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.


Late Minoan warrior, 1,700 – 1,450 BC.

Minoan soldiers parading captured Libyan enemies through the streets of Akrotiri, Thera.

A reconstruction of a padded Minoan helmet made of leather, linen, or felt.

A reconstruction of a Minoan crested boar tusk helmet, in purple and white. .

A Minoan charioteer in battle by Giuseppe Rava.

A reconstruction of the bronze helmet from Knossos.

A reconstruction of the Minoan finned helmet.

To judge from the available evidence, which is far from complete, the towns of bronze age Crete were not fortified. As yet no traces have been found of city walls or defensive towers at Knossos or at any of the other Minoan centres. We may be lulled by this into believing that life on Minoan Crete was entirely peaceful. In fact many of the sites were destroyed by burning and we have no way of knowing whether those fires were accidental, starting as a result of carelessness, or deliberate acts of arson by an enemy, or precipitated by a convulsive earthquake upsetting lamps and domestic hearths. The archaeological evidence is often ambiguous. On the other hand, destruction in about 1700 BC seems to have been very widespread and yet there was cultural continuity after the event: it seems much more likely that these destructions were the result of an earthquake rather than war or invasion.

Even so, we should not rule out the possibility – likelihood, even – of warfare between one Cretan city-state and another. It is known from documentation (e. g. Diodorus Siculus Book XVI and Polybius IX) that the Cretan city-states of the third and fourth centuries BC were at war with each other constantly, struggling for supremacy. Bitter fighting over long periods may leave no archaeological trace. We also know that the Minoans were equipped for war. Linear B tablets mention tunics reinforced with bronze, and the Minoans probably had their own version of the corslet, to judge from the tunic ideograms. Bronze helmets were made in eight pieces: four to make the conical crown with its mount for a horsehair or feathered plume, two cheek-pieces which hung down in front of the ears, and two other pieces which may have protected the back of the neck; one such helmet was found at Sanatorion near Knossos. Similarly shaped helmets were also made out of boar’s tusks, just as depicted in an ivory plaque of a warrior’s head from Arkhanes and as described by Homer on the Cretan hero Meriones. Asocket on the helmet’s crown was a mount for a crest or plume. Remains of a Minoan boar’s tusk helmet were found in a tomb at the Zafer Papoura cemetery at Knossos.

The Lion Hunt Dagger from Shaft Grave IV at Mycenae, dating to around 1550 and produced in Crete, shows three shield shapes: the figure-of-eight shape which appears in Knossian frescoes, rectangular and rectangular with a curved raised section on the top. These shields were light and made of cattle hides stretched over wooden frames, with at least one handle-strap on the back. The hair was left on the hides, presumably for the sake of the texture and pattern and perhaps also for totemic reasons. The lion hunters are shown with their shields hung over one shoulder, the handle-strap over their heads, to free both hands for spear-throwing. Shields are never mentioned on archive tablets, unlike other items of weaponry, which suggests that every man was allowed, and probably expected, to keep and maintain his own shield.

The Minoans had daggers and swords, some of them richly decorated. At Mallia a beautiful matching set of sword and dagger was found. The sword handle was covered in gold sheet decorated top and bottom with an incised herringbone design, the pommel being fashioned out of a large piece of rock crystal. Since the sword and dagger were found close to a ceremonial leopard-axe, it may be that all these weapons from the Mallia temple had a ceremonial rather than a military use. A pair of long, rapier-like swords with rounded hilts was also found in the Mallia temple, buried, perhaps as a deliberate foundation offering, below the latest paved floor in the northwest quarter. They are of a type which is known to have been in use by 1500 BC and which is also found in Mycenean shaft graves. One of the sword-hilts was richly decorated with a circular gold sheet showing a short-haired acrobat performing a somersault. It is possible that some of the acrobats performed gymnastic feats with swords, perhaps doing handstands and somersaults over swords planted point-upwards in the ground.

A plain and functional hilt on a short sword from the Zafer Papoura cemetery is interesting because of its laminated construction. The bronze of the blade and handguard continues through the centre of the hilt and pommel as a central layer, which must have given it far greater strength than some of the ornamental swords. Shaped ivory plates were riveted to each side of the bronze sheet to thicken the handle and make it comfortable to hold; additional pieces of bone were stuck on to the outside of the ivory plates to make the rounded shape of the pommel. Functional and tough, this may well have been a standard design for a ‘working’ sword.

One of the finest pieces of Minoan weaponry to have survived in Crete is the sword from the so-called Chieftain’s Tomb at Knossos. The sword hilt is superb, with a delicately worked detailed pattern covering the whole surface of the goldplated handle and a carefully turned piece of agate for a pommel.

The design consists of a lion hunting and bringing down a goat in a mountain landscape – a classic struggle scene – edged with a border of running spirals. Some very fine Minoan gold sword hilts were found at Mycenae. One clasped the top of the blade with two eagles’ heads, and the gold plate was patterned with scale-like depressions soldered to hold inlays of lapis lazuli.

Some of the Minoan daggers exported to mainland Greece and probably Anatolia had bronze blades decorated with inlays of gold and silver against a background of black niello. The Lion Hunt Dagger is the finest of these, with a scene on one side of five Minoan hunters facing a charging lion, while two other lions run away towards the dagger point. The hunters are armed with spears, shields and a bow. On the other side a lion seizes a gazelle, while four other gazelles escape. These superb Minoan daggers and swords were undoubtedly highly prized in the ancient world. A tablet found far away at Mari in Mesopotamia mentions a weapon adorned with lapis lazuli and gold and describes it as ‘Caphtorite’. The Egyptians called Crete ‘Kefti’, ‘Keftiu’ or ‘the land of the Keftiu’, while in the Near East Crete was known as ‘Caphtor’: it is as Caphtor that ancient Crete appears in the Old Testament. ‘Caphtorite’ clearly means ‘Cretan’. The similarity of the words ‘Caphtor’, ‘Caphtorite’ and ‘Keftiu’ strongly implies that the Minoans themselves used something like the word ‘Kaftor’ as a name for their homeland.

The Minoans used chariots in battle. The shape of their chariots is clearly shown in the ideogram for ‘chariot’ on the Linear B tablets. The Minoan chariot was the same as the Mycenean chariot depicted on a fresco at Pylos. It had a lightweight body, with sides and front possibly made of wickerwork or layers of hide on a wooden frame, and two simple four-spoked wheels mounted on a central axle. A wooden bar or frame extended forwards between the two ponies who drew the chariot along. It seems from the detailed descriptions of chariot spare-parts at Pylos as if the aristocracy had chariots equipped with special wheels; they are described as ‘Followers’ wheels’. Whether these had extra fittings such as silver inlays on the spokes or were painted a different colour is not known.

The earliest renderings of these very lightweight and probably fast war chariots appear on sealstones of the New Temple Period. Professor Stylianos Alexiou suggests that both the chariot and the horse were introduced from Egypt; they had been introduced to Egypt by the Hyksos kings who came from Asia, and contact between Hyksos Egypt and Knossos has been proved from other finds. Certainly the development of Minoan technology was in many ways stimulated by contacts with other cultures

Warfare in Ancient Mesopotamia and Egypt: The World’s First Armies

The almost constant warfare among the Sumerian city-states for 2,000 years spurred the development of military technology and technique far beyond any similar development found elsewhere in the Near East at that time. The first Sumerian war for which there is detailed evidence occurred between the states of Lagash and Umma in 2525 b. c. e. In this conflict Eannatum of Lagash defeated the king of Umma. The importance of this war to the military historian lies in a commemorative stele that Eannatum erected to celebrate his victory. This stele is called the “Stele of Vultures” for its portrayal of birds of prey and lions tearing at the flesh of the corpses as they lay on the desert plain. The stele represents the first important pictorial portrayal of war in the Sumerian period and portrays the king of Lagash leading an infantry phalanx of armored, helmeted warriors, armed with spears as they trample their enemies.

The rise of the world’s first civilizations in southern Mesopotamia and Egypt in the late fourth millennium bce also begins the history of organized warfare in western civilization. The creators of the first Mesopotamian civilization were the Sumerians, a people whose origins still remain unclear. By 3000 bce they had established a number of independent walled city-states in southern Mesopotamia, including the cities of Eridu, Ur, Uruk and Lagash. As the number of Sumerian city-states grew and expanded in the third millennium bce, new conflicts arose as city-states fought each other for control of local natural resources or united against the persistent threat of barbarian raiding and invasion.

With the rise of civilization and organized violence came the experimentation with metal alloys in a search for harder, more lethal materials to make weapons. As early as 6000 bce in Anatolia, Neolithic man experimented with copper tools and weapons. But it was not until the fourth millennium bce that tin was added to copper to produce a superior alloy, beginning the Bronze Age. Roughly contemporary to the rise of civilization in Mesopotamia, the Bronze Age made warfare a much more dangerous activity than it had been before in the neolithic period. From the back of their bronze-gilded war chariots, Mesopotamian kings and, later, Egyptian pharaohs made war and carved empires, bringing civilization to newly conquered regions.

The Sumerians are credited with inventing numerous military technologies, including the war chariot, bronze maces, sickle-swords, socket spears and axes, and the defensive technologies of copper and bronze helmets, armoured cloaks and bronze armour. Many of these weapons, such as the mace, spear and axe, were present in the pre-neolithic and neolithic periods as stone weapons, but the Sumerians improved their lethality by making them out of copper and, later, bronze. In response to the increased lethality of metal weapons, personal body armour was developed, made first out of leather, then copper and, later, bronze. By 2100 bce, bronze scale-armour had been developed, and by 1700 bce was widely used by Mesopotamian and, later, Egyptian armies.

The standard shock weapons in Sumerian armies were the long heavy spear, battleaxe and the dagger. The effectiveness of the heavy thrusting spear on the battlefields of Mesopotamia affected the tactical development of ancient armies more than any other weapon. If soldiers armed with the spear were to fight effectively in groups, they had to arrange themselves in close-order formation, giving rise to the first heavy-infantry battle-square in western civilization. Unfortunately, historians know very little about ancient Mesopotamian military formations and tactics because kings used writing to commemorate significant military victories, not the manner in which the battle was fought. Occasionally, the same events were recorded in pictorial form. The most impressive of these early illustrations of the Sumerian army at war is provided by the Stele of Vultures from the city-state of Lagash, dating from around 2500 bce.

The Stele of Vultures commemorates a victory of King Eannatum of Lagash over the king of Umma and takes its name from a section of the stele depicting a defeated enemy whose abandoned bodies are shown being picked at by vultures and lions. The battle scene shows the army at the moment of victory, marching over the bodies of their defeated and slain enemies. In the upper register the king leads a troop of heavy infantry, while in the lower register the king is shown riding in a four-wheeled battle chariot pulled by four onagers in the van of a troop of light infantry.

The Sumerian light infantryman is depicted without protective equipment and armed with a long spear in the left hand and a battleaxe in the right. It is not known whether these unarmoured light infantry used their spears for shock combat or as throwing weapons. The Sumerian heavy infantry are portrayed in formation, with the unnamed sculptor carving helmeted spearmen, organized six files deep with an eight-man front, with the front rank bearing large rectangular shields. What is interesting is the apparent standardized equipment and number of spears projecting between the shields. The common panoply and close order suggests that these soldiers were well trained, uniformed and equipped to fight as a corps, anticipating later Greek, Macedonian and Roman heavy infantry formations. Still, without corroborating textual evidence it is unknown whether this early battle square was a common battlefield formation, if it was capable of offensive articulation, or if it served primarily as a defensive formation.

Eventually, the Sumerian civilization would fall to the inventor of imperium, Sargon the Great, around 2340 bce (Map 1.1). During his fifty-year rule, the Akkadian king would fight no fewer than thirty-four military campaigns and carve out an empire that would include all of Mesopotamia, as well as lands westward to the Mediterranean, inspiring generations of Near Eastern rulers to emulate his accomplishment.

During the Sargonid period (c.2340–c.2100 bce) the Akkadians contributed another major innovation in weaponry: the composite bow. Although it is likely that the Sumerians utilized the simple bow in warfare, no textual or pictorial evidence exists to support this claim. The first evidence of the bow being used in collective warfare is found during the reign of Sargon’s grandson Naram Sin (2254–2218 bce), though it is possible that Sargon himself utilized the weapons in his own campaigns.

The impact of the composite bow on the battlefields of the Near East was significant. While the simple self-bow (a bow made of a single piece of wood) could kill at ranges from 50 to 100 yards, it could not penetrate even simple leather armour at these ranges. The composite bow, with a pull of at least twice that of a self-bow, could easily penetrate leather armour, and perhaps the bronze armour of the day. The reason for this increased performance was the unique construction of the bow. The composite bow was a recurve bow made of wood, horn and tendons from oxen, carefully laminated together to create a bow of superior strength, range and impact power.

Possibly invented on the Eurasian steppes and brought to the Akkadians by mercenary nomads, the composite bow quickly became an important asset on the battlefields of ancient Mesopotamia. Aiming against packed heavy-infantry formations, light infantry archers could fire withering barrages of arrows, causing gaps and tears and eroding the morale of the foot soldiers. Although we have no descriptions of Mesopotamian battles from the Bronze Age, it is safe to assume that the co-ordination of heavy infantry and light infantry archers working together on the battlefield represents a combined-arms tactical synthesis, perhaps the first in the history of western civilization.

Once created, the composite bow spread quickly to other armies over the next 500 years, appearing in Palestine around 1800 bce and introduced to Egypt and the Aegean region by 1600 bce. In New Kingdom Egypt (1567–1085 bce), the improved archer was placed in an improved war chariot, combining for the first time a powerful weapon with increased tactical mobility. Composite bow-wielding light infantry and cavalry would remain a persistent adversary to the heavy-infantry-based armies of western civilization for the next two-and-a half millennia (c.1000 bce–c.1500 ce).

Perhaps no other single military invention is as closely associated with the ancient period as the war chariot. The military application of the wheel came quite early in the development of civilization, with the first chariot integrated into Sumerian battle tactics around 3000 bce. These early chariots were either of the two- or four-wheeled variety, were manned by a crew of two, and were pulled by a team of four onagers. The wheels were constructed of solid wood sections held together by pegs, while the placement of the axle either in front or in the middle of the chariot itself made the Sumerian war chariot heavy and unstable at speed. The absence of a mouth bit made controlling the wild asses very difficult, and it is unlikely that these machines could have moved at more than 10 miles per hour.

Armed with javelins and axes, Sumerian charioteers used their weapons to deliver a shock attack, driving into opposing heavy infantry formations and scattering enemy footmen. The Sumerian machine, pulled by wild asses, was too heavy and cumbersome to offer effective pursuit. Still, the Sumerian chariot served as the prototype for wheeled shock combat for the next thousand years. In the early centuries of the second millennium bce, two different innovations appeared in significant conjuncture to create a superior chariot: the widespread use of the domesticated horse and the new technology of lightweight, bentwood construction.

Although horses were raised as food in central Asia as early as the fourth millennium bce, it was only in the second millennium bce that domesticated equines spread throughout Europe and the Near East. At first too small to be ridden as a cavalry mount, the even-tempered horse was originally used as a replacement for the onager, harnessed to chariots, usually in teams of four. The development of bentwood techniques allowed for the construction of the spoked wheel with a rim of curved felloes and the manufacture of lightweight chariot bodies. At the same time, the appearance of the horse bit improved the control of the animal teams at higher speeds. This lightweight chariot with spoked wheels drawn by teams of horses provided for the first time a fast, manoeuvrable chariot, one that could be used as a firing platform for composite-bow-wielding archers.

By the fifteenth century bce, the Egyptians had modified the chariot into the finest machine in the world. The Egyptian chariot was made entirely of wood and leather and was so light that two men could carry the body over rough terrain. The Egyptians improved the control, manoeuvrability and speed of the chariot by moving the axle to the very rear of the carrying platform. But manufacturing and maintaining a chariot corps was a very expensive endeavour, the prerogative of rich and powerful kingdoms. The chariots’ presence on the battlefield was supported by the complex logistics of horse breeding and training, a small army of wheelwrights and chariot builders, bowyers, metalsmiths and armourers, and the support teams on campaign who managed spare horses and repaired damaged vehicles. Moreover, the chariots’ position as the pre-eminent weapon system in ancient warfare required continued access to strategic materials, specifically the light and heavy woods required for bentwood construction. In the case of Egypt in the late Bronze Age and Assyria in the early Iron Age, this meant access to the famous cedars of Lebanon. It is no wonder why both of these empires expended so much effort maintaining their presence in Lebanon, the chief source of wood for the armies of the Near East.

How chariots were employed in battle in the late Bronze Age (c.1600–c.1100 bce) is a matter of some debate. One view holds that the Bronze Age kingdoms used war chariots as a thin screen for massed infantry formations, with chariots moving laterally across the front of their own infantry and the chariot archers shooting – at a right angle – their arrows against the enemy infantry. A second view suggests that chariots were held in reserve until the infantry engagement reached a decisive point. At this moment, commanders would commit their chariots and win the day.

A more recent interpretation has opposing chariot forces lining up in long, shallow formations, then hurtling toward each other as archers fired over their teams and into enemy chariot formations. As enemy horses were killed and wounded, chariots veered, slowed and eventually stopped. At this time, friendly infantry ‘runners’ would finish off enemy chariot crews whose machines had been immobilized. Infantry may have also served as a cordon, a haven for damaged chariots to return to after battle. Because there is no evidence for a clash of close-order infantry formations in late Bronze Age warfare, it is believed the infantry of the period was lightly armoured and unarticulated, and was most probably used in direct support of chariot charges, to fight in terrain unfavourable to chariot warfare and to garrison cities. During the Egyptian New Kingdom period these new chariots would help pharaohs carve an empire stretching from the Libyan Desert across the Sinai to the Orontes River in Syria.

Invaders from the Sea

The biggest threat to it and indeed to the whole Syrian and Levantine coast-and for that matter, to the southern Anatolian coast, Cyprus, and the Egyptian Delta-came from the sea. Throughout the Late Bronze Age, and in many earlier and later periods as well, the eastern Mediterranean was a dangerous place for travel. That was partly because of the natural hazards of sudden storms, which left many a merchant ship and other vessels at the bottom of it. But also because of piracy. In the mid-14th century, Akhenaten had written to the king of Alasiya (= Cyprus or part thereof) complaining about the seabooting activities of the notorious Lukka people operating from bases on the southern Anatolian coast and attacking cities on the shores of Egypt. He accused the Alasiyan king and his subjects of complicity in the attacks. The Alasiyan king objected strongly. His cities too, he declared, had suffered annual raids by pirates. We also hear of raids upon the Egyptian coast by buccaneers called Sherden, in the reigns of Amenhotep III and Ramesses II. And in the last years of the Late Bronze Age, what was almost certainly another pirate group, called `the Shikila who live on boats’, appears in a letter sent by a Hittite king (probably the last one, Suppiluliuma II) to a Ugaritic king (probably the last one, Ammurapi). The letter shows deep interest in these boat-people. Its author had learnt that a citizen of Ugarit called Ibnadushu had been captured by them, but was subsequently released or escaped his captivity. He requested that Ibnadushu be sent to Hatti for debriefing, with the promise that he would be returned home safely afterwards. The Great King was understandably anxious to find out more about the size and the movements of pirate operations in the eastern Mediterranean. Largely, it must be, because of the serious threat they posed to the safety of transport ships in the waters of this region and the increasingly vital role these ships were playing in the struggle `to keep alive the land of Hatti’.

Ugarit’s final days provide a microcosm of the forces of upheaval and destruction that engulfed much of the Near Eastern world in the late 13th and early 12th centuries. For the Syrian coastal kingdom, the dangers came particularly from the sea. Ammurapi kept a squad of coastwatchers on constant alert, scanning the horizon. Then came the news he most feared: enemy ships had come into view just off his kingdom’s shores and were heading directly for the capital. Ammurapi wrote to the Carchemish viceroy, Talmi-Teshub, begging for assistance. Perhaps out of pique for Ugarit’s earlier lack of cooperation, but more likely now because he had no choice, Talmi-Teshub wrote back offering nothing but advice: `As for what you have written to me: “Ships of the enemy have been seen at sea!” Well, you must remain firm. Indeed for your part, where are your troops, your chariots stationed? Are they not stationed near you? No? Behind the enemy, who press upon you? Surround your towns with ramparts. Have your troops and chariots enter there, and await the enemy with great resolution.’ In other words, you’re on your own. Make the best of what resources you already have. These were little enough. We have noted that Ammurapi had responded positively to a Hittite demand to send his troops and chariots to Hatti, even though what he sent was considered inadequate and second-rate. And after a second demand was made of him, by Suppiluliuma II, he had sent his fleet to the coast of Lukka in south-western Anatolia- for reasons scholars are still debating. We can understand the desperateness of Ammurapi’s appeal to the viceroy.

It was to no avail. Ammurapi was left defenceless. With part of his land forces and all his navy elsewhere, he had no chance of repelling the seaborne marauders now rapidly descending upon his kingdom. He wrote to the king of Alasiya, with whom he seems to have had close ties, describing how critically dangerous his situation was: `My father, the enemy’s ships have been coming and burning my cities and doing terrible things in my country. All my troops and chariots are in the land of Hatti, and all my ships are in Lukka. My land has been left defenceless!’ Though the letter’s precise date is uncertain, its words of despair and abandonment could have been among the very last Ammurapi put to tablet. Indeed, so sudden was the final enemy onslaught upon his kingdom that letters ready for despatch from the capital never left it. They were found by archaeologists in the house of a scribe called Rapanu – graphic evidence in themselves of the city’s sudden, violent end. Ammurapi’s royal seat, centre of one of the most prosperous kingdoms of Late Bronze Age Syria, was looted and abandoned. There was no Iron Age successor. Ugarit would never rise from its ashes.

Its destruction belongs within the context of the general waves of upheavals and devastations that brought the Late Bronze Age civilizations to an end in both the Aegean and the Near Eastern worlds. Environmental catastrophes (earthquakes, prolonged droughts, and the like), new waves of invaders from the north, the collapse of central administrations, disruption of international trading links, and economic meltdown (to give a modern ring to our tale) have all been suggested as factors contributing to the disintegration of the Bronze Age world. These possibilities will no doubt continue to be debated by scholars, inconclusively and endlessly. But Egyptian records, supported to some extent by archaeological data, specifically associate the devastations with large groups called `peoples from the sea’, a motley conglomerate of marauders who travelled by land as well as by sea as they swept across and destroyed much of the Near Eastern world early in the 12th century. Already in the reign of the pharaoh Merneptah (1213-1203), groups of invaders called Sherden, Shekelesh, Lukka, Ekwesh, and Teresh had attacked the coast of Egypt.

Merneptah managed to repel the intruders, but their attacks on Egypt were merely a prelude to the invasions of the eastern Mediterranean countries during Ramesses III’s reign (1184-1153). On the walls of his funerary temple at Medinet Habu at Thebes in Uppper Egypt, Ramesses graphically records the trail of ruin left by these peoples: `The foreign countries made a conspiracy in their islands. All at once the lands were removed and scattered in the fray. No land could stand before their arms, from Hatti, Qode, Carchemish, Arzawa and Alasiya on, being cut off at one time. A camp was set up in one place in Amurru. They desolated its people, and its land was like that which has never come into being. They were coming forward toward Egypt, while the flame was prepared before them. Their confederation was the Peleset, Tjeker, Shekelesh, Denyen, and Weshesh, lands united. They laid their hands upon the land as far as the circuit of the earth, their hearts confident and trusting: “Our plans will succeed!”

These invasions were not simply or even primarily military operations. They involved mass movements, both by land and by sea, of peoples who were most likely the victims rather than the causes of the disasters that brought about the collapse of the Late Bronze Age civilizations. Displaced from their homelands, they had sought new lands to settle, taking on a marauding character as they did so. What happened to them after they were beaten off by Ramesses III? Some like the Shekelesh, the Sherden, and the Teresh may have gone west, perhaps to Sicily, Sardinia, and Italy. A proportion of the Sherden may have stayed on in Egypt, becoming mercenaries in the pharaoh’s armies. Another group, the Peleset, almost certainly became the people well known from biblical sources as the Philistines.

The Philistines

`An uneducated or unenlightened person; one indifferent or hostile to culture.’ Thus the Shorter Oxford English Dictionary defines the term `Philistine’ as we use it today. In so doing, it provides a classic example of the powerful influence the Bible has exercised on Western civilization’s vocabulary and ways of thinking. The Philistines figure prominently in biblical tradition as the archetypal enemies of the early Israelite rulers. Their origins can be firmly linked to the historical record, for their ancestors, called the Peleset in Egyptian records, were among the Sea Peoples who pillaged their way through much of the Near Eastern world before being stopped by the pharaoh Ramesses III. In Egyptian reliefs from Ramesses’ reign, the Peleset are depicted wearing tasselled kilts and what appear to be feathered headdresses. After the Sea Peoples’ break-up and dispersal, these proto-Philistines finally settled in south-western Palestine, on that part of the southern coastal plain that came to be called Philistia. Five cities, the so-called Philistine Pentapolis, provided the focal points of Philistine civilization. They were Ashdod, Ashkelon, Ekron, Gaza, and Gath.

It is not surprising that the Philistines, the Israelites’ arch-enemies and a people who in their victories could be as brutal and destructive as any of their contemporaries, should get a bad press in our biblical sources. But to portray them as crude, uncivilized barbarians really flies in the face of the facts. The material remains of their civilization provide ample evidence that they were a highly cultured people, with advanced architectural, engineering, and technological skills, and a high level of attainment in the arts and crafts. It was perhaps partly their refined, urban-based civilization that roused the moralistic ire of the Israelites. Especially those Israelites who had led an ascetic existence in the hill-country of Palestine before descending on the plains, where they sought a more secure, settled way of life. In the process, they came into conflict with the Philistines.


These were the unfortunate occupants, in biblical tradition, of the `Promised Land’, the land vouchsafed by God to the Israelites after their return from Egypt, as recorded in the biblical story of the Exodus. It lay in the region covered in part by modern Israel and Lebanon. With the go-ahead given by God, the returning Israelites virtually obliterated the Canaanites to provide themselves with their own living space, bringing them, as a consequence, into contact and conflict with the Philistines. In a broad sense, the term `Canaanite’ is sometimes used to refer to all the ancient peoples of the Levant, up to the last decades of the 4th century bc. But these peoples were divided into a number of tribal groups, city-states, and kingdoms, each of which developed its own political and social structures, and a number of its own distinctive cultural traits. They identified themselves, and were almost always identified by others, not as Canaanites but by the names of the specific tribal and political units to which they belonged. This explains why in the ancient sources `Canaanite’ is rarely used as a generic designation for them, outside the Bible. The first clearly attested use of the term occurs in the 18th-century archives of Mari on the Euphrates, and there are occasional references to Canaan and Canaanites in later Bronze Age texts; for example, we have seen that Canaan was the place of exile of Idrimi, later king of Alalah, while he was on the run after fleeing his city Aleppo. Canaanites were among the prisoners-of-war deported to Egypt by the 15th-century pharaoh Amenhotep II, and in the following century, Canaan appears several times in the Amarna letters. Subsequently Canaanites are attested in biblical sources as the pre-Israelite occupants of the `Promised Land’. Some scholars have argued that the Israelites themselves, despite their `biblical’ loathing for every aspect of Canaanite culture, were in fact a sub-branch of the Canaanite peoples who withdrew to the Palestinian hill-country during the unsettled conditions in Syria-Palestine and elsewhere at the end of the Late Bronze Age.

Mesopotamian linear barriers


1. Muriq Tidnim (conjectural)

Babylonian Line 1

2. Nebuchadnezzar’s Babylon to Kish Wall (conjectural)

Babylonian Line 2

3. Habl es-Sakhar (Nebuchadnezzar’s Sippar to Opis Wall, Median Wall)

Line 3 (uncertain)

4. El-Mutabbaq

5. Sadd Nimrud (also called El-Jalu)

6. Umm Raus Wall (site of Macepracta Wall(?), Artaxerxes’ Trench(?))



Mesopotamia and the Rivers Tigris and the Euphrates

Egypt shows that the conjunction of irrigated lands and nomads produced linear barriers – even if the evidence might seem elusive and inconclusive. Therefore, might also then Mesopotamia, with the similarly intensely irrigated Tigris and Euphrates Rivers, produce evidence of walls in the presence of nomads?

In Mesopotamia, the area of irrigated lands runs along the flood plains of the Tigris and the Euphrates up to, and somewhat beyond, the convergence points of the rivers between ancient Babylon and modern Baghdad. Above that point the alluvial plain peters out and the land becomes too hilly to allow for intense irrigation. From the north-east flows the Diyala River which passes through the Zagros Mountains to join the Tigris, linking the high Persian plateau to Mesopotamia. Around the river was especially valued irrigated land. The area of convergence of the Tigris and Euphrates constituted a constricted land corridor. Local nomads and semi-nomads would have been expected to press particularly hard on the rich and productive irrigated lands of Mesopotamia.

As in Egypt, civilisation, sustained by the irrigated lands of Mesopotamia, came early, in the fourth millennia BC, with the Sumerians. Again, as with Egypt, there is evidence of climate change. In the last century of the third millennium BC the stream flow of the Euphrates and the Tigris was very low, according to analysis of sediments in the Persian Gulf. The end of the Akkadian era, due to defeat by the hated Gutian peoples from the mountainous east in the twenty-second century BC, coincided with a few decades of intense drought which was followed by two to three centuries of dry weather. Ur revived and under Ur-Nammu defeated the Gutians and established the third dynasty of Ur, commonly abbreviated to Ur III, in 2112 BC. The Sumerians initiated a short period of cultural renaissance in a time of constant conflict with the semi-nomadic Martu – more familiar as the biblical Amorites.

Indeed, Ur III may have faced two reasonably distinct threats. From the north-west there was the Martu whose aim may in part have been to gain sustenance for their herds in times of drought. The direction of the threat that they posed would have been through the relatively flat lands between and to both sides of the convergence point of the Euphrates and the Tigris. To the north-east were the Elamites and Shimashki confederation in the highlands to the east of the Tigris. Their lines of attack would have been more focused down river valleys – perhaps the Diyala River flowing through the Zagros Mountains to the Tigris.

Mesopotamian linear barriers

In this early period there is only textual evidence for linear barriers, based on letters that remarkably survive from the third dynasty of Ur. These writings between Sumerian kings and their often disobedient generals and officials, are called the Royal Correspondence of Ur (abbreviated to the RCU). Much of the correspondence in the twenty-two or so surviving letters was about defence against the Martu. There was also information about linear barriers in the year names of Sumerian king lists (Mesopotamian kings named each year of their reigns after some major event).

The Sumerian kings Shulgi (2094–2047 BC), Shu-Sin (2037–2029 BC) and Ibbi-Sin (2028–2004 BC) were mentioned in the context of three walls:

bad-mada/Wall of the Land – The Wall of the Land is known only from one reference in the king lists: ‘Year 37: Nanna (the god) and Shulgi the king built the Wall of the land.’10 Shulgi was on the throne for forty-seven years so the wall belongs to the last quarter of his long reign. This was a time of increasing pressure on central and southern Mesopotamia from the Martu.

bad-igi-hur-sag-ga/Wall Facing the Highlands – In the RCU there are several references to bad-igi-hur-sag-ga – both during Shulgi’s reign and that of his successors, Shu-Sin and Ibbi-Sin. The bad-igi-hur-sag-ga has been variously translated as the Wall, Fortress, or the Fortification facing the highlands or mountains – making it uncertain whether this was a continuous linear barrier. If, however, Shulgi really did build a long wall then he has the distinction of being the first known builder of such a barrier. This obstacle possibly faced a threat coming down the Diyala River as it faced the Highlands, presumably the Zagros Mountains.

Muriq Tidnim/Fender off of the Tidnim – There are three references to Muriq Tidnim, or fender (off) of the Tidnim and Shu-Sin. First, the king lists of his fourth regnal year said: ‘Shu-Sin the king of Ur built the amurru (Amorite) wall (called) ‘Muriq Tidnim/holding back the Tidanum’’ Second, there is an inscription in a temple built for the god Shara: ‘For Shara Shu-Sin built the Eshagepada, his (Shara’s) beloved temple, for his (Shu-Sin’s) life when he built the Martu wall Muriq Tidnim (and) turned back the paths of the Martu to their land.’ Third, the most informative reference to the Muriq Tidnim is in a letter from Sharrum-bani, an official of Shu-Sin. ‘You sent me a message ordering me to work on the construction of the great fortification Muriq Tidnim … announcing: “The Martu have invaded the land.” You instructed me to build the fortification, so as to cut off their route; also, that no breaches of the Tigris or the Euphrates should cover the fields with water … from the bank of the Ab-gal watercourse to the province of Zimudar. When I was constructing this fortification to the length of 26 danna, and had reached the area between the two mountain ranges, I was informed of the Martu camping within the mountain ranges because of my building work.’

In this letter, the construction is described as ‘great’. Whatever the uncertainties about Shulgi’s earlier edifices, it is difficult not to interpret this passage as describing a major continuous linear barrier. In the west the Ab-gal canal is associated with an earlier western course of the Euphrates and to the east the province of Zimudar is identified as being on the east side of Tigris in the region of the Diyala river. A danna is about two hours march so 26 dannas may be over 150 kilometres. Therefore, the edifice appeared to extend from the Euphrates to the other side of the Tigris because its length was much greater than the distance between the two rivers. The instructions to build the walls specifically cite stopping the semi-nomadic Martu from overwhelming the fields by a breach between the Tigris and the Euphrates, showing that irrigated land was perceived as particularly vulnerable.

Analysis – Ur III

In the hillier east controlling access down the Diyala river area there may have been a single fortification, the bad-igi-hur-sag-ga or the Wall/Fortress facing the Highlands, first built by Shulgi, which might or might not have been part of another system bad-mada (the Wall of the Land) built in the flatter west. During the reign of Shu-Sin it seems more likely that a linear barrier called Muriq Tidnim was built from new, or it consisted of earlier lines that were linked and much reinforced including Shulgi’s Wall of the land. This is all speculation but there is good if circumstantial literary evidence that Ur III’s strategy for defence against the Martu involved the construction of what would be the first recorded long continuous non-aquatic linear barriers.

There does seem to be a fairly general academic acceptance that under Shulgi and Shu-Sin long walls were built and their purpose was to keep out nomads. For example: ‘Even as early as year 35 of Shulgi, the (nomad) problem was becoming so grave that Shulgi constructed a wall to keep them (pastoral and semi-nomadic Amorites) out, and Shu-Sin built another barrier, called “fender off of Tidnim,” 200 kilometres long, stretching between the Tigris and the Euphrates across the northern edge of the alluvial plain.’ Also: ‘Yet despite Shulgi’s talents, within a few years of his death in 2047 BC his Empire, too, imploded. In the 2030s raiding became such a problem that Ur built a hundred-mile wall to keep the Amorites out.’

Later Mesopotamia

Looking at later Mesopotamia, after the fall of Ur III, how did it defend itself in times of necessity? What emerges is three intense periods of barrier building: firstly, that already discussed, during the short lived Ur III period; secondly, in the neo-Babylonian period associated with Nebuchadnezzar in the sixth century BC; and thirdly, later in the fourth century, aquatic linear barriers were built by the Sasanians. There are also a number of major but little studied walls, discussed below, north of the Tigris and Euphrates convergence point, which are not clearly dated.

After Ur III fell to the Elamites and the Shimaskhi confederation, the so-called Amorite dynasty of Isin completed its breakaway. Given that lower Mesopotamia had fallen to peoples from outside the region there was no reason for a barrier between the north and southern Mesopotamia. Also, Martu or Amorite semi-nomads were becoming increasingly sedentarised. Subsequently, the Babylonians of the era of Hammurabi were able to project their power well to the north of Babylon. The Assyrians, coming from the north, had no need for walls around 700 BC to defend Babylon in this region as they controlled the regions to its north and south.

The neo-Babylonians recovered control of their city in the sixth century BC and made it the capital of the region. The second period of major barrier building materialised in this later Babylonian period, associated with Nebuchadnezzar and textually with Queens Semiramis and Nitocris. Nebuchadnezzar II ruled for forty-three years from 604 to 562 BC. The Medes’ conquest of Lydia made Nebuchadnezzar suspicious of their intentions and this led him to strengthen his northern border. Behind the Medes loomed the Persians. This was clearly seen, rightly as it turned out, as a real, unpredictable threat – and one that prompted the construction of a comprehensive linear barrier system. Notwithstanding this attempt, in 539 BC Cyrus the Great led the Medes and the Persians into Babylonia which was absorbed into the Achaemenid Empire.

Linear barriers – survey

There were three lines of barriers at and above Babylon looked at here, starting in the south and going to the north.

Babylon to Kish – Line 1

Two walls of Nebuchadnezzar (604–562 BC) are known from a clay cylinder, dated to 590 BC when relations between the Babylonians and the Medes had deteriorated. (These compose Line 1 and Line 2 in this and the next section.)

Nebuchadnezzar’s Wall from near Babylon to Kish – This cylinder is inscribed: ‘In the district of Babylon from the chau(s)sée on the Euphrates bank to Kish, 4 2/3 bēru long, I heaped up on the level of the ground an earth-wall and surrounded the City with mighty waters. That no crack should appear in it, I plastered its slope with asphalt and bricks.’ A bēru is the distance which could be travelled in two hours so is variable according to terrain. At five kilometres an hour this barrier would be about 47 kilometres long. The problem is that this is considerably longer than the distance between Babylon and Kish – which is little more than 10 kilometres – unless the barrier followed a particularly circuitous route. Also, it would seem a fairly pointless military exercise building a barrier from Babylon to Kish leaving the flood plain open to the east from Kish to the Tigris. Using up the surplus kilometres would take the wall further east to Kar-Nargal, near an earlier channel of the Tigris, hence blocking the land corridor between the Euphrates and the Tigris. No physical evidence of this wall has been identified.

Opis to Sippar – Line 2

The second line ran between the cities of Sippar, above Babylon on the Euphrates, and Opis on the Tigris, the precise position of which has been lost. A number of walls are associated with this location in texts and there is a surviving wall called Habl-es-Sakhar.

Nebuchadnezzar’s Wall from Sippar to Opis – Nebuchadnezzar’s inscribed cylinder described the second wall as follows: ‘To strengthen the fortification of Babylon, I continued, and from Opis upstream to the middle of Sippar, from Tigris bank to Euphrates bank, 5 bēru, I heaped up a mighty earth-wall and surrounded the city for 20 bēru like the fullness of the sea. That the pressure of the water should not harm the dike, I plastered its slope with asphalt and bricks.’ This Opis to Sippar wall would have been about 50 kilometres long. Both the Babylon to Kish and the Opis to Sippar walls were water-proofed by asphalt so they must have been built in proximity to water – possibly water-courses like canals or in flatlands prone to flooding or swamping.

Wall of Semiramis – The geographer Strabo, citing Eratosthenes, when describing Mesopotamia, said the Tigris, ‘goes to Opis, and to the wall of Semiramis, as it is called.’ Therefore, this wall was in the region of the Tigris and the Euphrates’ convergence point. (Herodotus mentioned Semiramis’ works but did not specify a wall. Rather he described levees which controlled flooding.)

Wall of Nitrocris – Herodotus also described a Babylonian queen called Nitocris – possibly the daughter of Nebuchadnezzar and the mother of the Book of Daniel’s King Belshazzar brought down by Cyrus – whose constructions in Babylon were mainly connected with diverting the Euphrates. Nitocris built works in the entrance of the country (which is clearly a description of a land corridor) against the threat of the Medes. ‘Nitocris … observing the great power and restless enterprise of the Medes, … and expecting to be attacked in her turn, made all possible exertions to increase the defences of her empire.’

Wall of Media – In the Anabasis, Xenophon described how he led the 10,000 Greeks back from Mesopotamia. In it he encountered the Wall of Media twice. Here what is described is the second occasion when Xenophon actually crossed the wall itself following the battle of Cunaxa in 401 BC. ‘They reached the so called Wall of Media and passed within it. It was built of baked bricks, laid in asphalt, and was twenty feet wide and a hundred feet high; its length was said to be twenty parasangs, and it is not far distant from Babylon.’ Assuming that a parasang is the same as a bēru or a danna, that is a two hours march, then the wall was about 100 kilometres long.

Habl-es-Sakhar – There is a surviving wall in the vicinity of Sippar. In 1867 one Captain Bewsher described the ruins of a wall then called Habl-es-Sakhar – which translates from the Arabic as a line of stones or bricks. ‘The ruins of this wall may now be traced for about 10½ miles and are about 6 feet above the level of the soil. It was irregularly built, the longest side running E.S.E. for 5½ miles; it then turns to N.N.E. for another mile and a half. An extensive swamp to the northward has done much towards reducing the wall.… There is a considerable quantity of bitumen scattered about, and it was probably made of bricks set in bitumen. I can see nothing in Xenophon which would show this was not the wall the Greeks passed, for what he says of its length was merely what was told him.’ The description of the ‘baked bricks laid upon bitumen’ is like Nebuchadnezzar’s description of his wall between Opis and Sippar: plastered with asphalt and bricks.

In 1983 a joint team of Belgian and British Archaeological Expeditions to Iraq investigated the ruins of Habl-es-Sakhar. This confirmed that Habl-es-Sakhar was built by Nebuchadnezzar, for bricks marked with his name were found during its excavation. The team reported that Habl-es-Sakhar is the name of ‘a levee 30 metres wide and 1 metre high which could be followed for about 15 kilometres. A trench across the levee to the north of the site of Sippar revealed baked brick walls (largely robbed) on either side of an earth embankment. The earth core was about 3.2m wide and the brick walls about 1.75m in width. Between the brick courses was a skin of bitumen. On the bottom of each brick was a stamp of Nebuchadnezzar. If the wall extended to the ancient line of the Tigris it would have been nearly 40k long.’

The wall stood astride the northern approaches to Babylon itself. The wall’s function appeared primarily to have been military as it was not well situated to protect land against the flooding of the Euphrates which lay to the south. It is ‘beyond reasonable doubt’ that Habl-es-Sakhar is Nebuchadnezzar’s wall and Xenophon’s Wall of Media due to the location north of Sippar, the details of the construction, and the stamped bricks set in bitumen. This is rather satisfying because a surviving wall has been matched up with literary text.

Umm Raus to Samarra – Line 3

A third line of walls runs from Samarra on the Tigris to Ramadi on the Euphrates which delineated the upper limits of the alluvial plain where intense irrigation was possible. Here the fertile plain is not continuous between the Tigris and the Euphrates but the regions close to the rivers fit the description of valued irrigated land. As the rivers have diverged already significantly in the area of the third uppermost line, compared to the lower two lines, a wall that extended the whole distance would have had to have been much longer. Central sections might also have been purposeless as there was little valued, highly irrigated, land to protect and attackers would not have wanted to stray too far into less fertile land. This area is the site of two walls described in ancient texts and three surviving linear barriers.

Trench of Artaxerxes – In the Anabasis Xenophon described the march along the Euphrates, at the point where canals began, thereby indicating intense irrigation: ‘Cyrus … expected the king to give battle the same day, for in the middle of this day’s march a deep sunk trench was reached, thirty feet broad, and eighteen feet deep.… The trench itself had been constructed by the great king upon hearing of Cyrus’s approach, to serve as a line of defence.’ The trench does not appear to have survived but the site might have been reused to build later walls – the first being the Wall of Macepracta, discussed next, and second the surviving wall at Umm Raus.

Wall of Macepracta – Ammianus Marcellinus, describing the assault in AD 362 by the apostate Emperor Julian on the Sasasian Empire of Shapur II, wrote: ‘our soldiers came to the village of Macepracta, where the half-destroyed traces of walls were seen; these in early times had a wide extent, it was said, and protected Assyria from hostile inroads.’

There is a surviving belt of linear barriers which extends – with long gaps – between the Euphrates and the Tigris. The three walls mark the line where the fertile Babylonian plain peters out. There is the rampart starting at Umm-Raus which extends east from the Euphrates; El-Mutabbaq is a burnt brick wall with towers running west from the Tigris; and between them is a dyke named Sadd Nimrud (also called El-Jalu). Their dating is very uncertain.

Wall at Umm Raus – The wall, running east from the Euphrates, has been described: ‘From Umm Raus we see the wall running inland for a distance of about 7 miles, with rounded bastions at intervals for 2½ miles.… The wall appeared to be about 35–45 ft broad, with bastions projecting about 20ft. to 25ft., set at a distance of about 190 feet axis to axis. At its highest point the mound made by the wall is about 7 to 8 feet high. From the air it can be seen that there are about forty buttresses in all.’

The line may follow that of Artaxerxes’ trench. It is not a brick wall but an earth rampart. It was ‘never defensible, perhaps never finished’. Also: ‘This wall must have been designed … to protect the suddenly broadening area of fertile irrigated land to its south from raids and infiltration; large armies entering Iraq by the Euphrates would not have found it a serious obstacle.’

Again, there is the explicit mention of defending irrigated land. The Umm Raus rampart must date between 401 BC, as it is not mentioned by Xenophon, and AD 363, when a ruined wall was described at Macepracta by Ammianus Marcellinus.

El-Mutabbaq – The modern name, El-Mutabbaq, means built in layers or courses of bricks. This is a massive rampart lying at the boundary of the irrigatel alluvium of the widening Tigris valley south of Samarra and the desert to the north-west. It is about forty kilometres long and ‘has traces of turrets and moat on the north-west side and follows … the natural contours of the land. The rampart was four to six metres high, thirty metres wide at the bottom.’ It is, ‘a mud-brick wall three and a half bricks wide behind which is 10.5m of gravel-packing held in by a small mud-wall. The gravel packing was compartmented by mud-brick cross walls. There are projecting towers at regular intervals and a ditch about 20 to 30m. wide which is now about 2m. deep.’

The following description shows El-Mutabbaq as being designed to protect valued land against a nomad threat: ‘Herzfeld (a German explorer and historian) attributed construction to the threat of the Bedouin invading the fertile area along the Tigris by the river Dujail.’ These walls were seen as intended to stop nomads thereby affirming their ineffectiveness against great armies: ‘Cross-country walls of this type are notoriously inefficient at stopping great armies; this particular example could be outflanked without any difficulty at all. A stronger objection to any theory that it was designed to stop a great army is that it blocks the one route into southern Mesopotamia which, because of natural obstacles north of Samarra, invading armies have preferred never to use.’ The walls were intended to defend irrigated land: ‘El-Mutabbaq was more probably intended to help protect the irrigated land from unwanted settlers and raiding parties coming from the desert.’ There is no consensus as to the builder although they are described as Sasanian. Basically, these linear barriers do not seem to have been examined since the 1960s and remain effectively undated.

Sadd Nimrud – A dyke called Sadd Nimrud or El-Jalu, which is about forty kilometres long, that lies to the west of El-Muttabaq. This linear barrier does not extend the full distance between El-Muttabaq and the Wall at Umm Raus: ‘The fortification in the central area peters out in the direction of Falluja – perhaps as a considerable gap did not need to be defended – as armies could not advance far into the desert away from water.’ No date, other than this possibly being pre-Islamic, has been suggested.

Analysis – three lines at the Euphrates and Tigris convergence point

These three barriers between the Tigris and the Euphrates present a very baffling picture. They follow roughly the line where intense irrigation ceases. Rather than being a single response, however, they seem to be three discrete AD hoc reactions to separate threats to irrigated lands near the rivers Tigris and Euphrates. They can lay claim to being among the longest and oldest walls outside China, excepting certain Roman and Sasanian walls, yet there appears to have been no very detailed study of them. The attribution is generally vague – with comparisons made to features on Sumerian to Sasanian walls, in other words millennia apart. Generally commentators do regard them as forming part of a local response to the need to protect valued irrigated land in the immediate vicinity, rather than as having any strategic purpose to block routes into central and southern Mesopotamia.

Sasanian aquatic barriers

In the early fourth century AD a semi-nomadic people, the Lakhmid Arabs, who were originally from the Yemen, emerged as a serious threat to Sasanian Mesopotamia.

Khandaq-i-Shapur – Arab tradition associates Shapur II (AD 309–379) with a defensive dyke that reputedly ran west of the Euphrates, from Hit to Basra. This barrier is looked at again later when Sasanian barriers are discussed. It is clear however that the linear barrier was built to hinder the nomadic Arab people from the desert. Although this Khandaq is much later than the Egyptian Walls of the Ruler, it throws an interesting perspective on it. Firstly, there is neat symmetry. In the face of a threat from nomadic Asiatics, the response to both the east and the west of the Arabian Desert was to build a moat or canal. Secondly, the historian Yāqūt, writing later in the Islamic period, said that Anushirvan (531–579) who rebuilt Shapur’s earlier work, ‘built on it (the moat) towers and pavilions and he joined it together with fortified points.’ Therefore, this was a continuous fortified aquatic linear barrier. The fact that such a barrier was constructed by the Sasanians perhaps meant that Egypt’s early Walls of the Ruler were also a continuous aquatic barrier, strengthened by forts.