The war chariot was made possible by two inventions, the spoked wheel and the bit. Complete chariots have been found in Egyptian tombs. The frame was made of wood covered with leather. It had two wheels, each with four (later six) spokes, and an axle placed at the very rear of the body for stability on fast turns. Attached to the sides were one or two quivers, each containing thirty or forty arrows, a bow case, and sometimes a quiver for javelins.

In the late eighteenth century BC both the Egyptian Middle Kingdom and the Babylonian Empire fell apart. Everywhere records failed, leaving the seventeenth and much of the sixteenth century a dark age. In the old centres of civilization alien conquerors took over, and new powers arose in the north. Amorite and Hurrian invaders, called by the Egyptians hyksos (‘foreign chieftains’), established themselves in the Nile Delta and in about 1650 BC proclaimed a new dynasty with its capital at Avaris – the first non-Egyptian dynasty in the history of Egypt. At about the same time a Hittite king called Hattusilis created a powerful state, controlling central Anatolia from his citadel at Hattusas. His successor Mursilis extended Hittite rule over northern Syria, and in 1595 BC performed the most spectacular military exploit in history to that date, when he led his army all the way to Mesopotamia, sacked the great city of Babylon and carried off the statue of its god Marduk, doubtless accompanied by much booty of a secular nature. As a result, the enfeebled dynasty of Hammurabi vanished and was soon replaced by barbarians known as Kassites from the Iranian hills. Like earlier barbarian invaders of Mesopotamia they were quickly Akkadianized; their king called himself ‘King of the Kassites’, but also ‘King of Sumer and Akkad’; and the dynasty lasted longer than any of the native dynasties of Sumer and Akkad, though next to nothing is known of its history. The Hurrian princes took advantage of the general disorder: in about 1550 BC a great Hurrian kingdom called Mitanni arose in northern Mesopotamia and soon contested the domination of Syria with the Hittites.

All these kingdoms relied upon a new military technology, the horsed chariot and the composite bow. Early evidence for chariot warfare links it to the Hittite kingdom. The hyksos princes introduced it to Egypt, and then it became common all over the Middle East. But it is unlikely that the Hittites invented it. There is a mysterious but definite connection between chariot warfare and people of Aryan heritage that is, speaking dialects ancestral to the Aryan or Indo-Iranic division of the Indo-European linguistic family. Today Aryan languages are spoken in Iran, much of Central Asia and most of the Indian subcontinent. The oldest literary evidence for an Aryan language is the collection of Sanskrit hymns called the Rig-Veda, composed in about 1500 BC. Most of the people of the kingdom of Mitanni spoke Hurrian, but the aristocracy, all chariot warriors, had Aryan names and worshipped the same gods – Indra, Varuna, Mithra – who appear in the Rig-Veda. Many cities in Syria and Palestine acquired dynasties with Aryan or Hurrian names at this time. Some scholars have thought that even the Kassites of Babylonia (whose original language is obscure, but could not have been Indo-European) paid homage to some Aryan gods. Everywhere the Aryan word maryannu (young warrior) was used for chariot fighters. There survives a Hittite treatise on the training of chariot horses, translated from Hurrian, which is studded with Aryan technical terms. In the fourteenth century, when this treatise was written, Aryan may no longer have been spoken in the Middle East, but it was still the international language of chariotry, as Italian is of music.

It is widely supposed that the ancestors of these Aryans had come from the north, and likewise the horse and the war chariot. The dissemination of the horse preceded the other two. The original range of the wild horse (Equus caballus) lay on the Eurasian steppe, where domesticated horses were being ridden as early as the fourth millennium BC. By 3000 BC there had developed a nomadic pastoral culture exploiting the deep steppe with riding horses and ox-drawn wheeled carts, stretching across the European steppe from the Dneister to the Ural River, and soon to spread across the steppes of Central Asia. Horse nomadism was never suitable for the arid steppes of the Middle East, but by the Middle Bronze Age Syrian and Mesopotamian princes were importing horses from the north and occasionally riding in horse-drawn chariots. These were prestige vehicles, with no military function.

The war chariot of the High Bronze Age was a much more specialized vehicle and could not have come from the European steppes, which lack the necessary woods. Many scholars think the likeliest place for its invention lies in the mountainous regions south of the Caucasus, where the high pastures were famous for horse-breeding in antiquity. Some think that we should also look there for the homeland of the Aryans. It seems certain that by around 1700 BC horsemen in that part of the world developed a chariot built of lightweight hardwoods, with two spoked wheels and a leather-mesh platform on which a rider could stand, the whole thing light enough (about 60 pounds) for one man to carry, and pulled by two fast horses. It was the first effective use of the horse as a draft animal, and the swiftest vehicle ever designed. It was surely invented for hunting, which always remained one of its main uses, but some enterprising highland chieftain soon experimented with using such chariots in war: that is, as a galloping archery platform, carrying two athletic young men, one an expert driver and the other an expert archer armed with a composite bow, firing a steady stream of arrows with a range of several hundred feet. The basic principle of the composite bow had been known in the Middle East for some centuries, but it was an expensive weapon requiring years to manufacture; like the rifle of the eighteenth century AD, it was probably used for hunting by kings and nobles, and in war by certain highly trained specialists. The weapon may not have been perfected, nor its full military potential realized, until it was mounted on a mobile platform. These inventions eventually spun off a third invention, the first real body armour: the archer, and sometimes the horses, were protected by leather tunics sewn with bronze or copper scales.

It has been suggested that chariot warfare was first tested early in the seventeenth century at Troy, which at that time was taken over by the conquerors who built the citadel known to archaeologists as Troy VI. Knowledge of the new art had spread far by about 1650 BC, when upstart regimes in Anatolia and Egypt used it in their rise to power. The long Hittite march to Babylon in 1595 BC demonstrated its full potential. Over the next century Aryan and Hurrian adventurers seized power in cities all around the Fertile Crescent.

These conquests were not mass migrations; rather, we should imagine quick takeovers by small military elites, resembling the Norman conquests of England and Sicily in the eleventh century AD. There was relatively little destruction; the transition from Middle to High Bronze Age was not marked by any general decline in material civilization, such as had accompanied the transition from Early to Middle Bronze Age. Like the medieval Norman knights, the chariot conquerors were soon absorbed culturally by the conquered. Only in two places did these conquests lead to lasting cultural and linguistic change. In the west, around 1600 BC, a band of Indo-European (but not Aryan) charioteers established themselves in Greece, and two centuries after that took over the more advanced Minoan civilization on Crete, adapting the linear Cretan script to write a language that was turning into Greek. In the east, a larger migration spread over the Iranian plateau and during the latter half of the second millennium overran northern India, taking over the remnants of the Indus River civilization, whose people became the lower castes of Hinduism; the oral poetry of the conquerors preserved faithfully an Aryan dialect that was turning into Sanskrit. But in the Middle East the upheavals were over by about 1550 BC, when the native Eighteenth Dynasty expelled the hyksos from Egypt. By that time the barbarians had been assimilated and a new pattern of interstate affairs had taken shape.

Wars of the Diadochi

Alexander’s unexpected early death placed his recently conquered empire at the mercy of his squabbling generals. His heirs were few: Alexander left a half-brother, Philip Arrhidaeus, the mentally challenged, epileptic bastard son of Philip II, and an as yet-to-be born child behind. With neither of these choices capable of taking command of the army, now milling about in the middle of Mesopotamia, the generals reluctantly agreed to recognize Perdiccas, commander of the companion cavalry, as regent of Arrhidaeus. If the unborn child proved to be a son, they would recognize him as king. Almost simultaneous revolts by several Greek cities (led by Athens) and Macedonian veterans in Bactria were put down: civil war seemed to have been averted.

Shifting Alliances

In fact, 323 bc was merely the calm before a storm of wars that would last for several decades and completely dissolve Alexander’s empire (although Hellenic culture left lasting legacies in nearly every part of it). The wars of the Diadochi (the “successors”) witnessed a conflicting, shifting web of alliances between Alexander’s former generals, some of whom wanted to reunify the empire and others who wanted to carve out their own. In this period of aggressive warfare conducted by veteran generals, army size grew, the ubiquitous pike lengthened (from 14 to more than 20 feet), and decorum vanished entirely from the battlefield.

The first war broke out in 322 bc when the question of succession in Macedonia created an armed conflict and when Ptolemy, named satrap of Egypt by Perdiccas, stole Alexander’s body for entombment in his own territory. Joining Ptolemy in rebellion were Antipater (regent of Macedonia) and his ally Craterus, Antigonus Monophthalmus (satrap of Phrygia, Pamphylia, and Lycia), and Lysimachus (governor of Trace). Perdiccas rushed to Egypt, sending Eumenes-one of the few who remained loyal to the notion of a united empire-to defeat and kill Craterus in Anatolia. Perdiccas lost the Battle of Pelusium in 321, however, whereupon his soldiers revolted and his lieutenant Seleucus killed him.

With the end of the war, Antipater of Macedonia seized regency of the entire empire and rewarded Seleucus by naming him satrap of Babylonia (Seleucus’s accomplices earned satrapies in Media and Elam), while Antigonus Monophthalmus (“one-eyed”) added Lycaonia to his territory.

The Second War

This state of affairs lasted barely two years, during which Antipater died, naming a loyal officer named Polyperchon over his own son, Cassander, as his successor. Predictably, Cassander revolted. Ptolemy, eager to establish full independence for Egypt, joined him. They found a third, less likely, ally in Antigonus, who simply wished to take Polyperchon’s place. All three wanted Polyperchon and his charge, King Philip Arridaeus, removed. While Cassander took over Macedonia, Antigonus Monophthalmus faced off against Eumenes, who had been turned away by Seleucus at Babylon and retreated to Susa. Antigonus caught up at Gabae in 316 BC, defeated Eumenes, and killed him. Antigonus started throwing his weight around, convincing Seleucus to make a run for it. He found sanctuary with Ptolemy in Egypt.

The Third War

Peace lasted for another two years, but when Ptolemy, Seleucus, Lysimachus, and Cassander formed an official coalition, Antigonus invaded Syria (held by Ptolemy). While he was busy besieging Tyre, Seleucus conquered Cyprus for Ptolemy. Antigonus now allied himself with his old enemy, Polyperchon, whose Peloponnesian holdings threatened Cassander, but while he and Ptolemy fought each other to a standstill in the Levant, Seleucus slipped away and regained control of Babylon in 312 BC. During 311, he reconquered Media and Elam and began a two-year, successful defense of his regained satrapy with Antigonus.

The Fourth War

While Seleucus consolidated his eastern territories, the Fourth War of the Diadochi broke out in 307 bc when Demetrius, son of Antigonus, “liberated” Athens and stole Greece from Cassander. The following year he seized Cyprus, thus cutting both Cassander and Ptolemy off at the knees. Antigonus now declared himself king (Alexander’s heir), but this provoked the remaining Diadochi to assume royal titles for themselves. From 305 to 302, fighting concentrated in the Aegean Sea, but in 302 Lysimachus of Trace invaded the Anatolian possessions of Antigonus. This bold move nearly ended in disaster, for Demetrius, coming from Greece, and Antigonus, arriving from the east, surrounded him. Cornered in Ipsus, Lysimachus was rescued by the armies of Seleucus. The Battle of Ipsus was the decisive moment in the Wars of the Diadochi. The infantry of Antigonus and Demetrius outnumbered that of Seleucus and Lysimachus and the Anatolians fielded heavy cavalry while their opponents fielded light cavalry, but Seleucus had recently obtained five hundred war elephants from India, while Antigonus had only seventy-five. These allowed Seleucus to divide father and son, shattering their armies and their power. Although the Diadochi continued to scuffle over territory for another twenty years, the Battle of Ipsus closed the period of the Diadichi wars since it forever ended the hope of reconstituting Alexander’s empire.




Visigoths and Ostrogoths fight each other on the Catalaunian fields.


Ostrogoths Siege of Rome AD 537

A barbarian people whose name means “Goths of the rising sun,” or “Goths glorified by the rising sun,” or simply “East Goths,” the Ostrogoths played an important role in the history of the later Roman Empire. Identified as early as the first century by Roman writers, the Ostrogoths were at first part of a larger population of Goths that included the Visigoths. During the third century, the larger Gothic population came into contact, often violent, with the Roman Empire. Defeated by the empire, with which they then cultivated better relations, the Goths divided into eastern and western groups, the Ostrogoths and the Visigoths, and their subsequent histories diverged. For the Ostrogoths, as well as the Visigoths, history in the fourth and fifth centuries was shaped by the movements of the Huns and the rise and fall of the great Hunnish empire of Attila. In the fifth century, a reconstituted Ostrogothic tribe formed into a powerful group led by kings. The most famous and important of these kings, Theodoric the Great, participated in political life in the Eastern Roman Empire and created a successor kingdom in Italy in the late fifth and early sixth century. Despite the qualities of Theodoric and the strength of his kingdom, the Ostrogothic kingdom of Italy did not long survive the death of Theodoric. In the 530s, the great emperor Justinian sought to conquer the Western Empire, which had fallen under barbarian control in 476. For some twenty years, Justinian’s soldiers and generals fought Ostrogothic armies before finally defeating them, destroying Theodoric’s creation, and essentially eliminating the Ostrogoths as a people and a force in history.

Ancient accounts record that Gothic history began in 1490 b.c., when a Gothic king led his people in three boats from Scandinavia to the mouth of the Vistula River. Eventually the Goths moved to the area between the Don and Danube Rivers, before being forced out in the mid-third century a.d. by the Huns. The traditional accounts of the origins of the Goths by ancient historians like Jordanes, however, are not generally accepted. The origins of the Goths are no longer traced to Scandinavia but rather to Poland, where archeological discoveries place a sophisticated, but nonliterate, culture. It was from there that the Goths moved, after which move they made contact with the Roman Empire. In the third century the Goths had repeated clashes with the empire, winning some and putting the empire, already in serious straits, into even greater jeopardy. Roman emperors gradually turned the tide and nearly destroyed the Goths. In the wake of these defeats, however, tradition holds that a great king emerged, Ostrogotha, in circa 290, who founded the kingdom of the Ostrogoths. Although it is unlikely that Ostrogotha existed, it is at that point that the division of the Goths into two groups occurred.

In the fourth century the two groups, the Tervingi, or Visigoths, and Greuthingi, or Ostrogoths, had more or less come to terms with the empire. By the 370s, however, the relationship between the various Gothic groups and the empire changed as they faced the threat of the Huns. Prior to the arrival of the Huns, King Ermanaric, a member of the Amal clan, had created a substantial kingdom in eastern Europe. He led the struggle against the Huns but was defeated by them, and in 375 he sacrificed himself to the gods in the hopes of saving his people from the Huns. His successor and some of the Goths continued the struggle against the Huns for another year before they were conquered and absorbed by them. From the end of the fourth to the middle of the fifth century, the Greuthingi/Ostrogoths remained part of the Hunnish empire and fought in the armies of the greatest Hun, Attila.

After the death of Attila, however, the fortune and composition of the Ostrogoths underwent a change. Most scholars believe that the Ostrogoths of this period are unrelated to earlier groups identified as Ostrogoths. Whatever the relationship is, in the mid-fifth century under the king Valamir, an Amal, the Ostrogoths emerged from domination by the Huns. Valamir exploited the confused situation in the empire of the Huns after Attila’s death in 453 and the defeat of Attila’s successor at the Battle of Nedao in 454. Although Valamir and his Goths most likely fought with the Huns against other subject peoples, the Ostrogoths emerged as an independent people because of the collapse of the Huns not long after the battle. Valamir then faced other rivals and endured further attacks by the Huns before their ultimate demise; he died in battle against the Gepids in 468/469.

Valamir was succeeded by his brother Thiudimer, who moved his followers into Roman territory, where they became foederati (federated allies) of the empire and came into contact with another group led by the Ostrogothic king Theodoric Strabo, or the Squinter. The two groups struggled against each other for preeminence and for preference before the emperor. The empire itself, however, underwent important changes during this period. In the 470s a new emperor, Zeno, came to power in Constantinople, and the emperor in Italy was deposed and the imperial line ended by the barbarian Odovacar in 476. These changes among the Ostrogoths and within the empire had an important bearing on the future of the Ostrogothic people.

In 473 Thiudimer died and was succeeded by his son Theodoric the Amal, or later known as the Great, who had been named successor in 471. Prior to his nomination, Theodoric had spent ten years in Constantinople as a hostage of the emperor. During that period Theodoric learned a great deal about the empire and its customs and culture, even though it appears that he did not learn to write. Upon assuming power, he found himself in competition with the other Theodoric, whose followers had revolted against the emperor in 471 and again in 474. The later revolt was part of a palace coup against the new emperor, Zeno, who turned to the Amal for support. In order to ensure that neither group of Ostrogoths or their leaders became too powerful, Zeno also began to negotiate with Theodoric settled a treaty with Theodoric Strabo in 479. The hostilities between the two Theodorics were settled for a time, too, as the two closed ranks against the emperor. In 481, Strabo attacked Constantinople but failed to take it or depose the emperor. Shortly thereafter he was killed when his horse reared and threw him onto a rack of spears. Theodoric the Amal was the beneficiary of his occasional ally and rival’s death. Although Strabo was succeeded by Rechitach, his followers gradually joined with Theodoric the Amal, who had Rechitach murdered in 484.

Theodoric the Amal, or the Great, to give him his more familiar name, was able to create a great Ostrogothic power that quickly threatened the power of Emperor Zeno. The Ostrogothic king continued the struggle with Zeno, which was resolved for a time in 483, with the emperor making great concessions to the king. Indeed, Theodoric was made a Roman citizen, given the title of patrician, and awarded a consulship for the next year. The Ostrogoths were given a grant of land within the empire. But it occurred to Zeno that he could not trust the rising power of Theodoric, and he replaced him as consul, an event followed by renewed hostilities between the Ostrogoths and the empire. Theodoric’s revolt in 485 put further pressure on Zeno, who responded by offering Theodoric the opportunity to lead the assault on Odovacar, the barbarian king in Italy since 476. This assignment, which Theodoric himself had first suggested in 479, was beneficial to both king and emperor and one that Theodoric quickly accepted.

In 488–489 Theodoric led his Ostrogoths, probably numbering some 100,000 people, against Odovacar in Italy. The struggle between the two leaders lasted until 493; it was a hard fought war, with Theodoric winning the battles but unable to take his rival’s capital of Ravenna. Indeed, after losing two battles Odovacar established himself in the capital, from which he ventured out to meet Theodoric on the field of battle. Odovacar’s hand was strengthened by one of his generals, who joined Theodoric but then rejoined Odovacar, slaying the Gothic warriors who were with him. As a result Odovacar was able to take the offensive, but only for a short while, until Theodoric was reinforced by a Visigothic army. In the early 490s Theodoric gradually took control of Italy and forced Odovacar to come to terms. On February 25, 493, the two leaders agreed to terms that were to be celebrated at a great banquet. Theodoric apparently agreed to share power with his rival, but at the banquet he killed Odovacar, and Theodoric’s followers killed the followers of Odovacar in a bloody massacre that ended the war and brought control of Italy to Theodoric.

After his victory, Theodoric was hailed king of Italy, but at first he had to refuse the title in favor of patrician of Italy. The new emperor Anastasius I (r. 491–518) refused to recognize the title of king, with its implications of Theodoric’s independence, reminding him that he held power at the discretion of the emperor. Ultimately, however, Theodoric was recognized as king in Constantinople and ruled Italy until his death in 526. His reign was highly beneficial for Italy, and his relationship with the native Roman population was generally good, despite his Arianism and the Romans’ Catholicism. He preserved much of the traditional Roman administration, as had Odovacar, and cooperated with the Senate. He ensured the food supply to Italy and patronized Boethius and Cassiodorus as part of a cultural revival. He was also an active builder throughout Italy, erecting public monuments and churches as well as his famous palace and mausoleum in Ravenna. His activities were not limited to Italy, however, but included an ambitious foreign policy that saw him establish hegemony over the Vandals in Africa and the Visigoths in Spain. In competition with Clovis in northern Europe, Theodosius was able to limit the Merovingian king’s expansion into southern Gaul. Although in name only a king, Theodoric, as contemporaries admitted, ruled as effectively as any emperor.

Theodoric’s later years and the years following his death were marked by increasing turmoil, leading to the eventual fall of the Ostrogothic kingdom. This situation was due in part to changes in the Eastern Empire, as well as to mistakes on his own part. In 518 a new emperor, Justin, assumed the throne and brought an end to a period of doctrinal uncertainty in the empire. He was a Catholic Christian who promoted traditional orthodox teaching, and in 523 he prohibited Arianism in the empire. The support for orthodox teaching and stability in doctrine restored the Italian population’s faith in imperial leadership. Moreover, Theodoric was further challenged in matters of religion by the success of the Catholic Clovis against the Visigoths. His concerns were heightened by an alleged plot involving a number of senators, including his advisor Boethius. He ordered Boethius executed and at the same time imprisoned the pope, who had just returned from an embassy to Constantinople. These actions strained relations with his Roman subjects and darkened an otherwise enlightened reign.

Theodoric’s situation was worsened by his lack of a male heir, and just prior to his death he encouraged his followers to accept his widowed daughter, Amalswintha, as regent for his grandson Athalaric. At first Theodoric’s wishes were accepted, but gradually the Ostrogothic nobility turned against Amalswintha. Although she was praised for her intelligence and courage, the nobility were divided over her guidance of Athalaric and her pro-Roman foreign policy. When Athalaric reached his majority in 533, a number of nobles sought to persuade him to turn on his mother. The rebellion was nearly successful. Amalswintha requested a ship from Emperor Justinian to take her to Constantinople, but ultimately stayed and triumphed over her rivals. She married a cousin, Theodohad, in 534 to stabilize the throne, but her husband failed to remain loyal to her, and Athalaric died that same year. Her arrest and murder, which was inspired, according to the fifth-century Byzantine historian Procopius, by Justinian’s wife Theodora out of jealousy, provided the emperor with the pretext for his invasion of Italy.

Justinian’s invasion of Italy, led at first by Belisarius and later Narses, opened the final chapter of the history of the Ostrogoths. The Gothic Wars, which lasted from 534 to 552, were devastating for both Italy and the Ostrogoths. The opening phase of the war saw rapid victories and much success for the invading armies, in part because of the weakness of Theodohad. Belisarius reached Rome in 536, and Theodohad was deposed in favor of Witigis. The rise of Witigis and the arrival of a second Byzantine general, Narses, slowed imperial progress. When Narses was recalled, Belisarius went on the offensive again and may have forced Witigis to take desperate measures, which possibly included Belisarius’s acceptance of the imperial title. Although this remains uncertain, Belisarius was recalled in 540 and took the Ostrogothic king with him. In 541, Witigis was replaced as king by Totila.

Under Totila’s leadership, the Ostrogoths fought back successfully and prolonged the war for another eleven years. Totila was able to win back territory in Italy from Byzantine armies and forced the return of Belisarius in 544. In 545 Totila began a siege of Rome; he occupied it in 546, laying waste to the city in the process. Control of the city swung back and forth between the two sides for the rest of the war, which Belisarius was unable to conclude, despite putting great pressure on his rival, because of inadequate supplies and soldiers. Belisarius was recalled in 548, at his own request, and replaced by Narses two years later. Narses demanded sufficient resources to bring the war to a swift conclusion and got them. In 552 Narses won the Battle of Busta Gallorum, at which Totila was killed and organized Gothic resistance was ended. Although Totila had a successor as king and pockets of Ostrogoths resisted until 562, the Ostrogothic kingdom in Italy was crushed by the Byzantine invasion. The Ostrogoths ceased to be an independent people, and the last of the Ostrogoths were probably absorbed by the Lombards during their invasion of Italy in 568.


Amory, Patrick. People and Identity in Ostrogothic Italy, 489-554. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1997.

Browning, Robert. Justinian and Theodora. Rev. ed. London: Thames and Hudson, 1987.

Burns, Thomas. The Ostrogoths: Kingship and Society. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1980.

—. A History of the Ostrogoths. Bloomington: University of Indiana Press, 1984.

Bury, John B. History of the Later Roman Empire: From the Death of Theodosius I to the Death of Justinian. 2 vols. 1923. Reprint, New York: Dover, 1959.

Goffart, Walter. Barbarians and Romans a. d. 418-584: The Techniques of Accommodation. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1980.

Heather, Peter. The Goths. Oxford: Blackwell, 1996.

Jordanes. The Gothic History of Jordanes. Trans. Charles C. Mierow. New York: Barnes and Noble, 1985.

Moorhead, John. Theodoric in Italy. Oxford: Clarendon, 1992.

Procopius. History of the Wars. Trans H. B. Dewing. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1969-1993.

Wolfram, Herwig. History of the Goths. Trans. Thomas J. Dunlap. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1988.

—. The Roman Empire and Its Germanic Peoples. Trans. Thomas J. Dunlap. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1997.

Wood, Ian. The Merovingian Kingdoms, 450-751. London: Longman, 1994.




The word catapult is a generic term used to describe all ancient and medieval non-gunpowder propelled missile-throwing artillery. The first catapult may have been invented in the early fourth century BCE. In 399 in Syracuse, King Dionysius I, threatened by the Carthaginians and other enemies, assembled a large group of engineers to create an arsenal of weapons. Among these was the first non-torsion artillery piece, the gastraphetes. In essence the gastraphetes (which in Greek means “belly-bow”) was little more than a large, powerful, and flexible bow. The flexibility of the weapon came from the material of the bow itself, which was a composite of wood, horn, and animal sinew: a wood core covered by a tension layer of sinew in front and a compression layer of horn in the back. This, using a sinew bowstring, supplied the propulsive force to the missile.

It was, in fact, not much different, although larger, from the handheld composite bow, which by the fourth century BCE had been known for several centuries. However, the difference between the handheld weapon and the gastraphetes was its power, supplied by the latter’s elaborate stock apparatus. It consisted of a heavy stock, made in two sections. The lower section, the case, was fixed solidly to the bow. The upper section (or slider), of approximately the same dimensions as the case, fitted into a dove-tailed groove in the case and was able to slide freely back and forth. On each side of the case was a straight ratchet with two curved bars, or pawls, fitted into the ratchets and attached to a claw-like trigger mechanism. At the end of the stock was a concave rest that the operator placed against his stomach and, with the front of the bow fixed on the ground, allowed him to withdraw the slider, attach the string to the trigger, load a missile, and discharge it. A man could thus draw the bowstring and discharge a missile with much greater power than was possible with the traditional hand-drawn bowstring. The gastraphetes had a range of between 50 and 100 meters greater than the hand-drawn composite bow, which has been estimated to have had a maximum range of 500 meters. More importantly, the missile was launched at greater velocity so that few pieces of armor could withstand it, although it was probably still too weak to breach the walls of even earth-and-wood fortifications.

Non-torsion artillery technology spread quickly throughout the ancient world, and soon improvements were made to the design of the original gastraphetes. By about 360 BCE, winches had been added to the stock, allowing for easier and greater drawing power; this ultimately brought increased force, and therefore velocity, to the missile. A base was also added, increasing both the stability and size of the weapon. Still, non-torsion artillery continued to be limited in force and power, both of which remained dependent on the strength and flexibility of the bow. If these were exceeded the bow simply broke. While some gastraphetes were equipped to fire stone balls, most fired only heavy, arrow-shaped bolts that also limited the force of impact.

To increase the velocity of the projectile, making the gastraphetes more powerful, it was necessary to change both the bow and the size and type of missile fired. Increasing the power of the bow was achieved by replacing the single, flexible bow of the earlier weapon with two non-flexible arms set in “springs” made from sinew. The users of the gastraphetes were probably aware that it was the sinew in the bow’s composition that gave it its power, so by using the sinew to form tightly twisted “springs,” the power of the artillery could be increased. Apart from this development, the rest of the torsion catapult remained little altered from its non-torsion predecessor, with a heavy sinew string, slider, winch, ratchet apparatus, and trigger mechanism. The springs were the only significant change in technology, and this allowed for much more powerful devices firing missiles, now almost always stone, weighing from 13 to 26 kilograms, although stones as large as 162 kilograms are known to have been fired. When the bowstring was drawn back on a torsion catapult, the force was transferred to the sinew springs which, when the trigger was pulled, made the bow arms spring forward, discharging the missile. The short, stout arms were able to withstand a much greater force than the flexible bow of earlier devices and together with the use of stone balls as ammunition meant that this weapon was capable of breaching the walls of fortifications and towns.

It is believed that the first torsion-spring catapults were made by Macedonian engineers between 353 and 341 BCE and used afterwards by Philip II in his conquest of Greece. The technology then passed to Philip’s son, Alexander the Great, who used it in his conquest of Persia, the Middle East, Egypt, and India. Alexander seemed to have been particularly impressed by his catapults’ power and used them successfully to take towns, such as Tyre in 332 BCE, which would have been nearly impossible to conquer by other siege methods.

After Alexander’s death, torsion artillery technology, which had by then clearly supplanted non-torsion pieces, passed to his successors and from them to Carthage, Rome, and other lands. Over time, improvements to the mechanism were made to increase its flexibility, power, and range. Most important among these was the addition of washers to the springs, which meant that the distance that the arms of the catapult could be drawn back was easily adjusted. In this way the amount of force delivered to the missile at discharge could be varied: a close target could be struck by a looser tension on the springs, while a more distant target needed a tighter tension. The springs could also be loosed when not being used in military campaign, to keep from weakening the sinew from the constant stress of being tightly wound. Other important innovations were the addition of bronze coverings over the springs, which kept them dry during rain or river crossings, and tripod swivel mounts, which allowed for a rapid change of direction in discharging missiles. Improvements were also made in the operation of torsion catapults. Training and thorough practice in their use developed and actively encouraged by competitions between catapult operators. Training schools, especially those at Samnos, Ceos, and Cyanae, also resulted in increased skill in their use. Rhodian operators were particularly highly prized for their proficiency in catapult firing, and they were frequently employed by both Greece and Rome as mercenary artillery operators.

In the ancient world the most sophisticated artillery was made at Alexandria under the Ptolemies, and their machines were much sought after. It is highly plausible that both Carthage and Rome, during the First and Second Punic Wars, faced each other using Alexandrian catapults. This gave Alexandria the impetus to construct some highly experimental catapult models. One of the most curious examples was a chain-driven repeating catapult described by Philon in the last part of the third century BCE. In this machine, bolts were fed one at a time from a magazine into the slider trough by means of a revolving drum. The chain-link drive, operated by a winch, then fired the bolt and recocked the weapon by engaging the lugs on the chain links with a pentagonal gear. A trigger claw was locked and fired at the appropriate time by pegs mounted in the stock of the weapon, past which the slider moved. There were, however, many problems with this machine. First, because it was so elaborate, the need for it to be constantly repaired must have been great. Second, it fired only along fixed lines, and thus would have been useful only against fixed targets, like a fortification wall. There is, in fact, no indication that this weapon was ever constructed, and it may indeed have been only an engineer’s dream design.

The Romans made two important alterations to the traditional torsion catapult—which they called a ballista. First, they made it smaller and more portable. Known as the cheiroballistra, this variation of the older torsion model contained all of the former’s parts and was probably not too much lighter. It was, however, more compact, easier to assemble, and easier to transport. In addition, the springs were set farther apart, giving a wider field of view, which made aiming easier. The bow arms seem to have been capable of greater range than larger torsion artillery. Clearly, this weapon was meant to be used on the battlefield, or at sea, rather than against fortifications.

The second alteration to the traditional ancient torsion catapult was more extreme. Rather than simulating a bow using two vertical sinew springs with two arms swinging horizontally, the onager used only one horizontal spring and one arm swinging upwards. There was no bowstring; at the end of the single arm was a sling in which a missile, presumably a stone ball, could be placed for launching. The trigger was a piece of rope used to anchor the arm for loading. The arm was mounted on two large, heavy main horizontal beams held apart by a number of crossbeams. The onager was much more like our modern perception of a catapult than other ancient models. However, it should be noted that this weapon was infrequently used by the Romans, who continued to prefer traditional torsion artillery. Apparently, it appeared only at the end of the Empire and is mentioned only by one author, Ammianus Marcellinus (330–390 CE).

That torsion catapults were effective in sieges and on the battlefield is without question. Although their range seems not to have differed much from nontorsion catapults or even from strong bowmen without a substantial decrease in accuracy—most stone-throwing artillery needed to be within 150 meters of a fortification to be effective—the force of impact of a missile fired from one of these weapons was astonishing. At the siege of Gaza, Alexander the Great was wounded in the neck by a catapult bolt that pierced both his shield and his breastplate. A skull unearthed at Maiden Castle in Dorset was pierced by a catapult bolt moving at such a high velocity that it did not smash it; had the missile been an arrow from a handheld bow, the skull would surely have shattered. Perhaps the most vivid picture of the awe-inspiring power of these weapons comes from the pen of Josephus, the Jewish historian of the first-century Roman conquest of rebellious Judea, who details their use by the Romans at the siege of Jotapata in 67 CE:

The force with which these weapons threw stones and darts was such that a single projectile ran through a row of men, and the momentum of the stones hurled by the engine carried away battlements and knocked off corners of towers. There is in fact no body of men so strong that it cannot be laid low to the last rank by the impact of these huge stones.… Getting in the line of fire, one of the men standing near Josephus [the commander of Jotapata, not the historian] on the rampart had his head knocked off by a stone, his skull being flung like a pebble from a sling more than 600 meters; and when a pregnant woman on leaving her house at daybreak was struck in the belly, the unborn child was carried away 100 meters.

When the barbarian tribes invaded the Roman Empire in the fourth and fifth centuries, they were met by an enemy using artillery—ballistae, cheiroballistae, and onagers. Indeed, the Romans might have had catapults to defend nearly every fortification besieged by the invaders, and it is reported that several arms factories continued to supply artillery pieces for military use during the early invasions. It is similarly recorded that in some engagements these catapults were successful in thwarting barbarian attacks. For example, Ammianus Marcellinus describes how one attack by the Goths was halted when a single large stone fired from an onager, despite hitting no one, caused such mass confusion that the attackers were routed. And Procopius, writing about the defense of Rome in 537–38, provides a colorful witness to catapult destruction:

… at the Salerian Gate a Goth of goodly stature and a capable warrior, wearing a corselet and having a helmet on his head, a man who was of no mean station in the Gothic nation… was hit by a missile from an engine which was on a tower at his left. And passing through the corselet and the body of the man, the missile sank more than half its length into the tree, and pinning him to the spot where it entered the tree, it suspended him there a corpse.

Ultimately, however, even with the use of catapults, the Roman armies could not withstand the barbarian invaders. Indeed, it seems likely that there were many problems with their technology and use. First, many towns and fortifications probably did not have a large arsenal of catapults at the beginning of the barbarian invasions. After all, most western imperial towns had been very secure for a long time and had rarely, if ever, been threatened. Second, at this time many military detachments seem to have been unfamiliar with catapults and untrained in their use, a fact attested to by many contemporary authors. Finally, many of these machines were probably not in good working order. It has been estimated that the life of sinew springs was no more than eight to ten years, and many of the existing artillery pieces undoubtedly had strings that did not function properly.





The territorial expansion of the Western Han, notably under Emperor Wudi, placed considerable stress on the maintenance of the army. In the first place, military force was deployed to take new territory, particularly in the northwest, where huge tracts were occupied beyond the Jade Gates into the Tarim Basin. To the south, the Han Empire was extended as far as the rich Hong (Red) River Basin in Vietnam, and colonization also extended into the Korean Peninsula. Thereafter, it was necessary to provide for frontier defense, particularly along the extended Great Wall, where the Xiongnu were a constant threat. There was also a problem of security within the empire itself, newly founded after the long Warring States period, for provincial discontent and uprisings, such as those of the Red Eyebrows and the YELLOW TURBANS, were always possible.

To provide for the army, military conscription was compulsory except for top aristocrats and, on occasion, those who could afford to buy exemption. At the age of 23, men underwent a year of military training in their home commandery, in the infantry, cavalry, or navy. Then they were posted for another year to active service, which could involve guard duties at the capital or frontier defense. Thereafter, they could return home but remained in a state of readiness for recall. Under the Western Han, they were required to return regularly for further training until they reached the age of 56. There was also the socalled Northern Army, a force of regulars under five commanders who served as guards of the capital and of the passes leading into the heartland of the empire, the Wei Valley. This force numbered about 3,500 men. If war threatened, as, for example, with Xiongnu incursions in the north, the militia reserve could be called up and deployed. Militia units were also assembled in the event of internal threats to security. With the Yellow Turban uprising of 184 C. E., there was a major mobilization appointment of a military commander with the title general of chariots and cavalry.

The growing administrative machine and maintenance of a standing army, not to mention the need to conscript young men into military training, placed major demands on agricultural production. An efficient rural sector and the ability to gather taxes were essential for the survival of the state.

The Han administrative system also incorporated wang guo, “kingdom.” Initially, these were ruled by the sons of the emperor and were granted a considerable measure of independence aside from the maintenance of an army. However, their very presence contained the seeds of possible dissension, and this became a reality with the rebellion of the seven kingdoms in 154 B. C. E. Thereafter, the independence of the kings was severely curtailed. No longer able to raise their own revenue, the kings received a state salary, and the appointment of their staffs was also taken over by the court. In this way, the title became increasingly honorific, and kingdoms began to resemble commanderies in all but name. Specified lands were also provided to the nephews or grandsons of the emperor, who were given the title lie hou, “marquis.” These aristocrats were awarded prefectures but had no effective power in their lands and received both retainers and an income from the court. The wealth of some marquises can be judged from their opulent burials.

The establishment of an empire, territorial expansion under Wudi, and the growth of long-distance trade relationships opened China to a new and wide range of contacts with foreigners. This even extended to Rome, whose empire was growing at the same time far to the west. It is recorded, for example, that a group of Romans claiming to be from the court of An-tun reached Luoyang in 166 C. E. This may well have been the Chinese transcription of the name of the Roman emperor Marcus Aurelius.


The most immediate and persistent issue in Han foreign relations, however, centered on the Xiongnu, the confederation of tribes who occupied the steppes to the northwest of the Great Wall. The name Xiongnu is Chinese and means “fierce slave.” The actual name used by the Xiongnu themselves is not known.

No sooner had he established himself on the throne as emperor than Gaodi faced a major challenge from the Xiongnu, for in 209 B. C. E., a new and dynamic leader, or shanyu, had emerged, named MAODUN (r. 209-174 B. C. E.). He won over rival tribal groups and expanded his territory to include the strategic Gansu Corridor that leads to the heart of China. His presence and his establishment of a capital at Lung Cheng in Outer Mongolia had the effect of attracting Chinese dissidents, particularly those who had suffered under the establishment of the Qin and Han empires. The list even included the king of the former state of Han. This Gaodi chose not to ignore, and in 200 B. C. E. he mounted a massive punitive expedition, which he led in person. At Pingcheng, his army was surrounded for a week by the Xiongnu cavalry, and only by good fortune did the emperor extricate himself. Clearly, the Xiongnu were not going to be easily defeated, and a diplomatic solution was sought. This involved a treaty, in which it was agreed to send a Chinese royal princess as a wife to the Xiongnu leader, provide gifts of silk and food, recognize the equality of the Han and the Xiongnu states, and agree on the frontier line of the Great Wall.

This treaty was renewed with each new emperor, at which point a further princess would be sent to the Xiongnu, with increasingly expensive gifts that included pieces of gold. The increasing quantity of gifts is a measure of the regard of the Han for the disruptive power of the Xiongnu. Indeed, before his death in 174 B. C. E., Maodun’s demands steadily increased. He was succeeded by his son, Ji-zhu (r. 174-160 B. C. E.), who is named in the official histories as Lao-shang and then Jun-chen. Until 134 C. E., there was an uneasy relationship in which the Chinese adopted a policy of bribery and appeasement, while the Xiongnu mounted incursions beyond the frontier at will, even reaching close to the Han court. Under the emperor Wudi, however, there was a major change in policy. In 127 B. C. E., his general Wei Qing led a successful campaign against the Xiongnu, who were forced to retreat from the frontier. Six years later, the Han forces again defeated them. Despite almost insurmountable problems of food supply in these remote regions, a further campaign in 119 B. C. E. again scattered the Xiongnu, and the Han were able to establish themselves in new commanderies across the western regions.

The Han dominance thereafter had much to do with the fragmentation of the Xiongnu confederacy into factional kingdoms, whose rulers ceased to acknowledge the supremacy of the shanyu. There was also the problem so often faced by the Han themselves, that the Xiongnu succession was formally passed from father to son. This opened the possibility of succession of a very young ruler; the shanyu Hu Hanye (r. 58-31 B. C. E.) decree that the leader should be succeeded by his younger brother protected the succession. However, between the victories under Wudi and the end of the Western Han dynasty, repeated efforts by the fragmented Xiongnu to negotiate a renewal of the treaty on the basis of equality foundered, because the Han insisted on the formalization of a client relation in which the Xiongnu acknowledged a vassal status.


Mani, the third-century Persian founder of the Manichaean religion, listed the four empire of the world as he knew it: Sileos (China?), Rome, Persia, and Aksum. Based at its capital city of the same name, Aksum had emerged from obscurity (the first mention of Aksum ca be found in Claudius Ptolemy’s work) to empire in barely a century. In the fourth century Aksum’s most famous emperor, Ezana (303-350), would expand the empire’s borders and influence even farther through a series of conquests, made in the name of his new religion: Christianity. Aksum was thus one of the first two nations to convert, after Rome.


The second-century reference to Aksum mentions Adulis, a port on the Red Sea, and the primary source of the kingdom’s wealth. Trough it flowed the goods of Africa, Arabia, and even India, linking these places with the classical civilizations of the Mediterranean and Persia. Yet this coveted commercial role was not without competition: for centuries it had been played by the Sabaeans, a Semitic people whose kingdom of Saba (the Biblical Sheba) operated on the tip of the Arabian Peninsula. Mani’s assessment of Aksum as a mighty empire corresponds with Aksum’s third-century conquest of Saba, followed in the fourth century by Emperor Ezana’s western conquests of a people called the Noba and the kingdom of Meröe, the successor state of ancient Kush.

To control these distant regions, the Aksumite emperors established tributary kingdoms, collecting tribute and demanding submission from their leaders, and settled their most warlike loyal tribes among the border regions. Such precautions did not always produce the necessary results, however; each new emperor might have to spend some time reestablishing his control over his fractious subjects. Even at the height of Aksum’s power from the fourth through sixth centuries ad, the extent of Aksum’s direct control is debatable: during the interminable wars of South Arabia, the Himyar people conquered Saba in the fifth century and although the Aksum emperors continued to call themselves kings “of Aksum and of Saba and of Himyar,” for some time it was the Himyar who exercised real control over the peninsula, at least until Aksum sent another conquering army in 525.



The army was divided into sarawit. Sarawit were groups. They could have been named after districts or ethnic designation. Each sarawit was under a general called a nagast. The army was called upon when needed. Aksumite army numbers have been noted at its lowest number 3,000 , to 100,000 at its highest, account of Aksumite army size varies.

The capital had a standing army that served guard duties in the palace, treasury, and as the king’s personal body guard.

Aksumite warriors fought with iron spears. They were re-known for being spear throwers. They also fought with round shields. Shields could have been made from buffalo hide. They also did battle with a “broad-blade, flat-ended sword” secured behind the back. Other weapons included poniards or iron knives, “tanged spear-heads.”

Aksumite army made use of pack animals to transport items on the battle field. The donkey was made use of. In desert warfare, Aksum made use of camels. Elephants might have also been used in battle.

Aksum had a fleet of ships that guarded the Red Sea ports. Aksumite ships were put together by rope fibers. It did not use iron nails to bind wood. Ships sailed as far away as India and possibly China.

By the first century c. e., the powerful state of Aksum, centered in the Tigrayan highlands, emerged as the dominant player in the commercial contest, but Aksum acted more as a monitor over a feudal system of trade than as a monolithic state. Aksumite Ethiopians gradually expanded their dominance over the southwestern littoral of the Red Sea, attempting to dominate even the caravan trade to the north. They also established a considerable presence on the Arabian side of the Red Sea. Trade with the Roman Empire was considerable, and with the success of Christianity in that empire, it was only a matter of time before Aksumites also began to embrace the Christian faith in the third and fourth centuries. Tradition maintains that during the fourth century Christianity was more firmly established by the shipwrecked Syrian Frumentius (fl. c. fourth century). Frumentius later became bishop and successfully evangelized much of the Aksumite kingdom, which maintained a largely peaceful domination of Ethiopia and neighboring regions until its displacement from the Arabian coast by Persians in the mid-sixth century. The Aksumite kingdom was further weakened in the seventh and eighth centuries by the spread of Islam throughout Arabia, into North Africa, and along the lowland regions of the Eritrean and Somali coasts. The Aksumite Empire, deprived of its links to the Mediterranean and to lucrative trade, could no longer maintain large armies, nor rely on seabased or caravan trade. In growing isolation from the rest of the world, the Aksumites moved south into the mountainous interior of the Abyssinian highlands, where they dominated Agau-speaking agriculturalists, assimilating much of the local population through intermarriage, cultural transplantation, and religious conversion. Still, Agau-speaking peoples fought back in peripheral areas that the centralized but by now weakened Aksumite state could not control during the tenth and eleventh centuries.

By then, however, less than seventy-five years remained before Persia invaded Arabia, and in the seventh and eighth centuries Aksum’s power vanished for good in the face of the Arabian invasions (previously, the aggression had been the other way around-an Aksumite army attacked Mecca itself in 570). These invaders carried Islam across the whole of Northern Africa and established deep cultural ties there with the Muslim Middle East; but in the former kingdom of Aksum, Christianity-in the Egyptian form called Coptic-retained its followers, and indeed still does.

Pyrrhus and His Army


Rome’s war against that infamous Hellenistic condottiere king Pyrrhus of Epirus in 280 to 275 that finally brought Rome fully into the purview of Hellenistic international relations. Pyrrhus at the battle of Ausculum.


Army of Pyrrhus by Johnny Shumate

The Greeks of south Italy and the Adriatic now looked to Rome as their protector rather than to the Spartan colony of Tarentum. The Tarentines believed that Rome had usurped the position that was rightfully theirs and, in 281, they attacked a small Roman fleet en route to the Adriatic to suppress piracy. Roman ambassadors sent to Tarentum to demand redress arrived during a festival when the Tarentines were drunk. A large crowd gathered and mocked the Romans. One drunk flung his own feces at the Roman ambassador. The Roman ambassador departed but left in the air the ominous remark, “You will wash my garment clean with your blood.”

When the Tarentines sobered up, they realized that they had made a bad mistake, but they then made a worse one. They appealed to Pyrrhus, the king of Epirus, to protect them. Pyrrhus knew little of the Romans, but he was an experienced general who was confident in his own abilities and in his phalanx, cavalry, and elephants. He came west not to champion the Tarentines, but to fulfill an old ambition, to unite the Greeks of Italy and Sicily in a league with himself as hegemon (as Philip and Alexander had been hegemons of the Hellenic League). Pyrrhus had been told 300,000 Italic natives stood ready to serve him. To prevent this fiction from becoming reality, the Romans garrisoned south Italy and sent a consular army to winter in Samnium.

In the beginning of the campaigning season of 280 B. C. the Roman consul forced an engagement on Pyrrhus at Heraclea. On the eve of the battle Pyrrhus observed the Romans pitching camp. When he saw the fortified camp they built, he exclaimed, “These are not barbarians.” In the morning he stationed his elephants on his flanks to frighten off the Roman cavalry and used his phalanx to break the legions. The Romans lost 7,000 men; Pyrrhus lost 4,000. The master tactician, upon being congratulated for his victory, said, “Yes, one more like it and we are done.” Pyrrhus marched on Rome, but he found few allies, and forty miles from Rome he turned back. He offered the Romans what he thought were generous terms: the Romans would guarantee Greek autonomy, and they would withdraw from the territory of the Samnites, Lucanians, and Bruttians. The Senate rejected the terms.

In the spring of 279 a double consular army met Pyrrhus at Asculum near the Aufidus River. The battlefield was rugged and unsuited to a phalanx, but Pyrrhus had created a flexible phalanx by putting maniples of Samnites and Lucanians between units of his phalanx. The two armies fought all day without a decision, but early the next morning the king seized favorable ground and broke the legions. The Romans retreated to their camp and defended it successfully. One consul and 6,000 Romans had been killed. Pyrrhus lost 3,500 men and was himself wounded. He had won a battle, but his next step was not clear.

At this point he was invited by Sicilian envoys to come put Sicily in order. Sicily was in turmoil because of the death of the Syracusan tyrant Agathocles -Pyrrhus was the son-in-law of Agathocles-and because the Carthaginians had launched an invasion. Pyrrhus offered the Romans a truce with but one demand-that the Romans recognize the territorial integrity of Tarentum. The Senate might have agreed, had a Carthaginian admiral (with his whole fleet of 120 ships) not appeared and offered to subsidize the war against Pyrrhus, to use his fleet to blockade Pyrrhus in Tarentum, and to transport Roman troops to Sicily, if they wished, to carry on the war against Pyrrhus there. The Romans accepted the Carthaginian treaty, and the two consuls with their armies advanced on Tarentum. Pyrrhus sailed for Sicily and left the Romans with a free hand to regain control of southern Italy.

After some initial successes in Sicily Pyrrhus’s schemes collapsed, and in the spring of 275 he gave up and returned to Tarentum with a much-reduced force. The two Roman consuls were operating separately against Pyrrhus’s former allies-none of them would help him now-and Pyrrhus tried to defeat one consul before the other could come to his aid. At Beneventum he fought his third grim battle against the Romans; the day ended without victory for either side, but that night the other consul reached the battlefield, and Pyrrhus withdrew. Pyrrhus left a garrison in Tarentum and returned to Epirus with but a third of the forces he had brought to Italy. The Romans won this war without ever having defeated Pyrrhus in battle.

The Roman victory brought them to the attention of the eastern courts. The court poet of Ptolemy, king of Egypt, identified the Romans with the Trojans who escaped from the sack of Troy under the leadership of Aeneas, and Ptolemy made a pact of friendship with them. The victory also gave the Romans a free hand in south Italy. They subjugated the native peoples, confiscated territory, and settled colonies to further divide these people from each other and from themselves. In 272-Pyrrhus was killed in a skirmish in Argos: an old woman threw a roof tile which stunned him, and a Gallic mercenary cut off his head-the Romans laid siege to Tarentum. The consul in command made a private deal with the Epirote garrison by which they handed over the citadel to him and were allowed to leave unharmed. The Romans treated the city with decency, accepted it as a naval ally, and permanently garrisoned the citadel with a legion, both to watch Tarentum and to protect southern Italy. The Romans were now masters of the greatest resource of military citizen manpower in the western world: a quarter of a million citizen-soldiers.

Pyrrhus at Heraclea

Pyrrhus invaded Italy after “invitation” made by Tarentines, who called for help against Romans. Pyrrhus in preparation for invasion asked Ptolemy Ceraunus for help, which Ptolemy found this as good way how to get rid of Pyrrhus for time being, and to have open options in Macedonia, against Antigonus Gonatas. He sent 3000 cavalry and 20 elephants to Pyrrhus. Together Pyrrhus managed to muster 20000 heavy infantry (majority Epirote Pikemen, but also Macedonian and also a lot of Mercenaries from Greek states), 3000 horse, 2000 archers and 500 slingers. Transporting this force over sea to Italy was feat of its own, as so far, nobody was able to transport elephants over open sea. yet, Pyrrhus fleet even got into a storm, which scattered whole fleet, so Pyrrhus landed with just 2000 men and 2 elephants, all 20 elephants survived transport which was an unprecedented accomplishment of their handlers, he marched to Tarrentum with this small force, and practically did nothing, until remaining of fleet landed. At that point he set up a garrison, and started to forcibly recruit Tarentines into his army. Some tried to escape, but garrison managed to catch a lot of them. He was afraid of their loyalty, therefore he mixed them into his Epirote Pikemen formations.

Romans, after they discovered Pyrrhus landed with force, started to prepare for war. They sent garrison to Rhegium, another to Locri, while they kept strong force in Rome as well. One army under consul Aemilius was sent to territory of Samnites another army under Tiberius Coruscanius was sent to north to block Etruscans, new consul, Publius Valerius Laevinus, was given command of largest army, 4 legions, and marched directly to Tarrentum. His goal was to force Pyrrhus into battle, so he would be not able to rise more troops from local allies. Roman plan succeeded, Pyrrhus learned that Roman army is threatening Greek city of Heraclea, before he could join the force with Italian allies, numbers for both sides are not precisely recorded anyway they can be estimated from known sources, Laevinus had 4 legions with him, plus allies, which should represent strength of 40000 men and 2400 cavalry.

Pyrrhus embarked with 25500 infantry, 3000 cavalry and 20 elephants, anyway he had to leave some as garrison in Tarrentum, and also he lost some men in the storm. Anyway he had about 20000 Tarrentine Levies and another 2000 Tarentine cavalry, anyway some cavalry and infantry had deserted.

Weaponry of Tarentines is still a matter of speculation, prior to Pyrrhus arrival they were fighting in standard hoplite phalanx, anyway it is mentioned that Pyrrhus imposed a rigorous training and incorporated them in small numbers into his Epirote Pike units. Therefore it is likely but not certain that his Tarentine levy was armed as pikemen as well, otherwise they would be not able to be added to Epirote units. (anyway later at Asculum, Frontinus report them standing separate in the center)

Pyrrhus initial plan was to delay battle as far as he could, while preventing Romans to raid the country, so his Italian allies could come to him. Romans on the contrary, wanted to bring the battle as soon as possible.

The most likely site of the battle is a river plain, about 6km from Heraclea. Pyrrhus learned Romans have a camp on the other side of the river, and he came to observe the enemy. Romans immediately called to arms, and their infantry force marched forward through the fords, while cavalry force at the same time used different crossings. Epirote skirmish formation threatened by infantry and cavalry became withdrawing. Pyrrhus ordered his infantry to form a battle line, while keeping all his elephants and some cavalry in reserve, while infantry was forming up, Pyrrhus himself led his cavalry, 3000 horsemen in attempt to catch Romans scattered as they moved through the crossings. Anyway part of Roman Cavalry force already crossed, and were formed into formation. Pyrrhus formed up his cavalry and attacked, he fought in front line, and his ornamented armor was clearly visible to his men but also to enemy. At some point of this combat, some Roman cavalrymen, who wanted to prove himself tried to engage Pyrrhus in single combat. Kings bodyguards managed to kill his horse, anyway Roman managed to get through and killed Pyrrhus horse with his spear, with Pyrrhus falling off the horse. He was saved in last moment by his bodyguards, while Roman cavalrymen was killed, anyway he was alarmed by close call, he decided to give his cloak and armor to his best and bravest companion – Megacles. Pyrrhus dressed in simple cloak and armor to not be so easily distinguishable in battle. Due to Roman infantry getting closer in support of their cavalry, Pyrrhus called off his cavalry and retreated to his positions. At that point he ordered his Infantry to march forward, and he again personally joined the combat. Initial combat was started by light infantry throwing their javelins and stoned at each other. Pyrrhus ordered his Phalanx to march forward hoping to trap the Roman Infantry with their back against river. When heavy infantry came into range, they charged against Epirotes, throwing their Pila. Some of them were deflected by pikes of the rear ranks, anyway some caused casualties, yet these were immediately replaced by men in rear ranks, per Plutarch, battle was for long time in balance and neither side gained upper hands, which means Romans found the way how to cause casualties to Epirotes, which calls the claims of some Greek historians of Phalanx being unstoppable into question. Possibly, supposed invincibility of phalanx was overstated to magnify the later Roman victories against Macedonians, as ancients believed, that “greater challenge provides greater glory to the victor”.

At some point Pyrrhus decision to dress Megacles in his armor proved to be almost a disaster, as he was slain by Romans, which caused huge morale drop in Epirote ranks who thought their king is dead. Pyrrhus was forced to ride along the battle line to prove he is still alive.

As a bad luck, battle was decided by Laevinus, when his detachment of cavalry who managed to get to the Epirote rear, forced Pyrrhus to use his elephants. Sight of these animals, Romans seen for the first time caused the panic in Roman cavalry who routed and left the field. Pyrrhus used his Tarentine cavalry to charge into Roman infantry while it was disordered and he completed the rout. With one wing of Roman cavalry routed, flank of Roman infantry position was exposed. Pyrrhus ordered his elephants to attack that flank. Roman infantry started to give ground, anyway during withdrawal some Roman soldier managed to wound one of elephants that started to wreak havoc in own ranks, due to confusion Pyrrhus rather called of the pursuit and let the Romans withdraw through the river.

by his own words:

“never to press relentlessly on the heels of an enemy in flight, not merely in order to prevent enemy from resisting too furiously in consequence of necessity, but also to make him more inclined to withdraw another time, knowing the victor would not strive to destroy them in flight”

With battle over, Plutarch reported 7000 dead Romans and 4000 dead Epirotes. Dionysius claimed 15000 dead Romans and 13000 Epirotes, yet, most historians consider Plutarch’s numbers to be more accurate. Pyrrhus loses were particularly heavy amongst Epirote commanders. Pyrrhus himself commented this:

“If we ever conquer again in like fashion, it will be our ruin”

Philip II of Macedon

Philip II of Macedon lost his eye at the siege of Methone, 354 BC

Philip II developed into the master-statesman of his time, a creative politician whose work made Macedon a world power for three decades and a great power for a century after that. This aspect of his achievement took some years to emerge, however, since for the first period of his reign he was preoccupied with securing his own position, and with providing security for his kingdom. These were, of course, much the same problem.

Philip had to use a combination of qualities: a wily and cunning diplomacy, military leadership which brought victories, and a keen eye for developing the resources of his kingdom. He had precedents in the activity of previous Macedonian kings, but not every new king in his early twenties would have deployed them. It is part of Philip’s genius that he was able to utilize all these actions and qualities successfully at the same time.

Philip was about 23 years old when he became king, a few years older than his brothers at their accessions, with a life experience somewhat different from theirs. He grew up at the court of his father, Amyntas III, in a time when Macedon was more or less at peace, having been born in the year following Amyntas’ recovery of his kingdom in 383/382. He saw the efforts his father had made to develop his kingdom, but he had also witnessed the threats the outside world forced upon him. In his family he was one of the middle children, with older brothers, an older sister and their younger half-brothers. Getting attention cannot have been easy.

At the age of 12 he was sent as a hostage to the Illyrians – presumably to King Bardylis – along with tribute which Alexander II paid to avoid an invasion. Soon after, at 14 or so, he was sent to Thebes, again as a hostage. This was not a situation of danger or discomfort. A hostage, especially a child, was taken into the house hold of a prominent man, treated as a member of the family and given an education. At Thebes Philip lived in the house of Pammenes, an important politician, in the years when Thebes was the greatest power in the Greek peninsula. He missed the killings in Macedon of his brother Alexander and of Ptolemy of Aloros, returning home when his other brother Perdikkas emerged as king in his own right in 365. For the next five or six years he was completely loyal to Perdikkas, and was entrusted, perhaps after some years, with lands of his own, on which he is said to have maintained an armed force, possibly little more than a bodyguard.

His conduct in his first year as king suggests that he had given thought to what was required. In what he accomplished in his first years, Philip was clearly helped by two important factors: the crisis in Macedon was so bad that he had a free hand in dealing with it; and the Greek powers ignored what was going on in Macedon, reasonably assuming that the continuing political collapse of the kingdom was yet another example of its fragility and instability. They were rather slow to intervene, and then only minimally. Despite the Common Peace of 360, further international crises developed, notably at Athens, whose league began to crumble in 357; then the `Sacred’ war embroiled all central Greece for the next ten years. Philip had a breathing space in which Macedon’s main enemies were either uninterested or preoccupied elsewhere. In this time he laid the basis for his later more extensive achievements.

The first priority was to attend to the internal condition of the kingdom. Philip had his half-brother Archelaos killed; this secured him the throne, for Archelaos was the next member of his family. The invading pretenders were next. Pausanias came with Thracian backing, originally that of King Kotys, and then his successor Berisades. Perhaps because Berisades was also newly in power he was persuaded to accept a bribe to leave. Philip’s persuasiveness was at work here: Berisades was joint heir to Kotys with his two brothers, who now fought each other; Thrace could thus now been ignored for a time.

Argaios’ support from Athens was as uncertain as that of Pausanias from Thrace. A force of 3,000 Athenian hoplites landed with him at Methone, but Argaios was then expected to make his own way to the throne. This was reasonable, since a pretender needed to show he had local support, and without it no backer would bother with him. Athens’ main ambition in the north was to gain control of Amphipolis, now an independent city, with a Macedonian garrison. Philip withdrew these troops. No doubt he was glad to have them available for more active uses, but the act of withdrawal was also directed at influencing Athens. Supposedly it signalled Amphipolis’ new vulnerability, and by implication Philip’s political acquiescence in an Athenian takeover. Argaios’ Athenian troops stayed in Methone, and Argaios went on to Aigai with only his own small force of mercenaries and the few Macedonian exiles and Athenians who supported his enterprise.

He marched the 20 km to Aigai, but gained no support from the locals, either on the march or in the city. He turned back to return to Methone, perhaps hoping to persuade the Athenians there to be more active in his cause, but was intercepted by Philip on his march. Philip easily beat Argaios’ troops: many of the mercenaries were killed; the Macedonian exiles, many of them related to loyal Macedonians, were taken prisoner; the Athenians were released with gifts. Philip had no wish to set up a situation where Athens might seek revenge; the Athenian force in Methone then sailed home, taking the released men away as well. At Athens, the prospect of regaining Amphipolis, combined with the failure of the intervention in Macedon, persuaded the Assembly towards peace. Argaios vanished, no doubt executed, if he had survived the fight. What happened to the exiles is not known, but Philip is as likely to have held them as hostages for the good behaviour of their relatives as to have had them executed as traitors.

The landward invaders of the kingdom were tackled with a similar mixture of force and diplomacy. Bardylis did not follow up his successful invasion, either because of the casualties his own forces had suffered in the battle, or because Philip had arranged a truce with him. Philip certainly bought off the threatened Paeonian invasion from the north by gifts to the Paeonian king. Neither of these measures could be decisive in the long term: gifts would only whet the Paeonian appetite, and Bardylis’ victory could only encourage him to mount another invasion.

The precise sequence of all these invasions, diplomacies and manoeuvres is uncertain, but they certainly all took place during 359, very early in Philip’s reign; indeed, most of the manoeuvres and diplomacy probably took only a fairly short time, probably more or less simultaneously. Their success will have consolidated his local support among the Macedonians. The unwillingness of the people of Aigai to join Argaios is a sign of this.

Philip had to attend to internal governmental matters. Even in his first year he had no difficulty in finding gifts rich enough to buy off the Paeonian and Thracian kings, and to give presents to the Athenians in Argaios’ force – nor to forgo the ransoming or selling of those captives – though where he found the money is unclear. 9 Kallistratos’ customs reforms may have helped, but not by much. But the main internal problem he faced was the development of an effective army.

In 358, after a year as king, Philip was able to muster a force of 10,000 infantry and 600 cavalry for a campaign in which he needed his full strength. Perdikkas’ defeat had cost 4,000 Macedonian lives. By adding these figures together it seems that the maximum force available to the Macedonian kings before Philip was about 15,000 men, of which the effective element, the cavalry, numbered 1,000 at most. This was a fairly small force for such a large kingdom – Athens could produce forces double that. Yet even with that smaller force, Philip won battles against larger armies. This was due to his intelligent generalship in part, but he also instituted better training for the men, in particular the infantry. He had seen, during his earlier life in Thebes and Macedon, that infantry needed to be properly trained, drilled and equipped for them to be effective; he only needed to compare the old ineffective Macedonian foot soldiers with the all-conquering Theban phalanx. He was up-to-date with the military developments which had taken place in recent years in Greece, including the use of light infantry, peltasts, developed by Athenian commanders. And he added something particularly Macedonian, the use of a shock force of heavy cavalry.

It will not do to emphasize the innovations Philip made at the expense of the continuities. The kings had always had a bodyguard of cavalrymen, called Companions (hetairoi). The very name shows that they were of high status, socially almost the equals to the king by birth, being noble landowners and their sons. They numbered only 600 in Philip’s army of 358, no doubt the survivors of Perdikkas’ disaster, and probably others were available who did not turn out for the new king. Their numbers increased in the next generation as Macedonians and Greeks were awarded lands in conquered territory: by 334 the cavalry numbered 3,500. As the numbers grew, Philip implanted change. One group was singled out as the Royal Squadron, 300 strong, and the rest were organized as squadrons (ilai), recruited from the several regions of Macedonia. They rode bareback, wore a metal breastplate and helmet and were armed with a longish spear. They were `heavy’ only in a relative sense, owing their shock value to their ability to charge in formation, particularly in a `wedge formation’, in which the narrower front allowed a widening penetration of the enemy formation and the maintenance of good control.

This is the most remarkable of Philip’s military innovations. By the end of his reign it is clear the cavalry had been induced to put aside their innate individualism and submit to discipline, just like hoplites. This involved a major change in behaviour by the baronage, whose preferred method of fighting was in loose formation, leaving room for individual display and activity. This would seem to have been one of the lessons Philip had brought from Greece. The Balkan tribes fought in the `old’ manner, loosely, and the Persians in Alexander’s battles were almost as undisciplined. The carefully controlled cavalry Philip developed was capable of defeating any number of their undisciplined enemies – just as hoplites could beat their less controlled light infantry enemies.

The infantry were little more than a mob in earlier battles, more notable for their speed of retreat than their constancy in the fight. There had been an earlier elite group, called the Foot-Companions (pezhetairoi), which may have fallen out of use; Philip re-formed it. They were the equivalent of the hetairoi of the cavalry: well equipped, polished, proud, and capable of standing guard over the king and the palace. The rest of the infantry was levied, like the cavalry, by regions. This was not a new system, but Philip did insist on improvements: drill, discipline, uniform armament and, above all, obedience to orders. It seems likely that the improvement was mainly due to the fact that the infantry had earlier been simply the followers of the nobles, brought along when the army was called out. Philip’s innovation was thus to separate them from their landlords to organize them into disciplined formations. Both cavalry and infantry became better drilled and more competently employed. He spent a good deal of time in the first year of his reign meeting his forces, consulting them in assemblies, speaking to them, drilling them, getting to know them, and them to know him. The infantry were trained to move and march as units; instead of a mob they became a phalanx.

It is in this organization of the troops that Philip’s real contribution to Macedon’s military power lies, but he is also credited with the introduction of a longer infantry spear, the sarissa. Its effect in battle was to keep the enemy at a greater, and so safer, distance. The heavier weapon also required a reduction in defensive armament, so the troops used a smaller shield, and wore no breastplate. The net effect was to make the infantry much more mobile and aggressive, and yet also more vulnerable. Philip had taken in the power of the heavier Theban phalanx, and the Athenian innovation of the use of peltasts and the overall value of drill, discipline and careful preparation, and had added in his own longer spear. He was able to do much of this reorganization in his first year, which suggests that he had worked out what needed to be done during his years as his brother’s subordinate, based in part on his experience at Thebes. But to think it all out and to apply his ideas were two different things; and to put into practice what he was preaching required him to win battles. The Paeonians and the Illyrians of Bardylis were to be his testing ground. No doubt the disaster suffered by Perdikkas’ army had predisposed Macedonians to accept, or at least to try out, new methods, but only victory would be convincing.

Most of what Philip imposed on the Macedonians was not new. The sarissa, possibly, but the Macedonian barons were used to wielding long spears in hunting. Infantry in phalanxes, cavalry under discipline, uniform equipment, drill, obedience to shouted orders, pride after victory, were all part and parcel of Greek warfare. He adopted the use of siege weapons developed particularly in Dionysian Sicily, and had them available for use by 357. This basic unoriginality may be an aspect of the changes which led to their acceptance: Greek warfare was something familiar to the Macedonians, who had been easily beaten in the past by smaller Greek forces. Earlier kings back to Alexander I had tried to implement many of these innovations, but Philip would seem to have been the first to try them all out at once on a receptive population at the beginning of his reign. There was also Philip’s generalship, a quality enhanced in his son, which was even more important than all his innovations.

That he was able to do all this so early in his reign is what makes Philip so important in Macedonian history. Earlier kings had established themselves in power first and then introduced changes, generally on a fairly small scale. Given that the average reign of a successful Macedonian king was only two decades, the reforms had only started to have effect when the king died, and were then lost in the subsequent succession crisis. Philip, compelled by the all-enveloping crisis at his accession, had a relatively free hand as well as a compelling necessity to innovate. It was essentially a succession crisis followed by a military crisis; the first was dealt with diplomatically and by assassination, so it was in the military area that he introduced his changes. Other governmental deficiencies were ignored or tackled later. The emphasis on the current crises coloured the future indelibly with a military hue; once Philip had survived, any other innovations could be introduced in the old manner, slowly and cautiously, if at all.

The several pretenders had not, thanks to Philip’s diplomacy, presented a real threat. The Macedonians’ northern and western neighbours were more dangerous. The Paeonian king died soon after the agreement with Philip, and the agreement became void. Philip had made progress with his new army, and in the spring of 358 he invaded Paeonia, won a victory, and imposed a treaty on the new king, making him a subordinate ally of the type well understood in the region. This was an easy victory; Philip was able to choose his victim, so giving his new army confidence, something the army surely needed after Perdikkas’ disaster.

The Illyrians were next. Bardylis, perhaps prompted by a peace offer from Philip, demanded that Philip accept that Bardylis should keep those parts of Upper Macedon he had occupied, regions such as Orestis and Lynkos. These Illyrian demands, when publicized, demonstrated to the Macedonians that the Illyrian threat remained, so an Illyrian war could be justified, both as revenge for their dead comrades and Philip’s dead brother, and as a preventive against future Illyrian attacks. Philip inevitably refused Bardylis’ demands, and marched his new army into Illyrian-occupied Lynkos.

Of all the enemies besetting Macedon in 359, Bardylis was the most formidable, and it was no doubt for this reason that Philip had left him to the last. Philip had agreed to an armistice – perhaps he even requested one – as soon as he became king, though this left Bardylis in possession of the conquered lands. Philip had, it seems, accepted an Illyrian princess, Audata, as his wife. Philip was always willing to marry, but if Bardylis imagined that Philip was now his ally, or even his subordinate, he discovered otherwise when he presented his peace terms. Between Perdikkas’ death and the spring of 358, Philip had survived, seen off many enemies and invaders, and trained up his new army. He had been king for a year, and had done very little actual fighting, for the victories over Argaios and the Paeonians were fairly minor affairs. Bardylis had good cause to be confident that he could again win a battle.

The two armies were approximately equal in numbers, each with 10,000 infantry, and Bardylis with 500 and Philip 600 cavalry. Bardylis formed his men into a square, which is an interesting action, suggesting that he was well aware of the new Macedonian tactics. Philip commanded the pezhetairoi, his newly trained Foot Companions (described by Diodoros as `the best of the Macedonians’) personally. They were armed with the new long sarissa, and were used to break into the square, no doubt at a corner. When the square broke he sent the cavalry on a ferocious pursuit. Bardylis’ army was destroyed, losing 7,000 men killed, and he at once made peace. The terms were the return of the Upper Macedonian kingdoms to Macedonian suzerainty.

The battle, described fully enough by Diodoros for us to appreciate the tactics involved, demonstrated to any who cared to notice that a military commander of genius had arrived. Philip coordinated the actions of his soldiers and operated on his opponent’s weakest point. He cannot have faced an infantry square before, nor can he have expected to face one now, but he took command personally at the decisive point, and understood that the battle was only won after the pursuit was finished. He was able to inspire his soldiers to fight, and to fight as he wished.

On top of this newly revealed military expertise, Philip showed in his dealings with his enemies that he was a most cunning and accomplished diplomatist, using negotiations to hold off dangerous enemies (Bardylis, the Paeonians, Athens) until he was ready to confront them, to deal with his enemies one at a time, and to choose the time to strike. This combination of military genius and diplomatic finesse was the key to the history of Greece for the next quarter-century.

If Audata was not given to Philip at the armistice in 359, she was now, in the peace terms. One of Philip’s diplomatic innovations is here on view: instead of offering daughters and sisters to neighbouring kings as wives and daughters-in-law, he used himself, collecting daughters of other kings. These marriages performed differing diplomatic purposes: Audata symbolized peace and the subordination of an enemy, whereas his second marriage, to Phila, daughter of Derdas of Orestis, bound the important Elimaian region to Macedon. A year later he married Olympias, the niece of the king of the Molossi, whose lands had also been subjected to Illyrian raids just as had the Macedonians’. These marriages linked these areas together politically, but the destruction of Bardylis’ army had been the key to the whole system. This diplomatic structure was designed, presumably, to block Illyrian expansion southwards. By these military and diplomatic victories Philip revived Macedonian power and added an association with the Molossi to a serious restriction on the power of Bardylis.

There was little reason for others to take much note of what was going on. To southern Greeks, the battle in Lynkos was one between barbarian kings, of no real interest. Dangers still lurked to the south, in Thessaly, and to the east, at Amphipolis, areas that were possible sources of hostility to Macedon. Athens’ enmity was not something to be conjured away by eliminating a pretender, and the possibility of it recovering control of Amphipolis was ominous. Thessaly had been troublesome for Macedonia repeatedly for the past 20 years, either in the persons of Thessalians, or from Thebes by way of Thessaly.