Peloponnesian War


The Spartans marched slowly and to the music of many pipers in their ranks … So that the men could close on the enemy steadily and evenly and not fall out of formation.

With one or two exceptions, the Persian wars of the early fifth century bc forever ended the old style of Greek warfare, which were characterized by the small-scale, single-day clashes of hoplites. The Persian Wars left two Greek city-states dominant, but as they expanded throughout the Mediterranean Athens and Sparta eyed each other warily. Athens upgraded the navy it built for the Battle of Salamis. Sparta and its allies continued to focus on hoplites, but they also added lightly armed skirmishers and cavalry to the mix. By the time of the Second Peloponnesian War in 431 bc the Athenian empire spread across the Aegean Sea, its ambitions setting it on a collision course with Sparta.

The Archidamian War

The first phase of the Peloponnesian War-known as the Archidamian War after King Archidamus II of Sparta-went well for Athens. Guided by Pericles, an influential statesman, Athens abandoned its fields and withdrew its population from Attica into the city. Sparta invaded Attica five times during the Archidamian War (431-421 bc), but to little effect: the “Long Walls” of Athens linked the city to the port of Piraeus, through which supplies, food, and money flowed. The Spartans had similarly bad luck in the west, losing every major engagement except Plataea, which surrendered in 427. By then a horrific plague had struck the crowded city of Athens, carrying off one third of its population, including Pericles, and with him the city’s cautious defense policy. Beginning in 427 Athens went on the offensive, meeting with considerable success, particularly at Pylos in 425, where the Athenians took several hundred Spartan hoplites hostage. Yet even as Athens encouraged revolt among the helots-the subjugated farmers whose labor supported the Spartan army-Sparta, identifying itself as a liberator from tyranny, fomented revolt among the Athenian colonies and allies, sending its best general, Brasidas, to Chalcidice. He won at Acanthus, Stagirus, and Amphipolis, where he died, as did Cleon, a powerful and hawkish Athenian statesman during the Peloponnesian War.

With Spartan military failures on one side, rumblings throughout the Athenian empire on the other, and the deaths of Brasidas and Cleon, the two city-states signed the Peace of Nicias. Although technically the peace lasted for six years, Athens and Sparta continued to jostle for position; proxy wars were fought by their colonies and allies. The Battle of Mantineia-in which Sparta regained some of its lost prestige and confidence with a victory over Mantineia-was the most important event during the “peace.”

Athens’ Mistake

In 415 bc Athens mounted a large-scale invasion of Sicily, aiming at Syracuse, a Spartan ally whose growing power had raised Athenian suspicions. The poorly conceived attack resulted in the loss of an entire fleet, 40,000 soldiers, and considerable prestige. Wealthy Athens managed to rebuild the navy, but damage to morale proved unsalvageable. Sparta invaded Attica again, this time building fortifications and encouraging defections. Dependence on Athens’ colonies for food and supplies strained them to the breaking point, lending credence to Sparta’s self-description as a liberator. Revolts occurred throughout the empire, including in Anatolian cities pressed by Persian rulers who were allied with Sparta.

Political strife broke out in Athens itself in 411 bc. In the same year revolts erupted in Rhodes, Abydus, Lampsacus, Thasos-and, crucially, in Athens’s breadbasket, Euboea- nearly shattering the empire. Nevertheless, Athens fought on gamely, winning victories at Colophon, Chalcedon, Byzantium, and Thasos. By now, however, the Spartan navy rivaled that of Athens and a blockade of the city, followed by a naval victory at Aegospotami in 405 bc, sealed Athens’ fate. Spartan troops took the city-the Long Walls were dismantled and the long Peloponnesian War ended.


In a passage extolling the virtues of order the fourth-century historian and former general Xenophon waxes eloquent on the beauty of a well-organized army.

An orderly army elates its watching supporters, but strikes gloom into its enemies. I mean, who – if he is on the same side – could fail to be delighted at the sight of massed hoplites marching in formation, or to admire cavalry riding in ranks? And who – if he is on the other side – could fail to be terrified at the sight of hoplites, cavalry, peltasts, archers, slingers all arranged and following their commanders in a disciplined way?

As we can see from Xenophon’s list, hoplites were the most conspicuous and usually the most important Greek troops, followed by the four other major types of land troops in descending order of status: cavalry, peltasts (light-armed spearmen), archers and slingers. Most scholars argue that the basic trend in military forces from the early archaic period through the classical period was the establishment and then the decline of hoplite primacy. According to this model, hoplite supremacy was established in the early seventh century. All cities that wanted to win land battles had to man large hoplite armies and fight it out on the small agricultural plains of Greece. Light-armed troops and cavalry were of minimal significance. The late fifth and the fourth centuries saw the dominance of hoplites challenged as their vulnerabilities and the advantages of mixed armies became obvious.

This view, although correct in the main, has been challenged on two fronts. First, it may be that the hand-to-hand fighting method of the classical hoplite developed slowly and that hoplites coordinated with other types of forces throughout the archaic period: a throwing spear – recognizable by the throwing straps which added spin for a truer throw – appears in addition to the classical thrusting spear on vase-paintings up to the late seventh century; the seventh-century poet Tyrtaeus describes light-armed troops interspersed with the hoplites; Attic vase-paintings in the late sixth century depict archers among hoplites. Then, almost as soon as we have detailed descriptions of wars between Greek city-states, that is, in Thucydides’ account of the Peloponnesian War (431-404), we hear of the defeat of unescorted hoplites in rough terrain. So the dominance of the hoplites may not have been as long or as complete as previously thought. Second, scholars have argued that the decline of hoplite warfare in the fourth century is overstated. Hoplites may have been vulnerable and slow on the rough terrain and passes that dominate the central Greek landscape, but agricultural states need to control the fertile plains and must fight set battles there. For this, no force was as good as the heavily armed Greek hoplite formation, the phalanx – certainly according to the many Near Eastern monarchs who hired Greek mercenary hoplites. So while the hoplites may not have been the only important soldiers during the archaic period, they were usually the most numerous and decisive force in battles of the fourth century, the period of their supposed demise.

Further Reading

Andrewes, A., “Thucydides and the Persians”, Historia, 10 (1961): pp. 1–18.

Brunt, P.A., “Spartan Policy and Strategy in the Archidamian War”, Phoenix, 19 (1965): pp. 255–280.

Cawkwell, George L., Thucydides and the Peloponnesian War, London and New York: Routledge, 1997.

de Ste. Croix, G.E.M., The Origins of the Peloponnesian War, London: Duckworth, and Ithaca, New York: Cornell University Press, 1972.

Kagan, Donald, The Outbreak of the Peloponnesian War, Ithaca, New York: Cornell University Press, 1969; reprinted 1989.

Kagan, Donald. The Archidamian War, Ithaca, New York: Cornell University Press, 1974; reprinted 1990.

Kagan, Donald. The Peace of Nicias and the Sicilian Expedition, Ithaca, New York: Cornell University Press, 1981.

Kagan, Donald. The Fall of the Athenian Empire, Ithaca, New York: Cornell University Press, 1987.

Lewis, D.M. et al. (editors), The Fifth Century BC, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1992 (The Cambridge Ancient History, vol. 5, 2nd edition).

Meiggs, Russell, The Athenian Empire, Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1972.

Thucydides, Works, translated by C. Forster Smith, revised edition, 4 vols, London: Heinemann, and New York: Putnam, 1928–1930 (Loeb edition).

Thucydides, Works. History of the Peloponnesian War, translated by Rex Warner, revised edition, Harmondsworth and Baltimore: Penguin, 1972.

Xenophon, Hellenica, translated by Carleton L. Brownson, London: Heinemann, and New York: Putnam, 1918 (Loeb edition; many reprints).

Xenophon. A History of My Times, translated by Rex Warner, revised edition, Harmondsworth and New York: Penguin, 1978.

Parthian Military



The fully armoured cataphracts were mounted on horses whose head, neck, chest and sides were similarly protected by metal armour and the army’s strength lay in the combination of these troops with the light horse archers. The least successful Parthia armies were those using the most cataphracts and the fewest horse archers. The cataphract camels used in 217 AD were probably Hatrene. Foot were only used in defending cities or in the mountains. A Sassanid triumphal sculpture shows the defeat in 224 AD of Parthian dignitaries who are fully armoured in cataphract style, but mounted on apparently unarmoured horses, but close examination shows that horse armour is in fact depicted. Sarmatian allies were hired for an intervention in Armenia in 35 AD, though they failed to link up. A large force of other allies did join and may have been Dahae, who also took part in a civil war from 39 AD to 41 AD. Armenians, mountain tribesmen, city troops.

Dio (2nd-3rd C. AD), 40. 14

(An account of the Parthian empire at the invasion of Crassus in 53 BC). They (the Parthians) finally rose to such a pitch of distinction and power that they actually made war on the Romans at that time, and from then onwards down to the present day were considered comparable to them. They are indeed formidable in warfare, yet their reputation is greater than their achievements, since, although they have never taken anything from the Romans and have moreover surrendered certain parts of their own territory, they have never been completely conquered, but even now are a match for us in their wars against us when they become involved in them. (There follows a description of the Parthian army and the climatic conditions). For this reason they do not campaign anywhere during this season (winter, when the damp weather affected their bowstrings). For the rest of the year, however, they are very difficult to fight against in their own land and in any area that resembles it. For they can endure the blazing heat of the sun because of their long experience of it, and they have found many remedies for the shortage of water and the difficulty of finding it, with the result that they can easily drive away anyone who invades their land. Outside this land, beyond the Euphrates, they have now and again won some success in battles and sudden raids, but they cannot wage a continuous, long-term war with any people, both because they face completely different conditions of climate and terrain, and because they do not prepare a supply of provisions or money.

This is about the only detailed, rational analysis we have of a power on the periphery of the Roman empire that might be perceived as a threat. Dio is probably expressing a late-second century view based on the accumulated wisdom of Roman experiences in the east. Note also his comments (80. 3) on the rise of the Persians, who around AD 224 replaced the Parthians as the dominant force east of the Euphrates.

The backbone of the Parthian army was the cavalry. For the Parthians, who, as former inhabitants of the steppes, had lived a life of transhumance, horses were an essential part of their way of life. Their Persian predecessors, the Achaemenids, were renowned for their Nisaean horses, which were bred in Media. In the Parthian period, the region of Ferghana on the Jaxartes River became renowned as a further centre for horse-breeding. Horseback was also the most effective way of covering, in war, the vast distances of the Parthian territory, which featured high mountains and vast plateaux. The plains provided an ideal terrain for battle.

The strongest cavalry force was the cataphracts (probably identical with the later clibanarii). The cataphracts wore fully mailed armour, and their horses were protected by a blanket of chain mail. As weapons the rider carried a lance, bows and arrows. They were equipped for a full frontal attack on the enemy lines.

The lighter cavalry was also equipped with the composite bow and arrows, but their clothing only consisted of a belted tunic and wide trousers and boots. Their relatively light clothing allowed a freedom of movement needed in an attack, for their task was to deceive the enemy and encourage him to break his ranks. To do that, they attacked and then seemingly retreated from battle, giving the enemy soldiers a false sense of security which made them pursue their attackers, only for the Parthians to turn backwards on their apparently fleeing horses and shoot their arrows in mid-gallop.

Infantry, consisting of soldiers and mercenaries, was only employed after a cavalry attack had broken up the enemy lines, and battle was continued on the ground. The infantry probably included peasants who were obliged to do military service, as well as mercenaries and special forces like the Scythians. The fact that the Parthian army was not a standing army had no bearing on the Parthians’ ability to muster an army quickly and efficiently. Forces were recruited as close to a military conflict as possible, and reinforcements would be brought in on demand.

The organization of the Parthian army is not clear, and lacking a standing force, a strict and complicated organization was unnecessary in any case. The small company was called washt; a large unit was drafsh, and a division evidently a gund. The strength of a drafsh was 1,000 men, and that of a corps 10,000 (cf. Suren’s army). It seems, therefore, that a decimal grade was observed in the organization of the army.

The whole spad was under a supreme commander (the King of Kings, his son, or a spadpat, chosen from the great noble families). The largest army the Parthians organized was that brought against Mark Antony (50,000). At Carrhae the proportion of the lancers to the light horse was about one to ten, but in the first and second centuries the number and importance of the lancers as the major actors of the battle-field increased substantially. The Parthians carried various banners, often ornamented with the figures of dragons, but the famous national emblem of Iran, the Drafsh-e Kavian, appears to have served as the imperial banner. The Iranians marched swiftly but very seldom at dark. They used no war chariots, and confined the use of the wagon to transporting females accompanying commanders on expeditions.

The Parthian period holds an important place in military history. Several Parthian King of Kings, including the first and the last-fell in action, and their three century long conflicts with Rome had profound effects on Roman military organization. For they not only succeeded in repulsing repeated Roman attempts at the conquest of Iran, but they inflicted severe defeat seven in their last days-upon the Roman invaders; and to face the long-range fighting tactics of the Parthian armoured cavalry and mounted archers, the Romans started to supplement their armies of heavy and drilled infantry with auxiliary forces of riders and bowmen, thereby increasingly modifying traditional Roman arms and tactics. The Parthians finally submitted to another Iranian dynasty which had close links with them and retained the power of their nobility, one reason for their defeat being that while they still wore the old style lamellar armour, the Sasanians went to battle with the Roman type mail shirt, i.e., armour of chain links, which was more flexible and afforded better protection.

Cataphract camels


The Parthians and early Sassanian Persians also made use of camel units; even experimented with cataphract camels. The early Sassanids have these armoured camels. That may mean they fought, it may only be an experiment to put off Roman javelin Light Cavalry who were deadly to cataphracts whose rear fighting factor was very poor. Contra Armati where cataphracts fight well to the rear, in reality surround them and they are dead meat because the armour blinds them. The Parthian and early Sassanid army was at times additionally supported by camel-borne troops. The animal could bear the weight of the warrior and his armour better and endure harshness longer than the horse; also, the archer could discharge his arrows from an elevated position. These would have made the division very desirable had it not been greatly hampered by Roman caltrop (tribulus) which, scattered on the battlefield, injured the spongy feet of the animal.

A curious creature in appearance, the Cataphract Camel is nevertheless an extremely formidable opponent. They are extremely heavy, and well-armed; in addition, the smell of camel tends to frighten horses. Carrying spears and maces like ordinary horse cataphracts, these units are equally unstoppable against both infantry and cavalry. Their enemies would be wise to treat them with respect.

Nations in the Middle East occasionally fielded cataphracts mounted on camels rather than on horses, with obvious benefits for use in arid regions, as well as the fact that the smell of the camels, if up wind, was a guaranteed way of panicking enemy cavalry units that they came into contact with. Balanced against this is the relatively greater vulnerability of camel mounted units to caltrops, due to their having soft padded soles to their feet rather than hooves.

Cataphract camels are well armoured – camel and rider both – shock cavalry. Their primary purpose is to charge into the enemy, using weight and speed to cause additional disruption. The riders carry lances for the initial charge and long maces to continue fighting once in hand-to-hand combat. Recruited from among desert dwelling peoples these soldiers rely on their heavy armour for protection, and their camels are equally well protected. This heavy armour also means that, while they are slow to get moving, they are almost unstoppable in a full charge. They can be used against infantry like any other cataphracts, but their chief virtue is that the smell of the camels upsets horses, giving them an edge when fighting against cavalry.

Our source is a little early history written by the Roman senator Herodian. He wrote a history that starts with the death of Marcus Aurelius, covers the reign of the demented, tyrannical Commodus, his assassination, the subsequent civil wars, the rise and rule of Septimius Severus and the brief and blood-thirsty reigns of his various relatives, culminating in the rise and brutal fall of the demented teenage trans-sexual god-emperor Elagabalus. Something for everyone here, and a brief stage appearance by Parthian cataphract camels can only have added to this unedifying if colourful pageant. Anyway, Herodian IV.14.3 – the battle of Nisibis, AD 217:

“Meanwhile Artabanus was upon them with his vast and powerful army composed of many cavalry and an enormous number of archers and cataphracts who fought on camels, jabbing with long spears.” (Loeb translation)

To reinforce the point, the Loeb translation of Herodian, IV.14.3 has:

Meanwhile Artabanus was upon them with his vast and powerful army composed of many cavalry and an enormous number of archers and armoured riders (kataphraktous), who fought from the backs of camels with long spears, avoiding close combat.

There is no direct evidence for the Parthians using armoured camels. However, Herodian’s use of the word kataphraktous creates a problem. I have argued elsewhere that the word cataphracti and its Greek equivalent denotes heavily armoured men on armoured horses, the type that later became known in the Roman army as clibanarii. If this is correct, Herodian’s use of kataphraktous implies, by analogy, that the camels might be similarly armoured. In a later passage, he speaks of horses and camels in the same terms (Herod. IV.15.2 – again in the Loeb translation):

The barbarians caused heavy casualties with their rain of arrows and with the long spears of the heavily-armed knights (kataphractōn) on horses and camels, as they wounded the Romans with downward thrusts.

Further, it is well known that cataphracti were particularly vulnerable when unhorsed and I have suggested that, consequently, their horses would also have been heavily armoured. Herodian comments that the Parthian horse and camel riders were disadvantaged when on foot (Herod. IV.15.3). It is true that the reasons that he gives are different from that usually advanced, that unhorsed cataphracti were encumbered by the weight and unwieldiness of their armour. Nevertheless, the point remains the same: the Parthian armoured riders should, so far as possible, be protected from becoming dismounted in battle.

All this suggests that the contention that the Parthians fielded armoured camels at the battle of Nisibis may not be as far-fetched as might appear at first sight. That said, the experiment (if such it was) seems to have been short-lived. There is nothing after Herodian to indicate the later use of such forces by either the Parthians or the Sassanids.

There is, however, a further complication. A document on papyrus dated January 300, refers to two cataphractarii serving in ala II Herculia Dromedariorum (P. Beatty Panop. 2, 28. See Skeat 1964). It also mentions, however, at least two common soldiers (mouniphikas) in the same ala. Where then do the cataphractarii fit in? It has been suggested that cataphractarius is a rank, replacing the earlier duplicarius and sesquiplicarius (Zuckermann 1994), but it is possible that cataphractarii constituted an elite body within the ala, providing a shock force and adding to its versatility. Another document could support both views (CPR V 13 + P. Rainer Cent. 165. See Rea 1984). It comprises three letters recording stages in the career of one Sarapion. The first, dated 17th April 395, authorises his admission to the schola catafractariorum in an unnamed unit based at Psoftis in Egypt; the second, dated 396, records his promotion to decurio; the third, dated 401, records his discharge on medical grounds. The second of these also mentions the advancement of one Apion from eques to cataphractarius. The same word is used for both Sarapion’s promotion and Apion’s advancement, prov(ectus). In the third letter, Sarapion and others discharged at the same time are placed in three categories: dec(uriones), catafrac(tarii), eq(uites). Nevertheless, the presence in the Notitia Dignitatum of entire units of cataphractarii leads me to favour the second view.

If I am right, what was the model for the cataphractarii in ala II Herculia Dromedariorum? I have argued that normal cataphractarii were well-armoured, though less heavily than clibanarii, and rode unarmoured horses. These men could, therefore, have been equipped in a similar manner but riding unarmoured camels. Alternatively, despite the apparent lack of continuity, they could have been based upon the Parthian camel riders encountered at Nisibis, which would imply that the Parthian camels were also unarmoured. This raises the question of nomenclature – Herodian refers to cataphracti, not cataphractarii – but this is explicable. As I have mentioned elsewhere, the evidence suggests that cataphractarius is a technical term applicable only to troops in the Roman army. If so, it would have been inappropriate for Herodian to have applied it to non-Roman troops. It is also quite possible that the term had not even been coined at the time that he was writing. Either way, he was obliged to use an available expression nearest to what he was seeking to describe, well-armoured cavalrymen, albeit riding camels, and that expression was the Greek equivalent of cataphracti. Of these alternatives, I favour the first.

Where then does that leave the question of whether the camels fielded by the Parthians at Nisibis were armoured or not? The evidence, in my opinion, is equivocal. As is so often the case, certainty is elusive and there is, therefore, room for alternative interpretations.


Rea 1984 – J.R. Rea, ‘A Cavalryman’s Career, A.D.384(?)-401’, ZPE 56 (1984), 79-88

Skeat 1964 – T.C. Skeat (ed.), Papyri from Panopolis in the Chester Beatty Library, Dublin, Dublin 1964

Zuckerman 1994 – C. Zuckerman, ‘Le Camp Sosteos et les Catafractarii’, ZPE 100 (1994), 199-202





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.