Marble bust of Demetrius I Poliorcetes. Roman copy from 1st century AD of a Greek original from 3rd century BC.


The grail was his: Demetrius was king of Macedon. Immediately after the murder of Alexander V, the nobles present—members of Alexander’s court, now surrounded by Demetrius’s forces—agreed to his kingship, and he was duly acclaimed by the assembled army. But there were still hearts and minds to be won in Macedon itself, and Demetrius went about this by the traditional combination of action and words. He quelled an uprising in Thessaly and took steps to improve the security of central Greece, where the alliance between the Boeotians and Aetolians had been renewed in response to Demetrius’s and his son’s conquests in the south. In the Peloponnese, only the Spartans now held out against him, and they were no more than a nuisance.

At home, he played all the cards that supported his claim to the throne. He stressed his father’s loyal service to the Argeads and the illegitimacy of the Antipatrid regime, and missed no opportunity to recall Cassander’s murder of Alexander IV. His long marriage to Phila helped as well; as Cassander’s sister, she provided an appearance of continuity, now that Cassander had no surviving descendants. Ironically, through Phila, Demetrius was the heir of those to whose ruin he and his father had devoted so much time and energy.

In order to help secure Thessaly, and to give himself another port, one of Demetrius’s early acts as king was to found the city of Demetrias. The site, at the head of the Gulf of Pagasae (near modern Volos), was well chosen. The city was hard to assault, and served successive Macedonian kings for decades as one of the “Fetters of Greece”: as long as they controlled the heavily fortified ports of Demetrias, Chalcis, and Corinth (Piraeus was desirable too), they could move troops at will around the Greek mainland and restrict other shipping. And most commercial traffic in those days was seaborne.

A sign of how critical all this was for him was that he ignored what was going on elsewhere in the world—or maybe he just did not have the forces to cope. He had already, I think, effectively ceded the Asiatic Greek cities, and Lysimachus completed his takeover there by the end of 294. In the same year, Ptolemy, to his huge relief, regained Cyprus. The defense of the island had been in the hands of Phila, but in the end she was pinned in Salamis and forced to surrender. Ptolemy courteously allowed all members of Demetrius’s family safe conduct off the island and back to Macedon, laden with gifts and honors. The Ptolemies would now retain Cyprus until the Roman conquest of the island two hundred and fifty years later.

Lysimachus, as already mentioned, was chiefly occupied with a war against the Getae in northern Thrace, around the Danube. In 297 the warlike Getae had taken advantage of the fact that Lysimachus’s attention was focused on Asia Minor to go to war. Lysimachus sent his son Agathocles to deal with the Getae, but it had not gone well: Agathocles had been captured, and Lysimachus had been forced to come to terms, which included marrying one of his daughters to the Getan king and returning territory he had occupied. But in 293, once he had more or less settled his affairs in Asia Minor, Lysimachus took to the field to recover the territory he had been forced to give up. Again, the war went badly; we know no details, but it is surely to the credit of the Getan king Dromichaetes that he was able twice to defeat as brilliant a general as Lysimachus. This time, it was Lysimachus himself who was taken prisoner. He was held at their capital, Helis (perhaps modern Sveshtari, where a tomb has been discovered which might be that of Dromichaetes and Lysimachus’s nameless daughter). It was the best part of a year before his captors were induced to let him go, and again Lysimachus lost territory to them, and had to leave hostages to ensure that he would not attack again. It was the last of his attempts to gain control of inner Thrace.

In 292, while Lysimachus was tied up, Demetrius, short on gratitude to the man who had so rapidly recognized his rulership of Macedon, took an expeditionary force into Asia Minor and Thrace. It was a sign of his future intentions, a declaration of war. Fortunately for Lysimachus, a united uprising by the central Greek leagues, backed by his friends Pyrrhus and Ptolemy, recalled Demetrius to Greece. As it happened, before he got back his son Antigonus Gonatas had succeeded in defeating the Boeotians and putting Thebes under siege (it fell the following year). But Demetrius was unable to return to his abandoned campaign, because Pyrrhus chose this moment to invade Thessaly. Demetrius advanced against him in strength; Pyrrhus, his work done, withdrew.

Pyrrhus’s retreat was tactical; he had no intention of giving up his attempt to expand the frontiers of Epirus at Demetrius’s expense. Two years later, in 290, he inflicted a serious defeat on Demetrius’s forces in Aetolia (the victory was so spectacular that he was hailed as a second Alexander), but lost the island of Corcyra (Corfu). The island was betrayed to Demetrius by Pyrrhus’s ex-wife Lanassa (whose domain it was), allegedly because she was irritated at being ignored by her husband. She married Demetrius instead. In 288, while Demetrius was laid low by illness, Pyrrhus seized the opportunity to invade Thessaly and Macedon. Demetrius hauled himself out of bed and drove Pyrrhus out.

The two kings had pummeled each other to exhaustion, and they made a peace which recognized the status quo in respect of Demetrius’s possession of Corcyra and Pyrrhus’s of the Macedonian dependencies given him by Alexander V in his hour of desperation. Demetrius was left in a powerful position. Macedon, though slimmer, was united under his rule; there was a treaty in place with his most formidable enemy; in central Greece, only the perennial hostility of the Aetolians remained; and he had done enough to secure the Peloponnese for the time being. He had the best fleet, and could call up a massive army. It was quite a turnaround for the Besieger, and he began to dream his father’s dreams. Perhaps Demetrius was his own worst enemy.


The style of Demetrius’s kingship was typically flamboyant, and he demanded obsequiousness from his subjects. An incident from 290 is particularly revealing. It was the year of the Pythian Games—the quadrennial festival and athletic games held at Delphi, second only to the Olympics in prestige. But the Aetolians controlled Delphi, and restricted access to the festival to their friends. A few weeks later, then, Demetrius came south to host alternate games in Athens.

He and Lanassa entered the city in a style that reminded many of Demetrius’s outrageous behavior a dozen or so years earlier, when he had made the Parthenon his home and that of his concubines. They came, bringing grain for ever-hungry Athens, as Demetrius, the aptly named savior god, and his consort Demeter, the grain goddess. They were welcomed not only with incense and garlands and libations, but with an astonishing hymn that included the words: “While other gods are far away, or lack ears, or do not exist, or pay no attention to us, we see you present here, not in wood or stone, but in reality.” Obsequiousness indeed, but the point became clearer as the hymn went on to request of the king that he crush the Aetolian menace.

Many Athenians regretted such excesses, and all over the Greek world resentment built up against the new ruler. It was impossible for Demetrius to present himself as the leader the Greeks had been waiting for when he had to crack down hard on incipient rebellion and tax his subjects hard to pay for yet more war. Talk of the freedom of the Greek cities faded away, and between 291 and 285 Ptolemy deprived Demetrius of the Cycladic islands and the rest of his Aegean possessions, thus regaining the control over the entrance to the Aegean that he had lost in 306 and furthering his aim to control as much of the Aegean seaboard as he could. The promise of relief from taxes and a measure of respect for local councils was just as important in this enterprise as military muscle. Dominance in the Aegean was to serve successive Ptolemies well, both strategically and commercially.

Ptolemy also confirmed his control of Phoenicia by finally evicting Demetrius’s garrisons from Sidon and Tyre. But these were pretty much Ptolemy’s last actions; in 285, feeling the burden of his seventy-plus years, he stood down from the Egyptian throne in favor of Ptolemy II. Maybe he had a terminal illness, because only two years later he died—in his bed, remarkably enough for a Successor. But then “safety first” had been his motto, for most of his time as ruler of Egypt.

Despite these losses, Demetrius might have hung on in Macedon. But he was a natural autocrat, and that was not the Macedonian way. Demetrius never managed the kingly art of finding a balance between being loved and being hated, or at least feared. His subjects came to resent his luxurious ways and his unapproachability. Macedonian kings were supposed to make themselves available to petitions from their subjects, yet Demetrius was rumored on one occasion to have thrown a whole bundle of them into a river—or at least to be the sort of person who might. This kind of talk, charging him with eastern-style monarchy, did his reputation no good. Nor did the fact that he wore a double crown, indicating rulership of Asia as well as Europe.

Ignoring the rumbles of discontent, Demetrius began to prepare for a massive invasion of Asia. But the proud Macedonian barons resented their country’s being thought of as no more than a launching point for eastern invasion; they did not want to be on the periphery of some vast Asian kingdom. It was all right when Philip and Alexander had done it, because that was for the greater glory of Macedon. But this war would be fought against fellow Macedonians, for the greater glory of an unpopular king. The idea of taking thousands more Macedonians east, following the tens of thousands who had already gone, did not go down well either, since the country was already somewhat depopulated.

But Demetrius was no Cassander, content with Macedon alone; he was as addicted to warfare as Alexander the Great. Just as Alexander had set out from Macedon and seized all Asia from the Persian king, so Demetrius intended at least to deprive Lysimachus of Asia Minor. But whereas Alexander had invaded Asia with about thirty-seven thousand men and no fleet to speak of, Demetrius was amassing a vast army, over a hundred thousand strong, while a fleet of five hundred warships was being prepared in the shipyards of Macedon and Greece. In typical Besieger style, some of these ships were larger than any vessel that had ever been built before, and he used the best naval architects available. The precise design of these ships is a matter of intelligent guesswork, but it will give some idea of their scale to say that, whereas a normal warship had three banks of rowers in some arrangement (hence its name, “trireme”), Demetrius was having a “ fifteen” and a “sixteen” built.

Naturally, Demetrius’s preparations involved propaganda as well. Above all, he wielded the old, potent slogan of Greek freedom against Lysimachus. At a local level, a prominent public building in Pella displayed symbolic paintings, copies of which formed the wall paintings of a later Roman villa.10 One of the panels of the painting depicted Demetrius’s parents as king and queen of Asia, the idea being that he had inherited a natural claim, while other panels showed Macedon as the ruler of Asia by right of conquest. But history is littered with failed promises of manifest destiny.

The Shadow of Rome


King Philip V, and Amyntas, Son of Alexandros, 197 BC


Battle of Cynoscephalae

When the Greek world had first become aware of Rome over a century before, it had been with the awareness of a predator seeing a large and tempting quarry wander into view. At that time Rome had just gained the upper hand in a long drawn–out series of wars with the mountain peoples of south central Italy. Not that the hillmen had yet admitted defeat – their stubborn refusal to submit to Rome would still provide a welcome distraction for Rome’s armies in Mithridates’ day. However, by 290 BC the Romans had at least temporarily beaten their foes into sullen submission, leaving Rome the dominant state in Italy.

It might occur to a general with an ambitiously expansionist viewpoint that an army which defeated Rome could easily mop up the rest of Italy, use Italy’s massive reserves of manpower to absorb Sicily, and from there sweep east once more and conquer the rest of the world. That, roughly, was the master plan of Pyrrhus of Epirus, another of the successors of Alexander the Great, and generally agreed to be the best general of his day. Claiming that he was supporting the Greek cities of southern Italy against Roman aggression, Pyrrhus and his army of 25,000 men invaded the peninsula during the 280s BC and tried repeatedly to master Rome.

It was the first clash of the Greek and Roman worlds, and from the Roman perspective this passage of arms ended as a winning draw. Pyrrhus was unable to wear down the stubborn resistance of Rome, despite repeatedly beating its citizens in the series of bloody battles which have given the modern world the expression ‘a pyrrhic victory’, meaning a win which costs more than it is worth. The battles left both armies exhausted, but the Romans, fighting on their native soil, had greater stamina in terms of money and manpower. Belatedly, Pyrrhus concluded that he had bitten off more than he could chew. He withdrew, possibly to marshal his forces for a further attempt. However, Pyrrhus died before he could resume his assault, and his failure handed the Romans hegemony of the Italian peninsula.

Graeco–Roman relations remained in a state of armed non–aggression for the remainder of the third century BC. This is not to say that the world was at peace – far from it. The empire of Alexander the Great had fractured into the kingdoms of Macedonia, which also dominated Greece, the Seleucids, with their rambling, semi–shambolic empire that stretched from the Mediterranean coast almost to the Himalayas, and the Ptolemies who dominated Egypt. These states, each large enough to be considered empires in their own right, engaged in continual and largely–pointless warfare which produced little change apart from mercenaries becoming wealthy and border peasants perpetually confused as to which empire they were currently part of.

Rome too had been engaged in non–stop warfare. However, by the time Rome had finished, a large number of North Africans, Gauls and Spaniards, Corsicans and Sicilians were left in no doubt at all as to which empire was in charge. Many of Rome’s new possessions were acquired at the cost of Carthage, Rome’s great rival in the west. By 202 BC Carthage had been reduced to a shadow of its former glory, and Hannibal, the general who had almost brought Rome to its knees with his epic invasion across the Alps, had fled to the Hellenic kingdoms of Asia.

Roman eyes followed Hannibal east. It would be wrong to claim that Pyrrhus’ master plan was dusted down and rewritten for Roman protagonists, but it is also certain that the Roman senate considered that it had unfinished business with the heirs of Alexander.

Rome itself was changing. By and large the Greeks had heretofore regarded the Romans as uncivilized, simply because the Romans had no art of their own, no literature, and indeed, barely any pretension to literacy. That the greatest Roman historians were currently alive was only because they were the first ones that Rome had ever had. However, Rome was beginning to acquire culture admittedly this culture had been looted wholesale from other cities, but it was culture nevertheless. Matters such as the theatre were beginning to stir interest, and once Rome got over its bemusement at the first Greek philosophers to arrive in the city, intellectual inquiry became socially acceptable among the warrior elite that ruled Rome under the name of ‘the Senate’. Over the next two generations Greek culture was to make the same sort of headway in Rome as Roman legions were making in Greece –’Conquering her rough conqueror’ as one poet put it. By the 140s BC even Cato the Elder, a misanthropic anti–Hellenic reactionary, saw nothing incongruous in erecting Rome’s first basilica – a Greek–style building for use in public affairs. Even Roman religion began to merge with the Greek version, until only the names of the gods and goddesses differed. But sharing much of the same culture did not make the Romans more Greek – they called contemporary Greeks ‘ Graeculi ‘ (‘Greeklings’ or ‘little Greeks’) – diminished descendants of their great forebears. And as for the peoples who shared Asia Minor with the Greeks, well, they were Asiatics – decadent, cowardly, servile, and generally beneath contempt. It never seemed to occur to the Romans, in all the decades that followed, that their contempt and lack of understanding were just as heartily reciprocated by the peoples of Asia Minor.

Philip V of Macedon, the Hellenistic ruler nearest to Rome, had long been uncomfortable with Roman interference on the western shores of the Greek peninsula. Consequently, although Greek and Carthaginian usually got along like cat and dog, Philip had allied himself with Hannibal in the war against Rome. True, Philip’s actual contribution to the war effort had been negligible, but Rome had reasons for being unforgiving. After sixteen desperate years of warfare against Hannibal, Rome needed slaves to work her depopulated fields, money for her depleted treasury, and money also to pay for the increasingly luxurious tastes of her upper classes. Like any shrewd business concern, Rome chose to leverage her prime asset to clear her liabilities. And Rome’s prime asset was a very, very good army, honed to perfection by a decade and a half of fighting Hannibal, the greatest tactician until Napoleon.

Furthermore, Philip was then allied with the Seleucid king Antiochus III, and the pair were picking off those small Greek city states which attempted to maintain a degree of independence. For the imperial power which Rome now rightly considered herself to be, these small states were potential stepping stones into mainland Greece, so the senate was none too pleased to see the Hellenic empires consolidating the region under their control. Rome hastened to ally herself with such of these small states as remained. Sooner or later, the senate reasoned (sooner, as it happened), Philip’s territorial ambitions in Greece would bring him into collision with their new allies, and thus Philip would provoke war with Rome itself.

Philip did not go down without a fight – he fought with skill and tenacity, but still was driven out of Greece. In 197 BC his phalanx and his determination to resist were broken in the Battle of Cynoscephalae. Philip paid over a thousand talents of bullion, and sullenly yielded hegemony of Greece. The Romans, conscious of Macedon’s value as a bulwark against the wild tribes further north, let his kingdom of Macedonia be – for the present.

The Greek cities had largely supported the Romans against Philip in return for their ‘freedom’. They remained passive, leaving the Romans with secure lines of communication as they went on to challenge the greatest of the Hellenistic realms – the Seleucids. Antiochus III had been warned by the Romans that he should confine his activities to the east of the Aegean Sea, a warning which the Seleucid king blithely ignored. Taking advantage of Philip’s discomfiture at the hands of the Roman legions, Antiochus blatantly interfered in the affairs of Thrace, right next door to Macedon on the coast of the Black Sea.

Rome may have defeated Macedon close to home, but Antiochus appears to have been convinced that the upstart power would receive a brutal reality check if it was foolish enough to challenge the Seleucids on their own ground. This conviction was soon put to the test as Rome was not slow to pick up the gauntlet. An army arrived, led by Lucius Scipio, who in turn was accompanied by his brother, the famous Scipio Africanus, the conqueror of Hannibal. The decisive confrontation between two sides occurred in 190 BC at the Battle of Magnesia. Partly through the help of the army of Pergamum, Roman allies in Asia Minor, the Romans were victorious. This was a decisive moment in the history of the eastern Mediterranean, for though the Romans had no intention of occupying Seleucid territory (though gold and slaves would still do nicely, both as tribute and booty), Seleucid power was irrevocably weakened by defeat. Antiochus was forced to restrict his sphere of influence again, this time to the Syrian side of the Taurus Mountains, leaving Rome the dominant power in Asia Minor.

The Seleucid empire, always a somewhat ramshackle affair, now began the generations–long process of slowly falling apart at the seams. When Antiochus IV attempted to restore his dynasty’s fortunes in 168 BC with an invasion of Egypt, he and his army were stopped by a single Roman envoy. The envoy bluntly ordered the king and his army to turn back. When Antiochus asked for time to consider his options, the Roman used his stick of office to draw a line in the sand around the king. He informed Antiochus that he was not to step over that line until he had decided on his course of action. That course of action, when Antiochus eventually got over his indignation, turned out to be the cancellation of the invasion, and a retreat back to Asia with whatever shreds of dignity could be retrieved from the situation. It was a chilling demonstration, both of the power of the Romans and of their arrogant ignorance of how to behave in civilized society.

If the Seleucids were content to allow their empire to moulder slowly away, the Macedonians chose to go out with a bang. Their agents were constantly fomenting problems for the Romans in Greece, whilst in any case, the Romans found themselves driven to distraction by the petty feuds and small wars with which the Greek cities celebrated their new freedom. In 167 BC the Romans deposed the Macedonian king, and when even that proved insufficient to control his irrepressible nation, they finally occupied Macedon and made it a province in 147 BC.

At the same time the Romans bluntly informed the Greeks of the limits of their freedom by making an example of the city of Corinth. For taking Macedon’s part in the recent troubles, the Romans attacked the city, sacked it, enslaved every man, woman and child in the place, and burned its buildings to the ground so comprehensively that this great Greek city was deserted for over a century. The civilized world was appalled. Whilst it was accepted that the Romans had an unhealthily zealous approach to warfare, and the diplomatic finesse of country bumpkins, the utter destruction of one of the pearls of Greek culture (and over a minor military disagreement!) was an act of horrifying barbarity. The destruction of Corinth, the humiliation of Antiochus and the subjugation of Macedonia signalled clearly that the age of the Hellenic empires was nearing its end.

Sertorian War (80-72 B. C. E.)


Sertorius was a disaffected Roman who fought successfully against Sulla and Pompey. He was a masterly tactician specialising in surprise and ambushes exploiting wooded hills and according to Plutarch introduced Roman weapons, formations and signals. The 53 cohorts of Roman exiles under the treacherous Paperna that joined him maintained a separate command and camp.


For a century the old Republic had creaked under the pressures of a series of brutal internecine conflicts. The gang warfare that had caused the deaths of the brothers Tiberius and Gaius Gracchus escalated into military strife. Romans fought Italians (the Social War), Sulla fought Marius and Marius’ supporters, the Senate crushed Lepidus, Pompey and Metellus fought Sertorius, Crassus (joined by Pompey) repressed the rebellious slaves of Spartacus, Cicero led the Senate against Catiline, Pompey was destroyed by Caesar, the triumviral successors of Caesar hunted down Caesar’s assassins, Sextus Pompeius and Octavian fought a series of naval engagements, and finally Octavian and Mark Antony disputed dominance over the empire. The Republic died in a welter of civil wars.

As in all such civil conflicts a crucial role was played by soldiers who showed themselves willing to engage in their generals’ political battles and to march against Rome in furtherance of political objectives. The new system of government created by Augustus transformed the military from a source of political instability and the instrument of conflict into one of the props of the new regime. Six decades of regular civil wars ushered in a period of two centuries in which, with the exception of ad 68-9, civil political conflicts did not escalate into war.

Quintus Sertorius (d. 72) was an able general who was appointed governor of Lusitania (Portugal and western Spain) in 83. He was forced to flee to North Africa in 81, when Lucius Cornelius Sulla (138-72) became Roman dictator and took vengeance upon all former enemies, among them Sertorius. A year later, the Lusitanians revolted against Rome and asked Sertorius to return to lead them, which he did. Rome’s legal governor in Lusitania was defeated by Sertorius at the Battle of the Baetis (Guadalquivir) River in 80. Sulla sent an army under Quintus Metellus Pius (d. c. 64) to squash the revolt, but it was overcome by Sertorius’s forces. By 77, Sertorius controlled most of what is now Spain and Portugal. A new Roman army under Pompey the Great (106-48) marched from Italy over the Pyrenees to join forces with Metellus, but Sertorius out-generaled them in a series of campaigns (76-73). After the arrival of reinforcements, the Romans gradually began to win the upper hand. Sertorius initiated strict discipline and severe punishments for infractions in his army, which roused dissension among his troops. Marcus Perperna (d. 72), his chief officer, stirred up more disaffection, helped murder Sertorius, and assumed command of the army. He was shortly thereafter defeated by Pompey, taken captive, and killed.

Quintus Sertorius

There was a certain Quintus Sertorius who served with distinction in the war against the Cimbri and Teutones. This man of great military and political talent was an associate of Marius and Cinna, and an adherent of their populist movement. His abilities incurred the jealousy and dislike of Cornelius Sulla. This hostile influence kept him from political office in 88 BC; but during the period when Marius was dominating Roman political life, the climate was more favourable to his ambitions, and he was elected praetor. In 83 BC, the year in which Sulla returned victorious over Mithridates and became dictator in Rome, Sertorius went as propraetor to govern Hither Spain. His aim was to establish a base for Marius’ populist party in Spain, from which it might be possible to launch an attack on the dictator in Rome. Sulla understandably wanted to replace Sertorius with an appointee of his own. Sertorius was forced out of Spain and sought refuge in Africa.

After a period devoted to wandering and to mystical contemplation, Sertorius returned to Spain in 80 BC and took the lead in a revolt of the Lusitani. With these formidable warriors, Sertorius and his lieutenants inflicted bloody defeats on the Roman forces. The senior Roman commander, Metellus, was incapable of eradicating an enemy who used guerilla tactics so skilfully in a terrain that suited them so well. Sertorius wore down Roman power sufficiently to enforce its withdrawal to the South, and gradually he increased his authority until it covered the greater part of Spain. He established his own government and among other constructive measures, set up a school for the sons of Celtic chieftains. He also developed a naval base at Denia to accommodate his other allies, the Mediterranean pirates. After the abortive attempt at revolution by the radical leader and consul of 78 BC, M. Aemilius Lepidus, the remnants of his forces which had been defeated by those of the other consul, Catulus, were taken to Spain. M. Perpenna, who was in command of them, added them to the forces of Sertorius, and himself became a lieutenant of Sertorius.

Gnaeus Pompeius, who was to become `the Great’, and C. Memmius were appointed in 76 BC by the Senate to the task of removing what was growing to the proportions of an international menace; for Sertorius had established friendly relations with Mithridates through the agency of the pirates, who themselves constituted a major problem which it was to be one of Pompeís most notable achievements ultimately to solve. Pompey and his colleagues were not able to destroy Sertorius’ forces in a set battle. When this was attempted in 75 BC, in the Sucro valley, Pompey would have been completely defeated if Metellus had not arrived with timely reinforcements.

In time, and with the aid of repeated additions of new troops, Pompey and Metellus were able to put increasingly severe pressure on the Sertorian forces. Many of the Lusitanian soldiers deserted and Sertorius felt obliged to inflict harsh punishments to discourage this. This policy further alienated the Lusitani, who already were sensitive to the tyrannical treatment they had received from some of the Romans on Sertorius’ staff, who themselves were involved in internecine squabbling. In this atmosphere it was not too difficult for the Roman high command to inspire Perpenna with the suggestion that he should murder Sertorius. He did so in 73 BC, but his army was defeated by the Romans under Pompey, and he was taken prisoner and executed. When Pompey returned to Rome in the following year, he seemed to have solved the Spanish problem.

Sertorius is said to have kept a white doe which enabled him to communicate with the divine world. We might surmise that the Lusitani and his other Celtic adherents respected this pet as the impersonation of the horned god whom we know elsewhere as Cernunnos. According to Plutarch (Sert. 11) the doe was supposed to be his medium of communication with the goddess Diana. This may have been a propaganda trick to bemuse simple natives, but I can see no reason why we should think so, or why we should not do him the honour of accepting that he believed what he said about the creature. He regarded it as a mascot of his success and he was greatly disturbed when it was lost for a time at the battle of the Sucro.

Sertorius had the combination of intuitive understanding of people and creative imagination which is often found in great commanders and major poets. He was a brilliant master of guerilla tactics: his devices for winning the loyalty of tribesmen were no less inventive. He recognised the necessity of holding a visible balance of justice between the native population and the Roman settlers. He also understood the need to give the Lusitanian warriors plenty of gold to adorn their armour. Plutarch’s life contains many other examples of his insight and leadership.

If Sertorius had enjoyed the good fortune to exploit the military possibilities of a country as rich in men and resources as `Gallia Comata’, he might have achieved success of comparable magnitude to that of Caesar. But he had no official standing in Spain and he had to rely upon Celtic soldiers who did not see themselves as soldiers, but as warriors who could go and come as they pleased. He had not enough Romans or Romans of good enough quality on his staff, and his cause was bedevilled by the presence of Roman settlers in the country who had already founded deep roots of resentment amongst the population. He was, however, an inspiration to Julius Caesar, and was himself an early example of the Roman man of power who in later times would intimidate Rome from a base in the provinces, when the `secret of power’, in Tacitus’ words, `got out that emperors could be made elsewhere than in Rome’.

The Spartan Anomaly


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

The Spartans reduced the helots to the status of slaves of the state and allotted land and helots to work it to each Spartan. As a result, rather than serving part-time as citizen-farmers, the Spartans could spend their time training for war, preempting the threat of another war with Messenia or Argos. The Spartans also made use of terror to control the helot population and make them more docile servants of the state. For example, the Spartans annually declared war on the helots so that Spartans could kill helots with impunity. Even more frightening was the work of the Krypteia, the Spartan secret police. All men under age 30 served for two years in the Krypteia. Under certain circumstances, most likely when a helot revolt threatened, these young men were sent out armed only with a dagger and a supply of rations. They were to kill every helot they met, and they sometimes sought out particularly strong helots to slay.

In order to create the army necessary to enforce this system, the Spartans began preparing young men for war virtually at birth. All male Spartan newborns were inspected by the elders of their tribes; those deemed unfit were thrown into the gorge of Mount Taygetus. Those deemed fit lived at home until age 7 and then entered the agoge, the Spartan way of life. They were taught to live on modest rations and to endure being left alone, and they learned dances that involved the weapons of a hoplite to accustom them to moving to the sound of the flute (phalanxes marched in time to flute playing). At age 12, training became more intense-boys were deprived of food and encouraged to steal rations, since this would prepare them to live off the land (stealing was fine-but those who were discovered were whipped for having been caught). To prepare for the rigors of campaigning, the boys received but a single thin cloak to be used year-round and slept on a bed of reeds. At age 18 or 20, the young men joined a mess of about fifteen men. They would live in the barracks with their messmates until age 30, at which time they could start their own households (they could marry at 20 but still lived in the barracks).

This harsh system allowed the Spartans to create a superlative hoplite force. The Spartans organized their phalanx into companies and regiments unknown to other phalanxes and had a more formal command structure than anything seen elsewhere in Greece. They drilled in special maneuvers that made the Spartan phalanx much more effective and flexible on the battlefield. And the harsh training gave the Spartans a fearsome reputation as doughty soldiers capable of enduring hardship in silence.

There was, however, a price for this system: a perennial shortage of manpower. Some of this was made up for by the inclusion in the Spartan army of perioikoi (literally, “those who dwell around”), members of nearby towns who had surrendered control of their foreign policy to the Spartans in return for protection. They governed themselves but followed Sparta’s lead in foreign affairs. Sparta also had allies organized into a confederation known as the Peloponnesian League, although Spartan control of the league varied greatly. The nature and extent of Sparta’s manpower problems have been debated-there was probably no shortage of actual Spartans, just of ones well off enough to contribute to the mess and thus serve in the phalanx-but it was severe enough that at times the Spartans promised helots freedom and rights in exchange for military service, often far from home.

The Peloponnesian War, 431–404 BCE

The growth of Athenian power troubled the Spartans. Sparta was the status quo power in Greece. It had led, at least in name, the allies in the war against Persia in 480-79 BCE, and it was the dominant power for at least twenty years thereafter. But as Athens’ power grew, the Spartans’ position was jeopardized. Tensions were heightened by the obvious political difference between democratic Athens and monarchical Sparta, a difference central to the internal politics of many of both cities’ allies. Thucydides explicitly states that Sparta was motivated by fear when it began the great Peloponnesian War in 431. When Corcyra, an Athenian ally, and Corinth, a member of the Peloponnesian League, went to war in 431, mediation failed, both leagues lined up behind their allies, and the war began. Some still opposed war: The astute Spartan king Archidamus noted that Sparta might need to go to war with Athens, but not at this time-if it did, it would be a war Spartans would leave to their children. He was proved right, as the changes in Greek warfare latent since the end of the Persian Wars transformed the limited engagements of the sixth century into a long and bitter conflict in which the customs of earlier Greek combat went by the boards.

Winning Strategy

The Peloponnesian War saw numerous actions both on land and at sea, and in these actions, the impact of the Persian Wars can be seen. Strategically, the Greeks had learned much from the war with Persia, and both alliances planned and executed complex strategies. The war’s complicated alliances dictated operations on several fronts at once. The Athenian strategy formulated by Pericles at the beginning of the war would have been impossible sixty years earlier: He succeeded in convincing the Athenians to abandon Attica and remain within the walls of Athens, her fortified naval arsenal at Piraeus, and the famous Long Walls that connected them, relying on the fleet for supplies. He hoped that after two or three years the Spartans would give up when they could not draw the Athenians into a hoplite battle. Unfortunately, Spartan resolve lasted longer than Pericles anticipated, and something of a strategic stalemate developed between Spartan land power and Athenian naval power.

Subversion of allies and conversion of neutrals became important tools in the conflict; the correspondingly increased need to securely hold allies in place led both sides, especially Athens, into increasingly brutal measures against revolts and resistance. Both sides also looked farther afield for ways to break the stalemate. This proved disastrous for Athens when its expedition against Syracuse in 415-13 resulted in a major defeat for both its fleet and its army. Still, Athenian forces recovered in the years after Syracuse and remained more than a match for Peloponnesian forces at sea. But Sparta brought Persian naval forces and money into its war effort in 408, and a series of naval victories combined with a near-constant land siege of Athens brought the war to an end in 404.

The New Kingdom Army

Ancient Egyptian Armour

The pharaoh headed Egypt’s armed forces as commander-in-chief. As the warrior king he led a highly organised and professional standing army and navy. Tactics and strategies were decided upon by the pharaoh, in consultation with his war council. During the time of Thutmose III there appears to have been only two army divisions: Amun based in Thebes and Ra based in Heliopolis.

Each division numbered approximately five thousand troops. Divisions were then organised into smaller units of approximately two hundred and fifty soldiers who were commanded by a standard bearer. A group of “shock troops” known as the Braves of the King served as the pharaoh’s personal bodyguard.


The infantry

The highly disciplined infantry or mesha was the largest group and gave Egypt an advantage over its enemies such as the Mitanni. These infantry units were composed of spearmen, archers, axe-bearers, clubmen and slingers. Many foot soldiers lacked adequate armour; some were even without shields. Within the infantry there were three main groups of soldiers: the elite first class warriors called the braves, the experienced soldiers and the new recruits of whom many were conscripts.


The charioteers

The elite of the army were the charioteers or sennyw. Charioteers backed up the infantry by scouting and protecting the foot soldiers from enemy chariot attack. Each chariot was drawn by a pair of horses and was manned by a driver and a fighter armed with spear, bow and arrows.


The auxiliary troops

Medjay troops from Nubia were first used in Egypt as mercenaries against the Hyksos. The Medjay and other foreign recruits from vassal states such as Libya became indispensable to the New Kingdom army.



The navy

The navy was first used in combined land and sea campaigns against the Hyksos. It was primarily a transport unit carrying troops and supplies to combat regions. Naval organisation was based on the size of individual vessels, i.e. larger ships carried bigger crews.


I spent my youth in the city of Nekheb, my father being an officer of the king of Upper and Lower Egypt, Sekenenre triumphant…. Then I served as an officer in his stead in the ship “The Offering”…Then after I set up a household I was transferred to the northern fleet, because of my valour. I followed the king on foot when he rode abroad in his chariot…

One captured Avaris; I took captive there one man and three women, total four heads, his majesty gave them to me for slaves.

…his majesty made a great slaughter among (the Nubian Troglodytes). Then I took captive there two living men, and three hands. One presented me with gold in double measure, besides giving to me two female slaves…

There came an enemy of the South…His majesty carried him off as a living prisoner and all his people carried captive. I carried away two archers as a seizure in the ship of the enemy, one gave to me five heads besides pieces of land amounting to five stat (one stat is about a quarter hectare) in my city. It was done to all the sailors likewise.

From the Autobiography of Ahmose, son of Ebana




Arsites, satrap of Hellespontine Phrygia, had hastily summoned various generals to the town of Zelea (Sarikoy), about 20 miles from the Macedonian camp. Everyone present had an opinion about how to defeat the Macedonians, but the most prudent advice came from Memnon of Rhodes, the leader of a contingent of Greek mercenaries in the employ of the Persians. Memnon had once visited Pella and had experience of Macedonian military tactics. He knew that once Alexander ran out of the provisions he had brought with him he would have to forage for more. Therefore Memnon proposed to devastate the area by burning the crops and demolishing towns if need be, which would severely impede Alexander’s ability to feed his men and force them back to Macedonia.

Arsites naturally had no desire to bless Memnon’s scorched earth policy in his satrapy, nor did he take too kindly to his blunt warning that the Persians should not do battle against Alexander because their infantry was nowhere near as well trained and was outnumbered by the enemy. Alexander had perhaps 40,000 infantry to the Persians’ 30,000 or less. However, the Persians had 20,000 highly trained, tough Greek mercenaries, and they could also field 16,000 or so cavalry, compared with the Macedonians’ 6,000. Taking these factors into consideration Arsites decided that he had the edge over the invaders, especially as his men would be fighting on familiar terrain. Ignoring Memnon’s counterarguments, perhaps even because he looked down on Memnon as a Greek, Arsites gave the order to do battle.

The Persians took up a position west of Zelea, above the plain of Adrasteia, through which ran the Granicus River. Probably this was near the modern Dimetoka. There they encamped on the river’s east bank. Alexander took 13,000 infantry and 5,100 cavalry and marched to the west bank of the river either later in the afternoon or as dusk fell. The Granicus River was fast flowing and about three feet deep, but the entire riverbed was 80 feet wide. The topography of the area has changed little since Alexander’s time, so the river’s western and eastern banks were very steep and around 12 feet high, most likely covered in the same woodland and scrub as today. Crossing the river would have been a struggle at the best of times, let alone when an enemy army was ranged along the opposite bank, ready to take advantage of any Macedonian slips. That was why Parmenion tried to persuade Alexander to wait until he found another way around the enemy line. Parmenion’s advice was sound, but it was not what Alexander wanted to hear: he sarcastically retorted that he would never be able to live down the shame of halting at a stream like the Granicus after crossing the Hellespont.

At this point our major ancient writers for the battle disagree. Arrian states that Alexander engaged the Persians the same evening as he arrived at the river, while Diodorus has it that he waited until the next morning when he could lead the army across undetected. Most likely Arrian is correct because Alexander characteristically took an enemy by surprise. Besides, it is highly unlikely that the Persians would not have seen thousands of Macedonians making their way across the river as day broke. Diodorus further says that Arsites positioned his cavalry slightly back from the water’s edge and stationed his infantry on the hill above them, whereas Arrian puts the cavalry right on the water’s edge with the infantry behind. Diodorus’s account is more likely to be correct because the Persian infantrymen atop the riverbank would be able to bombard the attackers with missiles and disrupt their line rather than trying to charge it from behind their cavalry.

The odds of the Persians preventing Alexander’s advance were therefore excellent. He had to lead his army down the western bank and across the river, neutralize the enemy cavalry, and force his way up the opposite bank while at the mercy of spears and arrows launched from its heights. A stumble by any part of the phalanx would cause instant disruption to his line, and the ensuing chaos would practically hand victory to the Persians. On the other hand, Alexander was well used to rivers thanks to growing up in Macedonia, and he may well have been eager to fight the enemy here rather than somewhere else as Parmenion had suggested. He saw that the various bends of the river gave rise to bluffs that had more gentle slopes of gravel running down to the water, which were virtually opposite one another, and decided to take advantage of these natural ramps. His strategy was to lead his men down one of the gravel slopes to the riverbed. Then, with the cavalry protecting both flanks of the phalanx, the men would cross the river in a diagonal line, no doubt because of the current, to the nearest gravel bed on the opposite side to attack the Persian army. From Philip’s time the Macedonian phalanx had been trained to cross all manner of terrain, including flowing water, and Alexander was banking on it not missing a beat now.

Alexander’s line stretched for a little over a mile. He stationed the Thracian, Thessalian, and other Greek cavalry on his left flank, commanded by Parmenion. The right flank comprised the Macedonian cavalry, which Alexander formed into two groups, one under the command of Philotas on the extreme right and the other, immediately next to the massed phalanx at the center, under Amyntas. Next to him Alexander took up his own position. The cavalry was arranged 10 horses deep, and the infantry line, eight men deep.

The Battle of the Granicus River witnessed Alexander’s introduction of the stratagem of a pawn sacrifice. He ordered Amyntas and a small strike force of fast cavalry (prodromoi) to cross the river ahead of the main army, thereby drawing the enemy’s fire. As Alexander had anticipated, the Persian cavalry charged Amyntas’s soldiers and even forced them back. In the meantime Alexander and the right wing began their move across the river, followed by the center and left flank, in a planned left-to-right diagonal line toward the opposite gravel beds. At that point the Persians realized that Amyntas’s brave action had merely been a distraction. Unable to regroup in time, the Persian cavalry fell victim to Alexander’s massed counterstrike, and as more of the Persian commanders were killed in the fighting when the two sides met, the cavalry lost heart and fled.

Now the battle became an infantry one. Parmenion had brought his left flank successfully across the river and regrouped into one continuous line that easily made its way up the west bank of the river to face the Persian infantry and Greek mercenaries. The Persian line became a bloodbath as the sarissas tore into the Persian troops, who were armed only with light javelins that were no match for the enemy’s long, deadly weapons. Thoroughly demoralized, and in an effort to cut their losses, they made their getaway after the cavalry. Alexander expected the Greek mercenaries under Memnon, who had not yet taken part in the fighting, to offer tougher resistance. Memnon at first sought terms, but Alexander was in no mood for leniency-he was also angry that Greek mercenaries were prepared to fight other Greeks. Without delay the king regrouped his line into its usual wedge formation and with the cavalry on the wings attacked the mercenaries head-on. It was said that Alexander’s men fought harder against Memnon and his men than against the Persians, and in one clash Alexander’s horse (evidently not Bucephalas) was killed under him. Eventually the king’s shock-and-awe tactics paid off, and 18,000 of the mercenaries were cut to pieces. Memnon managed to escape, but the surviving 2,000 mercenaries, including a contingent of Athenians, were captured and sent back to Macedonia to work in chains in the mines. Arsites, who had fled into Phrygia, took responsibility for the entire defeat and committed suicide.

“Of the Barbarians, we are told, 20,000 infantry fell and 2,500 cavalry. But on Alexander’s side, Aristobulus says there were 34 dead in all, of whom 9 were infantry”: These numbers were very likely exaggerated to magnify the Macedonian victory, but nevertheless the battle was a triumph of Alexander’s strategic planning, bold tactics, and daredevil courage. It was his first victory on Asian soil, and he had proved the fighting superiority of his army against a numerically greater enemy. Granicus began sounding the death knell of the Achaemenid dynasty.





Map of the Hittite Empire (c. 1300 BC)

The Hittites occupied the Anatolian peninsula from approximately 1900 to 1000 b. c. e. The origins of this rugged people skilled in mountain warfare remain obscure, but the evidence suggests that their settlement in Anatolia began with the tribal migrations of peoples whose origins lay in the area that stretches from the lower Danube along the north shore of the Black Sea to the northern foothills of the Caucasus Mountains. The date of migration is uncertain but may have been as early as 2500 b. c. e. By 1900 b. c. e., there was clear evidence of the beginnings of a separate society that can be identified as Hittite. The Hittite society lasted until circa 1100 b. c. e., when, like the other states of Syria, Lebanon, and the upper Euphrates, it was overrun and destroyed by the invasion of the Sea Peoples.

Hittite society was a feudal order based on land ownership and fiefdoms governed nationally by a council of great families, called the Pankus. This same pattern of social development is found in early Sumer, Egypt, and Rome. Gradually, a governing aristocracy was formed, with its capital at Hattusas in northeast Anatolia. Social organization centered on the “fiefholder,” who worked the land, and, as the need for defense and military power increased, on the “man of the weapon,” who was given land and income in return for full-time military service to the high king. As in medieval Europe, there was constant tension between the central governing authority and powerful local vassals, who often could not be controlled. Hittite central authority waxed and waned from one period to the next. Only rarely was it possible for the Hittite kings to unify and control their country, and then only for relatively short periods. One result was that to the end of the empire, Hatti remained essentially a feudal society, whose army comprised a core of loyal troops of the king augmented by feudal armies contributed by vassals and foreign client states.

The imperial period of Hittite power is dated from 1450 to 1180 b. c. e. In 1346 b. c. e. a young and vigorous king named Suppiluliumas brought the domestic situation under control and moved militarily against the city-states of the Syrian zone. He succeeded in gaining control of most of the major city-states of the area before moving against the Mitanni. With the power of the Mitanni brought to heel, he installed his own governors there and created a new state to act as a buffer against the growing power of Assyria. Suppiluliumas was succeeded by his youngest son, Mursilis, who continued to strengthen Hittite control in the Syrian zone while bringing the new Mitanni buffer state further within his control. Hatti encroached farther south into the Syrian zone while the Egyptians were paralyzed by domestic turmoil.

Mursilis passed the Hittite throne to his son Muwatallis (1308-1285 b. c. e.), who suppressed revolts in Arzawa and the Gasgan lands, making certain that domestic events did not interfere with the emerging conflict with Egypt. He achieved a temporary diplomatic settlement to blunt renewed Assyrian pressure in the Mitanni region. Egypt was at last ready to attempt to counter Hittite influence in the Syrian zone and began by fomenting unrest in some of the city-states. Muwatallis moved quickly to reduce the threat with armed intervention against Kadesh, Carchemesh, and Allepo, bringing them to heel and installing Hittite rulers and garrisons. This was a clear challenge to Egypt, and armed conflict was inevitable. The basis of Hittite national security strategy remained unchanged for almost five centuries. The goal was to secure the homeland by suppressing domestic revolts and increasing the power of the national authorities to deal with the constant threats on the border.

In 1279 b. c. e. Ramses II, one of Egypt’s great warrior pharoahs, came to the throne. Ramses understood that Egyptian influence in Lebanon and Palestine would never be secure as long as the Hittite threat hung over the Syrian zone. The passage of time would only work to the Hittite advantage as they strengthened their hold on the area. Egyptian strategic thinking held that a threat to Syria was a threat to Palestine, and a threat to Palestine was a threat to the Nile. The world’s first “domino theory” was born. In the fifth year of his rule, 1275 b. c. e., Ramses II set out to destroy Hittite influence in Syria and to drive it back behind the Taurus Mountains. As the room for maneuver narrowed, the clash between the two great powers became certain. When it came, it came at the city of Kadesh on the Orontes River.


The size of the armies that fought at Kadesh remains the subject of some dispute. The foremost experts on the Egyptian and Hittite armies of the period estimate the size of the Egyptian force at between 25,000 and 30,000 men comprised of four divisions of 6,000 each, plus some nim and allied Canaanite chariot contingents. The Hittite army appears to have been in the neighborhood of 17,000-20,000 men, which was probably the largest combat force ever deployed by the Hittites. The unusual size of the Hittite force is explainable by the fact that the Hittite king, Muwatallish, had been successful in uniting the various vassals of the country and in concluding a number of mutual assistance treaties with the city-states of Syria. Of the other great powers, only the Mitanni deployed forces comparable in size to the Hittite armies, and they, too, relied heavily on allied contingents for maximum national efforts. The full military manpower pool of Hatti was available to the king, as were military contingents from allied states.

The Hittite army was organized around the decimal system common to armies of the area at that time. Infantry, chariots, and archers shared the same organizational structure, with squads of ten, companies of ten squads, and battalions of ten companies. Infantry deployed for battle in companies 10 men wide and 10 men deep, with battalions standing with 100-man fronts 10 men deep. The basic weapons of the Hittite infantry were the medium-length spear, the axe, and the sickle sword. Hittite infantry was flexible in armament, equipment, and manner of deployment.

Hittite infantry had been developed in the rough terrain of Anatolia, where the land itself placed a premium on ground troops used in various ways. Hittite commanders commonly changed the mix of infantry weaponry and even clothing and armor, depending on the nature of the terrain and the type of battle that the infantry was expected to fight. In mountain terrain the infantry carried the sickle sword, dagger, axe, and no spear, a mix of weapons suited primarily to close combat. Mountain infantry were issued metal helmets, good boots, leather or scale armor, and a specially designed shield in the shape of a figure eight. The narrow waist of the shield made it lighter while still affording good, full-length body protection. The narrow waist improved the ability of the soldier to see his adversary and provided greater room for him to wield his sword when in close-order battle. Later, the Hittites adopted the small round shield, a piece of equipment specifically designed for close combat.

The infantrís weapons and equipment were changed whenever the Hittite army was required to fight in open terrain. Under these conditions, the primary weapon was the long stabbing spear, and the fighting formation was the packed heavy phalanx. An army that tailored its units, weapons, and combat formations so readily required a high degree of discipline and training from its soldiers. The Hittite army was constructed around a core professional force loyal to the king and augmented by forces provided by the king’s vassals. Hittite society provided for the “man of the weapon,” who was given the income from land in exchange for military service. The Anatolian terrain placed a premium on stealth, rapid movement, movement at night, and quick deployment from the line of march to fighting formation to avoid ambush. These abilities are the characteristics of a professional army, not an army of conscripts. The Hittite army comprised almost professional-quality soldiers similar in experience and ability to the feudal military classes of Europe during the Middle Ages.

The Hittite arm of decision was its chariotry. The chariot’s role was to close quickly with the enemy infantry, delivering maximum shock, then to dismount and fight as heavy infantry. The Hittite machine was heavier than the Egyptian chariot and had its axle positioned in the center of the carrying platform. This arrangement reduced speed and stability but made it possible for the machine to carry a crew of three. The crew was armed with the six-foot-long stabbing spear designed not to be thrown but to be used as a lance while mounted and as an infantry weapon when dismounted. The Hittites used their chariots as mounted heavy infantry, and they were the key to the success of the Hittite army fighting in open terrain.

One can understand the tactical role of Hittite chariotry by remembering that the Hittite art of war developed in the inhospitable terrain of the Anatolian plateau, which afforded few open plains where chariots could maneuver but offered numerous valleys and defiles from which a hidden army could suddenly strike at an unsuspecting enemy. Under these conditions of short distances to combat closure, even a heavy machine could move fast enough to inflict sudden and decisive shock. Whereas the open terrain of Egypt and Palestine encouraged an emphasis on speed of movement over expanses of open terrain, the Hittite experience emphasized tactical surprise. It was typical of Hittite strategy to attempt to catch the enemy on the march and ambush him with a sudden rush of infantry-carrying chariots and to be on him before he could deploy to meet the attack. This tactic was employed brilliantly at Kadesh and almost destroyed the Egyptian army.

The Takedown of Tyre I



Tyre, in what is now Lebanon, was the holdout. It had a unique place as the largest and most important Phoenician port in the eastern Mediterranean, and as an important Persian naval base. Tyre had been a prominent city for centuries by the time that Alexander arrived. The Phoenician merchants from Tyre had been among the first people to send their trading ships throughout the Mediterranean. The city grew rich and powerful and was coveted by its neighbors. King Nebuchadnezzar II, known as “the Great,” who built the Hanging Gardens of Babylon, had unsuccessfully besieged the city for 13 years in the sixth century BC. Eventually, the Tyrians threw in their lot with the Persians.

To secure their metropolis, the Tyrians built a new city on an island a half mile offshore from the old city on the mainland. This new Tyre was now an impregnable fortress surrounded by two miles of stone walls that were reportedly as high as 150 feet. The island had two ship harbors, the northern one named for Sidon, the southern one named for Egypt. Through these harbors, Tyre could be supplied from the sea, regardless of who controlled the adjacent mainland.

Alexander had hoped to avoid the necessity of a siege entirely. He was optimistic when his army was met on the coast road by ambassadors from Tyre, who told him, according to Arrian, that the city “had decided to do whatever he might command.”

Alexander said he would like to enter their city and offer a sacrifice to Heracles—known to the Tyrians as Melqart—at the temple that had been erected to him in the southern part of their island citystate. He explained that he was descended from Heracles, as were all of the kings of Macedonia. Their response was not what he expected. The Tyrians, then ruled by King Azemilcus, told him he was welcome at another temple of Heracles located on the mainland, but he could not enter the island.

With this, the die was cast. Tyre must be taken. Thus began an epic siege that took place over the spring and summer of 332.

In a speech possibly transcribed by Aristobulus or Callisthenes, and passed down by Arrian, Alexander told his officers of his strategic view of the eastern Mediterranean, explaining why Tyre was so important:

“I see that an expedition to Egypt will not be safe for us, so long as the Persians retain the sovereignty of the sea; nor is it a safe course, both for other reasons, and especially looking at the state of matters in Greece, for us to pursue Darius, leaving in our rear the city of Tyre itself in doubtful allegiance. . . . I am apprehensive lest while we advance with our forces toward Babylon and in pursuit of Darius, the Persians should again conquer the maritime districts, and transfer the war into Greece with a larger army.”

The conventional wisdom held that Tyre could be assaulted only from the sea, and its huge, solid walls would protect it from that. Besieging Tyre presented a dilemma, given that the Tyrian fleet and the allied Persian fleet under Autophradates had naval superiority in the eastern Mediterranean, while Alexander had deliberately undercut his own navy.

According to folklore, readily retold by Arrian as fact, the solution came to Alexander in a dream. He dreamed that Heracles took him by the right hand and led him up into the city, walking on dry land. Though the dream needed little in the way of interpretation, it was declared to be a good sign by Aristander, the seer who had once told Philip II that his son within the womb of Olympias would be as bold as a lion. Alexander had relied on his prognostications more than ever after he correctly predicted the victory at Granicus.

If Tyre was separated from dry land by a half mile of water, he would just take the dry land to the city. Alexander decided to solve the problem at hand by turning Tyre from an island into the tip of a peninsula by building a causeway to it from the mainland.

The portion of the channel closest to the shore was a gently sloping tidal plain. There was an abundance of rock and other construction material nearby, so getting started on this project would be relatively easy. Closer to the island fortress city, however, the channel was 18 feet deep, so it would be more challenging. A difficult task under any circumstances, building a causeway here beneath hostile walls was a serious problem for work crews with Tyrian archers raining projectiles down upon them.

However, morale inside the walls was shaky as well. The Tyrians too, had a dream. They dreamed that Apollo told them he was, as Plutarch paraphrases it, “going away to Alexander, since he was displeased at what was going on in the city.”

The project began with wooden pilings being driven into the mud with a roadway constructed on top. The work proceeded rapidly at first, but as the Macedonians got into the channel, the crews came under fire from Tyrian warships. To stave off this harassment, Alexander had two tall siege towers constructed at the end of the causeway from which his troops could return fire against the ships. Their elevated position meant that the men in the towers could see farther, and their projectiles had greater range, than they would from near sea level.

The Tyrians struck back using a transport barge as an incendiary device. They piled it high with wood scraps and other flammable material, including pitch and brimstone. To its masts they fitted long double yardarms, attaching caldrons containing additional flammable material. They towed the barge near the causeway towers using triremes, setting it on fire as it neared the towers at the end of the causeway. The yardarms were long enough to cantilever over the causeway and strike the towers, which were soon engulfed in flames.

Attempts by Alexander’s personnel to fight the fires were met by archers aboard the triremes. The Tyrians also landed troops on the causeway who burned catapults and other equipment before withdrawing. After a stroke of engineering brilliance in his causeway idea, Alexander had been halted rather ignominiously.

However, it was merely round one. Alexander promptly ordered the causeway to be widened and new towers to be built. Meanwhile, he decided to acquire additional warships of his own, having realized that defeating Tyre would require sea power after all.