Propaganda at the Granicus

The battle of the River Granicus has at least two special claims on our interest: it was not only the first engagement fought by Alexander on Asiatic soil, but also, apparently, one of the most dramatic. Yet it is, on the whole, poorly documented; and the accounts we possess of it1 contain inconsistencies and anomalies which have never been satisfactorily explained. Motives remain impenetrable; tactical dispositions range from the willful to the lunatic. The baffling nature of the evidence was strikingly demonstrated in 1964 by E. W. Davis, who, after analysing the inadequacies of no less than four previous accounts — those by Tarn, Beloch, Fuller and Schachermeyr — concluded that the problem was, ultimately, insoluble, ‘for with the information at our disposal we cannot read the minds of the Persian leaders’. Davis handicapped himself needlessly by his curious assumption that the Persian army was under the command not of Arsites, but of a committee — perhaps in an effort to excuse the indubitably irrational Persian strategy as reported by our main sources. At the same time his pessimism is all too understandable, and his three basic questions — ‘why the battle was fought, why it was fought where it was fought, and why it was fought as it was fought’ — must be squarely faced by any student of this enigmatic engagement.

The first two points need not detain us overlong: on them there exists a fair (if not unanimous) consensus of agreement. It is the third which has always been the real difficulty. From Alexander’s viewpoint, an immediate engagement was essential. He had to secure Hellespontine Phrygia before moving on south; more important, he urgently needed the cash and supplies which only a victorious battle could give him. His debts were crippling. When he crossed into Asia he had a bare seventy talents (perhaps representing two weeks’ pay for his troops) and provisions for no more than a month at the outside.6 Memnon, well described by Diodorus as ‘famed for his understanding of strategy’, had accurately assessed Alexander’s predicament: hence his shrewd proposal that the Persians should avoid battle, implement a scorched-earth policy, and if possible carry the war across into Greece. Alexander would then be forced to withdraw for lack of supplies. As his invasion strategy had already made clear, he possessed neither the time nor the equipment to besiege cities en route. If they did not come over to him at once, of their own will, he simply by-passed them.

The Persians, however, rejected Memnon’s advice, and chose instead to establish a defensive line on the Granicus River, with the object of holding up Alexander’s eastward advance towards Dascylium, and, if possible, of cutting short this Macedonian invasion ‘as it were at the gateway of Asia’. This may have been, as most modern scholars argue, a mistaken decision; but it was a perfectly understandable one. Pride entered into it: Arsites declared he would not let a single house in his satrapy be burnt. So did distrust of Memnon, the Greek mercenary, who made no secret of his contempt for Persian infantrymen, and was thought, rightly or wrongly, to be ‘deliberately procrastinating over this campaign for the sake of [i.e. to prolong] his commission from the King’.

Modern scholars have found other additional or alternative explanations, not all equally convincing. Tarn’s I will deal with in a moment. Schachermeyr argues that the Persians’ aristocratic code forbade them to retreat without a fight, so that Memnon’s advice was by definition unacceptable. Though the Iranian nobility undoubtedly, like all aristocrats, did observe a strict code of honour, this had not prevented them, half a century previously, from using very similar tactics against Agesilaus; and as Davis says, ‘there is no evidence that Persian standards of knightliness had risen noticeably in the interval’. Davis himself suggests, rather more convincingly, that the satraps must answer not merely to their code but also to Darius; that Alexander was, as yet, merely a young Macedonian leader, Philip’s son, and not the charismatic world-conqueror of later years; while the threat of revolt by the Greek cities of Ionia would undoubtedly become reality unless a firm stand was taken against the invader.

However, once the decision to fight had been made, the Granicus line, it might well be argued, was the natural one to hold. This river, today the Koçabas, flows in a north-easterly direction from Mount Ida to the Sea of Marmara, through flat rolling country, ringed by low mountains, and ideal for a cavalry engagement such as the Persians were used to fighting. In May, when Alexander made his advance through Asia Minor, the Granicus would be swollen, though still fordable at its main crossing-points. The Persians now advanced from their base-camp at Zeleia (Sari-Keia), and established themselves on the high, steep eastern bank of the river. As Fuller points out, ‘the southern flank of its lower reach was safeguarded against a turning movement from its western side by a lake, now called the Edje Göl.’ Granted the Persians’ decision to stand and fight, Arsites and his colleagues had chosen about the best possible terrain for their purpose.

But one point which has worried every student of this battle is the strategy — if we are to believe our sources — which they then proceeded to adopt. They drew up their forces along the river-bank, on a broad front, with high ground behind them. According to Arrian, their infantry was kept at the rear, virtually out of action, and their cavalry posted in front, where it could not charge. As Davis understandably remarks, ‘either error is bad enough, but both together seem almost too much’. The Persians had hitherto acted without comparative good sense, and such a move makes them appear stupid almost past comprehension. It does not need Tarn’s assurance to convince us that this was not the proper way to hold a riverbank. Wilcken’s comment (‘a glaring error of tactics’) is typical of most historians’ reaction to this strange aberration, which wasted a perfectly good body of professional Greek mercenaries during the battle, and resulted in its near-annihilation afterwards.

Various attempts have been made to explain, if not to justify, such a move. All, as Davis notes without comment, ‘try to puzzle out some rational explanation as to what could have been the Persians’ purpose behind this apparently mad act of folly’ — i.e. they rest on the initial premise that our evidence is to be taken at its face value. None is in the slightest degree convincing. Tarn, for instance, argued that the Persian leaders ‘had in fact a very gallant plan; they meant to strangle the war at birth by killing Alexander’. Elsewhere he developed this thesis more fully, claiming that ‘the extraordinary formation they adopted was to induce Alexander himself to charge’. But Alexander, like all commanders of antiquity, led his own troops as a matter of course; nor, granted his position at the Granicus, could he refuse battle even if he so wished. The Persians had no need to adopt a special formation — let along a patently suicidal one — to make him attack, or do their best to kill him when he did.

Furthermore, how the king’s death would be more surely encompassed by pulling the Persians’ only first-class infantry unit out of the fighting-line is left to our imagination. Fuller, with his usual acumen in tactical matters, pointed out that ‘if the sole aim of the Persians was to kill Alexander, then the best way to do so was to meet his cavalry charge with a hedge of spears; let him shatter himself against it, and then, should he break through, overwhelm him with javelins.’ Elsewhere he spells out just what they should have done by telling us what they did not do: ‘They did not deploy the Greek mercenaries along the eastern bank, with the Persian cavalry on their flanks, and also in their rear to counter-attack any force that might break through the infantry.’ Fuller, like Tarn, takes this failure as fact, and simply casts around for an explanation.

The answer he comes up with is almost identical to that proposed by Schachermeyr, and we may conveniently deal with both together. This is the Military Etiquette or Medieval Tournament theory. According to Schachermeyr, this was to be a formal contest of Junker gegen Junker, where only the cavalry would participate, and both sides would observe rules of knightly warfare: Im Ritterstil hot sich der Gegner zur Schlacht an, im Ritterstil wollte ihm der König begegnen. But infantry and light-armed troops did, in fact, take part in the battle, while no knightly code known would require the Persians to adopt the formation they did. Then (we may legitimately ask) why pay several thousand Greek mercenaries for doing nothing? Fuller’s answer is that ‘throughout history the cavalry soldier has despised the infantryman, and to have placed the Greek mercenaries in the forefront of the battle would have been to surrender to them the place of honour. Military etiquette forbade it.’ In support he cites parallels from Taganae (A.D. 552) and Crécy. What he does not emphasize, though it is only too apparent from his own subsequent narrative, is the crucial role played by these supposedly despised Greek mercenaries, very much in the forefront of the battle, at Issus and Gaugamela. Nor, obviously, did Cyrus have any such social qualms when deploying his forces at Cunaxa. Greek mercenaries, in fact, very often enjoyed the place of honour in Persian tactical dispositions, unhampered by any hypothetical requirements of knightly precedence. This theory, then, will not do either.

There are in fact three possibilities, and three only. 1. The Persian commanders were sheerly incompetent. 2. Their known dislike and distrust of Memnon, the mercenaries’ commander, were so great that they deliberately threw away a battle rather than let him and his troops win it, even while keeping them on what must have been a very expensive payroll. 3. Our surviving accounts of the battle contain, for whatever reason, substantial inaccuracies. 1 and 2, though not by definition impossible, do not readily lend themselves to analytical investigation. Let us see what can be done with 3. The first, and most obvious, fact which emerges from a detailed comparison of our three main versions is that whereas Arrian and Plutarch (with certain exceptions I shall come to in a moment) agree well enough, Diodorus tells a quite different story, and may therefore be assumed to depend, in part at least, on a different source: not necessarily Cleitarchus, as was formerly thought to be the case, certainly not Tarn’s hypothetical ‘mercenaries’ source’, though perhaps a case of a sort could be made out for Trogus.

Arrian and Plutarch both make the battle take place in the late afternoon; Diodorus puts it at dawn.34 Arrian and Plutarch describe an engagement where the Persians are holding the high eastern river-bank against a direct assault through the river itself; in Diodorus Alexander gets his whole army across the river unopposed, and draws it up in battle-formation before the Persians can do anything to stop him. There are other discrepancies, but these remain by far the most important. It is worth noting at this point that though comparatively few scholars have thought the Diodorus version worth serious attention, they include Konrad Lehmann, Julius Beloch, Helmut Berve, and, most recently, R. D. Milns. Beloch complained of the difficulty involved in finding an account that was ‘unbeirrt durch den Arrian-Kultus’; it is hard not to remember this remark when reading Davis’s assertion that Beloch ‘contents himself with rewriting the entire battle’ — though in fact Beloch has simply utilized the testimony of Diodorus.

Now Arrian and Plutarch both allude to the possibility of a dawn attack. This was, according to them, the strategy recommended to Alexander by Parmenio when the army first reached the Granicus. It was late in the afternoon; the Persians were entrenched in an extremely strong position; while the Granicus itself, with its steep banks and deep, fast-flowing stream, presented a formidable initial hazard (I am leaving on one side, for the moment, the actual disposition of Arsites’ forces). There was, it seems, something of a panic among Philip’s old officers, thus called upon to launch an assault under highly unfavourable conditions, while exposed to concentrated enemy fire. Nor would it be the first time their youthful leader had made a dangerous error of judgement: his campaign against Cleitus and Glaucias had come within an ace of ending in total disaster. Tactfully, they argued that Daisios was a taboo month for Macedonians to fight a battle; Alexander replied by performing an ad hoc intercalation on the calendar, so that the month was now (officially at least) a second Artemisios.

This point being settled — again, according to Arrian and Plutarch — battle was joined, and after a hard initial struggle the Macedonians won their great victory. Yet few modern students would disagree with Plutarch’s verdict that the strategy which Alexander employed ‘seemed to be crazy and senseless rather than the product of reason’. In fact the one thing which, so far as we can judge, prevented it ending in total disaster was the even more lunatic strategy adopted by the Persians on the other side. This gives one food for thought, especially since Diodorus offers us not only a quite different picture but an eminently sane one.

Here, beyond any doubt, we have a situation in which Parmenio’s advice has been followed. Alexander moves at dawn, and gets his whole army across the Granicus undisturbed — which makes it a virtual certainty (assuming, for the moment, the validity of the report) that during the night he had moved away from the Persian position, and found an easier alternative fording-point. In which direction? Welles claims that Diodorus, or his source, probably ‘located the battle farther upstream, in the foothills’. He cites no evidence for this view, and the topography of the area is, on balance, against it. There is also the (admittedly ambiguous) evidence of Polyaenus to consider in this context. The Persians, that is, were advancing, which they could scarcely have been doing in the engagement as described by Ptolemy and Aristobulus; and they were advancing. While this phrase came to mean simply ‘from above’ or ‘from higher ground’ in many cases, its root meaning was ‘from above on the right’, and in various well-attested instances it could signify ‘from upstream’. Alexander then proceeded to outflank his attackers on the right wing, another significant departure from the canonical version of the battle. What Polyaenus would seem to be describing is an engagement fought at right-angles to the river rather than parallel with it, which suggests that he too drew on the Diodoran tradition.

Now in Diodorus’ account, the Persian order of battle, far from being a mere unaccountable whim, makes very good sense indeed. Here it is only after Alexander has crossed the river, and deployed his forces,45 that Arsites and his fellow-commanders decide to counter the Macedonian attack with an all-out cavalry front, and to hold their infantry in reserve. This plan bears some resemblance to Darius’ battle order at Gaugamela,  and was adopted for very similar reasons. In the first place, Persian infantry (or indeed any infantry if sufficiently outnumbered) was ‘unsuitable for a pitched battle in the plains either against hoplites or charging horsemen’.46 Secondly, and more important, in cavalry the Persians were overwhelmingly stronger than their opponents, a fact which went some way to balance out their shortage of first-class foot-soldiers.

To calculate the actual number of troops which the Persians had available at the Granicus is a highly conjectural task, but in ways a most revealing one. Arrian (1.4.4) states that they had 20,000 cavalry and 20,000 infantry, the latter consisting exclusively of mercenaries. Diodorus (17.19.5) gives the figure as over 10,000 cavalry, plus 100,000 infantry. This latter figure, improbably enough in itself, is contradicted by Arrian’s statement elsewhere (1.13.3) that the Persian infantry was ‘outnumbered’, and thus even at an outside estimate lower than the overall Macedonian total of 43,00047 — some at least of whom were probably on line-of-communication duties. Plutarch gives no figures at all, while Justin (11.6.11) offers an all-in total of 600,000 (sic).

Let us now compare these figures with the casualty lists. Diodorus (17.21.6) claims that the Persians lost over 2,000 cavalry and 10,000 infantry. Plutarch (Alex. 16.7) places the infantry losses at 20,000, those of the cavalry at 2,500. Arrian (1.16.2) makes no assessment of infantry losses at all, except to say that the Greek mercenary phalanx, all but some 2,000 men, was totally wiped out. Diodorus further records the number of prisoners taken — and in the context it is clear that means infantry prisoners — as 20,000. In contrast, Macedonian losses, according to our sources, are unbelievably small. The highest cavalry losses recorded (Justin 11.6.12) are 120; Arrian (1.16.4) puts the figure at 60, including 25 Companions, while Plutarch (16.7), on the authority of Aristobulus, cites the 25 Companions alone. Infantry losses, on the testimony available, were even smaller: thirty, according to Arrian, no more than nine by Plutarch’s and Justin’s reckoning. The historian, remembering the circumstances in which the battle was putatively fought, may perhaps permit himself a brief smile of incredulity.

There is, however, one even more striking and paradoxical fact which instantly stands out about these figures. In an engagement where the Persians are often said to have relied exclusively on their cavalry, their heaviest losses — or so we are asked to believe — took place among the infantry. Yet according to the same sources, these troops, except for the Greek mercenaries, put up little resistance: they fled in a rout, and there was no pursuit (Plut. Alex. 16.6; Arrian 1.16.1–2). This would at once seem to dispose of those 10,000 corpses and 20,000 prisoners: the first law of propaganda is to make your story consistent. Yet in sharp contrast to this, the cavalry losses recorded are, as we shall see in a moment, perfectly plausible. What, one well may ask, lies behind so striking and blatant a discrepancy?

First, let us see if we can find any evidence from which the true size of the Persian forces can be deduced. Diodorus (17.19.4) gives Arsites’ order of battle in some detail, certainly as regards the cavalry: whatever source he is here utilizing at least had access to Persian as well as to Macedonian records, if only in the form of captured intelligence-files (always presuming that such things existed in the fourth century, for which there is little evidence). On the left wing was Memnon, with his Greek mercenaries: an exclusively mounted contingent, it is assumed. Next to him came Arsamenes with his Cilicians; then Arsites, commanding the Paphlagonians; then Spithridates, with the eastern cavalry from Hyrcania. At this point Diodorus has a moment of infuriating vagueness: the centre, he says, is also occupied by ‘other national cavalry contingents, numerous and picked for their valour’. Beyond them the right wing was held by 1,000 Medes, 2,000 Bactrians, and 2,000 unidentified horsemen under Rheomithres.

If this catalogue is at all trustworthy, we can make a very fair guess at the size of the Persian cavalry arm. Seven regiments are named and described; the other ‘national contingents’ provided at least two more, probably three. We read of two that are 2,000 strong, and one of half that number. If we strike a (conservative) average of 1,500, we obtain a round total of about 15,000 — a median figure, as it happens, between the estimates given respectively by Diodorus and Arrian. Losses of 2,000+ or 2,500 (i.e. of 14–16 per cent) would be just about what one might expect. When we turn to the infantry, however, it is a very different matter. To begin with, there can be no doubt that Arrian (or Ptolemy) has vastly exaggerated the numbers of mercenaries involved. When Memnon was first commissioned by Darius, he got no more than 5,000 mercenaries; Polyaenus puts the figure as low as 4,000. It is unlikely that the troops at his disposal were substantially increased until he obtained the supreme command in western Asia Minor; and Darius lost no time in recalling what mercenaries he did have immediately after his death — which shows that, as a commodity, they were still in short supply. Indeed, it was only in 333, when Alexander had already conquered most of Anatolia, that the Great King began recruiting in earnest. By the time of Issus he had arguably raised the number of mercenaries to 30,000, and the force on his payroll later reached an attested total of 50,000.

But in May 334, when Alexander reached the Granicus, it is doubtful whether Darius had more than 15,000 Greek mercenaries all told, in Egypt, Asia Minor, or anywhere else, including the eastern provinces. 5,000, in fact, would be just about what he could spare Memnon to deal with Parmenio’s advance force, and it is doubtful whether, at this stage, he thought Philip’s untried son dangerous enough to justify any further reinforcements. There are two additional points to bear in mind here. That Alexander massacred 18,000 out of 20,000 mercenaries at the Granicus is not an absolute impossibility per se; but it is, to say the least, unlikely. The sack of Thebes, a far more general and unrestrained piece of mass-slaughter, produced a death-roll only one third the size; even the butchery of the Athenians at the Assinarus was on a lesser scale. Secondly, it is quite incredible, on any reckoning, that the Persians, with so wide a variety of units to draw upon, should have had no infantry whatsoever apart from the mercenaries; and indeed neither Aristobulus nor Diodorus’ source assumed this to be the case.

On the other hand, if we are in search of hard figures, the case is almost hopeless. Arrian’s 20,000 is the only remotely plausible estimate: we should not reject it out of hand because of Ptolemy’s assertion that it consisted of mercenaries alone. But even this figure may well be too large. Justin’s overall estimate of 600,000 is so ludicrously inflated that it suggests textual corruption rather than propaganda. At some point a scribe might well have misread (30,000) in his Greek source as (600,000); but though this would give us a very plausible round figure, it is not a theory on which one can build with any confidence. If we allow for an infantry force of, say, 15–16,000, of which up to one third were Greek mercenaries, that is about as close as we are likely to get.

Let us now turn back to the battle itself, as reported by Ptolemy and Aristobulus. Against Parmenio’s considered advice, and amid general reluctance on the part of his Macedonians, Alexander disdainfully insisted on pressing home the attack (Arrian 1.13; Plut. Alex. 16.1–3). He then, according to Aristobulus (16.3), plunged precipitately into the river with no more than thirteen squadrons accompanying him. Ptolemy, on the other hand, makes him order his whole battle-line in a way that agrees with Diodorus’ account of the dawn engagement, and emphasizes at the same time the disposition of the Persians: lined up along the bank, cavalry to the fore, infantry in rear — again, duplicating Diodorus. One or the other of them, it is fair to assume, has mistaken his occasion. At this point, according to Ptolemy, there was a short pause, while both sides eyed each other and did nothing. Then Alexander sent the Scouts, the Paeonians, one Companion squadron and one file of infantry ahead, and followed in person at the head of the whole right wing, advancing obliquely with the current towards the Persian centre. This seems a far more deliberate and well-organized manoeuvre; it also sounds far more appropriate for a normal land-battle.

Both sources are in general agreement as to what happened next. The Macedonian spearhead found itself up against the Persian cavalry, who were, very gallantly but for no good apparent reason, doing a job that could have been done far better by Memnon’s hoplites and light-armed javelin-men. Curiously, it is javelins which now rained down on them from the banks; the Persians are described as javelin cavalry, while the Macedonians resist with spears. When Alexander is struck it is with a javelin. We may note, however, that when there is a specific reference to the Persian cavalry, these are not, apparently, their weapons. They, like their Macedonian counterparts, use spears, and the sword, when their spears are broken. Some of them are also armed with the scimitar or sabre, a traditional cavalry weapon. Diodorus also mentions the scimitars. Only Ptolemy refers to javelins in this context, and though it remains uncertain just what kind of spears or javelins these were, they are specifically associated with cavalry usage.

The initial attack suffered badly, as we might expect (how this setback is reconciled with the minuscule Macedonian casualty-list remains a mystery) and part of the credit for the repulse is specifically attributed to Memnon. There follows another interesting discrepancy between Ptolemy’s version and that of Aristobulus. While the cavalry was engaged upon this heroic hand-to-hand struggle, the latter tells us, ‘the Macedonian phalanx crossed the river and the infantry forces on both sides engaged’ (Plut. Alex. 16.6). But according to Ptolemy, the Persian infantry (whether mercenaries or not) remained in rear of the cavalry throughout. Which of them is telling the truth? And who (if Aristobulus is correct) are these ghostly foot-soldiers, with their javelins and darts, that we glimpse here for a moment (under Memnon’s orders, it can scarcely be doubted), first resisting Alexander’s cavalry charge, and then grappling with the phalanx. In the next sentence we read that they ‘did not resist vigorously, nor for a long time, but fled in a rout, all except the Greek mercenaries’ — a clear enough statement that Memnon’s troops were not the only infantry fighting on the Persian side.

Ptolemy is at least consistent: according to his version, Alexander only dealt with the enemy infantry after the main cavalry engagement had been won — a view, be it noted, which is also that of Diodorus. But Diodorus, as he makes very clear, is dealing with a battle which supposedly took place at dawn the following morning, and in very different circumstances: not across the river, but in the open plain on the far side — in campis Adrasteis, as Justin says (11.6.10); a small pointer, but not without its significance. Nevertheless, once Alexander and his men are up the further bank of the Granicus, and firmly established — it is just at this crucial point, suggestively enough, that the narratives of Ptolemy and Aristobulus become momentarily blurred in detail — the three accounts all go forward in close agreement. We have the famous duel between Alexander, Mithridates, and Rhosaces; Alexander’s split-second rescue by Black Cleitus; the final rout and victory. Alexander himself is handled a little more roughly, a little less like the invincible hero, in Diodorus’ version: at one point he seems actually to be down on the ground, with Spithridates and his royal kinsmen assailing him from all sides. But that all three sources are from now on dealing with the same battle seems beyond dispute.

It will be convenient, before proceeding further, to recapitulate the facts that have emerged in the course of this investigation. Firstly, we have two separate (and on the face of it irreconcilable) accounts of the battle which Alexander fought at the Granicus. In the one he is advised to wait until dawn rather than launch an impossible frontal assault against heavy odds; he refuses the advice, attacks, and ultimately triumphs. In the other, he does wait till dawn. In the one he attacks across the river and up a steep bank on the farther side; in the other he gets his troops across unseen by the Persians (at least till the very last minute) and then fights a classic Macedonian-style engagement. In the one, both sides’ tactics are ill-advised, and those of the Persians flatly incredible; in the other they are appropriate and excite no comment. Up to the crossing of the river, Ptolemy and Aristobulus disagree not only with Diodorus, but also, on occasion, with one another, in a way which suggests that they may well be suppressing vital evidence (e.g. the possible role played by Memnon’s infantry during the initial assault). After the crossing, their account of the battle merges smoothly into that given by Diodorus, though the latter is, on the face of it, describing a quite different occasion. Lastly, we have the remarkable exaggeration of Persian infantry numbers and losses, together with a suggestion on Ptolemy’s part that they were all Greek mercenaries; and, balancing this, an estimate of Macedonian losses so small that it can hardly be explained away as propaganda. Propaganda, after all, is meant to be believed.

What are we to make of all this? We may argue, and with some confidence, that Diodorus’ version of events has a good deal more to be said for it than is generally allowed. This at once raises the question of why most scholars dismiss it out of hand. The most illuminating answer to this question is contained in Davis’s criticisms of Beloch:

The Arrian — Plutarch version of the battle he dismisses as merely a romantic picture designed to exhibit Alexander in the light of a Homeric hero. What he is doing here is not merely preferring the poorer to the better authority; he is also setting the Granicus against the evidence of Alexander’s whole career. He is making Parmenio out of Alexander the Great. Why should this be the one occasion when Alexander chose the more cautious over the bolder course? And it is impossible to explain either the rest of Alexander’s career or the history of the years after his death if Alexander is reduced to a mere colorless competence. Alexander was a Homeric hero.

Now whatever our feelings about a mechanical reliance on ‘better’ as against ‘worse’ sources, we may willingly concede Davis’s central point. The Diodorus account does indeed run counter to Alexander’s known life-style in every possible way. But does that justify us in rejecting it out of hand, without further consideration? I think not. Circumstances may arise in which even an Alexander is forced to act against his own wishes, or, worse, to admit a serious error of judgement. On such an occasion his immediate instinct will be to falsify the record in his own interests. Our problem, I would submit, is a more complex one than merely deciding between two alternative traditions. What we are faced with here is deliberate, unmistakable, and systematic manipulation of the evidence.

Thus we cannot, like Gulliver, opt for one end or other of the egg, since propaganda (contrary to popular belief) avoids direct lies whenever possible. It normally prefers to save the appearances, aided by those two time-honoured devices suppressio veri and suggestio falsi. The carefully slanted half-truth is far more effective than any mere fabrication, if only because it becomes much harder to expose for what it is. If we provisionally accept the hypothesis that our main account of the Granicus has been doctored to conceal some kind of initial failure, then a completely new light is shed not only on Alexander’s behaviour, but also on the supposedly divergent testimonia, which it may prove possible to reconcile in an unlooked-for fashion. What we seem to have here is, on the one hand, the ‘official’ version of the Granicus battle; and on the other an independent account which, while accepting some of the ‘official’ record’s more dubious claims (e.g. those concerning Persian infantry losses), nevertheless disagrees with it at several crucial points.

If we ask ourselves who was ultimately responsible for doctoring the record utilized by Ptolemy and Aristobulus (both of whom, incidentally, must have been well aware of the truth), the only possible answer is Alexander himself, aided in all likelihood by Eumenes, his chief secretary, and the expedition’s official historian, Callisthenes. So much seems clear enough. But our most important task is to find out not only how the truth was distorted, but also why. After all, the battle of the Granicus was won: that fact remains solid and undeniable. But it also poses an obvious dilemma. If Alexander won in the way suggested by Diodorus, why should he bother to make up a completely false version of events which does no credit to his strategic sense? And if Ptolemy and Aristobulus are telling the truth, how did the eminently sane and unromantic account utilized by Diodorus ever get into circulation at all? Diodorus, significantly, makes the king out as Homeric a figure as anyone could wish during the actual battle (whenever and wherever that may have taken place); it is only beforehand that caution comes to the fore.

Here we may pertinently recall Davis’s question: ‘Why should this be the one occasion when Alexander chose the more cautious over the bolder course?’ Might it not be that in the first instance he did nothing of the sort, but acted, characteristically, like the Homeric hero on whom he modelled himself, and with disastrous consequences? A hypothesis of two battles at the Granicus, one, abortive, in the afternoon, the second, overwhelmingly successful, the following morning, would not only enable us to reconcile our conflicting evidence; it would also provide the strongest possible motive for Alexander to falsify the record afterwards. An initial defeat, at the very outset of his Asiatic campaign — even though recouped immediately afterwards — would make the worst possible impression, not least on the still undecided Greek cities of Asia Minor. Delphi had pronounced Alexander, unconquerable, and he had to be, on every occasion. Herein lay the ultimate secret of his extraordinary personal charisma: the quasi-magical belief that he could not fail, that his leadership in itself guaranteed victory.

Now throughout his life, as we have seen, Alexander reacted very badly indeed to any direct thwarting of his will and ambition. His instinct was to destroy those who stood in his path; he would, if need be, wait years for an appropriate and satisfying revenge. A setback, even a temporary one, at the Granicus would bode ill for all persons responsible once victory had been secured. The most competent and experienced troops fighting on the Persian side were, of course, Memnon’s Greek mercenaries. Can we regard Alexander’s special, and singularly vicious, animus against this particular unit as mere coincidence? He slaughtered them wholesale, and sent the survivors, chained like felons, to forced labour in Macedonia, at a time when common sense would have suggested acquiring their valuable services for himself at preferential rates. Moreover, this was an isolated action: from then on he enrolled Greek mercenaries whenever he could get hold of them.

His ostensible reason (published by Ptolemy and accepted by most modern scholars) was that ‘they had violated Greek public opinion by fighting with orientals, as Greeks, against Greeks’. In other words, he was making a gesture as captain-general of the league. But Greek public opinion was something of which Alexander took notice only when it suited him; and the league served him as a blanket excuse for various questionable or underhand actions, the destruction of Thebes being merely the most notorious. A little good publicity in Greece never came amiss; but it is improbable, to say the least, that this was his primary motive. Aristobulus tells us that Alexander was ‘influenced more by anger than by reason’, and this sounds far more like the truth. His behaviour, indeed, bears all the signs of that terrible rage which could, at times, sweep away the last vestiges of his self-control, and was invariably caused by some personal insult, some thwarting of his destiny, some affront to his will, dignity, or honour.

The falsification of the record in this respect is highly suggestive. The infantry were made out to be more numerous than they were; in Ptolemy’s account (see above) they are no mere Persian conscripts either, but highly trained mercenaries to the last man. We have already seen how improbable a claim this was. As propaganda, however, its meaning is clear. The threat which the Greek mercenaries represented was to be highly exaggerated, and the glory of overcoming them correspondingly increased. Yet at the same time any part they may have played in the actual crossing of the Granicus was to be deleted from the official account, even if it meant crediting the Persians with a wholly unbelievable battle-plan. This double reaction, coupled with Alexander’s savage treatment of them afterwards, suggests that they somehow thwarted his plans in a way which showed him up in a very bad light, and which he was determined should be forgotten. In any case the odds against him were to be dramatically increased: if he had failed, he was determined to show that no mortal man could have succeeded.

Now if Alexander had in fact simply followed Parmenio’s advice, crossed the river at dawn, and won his victory, there would have been no pressing need for him to invent the long dramatic rigmarole recounted by Ptolemy, with its wealth of circumstantial detail: the Macedonian panic, the intercalation of a calendar month, the argument with Parmenio, the details of that first suicidal assault across the river. These things really happened; and they happened in the late afternoon, just as Ptolemy says they did. If, at this point, we are prepared to argue that Diodorus’ account is likewise substantially true, then the nature of Alexander’s propaganda at the Granicus at once reveals itself, and all the apparently unmotivated discrepancies fall into place. Here, then, is a reconstruction of what I believe may have been the true course of events.

When Alexander reached the Granicus, he found that Arsites had made his dispositions not perversely but all too well. He did, indeed, have his cavalry along the river-bank, since this was by far his strongest native arm; but it was not alone. At the crossing-point itself he had placed Memnon’s redoubtable mercenaries, just as any competent commander might be expected to do. The Persians knew the strength of their defences; they simply sat tight and waited to see whether Alexander (whose dashing reputation, clearly, had preceded him) would be rash enough to try a frontal assault. They had gauged their man well. Alexander was determined to cross the river at once; any further delaying tactics on the part of his officers would leave the man who used them facing a charge of cowardice, if not of treason. For the second, and last, time in his life, the king’s youthful impetuosity, coupled with the dire need to force an engagement at all costs, got the better of that cool strategic head. Parmenio suggested, hopefully, that the enemy might decamp during the night. This, of course, was the one thing Alexander had to prevent, and it was probably a major factor in deciding him to reject his second-in-command’s advice.

Besides, his Homeric destiny was summoning him to achieve heroic deeds, like his exemplar Achilles; and where better, here and now, than across the Granicus River, in the face of fearful odds? He charged headlong into the stream, and thirteen squadrons went with him. Perhaps the phalanx followed; just possibly it did not. There had been panic in the ranks; Parmenio’s advice had been flouted; and almost every key command — including those of the Hypaspists and the Companion Cavalry — was held by one of Parmenio’s sons, relatives, or personal nominees. If there was a power-struggle between Alexander and Parmenio from the first, Burn asks, why did the army not simply ‘make a Uriah’ of Alexander at the Granicus? Nothing, he adds, could have been easier. In fact, I would submit, they may well have attempted to do so; but Alexander, as his subsequent exploits make abundantly clear, had an even more remarkable talent for survival than his father Philip.

For a while, with furious resolve, Alexander and his squadrons battered at Memnon’s mercenaries, while a deadly blizzard of javelins rained down on them. If other Macedonian units, whether of foot or horse, supported this attack, they still made very little headway. At last, forced to admit defeat, they turned back across the river. This is the central fact which Ptolemy and Aristobulus are at such pains to conceal. Alexander’s first brush with the Persians had ended in humiliating failure. Worse still, Parmenio had been proved right; and with all the weight of his sixty-five years behind him, he would not be slow to emphasize the fact. Yet Alexander, though he never forgot or forgave an injury, was also a realist, who never lost sight of his ultimate goal. He swallowed his pride; it must have taken some doing. During that night the army marched downstream and forded the Granicus. Perhaps Alexander simply intimated to his staff that if the troops distinguished themselves in battle next morning the matter would be regarded as closed. After all, he had as much reason for wanting the first assault forgotten as anyone.

So, indeed, it turned out: the Macedonians, perhaps a little ashamed of themselves, won an overwhelming victory. But that, from Alexander’s point of view, was by no means the end of the matter. There were scores to settle, and an episode to be hushed up. Not for several years yet would the king feel himself strong enough to try conclusions with that indispensable figure Parmenio; but Memnon’s mercenaries, who had been instrumental in achieving his humiliation, were quite another matter. On them he took prompt and savage vengeance, camouflaging his personal motives by the pretence that he was executing justice on behalf of the Hellenic League. His initial débâcle may also provide a possible explanation for the minuscule size of the Macedonian casualty-lists in our sources. As an overall estimate they are ludicrous, a fact which every scholar has acknowledged. If the final battle took place in the way Ptolemy claims it did, by direct frontal assault, the one thing we can say with absolute assurance is that Alexander’s losses would have been murderously heavy, almost on the scale of those suffered (in not dissimilar circumstances) by the Light Brigade during the Crimean War. But if we take them as the casualties suffered by the thirteen squadrons which charged across the river with Alexander, and by them alone, they at once fall into place — even down to the nine foot-soldiers, who will have belonged to that ‘one file of the infantry’, included in the spearhead. Alexander had statues erected at Dium to the twenty-five Companions who fell at the Granicus — another unique gesture, never to be repeated: it is significant that all of them are said to have been killed ‘in the first assault’. To commemorate the faithful few, and them alone, would have been a superbly contemptuous gesture, very much in line with all we know of Alexander’s character.

Now it only remained to put the record straight for propaganda purposes. There was no need to tamper with the final battle; only to transfer its setting. What had to be eliminated, at all costs, was that disastrous, ill-conceived, and humiliating initial charge. So the two separate engagements were run into one, and the scene of the final conflict changed from dawn to evening, from the Adrasteian plain to the river-bank of the Granicus. Callisthenes (or whoever was responsible) had to do the job in a hurry; small wonder that some loose ends and tell-tale inconsistencies remained, that the stitching of the join could be seen by those who cared to look for it. Memnon’s role in the defence was carefully obliterated, though (as we have seen) not quite carefully enough; the Persian battle-plan was put, unchanged, into a new context which made it appear perverse to the point of insanity (itself an excellent piece of propaganda); and the king’s deed of personal ἀρετή was increased beyond measure as a result.

No one would dare to publish the truth during Alexander’s lifetime: too many high officials had connived at its falsification. Nor, indeed, was the real story one that reflected overmuch credit on anyone concerned — except, perhaps, on Parmenio. The battle had, after all, been won; and human memory is mercifully short. But discrepancies — mostly caused by unthinking adherence to the truth except at specifically sensitive points — were bound to find their way into the official version. Lastly, one of Diodorus’ sources utilized a tradition which put on record the true facts of Alexander’s dawn manoeuvres. The genesis of this tradition can be no more than a matter for speculation; but it appears, severely truncated, in Diodorus’ own narrative, and is hinted at by Justin and Polyaenus. If this hypothesis should be correct, it shows us the one occasion in his whole career when Alexander suffered a personal defeat — and by so doing renders him one degree more credible as a human being.

I do not for one moment suppose that the theory here put forward solves the enigma of the Granicus beyond any reasonable doubt, and I am well aware of the arguments that can be brought against it. Diodorus is a notoriously uncritical and unreliable source (or transmitter of sources); his contaminated account of the battle of Issus would hardly encourage one to accept him on the Granicus were it not for the (to me) unavoidable considerations advanced above. Nor, let me freely confess, do I find it intrinsically plausible that — as one of my more cogent critics represents the case I propose — of our two accounts one (Arrian) is a deliberate falsification, combining (roughly) the first half of the first battle with the second half of the second; while the other (Diodorus), coincidentally but by pure accident, omits the first battle and gives us only the second one’. I simply find this less unlikely than the alternative possibilities. Again while the motives of Ptolemy and Aristobulus in this matter are clear enough, why should any source hostile to Alexander not have instantly jumped on the first, abortive, attack on the Granicus, and given it maximum detrimental publicity — as indeed happened with so many other incidents, known to far fewer people, which Alexander’s propagandists afterwards suppressed or distorted? To this question I can see no answer — any more than I understand how, supposing Arrian to be telling the truth, the Diodorus version (so much saner and more commonsensical by comparison) ever got launched. The one postulate raises just as many problems as the other. It may be that there was no botched afternoon attack, and that Alexander crossed at dawn without further demur. It may even be true (a point hard to determine without on-the-spot topographical investigation) that he forced the crossing ab initio, though I find this improbable, to say the least. But in either case the very real difficulties I have outlined still need to be explained. (It will not do, for instance, to dismiss Diodorus’ account of the battle’s preliminaries as a piece of rhetorical fiction straight from the Issus stock-pot. Alexander repeated his basic dispositions in almost every major battle he fought: the cliché, if cliché there be, is tactical rather than rhetorical.) I would claim no more than that my hypothesis answers more questions than it raises. Perhaps in the last resort Davis was right, and the enigma must be pronounced insoluble.



Philip would turn the traditional method of combat on its head by creating an army and introducing new tactics the likes of which the Greeks had never seen. His enemies were no match for him. Nor, as events would prove, were the Persians, Bactrians, and Indians a match for Alexander, thanks to the army he inherited from his father.

A Macedonian phalanx by Johnny Shumate.

Macedonian phalanx formation carrying sarissas. From N. G. L. Hammond, Alexander the Great: King, Commander and Statesman, 2nd ed. (Bristol: 1989), p. 84.
Mechanical bow and torsion catapult.

The strength of Macedonia’s army before Philip had lain in its cavalry, provided by the nobles who alone could bear the costs of horses and armor. The infantry by contrast consisted mostly of peasant farmers, who were hastily conscripted when danger threatened. They were poorly, if at all, trained and armed. When called to fight they had to leave their farms, bringing with them their oxen and wagons, which in turn adversely affected their crop outputs and livelihood. No match for the aggressive tribes on the kingdom’s borders or the trained hoplite Greek armies, the Macedonian army had a torpid track record. Philip changed all that by implementing reforms as soon as he became king to create a professional, full-time fighting force.

Like the Greek cities, Philip relied on mercenaries throughout his reign. However, to attract his own people as well as those whom he conquered to military service, he introduced regular pay and a promotion pathway; he also provided arms and armor to the infantry, although the wealthy cavalrymen still had to pay for their own horses. The elite hypaspist (shield bearer) infantryman was paid one drachma a day, and a cavalryman, three drachmas. These rates were higher than the daily five obols for a Greek hoplite soldier (six obols = one drachma) and two (possibly three) drachmas for a Greek cavalryman. In addition, cash bonuses and even grants of land in conquered territories were awarded to his men in recognition of their service and as an incentive to fight all the more. These simple acts dispensed with the need for conscription and also benefited the economy, as the farmers no longer had to leave their lands to fight.

Philip never considered adopting the Greek hoplite style of hand-to-hand fighting at close quarters. Instead, thanks to the tactical influence of Pammenes and Epaminondas of Thebes, he taught his infantry new skills and grouped them together in various battalions (led by battalion commanders) that together comprised the phalanx, over which he had ultimate control. He may have done so because he lacked money and time to make the armor and train his men in hoplite tactics. On the other hand, given the 4,000 losses under Perdiccas, Philip must have had to hire some mercenaries at the start of his reign, which indicates that he had money. Further, these mercenaries would have been versed in hoplite tactics, affording him the time to train his own men accordingly. Therefore a more plausible reason for fashioning the phalanx as he did is that he wanted it to be utterly different from anything the Greeks had ever been confronted by in battle. To cope with different terrains and enemy formations and numbers Philip varied the depth of the phalanx formation from eight to 32 ranks (he and Alexander preferred 16), thereby affording it weight and power as well as maneuverability in the field.

Philip (or possibly Alexander II) may also have created a contingent of infantry known as pezhetairoi, “foot companions,” as a sort of “special forces” unit. Later, pezhetairoi became the name for all the infantry, perhaps as a “balance” to the Companion Cavalry, and this specialist unit was called the hypaspists (shield bearers), who would prove invaluable to Alexander in Asia. Philip also introduced new weaponry, including the sarissa, a 14- to 18-foot-long pike made of local cornel wood, with a pointed iron head, altogether weighing around 14 pounds-the modern reconstructions of them at Thessaloniki show how intimidating these weapons must have been.

The sarissa required both hands to wield it, but since it came in two parts it could easily be carried and then quickly fitted together before engaging an enemy. The infantryman would then carry the weapon upright (in “close order,” pyknosis), and as the phalanx approached the enemy line the first five ranks of the battalions would lower their sarissas to charge.

The sheer length of the sarissa allowed the Macedonian troops to impale their enemies, whose short swords came nowhere near them, thereby thwarting the close-formation hoplite fighting. Even when the two lines actually did meet the Macedonians’ armor of a cuirass, leg greaves, small shield over one shoulder, a short sword, and an iron, hoplite-style helmet weighed less than that of the Greek hoplite, again giving them an advantage.

Most of Philip’s innovations involved the infantry, but he did not neglect the cavalry and viewed both divisions of his army as equally important. He arranged the cavalry in various divisions (ilai), each of about 200 men, which were based on the regions from which the troops came. A special royal squadron of cavalry (ile basilike) comprised 300 men. He may even have created the fast, mounted cavalry scouts (prodromoi), on whom Alexander relied so heavily in Asia. Instead of a frontal cavalry assault, Philip trained his cavalry to attack in a wedge formation, and its principal role was to disrupt the opposite line. The Macedonian horses pushed and shoved the enemy combatants, while their riders, brandishing spears and short swords, slashed and stabbed from on high. There was also a cavalry squadron named the sarissophoroi, who therefore carried sarissas. These must have been shorter than the infantry sarissas, as the riders could not have used both hands to wield a long sarissa and at the same time control their horses. To wreak havoc among enemy ranks even more, Philip reversed the standard Greek tactic of infantry engaging the enemy before the cavalry. His army was unique in Greece for having its cavalry advance against the adversary’s flanks at the outset of an engagement and wheel behind it while the massed phalanx bore down on the center and poured through gaps opened up by the cavalry. In this way, his opponents were trapped between two offensive fronts.

Philip kept his men in constant training to help prepare them for any type of engagement. The infantry especially had to learn to use their sarissas effortlessly, especially if marching across rivers and rocky terrain, and to run with them in upright and lowered positions. We learn about aspects of the training and drills from a campaign in Illyria that Alexander waged in 335, shortly after he became king. Philip would also have arranged for the infantry and cavalry to work seamlessly together, perhaps charging dummy lines of differing lengths and depths to hone their shock-and-awe tactics. The king also intended his new army to be self-sufficient. To this end, the men were taught to forage for provisions and to carry all their equipment, food, and drink. The “hangerson” who normally accompanied Greek and Persian armies, from wives and families to various attendants and even prostitutes, were banned from traveling with Macedonian troops. The slow-moving carts carrying provisions and equipment that oxen had previously pulled were also abandoned and replaced by faster-moving pack animals such as mules and horses. The end result was an army that could march quickly and effortlessly regardless of terrain or weather conditions.

Philip’s military reforms did not happen overnight but, rather, continued throughout his reign. In about 350 he formed an engineering corps, headed by Polyeides (or Polyidus) of Thessaly, who was designing new siege machinery, including the torsion catapult. This was akin to a spring-loaded crossbow that fired arrows farther and faster than the traditional mechanically drawn catapult. Philip first used the torsion catapult at his siege of Byzantium in 340, and the weapon enabled Alexander to take many walled cities and force others into capitulation. In fact two of Polyidus’s students, Diades and Charias, accompanied Alexander on his campaigns.

Philip also integrated regular and specialist troops from the areas he conquered into his army. For example, after his campaign in Illyria in 358 Agrianian javelin men (who lived above the Strymon River) joined his ranks, as did Thracian javelin men and Scythian archers after his conquest of Thrace in 342-341. Some of the individual regiments of the phalanx had special functions or were held in particular esteem, such as the elite hypaspists, who were lighter-armed and marched at faster speeds and whose number included the royal agema or guard. Competition to be in these units was fierce, and membership meant everything-as Philip intended. Here, the political nature of his military reforms becomes evident. Former opponents who were made to join the army and who were deliberately kept in territorial divisions fought all the harder to prove that their divisions were the best, while outstanding commanders could be rewarded with membership in Philip’s senior staff (like his general Parmenion). In turn they came to owe loyalty to their general and king and maintain a united Macedonia.

To this end Philip may also have introduced the school of royal pages, young noble boys who lived at court from 14 to 18 years of age and received a military training, accompanying the king on campaign in their last year and serving as his personal attendants. This innovation was really a form of hostage-taking and was perhaps inspired by Persian practice. The families of these boys had little say in their sons being taken to court, where their well-being depended on the loyalty of their fathers.

Diodorus grossly overstated that Philip left so vast and powerful an army that Alexander never needed to ask for reinforcements when campaigning against the Persians. Nevertheless, Philip increased the army’s size from only about 10,000 infantry and 600 cavalry in 359 to 24,000 infantry and 3,000 cavalry by the end of his reign in 336. He created an offensive army such as Macedonia had never seen before and in doing so enabled his kingdom to become an imperial power.

Command Structure of the Macedonian Army

Philip II of Macedon

Mercenaries in Macedonian Service

King Cambyses

In 530 BCE Cambyses inherited a vast empire, far larger than any previous, and one that had been formulated in just twenty years. Cambyses’ royal pursuits are hard to gauge, however, because the record is even thinner for his reign. Cambyses’ first order of business would have been arrangements for Cyrus’ burial at his tomb in Pasargadae. An incomplete structure found near Persepolis has been identified as an intentional replica of Cyrus’ tomb, and it was naturally assumed to have been for Cambyses. But some documentary evidence suggests that Cambyses’ tomb lay elsewhere, southeast of Persepolis near modern Niriz, and the evidence pointing there indicates a royally sponsored cult, similar to that associated with Cyrus’ tomb.

Cambyses eventually turned his attention westward, where the main power was Egypt. Amasis (reigned 570–526 BCE) had conquered Cyprus and formed an alliance with the Greek ruler Polycrates of Samos, an island off the coast of Ionia. By the 520s Polycrates had become dominant in the Aegean Sea region. This alliance was fractured sometime after Cambyses’ accession, and Polycrates offered ships to Cambyses for the Egyptian expedition. Reasons for the switch may only be guessed. Perhaps the intensifying Persian hold on Ionia in conjunction with inducements (or threats?) swayed Polycrates toward Persia. Cambyses’ efforts to develop a royal navy, mainly through his Phoenician and Ionian subjects, were no doubt intended for the western front and a planned Egyptian campaign. The territories of the Levant, geographically at the crossroads between Greater Mesopotamia and Egypt, had been a point of contention between rulers of those regions for centuries. Persian control of that region was bound to inflame tensions with Egypt. With an eye on Persian expansionism, Amasis had cultivated good relations with many city-states and sanctuaries in the Aegean world. In 526 Amasis was succeeded by his son Psammetichus III, whose rule was to prove quite short.

Cambyses’ Invasion of Egypt

There is no narrative record of the preparations for the Persian invasion of Egypt in 525 BCE, but they were no doubt extensive. As part of these preparations, Cambyses fostered relations with the king of the Arabs, who controlled the desert route across the Sinai peninsula and could thus enable the successful crossing. The first engagement occurred at the easternmost branch of the Nile delta, the so-called Pelusiac mouth. The Persians put the Egyptians to flight, invaded the Nile Valley, and besieged Psammetichus in his capital, Memphis. There he was protected by fortifications named “the White Wall,” which could only be taken with support from a fleet. The city was eventually taken and Psammetichus captured. But he was spared and treated well, as per the pattern of kings previously defeated by the Persians. Herodotus even claims that if Psammetichus had comported himself appropriately he would have been made governor of Egypt (3.15). But Psammetichus subsequently plotted rebellion and was put to death.

Once Egypt was secure, Cambyses intended further military actions both west and south, following the paths of many Egyptian pharaohs. The Libyan oases offered control over strategic western trade routes. Beyond the First Cataract in the south, the kingdom of Kush had always been coveted for its gold. The installation of a Persian garrison at Elephantine – an island in the Nile near modern Aswan – reveals the strategic importance of this area at Egypt’s southern boundary. This garrison was one of several similar that were stationed at strategic points throughout the Empire.

Additional Persian expeditions against the oasis of Ammon in the west and against Nubia and Ethiopia in the south ended badly. The particulars may seem far-fetched, but the historicity of these campaigns, including an aborted expedition against the Carthaginians (modern Tunisia), need not be rejected out of hand. The limits of Persian imperialism had not yet been reached. It made sense to secure those borderlands that had been problems for previous Egyptian rulers for centuries. If Herodotus may be believed, the army dispatched to Libya was swallowed in a sandstorm. Cambyses himself led the expedition against Nubia and Ethiopia, but it was abandoned en route: desperate straits culminated in cannibalism among the troops. These misadventures, replete with divine portents and human warnings that Cambyses was going too far, serve as case studies for Herodotus’ portrayal of the “mad Cambyses” – more a literary exercise than a historical one. Herodotus records a litany of Cambyses’ outrages, overreach, and arrogance – directed not only at Egyptians but also at Persians and even his own family – the paradigmatic example of a stereotypical oriental despot.

Herodotus’ “mad Cambyses” shows first of all that the Father of History relied on a negative tradition of Cambyses current in Egypt when Herodotus visited in the mid-fifth century BCE. Herodotus devotes portions of his Book 3 to Cambyses’ increasing instability. Cambyses purportedly ordered Amasis’ mummy to be disinterred, abused, and finally burned – an insult, to both Persian and Egyptian religions (3.16). Other tombs were opened and cult statues mocked, particularly in the temple of Ptah, an Egyptian creator god whose sacred city was Memphis. The greatest outrage to the Egyptians was the slaying of the Apis bull (3.27–29), a sacred calf that was considered the earthly embodiment of Ptah. The Egyptian king was a central part of the Apis cult, which in turn was directly connected to the office of kingship.

When Cambyses returned to Memphis after the disastrous Ethiopian expedition, he found the Egyptians of Memphis celebrating the birth of a new Apis calf: a new beginning, their god again made manifest. Cambyses snapped. He saw their festival as an expression of joy at his misfortune, and he reacted: stabbing the Apis bull with a knife to the thigh and flogging or slaying many priests. Herodotus subsequently catalogs a cascade of misfortune and misery that brought Cambyses to his own end and shook the entire Empire to its core – the result of Cambyses’ impiety. The slaying of the Apis bull makes compelling drama, but it is mostly exaggerated if not fabricated. We have some Egyptian evidence that seems to refute Herodotus’ portrayal. Contrary to Herodotus’ assertion that the Egyptian priests buried the Apis bull without Cambyses’ knowledge, a sarcophagus from a bull buried during Cambyses’ reign is engraved with Cambyses’ own inscription in traditional Egyptian format:

The Horus Sma-Towy, King of Upper and Lower Egypt, Mesuti-Re, born of Re, Cambyses, may he live forever! He has made this fine monument, a great sarcophagus of granite, for his father Apis-Osiris, dedicated by the King of Upper and Lower Egypt, Mesuti-Re, son of Re, Cambyses, may he be granted long life, prosperity in perpetuity, health and joy, appearing as King of Upper and Lower Egypt eternally.

This inscription states that Cambyses, acting as a typical Egyptian pharaoh, took responsibility for the proper care and burial of the deceased Apis, which is understood to have died during Cambyses’ fifth regnal year. If only it were so simple. There are significant problems with our understanding of this sequence: the death and burial of the Apis bull during Cambyses’ reign, and the overlap between the birth of a successor bull and the death of the current Apis. Other inscriptions further complicate matters.

Although the initial inclination is to reject any suggestion that Cambyses killed the Apis, it cannot be excluded that Cambyses may have killed a younger calf (the Apis successor) before the death of the one buried in the sarcophagus. The Egyptian evidence reminds us not to take Herodotus at face value. Some of the changes Cambyses wrought in the aftermath of the Persian victory must have been unwelcome, perhaps even unprecedented. For example, a reduction in support for some Egyptian temples could easily have given rise to negative stories about Cambyses.

The inscription of Udjahorresnet, a naval commander under Amasis and Psammetichus III who defected to the Persians, also provides some balance to Herodotus’ account. Udjahorresnet’s hieroglyphic inscription is carved on his votive statue from Sais, in the western Delta. The statue holds a small shrine for Osiris, god of the underworld. The autobiographical inscription chronicles Udjahorresnet’s career, with special emphasis on his service to both Cambyses and Darius I. It is invaluable as a window on how one of the Egyptian nobility secured a place for himself in the new order.

Udjahorresnet’s inscription provides the only surviving royal titles for Cambyses beyond Babylonian administrative documents. Cambyses adopted Egyptian titles (e.g., “King of Upper and Lower Egypt”) as would be expected from a new ruler seeking to place himself in an age-old tradition. Udjahorresnet himself would have been keen to trumpet his own titles and achievements – typical in this sort of inscription – and also to justify his collaboration with the Persians. Udjahorresnet’s inscription, and Cambyses’ titles therein, indicate that Cambyses behaved as did previous kings by restoring order and respecting religious sanctuaries. Udjahorresnet’s version is no doubt slanted as well, but the picture it provides runs directly counter to Herodotus’. It would not be surprising to discover that the respect Cambyses showed for sanctuaries included those with which Udjahorresnet had been involved, those in and near Sais, but that is unverifiable. That the Persians presented themselves as pharaohs in the traditional Egpytian manner is not surprising. Successful integration into Egyptian tradition would make Persian rule much smoother. As evidenced by subsequent Egyptian revolts, however, this integration was not always smooth.

The Death of Cambyses and the Crisis of 522 BCE

The length of Cambyses’ Egyptian campaign is uncertain, but various sources indicate that Cambyses was returning to Persia in 522 when he died. He had been away for at least three years. Babylonian economic documents reveal that Cambyses died sometime in April and was succeeded by his brother Bardiya. Bardiya ruled for six months, until he was supplanted by Darius. Darius conversely related that Cambyses had killed Bardiya sometime previously and that a look-alike double, whom Darius called Gaumata, rebelled against Cambyses in March of 522. The crisis of 522 was of epic proportions, and the stability of the fledgling Empire was at stake. Various ancient sources relay a story of fratricide; an elaborate cover-up; a body double and impostor on the throne; and a small group of heroes who discover the truth, slay the pretender, and set Persia to rights once again. Despite the fundamental interpretive problems that persist in evaluating the sources, it is clear that the Persian Empire faced a decisive moment. Darius I’s eventual, and by no means easy, victory was monumental in its own right and had lasting consequences for the durability of the Empire. The testimonies for this turbulent time are confusing and often contradictory. Separate overviews of the main ones – Darius’ Bisitun Inscription and Herodotus’ account – are warranted before any attempt at reconciliation.

The Successor States and into the Hellenistic Age I

For twenty years Alexander’s generals and governors fought over his sprawling empire. Even after the Battle of Ipsus in 301 when the major successor states emerged, these kingdoms continued to fight each other in the internal wars of succession. They fought rebellious Greeks and natives, they attacked lesser powers who struggled to exist between them, and they repelled invaders from the outside world. A Hellenistic Greek might define ‘peace’ as merely the short break between wars. War became an endemic part of life in the Hellenistic world as the populations of Greece, Asia Minor and Syria had to endure the campaigns of competing rulers. Kings, such as the Seleucids, owed their royal status to victory in war. They had to be active military leaders just to maintain their thrones.

The great irony of the Hellenistic Age, at least for this study, is that although warfare is endemic, and the use of ambush was at its peak, our sources suddenly dry up. We have no Herodotus, no Thucydides and no Xenophon to supply our evidence. If the history of Hieronymus of Cardia had survived, we would have had an eyewitness account of the wars of Alexander’s successors. At least we have Diodorus and Plutarch who used his works, and with Polybius, Polyaenus and Frontinus added we can catch an occasional glimpse of what was going on militarily. What we can say, generally speaking, is that the tendency towards specialisation and professionalisation that had begun in the fourth century was enhanced during the Hellenistic period by the new needs of kings, and the requirements of cities and leagues.

The actual forms of conflict in the Hellenistic Age were varied, and corresponded to the different goals of warfare. Disputes might lead to raiding, seizing cattle and other moveable goods, or the burning of farms and the kidnapping of farmers, women or agricultural slaves. Polis warfare, too, could take on a whole spectrum of variations including different modes of local warfare. In this atmosphere, cities and their citizens needed versatility in their choice of military options. Hellenistic war was not just made up of large battles such as Raphia, where 140,000 men fought, but also ambushes and surprise attacks. Indeed, the majority of the Hellenistic male population experienced warfare not in great tactical battles, but in the form of temporary raids, incursions into the territory of the enemy, surprise attacks against cities and occasional street fights. The professionalisation of military units did not diminish the importance of citizen militias; it simply added a whole new array of soldiers with varied skills that could be drawn up.


Because warfare in the Hellenistic Age became more specialised, it required more training of troops. The contrast between the training of a citizen and that of a mercenary is brought out by the speech of Polydamos at Sparta in 374. He was quoting Jason of Pherae when he said: ‘… there are only a few men in each city who train their bodies rigorously. But in my forces there is not a single man who cannot match me in the capacity for hard work.’ In some Hellenistic cities they dispensed with the mercenary peltast of the late Classical Age and replaced him with trained citizenry, who could play a similar role, but without any of the social and political problems the use of hired peltasts posed.

Angelos Chaniotis, in his study of Hellenistic warfare, gives an overview that suggests that military training had a more or less uniform structure in most areas, ‘the result of mutual interest rather than common origins’. Chaniotis points out that a clear indicator of the specialisation of troops is the use of more technical terminology. A wide range of specific military terms can be seen in Hellenistic literature; some of these go back to the fourth century but they culminate in the Hellenistic period. The specific designations for troops beyond the generic designations for the cavalry, the phalanx of hoplites, light-armed and the fleet reflect the existence of specific weapons, special training and specialised skills. This specialisation was not limited to professional armies, but extended also to citizen armies. Their special skills were sometimes a matter of local tradition. The Cretans, for example, were famous as archers, the Achaians were slingers and the Thessalians were cavalrymen. Improvements could be made on these traditional weapons: for example, a particular type of sling, the kestros, was invented during the Third Macedonian war.

For many boys, military training started earlier than their registration as ephebes; it began in the gymnasium, where exercise and physical conditioning were thought be good training for warfare. The gymnasium was one of the best-documented institutions of the Hellenistic city. Their training gives us a hint about what weapons would be used. In a small place such as Samos, the programme in the gymnasium included prizes for use of the catapult, use of the lithobolos (an engine used for hurling stones), use of the javelin, archery and fighting with shield and lance (hoplite battle or hoplomachia) as well as with small shields of the Galatian type (thyreomachia). The same selection of disciplines is found in Sestos in Thrace.

After their military training, young men were assigned to both military and paramilitary duties. We have evidence from Crete that they performed policing duties, especially in the countryside and they controlled the frontier of the city. In other cities, we see young men manning the forts on the frontiers. Similar troops are known from Athens and Asia Minor. In Athens, the kryptoi (‘the secret ones’) protected the fertile countryside. There is evidence from Caria of groups of young men serving as mounted ‘patrol of the mountains’ (orophylakesantes), and as mounted guards assigned to patrol the borders of Boeotia. These young troops operated on the periphery of the city and have been defined by some as ‘liminal groups’, not unlike foreign mercenaries and, therefore, operating outside of the rules of hoplite battle.

We are particularly well informed regarding the Cretan soldiers who, from the fourth century on, are to be found in almost all armies of the Mediterranean, often on opposite sides. Even Rome enrolled Cretans. Examples of ethnic stereotyping occurred because of this specialised training. Polybius brands the Cretans with the label ‘brigands and pirates’ because of their raiding abilities. This kind of moralising demonstrates Polybius’ prejudice, but says nothing meaningful about how effective or useful such troops were, nor how proud they were of their local traditions. We, know for example, how proud the Arcadians were of their mercenary tradition. Lycomedes, the Arcadian statesmen, said that the Arcadians were chosen for service overseas because they were the best fighters with the sturdiest bodies among the Greek peoples. With the emergence of the widespread use of mercenaries, a number of peoples achieved their moment of renown thanks to their specialisation in the use of particular arms: the bow for the Scythians and Cretans; the sling for the Rhodians; and the javelin for the Aetolians, Acarnanians and Thracians.


As we saw in the last chapter, from the beginning of the fourth century armies already contained significantly higher numbers of light infantry and cavalry than classical ones had fielded. Peltasts and light-armed troops remained important throughout the Hellenistic period, but of all the military developments of the Hellenistic Age the one that has drawn the most attention is the use of mercenary troops. Although mercenaries are documented from the earliest period of Greek warfare, the Hellenistic period saw a huge increase in the number of regions that supplied mercenary soldiers. Greek males had always been able to travel and seek their fortunes a long way from home. Mercenaries were initially drawn from remote, poor or mountainous regions – Crete, Achaea, Thrace, etc. – which is why they were often looked down upon. They were expected to depend for their keep on the success of the campaigns for which they had been enlisted. They took part in various battles in the Peloponnesian war and continued to fight in the service of outside powers such as Egypt or Persia.

With the campaigns of Alexander, thousands more Greeks had the opportunity to serve as mercenaries, and this demand only grew under Alexander’s successors. In fact, mercenaries came not merely to supplement but, in many areas, to displace the citizen hoplites. Hellenistic kings mobilised large numbers of these troops in their wars for the division of Alexander’s empire. The supply of Greek soldiers needing employment thus coincided with this new intra-Hellenic demand. These same men could later be settled as veterans in new cities and military colonies. The job of xenologos, or recruiter of mercenaries, became a lucrative position. The kingdoms that emerged from this process needed trained military manpower in order to man garrisons, avert barbarian invasions, control native populations and fight against other kingdoms.

The mercenary did not become popular among Greek citizens. The profession was usually portrayed as a miserable one, especially by writers of Greek comedy who wrote for a settled, urban population. The average citizen not only scorned the man who had to earn his keep by fighting, but also feared him since the mercenary was a potential threat to his own existence. Gangs of mercenaries threatened the Greek poleis in the fourth century. Aeneas Tacticus reflects the political instability of the times when he warns city authorities of the danger of arms being smuggled inside the city, which could then be used by mercenaries and hostile groups of citizens to overthrow the existing order.

This changeover to mercenary troops was deplored by people such as the Athenian orator Isocrates, who mourned the replacement of a citizen militia by mercenaries in much the same terms as Machiavelli would later write about Florence. Aristotle drew an explicit moral contrast between the citizen hoplite’s preference for death in battle over the disgrace of flight and the professional mercenary’s preference, despite superior fighting skills, for saving his skin. On the other hand, in the defence speeches of the fourth century from Athenian courtrooms, speakers who had served as mercenaries under Iphicrates in Thrace emphasised how honourable their period of service had been.

Moralising aside, as long as Hellenistic states continued to engage in the pursuit of power by force at each other’s expense, they would increasingly turn to mercenary soldiers who would not only pay for themselves but also enrich, even temporarily, their employers. True, such soldiers would not find themselves commemorated for patriotic self-sacrifice if they died in battle the way that citizen-soldiers had been by the Classical Greek poleis. Neither would the panoplies of armour taken from the enemy dead be displayed in the temples of the victors or at a pan-Hellenic sanctuary site in the same way or in the same spirit as before. Their reputation was not helped by soldiers sacrilegiously looting religious shrines such as Delphi, or by plays that held the miles gloriosus up as a stock comic figure.

In one way, Aristotle’s charge was unfair. These new mercenaries were no more or less ready to risk their lives in battle than citizens called away from their peacetime occupations. These men were professional, not only in being full-time soldiers, but also in being more innovative in military technique than citizen hoplites. Demosthenes’ complaint against Philip of Macedon that he campaigned all year-round using mercenaries and cavalry, archers, light-armed infantry and siege engines simply reflects his nostalgia for a past model that was simply gone. The short campaign culminating in the pitched battle becomes increasingly replaced by ambushes, stratagems and sieges of the kind that had existed in the earlier period, but now they came to the fore.

The important feature of these new mercenaries was that they were adept at the new mode of fighting. Griffith believes it was this fighting for which the mercenary was best adapted, especially as the reformed peltast of Iphicrates had become probably the model for mercenaries in general. Mercenaries were not merely auxiliaries now, but the exemplary practitioners of a new mode of fighting. It was not that heavy-armed infantry had become useless, or that Greek morals had declined, but rather that there were more options for the kinds of techniques that could be used in warfare, and a rise in the number of situations where ambush would be appropriate.

Warfare was still regarded as a normal feature of interstate relations, and risking death in battle was still seen by the young Greek male as the supreme manifestation of virtue. A young man could still be brought up to admire the exploits of warriors from the past, but the norms, values and beliefs that had motivated a citizen-soldier were increasingly unlikely to be replicated in an environment where military prowess might require different skills. Greek culture had always accepted lethal violence against fellow Greeks as normal behaviour. As long as assassinations, civil strife, proscriptions and executions were commonplace, and the recurrent themes of murder, revenge, blood-guilt, retribution and even human sacrifice appear as dramatic themes, why would an ambush be so shocking?

Yet, the moralising continued. Polybius rails against the Cretans. He accuses them of specialising in ambushes and treachery:

The Cretans both by land and sea were irresistible in ambuscades, forays, tricks played on the enemy, night attacks, and all petty operations which require fraud, but they are cowardly and down-hearted in the massed face-to face charge of an open battle. It is just the reverse with the Achaeans and Macedonians. I say this in order that my readers may not refuse to trust my judgement, because in some cases I make contrary pronouncements regarding the conduct of the same men even when engaged in pursuits of a like nature.

All these activities were the regular ones of light-armed soldiers. Ambush was exactly what these soldiers were solicited for and everyone was buying their services. The Cretan cities were the objects of frantic solicitations on the part of the Hellenistic sovereigns and many other cities, in particular Rhodes. Rhodes sent ambassadors to the island of Crete to conclude treaties of alliance with individual cities or groups of them. The treaties were aimed principally at ensuring stable supplies of troops for the powers of the Hellenistic world.

The Successor States and into the Hellenistic Age II

Hellenistic Ambush

With only meagre sources at our disposal, we can still document numerous cases of ambush, and they take the usual forms. Even the era of Philip and Alexander, so heavily based on the new Macedonian phalanx, has yielded examples of surprise and deception: for example, Polyaenus tells us about Philip when he was besieging the Thessalian city of Pharcedon in 356. The Pharcedonians surrendered, but as Philip’s mercenaries entered the city they fell into an ambush as many of the inhabitants threw stones and javelins at them from the roofs and towers. Philip, however, had already planned an ambush of his own. He ordered his Macedonians to make an assault on the rear part of the city, which was deserted because all the citizens were participating in ambush at the front. The Macedonians placed ladders against the wall and, when they reached the top, the Pharcedonians stopped hurling things at the mercenaries and ran hurriedly to ward off the men who had seized the wall. Before they could close in hand-to-hand combat, the Macedonians already had control of the city.

The Third Sacred war (356–346), fought between the Delphic Amphictyonic League (represented by Thebes) and Philip II of Macedon with the Phocians, set up the context for a story about diversionary tactics at sea used to set up an ambush. Polyaenus reports that, after ravaging the territory of Abdera and Maroneia in 352, Philip was returning with many ships and a land army. Chares, the Athenian, set an ambush with twenty triremes near Neapolis, a city on the east coast of the isthmus of Pallene, in the Chalcidice between Aphytis and Aegae. After selecting the four fastest ships, Philip manned them with his best rowers in terms of age, skill and strength, and gave orders to put out to sea before the rest of the fleet, and to sail past Neapolis, keeping close to the shore. They sailed past. Chares put out to sea with his twenty triremes in order to capture the four ships. Since the four were light and had the best rowers, however, they quickly gained the high sea. While Chares’ ships pursued vigorously, Philip sailed safely past Neapolis without being noticed, and Chares did not catch the four ships.

Even a clever commander such as Philip could find himself lured into an ambush. Onomarchus, the Phocian general in the Third Sacred war, set up such an operation against a Macedonian phalanx. He put a crescent-shape mountain in his rear, concealing men on the peaks at both ends with rocks and rock-throwing engines, and led his forces forward into the plain below. When the Macedonians came out against them and threw their javelins, the Phocians pretended to flee into the hollow middle of the mountain. As the Macedonians pursued with an eager rush after them, the men on the peaks threw rocks and crushed the Macedonian phalanx. Then Onomarchus signalled the Phocians to turn and attack the enemy. The Macedonians under attack from behind, and being pelted with rocks from above, retreated rapidly in great distress. During this flight Philip, no doubt covering his own reputation, said: ‘I do not flee, but retreat like rams do, in order to attack again more violently.’

There is a dispute among historians over whether Alexander the Great would actually use deception or whether he was above such tactics. A pair of passages in Arrian’s Anabasis provide a good illustration of a double standard concerning surprise and ambush. On the eve of Gaugamela, Arrian presents the story of Parmenion suggesting to Alexander that a surprise attack by night should be considered.55 Alexander replied that it was a dishonourable to steal the victory, and that he had to win his victories openly and without stratagem. The entire scene was probably invented to show that Parmenion was not as confident of a victory on the battlefield as Alexander. In 326, in contrast, during the campaign against Porus on the Hydaspes river, Alexander had to come up with a way to bypass Porus and his elephants, which were blocking his passage. Alexander used a feinting tactic to induce Porus to stand his ground and then he successfully crossed, under cover of night, some seventeen miles (twenty-seven kilometres) upstream. No one has suggested that this successful night operation was sneaky or morally dubious.

A similar example is told about Alexander when he took Thebes in 335 by hiding a sufficient force, and appointing Antipater to command it. He himself led a diversionary force against the city’s strong points. The Thebans went out and fought nobly against the force they saw. At the critical moment of the battle, Antipater led his force out of hiding, circled around to where the wall was unsound and unguarded, captured the city there and raised a signal. When Alexander saw it, he shouted out that he already had Thebes. The Thebans, who were fighting fiercely, fled when they turned around and saw the city captured. Both Philip and Alexander pioneered the successful use of the Macedonian phalanx and mixed contingents, yet both of them understood the use of deception and ambush when the situation called for it.

Surprises, ambushes and deception continued in Greece proper during the era before the complete Macedonian take over. Diodorus complains about the wars in the 350s being characterised by all forms of knavery including false truces. He reports a night attack on a camp in Greece by the Boeotians in 352/1. The Phocians were assaulted by night near Abai, where many were slain.61 In the same year, the Phocians made a night attack upon the Boeotians and slew 200.

From 323 to 301 we follow the struggle for power between the successors of Alexander. Cassander, king of Macedonia from 305 to 297, provides an example of a stratagem designed to take a city by stealth. When returning from Illyria in 314, being a day’s march from Epidamnus, he hid a force in ambush. He then sent horsemen and infantry to burn villages high in the mountains of Illyria and Atintanis that were clearly visible to the Epidamnians. The Epidamnians assumed Cassander had left after the destruction, and came out of their city to tend their farms. Cassander sprang the ambush and captured 2,000 of the men outside the city. Finding the city gates open, he entered and occupied Epidamnus.

Rather than just appearing on the battlefield expecting a fair fight, it was now common for each general to try and out-trick the other. The Greek general Eumenes of Cardia, who participated in the wars of the Diadochi as a supporter of the Macedonian Argead royal house, staged a surprise in the autumn of 317 at the Battle of Paraetacene. Eumenes and Antigonus met in a battle in Asia at an unknown site in the province of Paraetacene. The armies were camped close together, but a deep riverbed separated them. Supplies were short on both sides. Antigonus sent messengers to tamper with the loyalty of Eumenes’ army. The deserters came from Antigonus’ side with the intelligence that he was going to march his army away by night into the unplundered province of Gabiene. The cunning Eumenes, however, sent pretended deserters the other way: Eumenes would attack his camp during the night, they lied to Antigonus, to confine him to his camp so that Eumenes could reach Gabiene first. Sending his baggage on ahead, Eumenes had a lead of two watches before Antigonus detected the ruse and set out in pursuit. Leaving his infantry to make their slow way, Antigonus led on his cavalry. At dawn, Eumenes saw the horsemen on the ridge behind him and thought that all of Antigonus’ army was there. He ordered his forces into battle formation and so wasted his lead.

In 290, the Aetolians took possession of Delphi, a position of prestige that was enormously enhanced when they defended it against an attack by the Galatians, referred to in the sources as Gauls, in the winter of 279/8. It did not hurt the Greek cause that night operations seemed to have spooked the Gauls much in the same way that it occasionally spooked the Greeks. They encamped where night overtook them, and during the night they fell into a panic. They imagined they heard the trampling of horses riding against them and the attack of enemies, and after a little time the panic spread through the camp. Taking their weapons, they divided into two parties, killing and being killed, neither recognising their mother tongue nor one another’s forms or the shape of their.shields The victory over the Gauls established the Aetolians firmly in north central Greece.

Cleomenes III, king of Sparta, waged a war against the Achaean League led by Aratus of Sicyon from 229 to 222. This is the context of the story told in Polybius. When Aristoteles of Argos revolted against Cleomenes’ supporters, Cleomenes sent a force under the command of his general Timoxenus to help him. We are told that these troops made a ‘surprise attack’ and succeeded in entering and capturing the city. We are not told how Cleomenes took Argos back in spite of a gallant Achaean resistance or whether it involved subterfuge. Cleomenes eventually defeated Aratus in a battle by Mt Lycaeum in 227.

The third century produced a number of examples of ambush and complaints about them. The raids and plundering of the Aetolians, and their predatory habits, kept them constantly embroiled with Macedon. In 219, Philip V called the deputies from the allied cities to assemble at Corinth, and held a council to deliberate on the measures to be taken with regard to the Aetolians. Polybius says that, in addition to such charges as plundering a sacred temple in time of peace, the Arcadians entered a complaint that the Aetolians had attacked one of their cities under cover of night. The deputies of the allies, after hearing all these complaints, decided unanimously to make war on Aetolia.

Polybius reports the ambush of a force attacking a rearguard during a march near Thermon in 218 during the hostilities with Philip. The Aetolians had gathered to defend their country and numbered about 3,000. As long as Philip was on the heights, they did not approach him but remained hidden in strongholds under the command of Alexander of Trichonium. As soon as the rearguard had moved out of Thermus, they entered the town at once and attacked the last ranks. With the rearguard thrown into some confusion, the Aetolians fell on them with more determination and did some execution, emboldened by the nature of the ground and this opportunity. But Philip, having foreseen this, had concealed under a hill on the descent a picked force of peltasts. When they sprang up from this ambush and charged those of the enemy who had advanced farthest in the pursuit of the rearguard, the whole Aetolian force fled in complete rout across the country with a loss of 130 killed and about as many taken prisoner. It was a serious defeat at the hands of the Macedonians in 219 that finally drove the Aetolians into the arms of the Romans, who eventually stripped them of their powers and let the League die a quiet death.

Taking a city by stealth and trickery continued to be a major activity in the Hellenistic period. For a city, a foreign attack and a long siege were costly. It not only meant the temporary loss of its countryside with all its resources, but also the substantial destruction of the urban centre, especially as artillery devices became increasingly effective at punching through walls.

We are told of an ambush in 219 when Philip V besieged the Aetolian city of Phoetia and it surrendered. During the following night, a force of 500 Aetolians arrived to help, under the impression that the city still held out. The king got word of their approach and placed an ambush in a favourite spot, then killed all the captured troops except for a very few.

Polybius describes the destruction of a marauding army of Eleans under Euripidas in January–February 218. Euripidas, whom the Aetolians had sent to the Eleans to command their forces, made an attack on the territories of Dyme, Pharae and Tritaea and had collected a considerable amount of booty. He was on his way back to Elis when Miccus of Dyme, substrategus of the Achaeans, taking with him the complete levies of Dyme, Pharae and Tritaea, marched out and attacked Euripidas and his men as they were retiring. Pressing on too vigorously, however, Miccus fell into an ambush and was defeated with considerable loss: forty of his infantry and about 200 taken prisoners. A year later in 217, Polybius reports an almost identical situation where Lycus and Demodocus were the commanders of the Achaean cavalry. On hearing of the advance of the Aetolians from Elis, they collected the levies of Dyme, Patrae and Pharae and with these troops and the mercenaries invaded Elis. Reaching the place called Phyxium, they sent out their light-armed infantry and their cavalry to overrun the country, placing their heavily armed troops in ambush near this place. When the Eleans with their whole force arrived to defend the country from pillage and followed up the retreating marauders, Lycus issued from his ambush and fell upon the foremost of them. The Eleans did not wait to charge but turned and ran at once on the appearance of the enemy, who killed about 200 of them and captured eighty, bringing in all the booty they had collected in safety.

Another report from 218 has the Ptolemaic forces defending the city of Atabyrium in the Jezreel valley. Antiochus III and his Seleucid army lured them to their death by means of an ambush. The city lay on a conical hill, the ascent of which was more than fifteen stades. First he hid a force in ambush, then on the ascent he provoked the garrison into sallying out and skirmishing. He feigned fear and began to retreat, enticing the advanced guard to follow his own retreating troops for a considerable distance downhill. Finally, he turned his own troops around and advanced on them, while those concealed in the ambush issued forth. He attacked the enemy and killed many of them, and throwing them into panic took the city by assault.

Aratus of Sicyon [d. 213 BCE], a third-century Greek statesman who brought his city-state into the Achaean League and led the League forces, has an ambush attributed to him by Polybius where the besiegers of a town failed because of a mistake in signalling. Aratus was plotting with elements in the city of Elea to exit the city quietly. One of the men was meant to act as a signaller. He was to reach a certain tomb on a hill outside the city and take a position there wearing a mantle. The others were to attack the officers who kept the gate at midday when they were sleeping. Once they received the signal that this was done, the Achaeans were to spring from their ambush position and make for the city gate at full speed. The arrangements were all made and when the day came Aratus arrived and hid in the riverbed waiting for the signal. But at the fifth hour of the day, the owner of some sheep, who was in the habit of grazing them near town, had some urgent private business with his shepherd and came out of the gate dressed in a mantle and went and stood on the identical tomb looking round for the shepherd. Aratus and his troops, thinking that the signal had been given them, made a rush for the town, but the gate was immediately closed in their faces by its keepers. Their friends inside the town had as yet taken no action, and the consequence was that Aratus’ coup failed. This debacle brought destruction on those of the citizens who were acting with him too, because once they were detected the citizens put them on trial and had them executed. This incident illustrates, once again, that even a well-planned ambush can end in disaster if something goes wrong with the execution. In this case, Polybius was of the opinion that the flaw in the plan was the use of a single signal by the commander who, he claims, was still young and ignorant of the accuracy secured by a double signal and countersignals.

An ambush story comes from Philip V’s taking of the city of Lissus in Illyria in 213. The arrival of Philip was no secret; considerable forces from neighbouring parts of Illyria had collected at Lissus to confront him. But the Acrolissus stronghold had such natural strength that they stationed only a small garrison to hold it. At first, the battle seemed even, but eventually Philip withdrew his forces. Seeing Philip slowly withdrawing his divisions one after another, the Illyrians mistakenly thought that he was abandoning the field. They let themselves be enticed out of the city owing to their confidence in the strength of the place. They abandoned Acrolissus in small groups and poured down using by-paths to the level ground, thinking there would be a thorough rout of the enemy and a chance at capturing some booty. Instead, the troops Philip had placed in ambush rose unobserved and delivered a brisk attack. At the same time, his peltasts turned and fell on the enemy. The force from Lissus was thrown into disorder and retreated in scattered groups running for the shelter of the city, while those who had abandoned Acrolissus were cut off from it by the troops that had issued from the ambush. In this way both Acrolissus was taken without striking a blow, and Lissus surrendered the next day after a desperate struggle.

The same kind of story is told about the mercenaries of Pellene in 200. Their scouts reported the invasion of the enemy, and at once they advanced and attacked the invading Achaeans. The Achaeans, however, had been ordered to retreat and lure them into an ambush. When the pursuit took them to the place where the ambush had been set up, the Achaeans rose up and cut some of them to pieces (katakopeisan); others were made prisoners.


The heyday of mercenaries seems to have been the last thirty years of the fourth century and perhaps the first thirty years of the third. Our principal literary sources end with the Battle of Ipsus in 301. After Ipsus the Hellenistic world slowed down, not to peace but to warfare under a new and more settled system. During this generation, mercenaries were for a short time the most important soldiers in the service of the great army commanders. We would know a lot more about ambushing in this period if we had biographies of some of the great commanders, or even the diary of a common soldier, but nothing of this sort has survived. Men such as Leosthenes the Athenian, the ‘mystery man’ of Hellenistic history, or the Aetolians Theodotus and Scopas could have told us something about their activities in the field. These were generals who lived by their wits and died in the field. They were stars of their profession, but they have vanished from the historical scene.

Ambush took the same forms in the Hellenistic Age as it did in the fifth and fourth centuries. The Hellenistic army was one of professionals, with its many specialised troops. Most of the non-phalangite Greek mercenaries from the Hellenistic period were peltasts. Specialist contingents such as the Cretan archers fought in their own native style. Commanders had a vast array of professional fighters to choose from. The use of these diverse troops is exemplified under the command of Eumenes II at Magnesia, where he broke up the charge of Antiochus’ war chariots with his Cretan archers, slingers and mounted javelin men.

When men ranked commanders in the Hellenistic Age they thought in terms of personal prowess as well as intellectual quality. Cleverness and courage were the qualities that described a good commander. A general’s ability to think quickly and capitalise on the speed and flexibility of his troops to stage an ambush was considered a great asset. And while high social status was never given to peltasts, skirmishers or mercenaries of any kind, no Hellenistic army operated without them. Warfare had become endemic and too complicated to rely on simply the phalanx. The terrain on which an army might have to fight was far-ranging and required the flexibility of highly mobile, light-armed troops. The ever-present possibility of an ambush meant one had to be on guard for the safety of one’s army, one’s city and one’s life. Sometimes, the only way to secure this safety was to ambush the enemy first. Polybius might mourn the loss of a kinder, gentler age, but what he could not conjure up was a past that did not have ambush as part of its military repertoire.

Battle of Telamon 225 BC

The Gallic War II – The Battle of Telamon (225 BC)

It is only during the Gallic retreat northwards that Polybius reintroduces the second Consul, C. Atilius Regulus. We have no details of his activities in Sardinia, and only know that he was detained long enough to leave eastern Italy under-defended, allowing the Gallic tribes to push through unopposed. We must assume that when the Gallic army did invade western Italy, messengers were sent to him at the same time as Aemilius in the east. Again, Polybius does not provide us with a timescale, but whilst events were transpiring at the Battle of Faesulae, Atilius seemingly ended his campaign in Sardinia (though we are not told with what level of success) and transported his army across the Tyrrhenian Sea to the city of Pisa. Polybius states that Atilius marched south towards Rome, which he must have assumed was the intended objective of the Gallic force. At this point it is clear that he did not know of the events of Faesulae or that the Gauls were heading directly towards him. He naturally sent scouts out ahead of the main force and it was they who first encountered the retreating Gallic army near the city of Telamon (modern Talamone) on the Etrurian coast:

When the Celts were near Telamon in Etruria, their advanced foragers encountered the advance guard of Caius and were made prisoners. On being examined by the Consul they narrated all that had recently occurred and told him of the presence of the two armies, stating that the Gauls were quite near and Lucius behind them. The news surprised him but at the same time made him very hopeful, as he thought he had caught the Gauls on the march between the two armies.

The Battle of Telamon (225 BC) – Polybian Version

Thus, through a change of circumstance Atilius found his fortunes drastically changed; from having been held too long in Sardinia and missing the Gallic invasion, he now found that he was in prime position to fight and defeat the Gauls, and set his army to give battle. We are fortunate to have a detailed narrative of the battle preserved in Polybius, probably based on a first-hand account from Fabius Pictor:

He ordered his Tribunes to put the legions in fighting order and to advance thus at marching pace in so far as the nature of the ground allowed the attack in line. He himself had happily noticed a hill situated above the road by which the Celts must pass, and taking his cavalry with him, advanced at full speed, being anxious to occupy the crest of the hill before their arrival and be the first to begin the battle, feeling certain that thus he would get the largest share of credit for the result.

It seems that Atilius was over-eager to claim the glory of defeating the Gauls for himself and neglected to link up with the army of Aemilius, which was trailing the Gauls. Once again two Roman commanders failed to link up properly and deliver a decisive blow to the Gauls, and utilise the numbers of both armies catching the Gauls in a pincer. Nevertheless, Atilius’ decisiveness had allowed him to select his own battle site and occupy the high ground. The first clash of the battle was a light skirmish between an advance force of Gallic cavalry and infantry and Atilius’ cavalry on the top of the hill:

The Celts at first were ignorant of the arrival of Atilius and imagined from what they saw, that Aemilius’ cavalry had got round their flank in the night and were engaged in occupying the position. They therefore at once sent on their own cavalry and some of their light-armed troops to dispute the possession of the hill. But very soon they learnt of Caius’ presence from one of the prisoners brought in.

Although Polybius gives us no details of this first skirmish between the two sides at Telamon, his narrative does indicate that the Gauls were able to take prisoners and thus ascertain the nature of the threat they faced, and were able to make the appropriate tactical decisions. Thus Atilius seems to have lost some of the initiative:

[the Gauls] lost no time in drawing up their infantry, deploying them so that they faced both front and rear, since, both from the intelligence that reached them and from what was happening before their eyes, they knew that the one army was following them, and they expected to meet the other in their front.

Whilst the fighting was continuing for the hill between Atilius’ cavalry and the Gauls, fortune again favoured the Romans, as Aemilius was now close enough to learn of Atilius’ disposition and lend aid:

Aemilius, who had heard of the landing of the legions at Pisa but had not any idea that they were already so near him, now, when he saw the fight going on round the hill, knew that the other Roman Army was quite close. Accordingly, sending on his cavalry to help those who were fighting on the hill, he drew up his infantry in the usual order and advanced against the foe.

Thus a third force of cavalry entered the battle on the hill, to join Atilius’ cavalry and the Gallic cavalry supported by Gallic infantry. Away from the hill, it seems that Aemilius was in fact closer to the main body of the Gallic army than Atilius’ main force, which must have been further ahead. Polybius presents us with a detailed disposition of the Gallic force:

The Celts had drawn up facing their rear, from which they expected Aemilius to attack, the Gaesatae from the Alps and behind them the Insubres, and facing in the opposite direction, ready to meet the attack of Caius’ [Atilius’] legions, they placed the Taurisci and the Boii from the right bank of the Po. Their wagons and chariots they stationed at the extremity of either wing and collected their booty on one of the neighbouring hills with a protecting force round it. This order of the Celtic forces, facing both ways, not only presented a formidable appearance, but was well adapted to the exigencies of the situation. The Insubres and Boii wore their trousers and light cloaks, but the Gaesatae had discarded these garments owing to their proud confidence in themselves, and stood naked, with nothing but their arms, in front of the whole army, thinking that thus they would be more efficient, as some of the ground was overgrown with brambles which would catch in their clothes and impede the use of their weapons.

Despite the Gauls being caught between two Roman armies, the lack of Roman co-ordination and the skirmish on the hill had allowed them time to make adequate dispositions to face both Roman armies with confidence. Facing the north and Atilius’ army were the Boii and Taurisci, and to the south and facing Aemilius’ army were the Gaesatae and the Insubres.

As before, the initial phase of the battle was between the cavalry of all three armies and focussed on gaining control of the hill, though we do not know the number involved:

At first the battle was confined to the hill, all the armies gazing on it, so great were the numbers of cavalry from each host combating there pell-mell. In this action Caius [Atilius] the Consul fell in the mêlée fighting with desperate courage, and his head was brought to the Celtic kings; but the Roman cavalry, after a stubborn struggle, at length overmastered the enemy and gained possession of the hill.

Thus, the Romans emerged victorious in this initial phase, but lost the Consul Atilius. It is difficult to know what to make of Atilius’ tactics. He seems to have made the decisive move to offer battle at Telamon and chose his ground well, but we must question his decision to take the fore with his cavalry on the hill. From the information we have, it does seem that he struck out too far from his main army and made himself a tempting target sat on top of that hill. At first the Gauls were able to attack him in force, capturing prisoners, and thus learn of the nature of the force that awaited them, avoiding any attempt at ambush.

Furthermore, his force seems to have been overwhelmed on that hill, leading to his death in battle. Ultimately, his decision not to link up with the army of his Consular colleague appears to have cost him at least his life, but not the battle; an outcome which was only avoided by Aemilius’ timely arrival rather than any co-ordination between the two men.

With the cavalry battle concluded and the Romans victorious on the hill, the main armies moved to engage. Despite the loss of the Consul Atilius Regulus, it seems that the Romans armies were able to co-ordinate their actions, possibly thanks to the cavalry of the two Roman armies intermingling on the hill. We have no timescale for the lapse between the cavalry battle and the advance of the main armies. Now, however, the Gauls found themselves attacked on two fronts:

The infantry were now close upon each other, and the spectacle was a strange and marvellous one, not only to those actually present at the battle, but to all who could afterwards picture it to themselves from the reports. For in the first place, as the battle was between three armies, it is evident that the appearance and the movements of the forces marshalled against each other must have been in the highest degree strange and unusual. Again, it must have been to all present, and still is to us, a matter of doubt whether the Celts, with the enemy advancing on them from both sides, were more dangerously situated, or, on the contrary, more effectively, since at one and the same time they were fighting against both their enemies and were protecting themselves in the rear from both, while, above all, they were absolutely cut off from retreat or any prospect of escape in the case of defeat, this being the peculiarity of this two-faced formation. The Romans, however, were on the one hand encouraged by having caught the enemy between their two armies, but on the other they were terrified by the fine order of the Celtic host and the dreadful din, for there were innumerable horn-blowers and trumpeters, and, as the whole army were shouting their war-cries at the same time, there was such a tumult of sound that it seemed that not only the trumpets and the soldiers but all the country round had got a voice and caught up the cry. Very terrifying too were the appearance and the gestures of the naked warriors in front, all in the prime of life, and finely built men, and all in the leading companies richly adorned with gold torques and armlets. The sight of them indeed dismayed the Romans, but at the same time the prospect of winning such spoils made them twice as keen for the fight.

As was custom, the Romans opened with a volley of pila, which seemed to have a particularly devastating effect on the Gaesatae facing Aemilius’ army:

But when the javelineers advanced, as is their usage, from the ranks of the Roman legions and began to hurl their javelins in well-aimed volleys, the Celts in the rear ranks indeed were well protected by their trousers and cloaks, but it fell out far otherwise than they had expected with the naked men in front, and they found themselves in a very difficult and helpless predicament. For the Gallic shield does not cover the whole body; so that their nakedness was a disadvantage, and the bigger they were the better chance had the missiles of going home. At length, unable to drive off the javelineers owing to the distance and the hail of javelins, and reduced to the utmost distress and perplexity, some of them, in their impotent rage, rushed wildly on the enemy and sacrificed their lives, while others, retreating step by step on the ranks of their comrades, threw them into disorder by their display of faint-heartedness. Thus was the spirit of the Gaesatae broken down by the javelineers.

With the volleys of pila exhausted, the two sides met head on:

…but the main body of the Insubres, Boii, and Taurisci, once the javelineers had withdrawn into the ranks and the Roman maniples attacked them, met the enemy and kept up a stubborn hand-to hand combat. For, though being almost cut to pieces, they held their ground, equal to their foes in courage, and inferior only, as a force and individually, in their arms. The Roman shields, it should be added, were far more serviceable for defence and their swords for attack, the Gallic sword being only good for a cut and not for a thrust.

It seems, however, that the two sides were evenly matched until the decisive move was made by the Roman cavalry on top of the hill, attacking the Gallic force from the flanks:

But finally, attacked from higher ground and on their flank by the Roman cavalry, which rode down the hill and charged them vigorously, the Celtic infantry were cut to pieces where they stood, their cavalry taking to flight.

Thus it seems that both Consuls had a hand in the tactics that led to the Roman victory; Atilius for recognizing the importance of taking control of the hill top which would give the Romans access to the Gallic flank, and Aemilius for having the presence of mind to send reinforcements to the hill top when it seemed that Atilius had overreached himself and placed his position in jeopardy. In the end, despite the disjointed start to the battle, the Roman emerged totally victorious, with the defeated Gauls trapped between three Roman forces and annihilated. Polybius, supported by other sources, places the total Gallic dead at 40,000, with 10,000 taken prisoner; the most comprehensive Roman victory over the Gauls in Roman history to date. Given that our sources stated that the Gallic forces were 70,000 strong (50,000 infantry and 20,000 cavalry, see above), this must mean that some 20,000 Gauls escaped. Of the Gaesatae chieftains, Concolitanus was taken prisoner and Aneroëstus fled, but committed suicide rather than be taken prisoner.

The Battle of Telamon (225 BC) – Non-Polybian Versions

Although Polybius preserves by far the best account, written less than 100 years later and based on first-hand accounts, a number of other sources provide shorter versions of the campaign, some of which add some interesting details or variations. Both Diodorus and Orosius offer short accounts of the campaign and the Battle of Telamon; both are remarkably similar:

The Celts and Gauls, having assembled a force of 200,000 men, joined battle with the Romans and in the first combat were victorious. In a second attack they were again victorious, and even killed one of the Roman Consuls. The Romans, who for their part had seven hundred thousand infantry and seventy thousand cavalry, after suffering these two defeats, won a decisive victory in the third engagement. They slew forty thousand men and took the rest captive, with the result that the chief prince of the enemy slashed his own throat and the prince next in rank to him was taken alive.

Battle was joined near Arretium [modern Arezzo]. The Consul Atilius was killed and his 800,000 Romans, after part of their number were cut down fled, even though the slaughter on their side ought not to have panicked them, for historians record that only 3,000 of them were killed.

After this a second battle was fought against the Gauls in which at least 40,000 of them were slaughtered.

Both sources seem to make the same mistake on the Roman numbers, interpreting Polybius’ figures for total available manpower as the number of soldiers Rome had in the field, and Orosius seems to believe that all eight hundred thousand Roman soldiers fled the field. Diodorus interestingly has three battles in his campaign; two Roman defeats and a victory. However he states that a Consul (Atilius) was killed in the second battle, which indicates that both sources, or their source, separated the Battle of Telamon into two separate battles; the cavalry action on the hill and the infantry clash, the former of which he believes to have been a Roman defeat. Similarly Orosius has separated the battle into two, with Atilius being killed in a defeat, followed by a victory.

It is interesting to see how the narrative of this battle has evolved over time, with Atilius’ action evolving into a Roman defeat, which was then avenged at Telamon, rather than being seen as two parts of the same battle. Ancient historians seemed to have judged Atilius poorly, mostly for being killed in battle, which then discredited his actions on the hill. As it was, it was his tactical move to secure the hill for the Roman cavalry which proved to be the turning point of the battle, securing Roman victory, though he needed Aemilius’ force to secure control of the hill, having seemingly overstretched his own position. Despite his short and garbled account, Orosius is the only one to provide us with a figure for the Roman dead; three thousand as opposed to the forty thousand killed on the Gallic side.

The theme of Atilius’ role being downgraded as time passed can be seen in the account preserved by Eutropius, who erases him altogether:

When Lucius Aemilius was Consul, a vast force of the Gauls crossed the Alps; but all Italy united in favour of the Romans; and it is recorded by Fabius the historian, who was present in that war, that there were eight hundred thousand men ready for the contest. Affairs, however, were brought to a successful termination by the Consul alone; forty thousand of the enemy were killed, and a triumph decreed to Aemilius.

Here Eutropius goes out of his way to state that it was Aemilius alone who was responsible for the Roman victory. Florus too has a short account of the war, which although severely lacking in detail, states that it was Aemilius who defeated the Gauls.¹⁷ The only exception to this trend is Pliny, who does not provide detail of the campaign, but does comment on Aemilius and Atilius raising nearly 800,000 men (again a misreading of Polybius, who stated that that number were available, not mobilized. Plutarch comments on the early years of the war without even mentioning either Consul of 225 BC:

The first conflicts of this war brought great victories and also great disasters to the Romans, and led to no sure and final conclusion.

The figure of 40,000 Gallic dead is a common one throughout all accounts of the battle. Even Jerome preserves the figure in an entry. Dio has a fragment on the Gallic character, which may reveal some small additional detail about the battle:

The Gauls became dejected on seeing that the Romans had already seized the most favourable positions.

Zonaras, however, preserves an interesting variation on the campaign, no doubt mirroring the original account of Dio:

The barbarians plundered some towns, but at last a great storm occurred in the night, and they suspected that Heaven was against them. Consequently they lost heart, and falling into a panic, attempted to find safety in flight. Regulus pursued them and brought on an engagement with the rear-guard in which he was defeated and lost his life. Aemilius occupied a hill and remained quiet. The Gauls in turn occupied another hill, and for several days both sides were inactive; then the Romans, through anger at what had taken place, and the barbarians, from arrogance born of their victory, charged down from the heights and came to blows. For a long time the battle was evenly fought, but finally the Romans surrounded the others with their cavalry, cut them down, seized their camp, and recovered the spoils.

Here we have some significant differences. The first notable one concerns the early Gallic campaigns, which ignores the Roman defeat at Faesulae and has the Gauls turning back due to divine omens. Next we have the role of Regulus, who again is relegated to a supporting role, killed fighting the Gallic rearguard, which is interesting as he actually lay in the path of the Gauls and was attacked by an advance contingent of Gallic cavalry, whilst it was Aemilius who was to their rear. Dio again separates the two engagements, this time inserting a number of days between the clashes. During the final battle, again unnamed, both sides occupied opposing hills and then charged at each other, though again the battle is won by the Roman cavalry.

This is a fascinating example of the divergences we see in the ancient sources. If we did not have the account of Polybius, then it would be Zonaras who provided the most detail. We would conclude that there were indeed two final battles to the campaign, separated by a period of time, with Atilius and Aemilius not joining up their forces and Atilius dying in battle first. Given this disparity, it does beg the question how many other accounts of Roman battles and campaigns we have which are similarly skewed towards one version without us even being aware of it.

First Contact: Rome and Carthage

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.

The Carthaginians had commercial interests in Etruria (low-cost iron and copper) and had combined with the Etruscans to challenge the Greeks of Massalia (Latin Massilia, modern Marseilles) in a naval engagement off Corsica in 535 BC, thereby preventing them from establishing themselves at Alalia (Aleria) on the east coast of the island. This was also the end of the Greek dream of tapping into the Iberian copper and silver trade, with the river the Greeks knew as the Iber (Latin Iberus, modern Ebro) becoming the effective dividing line between Carthaginian and Greek (i.e. Massiliote) spheres. Archaeological excavations in a sanctuary at Pyrgi (Santa Severa), the port of the Etruscan city of Caere, have uncovered three gold plaques inscribed, two in Etruscan and one in Punic, with a dedication made to the Semitic mother-goddess Astarte and her Etruscan equivalent, Uni, by the ruler of Caere. They can be dated early in the fifth century BC.

This evidence gives us the context for the first of three treaties made between Rome and Carthage before the First Punic War. Dated, according to Polybios, to the beginning of the Republic and twenty-eight years before Xerxes’ invasion of Greece (i.e. 508 BC), our Greek historian had difficulty reading this fascinating document on which he found the date because of its archaic Latin, which ‘differs from the modern so much that it can only partially be made out’. To the best of his understanding it said the Romans and their allies must not sail beyond the Fair Promontory unless forced to do so by storm or by enemies, and that they must follow certain regulations if they want to trade in Africa or Sardinia, though not with Carthaginian Sicily, where they enjoyed equal rights with others. The Carthaginians, for their part, agreed not to injure any Latin community or to establish a fort in Latin territory. Polybios tells us that the Fair Promontory, Pulchri Promontorium to the Romans, was on the African coast, lying ‘immediately to the front of Carthage to the north’, in other words the modern Cap Farina or Rass Sidi Ali el Mekki, the western horn flanking the Gulf of Tunis, the eastern one being Cap Bon or Rass Adder, the ancient Hermaia Promontory.

Polybios says the treaty names praetors but neither a king nor two consuls, while the spheres of influence defined for both Carthage and Rome only fit this period (viz. the first years of the Republic) and Carthaginian interest in the area has been confirmed by the Pyrgi inscriptions. So the treaty of 508 BC was precisely drawn up to delimit the sphere of commercial activities of the Romans, who were excluded from trading along the African coast west of Carthage. More important, the actual conditions of the treaty give us a vivid glimpse into the way that the Carthaginians tried to exercise economic control in the western Mediterranean.

In 348 BC the Romans and their allies made a second treaty with Carthage and its allies, also reported but not dated by Polybios. The terms of this treaty bound both sides not to harm the friends or allies of either, and again regulated the circumstances in which the Romans could trade in Carthaginian territory, but also adds southern Iberia to the original exclusion zone. The Romans are also prevented from marauding along the North African coast, implying those Phoenician cities such as Utica was now within the Carthaginian sphere, and if the Carthaginians capture any city in Latium, which is not subject to Rome, they may keep the captives and the booty, but must hand over the city. The advantage in the treaty again seems to lie with Carthage as the dominant power.

All this time the real enemies of the Carthaginians were the Greeks, and the real reason for this, as we shall soon discover, is not difficult to appreciate, namely the island of Sicily. A third and final treaty reported by Polybios was made at the time of the Pyrrhic War (280-275 BC) and ‘before the Carthaginians had begun their war for Sicily’. This probably places the signing of the treaty after Pyrrhus’ two victories at Herakleia (280 BC) and Asculum (279 BC) when the Carthaginians must have feared that the ‘elephant king’ would cross to Sicily, as he would in the following year when he would almost drive them out of the island. In the treaty both sides confirmed their previous agreements, and added that if they should make an alliance against Pyrrhus each side shall provide help to the other, the Carthaginians especially by sea. The chief interest of the treaty, from our point of view, is the total lack of Roman naval forces it implies. This situation continued until the outbreak of the First Punic War.

So in 279 BC relations between Rome and Carthage (more friends than rivals) were reasonably good, albeit under a common threat. But following Pyrrhus’ withdrawal from Italy after his defeat at Malventum (275 BC), the Romans planted two Latin colonies, Cosa and Paestum, on the west coast of the peninsula (273 BC). Was Rome afraid of Carthaginian seapower? To return to the third treaty, according to Justin, the Carthaginians despatched one Mago with 120 ships (Valerius Maximus says 130) to aid the Romans, but the Senate, while expressing their thanks, rejected the aid, whereupon Mago sailed away to negotiate with Pyrrhus6 This treaty between Carthage and Rome would thus appear to have been negotiated after these events; ‘perhaps’, as Lazenby says, ‘after Pyrrhus had rejected some offer by Mago’. It appears Mago had made his point. The 120 warships could be thrown into either scale.

North from Carthage, across 140km of water, lay the triangular-shaped island of Sicily, the key to the western Mediterranean as it commanded the narrow sea between the toe of Italy and the northernmost tip of the North African coast. Initially, Carthage had not been strong enough nor even interested in acquiring the island, despite its good harbours and its fecundity. To quote Thucydides on the pre-Greek settlers of Sicily:

There were also Phoenicians living all around Sicily. The Phoenicians occupied the headlands and small islands off the coast and used them as posts for trading with the Sicels. But when the Greeks began to come in by sea in great numbers, the Phoenicians abandoned most of their settlements and concentrated on the towns of Motya, Soleis, and Panormus, where they lived together in the neighbourhood of the Elymi, partly because they relied on their alliance with the Elymi, partly because from here the voyage from Sicily to Carthage is shortest.

From his account, despite its brevity, we learn that the early Phoenician traders in Sicily were not forcibly driven to the western end of the island by an advancing tide of Greek colonists, as some scholars have held, but merely abandoned what were no more than trading stations. The value and accuracy of Thucydides’ passage, in the light of archaeological discoveries, has become increasingly evident.

However, sometime after 580 BC, Carthage was finally enticed into what would become troubled waters for it. As we have discussed elsewhere, the first Carthaginian army to land in Sicily was possibly under a general named Malchus. Anyway, whatever he did or did not achieve there, for the first hundred years Carthage was happy to maintain a low-key approach to Sicily, but the year 480 BC saw its first large-scale attempt at imperial expansion. Gelon, tyrant of Syracuse, was making moves to unite the island under his military leadership, and in doing so was menacing the Phoenician inhabitants of the south and west. Carthage responded, and despatched an expeditionary force under Hamilcar, son of Hanno, to meet this threat. In fact the Carthaginian armada was so formidable that contemporaries compared it with the host of Xerxes then being marshalled in the east. It was to suffer a similar fate. Hamilcar landed at the Punic city of Panormus (Palermo), only to be resoundingly defeated by Gelon near Himera on, it is said, the same day as the Persians were licked at Salamis.

So great was the loss for Carthage at Himera (Hamilcar himself had died fighting), it seems to go into a decline over the next few decades. The war was ended by this one blow. Carthage sued for peace, paid a large indemnity, and in the event, despite consistent rumours of invasions, left Sicily alone for seventy years. Meantime back home, the ruling Magonid dynasty was ousted from the executive and the aristocracy seized power. Relations with sub-Saharan Africa were strengthened, a region known for its gold-bearing rivers, and, most especially, Carthage fell back on the flat, fertile seaboard of North Africa, taking over a vast surrounding area for livestock-raising and fruit groves.

In 409 BC, however, Carthage had recovered enough to intervene once more in Sicilian affairs. Under Hannibal, grandson of Hamilcar, a Carthaginian punitive force was successful in capturing Selinous (Selinunte) while the Greek relieving force was still at the stage of preparation. Next Hannibal broke into Himera, and having destroyed the city and slaughtered 3,000 Greek captives at the scene of his grandfather’s death, took his army home to Carthage laden with much booty. The principal foe, Syracuse, was however still untouched, and three years later, a second Carthaginian expedition, again led by Hannibal, landed on the island to spread terror anew through the Greek cities. The Carthaginians, however, soon found themselves dogged by ill fortune. A ‘plague’ decimated their ranks, even killing Hannibal as his besieging army lay rotting below the walls of Akragas (Latin Agrigentum, modern Agrigento). Although his successor, Himilco, son of Hanno, succeeded in capturing both that wealthy city and Gela and defeating a Syracusan relief attempt, a return of the pestilence left his command so weakened that in 405 BC he signed a peace accord with Dionysios of Syracuse. The newly established tyrant was more than happy for the respite. Equally contented with the outcome, Himilco sailed back to Carthage with the survivors of his anaemic army.

Seven years later Dionysios felt strong enough to renew hostilities with Carthage. The war was popular, and the Greeks began it with a massacre of all the Carthaginians and Phoenicians in their cities. Dionysios secured Greek Sicily and, the following year, marched on the Punic stronghold of Motya (Mozia). This well walled offshore island fell with the help of a formidable array of siege machinery, including recently invented non-torsion catapults. But this sparked off a new Carthaginian effort, in which Himilco not only retook Motya but also sacked Messina on the other side of the island and finally, after a decisive naval victory, drove Dionysios back to face a siege in Syracuse itself. This expedition, however, also ended in a complete disease-ridden disaster and the loss of the entire army, which in turn sparked off a revolt by Carthage’s African subjects.

An agreed frontier was drawn up between the two spheres and an uneasy truce was to last over the next half century. But by now Sicily was an obsession. The astonishing seesaw continued when a third major attempt at its conquest was launched in 341 BC, and once again it ended in disaster and defeat. Yet despite this, the lack of unity amongst the Sicilian Greeks enabled Carthage to hold tight the extreme western end of the island. ‘No land was more productive of tyrants than Sicily’, wrote Justin, and it is generally agreed amongst modern commentators that the Sicilian tyrannies owed their outmoded existence at least in part to the need of a strong hand and central control against the Carthaginians. Nonetheless, after the breakdown in the second generation of the tyranny established by Dionysios, the Corinthian Timoleon sought to purge the island of its larger-than-life warlords and their roughneck private armies, and revive the autonomy of the Greek city states. But though he was successful in beating the Carthaginians more decisively than they had been since Gelon’s time, no long-term political stability was achieved for the war weary island. The liberty Timoleon offered was liberty in the old city-state style, and Greek Sicily had no longer the vitality to make use of it. Tyranny reappeared on the island.

In 311 BC Agathokles, whose dream was the complete unification of Sicily under thef aegis of Syracuse, attacked the last of these Punic possessions, but was heavily defeated and driven all the way back to Syracuse, most of the island falling into Carthaginian hands. In an act of sheer desperation, though others would argue this was true strategic insight, the tyrant loaded 14,000 troops, mercenaries mostly, onto 60 ships, slipped out of the harbour, and set course for Africa, hoping by this bold counterstroke to save the situation. In this he was successful. Having literally burnt his boats, he defeated a Carthaginian army, conscripted in haste, which stood against him and thus was able to move at will through the fertile countryside and the undefended cities. Thence caught on the back foot, Carthage had to recall troops from Sicily to deal with the invader. However, Agathokles failed to take well-walled Carthage itself and eventually peace was made in 307 BC, which left the Carthaginians in control of most of western and southern Sicily. Although Agathokles’ daring African expedition failed, later it was to influence the Romans in the Punic wars.

Carthage had one more foe to face before the curtain went up on the struggle with Rome. In 280 BC the Italian-Greek city of Taras (Latin Tarentum, modern Taranto), under threat from the Romans, had called in Pyrrhus of Epeiros, an outstanding mercenary warrior-king, to assist them. His first bloody victory over Roman troops was near Taras’ colony, Herakleia, after which he dashed northwards to Rome and sent his trusted diplomat Kineas to extend terms to the Senate. He offered to restore all prisoners and to end the war, if the Romans would make peace with Taras, grant autonomy to the Italian Greeks, and return all territory taken from the Samnites and Lucanians, Oscan peoples recently conquered by Rome. These terms would have severely limited the spread of Roman involvement in the south and have created a Tarentine supremacy there. He was refused bluntly and sent packing by the Senate, and he was said to have reported to his king that Rome was like a many-headed monster whose armies would keep on being replenished. If this was true, then Kineas, erstwhile pupil of the great Athenian orator and democrat Demosthenes, was a shrewd judge of Roman manpower.

After this refusal Pyrrhus won a second bloody victory at Asculum, a ferocious two-day engagement, in which his elephants of war played a major role. Each one carried a tower, or howdah, strapped to its back as a fighting platform protecting two men armed with javelins. This is our first reliable reference to the howdah, and Pyrrhus may have invented it. In any event, only when a heroic (or foolhardy) legionary hacked off the trunk of one elephant were the Romans said to have realized that ‘the monsters were mortal’. Nonetheless, they still terrified the enemy cavalry. Once again, the casualties on both sides were heavy. ‘Another such victory’, Pyrrhus is said to have remarked, ‘and we shall be lost’, whence our saying ‘a Pyrrhic victory’ for any success bought at too high a price. As was becoming painfully clear, the Romans could afford such losses better than Pyrrhus could, as they had much of Italy from which to recruit, whereas the highly skilled professionals of Pyrrhus’ Macedonian-style phalanx were irreplaceable.

In 278 BC Pyrrhus faced a choice: either to turn to Macedonia, where recent events gave him hope of the throne there, or else to Sicily, in keeping with his former marriage to a Syracusan princess, none other than the daughter of Agathokles, Lanassa. While continuing to protect Taras, he chose to go south to Sicily where he now promised ‘freedom’ from the Carthaginians, who had high hopes of winning the whole of the island. For three years he showed no more commitment to real freedom than any true Hellenistic king and failed in his hopes. The plans of Carthage were indeed thwarted, the Carthaginians having been swept out from the island except for the one stronghold Lilybaeum (Marsala), but the autocratic Pyrrhus overstayed his welcome, and his Sicilian-Greek supporters, who were no keener to surrender their freedom to Pyrrhus than to Carthage, turned against him. On his return voyage to Italy he lost several of his precious elephants when he was soundly trounced by the Carthaginian navy, losing 70 out of his 110 ships, and he failed to win the third crucial encounter against the Romans at Malventum. So Pyrrhus left a substantial garrison at Taras and sailed back across the Adriatic.

In the meantime the status quo in Sicily was restored, and the Carthaginians and Greeks were once again at each other’s throats, oblivious to the world around. Pyrrhus’ meteoric career there had prevented it from becoming a Carthaginian province, and on his departure he is said to have described the island as the ‘future wrestling-ground for Rome and Carthage’. At first, Rome and Carthage had reasserted their old alliances in the face of the new invader. But within a dozen years they would be locked in war, as Pyrrhus predicted. On and off, it was to last for more than six decades. As for Taras, its days of freedom were to be over. Three years after Malventum, in 272 BC, the Romans took control of troublesome Taras, allowing the garrison that Pyrrhus had left there to withdraw on honourable terms. Definitely crushed, its territory was confiscated and made ager publicus, state land. The plunder of Taras, according to the Hadrianic author and poet Florus, was enormous and its acquisition would be a turning point in the Republic’s history:

So rich a spoil was gathered from so many wealthy races that Rome could not contain the fruits of her victory. Scarcely ever did a fairer or more glorious triumph enter the city. Up to that time the only spoils that you could have seen were the cattle of the Volsci, the chariots of the Gauls, the broken arms of the Samnites; now if you looked at the captives they were Molossians, Thessalians, Macedonians

[i.e. soldiers from Pyrrhus’ army who had remained in Taras]

, Bruttians, Apulians and Lucanians [i.e. Italic peoples and Italian Greeks]; if you look upon the procession, you saw gold, purple, statues, pictures and all the luxury of Taras. But upon nothing did the Roman people look with greater pleasure than upon those huge beasts [i.e. Pyrrhus’ elephants], which they had feared so much, with towers upon their backs, now following the horses [i.e. Roman citizen cavalry], which had vanquished them, with their heads bowed low, not wholly unconscious that they were prisoners.

With the taking and sacking of Taras, continues the baroque Florus, ‘all Italy enjoyed peace’. Peace, however, would be short lived, as the Romans soon afterwards occupied Rhegion (Reggio di Calabria) on the straits of Messina, opposite Sicily. As fate would have it, the rival powers of Rome and Carthage were now face to face and about to cross swords.


The restless career of Pyrrhus of Epeiros epitomizes the age of Alexander’s Successors. In spring 280 BC the king crossed into Italy and confronted the Romans for the first time with first-class professional soldiers who had been trained in the world-conquering tactics of Alexander the Great. He also brought another Hellenistic novelty: twenty war elephants.

But Pyrrhus was also a throwback; he was the last great rival of Homer’s heroes. Like his cousin Alexander, he matched himself with Achilles, his assumed ancestor, and set off to fight a new Trojan War against the Romans of ‘Trojan’ descent. The prince shone in the front line of battle in his ornamented armour and laurelled helmet. Yet he was no tinsel hero. He revelled in single combat and it is said that once, with a single swipe, he hacked a savage Mamertine mercenary in half. But he was not just a heroic hooligan either. He was the most famous general of his day He wrote a treatise on tactics and a set of personal memoirs, and was later admired for his siegecraft and diplomacy.

Nowadays, in the public imagination at least, it is Hannibal who is remembered as the celebrated user of pachyderms, probably first popularized as such when the embittered satirist Juvenal lampooned him as ‘the one-eyed commander perched on his gigantic beast!’ As we shall discover later, this is something of a paradox, since elephants figured only in his earliest victories, the Tagus (220 BC) and the Trebbia (218 BC), and then, damagingly, at Zama (202 BC). In point of fact, Pyrrhus deployed them in far more settings, including the Italian peninsula, throughout his full and eventful career. In the west, he, not Hannibal, is the true ‘Elephant King’, and it is interesting to note that the Carthaginian genius classed Pyrrhus as second only to Alexander in his hierarchy of top-flight generals. A similar sentiment was expressed by Antigonos Gonatas of Macedon, for when the king was asked who the best general of his day was, he replied, ‘Pyrrhus, if he lives to be old enough’ As Justin was to write later, ‘all Greece in admiration of his name and amazed at his achievements against the Romans and the Carthaginians was awaiting his return’ And return he did.

After Italy Pyrrhus ended up fighting first in Macedon, then in Sparta and Argos. In Macedon he replenished his elephants by a victory over Antigonos Gonatas, and then took them down to the Peloponnese. When Areus was chosen as king of Sparta, his uncle Kleonymos, who thought he had a better claim, went off to fight for Taras as a mercenary. Later, having seized Corcyra for himself, he signed on with the power most likely to help him to higher things, hence Pyrrhus’ invasion of the Peloponnese during the spring of 272 BC, but his attempt to place Kleonymos on the throne by force of arms failed. Later in the same year, while his stampeding elephants blocked the gates at Argos, he was knocked senseless by a roof-tile, apparently hurled from a housetop by the mother of an Argive he was trying to kill, and he toppled from his horse. In the confused street fighting, a soldier of Antigonos dragged him into a doorway and decapitated him. His head was brought to Antigonos, who was said to have rebuked its bearer, his son, and wept at the sight of the ashen visage. Pyrrhus’ head and trunk were soon reunited and cremated with full honours.