The most complete depiction of the arms and armour of the Seleucid cataphract is located on the Balustrade Reliefs of the temple of Athena Polias Nikephoros at Pergamum. One of the most impressive features shown among the armament is a metal mask with an incredibly detailed face, including a sculpted beard that was attached to the helmet of the rider. The rest of the cataphract armour included a Hellenistic-style cuirass with traditional pinions and pteruges (strips hanging from the shoulders and lower edge respectively) attached, as well as laminated armour that covered the entire arm (manica) that was made of articulated metal or rawhide hoops that overlapped down the limb and were often riveted to inner straps.

The Seleucid Empire

Shortly after King Arsaces conquered Parthia and seized it from the Seleucid Empire, the rebel governor of Bactria, Diodotus II, named himself the new king of his province around 235 BC. The Bactrian ruler then also entered into a peaceful agreement with the Parthian king, because both men knew they would soon face the wrath of the Seleucid emperor. The two new kings did not have to wait long, for later in the year King Seleucus II (r. 246-225 BC) launched a campaign in the east to reclaim his lost territory. Unfortunately for the Hellenistic ruler, his attempts to reclaim Parthia and Bactria ended in failure and he was forced to return in order to deal with a turbulent Babylon. A couple of decades later, Seleucus’ son, Antiochus III (r. 223-187 BC), was ready to succeed where his father had failed. After stabilizing the western half of the empire, Antiochus the Great made extensive preparations for an eastern campaign. His aim was to either completely retake land or at least force the eastern rulers to submit and become client kings as well as give tribute to their acknowledged overlord. In 209 BC, the Seleucid emperor carried out a campaign against the fledgling kingdom of Parthia with a large army of around 15,000 heavy infantry, 6,000 cavalry and over 12,000 peltasts and other light infantry.

Before Antiochus began his eastern expedition, King Arsaces was succeeded by his son, Arsaces II (r. 211-185 BC), whose soldiers attempted to slow or halt the Seleucid invaders by first preventing them from gaining access to all of the wells or other sources of fresh water in their path, and then by sending men to raid and harry the Hellenistic forces as they marched. None of these actions stopped the Seleucid army from advancing further into Parthia. Antiochus continued to overcome further resistance, then successfully besieged more than one fortified settlement and captured several towns before he and the Parthian king agreed to meet and make peace terms. In the agreement, Arsaces was allowed to keep his kingdom as long as he became a vassal and paid tribute to the Seleucid emperor. Additionally, the Parthians lost the important city of Hekatompylos, along with much of the former region of Hyrcania, to the Seleucids.

With Parthia made into a client kingdom, Antiochus moved on to deal with Bactria next. Yet before he reached the former province of the empire, the new rebel ruler of the Greco–Bactrian kingdom, Euthydemos, confronted the Seleucid army at the Arios River on the border. The Bactrian forces consisted primarily of cavalry that may have numbered as many as 10,000 men; thus, Antiochus proceeded with his horsemen, especially his 2,000–strong royal guardsmen, supported by many light infantry peltasts. Even though they were outnumbered, the Seleucid cavalrymen achieved victory against the Bactrian horsemen, forcing Euthydemos to retreat back to his capital city of Bactra. After a lengthy siege of two years, along with further violent encounters, Antiochus eventually gave in and expressed his desire to make peace with the Greco–Bactrian king. Similar to the terms made with Arsaces, Euthydemos was allowed to retain his kingship in exchange for a pledge of loyalty and the payment of a large tribute. Antiochus also confirmed his control over the regions of Margiana and Aria. Parthia and Bactria were the primary targets of Antiochus’ eastern expedition and, although he did not fully recover the lost territories, he forced their rulers into a state of vassalage, which was enough to satisfy the Seleucid emperor. Antiochus was then free to return to the west in order to settle unfinished business with a rival Hellenistic kingdom ruled by the Ptolemies in Egypt.

Earlier in his reign, several years before he left for his campaigns in the east, Antiochus had been defeated by Ptolemy IV Philopator (r. 221-204 BC) at the Battle of Raphia in 217 BC. The news that a rebel– lion had broken out in Egypt reached Antiochus in 206 BC, which was one of the reasons that the Seleucid emperor wished to end the siege of Bactra. In 204 BC, the death of Ptolemy only fueled Antiochus’ desire to seek revenge against the rival kingdom while it was weak and vulnerable. As he prepared in the years before his ultimate confrontation with the Ptolemaic Kingdom, Antiochus the Great created a new type of mounted warrior inspired by his combat experiences in the east, which later became known as the cataphract.

Although the Parthians and Bactrians that Antiochus faced in his eastern campaigns certainly utilized heavily armoured cavalry like their predecessors, it is unknown whether one or both regions had begun fielding riders and steeds armoured to the extent of the new Seleucid cataphracts. Whether Antiochus simply copied Parthian or Bactrian troops or innovated by developing the idea further, the new cavalry that would fight the Ptolemaic Egyptians at the Battle of Panion were definitely the first to be called cataphracts.

The events leading up to the confrontation at Panion resulted from Antiochus’ moves to reclaim the region of Coile–Syria from the Ptolemies in 202 BC. The Seleucid emperor began his campaign with the seizure of the city of Damascus, which was accomplished in the first year. By 201 BC, Antiochus had not only captured Gaza, but he had also taken much of the land in between the two cities, which gave him control over Palestine, a large part of Coile–Syria. However, by the end of that year, the Aetolian mercenary commander of the Ptolemaic army, Skopas, managed to recruit a large number of mercenaries, which he combined with the native Ptolemaic forces. Then, early in 200 BC, Skopas launched a campaign to retake Palestine during winter in the hopes of catching the Seleucids off guard. The ploy worked; the region was soon back in Ptolemaic hands because the Seleucid army was still away in its winter quarters. In response, Antiochus quickly gathered the largest army he could muster and then marched south from Damascus until he met the Ptolemaic forces near Panion later in the summer.

Within the ancient written records, there is one description of the Battle of Panion in Book XVI of the Histories written by Polybius. However, the account is not a full description of the events but rather a criticism of the report written by Zeno of Rhodes that described the conflict. Yet the information that the critique of Zeno’s account has provided, combined with the study of the local topography where the battle most likely took place from scholars such as Bezalel Bar-Kochva, is sufficient to construct a rough outline of the major events that occurred during the battle. The Seleucid army, comprised of as many as 60,000 sol– diers, reached the site of the battlefield first. As the Seleucids travelled the route to Gaza, Antiochus halted the southward march of his forces to the south of Mount Hermon, near the town of Panion. After making a camp for the baggage, most likely located adjacent to the settlement, the army divided into two groups so that it could occupy the entire field to the southwest of the town because the Banias River cut through the level ground. One contingent, consisting of some of the infantry– men, cavalrymen and elephants, remained on the rougher terrain of the same side of the river as Panion in order to guard the camp. It was in this southern arena that Antiochus’ son, Antiochus the Elder, took an elevated position atop the hill of Tel–Fakhr. Meanwhile, the majority of the army crossed the Banias River so that it could occupy the more level ground of the Banias Plateau on the north side of the waterway.

In the northern arena, King Antiochus the Great commanded most of the Seleucid phalanx and the elephant line in front of the infantrymen located in the centre, while he sent his right–wing cavalry to take control of the hill of Tel–Hamra to the north, `among which were the cataphracts, under the sole command of the younger of the king’s sons Antiochus’. Polybius used the Greek words kataphraktoi hippoi to describe the new cataphract troops, which is the first time the term has appeared in the historical record. While in his account of the earlier Battle of Raphia, the ancient writer uses the term hippoi for all of the cavalrymen in the Seleucid army, the fact that Polybius added the word kataphraktoi to describe a specific unit of cavalrymen at the Battle of Panion suggests that the heavy horsemen were covered with more extensive armour than was ever worn before by the Seleucid cavalry. Opposing the Seleucid troops north of the river were the main body of the Ptolemaic phalanx, along with every elephant in their army because the Egyptian kingdom had fewer of the huge warbeasts than their eastern Hellenistic rival. Like Antiochus, Skopas led from the centre and sent the majority of the Aetolian mercenary cavalry to the left wing in order to face the horsemen of Antiochus the Younger, which included the unique unit of cataphracts. The Aetolian horsemen were considered the best cavalry of Greece at the time, thus Skopas hoped they would be able to overcome their more heavily armoured opponents. In the southern area, on the other side of the Banias River, the Aetolian mercenary infantrymen, supported by further Ptolemaic cavalrymen, were placed there in order to attempt to break through the Seleucid lines defending the route to Panion and try to seize the Seleucid army camp that contained the valuables of the baggage train.

The combat commenced to the north when the Indian elephants of the Seleucids engaged the Ptolemaic African elephants and drove them off, allowing the Seleucid phalanx to slam into the front lines of the Ptolemaic infantry. Meanwhile, Polybius also states:

Antiochus the Younger and the cataphracts charged down from the high ground and put to flight and pursued the cavalry under Ptolemy, son of Aeropus, who was in command of the Aetolians in the plain on the left wing.

After the cataphracts managed to drive off the formidable Aetolian horsemen, the young prince then led his cavalry in a charge against the rear of the Ptolemaic phalanx as they were fighting the Seleucid infantrymen. The Ptolemaic forces had much more success in the southern arena for they managed to rout both the Seleucid cavalry and infantry, yet the wall of elephants stationed as a rearguard behind the Seleucid troops then successfully blocked the Ptolemaic advance. Unable to break through the elephants and capture the Seleucid camp in the southern arena, the Ptolemaic army was ultimately defeated, for their main phalanx was surrounded and crushed on the northern side of the river. Skopas was able to escape with 10,000 of his men, mostly Aetolian infantry from the southern arena, and reach the refuge of Sidon. However, King Antiochus was not far behind and soon put the city under siege, until it was taken by the summer of 199 BC and Skopas was forced to surrender. Antiochus had won a spectacular victory at Panion that more than made up for his humiliating defeat at Raphia nearly twenty years before. The emperor’s new creation, the cataphracts, were the main component contributing to the Seleucid success, which would not be forgotten by Antiochus who used the unit in much the same manner in his next major battle a decade later.

By 198 BC, Antiochus the Great had conquered all of Syria, but the conflict was not yet over with Ptolemaic Egypt, because the fighting merely shifted to Asia Minor and Thrace to the north. The Seleucid Empire eventually defeated the Kingdom of Egypt but their actions in the northern territories soon threatened the expanding Roman Empire that just recently had begun to take a major interest in the region. Rome publicly desired to protect its Greek allies who felt endangered by the encroaching actions of Antiochus near their borders, but it is also safe to assume that the imperial aspirations of both the Seleucids and the Romans meant that an eventual war was unavoidable. As both sides prepared for their inevitable clash, it became clear that the Seleucid Empire was far superior in terms of cavalry; a fact that was exploited in attempts to intimidate the Romans, as stated in the account of Livy:

The ambassador of Antiochus was heard before the Aetolians. He, a boaster like most who are maintained by a king’s power, filled seas and lands with an empty sound of words: an uncountable number of cavalry was crossing the Hellespont into Europe, partly equipped with breastplates-these they call the cataphracti-partly those who use arrows from horseback, and as a result of which there is no protection against them, since they aimed quite accurately backwards while fleeing on their horses.

The cataphracts were a major part of the threatening propaganda used by the Seleucids because their heavy metal armour made them look nearly invincible on the battlefield and they had already proven their worth against the Aetolian cavalry that was renowned throughout the ancient world. The fact that they were a new creation of the Seleucids probably only added to the fear they invoked before they were actually seen in person, for such heavily equipped horsemen were a rarity in the west. However, according to Plutarch, the Roman’s responded in typically arrogant fashion to the threat of the new cataphracts and the rest of the enormous Seleucid army:

When King Antiochus was coming upon Greece with great forces, and all men trembled at the report of his numbers and equipage, he [Flaminius, the Roman consul] told the Achaeans this story: `Once I dined with a friend at Chalcis, and when I wondered at the variety of dishes, my host said, “All these are pork, only in dressing and sauces they differ”. And therefore be not you amazed at the king’s forces, when you hear talk of cataphracts and men–at–arms and choice foot– men and horse–archers, for all these are but Syrians [Seleucids], with some little difference in their weapons’.

Although obviously propaganda, these quotes do not portray the fear and doubt that was probably felt by many on both sides for each empire had already proved to be extremely dangerous to their enemies. What is important to note regarding the cataphracts in both of these statements though, is that the latest addition to the Seleucid cavalry was quickly seen as one of the most lethal units in the imperial army. The History of Rome of Livy was also the first time that the cataphracts were written about in Latin, therefore, the Roman historian changed the Greek words kataphraktoi hippoi into the Latinized spelling of cataphracti in order to describe the revolutionary unit of horsemen to his Roman readers.

After Antiochus failed to invade Greece in 190 BC, he retreated with his army back to Asia Minor. The Roman response was quick for they sent an army under the command of the renowned general, Scipio Africanus, and his brother Lucius Scipio, which reached the Seleucid forces at Magnesia. Both armies were roughly the same size, especially regarding the infantry of each side, at around 50,000 men each; however, the Seleucid army certainly had a significant advantage in the number of cavalry with around 12,000 horsemen compared to around 3,000 cavalrymen in the Roman army. The centre and the left wing of the Roman army was comprised of heavy infantry legionaries with their left flank protected by the ancient course of the Phyrgios River, while nearly all of their cavalry was placed on the right wing. The Seleucid forces that opposed them were arrayed with the heavy infantry pikemen in the middle, which were supported by cavalry and light infantry on either side of them. Among the cavalry, there were 6,000 cataphract troops that were divided evenly between each wing, as stated by Livy:

On the right side of the phalanx, he placed five hundred Gallograecian horsemen. To these he joined three thousand horsemen clad in complete armour, whom they call cataphracti.

And in his description of the left wing:

Then, three thousand cataphracts; then, one thousand other horsemen, being a royal cohort, equipped with lighter coverings for themselves and their horses, but, in other respects, not unlike [the cataphracts].

As his son did at Panion, Antiochus led the cataphracts and the rest of the cavalry stationed on the right wing.



While the infantry centres of both armies collided, the battle was decided by the actions of the cavalry of each side. First off, the cataphracts and the right-wing cavalry led by Antiochus charged into the Roman legionaries stationed on the left with such force that they not only broke through the frontlines, but also then completely routed the Roman infantry contingent. Most likely due to his Roman pride, Livy downplayed the collapse of the Roman legion in question, yet still made it known that Antiochus and the cataphracts were very successful in the attack as he recounted the significant event:

For Antiochus, who commanded the right wing, having observed that the enemy, through confidence in the river, had placed no reserve there, except four troops of horse, and that these, keeping close to the infantry, left an open space on the bank of the river, made a charge on them, with a body of auxiliaries and cataphracts. He not only attacked them in front, but having surrounded the wing in the direction of the river, pressed them in flank also; until the routed cavalry first, and then the infantry that were next to them, fled with precipitation to the camp.

Although Livy mentions cavalry, it is important to note that the vast majority of the Roman left wing that the cataphracts overcame was comprised of legionaries. In The Syrian Wars, Appian reinforced Livy’s account, for he also stated that `Antiochus, on the right, broke through the Roman line of battle, dismembered it, and pursued a long distance’. This feat alone was particularly impressive for at this point in history, Roman legionaries were definitely considered some of the best, if not the best, infantry troops in the world; a legion defeated by a frontal assault in that manner was a rarity for the time. However, Antiochus followed up that brilliant action by attacking the Roman camp, which was guarded by Thracian and Macedonian allies of Rome, instead of striking the legionaries of the centre in the rear or the flanks. If he had done that, victory could have easily belonged to the Seleucids at that moment, but instead Antiochus and his cavalry were tied up in their combat with the camp garrison and the remainder of the routed legionaries who managed to rally and come to the aid of their allies at the fortified camp.

At the same time that Antiochus led his charge on the right wing, the chariots he had placed in front of his left wing simultaneously advanced towards the Roman right wing, predominately composed of cavalry forces. Yet the light infantry stationed among the horsemen of the Roman army launched such a devastating barrage of javelins and arrows that the Seleucid charioteers were unable to withstand it, and thus they were forced to retreat with their vehicles back into their own lines. Chaos ensued, for the cataphracts were preparing to make their assault right as the chariots came rushing back towards them, which caused the armoured horsemen to completely lose their momentum. This allowed the cavalry on the Roman right flank to fully exploit the confusion on the Seleucid side and quickly overcome the lumbering heavy cavalrymen stuck in their tracks. Livy recounted the disastrous sequence of events for the Seleucids, emphasizing the amount of armour worn by the cataphracts as a major contributing factor to the defeat of the Seleucid left wing:

But that futile affair was soon the cause of real loss. For the auxiliaries in reserve, which were posted next, being terrified at the turn and disorder of the chariots, betook themselves to flight, leaving all exposed as far as the post of the cataphracts; to whom when the Roman cavalry, after dispersing the reserves, approached, they did not sustain their first onset. Some fled, and others, being delayed by the weight of their coverings and armour, were put to the sword. The whole left wing then gave way, and the auxiliaries, posted between the cavalry and the phalanx, being thrown into confusion, the terror spread even to the centre.

In his account of the battle, Appian also stated that the heavy weight of the cataphract armour prevented them from successfully reacting to the unexpected retreat of the Seleucid chariots:

The horses being wounded in great numbers charged with their chariots upon their own ranks. The dromedaries were thrown into disorder first, as they were next in line to the chariots, and after them the cataphracts who could not easily dodge the scythes on account of the weight of their armour.

Appian continued to stress how much their extensive armour negatively affected the cataphracts:

[The Roman cavalry] made so heavy a charge that they put to flight not only those, but the adjoining squadrons and the cataphracts, who were already thrown into disorder by the chariots. The greater part of these, unable to turn and fly quickly, on account of the weight of their armour, were captured or killed.

After crushing the cataphracts, and the rest of the Seleucid forces of the left wing, the horsemen of the Roman army did what Antiochus failed to do to achieve victory by slamming into the flank of the Seleucid phalanx. Yet, miraculously, the Seleucid pikemen held firm and withstood the onslaught from the legionaries in the front and the Roman cavalry attacking the flank. However, Antiochus had placed a small reserve of elephants to protect the rear of the army, which was then the target of severe missile fire from the archers and javelineers within the Roman ranks. It did not take long for the barrage to cause the huge beasts to panic and then rampage into their own infantry troops in front of them, causing the Seleucid phalanx to collapse. The routed Seleucid infantrymen fled to their camp, which was stoutly defended first by the reserves and then by the flood of retreating men who poured into the encampment, allowing many of the pikemen to escape the slaughter; although thousands of the Seleucid troops were slain on the field. The Romans had won the battle.

Magnesia was only the second major battle that the new Seleucid cataphracts had participated in and for the first time their major weakness was fully exposed. Although nearly invulnerable due to their extensive armour, those same defences could also be their Achilles’ heel, for it drastically limited their mobility, normally one of the greatest assets of cavalry troops. From battles such as Magnesia, and in future conflicts, the later kingdoms and empires that utilized cataphracts had to learn that for the elite heavy cavalrymen to be the most effective, they must be supported by light infantry and/or cavalry in order to protect their flanks, or even more importantly, to drive off attacks whenever the armoured horsemen were immobile. On the other hand, the cataphracts’ spectacular charge that caused the rare collapse of a Roman legion also reinforced how deadly the new heavy cavalry troops could be when used properly on the battlefield with shock tactics.

As the first cataphracts ever created, the least is known about the Seleucid version of the heavy cavalry warriors. The most complete depiction of the arms and armour of the Seleucid cataphract is located on the Balustrade Reliefs of the temple of Athena Polias Nikephoros at Pergamum. One of the most impressive features shown among the armament is a metal mask with an incredibly detailed face, including a sculpted beard that was attached to the helmet of the rider. The rest of the cataphract armour included a Hellenistic-style cuirass with traditional pinions and pteruges (strips hanging from the shoulders and lower edge respectively) attached, as well as laminated armour that covered the entire arm (manica) that was made of articulated metal or rawhide hoops that overlapped down the limb and were often riveted to inner straps. An almost complete set of cataphract armour featuring physical remains of iron manica, like those depicted on the Pergamum frieze, have been found during excavations carried out by the French at the site of Ai Khanoum, an ancient Hellenistic city located in modern day Afghanistan. Similar laminated armour that covered the arms probably also protected the legs as well, along with Hellenistic–style greaves. A figurine of a warrior from Syria, now located in the Louvre, has also been discovered and is depicted wearing similar armour to the images on the reliefs at Pergamum. The figure is shown wearing a Hellenistic-style cuirass as well, most likely made of leather, with pteruges, and the arms of the heavily armoured soldier were covered with manica. Last but not least, the helmet of the Syrian figurine has the same metal face mask with the intricate sculpted beard. However, the armour of the cataphract slightly changed in the later years of the Seleucid Empire by the reign of Antiochus IV Epiphanes (r. 175-164 BC), in that the type of cuirass had been exchanged to mainly become a Roman type of mail coat instead of the previous Hellenistic corselet.

The primary weapon wielded by the mounted warrior may have first been the lighter xyston-style lance but later it predominately became the kontos (heavy lance) that was most likely similar in length, at around 3.6 m (12 ft.), but may have been thicker and weighed more. The horse of the Seleucid cataphract also wore a metal facemask, but for the steed it was most likely constructed of bronze and ornamented with a feather crest. It is also clear that the heavy warhorse was provided with lamellar armour to protect the chest; however, it is likely that the armour was even more extensive for the cataphract than what is depicted on the reliefs at Pergamum. The further protection was probably either a half–trapper or even a full body trapper worn by the horse, made of metal scales that overlapped upon a fabric backing, which fastened over the chest of the beast. The half–trapper only covered the shoulders and chest of the mount, while the full trapper provided armour for nearly the entire body; remains of horse trapper armour of the fuller type has been found at sites such as Dura Europos. Another possible addition to the cataphract equipment was an armoured saddle that provided a defence for the thighs of the riders, influenced by earlier Achaemenid models. A fragment dated to either the 4th or 3rd century BC from a terracotta relief flask found at the site of Khumbuz–Tepe, located in southern Khwarezm, contains a depiction of this unique heavy cavalry equipment.

It is probable that the Seleucid cataphracts were predominately recruited from among the Iranian population of the empire, not the ruling Macedonian/Greek people. Not only did the Iranian peoples have a much stronger background in cavalry warfare than the Hellenistic westerners, but they had also faced cataphract–type soldiers in combat on many more occasions, and their ancestors may have even fought as the elite heavy cavalry troops before the conquest of Alexander the Great that resulted in the creation of the Seleucid Empire. On the other hand, it is curious to note that when Livy described the cavalry units at the Battle of Magnesia in 190 BC, he clearly identifies the origins of many of them, but does not do so in his description of the cataphracts. Similarly, when the cataphracts are mentioned in the accounts of Polybius, he also does not use an ethnic term to describe them, which he often does for many other contingents of warriors. Therefore, it may also be possible that the cataphract units were comprised of regulars, primarily of Macedonian origin, that were recruited from the military colonies, not foreign allies or mercenaries. Yet regardless of their origin, the cataphracts were most likely provided with armour in the style of the region the soldier fought in; in the east, the armour would have been predominately lamellar and scale armour types, while plate armour cuirasses were more common in the west.

After the Battle of Magnesia, the Seleucids continued to utilize cataphract troops, yet due to their expensive cost to maintain in the field, there numbers were reduced. As a result of their defeat to the Romans, the empire lost important territory, specifically Asia Minor, as well as a significant portion of its army, and was, therefore, greatly weakened. With fewer available men and decreased resources, the amount of cataphracts in the Seleucid army may have been reduced by thousands of soldiers. However, the empire was still powerful and the new emperor, Antiochos IV, attempted to prove that with a grand display of his military might. In 166 BC, the emperor held a festival at the city of Daphne in Syria with games and a majestic parade of all his best troops in their finest armour. In the account of Polybius, the cataphracts made an appearance in the procession:

Next came the cataphract cavalry, both men and horses acquiring that name from the nature of their panoply; they numbered 1,500. All the above men had purple surcoats, in many cases embroidered with gold and heraldic designs.

It is possible that the number of cataphracts was cut drastically from the 6,000 soldiers at Magnesia down to 1,500 men at Daphne, though there is also a chance that the heavy cavalrymen at the parade were only the base unit, while the overall numbers of the cataphracts were increased during times of war.

The cataphracts continued to fade within the Seleucid army as the empire declined throughout the later half of the second century and into the first century BC. After the Romans seized much of the western territories of the empire, the Parthians then conquered substantial Seleucid lands in the east. The empire fractured into several different kingdoms after the death of Antiochus IV in 164 BC, allowing the Iranian tribal kingdom to easily conquer each former Seleucid region individually. From 160 to 140 BC, the ruler of the Parthians, Mithridates I (r. 165-132 BC), managed to seize most of the eastern regions, including Media, Persis, Elymais, Characene, Assyria, Babylonia and Gedrosia, transforming his kingdom into a full-fledged empire. The Seleucids first attempted to retake their lost territories in a failed campaign led by King Demetrius II (r. 146-138 BC) in 138 BC, and then again in 129 BC by his brother, Antiochus VII Sidates (r. 138-129 BC). After some initial success, however, Antiochus VII ultimately failed to overcome the Parthians. By the first century BC, the once–formidable Seleucid empire was so weak that its land was reduced to the royal city of Antioch and part of Syria. In 96 BC, King Antiochus VIII Grypus (r. 125-96 BC) was murdered, which plunged the fragile kingdom into a state of anarchy that it would never recover from. Once the powerful king of Armenia, Tigranes the Great (r. 95-55 BC), was made aware of the chaotic situation in the Seleucid lands, he quickly exploited the situation and took control of the dying kingdom in 83 BC. Even though the Seleucids underwent a minor resurgence a little over a decade later and regained their autonomy, Roman general Pompey the Great annexed Syria in 63 BC, thus the Seleucid Empire finally ended. Yet even though the Hellenistic state had collapsed, the Seleucids had certainly made their mark on the militaries of the ancient world with the creation of the cataphracts. When Asclepiodotus wrote his military treatise, Tactica, in the first century BC, the ancient writer made sure to include the new heavy cavalrymen in his work:

Now the cavalry, which fights at close quarters, uses a very heavy equipment, fully protecting both horses and men with defensive armour, and employing, like the hoplites, long spears.

The Hellenistic Period – Weapons 400–150 BC II


The muscle cuirass continued to be used as the most elaborate piece of body armour available to wealthier officers. It was presumably this type of cuirass that Epaminondas was wearing when he was injured ‘through the breastplate’ at Mantinea in 362 (Diodorus XV, 87.1). On the Nereid monument from Lycia, which dates to about 400 and is now in the British Museum, over 80 per cent of the soldiers are wearing simple material corslets, with only officers in muscle cuirasses. These cuirasses have the abdominal dip of the earlier cuirasses and are now depicted with anatomically correct pectoral muscles, rather than the spiral designs seen in the previous century. These Lycian models also appear without pteruges or shoulder flaps and must have had a fitted padded lining.

In the later fourth century there was an increase in the depiction of the muscle cuirass on the funerary monuments of Athens, which is thought to have been caused by the muscle cuirass having been reintroduced after a period when not much armour was worn. Sekunda suggested this might have been as a result of the defeat of Chaeronea in 338, when Athens and Thebes and their allies lost to the Macedonians, who were using the new sarissa-armed phalanx and heavy cavalry. However, several of the monuments can now be dated to before this. Sekunda (2000, p. 62 and plate J) still sees this as a general rearmament, and suggests that whole armies of Athenian hoplites and indeed Macedonian pikemen were equipped with the muscle cuirass. I think this is highly unlikely. We have seen that this form of cuirass was an expensive item and that at this time arms and armour were provided by the state. I do not see how either Athens or indeed Philip II of Macedon could have afforded large numbers of this form of cuirass for the ordinary soldier. This state funding, for Athens, probably began after Chaeronea and we know it consisted of just a shield, cloak and spear (Sekunda 1986, p. 57). The few stelai we have that feature this cuirass can easily be accounted for by officers, who could personally afford the cuirass (and indeed the grave stele).

These mid- to late-fourth-century cuirasses had separate shoulder pieces giving a double thickness of bronze (or iron) at this point, which now became a standard feature of the muscle cuirass. They were obviously copied from linen and leather shoulder-piece corslets. An example of a bronze-plated iron cuirass of this type was found in Tomb II at Amathus in Cyprus, but may be of Roman date (Gjerstad et al. 1935, vol. II, p. 14, no. 77). The British Museum has a pair of bronze shoulder guards, from Siris in Italy, which are very elaborately decorated. They are probably from the fourth century and so Greek rather than Roman. The only complete surviving muscle cuirass of this type from this period was found in 1978 at Prodromi, near Thesprotia in southern Epirus. The two iron helmets found in this tomb have already been mentioned, and the cuirass is also of iron, dating from about 330. The contemporary iron cuirass from the tomb of Philip II, which is discussed below, is made up of fairly manageable flat plates except at the shoulders, and it is this Prodromi cuirass which shows the real skill in iron working that the Greeks were now attaining. Iron is much harder to work than bronze, but it is a much stronger defence. The drawback is that it is also much heavier, especially because it was hard to work into thin sheets. No width measurements are given for the Prodromi cuirass in its original publication (Choremis 1980, pp. 10–12), but the cuirass of Philip II is 5mm thick compared to the usual 1–2mm for bronze cuirasses.

The Prodromi cuirass clearly reached down at the front to protect the belly, although some of it has broken away here. The edges at the neck and armholes are rolled over for added strength and the cuirass is hinged on the right side and at the shoulders. Straps passing through gold loops fastened the left side. The nipples are marked out in gold and next to these are gold rosettes with loops. Gold lion heads and loops on the shoulder flaps show that this is where the shoulder flaps were fastened down; the lion heads are identical to those on Philip II’s cuirass. The cuirass is very wide in the hips to allow the wearer to ride a horse, and the length of his machaira, 78cm, shows that this man was a cavalry officer. Another proof for this was the absence of greaves from the tomb, although they were not always a prerequisite for infantry at this time, as we have seen. It is an unusual, isolated tomb and Choremis, the excavator, has suggested it was possibly a battlefield burial.

Nothing remained of the pteruges in the Prodromi tomb, and we must return to the Athenian funerary monuments such as the tomb of Aristonautes (Snodgrass 1967, plate 56) and another well-known example from Eleusis (Sekunda 2000, p. 62). Both these monuments show three sets of pteruges protruding from the bottom of the cuirass, rather than the two sets that are more usual in fifth-century depictions. These fourth-century pteruges are also much shorter than earlier ones, barely covering the groin, let alone the thighs. Later illustrations, such as those on the Alexander Sarcophagus and the Alexander mosaic, show two sets of pteruges, one short and one long, frequently with pteruges at the armholes as well. These are material corslets, probably made in one piece, although they are perhaps evidence for a separate arming tunic that could be worn under a cuirass, like Xenophon’s spolas. Russell Robinson (1975, p. 148) illustrates a similar doublet, with one set of short and one set of long pteruges. As he explains, the upper short set of pteruges would have had to be carefully cut if they were to follow the curving, lower abdominal dip of a muscle cuirass, and this might have been a later Roman development. The fourth-century Athenian representations have no pteruges at the armholes, which seems to suggest that the three short rows of pteruges were attached directly to the cuirass or, to be more exact, to its lining. In this case one might have thought that two rows would have been sufficient, one covering the gaps in the other. The lower two rows seem to conform to this pattern but the upper row is generally much shorter, and I would suggest that only this row was attached to the cuirass. The lower two rows are more likely to have been part of an arming tunic, to help cushion the weight of the cuirass, rather than having the cuirass itself padded. Evidence for this (apart from Xenophon and his spolas) comes from the Amphipolis inscription dating from the time of Philip V, c. 200. This has a list of fines for soldiers and officers who needed replacement equipment, which is further evidence for the supply of equipment by the state. Here, ordinary soldiers were issued with a kotthubos for body armour, while officers received a cuirass or ‘half-cuirass’ as well as a kotthubos, suggesting that the two could be worn together. This suggests that the kotthubos was some sort of leather armour like the spolas, over which a metal cuirass could be worn.

There is little pictorial evidence for the use of the muscle cuirass under Philip II and Alexander. One is being worn by a warrior on the Alexander Sarcophagus, but Sekunda (1984, p. 33 and plate H) has shown that he is an allied Greek, not a Macedonian. It is an interesting example, since it has no pteruges and no shoulder guards and so is somewhat old-fashioned. Maybe the sculptor was using an old prop. It seems likely, however, that some of Philip II and Alexander’s soldiers did wear the muscle cuirass, especially the Companion cavalry. The muscle cuirass persisted in art through the third and second centuries and it is clear that wealthier Greeks and Macedonians continued to wear it. The victory frieze at Pergamum, which is now generally dated to c. 170 and celebrates the victory of Eumenes and the Romans over Antiochus III at Magnesia in 190, illustrates captured Seleucid and Galatian armour, and the scenes include three muscle cuirasses. Two are similar to the Prodromi cuirass apart from the shoulders. Instead of being tied down to the chest, the shoulder flaps have a central hole which passes over a stud or loop on the chest through which a securing thong is tied (Jaeckel 1965, pp. 103–4). Both cuirasses have two rows of pteruges at the waist, but only one has shoulder flaps. These are bordered and tasselled, and seem to be made of leather covered with fabric. The third muscle cuirass is shown without pteruges, which may be further evidence for their having been attached to a separate jerkin at this time: or perhaps we are again dealing with an old-fashioned cuirass, since it has no shoulder flaps. A Macedonian officer on the Aemilius Paullus monument also wears a muscle cuirass (Kahler 1965, plate 12), and there are at least four shown on the Artemision at Magnesia. This dates from after 150, and is a little confusing in that all the soldiers, not just those in muscle cuirasses, seem to be wearing officers’ sashes around the waist. Although these soldiers are shown on foot, one at least is clearly wearing boots and may therefore be a cavalry officer (Yaylali 1976, p. 106 and fig. 26.1).

These muscle cuirasses all have clean, unadorned lines (apart from the Siris shoulder flaps), but later Roman muscle cuirasses are often highly embossed. Indeed, some of the relief work is so high that it seems to consist of separate pieces of bronze sculpture, soldered onto the body and shoulder flaps of the cuirass (Russell Robinson 1975, pp. 149–52). This work was probably still further enhanced by painting. The Siris bronzes and a cuirassed statue from Pergamum (Journal of Hellenic Studies, 1985, pp. 77–8) suggest that these elaborate embossings may have begun in the Hellenistic period, but most of our evidence is Roman.


The cuirass from the royal tomb at Vergina, which is almost certainly that of Philip II, merits a section on its own, because it is an iron cuirass but in the shape of a material shoulder-piece corslet. It has not been fully published yet, but has been well illustrated in several books (Andronikos 1977, pp. 26–7; Hatzopoulos and Loukopoulos 1980, p. 225, plate 127; Vokotopoulou 1995, pp. 156–7; Connolly 1998, p. 58). It is made of plates of iron, four forming the body, and two hinged, curved plates coming over the shoulders from the backplate, which itself curves outwards to allow space for the broadening upper back. The iron is 5mm thick, a good deal thicker than was usual for bronze cuirasses, and would have given a good deal of protection, perhaps even being catapult-proof (Plutarch, Life of Demetrius 21). The cuirass is decorated with gold bands around the borders of each piece, and a wide gold band around the body of the cuirass. Decorative gold panels are attached to each side, and there are six gold lion heads on the front of the cuirass. The middle pair and the top two, which are on the shoulder guards, hold gold rings in their mouths, through which straps fastened down the shoulder flaps. The pteruges no longer survive, but they were covered with gold strips which do, showing that there were originally fifty-six of them in two rows. Remains of cloth were found on the inside of the cuirass, which came from the padding or an arming jack, but more interesting was the fact that remains of material were found on the outside of the cuirass, adhering to the iron. It is clear that the outside of the iron was covered with decorative cloth, making it difficult to distinguish this cuirass from the linen and leather corslets also in use at this time.

This suddenly opens up the possibilities mentioned in the last chapter: that artistic depictions of shoulder-piece corslets may show iron or bronze cuirasses covered with cloth, rather than the material corslets most people accept them for. Sekunda advanced this thesis in Greek Hoplite (2000), but there really is no evidence in the form of other surviving metal plates. I think, given the evidence of the Philip II cuirass, that we must accept that such cuirasses may have existed in the Hellenistic period – unless the Philip II cuirass really is a ‘one-off’; but I don’t think we can backdate the idea to the fifth century.


Information regarding material corslets comes mainly from sculptures, in which cuirasses of a shoulder-piece variety are often shown being worn. These were always generally assumed to be linen, or more likely leather, just like those of the fifth century, but the cuirass of Philip II shows us that some examples may be metal.

For the end of the fourth century the main source is the Alexander Sarcophagus, which shows several infantry soldiers and one cavalryman. The flexible positions of the infantry show that the shoulder-piece corslets they are wearing are surely leather. These corslets have two sets of pteruges, one perhaps attached to the corslet, the other a separate skirt, and were originally coloured purple and gold – although to what extent these reflect actual uniforms is uncertain (Sekunda 1984, plates E, F, G). In contrast, the cuirass of the cavalryman is plain white so may be linen, but could also be a material-covered metal cuirass (Schefold 1968, plate 51). Before the Battle of Chaeronea Philip II equipped both infantry and cavalry with cuirasses, but of what sort is unknown. The cavalry were the main strike force of the army and were more likely to be issued with metal cuirasses, especially as they would be less of an encumbrance for horsemen. When Alexander the Great and his army reached India, the phalanx corslets had worn out and 25,000 new sets were issued. The old corslets were burned (Sekunda 1984, p. 27). All these facts – that the corslets had worn out, that Alexander could get hold of 25,000 replacement sets almost immediately, and that the old sets were burnt – strongly suggest that the original infantry corslets were leather ones.

Further evidence for the use of material-and-metal corslets and metal cuirasses comes from an inscription from Amphipolis dating from the period of Philip V at the end of the third century (Feyel 1935, passim). This inscription concerns military regulations for the Macedonian garrison at Amphipolis and includes a list of fines for lost equipment. Soldiers were fined three obols for the loss of a sarissa or sword, one drachma for the loss of a shield, and two obols for the loss of greaves, a helmet or a kotthubos. Officers were fined double the amount for these items, either because they were supposed to be more careful or because their equipment was of better quality. Also, officers were fined one drachma for a half-cuirass and two drachmas for a cuirass.

This leads one to the assumption that only officers wore cuirasses; but what then are ordinary soldiers wearing when they are pictured in shoulder-piece corslets on various monuments? We must assume that it is the kotthubos. This word was interpreted by Feyel as being a set of pteruges, and it is true that the officers had them in addition to the cuirass (or half-cuirass), but the word equates with kossimbos, a shepherd’s leather coat, and could have meant a leather shoulder-piece corslet and pteruges. This could still have been worn by officers, as well as the cuirass, since it would have acted as an arming jack, and it equates much better with the sculptural representations that we have.

The cuirass mentioned in the Amphipolis inscription is generally assumed to be the muscle cuirass, with the half-cuirass being perhaps a breastplate only, which is certainly feasible. The number of officers to be so equipped is unclear but, if we count officers as file leaders and above, then we are looking at about 1,000 cuirasses and half-cuirasses for a phalanx of 16,000 such as Philip V had at the Battle of Cynoscephelae. I still think 1,000 is too great a number of muscle cuirasses to be state supplied and that we must be looking at a simpler type of cuirass. The alternative, of course, is provided by the cuirass of Philip II. A cuirass like that, made up of simple plates covered with material, could be supplied by the state in quantity. The designations of cuirass and half-cuirass may refer to the amount of each cuirass reinforced with metal. The cuirass worn by Alexander on the Alexander mosaic appears to show an iron plate on the upper part of the body, with the lower part protected by scales. Varieties such as these could easily have been known as half-cuirasses. The Artemision at Magnesia shows men in what are clearly material cuirasses, and some officers in muscle cuirasses; but it also shows some officers (with officer’s sashes) who wear shoulder-piece cuirasses, which are clearly made of metal. They have large armholes and the figures are shown in stiffer positions. Similarly, several of the shoulder-piece corslets on the Pergamum friezes could be metal-plated cuirasses. These are all depicted with officer’s sashes attached. Such adjustable corslets remind us of the fifth-century composite corslets, with their mixture of material and metal defences. Removing all the detailed work of the muscle cuirass meant that simple metal cuirasses, covered with material, could be afforded by many more soldiers – although I am personally tempted to connect such a corslet to the ‘half-cuirass’ of the Amphipolis inscription, and see its use restricted to cavalry and officers. I am sure that phalanx troops, and perhaps the hypaspists, only wore the leather shoulder-piece corslet for body armour.


The popularity of greaves continued to decline under Philip II and Alexander, when the introduction of state-supplied equipment seems to have taken its toll on this optional item. The tomb of Philip II contained three pairs of bronze greaves, and a further pair of gilded bronze greaves was placed in the antechamber; but the Athenian funerary stelai of the same period, which show muscle cuirasses, show no greaves. Two of the soldiers on the Alexander Sarcophagus are wearing greaves and both originally had feathers in their helmets, indicating that they were officers. Sekunda (1984, pp. 38–9) suggests that the soldier in bronze greaves is a half-file leader, whereas the other, who wears silvered greaves (possibly iron), is of a higher rank. These greaves, like those from Philip II’s tomb, show little anatomical detailing and are purely functional. Those on the Alexander Sarcophagus have a red lining and a red strap going right around the greave just below the knee, to help secure the greave to the leg. This evidence seems to suggest that only officers wore greaves; but the Amphipolis inscription of the late third century mentions fines for soldiers for lost greaves, showing that the phalanx of Philip V was equipped with greaves, though not necessarily in its entirety. A collection of lead tokens from Athens, which seem to be concerned with the state supply of equipment, suggest that Athens also supplied greaves to her heavy infantry (Kroll 1977, passim). The soldiers shown on the tomb of Antiochus II (third century) are not wearing greaves, and neither are the soldiers on the Artemision at Magnesia. Some 15 per cent of the soldiers on this latter monument are wearing high boots, but it is likely that they are dismounted cavalry. The frieze at Pergamum dating from the early second century shows just one pair of greaves which have two straps, one below the knee and one near the ankle (Jaeckel 1965, fig. 40). With the possible exception of the Macedonian phalanx of Philip V (and the new Achaean, sarissa-armed phalanx of c. 200), the evidence does seem to show that greaves were restricted to officers throughout the Hellenistic period. Since armour was then provided by the state, greaves were seen perhaps as too expensive a luxury for everyone to have. There is no certain evidence for greaves ever having been worn by the cavalry, who wore the high boot as recommended by Xenophon.


Nearly all the light infantry who fought for the Hellenistic kingdoms were mercenaries, although under Alexander some may have been allied contingents, like his Cretan archers. At Raphia 5,000 Greeks fought for Antiochus III and they were probably peltasts, since they fought with the other light troops. After the Celtic invasion of Greece and the subsequent removal of some Celts (the Galatians) to Asia Minor in the 270s, Greek light troops seem to have stopped using the pelta, and adopted instead the large, oval Celtic shield with a central spine. This shield was called in Greek the thureos, and so the soldiers are often called thureophoroi. Mercenary Greeks armed with this shield, and javelins or spears, also fought at Magnesia in 190. Some parts of Greece, especially in the North Peloponnese, had never adopted hoplite warfare because of the terrain; they always fought as peltasts and, later, as thureophoroi. Plutarch tells us that the Achaeans fought like this until shortly before 200, when they decided to adopt the sarissa, helmets, greaves, the Macedonian shield and Macedonian tactics (Plutarch, Philopoemen 9.1–5).

We are fortunate to have a surviving thureos from late second-century Egypt. Although both Connolly (1998, p. 131) and Sekunda (2001, pp. 81–2) suggest that this shield is Roman, and the excavator thought it was Celtic (belonging to a Celtic mercenary), there really is no problem, since both Roman shield and thureos were derived from the Celtic long shield. The Egyptian example cannot be Roman, as Romans did not reach Egypt for another 100 years. Sekunda’s explanation is that late Ptolemaic (and Seleucid) armies adopted Roman equipment. This will be discussed later. The thureos from Egypt is about halfway between a rectangle and an oval, and is 128cm high and 63.5cm wide with a slight concavity. It is made up of three layers of wooden laths each 2–3mm thick, constructed in a form similar to plywood for extra strength. It has a central handgrip, protected by a boss with a long vertical spine, and the outside was originally covered with felt. It would have given much greater protection to light troops than the smaller pelta did, especially now that missile weapons were far more common on the battlefield. There is little evidence about whether these thureophoroi wore helmets or not. It is probably a case of yes, if they bought them themselves or picked them up after a battle. They were probably not issued with them. They certainly seem to have worn no other body armour.

Northern Greece also provided javelineers and slingers called Agrianians (Polybius V, 79, 6). These men may have continued to use the small pelta shield, and there is an example from Olympia of a small ‘Macedonian’ shield, only 33.8cm in diameter, which could have been used by such troops (Liampi 1998, p. 51, plate 1.1). At the Battle of Raphia in 217 Antiochus III had 5,000 light troops, 2,000 Agrianian and Persian archers and slingers, and 2,000 Thracians. Thracians armed with the rhomphaia, a large, single-edged cutting weapon (Webber 2001, p. 39), were used by Perseus at the Battle of Pydna in 168 (Plutarch, Aemilius Paullus XVIII, 3) and a novel weapon, also used in this war by Perseus, was the cestrus. This was rather like a catapult bolt, or large arrow, but was fired from a special type of sling (Polybius XXVII, 1; Livy XLII, 65, 9).

As mentioned above, Agrianian archers featured at the Battle of Raphia in 217, but most archers continued to be supplied by Crete. Both Cretans and Neo-Cretans fought at Raphia. Neo-Cretans were probably ‘newly armed’ Cretans, rather than ‘newly recruited’ or ‘newly arrived’ (Griffith 1935, p. 144), and so it may have been at this time, rather than under Alexander, that Cretan archers were armed with a small shield and sword for close combat (Sekunda 1984, pp. 35–6). Antiochus III also had 2,500 Mysian archers at Raphia, and in general the Seleucids had much greater access to native missile and other light troops from their cosmopolitan empire.


Cavalry played a much more important part in Greek warfare in the fourth century and later. Philip II and Alexander the Great used large squadrons of heavy cavalry to break the enemy line while the phalanx held them up. In the later Hellenistic kingdoms the infantry had more of a role in both Macedonia and Ptolemaic Egypt. This was because Macedonia had not the funds any more to equip a large force, whereas Egypt did not have the breeding grounds. Only in the Seleucid Empire, and later the empire of Pergamum, did cavalry form a high percentage of the army as a whole.

Nearly all this cavalry fought with the spear, but there was a unit of cavalry under Alexander called sarissophoroi, who obviously used the sarissa as an offensive weapon. This cannot possibly have been the infantry sarissa of 18ft in length, because that would have required two hands to wield it, which was not an option in a period before decent saddles had been devised. Connolly (2000, pp. 107–9) has reconstructed a cavalry sarissa 16ft long, weighing just over 3.5kg, which in trials was successfully used both underarm and overarm with one hand. There are no later mentions of sarissophoroi, and it is likely that all later Hellenistic cavalry used the xyston, a spear about 9ft long. As a sidearm, the cavalryman used the single-edged, recurved sword, the machaira or kopis. This was recommended by Xenophon for cavalry use, and several surviving examples – generally the longer ones – have horse-head handles implying cavalry use. Cleitus cut off the arm of Spithridates the Persian at the Battle of the Granicus with his machaira, during a cavalry engagement (Arrian 1.15.8), and all the wounds received by Alexander in cavalry fights were caused by swords. It seems likely that the cavalry spear often broke following the initial charge, and so the sword was certainly a vital second weapon to have.


Cavalry played a much more important part in Greek warfare after 400. We have already noted the amount of armour recommended by Xenophon for cavalry use, and heavily armoured cavalry became the new force in warfare, in addition to the light cavalry that was still used. Philip II of Macedon had a force of 3,000 Macedonian and allied Thessalian cavalry when he conquered the rest of Greece, and Alexander took 5,100 horse to conquer Persia. The early battles of the Successors in the late fourth century feature anything from 6,000 to 11,000 cavalry per side. While 5,000–6,000 is the norm through most of the third century (at least where we have any information about numbers), Antiochus III was able to raise a large force of over 12,000 for the Battle of Magnesia in 190. Much of this was due to the consolidating campaigns Antiochus had carried out in the east of his empire. These enabled him to field 1,200 Dahae mounted archers and other native troops, as well as to afford Galatian mercenaries and call in other allies. While light cavalry was used for scouting and skirmishing, the armoured cavalry was used for attack, especially on the flank of the opposing phalanx. The men of this heavy cavalry wore helmets and cuirasses, and used the spear.

It is almost certain that the cavalrymen of Alexander did not carry shields, despite occasional references to them by later authors who are confusing them with later Hellenistic cavalry (Plutarch, Alexander of Macedon XVI, 4). Cavalry shields are not shown on the Alexander mosaic or on the Alexander Sarcophagus, as the rider needed his left hand to hold the reins and also to help him to stay on the horse – not easy with a primitive saddle and no stirrups. Cavalry shields first appeared with the arrival of the Celts in Greece and Asia Minor in 275. Celtic horsemen carried their round shields with a central handgrip, and must have controlled their horses entirely by leg movements. They could have taught Greek cavalrymen to do the same, and they probably also introduced the much more effective Celtic saddle, which had pommels at the four corners to help keep the rider on his mount (Connolly 1998, p. 236). Greek cavalry then adopted the round Celtic shield, but seem to have added a Greek grip with a central armband and a handle at the rim, and made the shield slightly concave rather than flat (Jaeckel 1965, figs 44–7). One example on the Pergamum frieze has the barleycorn boss, like the thureos from Egypt; this may have been a Celtic (Galatian) shield, since this monument shows arms of Antiochus III’s Galatian allies as well as Greek equipment. A Macedonian cavalryman on the Aemilius Paullus monument also has this type of shield boss, however, and so it is clear that the Greeks used Celtic shields, as well as those of their own design (Coussin 1932, plate 40; Liampi 1998, fig. 11.3).

Macedonian cavalry-shield designs were similar to the infantry, consisting of geometric circle and half-circle patterns (Head 1982, p. 113). These feature on both the Pergamum frieze and the Aemilius Paullus monument, and appear to be about 70 to 75cm in diameter (Liampi 1998, pp. 53–6 and fig. 11.1).

The various helmets available to the cavalry have been mentioned in the infantry section. No helmets seem to have been specific for one branch or the other, but the monuments we have been discussing seem to suggest that Hellenistic cavalry preferred open-faced helmets like the Boeotian and Cone helmets. Similarly, all the body-armour types have been mentioned in the section dealing with infantry. The information put forward there, and the use to which heavy cavalry was put, strongly suggest that they were armoured with metal breastplates. Cavalrymen were generally drawn from the wealthier aristocracy (men who could ride!) and so were able to provide themselves with equipment to supplement any provided by the state. It is significant that the latest muscle cuirasses from south Italy, and the example from Prodromi, are all made so that the wearer could ride a horse – either by being made with a wide flange at the bottom or by being short and ending at the waist (Connolly 1998, p. 56).

Apart from the muscle cuirass, shoulder-piece corslets made of metal – like that from the tomb of Philip II – also seem to have been worn, most notably by Alexander on the Alexander mosaic. However, it is also true that some of Alexander’s cavalry made do with linen corslets, as he did himself at the Battle of Gaugamela, although this was a Persian corslet and was perhaps worn for that reason. As noted above, greaves seem never to have been worn by cavalry. They would have interfered too much with the horseman’s grip, especially once the shield had been adopted. Other pieces of body armour seem to have been used only by cataphract cavalry and perhaps chariot drivers, and will be discussed below; the only notable exception is a throat guard that Alexander also wore at Gaugamela.

The Hellenistic Period – Weapons 400–150 BC III


Light cavalry of the Hellenistic period were generally mercenaries, called Tarentines. Although originally from Taras in south Italy, the name came to mean just a type of light cavalry armed with javelins and a small shield (Head 1982, pp. 115–16). The small shield of Macedonian style from Olympia, mentioned in connection with Cretan archers, could equally have been used by a Tarentine cavalryman. It is a moot point as to whether they wore helmets. We might presume that those who could buy their own helmet would have done so, but that they were not essential. Apart from battles, these soldiers were used chiefly for scouting by all the Hellenistic kingdoms and many Greek states.

A final type of cavalryman, who appears to have been used only by the Seleucid and Bactrian kingdoms, is the cataphract. This was a very heavily armoured cavalryman, who was covered from head to foot with armour, and who rode a horse that was also armoured. They were probably developed by the Parthians, and adopted by the Seleucids and Bactrians, the Greek kingdoms to their west and east in the later third century. Antiochus III had none at the Battle of Raphia in 217, but he did have 6,000 at the Battle of Magnesia in 190. He probably first recruited them following his travels through the eastern provinces in the late third century. There are no clear illustrations of cataphracts from this period, but there are illustrations of their armour on the Pergamum friezes, and an important find of actual armour has been made in Afghanistan (Bernard et al. 1980, passim).

The cuirass for the cataphract could have been of any of the metal types we have already looked at, no doubt fitted with pteruges, but the example from Ai Khanum in Afghanistan, which dates to the second century, is most unusual in that it is made of iron scales. The surviving shoulder piece is made of iron lamellar strips and came down onto the chest with a stud attachment, just like earlier shoulder-piece corslets and the Prodromi cuirass, to be secured with a thong. Various pieces of leather, linen and felt seem to have formed a separate arming jack, and were not directly attached to the cuirass as has been surmised for other metal cuirasses (Bernard et al. 1980, p. 61).

As for helmets, it seems that cataphracts wore a masked helmet which completely encased the head. An example is shown on the Pergamum frieze, and a possible Hellenistic example is in Belgrade’s Archaeological Museum (Russell Robinson 1975, pp. 107, 112). Such helmets were also apparently worn by chariot drivers (Sekunda 1994b, plates 4–5). Whoever wore them, they must have restricted vision dreadfully.

For arm and leg protection, tubular laminated guards were worn. These arm guards are depicted on the Pergamum friezes, and the Ai Khanum find has produced a leg guard made of iron. This guard was for a left leg, with the strips of iron overlapping upwards for greater flexibility like later Roman guards (Russell Robinson 1975, plates 502–4). The topmost part of the thigh was protected by a semi-circular plate, and there was a further plate covering the foot. Earlier arm and leg guards could well have been made of bronze. A small statuette from Syria also exists, which seems to show both arm and leg guards of this style (Sekunda 1994b, figs 32–3).

The Pergamum reliefs also show horse armour in the form of a chamfron (face guard) and plastron (chest guard) and these too are likely to have been for cataphracts, or perhaps for scythed chariots (Sekunda 1994b, fig. 54, plates 4–5). A further piece of armour from Ai Khanum, made up of very thin iron lamellae in a rough square shape, appears to be a horse plastron, although the excavator thought it might be a parameridion or thigh guard (Bernard et al. 1980, p. 61). Given the fact that the rider’s legs were already protected by the tubular leg guards and possibly pteruges, I think a plastron is more likely. It is highly unlikely that cataphracts used a shield as well as all this armour, and most probably they were armed with a spear for frontal assault. The Battle of Magnesia saw the cavalry and cataphracts of Antiochus III’s right wing break through the Roman line and pursue the fugitives to the camp. They were unable to return in time to salvage the collapse of the infantry phalanx, and one reason must surely have been that the cataphract horses would have been exhausted after one charge. The weight of armour, especially if much of it was in iron (not necessarily the case until well after Magnesia), would have protected rider and horse from missiles, and made them a formidable strike force, but must also have exhausted the cataphracts very quickly. The timing of their charge needed to be exact, as they probably could not have been manoeuvred again for any further action.


The chariot had gone out of use among the Greeks when horses had been bred that were big enough and strong enough to be ridden as cavalry. The same had happened in Persia, where chariots no doubt continued in use for ceremonial purposes; but, sometime before 400, the chariot made a comeback as a weapon of war. This new chariot was very different from those of former times. It was a four-horse chariot, whose horses and drivers were heavily armoured. The chariot itself was covered with scythes, and was designed to smash through enemy formations. Scythes projected in front of the chariot from the yoke poles, and also sideways from the yoke, one pointing horizontally, the other downwards. Two more scythes were attached to the axle, again horizontally, and pointing downwards. This latter probably revolved with the wheel to catch both ‘duckers’ and ‘jumpers’ (Livy XXXVII, 41). Persian chariots mentioned by Xenophon in his Anabasis had scythes projecting from under the box of the chariot, but these are not mentioned by Livy describing the Seleucid version and may have been dropped by then. It seems likely that they would have often got caught in the ground if the surface was at all uneven, and that may have been the main reason why Darius III had to level the ground for his chariots before the Battle of Gaugamela. It seems that the horses and drivers of these chariots were armed in much the same way as cataphracts.

Scythed chariots have usually been dismissed as a gimmick that did not work. Livy (XXXVII, 41) describes them at the Battle of Magnesia as ‘farcical’, but they remained in use by Persian and Seleucid armies for over 200 years. Their first known appearance at Cunaxa in 400 failed against disciplined Greek hoplites, who moved aside to let them pass, but in 395 at Dascyleum they scored a victory against hoplites who were panicked by the sight of them. Alexander the Great managed to break up the Persian chariot attack at Gaugamela with light troops, and this became the standard defence. Molon, a Seleucid rebel, used them against Antiochus III in 220, but Antiochus himself never used them against other Greek armies because he thought they could be easily countered. Against Rome at the Battle of Magnesia he thought the element of surprise would count in his favour, but Eumenes, King of Pergamum, was on the Roman side and told them how to deal with the chariots. They were again broken up using light troops. At the Daphne parade in 166, Antiochus IV had 100 six-horse scythed chariots and only 40 four-horse versions, so it is possible he was trying to make them more effective by increasing their size. It is difficult to be sure because this was a parade and not a battle (Sekunda 1994b, p. 26). Chariots continued to be used by the Seleucids until after 150, but are unlikely to have lasted into the first century BC, when the Seleucid Empire had been reduced to a Syrian rump. There is no evidence for scythe-chariot use by other Greek states. Livy (XXXVII, 41) states that Eumenes of Pergamum knew about how they worked in war, but does not suggest that he actually had any himself. There is a slight possibility that they were used by the Bactrian kingdoms in the east, but the terrain there is not really suitable for chariotry.


Elephants were used by the Indian army of Porus, which fought Alexander the Great in 326. Although Alexander was victorious, the elephants had caused heavy casualties among his men. It was rumours of larger elephant armies in India that caused the army’s revolt soon after. Alexander saw the advantages of the elephant, and began to recruit an elephant corps into the Macedonian army. Originally the elephant itself was the weapon, and it was made as imposing as possible. The elephants of Eumenes and Antiochus III had purple trappings, and Antiochus decorated his elephants with gold and silver and awarded them medals for bravery (Scullard 1974, pp. 238–9). If elephants were wounded they had an unfortunate tendency to run amok so, as well as the driver, a soldier or two was mounted astride the elephant’s back, armed with missiles to help protect it.

Later on, elephants were issued with armour, consisting of head pieces like horse chamfrons and leg armour similar to that worn by cataphract troops, although perhaps leather rather than metallic (Sekunda 1994b, plate 7). Livy (XXXVII, 40, 4) mentions headpieces with crests on them. Scale body armour for elephants was also used and features on a damaged statuette of uncertain provenance (Sekunda 1994b, figs 52–3). For offensive purposes the elephants’ tusks could be sheathed in iron (Arrian, Punica IX, 581–3).

As well as breaking up elephant charges with light troops and missile weapons, elephants could be disrupted by weapons placed in front of them. The elephants of Polyperchon (regent in Macedonia after the death of Antipater in 319) were once disrupted with planks lying on the ground, with nails pushed through them from underneath (Scullard 1974, p. 248). Ptolemy improved on this at the Battle of Gaza in 312 by attaching a series of caltrops (sets of spikes) to chains. These could then be quickly moved to where an elephant attack might come.

The best tactic was to make sure you had more and bigger elephants than the enemy. At Magnesia in 190 the Romans had sixteen elephants, but did not bother to use them as Antiochus III had fifty-four. Ptolemy’s elephants at Raphia in 217 were defeated because he had only 75 to Antiochus’s 102, although Ptolemy won the battle in the end. Ptolemy’s elephants were also defeated because they were African bush elephants, which are much smaller than the Indian elephants used by Antiochus. (Connolly 1998, p. 75). After Raphia, Ptolemy captured some Indian elephants, which he used in his army, and in 145 Demetrius II of Syria captured some African elephants from Egypt, which he also used in his army. Generally, however, early Hellenistic kingdoms – including Pyrrhus of Epirus – used the Indian elephant; only the Ptolemies of Egypt, cut off from supply by the Seleucid Empire, were forced to rely on smaller African elephants.

The idea of defensive troops sitting on elephants’ backs was enhanced in the early third century by placing small wooden towers on the animals’ backs. These enabled more men to be carried, and gave those men greater protection. As well as elephant defence, these men now became part of the offensive capability of the elephant. The mahout, or elephant driver, still had to sit outside the tower, astride the elephant’s neck. The earliest representations of towers are both from about 275. A plate from south Italy shows an Indian elephant with a tower containing two soldiers and may represent one of Pyrrhus’s elephants (Connolly 1998, p. 75, fig. 2). A statue of similar date shows an elephant attacking a Celt, and has been dated to the ‘elephant victory’ of the Seleucids against invading Celts in 273. The towers may well have been first used by Pyrrhus at the Battle of Heraclea in 280, but were soon adopted by other Hellenistic kingdoms (Scullard 1974, p. 104).

There are two basic types of tower: the original large tower for the Indian elephant, and a smaller type devised by Ptolemy IV for his African elephants. The Indian-elephant tower, as used by Antiochus III at Raphia in 217 and Magnesia in 190, is as wide as it is high and has three merlons per side in the crenellations. The early plate, sculpture, and an elephant medallion in the Hermitage all show this (Connolly 1998, p. 75, fig. 3). The African-elephant tower has a much smaller base to enable it to sit on the smaller elephant, but is twice as high as it is wide, to make up for the lesser height of the elephant, and it has only two merlons per side (Connolly 1998, p. 75, fig. 1). Livy (XXXVII, 40, 4) states that the elephants at Magnesia had four men in each tower and this is supported by the ‘elephant victory’ statuette, which has two shields attached to each side of the tower. Four armed men in a wooden tower is certainly possible, but was probably the maximum allowed. The statuette of the African elephant shown by Connolly has only one shield each side and suggests a crew of only two.

Ptolemy’s elephant crew at Raphia were armed with sarissas to poke at the opposition, but Antiochus III’s elephant crew probably had two sarissa men and two archers or javelineers. Large amounts of missile weapons could certainly be stored in the tower (Scullard 1974, p. 240). Fear was the elephants’ strongest weapon, but they did have other uses. Perdiccas used his elephants to assault the Camel fort of Ptolemy where they tore up palisades and threw down parapets (Diodorus, XVIII, 34, 2), but they were ineffective against stonework. Horses could not stand the sight or smell of elephants unless they were specially trained. After Demetrius the Besieger had been victorious with his cavalry on the right wing at the Battle of Ipsus in 301, he found himself cut off by Seleucus’s screen of elephants and unable to return to the battle (Diodorus XX, 113–XXI, 2). At the Battle of Magnesia, Antiochus had his horses trained to work with elephants, and each cavalry wing was supported by sixteen of them. To try and prevent light troops from getting close to an elephant and hamstringing it, each elephant was provided with a guard of forty to fifty men, usually archers or slingers (Polybius XVI, 18, 7). Also at Magnesia pairs of elephants and their guards were stationed in between blocks of the pike phalanx, to try and add some flexibility to this formation and to protect the flanks.

After Magnesia, Antiochus III was required to have all his elephants destroyed, but at the Daphne parade in 166 Antiochus IV still had thirty-six elephants equipped for war, as well as a four-elephant chariot and a two-elephant chariot – these last two items surely for parade purposes only (Sekunda 1994a, p. 27). Whether the Romans had not got around to making sure the elephants were destroyed, or whether Antiochus IV had been able to obtain more from Demetrius of Bactria, is uncertain. In 162 Gnaeus Octavius was sent out by Rome and he did destroy the elephants, although it cost him his life at the hands of an outraged elephant lover (Green 1990, p. 437). Further elephants do continue to appear in the sources, although some sources are unreliable. It seems unlikely that either the Seleucid or Ptolemaic Empires used them after c. 140. By then Parthia had blocked off supplies from India, and the African bush elephant was on its way to extinction. Pyrrhus of Epirus had famously used elephants against the Romans in the 270s, but there is no evidence for Epirote use after this time, and none for their use by Macedonia, Pergamum or any of the southern Greek states. It is almost certain that the Greek states of Bactria and India used them throughout their period of existence (down to perhaps AD 10), but their coins show only elephants, elephant heads and elephant scalps on helmets. They do not show elephants with towers or soldiers, which would prove the case.

As has been said earlier, surprise and the fear they caused were the greatest weapons of the elephant. These were the main factors in the elephant victories of the early third century. But when soldiers knew how to deal with them, they were easily managed and became an expensive liability. Once enraged or wounded, they were just as likely to inflict heavy casualties upon their own side as on the enemy. Neither the Romans nor indeed the Parthians ever really bothered with them.


Nearly all of our evidence for Hellenistic artillery – that is, bolt-throwers and stone-throwers – is literary. We have surviving Hellenistic manuals and descriptions in Arrian, Polybius, Livy, etc., of the equipment in action at the various sieges. Parts of some catapults have been found, mostly dating to the Roman period, and these also help with reconstructions. The main archaeological finds are the projectiles. At Rhodes and in other places, round boulders of specific weights, fired from catapults, have been found, and catapult bolts inscribed with Philip II’s name are also known (Connolly 1998, pp. 282–3).

According to Diodorus, the catapult was invented in 399 for Dionysius I of Syracuse (Campbell 2003, p. 3). Unfortunately, we don’t know quite what this machine was. The forerunner of the earliest catapult was the gastraphetes or ‘belly-bow’ devised by Ctesibius, probably towards the end of the fifth century. This was a large, composite bow mounted sideways on a stock, rather like a large crossbow. The arrow or bolt rested on a slider, which moved up and down the stock. The slider was pushed forward until a catch on it was fastened onto the bow string. The end of the slider was then rested on the ground, and the operator pushed with his stomach into the crescent-shaped end of the stock, using his weight to force the slider back, thus drawing the bow. An arrow could then be fitted and the catch released to fire it. It was a very slow and cumbersome effort.

The machines probably presented to Dionysius were similar but mounted in a base, with the slider being drawn back by a winch system. Biton describes four of these machines in his treatise, the first two designed by Zopyrus. The first, still called a gastraphetes, had a 9ft-long bow, and fired two 6ft bolts simultaneously. The second was a smaller version for easy transport to sieges and was called the mountain gastraphetes. The third machine was a stone-thrower, designed by Charon of Magnesia, which could fire a 5lb stone. The last, by Isidorus of Thessalonika, could fire a 40lb stone, using a 15ft bow. These stone-throwers had a sling fitted with a pouch, instead of the normal bowstring. All four machines were mounted on the base by a universal joint, which allowed the machine to be traversed, depressed and elevated with relative ease by one man.

These bow catapults, or ballistas, developed during the first half of the fourth century into the torsion catapult. In this design the bow was replaced by two wooden frames on either side of the stock, each containing twisted bundles of hair or sinew. A wooden arm was inserted into each bundle, and these formed the arms of the bow. After a few shots the elasticity of the bundles slackened, and iron levers were inserted top and bottom in order to retighten them (Marsden 1969, p. 81). It seems that machines of this type, capable of throwing stones, were not developed until the time of Alexander the Great. The last development seems to have been the use of curved arms for extra springiness. The first evidence for this is on the Pergamum frieze, so an introduction date of c. 200 seems likely. The earlier bow catapults continued to be used down until about 240.

The range of bolt-throwing catapults was about 500 yards, with the bolts being 2–5ft long, but they were really accurate only up to about 100 yards. Stone-throwers had a range of about 300 yards – perhaps only 200 yards for the largest – and came in a variety of sizes. The most popular engines seem to have been ten minas (4.4kg), thirty minas (13.1kg) and one talent (26.2kg) machines, these weights being the weight of the projectiles. Stones larger than that have occasionally been found, but they were probably for lifting and dropping by cranes, as Archimedes did at Syracuse in 212 (Polybius VIII, 5). Further developments, mentioned in the treatises we have, never seem to have got off the drawing board. Ctesibius mentioned a catapult with bronze springs, which did not slacken like the sinew or hair in the torsion catapults, but they seem to have proved to be too expensive to manufacture. He also designed a catapult operated by compressed-air-powered springs. This was fine on the drawing board, but could not be accurately manufactured with the techniques available at the time. The final invention in this field was a repeating catapult designed by Demetrius of Alexandria, but this machine was a failure because it was too accurate; all the bolts hit the same target and did not disperse. Its range was also somewhat limited.

Although these machines were designed principally for attack and defence during sieges, they were occasionally deployed on the battlefield. At Mantinea in 207 Machanidas the Spartan stationed catapults, probably bolt-shooters, all along his line in an experiment to counter greater Achaean numbers. Philopoemen and the Achaeans charged the catapults as soon as they saw them and, since they were difficult to move, they were almost immediately destroyed or overrun and played no further part in the battle. In 198 and 191 Philip V and Antiochus III, respectively, used catapults in defensive positions against the Romans at the Aous Gorge and at Thermopylae. In both cases, the Romans found it hard to approach these defences from the front, but they were easily outflanked and captured. These would have been expensive losses, since the price for these machines appears to have been about 500–2,500 drachmas each (Philon 62, 15). For the most part the machines were installed in fortifications for defensive purposes, and could also be used in attack against such fortifications. The best-known Greek attack was that by Demetrius the Besieger against Rhodes in 305–4, at which he used a huge tower filled with catapults and ballistas of all sizes (Connolly 1998, pp. 281–5). The best-known defence was that of Archimedes at Syracuse in 213. Apart from a vast array of bolt-throwers and stone-throwers, Archimedes also had cranes which dropped huge boulders on the attacking Romans, and giant grappling hooks which pulled Roman ships out of the water and then dropped them (Connolly 1998, p. 294).


The Hellenistic warfare we have been describing in this chapter, principally the pike phalanx and the heavy cavalry, was an effective form of warfare that lasted successfully until 168. In that year, the Romans annihilated the army of Perseus, King of Macedon, at the Battle of Pydna. The legionary army proved itself more effective on the day, and this has led Sekunda (1994b, 1995, 2001) to suggest that the remaining Ptolemaic and Seleucid kingdoms in Egypt and Syria remodelled their armies on Roman lines. The evidence for this is actually slim.

A stele from Hermopolis describes new ranks and names for formations, which Sekunda (2001, p. 21) argues is the adoption of the Roman maniple or double century, but the top and bottom of the stele are broken and we do not know what sort of soldiers these are. The semeia which is mentioned could simply be a new word adopted for the syntagma or speira, words previously used to describe a phalanx block of 256 men. The later tacticians like Asclepiodotus and Aeneas use the word semeia, but they are still describing a Hellenistic pike phalanx. The use of the word semeia does suggest, however, the use of standards, so it may be that military standards were introduced into the Ptolemaic army at this time.

Further evidence for this ‘reform’ is provided by the Kasr-el-Harit shield and various stelai from Sidon. The Egyptian shield has already been mentioned by me as a descendant of the Greek thureos, and the soldiers depicted on the stelai are also mercenary thureophoroi, who have no relation to the regular Hellenistic phalanx (Sekunda 2001, pp. 65, 80).

The evidence for the Seleucid Kingdom is almost entirely contained in a sentence of Polybius (XXX, 25, 3), where he is describing the Daphne parade of 166. Here he says that there were 5,000 men equipped in the Roman manner with chain mail. These marched separately from the 20,000 men of the phalanx, and were clearly a different unit. Some commentators have suggested these men were just a bit of a gimmick, like the elephant chariots that also featured in the parade, but Sekunda is surely right when he states that they were a genuine military component. They were not armed as Roman legionaries, however. Apart from the chain mail, there was nothing to suggest that these men used the Roman pilum or shield, or fought in maniples. A unit of 5,000 men could easily be part of the phalanx, but the fact that they were placed at the front of the parade with other obviously mercenary troops – Mysians, Thracians and Galatians – suggests that these men were mercenary thureophoroi, armed with the thureos shield and spears.

A final pointer which seems to confirm that the Seleucid and Ptolemaic kingdoms did not reform along Roman lines was that the Macedonian-style pike phalanx continued to be used, both in the later campaigns by the Seleucids against the Jews and in Mithridates of Pontus’s campaigns against Rome. Mithridates did arm half his army in Roman fashion, but he also seems to have been the last man to employ the Hellenistic pike phalanx.


Further mention should be made of chain mail as a form of body armour, as it was clearly used by some soldiers in the Seleucid Kingdom. Apart from the Daphne parade mentioned above, some or all of the Seleucid phalanx was armoured with chain mail at the Battle of Beth-Zacharia in 162 (Maccabees I, 6.35). Appian (Syrian Wars 30–6) also suggests that cataphracts may have worn chain mail at Magnesia in 190, but he seems to confuse Celtic cavalry with cataphracts, so this idea is perhaps best ignored.) One of the stelai from Sidon mentioned above also has a soldier in chain mail, which may indicate use by the Ptolemaic Kingdom as well (Sekunda 2001, front cover, p. 69).

Chain mail was a Celtic invention of about 300, consisting of rows of interlocking iron rings, each ring passing through two above it and two below it to give a strong but flexible defence. Rows of punched rings usually alternated with rows of butted or riveted rings (Connolly 1998, p. 124), the latter being stronger. Each ring is usually 8–9mm in diameter. The shape of the later mail cuirasses adopted by both Romans and, presumably, Greeks was similar to the shoulder-piece corslet, with two shoulder flaps coming over the shoulders and being fastened down onto the chest. Chain mail corslets appear on the Pergamum frieze, where they probably represent armour captured from the Galatians. The date of c. 170 for this monument shows that this would have been the type of cuirass adopted by the Seleucids in the 160s. Wealthier Roman soldiers wore this form of cuirass, and it seems likely that all legionaries were issued with chain mail in c. 123, after Rome had inherited the wealth of the new province of Asia. It would have been very expensive for Antiochus IV to equip 5,000 soldiers in chain mail for the Daphne parade, which is one reason why Polybius remarks upon it.

Chain mail is an excellent defence, combining the flexibility of leather with the resilience of iron plate, and it lasted as a defence until the Middle Ages. It was even revived as a defensive material for tank crew in the First World War. It would have been quite heavy to wear a knee-length corslet of mail, but the defensive capabilities were excellent. Pointed weapons would be caught in a ring and held, while edged weapons also would not have much penetrative power, especially as the mail would have been worn over a leather jack. As far as the Greeks go, however, it was the last innovation before impotence led to a gradual absorption into the Roman Empire. Macedonia and Greece were annexed in 148, Seleucid Syria in 64 – although it had ceased to be any sort of power since the 120s – and Egypt in 30, although it too had existed since 168 only by the will of Rome.

The Plains of Poland

The Second World War began with a terrific gamble. At dawn on 1 September 1939, a huge German army rolled across the 1,250-mile Polish border. The attack was spearheaded by Panzers, seven divisions of them. No one had tried such a strategy before. It was not one of the terror tactics that the Germans had perfected during the Spanish Civil War that had raged for the previous three years. The deployment of Panzers in Spain was considered largely a failure. When German tanks rolled over the border into Austria in 1938, at least 30 per cent had broken down before they reached Vienna. Things went little smoother during the occupation of Czechoslovakia the following year. The crews lacked the experience to fix mechanical problems on the spot and a tank broken down on a bridge or a narrow road could hold up a whole brigade. They also destroyed the surface of the roads they used, slowing those who followed. Fuel was another problem. The Wehrmacht, the German army, quickly realised that there was more to tanks than guns and armour. They were going to have to learn a whole new discipline – the art of mechanised warfare.

However, there were a handful of men who believed that tank warfare would work on the plains of Poland. Hitler was among them. The proper use of the Panzer, he believed, was something that would have to be learnt in war itself.

The first lesson, it was believed, should be easy. The Poles had just one armoured brigade, 660 tanks in all versus Germany’s 2,100. Although the Polish army would outnumber the attacking Germans once it had all been mustered, the Poles started out with seventeen ill-equipped infantry divisions, three infantry brigades and six cavalry brigades – real cavalry brigades with horses, not the armoured units cavalry later became. However, the German High Command was not 100 per cent confident of victory. Orders issued in Berlin in 1939 stated:

No tanks must fall into enemy hands without the crew and the crews of neighbouring tanks doing their utmost to rescue or destroy it. A crew may abandon an immobilised tank only if they have run out of ammunition or can no longer fire, and if other vehicles cannot be expected to save it… If there is a risk that the tank may fall into enemy hands, it should be destroyed. Waste wool, combustible material, ammunition, etc. inside the vehicle should be soaked with fuel (possibly by ripping out the fuel pipe) and the vehicle is to be set on fire.

The German Panzer spearhead would be followed by four motorised infantry divisions, four light divisions and forty regular infantry divisions. The Germans also had overwhelming superiority in the air. The Polish Air Force had just 842 obsolescent planes, while the Luftwaffe, the German air force, could put 4,700 modern aircraft in the air. One tactic the Germans had perfected during the Spanish Civil War was the terror bombing of civilian targets, including, infamously, the Basque market town of Guernica.

The Poles also believed that the French would attack Germany in the rear, across Germany’s western frontier. When they finally did, they sent insufficient forces and it was too late. The Soviet Union – Russia and its Communist satellites – would be no help. It had signed the German-Soviet Non-Aggression Pact of August 1939, which publicly guaranteed that the two nations would not attack each other and privately divided Poland between them. Poland was on its own and its cavalry lances would be matched against the monstrous new machines of war: the Panzers.

The Luftwaffe wiped out the Polish air force in the first two days. This left the sky clear for German Stukas to dive-bomb Polish columns which did more to dent the morale of raw Polish recruits than inflict physical damage. What tanks the Polish did possess were dispersed throughout the army, which itself made the fatal mistake of trying to defend the entire length of the border. The Panzers concentrated on weak points and broke through. They penetrated deep into the country, then fanned out, isolating and encircling Polish units. When they came across Polish strongpoints, they simply bypassed them and allowed the bombers to take care of them later. And if they could not simply outflank a heavily fortified Polish position, they waited for the infantry and artillery to catch up, then launched a conventional assault on the stronghold.

The Poles did not grasp the full extent of the threat posed by the German armour and believed that, once they had fallen back to a defensive line, they could hold it. But the speed and depth of the Panzers’ thrusts caused confusion and the dive-bombing of undefended towns choked the roads with refugees. This was all part of Panzer theory. The idea was to prevent the enemy from using the road network to bring up reinforcements or regroup its forces. After all, civilians on the roads were no hindrance to the advancing Panzers. The refugees were simply machine-gunned from the air, producing further panic – and further obstacles to advancing Polish forces.

After the First World War, Poland had been recreated with two million Germans living within its borders. Some were involved in active sabotage. Others spread rumours of German victories, the inevitability of Polish defeat and the cowardice and deceit of Poland’s leaders. This tactic, known as Schrecklichkeit, ‘frightfulness’, again sapped morale.

The Panzers led four deep thrusts into Poland. Two came directly from the German Reich itself, led by the XIX Panzer Corps and the XVI Panzer Corps heading for Warsaw, via Bydgoszcz and Lodz respectively. A southern thrust from Slovakia, led by the 2nd and 5th Panzer Divisions, headed through Chelm to Brest-Litovsk, where they were to meet up with the Third Army, led by elements of XIX Panzer Corps. This came via East Prussia, a part of Germany separated from the Reich by the ‘Polish Corridor’ which, under the Treaty of Versailles, gave Poland access to the Baltic. The Southern Army Group was under the command of General Karl von Rundstedt, whose chief of staff was General Erich von Manstein. The Northern Army Group was commanded by General Fedor von Bock.

The attack began at 0445 on Friday 1 September when the German naval training ship Schleswig Holstein began bombarding the Polish Corridor. The Luftwaffe then bombed the Polish airfields. At 0800 a large formation of tanks from the German 4th Panzer Division arrived at the positions held by the Polish cavalry brigade Wolynska Brygada Kawalerii. They came under fire from machine guns and anti-tank weapons, and retreated to the village of Wilkowiecko. The Polish cavalry were then dive-bombed, causing the horses to stampede. A swarm of Panzers then left Wilkowiecko to attack the Polish 21st Lancers, who were now fighting on foot along the edge of Mokra Wood, but they were forced to withdraw leaving four burning tanks behind them. Renewed Stuka attacks and an artillery barrage left the villages of Mokra I, II and III in flames. Polish casualties were high. Nevertheless, when the Panzers went in again, several were hit and caught fire, and escaping crews were captured by the lancers.

The Germans aimed their main attack at the 4th Troop of the 21st Lancers. But at 1100 hrs, shortly before they reached the lancers’ position, the Polish Armoured Platoon arrived and began bombarding them with 10cm howitzers and 7.5cm field guns. The Germans retreated behind Wilkowiecko, leaving crews behind on the battlefield in their wrecked tanks to be captured by the Poles. This was going to be no pushover.

Around this time the Reich Press Chief, Otto Dietrich, issued an edict that the word ‘war’ was to be avoided in press reports at all costs, stressing that the Polish ambassador was still in Berlin. Even the Polish News Agency said that the fighting was ‘confined to border zones’. But the German First Lieutenant W. Reibel took part in the attack and described the scene:

The bow waves crashed around the tanks, spraying a cool shower over many a driver who crosses the river too fast. To our left is a blown-up railway bridge, at the edge of the road is a dead Polish soldier. It really is a strange feeling to know that now we have left Germany and are standing on Polish soil. Far away we hear the weak barking of a machine gun. Somewhere there is a hollow thunder of cannon – the first signs of war. Ahead of us lies a village. According to the map it must be Mokra III. The name means nothing to us yet. It’s just a village like any other. But what would we have done if we had known? There! Arriving at the last houses in the village we hear rifle and machine gun fire, then comes the order: ‘Prepare for combat.’ The shooting steps up… projectiles strike the tank with a bright clang. Trenches crisscross our attack zone, marshy meadows impair our progress. Yet we roll on relentlessly… Slowly we reach the edge of the wood and push into a forest lane, my company ahead of me. All hell has broken loose here. Ahead of us is an embankment with an underpass. Bullets are cracking and roaring like mad… A lot of vehicles from 2nd Company and our company are now standing in the forest lane. Suddenly a tank that had already pushed through the underpass goes up in flames. Damn the lot of them. It’s an anti-tank force… Many a dear comrade was missing when we assembled. Their tanks turned into iron graves. Our company too has suffered its first deaths… A short time later our company too marched back to the resting area… The burning villages lit the horizon with a red glow. Then came a sudden cry: ‘Polish cavalry approaching to the left’ and we seized our weapons again. But it was a false alarm. Herds of riderless horses were searching for human beings.

Nevertheless, the Wolynska cavalry brigade succeeded in holding up the advance of the German 4th Panzer Division for a whole day.

Official sources in Germany told a different story. After reporting ‘an almost grotesque attack on some of our tanks by a Polish lancer regiment with what annihilating consequences one can easily imagine’, the army propaganda sheet Die Wehrmacht went on to say:

Even the anti-tank guns which the Poles believed could easily halt the advance of our tanks were soon revealed as too weak. In one battle a single German heavy tank annihilated two gun crews with a single shot and then crushed the guns themselves under its heavy track chains. Incidentally, the tank driver, a very young second lieutenant, shortly afterwards stopped a railroad train loaded with Polish reservists, forced them to climb out and herded them along – 400 men in all – in the van of his tank.

On 2 September, the Polish army was forced to retreat under intense pressure from the XV Panzer Corps under General Hoth and the XVI Panzer Corps under General Hoepner who threatened to encircle it from the south. Meanwhile at the head of the XIX Panzer Corps, the armoured spearhead of the Northern Army Groups, was General Heinz Guderian, the great theorist of Panzer warfare. Now, at last, he could now see his theories being put into practice. He believed that it was essential for a Panzer commander to be in the forefront of the action with his men. Reporting the situation back to an HQ in the rear then waiting for orders to be sent forward again would slow progress.

The fast-moving nature of this new type of mechanised warfare meant that troops were liable to shoot first and ask questions later. Consequently, Germans ended up firing on other Germans who had turned up in unexpected places. Nevertheless Guderian soon proved the worth of his ‘command from forward’ system. All the armoured unit commanders were kept as far forward as possible, allowing them to issue commands by radio direct to the Panzers and infantry troops following. This meant they could take rapid advantage of any situation. However, stationing the commander forward when the lines are fluid had its own dangers. Guderian found himself under shellfire from his own artillery who were firing haphazardly through the mist and was lucky to escape with his life. The Luftwaffe general in charge of close air support was also fired on by his own troops, even though his plane clearly carried German markings.

The Poles also claimed some initial successes. On 5 September, their news agency reported: ‘A successful Polish counter-attack has been reported against motorised divisions advancing towards Bieradz in southern Poland. The enemy abandoned considerable numbers of assault vehicles and motor cars whose occupants were taken prisoner. There were many captives.’

There were other setbacks. Panzers outran their fuel supplies, blocking the roads when they ran out of petrol. Again there was a high level of breakdowns. No less than a quarter of the tanks were out of action at any one time. This was an improvement on the 30 per cent breakdown rate they had experienced before, though all the vehicles needed an overhaul by the end of the campaign. However the Panzers played a decisive role in the remarkable success of the Polish campaign. The Wehrmacht, under another important advocate of the Panzer, General Walther von Reichenau, covered the 140 miles to the outskirts of Warsaw in just seven days. Guderian made even more ground in lightning thrusts with two Panzer divisions and two motorised divisions moulded into a single corps. His XIX Corps covered 200 miles in ten days cutting through the Narev Operational Group and destroying the Polish Eighteenth Army for the loss of only 4 per cent of its strength: 650 killed and 1,586 wounded and missing. And General Wilhelm Ritter von Thoma, Panzer commander in Spain, managed to infiltrate 50 miles though thick, though undefended, woods to turn the Polish flank at the Jablunka pass.

But the Panzers acted as a cutting edge rather than as an independent force. Their six armoured divisions comprised just 11 per cent of the Wehrmacht’s strength and they were given strict orders not to outpace the infantry. The Panzers were still strictly under the command of their larger army groups. Training regulations maintained that tanks were only allowed to open fire independently ‘when breaching the enemy or to ward off impending attack’.

It was only on 8 September, when it became clear that the Southern Army Group had not managed to occupy Warsaw that Guderian’s XIX Panzer Corps were allowed to leave the Third Army behind and race south-eastwards to take Brest-Litovsk, a hundred miles beyond the Polish capital to the east. But Guderian’s success, according to von Manstein, was due to Germany’s success in the air, rather than the Panzers themselves.

‘What decided the battles,’ he wrote, ‘was the almost complete elimination of the enemy’s air force and the crippling of his staff communications and transport network by the effective attacks of our Luftwaffe.’

But Die Wehrmacht lauded the success of the 15th and 16th Panzers, who had fought their way through to the outskirts of Warsaw on 6 September: ‘Our spearhead rapidly reached the hills on the side of the river. The enemy artillery fired but our tanks rolled undeterred towards their targets along roundabout routes, under cover of farmsteads and underbrush. As the sun sank towards the west, our tanks penetrated the city under their protective fire, German combat engineers crossed the river so as to get behind and destroy the enemy still resisting in the city. While the armoured spearhead was still securing the river crossing, the second wave of tanks was already rolling up. It was led by a general travelling in a command tank studded with antiaircraft machine guns. Reinforcement Panzer units and mobile divisions rolled up in an irresistible train over twelve miles long.’

A defence of the city had been hastily prepared. But by 8 September, Panzers had entered Warsaw. However, the 4th Panzer Division met dogged resistance in the city and 57 of the 120 attacking tanks were lost in just three hours. On the 11th, there was a report of a Polish counter-attack which claimed to have smashed eighteen tanks. Although the Poles claimed on 14 September to have set more tanks on fire, and captured several anti-tank guns in skirmishes in the capital, the German thrust into Poland had been so swift that it was impossible for the Poles to pull back enough of their army to mount a concerted defence of the city.

The Myth of Polish Cavalry Charges Against Tanks in September 1939

While resistance inside the capital continued, the Polish cavalry took on the Panzers, according to Guderian. The British advocate of mechanised warfare Basil Liddell Hart also wrote of ‘gallant but fantastic charges with sword and lance’. However, it is probably a myth. Denis Hills, a Briton who was in Poland at the time, dismissed this ‘Balaclava stuff’ as ‘a bit of fantasy’. Though the Polish lancers would have come up against Nazi Panzers, they were far more effective against infantry battalions. At dawn on 9 September, the 3rd Light Horse Regiment of the Suwalki Cavalry Brigade charged a column of transport trucks just north of the Zambrow Forest, but only after they had been softened up by machine-gun fire from men hidden in the woods.

‘The command “Draw sabres, gallop, march!” flew down the lines,’ according to platoon commander M. Kamil Dziewanowski. ‘Reins were gripped tighter. The riders bent forward in the saddles and they rushed forward like a mad whirlwind.’

This, the last Polish cavalry charge in history, turned the Germans into ‘a frantic mob’ who were quickly overrun with negligible Polish losses.

‘The morning sun was high when our bugler blew assembly,’ Dziewanowski went on. ‘We came up slowly, driving our prisoners ahead of us. We took about two hundred men, most of them insane from fright.’

Dziewanowski said that, although his proud cavalry brigade did turn themselves into ‘an outfit of tank hunters’ that autumn, they had more sense than to attack them with sabres. Instead, daredevils among them crept up on the German tanks at night and threw Molotov cocktails at them, or blew their tracks off with hand grenades.

After this one last charge, the cavalry’s horses were too hungry and exhausted to mount anything like it again. However, the myth of the Polish cavalry taking on the Panzers persists. The reason may be that Polish, like the British, love stories of heroic defeat. After years of suffering under Nazi, then Soviet, tyranny, they have clutched onto the romantic idea of gallant Polish cavalry officers digging their spurs into their horses’ flanks and galloping heroically at the invading Nazi divisions. In fact, the origin of story probably lies in Nazi propaganda – Germany, a great twentieth-century power, was crushing primitive Poland, stuck in the eighteenth.

On 17 September, Soviet forces entered Poland from the east. The country was divided between Germany and Russia along the lines of the secret protocol that accompanied the Non-Aggression Pact. On the morning of 18 September, the Polish government and high command crossed the Rumanian frontier into exile and formal resistance was over. The Warsaw garrison held out against the Germans until 28 September, while terror-bombings and artillery barrages reduced parts of the city to rubble and the civilian population were starved and denied water. The last serious body of the Polish Army held out until 5 October, though some guerrilla fighting went on into the winter. By then Poland as an independent state had been removed from the maps.

However, while the Poles were ill-equipped and unsupported, the invasion of Poland was not the bloodless victory that the Germans had expected, or the Panzers had hoped for. The Germans lost 10,572 killed in action. Another 5,029 were listed as ‘missing’, but as the country was completely overrun it can be assumed that they were not taken prisoner. And 30,332 Germans were wounded.

Of the 2,100 tanks that took part in the attack on Poland, 218 were destroyed. Fifty-seven of those were lost in heavy fighting in the streets of Warsaw. Tanks are not well suited to fighting in the confined conditions of city streets, where they are vulnerable to attack from the side and above. Against such a weak enemy a 10 per cent loss was considered high. Few faced anti-tank guns. When they did it was discovered that the smaller Panzer Is and IIs had neither the strength nor the firepower required for all-out mechanised warfare. It was found that the four divisions of light tanks were of little use, even in the ideal conditions of Poland. As a result four more Panzer divisions were created, bringing the total to ten and each was assigned its own Luftwaffe unit. From now on, armour and air power would work hand in hand.

The campaign had also shown up problems with the motorised infantry troops assigned to Panzer divisions. They had been carried in trucks, aptly known as ‘soft-skinned vehicles’ which presented easy targets to the enemy. This made the drivers cautious and large gaps opened up between them and the Panzer spearhead. Meanwhile, the infantry itself, which was on foot, was left far behind, along with the horse-drawn transports that the Germans used throughout the war.

During the Polish campaign, the rivers did not present the obstacles that the Panzer commanders had feared. Although none of the 1939 generation of tanks was amphibious, mobile bridging units were brought up rapidly from the rear and the Poles were too disorganised to mass their forces on the far bank. The Germans also learnt that the Soviet tanks had thin, out-dated armour, and that their crews were often undisciplined. When the Soviets attacked Finland on 30 November 1939, their tanks could not overcome the Finnish tank hurdles and fell victim to anti-tank guns bought in Sweden. They could not cross rocky terrain. Traps were laid using felled trees and huge boulders, and slit trenches were used to conceal a soldier. When a tank appeared the man would toss a hand grenade under its gears to put it out of action. By 29 December, the Finns had destroyed 271 Russian tanks.

However, the Western Allies learnt little from the Polish Campaign. They dismissed many of the reports they received of lightning thrusts by armoured columns as the ravings of a demoralised people reeling under the shock of defeat. Allied strategists also failed to pick up the fact that the Panzers had not confined themselves to the wide open plains of Poland that would normally be considered perfect tank country, but had also pushed through heavily–wooded areas and over hills. Just eight months later the Western Allies would be surprised when the Panzers attacked through the heavily-wooded Ardennes, an area they would break through again in 1944 during the Battle of the Bulge.

In 1939 though, British and French military thinking was still mired in the mud of the First World War. Although forward-thinking strategists had developed the theory of mechanised warfare, those in command had turned a deaf ear and for the next three years the Panzer would reign supreme.

Wilson-Kautz Raid, June 1864

Clockwise from upper left: Brigadier General August V. Kautz, Brigadier General James H. Wilson, Confederate artillery firing across the river.

Union Army commander Lt. Gen. Ulysses S. Grant did not want a siege, but the battle had proved unsuccessful. He had been through one siege already in this war, at Vicksburg. It had lasted 47 tedious days, and the inactivity had made it difficult to maintain discipline and morale in the ranks. Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee was stronger than Lieutenant General John C. Pemberton had been, and Petersburg was better defended, with several supply routes still open. A siege here would last much longer than at Vicksburg and would be more stubbornly contested. Nevertheless, on June 20 1864 Grant told Butler and others, “I have determined to try to envelop Petersburg.”

That same day he also set in motion one last attempt to force Lee out in the open. His army now lay across the Norfolk & Petersburg Railroad east of the city and was in striking distance of two more of Lee’s remaining sources of supply: the Weldon Railroad, which ran into North Carolina and on to the port of Wilmington, and the Southside Railroad, running west to Lynchburg. If he could cut these lines, even temporarily, Lee might be forced to attack him or to abandon Richmond and Petersburg altogether.

Grant ordered General Wilson to take his own cavalry division and Kautz’s on a wide sweeping ride around the enemy right. Grant wanted Wilson to cross the Weldon line as close to Petersburg as possible, cut it, then ride on to the Southside, once again as close to the city as practicable. Then he was to tear up track as far west as he could get, if possible the entire 45 miles to Burke’s Station, where the Southside intersected with the Richmond & Danville line.

From there, if still unmolested, Wilson and Kautz were to continue the destruction, moving southwest on the Richmond & Danville. If they were successful, only one line – the Virginia Central – would be left intact to serve the Army of Northern Virginia.

Grant expected that Sheridan, who was on his way back east from the Trevilian raid, would keep most of Wade Hampton’s cavalry occupied, though Rooney Lee’s mounted division would have to be dealt with. As further cover for the movement, Grant ordered Birney and Wright to move to their left, across the Jerusalem Plank Road and out to the Weldon line in the vicinity of Globe Tavern. They might do considerable damage to the railroad themselves, and they would also provide a screen behind which Wilson could get well on his way.

Wilson asked for two days to rest and refit his men. Then, before dawn on June 22, he set out with a total of about 5,000 troopers. By midmorning they had reached Reams’s Station on the Weldon line without opposition; they stopped briefly to burn the railroad buildings and uproot the tracks for a few hundred yards on either side. That done, the raiders moved on, and by afternoon they passed through Dinwiddie Court House, with Rooney Lee now snapping ineffectually at their heels.

Before nightfall Wilson and Kautz reached Ford’s Station on the Southside line, where they had the good fortune to find two loaded enemy supply trains. These they burned, along with the station buildings and everything else combustible. Then they headed west, tearing up the track as they went, heating it red-hot over fires fed with railroad ties and then twisting the rails out of shape to render them useless. Not until mid- night did the Federal raiders finally halt, more than 50 miles from their starting point. The exhausted men slept with their reins in their hands, lying in formation in front of their saddled horses.

The following morning, while Kautz’s men rode ahead toward the Richmond & Danville line, Wilson’s men continued their work, moving slowly west while Rooney Lee’s cavalry skirmished in their rear. “We had no time to do a right job,” a trooper complained. Now they simply overturned the rails and ties, which could be done quickly but was hardly a permanent form of destruction. The next day they reached Burke’s Station and met Kautz, who had reduced the depot to a charred ruin and had torn up the Richmond & Danville line for several miles in either direction.

Kautz took the advance again and headed out, reaching the Staunton River 30 miles southwest of Burke’s Station on the after- noon of June 25. Destruction of the bridge here would be a hard blow to the Confederates, but by now the raiders were expected. More than 1,000 home guards, supported by at least one battery, waited in earthworks on the far side of the river. When Kautz advanced to burn the bridge, the defenders opened a stubborn fire and drove the Federals back. At the same time, Rooney Lee was pressing Wilson’s rear guard. Wilson decided it was time to end the raid and return to friendly lines.

For several reasons, this was not going to be easy. Wilson was 100 miles from safety, with tired animals and worn-out men. General Hampton was on his way back to the Petersburg area with his two divisions of Confederate cavalry. And friendly lines were not where Wilson thought they were. Wright and Birney had moved their corps as ordered on June 22, but they had become separated in the woods, and A. P. Hill’s Confederates had shoved their way between them. Hill stopped Wright short and forced the Federals back. Then he struck Birney ferociously and threw him back to the Jerusalem Plank Road, taking 1,700 prisoners. As a result, the Weldon Railroad was still firmly in Confederate hands.

At midday on June 28, Wilson’s weary riders reached Stony Creek Depot, just 10 miles south of Reams’s Station, and presumed safety. But here they ran into Wade Hampton’s and Fitzhugh Lee’s cavalry divisions. The dismayed Wilson could not break through; his line of retreat was cut off and he was in real trouble.

That night Wilson ordered Kautz to ride west and north, around the enemy divisions to Reams’s Station; Wilson would hold Hampton at Stony Creek. While Wil- son fought off a substantial attack, Kautz reached Reams’s Station the next day – only to discover, instead of the Federal II and VI Corps, part of Fitzhugh Lee’s cavalry and two brigades of Hill’s Confederate infantry.

Increasingly desperate, Wilson next took his own command around the opponents facing him to rejoin Kautz west of Reams’s Station. But now the enemy was converging on him from three sides: Fitzhugh and Rooney Lee’s cavalrymen from the north, Hill’s infantry from the east, and Hampton’s riders from the south. There was no choice but to make a headlong run for it.

The Federals burned their wagons, spiked their guns, left their wounded behind and headed southwest. Before they could get away, the Confederates attacked and Kautz, in covering the escape of Wilson, became separated from him.

There was a large swamp on the enemy left flank, and Kautz thought he saw a chance to break through there. “It was our only chance,” wrote one of his troopers. In they plunged, the men riding past Kautz, who was sitting astride his horse, one leg slung over his pommel, with a pocket map of Virginia in one hand and a compass in the other. Looking at the sun for position, he pointed out their course. Incredibly, the troopers got through the swamp unopposed. Seven hours later, bone-weary and falling asleep in their saddles, they rode into friendly lines southeast of Petersburg.

Wilson’s men had it even tougher. For 11 hours they were pursued south, until they were nearly 20 miles farther away from Federal lines. Wilson allowed the men two hours’ rest, then he led them east, toward the James River. Riding all day June 30, with Hampton racing to cut them off, the Federals finally reached Blackwater River – seven miles south of the James – after midnight, on July 1.

There was no enemy on the other side of Blackwater River, but Wilson found the only bridge burned. Hastily the troopers made makeshift repairs and straggled across; that afternoon they reached the James and safety, having covered 125 miles in 60 hours. “For the first time in ten days,” Wilson wrote later, his men “unsaddled, picketed, fed, and went regularly to sleep.” Like most cavalry raids in this War, Wilson’s had been audacious, dramatic – and had yielded mixed results. Undeniably the destruction of more than 60 miles of railroad track was important. Years later Colonel Isaac M. St. John, who was in charge of Confederate ordnance supplies in Richmond, said that nine weeks passed before another train entered either Petersburg on the South-side Railroad or Richmond on the Richmond & Danville. The ensuing shortages forced Lee’s army to consume every bit of its commissary reserves, yet it was not forced out of Petersburg, much less Richmond. Meanwhile, Wilson had lost all of his artillery, wagons and supplies, along with one quarter of his command in casualties.


The Huns

SHORT COMPOSITE BOW: right drawn, centre normal and left spent.

This illustration shows the short composite bow of wood, horn and sinew, held together by animal glue. All the materials were obtainable in the steppe lands of Inner Asia. Curved bows like this were immensely powerful and short enough to be fired from horseback.

The origins of the Huns are shrouded in mystery, not just for us but also for contemporary observers, who frankly admitted that they had no idea where these people had appeared from. It was clear that they had come from the east and there was a persistent but improbable story recounted to explain how they were first encouraged to move west. According to this legend, the Huns and the Ostrogoths lived in neighbouring territory separated by the Strait of Kerch, which is the entrance to the Sea of Azov: the Ostrogoths in the Crimea on the western side and the Huns in the steppes to the east. However, neither group knew of the other’s existence. One day a cow belonging to a Hun was stung by a gadfly and swam across the strait followed in hot pursuit by her master. He found himself in a rich and inviting land and when he returned to his own people he told them about it and they immediately moved to take it for themselves.

The historical reality seems to be that the Huns, a Turkic people from the Central Asian steppes, began to move west around the year 370 and attack the Ostrogothic kingdom in the area of the modern Ukraine. What caused this movement is unclear, but it may have been pressure from other tribes further east. The Ostrogoths were defeated again and again and forced to leave their homes and farms in panic. A vast number of them crossed the Danube into the Balkans, still ruled at this time by the Roman Empire. Here the fugitive Goths, in their desperation, inflicted a massive defeat on the Roman army at Adrianople In 376, when their cavalry ran down the last of the old Roman legions.

Now that their horizons were expanded there was no stopping the Huns. They raided the Balkans in the aftermath of the Roman defeat but also attacked the rich provinces of the east, coming through the Caucasus and Anatolia to pillage the rich lands of Syria. St Jerome, the translator of the Bible into Latin, was living as a hermit near Jerusalem at the time and he has left us one of the first contemporary accounts of their cruelty:

Suddenly messengers started arriving In haste and the whole east trembled for swarms of Huns had broken out from (behind the Caucasus). They filled the whole earth with slaughter and panic as they flitted here and there on their swift horses. The Roman army was away at the time and detained in Italy owing to civil wars … they were at hand everywhere before they were expected: by their speed they outstripped rumour, and they took pity on neither religion nor rank nor age nor wailing childhood. Those who had just begun to live were compelled to die and, in ignorance of their plight, would smile amid the drawn swords of the enemy. There was a widespread report that they were heading for Jerusalem and that they were converging on that city because of their extreme greed for gold.

Jerome takes up a number of themes which were to echo through the centuries as people of the settled lands recounted with horror the arrival of nomad warriors: their speed and the fact that they caught unsuspecting people by surprise, their readiness to slaughter entire populations and their blatant and overwhelming greed for gold.

Another theme repeatedly taken up by observers of the Huns was their alleged ugliness. Ammianus Marcellinus, the late fourth-century military historian, who is one of our most important sources for the earliest stages of the Hunnic invasions, commented that they were ‘so prodigiously ugly that they might be taken for two-legged animals or the figures crudely carved from stumps that one sees on the parapets of bridges’, while Jordanes adds that they caused men to panic by ‘their terrifying appearance, which inspired fear because of its swarthiness and they had, if I may say so, a sort of shapeless lump rather than a head’. These impressions probably reflect the eastern Asiatic features of the Mongols which made them clearly distinct from their Germanic rivals and neighbours (about whom the Roman sources do not make the same comments).

Their physical appearance was not made more attractive to the Romans by their clothes. These seem to have been chiefly made of bits of fur and later of linen, presumably captured or traded because the Huns themselves certainly did not make their own textiles. Along with their ragged clothes and wearing their garments until they disintegrated was their habit of never washing. The effect of these on the fastidious Roman observers who encountered them may easily be envisaged. However critical, their enemies recognized their extreme hardiness for, as Ammianus Marcellinus observed, ‘They learn from the cradle to the grave to endure hunger and thirst.’ Not for them the heavy, slow-moving supply trains that delayed the movements of Roman armies for they carried all that they needed with them on their swift and sturdy ponies.

That the Huns were ferocious and very successful warriors is evident. It is less clear exactly why they were so. Our knowledge of both their tactics in battle and their equipment is very patchy. The main first-hand account, the work of Priscus, describes the Huns at leisure and pleasure but not at war, and the descriptions of battles from other sources are both later and too vague to be of much use. There is no known contemporary representation of a Hunnic warrior of the period. A few swords from the time, which mayor may not be Hunnic, survive but there are no archaeological traces of the famous bows.

Ammianus Marcellinus, himself an experienced military officer, wrote of them in 392:

When provoked they sometimes fight singly but they enter the battle in tactical formation, while the medley of their voices makes a savage noise. And as they are lightly equipped for swift motion, and unexpected in action, they purposely divide suddenly in scattered bands and attack, rushing around in disorder here and there, dealing terrific slaughter; and because of their extraordinary speed of movement, they cannot easily be seen when they break into a rampart or pillage an enemy’s camp. And on this account, you would have no hesitation in calling them the most terrible of all warriors. At first they fight from a distance with arrows with sharp bone heads [instead of metal ones] joined to the shafts with wonderful skill. They then gallop over the intervening spaces and fight hand to hand with swords, regardless of their own lives. Then, while their opponents are guarding against wounds from sword thrusts, they throw strips of cloth plaited into nooses [i. e. lassos] over their opponents and so entangle them and pin their limbs so that they lose the ability to ride or walk.

Although Ammianus’ account was derived second-hand from Goths who had fought against the Huns, the picture clearly shows them as nomad warriors in the military tradition which was to be followed by the Turks and Mongols. The emphasis on manoeuvrability, their role as mounted archers and use of lassos all form part of that tradition.

As with all steppe nomads, observers were struck by their attachment to their horses. Jerome says that they ate and slept on their horses and were hardly able to walk on the ground. Ammianus Marcellinus noted that they were ‘almost glued to their horses which are hardy, it is true, but ugly, and sometimes they sit of the woman-fashion (presumably side-saddle) and so perform their ordinary tasks. When deliberations are called for about weighty matters, they all meet together on horseback’. The Gaulish aristocrat Sidonius Apollinaris (d. 479), who must have seen Hunnic mercenaries on many occasions, notes that their training began very young. ‘Scarcely has the infant learned to stand, without its mother’s help, when a horse takes him on his back. You would think that the limbs of the man and horse were born together, so firmly does the rider always stick to the horse. Other people are carried on horseback; these people live there.’ Being well versed in classical mythology, he goes on to compare them with the mythical centaurs, half man and half horse. Commentators on nomad warriors are almost always impressed by this connection with their horses. No matter how early sedentary people learned to ride, or how well trained they were, they never seem to have acquired the mastery of horses that the nomad peoples had. This mastery always gave them the advantage in endurance and in the art of mounted archery which others could never attain.

The late Roman military tactician Vegetius whose book Epitoma rei militaris (Handbook of Military Science) is one of our main sources on the late Roman army, discusses the horses of the Huns and how they differed from the Roman ones. He describes them as having great hooked heads, protruding eyes, narrow nostrils, broad jaws, strong and stiff necks, manes hanging below the knees, overlarge ribs, curved backs, bushy tails, strong cannon bones, small rumps and wide-spreading hooves. They have no fat on them and are long rather than high. He adds that the very thinness of these horses is pleasing and there is beauty even in their ugliness.

Apart from their physical appearance, like little ponies compared with the larger and more elegant Roman horses, what impresses Vegetius most is their toughness. He notes their patience and perseverance and their ability to tolerate extremes of cold and hunger. Vegetius was concerned at the decline of veterinary skills among the Romans of his day and complains that people were neglecting their horses and treating them as the Huns treated theirs, leaving them out on pasture all year to fend for themselves. This, he says, is not at all good for the larger and more softly bred Roman horses. There is an important point here: Roman horses needed to be fed and so the army had to carry fodder with it; Hunnic horses , by contrast, lived off the land and were used to surviving on what they could find. This gave them an enormous advantage in mobility and the capacity to travel long distances without resting. It was one of the secrets of their military success.

The question of whether the Huns used stirrups remains doubtful. We can be certain that stirrups were unknown in classical antiquity. We can also be certain that they were widely known in east and west from the eighth century onwards. The evidence for the intervening period is very problematic. There are no representations of horsemen using stirrups from the Hunnic period, nor have any metal stirrups been found in graves. If they had used a new and unfamiliar device like this, it seems most unlikely that Priscus and other classical commentators would have neglected to mention (and copy) this. It is therefore extremely unlikely that they had metal stirrups. It is possible that they may have had fabric or wooden stirrups, both of which are attested for in later periods, but again, the fact that these are not mentioned in sources makes it improbable. Mounted archers such as Scythians and Sarmatians, who preceded the Huns, were able to shoot from the saddle without the stabilizing effect of stirrups, and there is no reason why the Huns should not have done likewise. Indeed, the absence of stirrups for both sides would simply have emphasized the superiority of Hunnic horsemanship.

The Huns did not use spurs either but urged their horses on with whips; whip handles have been found in tombs. Gold and silver saddle ornaments discovered in tombs make it certain that some wealthy men rode on wooden saddles with wooden bows at front and rear to support the rider. Common sense suggests, however, that many poorer Huns must have made do with padded cloth or skin saddles or even have ridden bareback. Their most characteristic weapon was the bow. This was the short, but very powerful composite bow, perhaps 5 feet or more in length, made from wood, bone and sinews. The range would have been 200 to 300 yards, the maximum effective range of any medieval bow. In the early days at least, the arrowheads were made of bone, not iron. All the materials could be found on the steppes and the bow was the Hunnic instrument par excellence. Like the Turks and Mongols of later centuries, whom they so much resemble, it was their abilities as mounted archers that made them so formidable in battle. Better equipped Hunnic warriors would also have had swords and it is clear that Attila wore his sword even in the comparative safety of his own compound. Swords and their scabbards, like saddles, could be expensively decorated. Unlike the bows, which were peculiar to the Huns, the swords seem to have followed the standard Roman and Gothic forms, with short hilts and long, straight blades.

Confused by their speed, and perhaps hoping to account for their military success, contemporaries often gave very large numbers for armies of Huns: Priscus is said to have claimed that Attila’s army in 451 had 500,000 men. If this were true, it would certainly explain their successes in battle but, in reality, these numbers must be a vast exaggeration. As we shall see when considering the Mongols, limitations on grazing for the animals must have placed severe restrictions on the numbers of Huns who could work together as a unit. Even in the vast grasslands of Mongolia, it is unlikely that Mongol gatherings ever numbered much more than 100,000: in the more restricted areas of the Balkans and western Europe numbers must have been much smaller. Before they invaded the Empire, the Huns, like other nomads, probably lived in fairly small tenting groups, perhaps 500-1,000 people, who kept their distance from their fellows so as to exploit the grassland more effectively. Only on special occasions or to plan a major expedition would larger numbers come together and even then they could only remain together if they had outside resources. The image of a vast, innumerable swarm of Huns covering the landscape like locusts has to be treated with some scepticism.

The late Roman Empire was a society based on walled towns and the Huns soon developed an impressive capability in siege warfare. This was surely not something they brought with them from the steppes. They almost certainly employed engineers who had learned their trade in the Roman armies but now found themselves unemployed and looking for jobs. The Huns were much more successful than previous barbarian invaders had been at reducing cities. This was especially important in the Middle Danube area around modern Serbia, where cities which had successfully held out for many years were reduced to uninhabited ruins. Sometimes, as at Margus, betrayed by its bishop, this was the result of treachery, but on other occasions the Huns were able to mount a successful assault. Priscus gives a full account of the siege of the city of Naissus (modern Nis in Serbia) in 441. While the narrative certainly has echoes of classical historians, especially Thucydides (for Priscus was an educated man and keen to show it), the description probably reflects the realities of siege warfare at the time:

Since the citizens did not dare to come out to battles, the [Huns], to make the crossing easy for their forces bridged the river from the southern side at a point where it flowed past the city and brought their machines up to the circuit wall. First they brought up wooden platforms mounted on wheels upon which stood men who shot across at the defenders on the ramparts. At the back of the platform stood men who pushed the wheels with their feet and moved the machines where they were needed, so that [the archers] could shoot successfully through the screens. In order that the men on the platform could fight in safety, they were sheltered by screens woven from willow covered with rawhide and leather to protect them against missiles and flaming darts which might be shot at them. When a large number of machines had been brought up to the wall, the defenders on the battlements gave in because of the crowds of missiles and evacuated their positions. Then the so-called ‘rams’ were brought up. A ram is a very large machine: a beam is suspended by slack chains from timbers which incline together and it is provided with a sharp metal point. For the safety of those working them, there were screens like those already described. Using short ropes attached to the rear, men swing the beam back from the target of the blow and then release it, so that by its force, part of the wall facing it is smashed away. From the wall the defenders threw down wagon-sized boulders which they had got ready when the machines were first brought up to the circuit. Some of the machines were crushed with the men working them but the defenders could not hold out against the large number of them. Then the attackers brought up scaling ladders so that in some places the walls were breached by the rams and in other places those on the battlements were overcome by the numbers of. the machines. The barbarians entered through the part of the circuit wall broken by the blows of the rams and also by the scaling ladders set up against the parts which were not crumbling and the city was taken.

The attackers were using siege towers and battering rams but they do not seem to have had any artillery to fire stones at the walls or into the city. Later conquerors, notably the Mongols, were to use such catapults to great effect. In contrast, the Mongols do not seem to have used wheeled siege towers, at least in their Asian campaigns.

In addition to the machines, Attila was evidently prepared to sacrifice large numbers of men, probably prisoners or subject peoples, in frontal assault. The results were very impressive and most of the major cities of the Balkans, including Viminacium, Philippopolis, Arcadiopolis and Constantia on the Black Sea coast fell. Attila’s campaigns mark the effective end of Roman urban life in much of the area.

One feature which marked out the Huns and other nomad warriors from the settled people was the high degree of mobilization among the tribesmen. When Priscus, a civil servant who accompanied the East Roman ambassador to Attila’s court, was waiting for an audience with the great man, he was talking to a Greek- speaking Hun who gave him a lecture on the virtues of the Huns and Hunnic life as opposed to the corrupt and decadent ways of the Romans. He explained:

After a war the Scythians [i. e. the Huns: Priscus uses the ancient Greek term for steppe nomads] live at ease, each enjoying his own possessions and troubling others or being troubled not at all or very little. But among the Romans, since on account of their tyrants [i. e. the emperors] not all men carry weapons, they place responsibility for their safety in others and they are thus easily destroyed in war. Moreover, those who do use arms are endangered still more by the cowardice of their generals, who are unable to sustain a war.

This passage forms part of a speech which is really a sermon on the virtues of the ‘noble savage’ lifestyle and Priscus attempted, rather lamely, to counter his views. But the Hun was making an important point about the enduring difference between the nomad society in which all adult males bore arms and a settled population who relied on a professional army. In absolute terms, the Huns may never have been very numerous but because of the high degree of participation in military activity, they could field a large army. They were, in fact, a nation in arms.


Polish cavalrymen, in Austrian-Hungarian uniforms, fighting under Austrian-Hungarian orders. Although the cavalry charge near Rokitna was militarily unimportant, it held great symbolic meaning. Due to a misunderstanding, the 2nd Squadron of Uhlans launched an attack without infantry support. The cavalrymen were able to cross three lines of trenches but could not take control. As a result, only a very few Uhlans returned to their own lines.

On 13 June 1915, on the Eastern Front, Polish cavalrymen, fighting under Austria’s orders, but fired by Poland’s national aspirations, won a victory over the Russians at Rokitna. Nine days later, Austrian troops retook the most important of the East Galician cities, Lemberg, and were poised to cross into the Russian province of Volhynia. On the Polish front, the German army was making continuous gains: on July 18 more than 15,000 Russians were taken prisoner at Krasnostaw.

At the outbreak of the Great War, two Polish Legions were formed within the Austro-Hungarian army. They eventually increased to three brigades that participated in a series of important campaigns in the years 1914 to 1916. When the soldiers refused to swear loyalty to Germany, the Polish Legions were disbanded.

Units of the 2nd Brigade of Piłsudski’s Polish Legions were deployed in support of the Austro Hungarian 42nd Division at the village of Rokitna near Czerniowice (Chernovtsy), Bukovina. The 42nd Infantry Division tried to take village, but were rebuffed by the Russians entrenched there.

Russian counterattacks threatened the 42nd Division positions. It was decided that the second and third squadron of Uhlans under command of Rotmistrz Dunin-Wąsowicz would attack Rokitna at noon to relieve the pressure on the 42nd Division.

Dunin-Wąsowicz personally lead the charge. After crossing muddy terrain near Rokitnianka River, he placed 3rd squadron in reserve and attacked with the 2nd. In fifteen minutes the Polish Uhlans forced two lines of enemy trenches, creating great chaos and casualties amongst Russians soldiers. Despite the Polish determination, the cavalry charge was in vain due to insufficient infantry support. Out of 64 Polish Uhlans from 2nd squadron – only six survived.

Major battle scene shot for Polish independence film

The Charge of Rokitna, a Polish Legions cavalry charge against Russia in World War I, was re-enacted on Tuesday, 15th  August 2017, during shooting for a new movie to mark Poland’s independence.

The scene, the largest battle scene in the movie, is key to the Legions film which is due for release on 5 October 2018, ahead of Poland’s centenary of independence on 11 November 2018.