers were keeping their long and weary station under the walls of Tyre, Nebuchadrezzar turned his attention to another important matter. Because the people of Judah and Tyre had looked to Egypt for assistance, they had given the Babylonian king much trouble. Egypt, therefore, must suffer for this; so that she would not feel inclined to repeat her action of sending an army to Zedekiah’s aid. A new Egyptian campaign was planned.]

A fragment at the beginning of which a prayer (“Thou destroyest my enemies and makest my heart to rejoice”) was set down, assigns the above-mentioned campaign in Egypt to the year 568 (i.e.the thirty-seventh year of the reign). The passage which refers to it,—“Year 37 of Nebuchadrezzar, king of (Babylonia to the land of) Misir, (i.e. Egypt) to give a battle, he marched and (his troops A-ma)-a-su, the king of Misir assembled and …” leaves no doubt that Aahmes or Amasu is the king here meant, for only the year before, in 569, Aahmes had revolted against Uah-ab-Ra and forced him to recognise him (Aahmes) as co-regent. He soon afterward became sole ruler in Egypt; and, as such, he died in the year 528, shortly before the conquest of Egypt by the Persians. Nebuchadrezzar meanwhile contented himself with humbling the pride of Egypt, and refrained from conquering the country, which even had it been successfully done would but have raised difficulties for the Babylonian kingdom to cope with. His chief aim, to keep Syria and Palestine clear of Egyptian influence, was attained by the campaign.

Of Nebuchadrezzar’s other military expeditions, the one mentioned (Jeremiah xlix. 28-33) against the Bedouins of Kedar and the Arab tribes, which had settled to the east of Palestine, leads us again to the borders of the Occident. The town of Teredon, at the mouth of the Euphrates, was founded at this time as a bulwark against the Bedouins, and by reason of its situation became, like Gerrha, on the Persian Gulf, and Thapsacus, Tiphsah, on the middle Euphrates, a mercantile station of some importance. Not until the time of the New Kingdom of Babylonia did a flourishing trade develop along the Euphrates, with Armenia and the east coast of Arabia for its extreme poles; and from the reign of Nebuchadrezzar dates the part played by Babylon, his capital, as the greatest emporium of the ancient world, and the proverbial meaning which the name of Babylon has retained down to our times, to signify the worst aspects (luxury and license) of a capital city.

From Babylon and the mention of her trade it would be a natural transition to the buildings erected by Nebuchadrezzar, if we were not first bound to mention the northwest and east, which are of extreme importance from an historical point of view, and in which Nebuchadrezzar took the part of a mediator, if no more, between the Medes and the Lydians.

To return to the buildings erected by Nebuchadrezzar, which, up to this time form the subject of nearly all the inscriptions discovered, the latter all show his character in a favourable light. In all we find evidence of the paternal care of a prince zealous for the welfare of his dominions, and of a sincere and heartfelt piety which by no means leaves the impression that it is a mere form of speech. We can listen to his own words prefixed to his account of the buildings he erected and revealing something of his heart.

“Since the Lord, Marduk, created me, and made fair preparation for my birth from the womb, from that time forward, when I was born and created, I have visited the holy places of God, and walked in the ways of God. To Marduk, my Lord, I prayed; I took up my parable in prayer to him, the speech of my heart came (before him) to him I spoke: ‘Eternal, Holy, Lord of all things, for the king, whom thou lovest, whose name thou callest according to thy good pleasure, guide his name well, lead (or guard) him in a straight path. I, the prince, who obeyeth thee, am the work of thy hands, thou didst create me, thou didst commit unto me the royal dominion over the whole people, according to thy grace, O Lord which thou sendest forth upon all. Teach me to love thy august sovereignty, let the fear of thy divinity be in my heart, bestow (upon me) that which is pleasing unto thee, thou who preparest my life.’ Thereupon the Highest, the Glorious, the first among the gods, the august Marduk, heard my supplication and accepted my prayers, he caused his great majesty to rule favourably, he caused the fear of God to abide in my heart, I fear his majesty.” And the conclusion runs: “Babylon, the capital of the land, I established with the hills of the forest. To Marduk, my lord, I prayed and lifted up my hand: ‘Marduk, lord, the first of gods, thou mighty prince, thou hast created me, thou hast committed to me royal dominion over the multitude of the people, I love the majesty of thy courts as my precious life. Save thy city of Babylon. I have made me no other capital out of all inhabited places. As I love the fear of thy divinity and seek thy majesty, so incline graciously to my supplication (literally, to the raising of my hands), hear my prayers. I am the King, the Restorer, who delights thy heart, the zealous ruler, the restorer of all thy cities. At thy command, O merciful Marduk, may the house which I have built endure to all eternity, may I satisfy myself in its abundance. May I come to old age therein, may I satisfy myself with my glory, may I receive the weighty tribute therein from the kings of all regions of the world and from all mankind. From the horizon of the heavens unto the meridian and at (?) the rising sun may I have no enemies nor possess any adversaries (lit. them that put me in fear). May my posterity bear rule therein over the black-headed people to all eternity.’”

Nebuchadrezzar, himself, attached the greatest importance to the restoration of the temples of E-sagila and E-zida, as being the most ancient sanctuaries of Babylon, and in his briefest inscriptions, the stamp-marks on bricks, whether used for the building of these two temples or any other edifice, always had added to his title of king, that of restorer of the temples of E-sagila and E-zida. Of greater interest to us, however, since we can still admire the ruins of it, is a temple which is only briefly referred to in a few words in the long inscription, but of which we have a detailed account in another, shorter inscription, namely, the Temple of the Seven Spheres of Heaven and Earth, which was built in seven stories near (or as a ziggurat of) E-zida at Borsippa.

Babylon the Mighty. Original artwork for cover of Look and Learn no. 1039 (6 February 1982)

But although Nebuchadrezzar devoted most thought to his beloved Babylon (and to Borsippa) he in nowise neglected other seats of worship of the country. The temple of the Sun, at Sippar, the temple of a god as yet unidentified, in the city of Baz (Paszitu), the temple of Idi-Anu (the Eye of Anu), at Dilbat, the temple of Lugal-Amarda (Marad), E-Anna, the temple of Ishtar, at Erech, the temple of the Sun, at Larsa, and the temple of the Moon, at Erech, are enumerated one after another as having been rebuilt by Nebuchadrezzar. With better right than his father he calls himself on one of the Abu-Habba cylinders “the ruler of Sumer and Accad, who laid the foundation of the land” (or as Winckler translates it, “made fast the foundations of the land”), for in truth his new creations extended over the whole territory that had been Sumer and Accad as we are familiar with it in ancient Babylonian history, from the reigns of Ur-Ba’u of Ur onward. Under him, after a long sleep (lasting in places for a thousand years) among her ruins, the whole of Babylonia kept the festival of her resurrection, and joyous sacrificial hymns resounded through the length and breadth of the land during Nebuchadrezzar’s long and prosperous reign, as in the days of her distant prime.

To complete the picture of Nebuchadrezzar’s capital, we must in conclusion cast a glance at the vast fortifications with which this king girdled the city he had created, and so insured it against the most formidable assault. Nebuchadrezzar did not rest satisfied with completely restoring and enlarging these fortifications (a work that his father had begun, since they had again been impaired); he included a strip of arable land some four thousand cubits (about two to three kilometres) in breadth, on the farther side of the rampart Nimitti-Bel, within another “mountain high” wall, and made it a part of the outworks, thus casting a gigantic threefold girdle of ramparts (or walls) and moats about the city. Nor was that enough: “To quell the countenance of the enemy that he should not harass the (threefold) encompassment of Babylon, I surrounded the land with mighty streams, comparable unto the waters of the sea; to cross them was as it were to cross the ocean. To render an inundation from their midst (the midst of these artificial courses) impossible, I heaped up masses of earth, I set up brick dams round about them.”

LAST YEARS AND FALL OF THE ASSYRIAN EMPIRE (626-609 b.c.)

In all probability, Asshurbanapal lived until 626, and during the whole of his reign he remained firmly established in possession of the Assyrian throne and also of the kingdom of Babylon. Elam had been rendered powerless, Babylon had been conquered, and the desert dwellers of the west were too much weakened and impoverished by the severe lesson taught them, as well as by hunger and disease, to be dangerous. Media was only in her youth, and Assyria was still strong enough to resist the first onrush of this new, conquering state. Besides her northeastern and northern neighbours, the states of Asia Minor and the inhabitants of the Mediterranean coast had enough to do to defend themselves against the barbarians who were pressing upon them from the north and east. Egypt was indeed independent, but could not seriously think of conquests in Asia. The condition of the Assyrian Empire resembled the calm before the storm.

In his latter years the king doubtless devoted himself by preference to the works of peace. He had already erected many buildings, even during the period of his great wars. He had continued and completed the work on the temples of Assyria and Babylonia, which Esarhaddon had begun. Unfortunately the inscription which enumerates the principal structures belonging to the first half of his reign only occasionally mentions the places in which the temples he erected stood. In the later years of the king’s reign the walls of Nineveh demanded his attention. They were loosened by annual rains and the violent showers of Adad, and had sunk. Asshurbanapal restored them and made them stronger than before. When he had seen his great campaigns crowned with victory, he at last undertook an important work in Nineveh, the town of Bel and Ishtar. Bit-Riduti, the great palace, which Sennacherib had built and established as a royal dwelling, had fallen to ruins. This king did nothing without the gods. It was now again a dream which made known to him their will that he should repair the damage to the palace. This was done. The forced labour of Assyrian subjects brought the stone in carts from the spoil of Elam; and the captive Arabian kings, decked out with appropriate marks of distinction, shared in the labour as workmen. When the palace was completed to the pinnacles and enlarged, it was surrounded with noble grounds; and when the victims were slaughtered at the consecration, the king made his entry carried in a gorgeous palanquin and with festive rejoicings.

Of all the objects assembled in this palace the king set the highest value on the library which he had founded and which has now for the most part been unearthed and brought to Europe. Asshurbanapal was, without any doubt, an admirer and patron of learning and a prince who loved art. He did not allow the libraries of Babylonia to be plundered, but he had the literary treasures which were buried there, including whole works on philosophical, mythological, and poetic subjects, copied in Assyrian characters and added to the historical records of his own predecessors. He even seems to have studied them diligently himself, and to have encouraged their perusal. The fruit of this study is shown in his own memorials. In fact these have some literary value, which cannot be said of the dry chronicles of former kings. He was not, however, the first to found a library. Not only had the ancient Babylonian kings—it is said even Sargon I of Agade—preceded him in this respect, but the Assyrian kings had also set him an example. This was certainly true of Sennacherib, in whose palace at Nineveh, according to the calculation made by George Smith, probably twenty thousand fragments are now awaiting the investigator who can find the time and means to dig them out and make them accessible to western learning. But it cannot be denied that Asshurbanapal earned the gratitude of scholars by rendering so many treasures of the Babylonian libraries accessible to his compatriots, and also by founding libraries in other places; as, for example, in Babylon, and that he devoted more attention to these things than any of his predecessors.

The popular tradition of the downfall of the Assyrian Empire, which took shape in later years and came from the Persians to the Greeks, represents Sardanapalus (by whom none other than Asshurbanapal can be meant) as the type of a luxurious, effeminate, oriental despot, who forgets his kingly duties in the enjoyments of his harem, abandons his empire to the enemies rising against him on all sides, and finally, shut up in his capital, delivers himself in despair to the flames with his wives and all his treasures. We now know how little this picture agrees with the truth, but from what is historically credible we can gather how it arose. Asshurbanapal did indeed take pleasure in filling his women’s palace with the daughters of all the princes subdued by him, and with those of their nearest relatives; and these princes knew well what was pleasing to the supreme king. It is true that this proceeded as much from love of display as from an inclination to voluptuousness; it is true that policy also had a share in it, because by this means his supremacy was confirmed and a pledge given for further submissiveness; it is true that the custom was a usual one with oriental monarchs; but a king who pursued it to such an extent must have been easily transformed into a voluptuary in the minds of his people.

There was also some reason for regarding him as weak and effeminate. The great Assyrian monarchs, at least during the years of their youth and vigorous manhood, had themselves frequently led their armies to victory. It was seldom, if ever, that Asshurbanapal joined in the fight. His official historians do, indeed, ascribe to him the honour of all the victories during his reign, but they have not succeeded in hiding the fact that his generals fought the battles. Yet he was by no means a weakling. That he was an eager hunter is testified by a number of hunting inscriptions, some of them accompanied by reliefs. In any case, a prince who could find pleasure in so manly a pastime was no effeminate voluptuary, little warlike though he may have shown himself to be.

The king’s tragic end in the flames of his own palace, of which the legend speaks, may have been shifted on to him from his brother, Shamash-shum-ukin, or, still more probably, from the last Ninevite king. That he, the last great king of Assyria, should have been supposed to continue reigning until the end of the empire, while the insignificant kings who really followed him were forgotten, is natural enough. In short, Asshurbanapal was not a hero who strove to reap the laurels of the battle-field through difficulty and privations on distant campaigns. He preferred to linger in his luxurious palace, and to alternate the delights of the harem and the pursuit of learning with the royal lion-hunting. He was very pious, and did nothing without consulting the oracles of his gods or the dreams of his seers. If he thought the dignity of his empire, and with it the honour of his gods, insulted by an obstinate rebellion, he would avenge them as his predecessors had done by punishments of ingenious cruelty, inflicted both on individuals and on whole countries. The fearful suffering which the war on Asshur’s enemies wrought in its train, the pestilence which filled the streets with corpses, the famine which drove parents to destroy their own children, filled him with transports of joy. His ruling idea was the unity and vastness of his empire. If he left the sword in its sheath, the love of pleasure did not make him neglect his duties as a ruler. He took care that his armies should always be ready to take the field, which would not have been possible without good organisation; and they triumphed over almost all his enemies, maintained his sway against a powerful coalition, crushed the formidable Elam so severely that she never recovered from the blows she had received, and, if not during his reign, at least shortly after it, repelled the advancing Medes. He regularly transmitted his orders to all the governors in his empire, and was by them kept carefully informed of anything of importance which happened in their provinces. No one of his victorious military leaders ever ventured to turn his arms against him. All, including the governors, recognised him and honoured him as their king. Such he was in the fullest sense of the word. In his palace at Nineveh, during two-and-forty years, he held the reigns of government with a strong hand. And this is all the more creditable to the influence of his personality, since the empire was internally weakened by his own political mistakes, in particular by the removal of the centre of government from Babylon, which Esarhaddon had made its seat, to Nineveh, and by other causes, so that it went to pieces a few years after his death.

After him at least two kings ruled over Assyria, who were probably brothers, for one of them, Bel-zakir-ishkun, was the son of a king of Assyria, and grandson of a king of Sumer and Accad, and though their names are missing from the inscriptions, they can have been none other than Asshurbanapal and Esarhaddon; and the other, Asshur-etil-ili [who is sometimes known by a lengthened form of his name, Asshur-etil-ili-ukinni] is expressly called the son and grandson of these rulers. Probably Bel-zakir-ishkun reigned first, and then the other. No historical records have been preserved, dealing either with the fortunes and achievements of these kings or with the fall of Assyria. Certain texts have led some to conclude that a third king, a namesake of Esarhaddon, may have swayed the sceptre at this period, but this has been shown to be extremely questionable.

Immediately after Asshurbanapal’s death, or perhaps even in the last year of his reign, Babylon broke away from the Assyrian rule, and this time the separation was permanent. The empire was much weakened by it. The north and northwest, Urartu and the states of Asia Minor, gradually fell into the power of the ever-advancing Medes. The Assyrian lordship over the countries on the coast of the Mediterranean Sea now existed in name only, so that King Josiah of Judah was able to effect his reform unhindered, and to act as master in the territory of the ancient kingdom of Israel, which for years had been an Assyrian province. And in the year 608 Neku II, king of Egypt, was able to think of extending his empire to the Euphrates, as in days long past, and to take arms against Assyria with the idea of wresting from her all her western provinces. The foundation of the new Babylonian Empire and the invasion of the Egyptians, who could no longer be repelled by the Assyrians, but were only to give way before the Babylonian arms, are described elsewhere. Here we only mention them as among the causes which brought about the fall of the Assyrian Empire. That empire no longer had any real existence, at least as a ruling power. Thrust back to its old frontiers, the ancient Assyrian state slowly languished and only awaited the death-blow.

That blow was to come from the Medes in alliance with the Babylonians, and was partly hastened, partly stayed, by the great migratory streams of the Cimmerians and Scythians.

Though Professor Tiele’s admirable history is recent, much new information concerning the last days of the Assyrian rule at Nineveh has come to light, and historians are now able to place the conquest of the city by the Manda in the reign of Sin-shar-ishkun. Without overlooking a certain Sin-shum-lishir, who is mentioned in several places as an Assyrian king, and must have ruled about this time, but whose personality has not yet been unwrapped from the historic gloom, it is safe to say that this Sin-shar-ishkun was Asshur-etil-ili’s successor. From contract tablets found at Sippar and Erech we know that he occupied the Assyrian throne in 612 b.c., and that his dominion included a part of Babylonia as well. Later records would show him to be of much stronger character than the man he succeeded. In 610 or 609 he attempted to wrest more of the Babylonian provinces from Nabopolassar, and the harassed king took the fatal step of appealing to that people from the north, who for the most part had formed part of the great Indo-European migration into western Asia. Already these Scythian hordes, the Manda, had their eye on the rich Mesopotamian Valley, and therefore Nabopolassar’s appeal did not fall upon unwilling ears. Sin-shar-ishkun was indeed driven back, but when that happened the Manda were in the coveted land. The reader will observe that we have just spoken of the Manda and not the Medes as the assailants of Nineveh. This is because of the recent clearing up of a historical error that was our heritage from the Greek historians. They simply confused the Manda, the nomadic tribes that lived northeast of Assyria towards the Caspian Sea and were the classical Scythians, with the Mada, or true Medes. As Professor Sayce says: “It was not until the discovery of the monuments of Nabonidus and Cyrus that the truth at last came to light and it was found that the history we had so long believed was founded upon a philological mistake.” This matter will be more fully explained in the account of Persia.

Like his father, Cyaxares perceived that it would not be possible for the Medes to extend and maintain their conquests westward so long as he had to dread the rivalry of the Assyrian Empire, so lately the mistress of those regions. Consequently he put into practice the lesson which his father had received from the Assyrians. The as yet untrained hordes of Medians were evidently no match for the better military organisation of the Assyrians and the military skill of the Assyrian generals. Cyaxares, therefore, began as became a warlike prince with the remodelling of his army, dividing his troops, after the pattern of the Assyrians, into the various arms—spearmen, bowmen, and horsemen—and fortifying his citadel, Ecbatana. Then he again ventured to attack Assyria, this time with better success. The Assyrian army was beaten in Nineveh at last, and was surrounded. But an unexpected event came to the assistance of the hard-pressed Ninevites—the Scythians invaded Media.

Their invasion compelled Cyaxares to evacuate Assyria, and for a time Nineveh breathed again. But only for a short time. Cyaxares succeeded in putting an end to the Scythian domination in his kingdom in the course of a few years.

About 609 the Median army under the command of Cyaxares appeared for the second time at the gates of Nineveh. According to Berosus, the Babylonian king, whose son Nebuchadrezzar had married the Median king’s daughter, also took part in this siege. It is easy to understand how it was that Herodotus knew nothing of this, for the Persians were his authorities. But he is certainly right in assigning the chief rôle to the Medes, of whom Abydenus says nothing, for from this time forward they kept possession of Assyria itself; and he is also right in placing the taking of Nineveh during the period of Cyaxares’ government, and not, like Berosus and the authors who follow him, in the time of Astyages, since the latter did not ascend the throne of Media before 584 b.c. It is sufficient that Nineveh fell, and Assyria passed to the power of the Medes, who at the same time acquired the dominion over the North and the countries of Asia Minor as far as the Halys. All other provinces of the fallen empire as far as the Mediterranean Sea, including probably that part of ancient Assyria whose capital was the city of Asshur, and also Kharran and Carchemish, fell to Babylonia.

We have no historical account of the details connected with the fall of Nineveh. The story of the last Assyrian king, Asshur-etil-ili, or, as some authorities call him, Saracus, which represents him in his despair burning himself with his palace and his treasures, is a popular tale which is not indeed impossible, but probably arose by confusion with Shamash-shum-ukin’s end. Nineveh was so completely desolated that when Xenophon passed with the Ten Thousand in the year 401 b.c. he took the ruins for the remains of Median towns destroyed by the Persians. Subsequently a fortress, Ninus, seems to have been built there by the Parthians. Calah also once more rose from its rubbish heaps after lying desolate for a long time. Arbela remained untouched, and it is therefore probable that it fell unresisting into the hands of the conquerors. But the Assyrian monarchy was gone forever.

The Assyrian monarchy was gone, but not the empire at whose head the kings of Asshur had stood. It has been matter of astonishment that so powerful an empire, to which through a series of centuries the whole of western Asia had been subdued, could have been so suddenly overturned by the fall of the capital. But this surprise proceeds from an incorrect conception of history. Events had long prepared the fall of Nineveh. The keen eye of Esarhaddon had already perceived that it would be safer to remove the centre of the empire to Babylon. His son Asshurbanapal, a less acute statesman than he, but a great king and a strong administrator, had once more attempted to secure the hegemony for Assyria. In this he had succeeded, being supported by favourable circumstances and the influence of his own personality. But when the sceptre fell from his strong hand, little more was needed to put an end to the Assyrian dominion, and that end was only a question of time. However, the empire survived for a few years longer, though not in its full vigour. The hegemony now passed again to Babylon; but not unimpaired, for, since Media had conquered Nineveh, the lion’s share of Assyria itself fell to the Median kingdom, together with those northern and northwestern provinces which had been lost long before. But the Assyrian survived in the new Babylonian Empire, which continued its policy of conquest, and the Greeks, who not long afterwards called the Babylonians themselves Assyrians, were in this not so very far from the truth. But the days of the Semitic dominion were hastening to their end. Even the new monarchy under Babylon’s hegemony could only be propped up by the force of Nebuchadrezzar’s personality. His feeble successors were in no condition to prevent the spread of the Median power nor the rise of the Persian monarchy, which had grown to such proportions by the conquest of Elam, until the genius of Cyrus founded a dominion which soon embraced the four ancient empires—the Median, the Elamite, the Assyrio-Babylonian, and the Egyptian—and gave the sceptre of western Asia to the Aryans.

The sense of relief which fell on the oppressed nations at the downfall of the scourge of Asia can be gathered from the rejoicing accents of the Jewish prophets. What an Isaiah, a Micah, had not dared to hope, Nahum and Zephaniah saw approach and actually happen. Nahum is convinced that the fate of Thebes will soon overtake Nineveh. Her merchants, multiplied as the stars of heaven, her crowned, her captains, her whole people, they shall be scattered like flying grasshoppers, and no man shall gather them. “All that hear the bruit of thee shall clap their hands over thee: for upon whom hath not thy wickedness passed continually?” (Nahum iii. 19.) And Zephaniah (ii. 13-15), his contemporary, sees with satisfaction the desolation of the proud city, who thought herself so safe and boasted herself to be the first and the only one, but now had become desolate and a place for beasts, in whose ruins the bittern and the screech-owl lodge.

OVER THE ICY PEAKS I

Of all Hannibal’s accomplishments, nothing quite resonates like his passage over the Alps. It was not just audacious, it was unimaginable. The crossing eclipses even his spectacular victories in later battles against the Romans. Although it is often cited as an example of leadership at its best, it also accounted for more casualties and losses than any of the battles that followed. The feat can be viewed as a stunning success, an example of a leader overcoming nature by the sheer force of his determination, or a colossal failure when measured in terms of the cost in human life. In biographies of Hannibal and in histories of the Punic Wars, authors tend to gloss over this part of the story, preferring to focus instead on his battlefield victories in Italy.

The Alps are a natural barrier between France and Italy—stretching over two hundred miles from majestic Mount Blanc in the north to the Mediterranean Sea in the south. They begin as a relatively low range of mountains (three thousand to four thousand feet) just east of the Rhone River, gradually building in height and steepness until they attain their full measure of majesty (twelve thousand to fourteen thousand feet) on the Italian frontier. At the frontier, there is a dramatic change in their contour as they suddenly end in a precipitous drop from the dizzying heights straight down onto the level plains of Italy below. Seemingly a solid wall of rock, snow, and ice between France and Italy, the Alps have a series of depressions or passes which run east to west between their highest peaks. These passes provide the only way over the peaks and make for a convenient division of the range into sections. The lowest and most southern section is called the Alpes Maritimes, beginning at the Mediterranean Sea behind the city of Nice and ending at the Col de la Bonette, at nine thousand feet, the highest pass in the Alps with a hard surfaced road over it. North of the Alpes Maritimes is the section known as the Cottian Alps—named by the Romans after a Ligurian ally, King Cottius. This section is centered on two passes, the Mount Cenis and the Montgenevre, both well-travelled routes over the mountains between Italy and France. The Alpes Graiae, or Greek Alps, are the next section located between the Mount Cenis pass and Mount Blanc. This is the range that the legendary Hercules allegedly crossed on one of his adventures. The final range is the Alpes Penninae or Pennine Alps, which extend from the Swiss frontier and the upper Rhone valley to the most northern and western portions of Italy.

Scholars are generally of the opinion that Hannibal passed over the Cottian Alps, which begin in the Rhone Valley in an area of relatively low mountains known as the pre-Alps or the Alpes du Dauphine. Once over this first low range, Hannibal would have descended into a series of valleys before starting his second and final climb over the higher mountains, the Hautes Alpes, on the frontier with Italy. The only way over the mountains is to follow valleys. Their riverbeds afford level footing, provide ample sources of drinking water, and eventually lead to streams on the mountainsides. These streams in turn lead to passes, which are the only practical way over the peaks. The sources of the streams begin at the highest elevations, where the snows begin to melt and then cascade down the mountainsides. Streams become rivers and the rivers, over millennia, have formed long transverse valleys as they find their way to the Rhone. But even following rivers can be risky, because it is easy to become confused and lost in a labyrinth of blind valleys along the way. Valleys often contain gorges, narrow passages where there is a risk of being trapped and swept away by the torrents of water, mud, and rocks that periodically surge from the heights, destroying everything in their path—something the author has witnessed firsthand in the valley of the Queyras.

There are four principal rivers that flow from the higher elevations of the Alps and make their way to the Rhone. The farthest north is the Isere, which begins as a stream in the glaciers of the high Alps near the Val d’Isere and enters the Rhone as a sizable river at the city of Valence. This riverbed is the preferred choice among historians who have speculated on the route of Hannibal. Below the Isere is a smaller river, the Drome, which begins in the pre-Alps or the Alpes du Dauphine and flows into the Rhone just south of Valence. Another even smaller river just south of the Drome is the Aygues, which also begins in the pre-Alps and enters the Rhone just north of the city of Orange. Neither the Drome nor the Aygues leads directly to passes in the high Alps. The last and longest of the four is the Durance, which begins as a series of streams on the slopes of the highest mountains on the Italian frontier and flows southwest through a broad valley before it reaches the Rhone just south of Avignon. Ruling out the coastal route to Italy because of the risk of encountering the Roman army at Massilia, Hannibal’s best choice among the four options would have been the Durance. The river leads to one of the lowest and easiest passes over the mountains—the Col du Montgenevre. But that route, in its initial stages, had to be avoided as well, because it still brought Hannibal’s army perilously close to the Romans.

In searching for a way over the Alps, Hannibal had no choice but to move farther north along the Rhone than he perhaps originally intended. Then, once he had lost the Romans, he could turn east and make his way into the upper reaches of the Durance River, near the modern French towns of Mont Dauphine and Guillestre. From there it is an easy passage into Italy by way of the Montgenevre—a pass that is less than six thousand feet, and today a principal truck and car route between France and Italy.

The ancient sources indicate that after Hannibal left his crossing point on the Rhone he marched north along the eastern bank of the river for four days in an attempt to lose the Roman army he feared might be following. Based on accounts of the expeditions of Alexander the Great in Asia and Julius Caesar in Gaul, events which bracket Hannibal in time, his army could probably cover ten to fifteen miles a day under ideal conditions. Even allowing Hannibal and his army the more conservative figure of ten miles a day, leaving from the vicinity of Arles would have brought them to a point along the Rhone close to what is today the French city of Orange. Historians speculate that land travel, especially in the interior regions of France, might have been fairly easy because roads were relatively well developed. Those roads followed the river valleys through the mountains and then, through a system of sharply graded pathways, some eventually reached the passes.

On the fourth day, Hannibal and his army came to an area along the Rhone simply referred to in the manuscripts as the “island”—a triangular body of land that resembled the Nile Delta because it was low-lying, subject to seasonal flooding, fertile, and densely populated. The main river that bordered the “island” was clearly the Rhone, while the identity of the second remains uncertain. Polybius, writing in Greek, named this second river the Iskaras or Skaras, while Livy, writing in Latin, called it the Arar or Araros. The tribe that occupied the island was the Allobroges, a generic name for tribes that inhabited a wide section of Gaul from the Rhone River to the Alpes du Dauphine and were loosely bound together by language and custom. This tribe had recently lost its king, and his two sons were contending for the throne. The elder, Brancus, claimed the throne by right of primogeniture, while the younger, whose name is never given, was threatening to depose his brother if he declared himself king. The tribe was on the verge of civil war. According to Polybius, Hannibal sided with the older brother and then used his army to drive the younger one and his followers from the area. Livy, on the other hand, maintains that Hannibal played a much more conciliatory role, serving more as a mediator with the assistance of the tribe’s elders. Either way, the dispute was settled in favor of Brancus, and to show his gratitude the new king provided clothing, weapons, and supplies for Hannibal’s soldiers suitable for the journey ahead of them. Then he furnished an armed escort to guide them as far as the foothills of the Alps.

From the island, Hannibal turned east and began his trek following this second river for ten days and covering about a hundred miles. The march was uneventful and relatively easy until the column reached the foothills known as the Alpes du Dauphine, where the escort provided by Brancus left to return home. The terrain became more difficult in these higher elevations, and the column was now being shadowed from the heights above by local tribes that might have allied themselves with the younger brother of Brancus.

While the Alpes du Dauphine only rise to a height of between four and five thousand feet, they are still a formidable obstacle. The farther the column moved east, the higher the mountains became and the slower their progress. More tribesmen began to appear on the heights above them. When Hannibal’s scouts reported that a particularly narrow gorge lay ahead, he became concerned. That night, exaggerated reports of the dangers ahead circulated through the camp, causing apprehension among the soldiers. The scouts further reported that the tribesmen shadowed the column by day but returned to the comfort of their villages at night. That gave Hannibal an idea. He ordered a larger than normal number of campfires to be built just before dusk, so that when darkness fell the tribesmen would think the camp was settled for the night. The tribesmen withdrew to their villages, and Hannibal slipped out of his camp with a force of lightly armed infantry. They scaled the heights over the gorge and positioned themselves above the ledges usually occupied by the tribesmen during the day. Just after daybreak the Allobroges returned, unaware that Hannibal and his men were lying in wait. The army below broke camp and slowly began moving into the gorge. Once in, the walls seemed to close around them and an ambush seemed certain. By late morning, the vanguard had cleared the gorge and begun to climb to an adjacent pass.

Initially the tribesmen only watched as the column slowly threaded its way into the gorge and then began to move up a track leading to a pass. The track eventually became a narrow ledge with a precipitous drop to the river on one side and a sheer wall on the other. In places, the column had to move nearly single file along the ledge. As the Allobroges watched the column struggling along the ledge, they could no longer restrain themselves. They began screaming and hurling their spears. Their cries echoed and re-echoed through the gorge as they purposely wounded horses with their arrows, causing them to rear out of control. The animals, maddened by pain, either lost their footing and fell off the ledge or pushed blindly ahead, shoving men and animals over the side. Casualties began mounting as panic and confusion took a greater toll on Hannibal’s soldiers than the spears, arrows, and rocks raining down on them. Watching from above, Hannibal continued to restrain his soldiers, even though they pleaded with him to allow them to relieve the pressure on their comrades. But Hannibal hesitated, fearing an attack at this point would only add to the confusion on the ledges below and increase the casualties. Finally, when the Carthaginian column was close to breaking apart, Hannibal ordered the attack. Within a short time the heights were swept of the enemy, and the column slowly regained its cohesion. The remaining elements were now able to climb out of the gorge and make it over the pass safely. Even the most experienced and battle-hardened among the mercenaries were shaken by what they had been through. Only when the last of the soldiers, horses, and pack animals had been brought through safely were the elephants led along the ledge and over the pass. Hannibal’s tactics were similar to what Alexander the Great had done over a hundred years before when the defenders of the Persian capital Persepolis trapped his army in a gorge and began inflicting heavy casualties. Alexander led a small contingent of soldiers up and over a mountain at night, coming down on the enemy just before dawn and winning the day.

Not far from the pass, Hannibal’s scouts came upon a town that belonged to the Allobroges. It was largely deserted as most of the inhabitants had fled to the forests and higher elevations. When the scouts entered, they discovered some of their compatriots, who had been captured while foraging days before, and enough grain and cattle to supply the army for three days. The town was burned, and as a result the other tribes in the area allowed Hannibal’s army to pass through their territory unhampered.

Where was Hannibal’s army ambushed? Based upon this author’s research, it is doubtful it was along the Isere River route—a popular choice among scholars. Having traced the route, the author found that it leads to the Alps without any particularly difficult gorges to march through or passes to climb. There is no place along this valley the author could find that corresponds to the conditions Hannibal encountered. The only possibility is the Gorges de la Bourne, which can only be reached by leaving the Isere at the town of St. Nazaire-en-Royans and following a smaller river, the Bourne, due east. The gorge is admittedly an ideal site for an ambush, but why would Hannibal have left the easier and safer Isere route to follow the more difficult Bourne? Just beyond the gorge is a second smaller gorge, the Gorges du Furon, but no second gorge is mentioned in the ancient sources. Nor could the author find a mountain pass near the gorge. The Bourne route eventually leads back to the Isere River at Grenoble.

A few miles south of the Isere is a more likely possibility—the Drome. This river enters the Rhone just north of the modern town of Le Pouzin, in an area that closely resembles, even today, what could have been the island mentioned in the manuscripts. But the Drome does not lead to the frontier with Italy. Its riverbed leads east, paralleling the D93 highway, but only as far as the pre-Alps. It does, however, come very close to the Durance River at one point, and Livy mentions that Hannibal eventually reached a river named the “Druentia”—a Latin name that is tantalizingly close in spelling and sound to the modern name Durance. While Hannibal would have avoided the lower reaches of the Durance where it flows into the Rhone near Arles for fear of encountering the Romans, farther north the river would have been a safer and easier route to Italy.

Along the Drome River route is the Gorges des Gas, which leads directly to a nearby pass, the Col de Grimone, accessed today by a roadway, the D539. The gorge and pass are less than sixty miles from where the Drome flows into the Rhone, a distance Hannibal’s column could have covered in the ten days the manuscripts say it took to reach the ambush point. Although the manuscripts also tell us there were times when the column lost its way, sometimes simply “wandering,” either because of the treachery of the native guides with them, or when they would not trust the guides, “their own blindness.” Often they had to guess at the route and then retrace their steps when they entered valleys that offered no exit.

After following the gorge for a few miles, the roadway narrows considerably, not far from the village of Glandage. Once through this defile, there is a long climb to the Col de Grimone, a pass at four thousand feet. From there, it is an easy descent to the small town of La Faurie, some fifteen miles away. This town might have been the one looted and burned by Hannibal’s army. From La Faurie, it is twenty miles to the Durance River at Tallard and from there an easy march of less than sixty miles along the level valley floor to the Italian frontier by way of the Col du Montgenevre.

Once Hannibal and his army entered the Durance River valley at Tallard, the route would have been clearly marked and relatively safe. The valley is wide and passes the modern towns of Embrun and Mont Dauphine. As the column entered the valley, a delegation of elders from the surrounding tribes approached, bearing branches as symbols of peace and promising Hannibal his army could pass through their territory in safety. Although Hannibal cautiously accepted their gestures of peace, he demanded hostages to guarantee their word, provisions to feed his army, and guides to lead them over the final barrier of mountains. The elders agreed; hostages were turned over, guides designated, and large quantities of supplies provided. Despite their assurances of friendship and their willing compliance with his demands, Hannibal remained skeptical. His army had survived a particularly bad time, which made him reluctant to accept overtures of peace and friendship from these mountain tribes at face value. While the elders had been very accommodating and were quick to comply with his demands, Hannibal suspected there was treachery afoot, but at the same time, he was careful to avoid any slight that might provoke them to attack.

As the column moved northeast along the valley and reached what is today the fortress town of Mont Dauphine, they were horrified by the view that unfolded before them. The ancient sources describe “a dreadful sight before their eyes; high peaks covered with snow and all around them everything stiff with cold.” They faced the highest and most formidable mountains in the Alps; a barrier so high it seemed to touch the heavens. These mountains were like nothing they had seen so far on their journey, and the sight brought back a hundredfold the fear that had gripped them when they first reached the Rhone. The peaks in this part of the Alps can rise to nearly fourteen thousand feet, and they stand like immovable, unassailable giants—daring anyone to scale their heights. Yet unknown to Hannibal and his army at this point in their journey, they were less than fifty miles from Italy.

Livy tells us that the people who inhabited these high mountains were “ragged and unkempt, more horrible to look upon than words can tell.” Another Roman, Pliny the Elder, writes that many of these mountain people suffered from a disfiguring condition that made them grotesque to look upon, and the Roman Diodorus describes them as living “a hard and luckless life” in huts or caves and because of constant climbing, hard work, and little food they were thin but muscular. Only “half-civilized” and barely able to sustain themselves, the Greek geographer Strabo recounts how they supplemented what little they had by attacking and plundering wealthier villages and towns at the lower elevations where people lived relatively comfortable lives. When they raided, they were without pity, killing not only all the males they found, but also any pregnant women whom their priests divined carried male children within them.

It was now late September or early October; Hannibal was anxious to press ahead as conditions in the higher elevations were deteriorating and becoming more dangerous as each day passed. The longer the delay, the more likely the column would be caught in bad weather. At that point, Hannibal made one of the most disastrous tactical decisions of his career, and at the same time the one that put him in the history books. At the urging of the guides offered by the elders, he led his army away from the safety of the wide valley floor of the Durance at Mont Dauphine and into a narrow gorge known as the Comb du Queyras. These guides assured Hannibal this was a quicker passage over the mountains, and the Boii in Hannibal’s entourage, probably not familiar with the area since they crossed into Gaul by one of the lower and easier passes at the southern end of the range, could not object. The Comb du Queyras is an ominous place, where Druid priests held ritual human sacrifices—hurling young virgins from its cliffs into the river below. Even in summer, when the sun is high overhead, the gorge is covered in dark shadows. Torrents and streams cascade down its cliffs, and today a narrow roadway, suspended over the swift and turbulent river below, clings precipitously to its walls as it follows the bed of an old Roman road.

Suspicious of his guides and concerned by the gorge, Hannibal tightened the formation. When the soldiers marched through territory where they felt secure, they moved in a more relaxed fashion. But in times of uncertainty, Hannibal moved the cavalry and the elephants to the head of the column and positioned the lighter infantry on the flanks to protect the baggage train and the civilians. Last in the column was the heavy infantry, which served as a rear guard under the direct command of Hannibal. As the column moved toward the gorge, the elders who had offered Hannibal their most sacred assurances of safe conduct were dispatching messengers to the outlying tribes with a call for armed men. The call was answered as men crawled out from their crags, caves, and hovels, all with one mind—to ambush the column and loot the baggage train of its weapons, horses, clothing, and food. On the wide, flat expanses of the valley floor, the elders knew their men were no match for Hannibal’s cavalry, his elephants, and his infantry. But an ambush in the gorge was something that gave them the advantage and was more conducive to their style of fighting.

The entrance to the gorge is narrow, so only a few soldiers at a time could get through. This slowed the column, causing it to back up for a considerable distance. Once in the gorge, soldiers found themselves moving along a narrow pathway with a steep wall on one side and a swiftly flowing river on the other. Concealed in the heights, the tribesmen were positioning themselves and waiting their chance to strike. They waited patiently as the column below moved deeper into the gorge. Behind the column, another force of Gauls shadowed at a distance, while at the far end, where the gorge opened into a small valley, a third force was assembling to massacre any survivors who might escape the ambush. The column moved slowly and apprehensively as the sides of the gorge closed in on them. Soldiers became silent as they glanced nervously at the heights above. At the front of the column, the Boii scanned the cliffs looking for any sign that might indicate an ambush, while the local tribesmen who were guiding the column became increasingly restless as they looked for an opportunity to escape before the carnage began. The hostages, like lambs being led to slaughter, marched dutifully in line, bound to their captors and meekly awaiting whatever fate had in store for them.