Rome’s Manipular Army

The Second Samnite War was the background which Livy, our only major literary source for this period, used to describe the changes in Rome’s army during the fourth century BC and the advent of the so-called ‘manipular legion’. In the following passage, which is arguably one of the most famous and important relating to Rome’s early military development during the Republic, Livy offers a general description of Rome’s military development to that time along with one of the most detailed descriptions of Rome’s military tactics:

The Romans had formerly used small round shields; then, after they began to serve for pay, they made oblong shields instead of round ones; and what had before been a phalanx, like the Macedonian phalanxes, came afterwards to be a line of battle formed by maniples, with the rearmost troops drawn up in a number of companies. The first line, or hastati, comprised fifteen maniples, stationed a short distance apart; the maniple had twenty light-armed soldiers, the rest of their number carried oblong shields; moreover those were called ‘light-armed’ who carried only a spear and javelins. This front line in the battle contained the flower of the young men who were growing ripe for service. Behind these came a line of the same number of maniples, made up of men of a more stalwart age; these were called the principes; they carried oblong shields and were the most showily armed of all. This body of thirty maniples they called antepilani, because behind the standards there were again stationed another fifteen companies, each of which had three sections, the first section in every company being known as pilus. The company consisted of three vexilla or ‘banners’; a single vexillum had sixty soldiers, two centurions, one vexillarius, or colourbearer; the company numbered a hundred and eighty-six men. The first banner led the triarii, veteran soldiers of proven valour; the second banner the rorarii, younger and less distinguished men; the third banner the accensi, who were the least dependable, and were, for that reason, assigned to the rear-most line. When an army had been marshalled in this fashion, the hastati were the first of all to engage. If the hastati were unable to defeat the enemy, they retreated slowly and were received into the intervals between the companies of the principes. The principes then took up the fighting and the hastati followed them. The triarii knelt beneath their banners, with the left leg advanced, having their shields leaning against their shoulders and their spears thrust into the ground and pointing obliquely upwards, as if their battle-line were fortified with a bristling palisade. If the principes, too, were unsuccessful in their fight, they fell back slowly from the battle-line on the triarii. (From this arose the adage, ‘to have come to the triarii,’ when things are going badly.) The triarii, rising up after they had received the principes and hastati into the intervals between their companies, would at once draw their companies together and close the lanes, as it were; then, with no more reserves behind to count on, they would charge the enemy in one compact array. This was a thing exceedingly disheartening to the enemy, who, pursuing those whom they supposed they had conquered, all at once beheld a new line rising up, with augmented numbers. There were customarily four legions raised of five thousand foot each, with three hundred horse to every legion.

Although Livy seems to suggest that many of the changes he described took place half a century earlier, back in the early fourth century, many scholars have argued that the Samnite wars may have also played a significant role in the development of Rome’s equipment and tactics. As the Romans were traditionally thought to have fought in a phalanx formation, a catalyst or impetus was needed to break apart this formation into the more flexible and fragmented army which historians, such as Polybius, describe for the third and second centuries BC. The phalanx formation had been proven to be incredibly successful across the Mediterranean, so long as armies were fighting on reasonably level terrain – like the great coastal plain of Latium. However, moving into the rugged and mountainous land of south-central Italy where the Samnites lived would have been problematic for a phalanx, and it was suggested that this is why the Romans may have struggled in the middle years of the war. These issues, along with the precarious position in which the city found itself in 311 BC, might have led to the Romans breaking up their phalanx into the manipular formation – a loose checkerboard made up of groups of 120 men of various equipment types. An army broken up into maniples or manipuli, which literally means ‘handfuls’ in Latin, would have been able to maintain tactical cohesion across broken terrain far more easily than a phalanx. Additionally, texts like the Ineditum Vaticanum, which purportedly records an interaction between a Roman envoy and the Carthaginians before the start of the First Punic War, have provided fuel for this fire.

The Ineditum Vaticanum records the Carthaginians asking the Romans why they think they can engage in a naval war with them when the Romans have no experience of naval combat, and indeed no fleet. The Romans respond that they have long excelled by learning from their opponents, adapting to new types of warfare and borrowing tactics and equipment when it suited them – becoming ‘masters of those who thought so highly of themselves’. This speech and the idea of the student overcoming the master is quite clearly a rhetorical trope, although it is one in which the Romans seem to have believed – at least in the late Republic – as it generally sums up the broad narrative of military development which we find in other sources as well. Looking specifically at the manipular legion, this passage suggests that the Romans acquired oblong shields and javelins – two key pieces of equipment used by the manipular legion – from the Samnites, furthering the association between the adoption of this formation and this period. Our changing understanding of the Roman army in the fifth and early fourth century BC, however, coupled with some interesting developments in archaeology, has suggested a somewhat messier, but far more organic, sequence of development.

The traditional starting point for the Roman army in the early fourth century – as a civic militia fighting in a hoplite (or possible Macedonian) phalanx formation – has generally been discarded by most modern scholars for a number of very good reasons. As a result, entering the fourth century BC there is no need to search for a reason to ‘break up’ the phalanx into a more flexible formation, as it is likely that the Roman army – based previously on a collection of disparate clans – already deployed in something resembling a manipular formation. Although they may have stood next to each other on the battle field, Rome’s military was probably still organized in small groups (based on either clans or curiae), was used to engaging in raiding activities which favoured small flexible groups and so was most likely made up of a number of individual and independent units – or manipuli – anyway. The real change in the fourth century BC was therefore not the breaking up of the phalanx, but actually bringing these various units, or manipuli, together into a single entity and fighting consistently under a single banner.

The real strength or advantage of Rome’s manipular army was not new equipment or tactics per se, although the structure did allow for these, but its ability to include and incorporate a range of different units into a single military structure. This ability to integrate new groups and units seems to have originated within the community of Rome itself, as the Romans needed to have a military system which allowed her clan-based units to fight alongside community-based units, although during the course of the fourth century BC the system was also required to integrate an increasing number of allied units – most notably the Latins, but also, by the late fourth century BC, Greeks. Each of these groups seems to have had their own tactics and style of combat, in addition to different goals and aims, and the Roman system had to be able to accommodate this while still fielding an effective overall fighting force. The result was an incredibly flexible system, particularly in the fourth century BC, where the Roman army would have resembled a patchwork of different units when mobilized on the battlefield: Roman and Latin gentes, equipped in their classic equipment; soldiers from the city of Rome itself, likely equipped in newer and perhaps lighter equipment; Campanian horsemen, etc. – all drawn up in their individual groups. Each unit would then go on to fight and act largely independently, utilizing their individual strengths and abilities for often quite personal gains (spoils and booty, acquired in individual combat, were still key), albeit generally working together for a common victory. Indeed, there seems to have been quite a bit of space within the Roman battle line (if this term can even be used), as the sources are full of stories of individuals and war leaders seeking each other out, riding up and down (and sometimes through) the army while it was evidently engaged, even at this late date.

While the Roman army of the fourth century BC seems to have featured a number of different troop types, this sort of open formation would have also made quite a bit of sense given what the archaeology suggests was occurring in terms of military equipment in Central Italy. The region’s archaic gentes seem to have preferred fighting with large, circular shields (the aspis or hoplon), heavy body armour and thrusting spears. Although these pieces of equipment became associated with the hoplite phalanx and hoplite warfare in Greece, evidence suggests (as argued convincingly by van Wees, amongst others) that this type of equipment was initially designed to provide optimal protection in individual combat. In fact, once a dense formation is adopted, much of the defensive equipment usually associated with hoplites becomes redundant (the formation providing the bulk of the defence), as seen in the gradual removal of equipment in Greek hoplite armies – when Athens distributes equipment to hoplites for the first time in the late fourth century BC it is just a helmet and shield – and in the ‘enhanced’ phalanx deployed in Macedon where the armour is almost entirely removed in favour of a dense formation armed with sarissae. It is probable that the archaic Roman and Latin gentes continued to equip themselves in this manner in the fourth century BC, in large part because this was the equipment they already owned, and fought in a similar manner on the battlefield.

Romans and Latins who had not regularly participated in warfare previously (or who at least did not have their own equipment) but who wanted to (or were expected to) join the army in the fourth century BC would have had a few more options – and it seems that quite a few adopted a new style of equipment which was increasingly in fashion at the time. Most likely introduced by the Gauls (there is extensive archaeological evidence for this type of equipment in southern Austria and other Gallic regions going back to the late Bronze Age), this equipment featured a handful of javelins and an oblong shield (offering better protection against thrown javelins, particularly for the legs). Far cheaper than the heavy bronze equipment which had been used in the Archaic period by the gentilicial elite, this new panoply was gradually adopted throughout Central Italy during the course of the fourth century BC – and particularly by the Lucanians and Samnites of South-Central Italy. The Roman association between the Samnites and this style of equipment is somewhat fitting then, although it seems as if they were not its point of origin. Instead, the Samnites could possibly be described as ‘early adopters’ – perhaps because they lacked a strong, alternative tradition of military equipment from the Archaic period. This new reliance on the javelin throughout Central Italy, albeit likely in conjunction with a backup weapon like a sword or axe, would have also encouraged a more open and flexible battle order. Unlike the Roman armies of the late Republic – where it is often thought that the Romans would follow a hail of pila with a charge and direct, hand-to-hand combat – the javelin-armed soldiers of the fourth century BC seem to have been far more lightly armed and armoured (if the depictions from tombs at sites like Paestum can be trusted). As a result, it is likely that a battle would have featured several volleys of javelins before more direct battle was eventually engaged – if it ever was. In order to allow as many units, let alone individuals, to throw their javelins as possible (and to avoid hitting allied units) a fairly loose battle order would have made sense – and here some parallels can be drawn from tribes like the Yanomamo in Brazil, which still featured this type of javelin-based warfare (including oblong shields) well into the twentieth century.

The manipular army of the fourth century BC should therefore not be seen as the highly regimented and organized Roman legion described in Livy 8.8, although one can see hints of the truth behind Livy’s anachronistic façade. Livy’s velites, hastati, principes, triarii, etc. are likely the later formalizations of what were originally de facto divisions or troop types; the triarii representing the archaic warbands, with their heavy armour and long tradition of warfare, while the other groups represented various cultural, ethnic or merely economic groups, featuring the equipment which they had traditionally utilized or which they could now afford. Amongst these other groups the javelin was clearly key, although they also probably utilized a range of other equipment types and varying levels of armour. Over the course of the fourth and third centuries BC, things were gradually formalized and standardized, and the massive impact of battles like Cannae – where a generation of soldiers and a huge amount of equipment was lost – cannot be overstated, but the army’s origins seem to have been far more fluid.

Despite these more organic (and possibly less impressive) origins, the development of the manipular legion in the fourth century BC still represented a major achievement. It should be noted that the ability to effectively combine units of different types, and from a number of different socio-political entities, in a single army was not unknown at this time. Indeed, the army of Philip II and Alexander the Great of Macedon arguably represents another example of this ‘combined arms’ approach – with the army unified by both the promise of payment and, later, the charisma of the leader. And of course the use of mercenaries in the Greek world more generally in the fifth and fourth centuries BC, particularly with regards to light infantry (peltasts), would have offered another example. But what made Rome’s manipular army so interesting and effective was its ability to effectively combine various units into a single army without relying on payment by the state. Instead, Rome seems to have relied upon a sense of obligation (civic duty for her citizens and treaties for her allies), along with the promise of booty after the war which included both the usual forms of portable wealth (gold, silver, arms, armour, etc.) and increasingly land (although this was reserved for her own citizens during this period). But this system allowed Rome to have an almost endless supply of soldiers for her armies, which was not limited by troop type, organization, tactics or formation, or even state finances. The strength of the system was not in its inherent tactics, formations or equipment, but actually the absence of these things. The Roman military system, like Roman society at this time, was all about integration and incorporation.



After Actium…

Cleopatra’s men sighted Antony’s quinquereme following them and she ordered them to make a signal of recognition. Probably they slowed and he was able to come on board. His mood was grim and he refused to speak to his lover. The pause in their flight seems to have allowed some enemy ships to catch up. These were of a type known as Liburnians, which were small, but fast. For a while his energy returned and Antony boldly faced about to meet them. One ship was lost, but the pursuit was also broken. Afterwards, he is supposed to have sat alone at the prow of the queen’s ship. Plutarch, who tells the story, says that he did not know whether Antony was consumed with shame or rage. On the third day they landed at one of the southernmost points of the Peloponnese. Cleopatra’s two closest attendants, probably her maids Charmion and Iras, managed to persuade him to join her. The lovers talked, ate together and slept together for the remainder of the journey. They were joined by some transport ships and also a few more galleys that had managed to escape from Actium, and perhaps this encouraged Antony. He took the money carried aboard one of the transports and gave generous gifts to his remaining followers.

They sailed to the North African coast, landing at Paraetonium (modern-day Mersa Matruh), some 200 miles west of Alexandria, where they separated. Cleopatra went back to her capital city, while Antony looked to rally his only remaining army of any significance. Four legions had been left in Cyrenaica under the command of Lucius Pinarius Scarpus — a great-nephew of Julius Caesar, who had been mentioned as a minor heir in the dictator’s will. It was a very modest force to set against the armies of Octavian, who controlled a much larger army than Antony even before he had enlisted the latter’s legions left behind in Greece. Pragmatically, Pinarius now changed sides, declaring allegiance to Octavian and executing the handful of his officers who resisted. The vast majority had no great desire to die for a lost cause. When the news reached Antony, his companions had to restrain him from killing himself.

Cleopatra remained far more determined. When her ships sailed into the Great Harbour at Alexandria, their prows were garlanded and musicians played. There was probably always ceremony when one of the Ptolemies entered or left the city, but in this case these were symbols of victory. Confident that news of Actium would not have preceded her, the queen took up residence in her palace. Yet she knew that her position was weak and promptly ordered the execution of many prominent Alexandrian aristocrats before any tried to challenge her. They were killed and their property confiscated. Much of her war chest must already have been spent to fund the campaign, and it was clear that nothing could be achieved without substantial money. Gold and other treasures were levied from the survivors and also taken from her country’s many temples. Artavasdes of Armenia, kept prisoner since 34 BC, was also executed, perhaps in an effort to please the king of Media and so secure his support, or possibly to take his remaining treasure. A late and rather questionable source claims that priests from southern Egypt now offered to fight for her. For some this is taken as a sign of her widespread popularity amongst Egyptians. If it in fact occurred, the fear generated by her recent purge would have provided as strong an incentive.

Antony came to Alexandria, but once again sank into depression. A mole extended into the great harbour, from a point near the temple to Poseidon. Antony either converted an existing royal house built on the end of this or had a new structure built onto it. Giving up for the moment on being Dionysus or Hercules, he aped a famous – and semi-mythical – Athenian named Timon, who lived virtually as a hermit, lamenting his sorrows and loathing his fellow citizens. (Shakespeare’s Timon of Athens was later inspired by the stories told of this man.) For a while Antony indulged himself in self-pity and bitterness, living in relative, although no doubt fairly comfortable, solitude.

There was opportunity for such theatrical displays, because in the aftermath of Actium Octavian had not launched a concerted pursuit. The immediate priority had been to deal with the Antonian fleet and the legions left behind. After the latter defected, Antony ceased to be a serious military threat. It was more important to secure Greece. Very quickly the various communities sent representatives to make their peace with the victor. The inhabitants of Charonea had been about to make another trek, carrying grain to Antony’s camp, when news arrived of Actium. They stayed at home and divided the stockpiled grain amongst themselves.

Octavian was generous to most of the communities of Greece and the eastern provinces. Some were again called upon to give money or art treasures to another Roman leader to gain his support. Antony’s appointees to the thrones of the eastern kingdoms all switched sides in the months after Actium. Herod was one of the last, and sent the royal regalia to Octavian, before presenting himself in person. It was important to keep the provinces and allied kingdoms stable and, apart from that, the men appointed by Antony had generally done all that the Romans required of them. They had obeyed him because he had represented Roman authority throughout the region. None saw any reason to lose power and perhaps their lives now that his strength was broken. Nor did any see the civil war as a chance to throw off the Roman yoke, any more than they had done in previous Roman conflicts.

In the middle of winter, at a time when sea travel was normally avoided, Octavian hurried back to Italy to deal with a crisis. There was continued discontent over the taxes he had raised for the war and, in response, he now drastically reduced his demands. Maecenas claimed to have discovered and suppressed a plot to seize power led by Lepidus’ son, who was promptly executed. More serious was discontent amongst soldiers due for discharge. Now that he had taken on responsibility for Antony’s nineteen legions in addition to his own forces, this task was massive in scale, but the veterans were impatient at any delay. Octavian had to appease the mutineers in person, but he needed money to fund the generous land allocations he had just promised. Seizing the wealth of Egypt became all the more pressing.


Cleopatra was far more active than her lover: she ordered the construction of ships at one of the ports on the Red Sea coast and some of her existing vessels were dragged overland from the Nile to join them. The labour involved was massive, adding to the already major task of moving her treasury to the port. From there she – and presumably Antony – could sail away, with enough wealth to ensure their comfort and sufficient courtiers and mercenaries to protect them. They might live in luxurious exile or even carve out a small kingdom in India. Perhaps she even dreamed of returning from exile, as she had done almost two decades before. For these plans her money was spent and the toil of her subjects expended. It was not to be, however. King Malchus – the Nabataean ruler whose lands Antony had ceded to Cleopatra – had little love for the queen and a natural desire to ingratiate himself with Octavian. Malchus attacked and burned the ships before the project was complete.

Cleopatra had not left Alexandria and was able to coax Antony into rejoining her in the palace. Canidius arrived to tell of the loss of the army and there was continued news of defections. There were still moments of optimism and grand plans. They may have considered sailing to Spain in the hope of reviving the war there. Unlikely though this sounds, one of Octavian’s officers was busy building fortified positions on the Spanish coast. It was probably too great a distance to travel without secure bases en route and, for whatever reason, the idea was abandoned.

Antony was happy to revel in luxury once more. Cleopatra arranged a grand celebration for his birthday on 14 January 30 BC. He was fifty-three. She let her own birthday pass in far more modest fashion, eager to focus attention on him and rebuild his confidence. The queen was thirty-nine. Their society of Inimitable Livers’ was disbanded and instead they formed a new club – the Sharers in Death’. The name was inspired by a play, telling of lovers who believed that their deaths were certain, although on the stage the story ended in a last minute reprieve.

The state of mind of both Antony and Cleopatra in the winter and spring of 30 BC is harder to judge and no doubt their moods swung. Both had survived apparently hopeless situations in the past and perhaps this encouraged them to cling on to hope now. The queen is supposed to have taken an interest in poisons, allegedly watching tests on condemned prisoners to see how quickly and reliably they died and the degree of pain and discomfort involved. Death was another form of escape, but neither of them was inclined to rush to that fate or to fail to explore other possibilities. Cleopatra made arrangements for Caesarion to be sent with treasure and an escort to India, doing on a smaller scale what she planned for all of them.

Caesarion was now about sixteen, and in a public festival Antony and Cleopatra celebrated his coming of age. He was enrolled in the ephebeia at the gymnasium, a quintessentially Greek ceremony. At the same time Antyllus, who was about fourteen or fifteen, also became formally a man, donning the toga virilis. It was seen as a promise that even if Antony and Cleopatra should die, then their heirs were ready as adults to take over their power. In particular, the promotion of Caesarion was intended to assure her subjects that the regime was stable. Perhaps it was also hoped that there would be more chance of his being allowed to remain as king if he was already firmly established.

Both Antony and Cleopatra repeatedly and independently wrote and sent messengers to Octavian in an effort to bargain. She assured him of her loyalty to Rome and at some point copied Herod’s gesture of sending the royal regalia, including the throne, sceptre and diadem. No doubt there were generous gifts and the promise of far greater wealth if either she or her children were permitted to keep some or all of her kingdom. Antony employed a friendlier version of his bluff style, now hearty in talking of their former friendship and amorous adventures they had shared in the past. He offered to go into retirement, asking permission to live in Athens if he was not allowed to stay with Cleopatra in Alexandria.

Octavian made no concrete offer to either of them, at least publicly, although Dio claims that he secretly promised Cleopatra her kingdom if she killed Antony. Much of the negotiation was done by freedmen from their respective households, although Antony also sent Antyllus on one occasion. The youth brought gold, which Octavian took, before sending the boy on his way without making any concrete proposal to carry to his father. It is interesting that Antony and Cleopatra chose to contact their enemy independently, and that he preferred to reply in the same way. In his case, Octavian clearly hoped to encourage suspicion between the lovers that the other might make a separate deal.

One of Octavian’s representatives to the queen was a freedman called Thrystus, a man of charm and clear diplomatic skill. He was granted long private audiences with Cleopatra, prompting a mistrustful Antony to have him flogged and sent back to Octavian. Antony said that if the latter wanted to respond he could always give Hipparchus a whipping – referring to one of his own freedmen who had long since defected to the enemy. On another occasion he sent a different type of present, his envoys bringing a captive Turullius, last but one of Caesar’s assassins. The prisoner was sent to Cos and executed there, both for the murder and his desecration of the sacred grove.

Antony had little to offer, apart from voluntary retirement and a quick completion of a war that in any event could not last very long. His armies had dwindled away and the only group to declare open allegiance to him was a force of gladiators at Cyzicus in Asia Minor. Condemned to die in the arena, these men seem to have hoped to be turned into soldiers and win their freedom from Antony. Eventually they were suppressed and, although promised life by their captors, they were treacherously executed. Lepidus had been allowed to live, although the recent conspiracy involving his son may have made Octavian question the wisdom of this. Antony had always been a stronger figure and he had two Roman sons, one of whom had just come of age. To spare his beaten opponent would have been a great display of clemency, but also a gamble.

Cleopatra was better placed. Octavian needed to draw on the wealth of her kingdom, and she was in a position to make this easier for him. If she chose to resist, then in the short term she could also rob him of the revenue he desperately needed to provide for his veterans. Since her return to Alexandria, the queen had gathered a great deal of the readily accessible wealth of the kingdom. Much of this she stored in the mausoleum she was preparing for herself— the location is unknown, but it was near a great temple to Isis. Combustible material was piled inside the tomb, so that the building and its treasure could easily be destroyed if she issued the order. Even if the precious metals could be retrieved, it would take time before they could be restored to usable form. The preparations were not kept secret. Cleopatra was preparing for her death at the same time as she bargained for life.

In the summer of 30 BC Octavian attacked Egypt from two directions. An army came along the coast from Cyrenaica in the west, supported by a fleet. It included the four formerly Antonian legions and probably some of Octavian’s own troops. The whole force was under the command of Caius Cornelius Gallus, a descendant of Gallic aristocrats who had been brought into public life by Caesar. Octavian himself advanced from Syria in the east, marching overland to Pelusium along the traditional invasion route. Antony had whatever legionaries had been carried on board the ships from Actium, along with whatever forces had been stationed in Egypt or had been raised since his return. At most he is unlikely to have been able to muster a force equivalent to a couple of legions and auxiliaries, along with a small navy.

Antony first confronted the force approaching from the west, hoping to persuade his men to return to their former allegiance. Gallus is supposed to have had his trumpeters sound a fanfare to blot out the words. Antony attacked and was repulsed, then Gallus managed to lure the enemy ships into attacking the harbour and trapped them there. Antony and the remnants of his forces withdrew. In the meantime, Pelusium had fallen, apparently without a fight. Dio claims that Cleopatra had betrayed the fortress to the enemy. The commander of her garrison there was named Seleucus and Plutarch says that she had this man’s wife and children executed for his failure. This may have been genuine anger, an attempt to quash the rumour or even to conceal her involvement.

Coming back from his defeat, Antony bumped into Octavian’s vanguard and was able to rout some cavalry. He had archers shoot arrows into the enemy camp, each with a message tied to the shaft, offering the soldiers 1,500 denarii each if they came over to his side. None did. Even so, Antony returned to Alexandria – the action had been fought on the outskirts of the city – and without bothering to take off his armour, embraced Cleopatra and kissed her in suitably Homeric fashion. One of his cavalrymen had distinguished himself in the skirmish and Antony presented the man to the queen, who rewarded him with a helmet and cuirass decorated with gold. Perhaps the soldier was one of the bodyguard of Gauls he had given to her some years before. Whatever his background, he deserted to the enemy that night.

‘The Sharers in Death’ held a last feast that night. It was lavish in scale, but tearful, with Antony talking openly of his desire for an heroic death – scarcely an encouraging topic for the night before a battle. Overnight, it was said people heard music and chants, just like one of the Dionysiac processions so favoured by the two lovers. The sound seemed to leave the city, as if the god was abandoning it. The Greeks and Romans were inclined to believe that the deities associated with a place left before a disaster. The Roman army regularly performed a ceremony intended to welcome the gods of a besieged city into new homes freshly prepared for them by the besiegers.

Antony had planned an ambitious combined attack for the following day, 1 August 30 BC. It would begin with warships attacking the enemy fleet and this would be followed by an assault on land. There was no realistic chance of victory, or at least not of any success that might actually turn the tide of the war. This may explain what happened next. Antony watched as his warships closed with the enemy, but was amazed to see them stop and raise their oars out of the water, a gesture of surrender. Closer to him, his cavalry followed their example, choosing this moment to defect. His infantry – less able to move quickly, less sure of each other’s mood or truly loyal –remained. They attacked and were quickly beaten. Antony returned to the palace and Plutarch claims that he was yelling out that the queen had betrayed him. Dio simply states that Cleopatra had ordered the ships’ captains to defect.

Most of the ships to escape from Actium were hers. Some may have been lost in the attempt to reach the Arabian coast, but any built to replace them were constructed and crewed at her expense. In most respects the naval squadrons were hers rather than Antony’s and so it is certainly possible that she had arranged their defection in secret negotiations. Most modern historians dismiss this as propaganda aimed at blackening her reputation. They may be right, and the truth in such cases was unlikely to have been widely known even at the time. However, there was absolutely nothing to be gained by fighting. Possessing the fleet gave a bargaining counter and giving it up could well have been a gesture of faith. Unconditional surrender either then or in the past months meant simply trusting to the mercy of the conqueror. Cleopatra hoped to persuade Octavian to make her a deal and that meant conceding slowly, demonstrating both her capacity and willingness to be of assistance. Giving up Pelusium, and later ordering the surrender of her fleet, would make sense as gestures, making Octavian’s conquest easier and less costly in lives. These would be coldly pragmatic decisions, but they were certainly not impossible ones.

Cleopatra was a survivor who had clung on to power for almost twenty years amidst all the intrigues of the Ptolemaic court and the chaos of Roman civil wars. It would have been out of character for her to despair and it is clear that she had not yet done so. She might be able to save something of her own power, or if not then secure the position of some or all of her children. Caesarion was vulnerable after the emphasis on his paternity in the struggle with Octavian, but he had already been sent away on the long journey that should eventually take him to India. Her children by Antony might well be more acceptable to the young Caesar, and the Romans liked to employ client rulers. Their father may already have been beyond salvation.

Third Samnite War – Battle of Sentinum 295 BC I

JD19 Sentinum (295 BC)

The essedarius (from the Latin word for a Celtic war-chariot, essedum).

With regard to other possible sources of information on a military role for chariots in Italy, texts written by later Roman and Greek authors frequently refer to warfare in Italy at the time of the (Etruscan) kings and the Republic of Rome, but usually do not mention vehicles as being involved.  Clearly, not only the Romans of that time but also other Italic peoples relied on infantry and, to varying degrees, on mounted troops. When wheeled vehicles are mentioned – in the battles at Sentinum in Umbria (in 295), Telamon in Toscana (in 225) and Clastidium in Emilia Romagna (in 222) – they belong to invaders: Gauls, i. e. Celtic tribes. Unfortunately, the texts yield no information on what these vehicles looked like or on their numbers. As to the way in which the vehicles were employed, Livy, in his account of the battle at Sentinum, refers to a sudden attack by Gauls with two types of vehicles (the terms used are essedum and carrus) on the mounted troops on the Roman left wing. Tough Livy’s account provides no details of their tactics, the headlong attack clearly took the Romans by surprise, quite probably because of their unfamiliarity with military vehicles. At Telamon in 225 BC, the chariots were on the flanks of the infantry and the cavalry used in a single independent mass, supported by the light troops. This would support the view that chariots were rarely put to active use in battle in Italy.

The Romans first came face to face with a modern Hellenistic army in 280 BC when Pyrrhus came to the aid of the Greek city of Tarentum in Southern Italy in its conflict with Rome. After two major defeats, the Romans were finally able to defeat the King of Epirus in 275 at Malventum, but the stubborn resilience of Roman legionaries had more to do with this success than any inspired generalship. In many respects the Roman style of command belonged to an older, simpler era, with far less expectation of prolonged manoeuvring prior to a pitched battle as each side searched for as many little advantages as possible. Yet once the fighting started, the behaviour of the Roman general differed markedly from his Hellenistic counterpart. A magistrate rather than a king, the Roman had no fixed place on the battlefield, no royal bodyguard at whose head he was expected to charge. The consul stationed himself wherever he thought the most important fighting would occur and during the battle moved along behind the fighting line, encouraging and directing the troops. Hellenistic armies rarely made much use of reserves, but the basic formation of the Roman legion kept half to two-thirds of its men back from the front line at the start of the battle. It was the general’s task to feed in these fresh troops as the situation required.

Rome had certainly not abandoned all heroic traditions and at times generals did engage in combat. Many aristocrats boasted of the number of times they had fought and won single combats, although by the third century BC at the latest they had most likely done this while serving in a junior capacity. At Sentinum in 295 BC one of the two consuls with the army – an exceptionally large force to face a confederation of Samnite, Etruscan and Gallic enemies – performed an archaic ritual when he ‘devoted’ himself as a sacrifice to the Earth and the gods of the Underworld to save the army of the Roman People. Once he had completed the rites this man, Publius Decius Mus, spurred his horse forward into a lone charge against the Gauls and was swiftly killed. Livy claims that he had formally handed over his command to a subordinate before this ritual suicide (a gesture which was something of a family tradition, for his father had acted in the same way in 340 BC). Sentinum ended in a hard fought and costly Roman victory.


In the Third Samnite War (298–290 BC), Rome faced an alliance of Etruscans, Umbrians, Samnites and Gauls; and the war would culminate in one of the most decisive battles in Italian history: a battle, in effect, to decide whether or not the whole of Italy would become Roman.

Such was its geographical extent, the enemy coalition had the Roman line across Italy stretched thin, and in 296 BC the main Samnite army broke through, moved north, and linked up with the Etruscans, Umbrians and Gauls. The following year, they repeated this feat, and this time turned on the pursuing Roman army and crushed it at the Battle of Camerinum. The Roman state was plunged into crisis. The constitution was suspended as special commands were created and incumbent officeholders continued beyond their normal terms. Older men and ex-slaves were mobilized to fill the ranks of new legions, and another two consular armies, 35,000 men in total, were sent into the field before the end of the summer of 295 BC. Even so, as the Romans approached the coalition army encamped at Sentinum on the border between Umbria and Picenum, they were heavily outnumbered. To improve the odds, a detached Roman force invaded Etruria, hoping that the threat of devastation would draw off the Etruscan and Umbrian forces; which it did. Despite this, when the Romans offered battle, the remaining Samnites and Gauls accepted the challenge (an almost essential precondition of combat in ancient warfare, since an army which chose to remain in its fortified camp, often defensively sited, could be attacked only at grave disadvantage).

The Samnites were deployed on the coalition’s right flank, facing the consular army of Quintus Fabius, the Gauls on the left, facing the consul Publius Decius. Roman military doctrine was essentially offensive, though it counselled caution in preparing for this and choosing an opportune moment. On this day, the older consul Fabius represented caution, his younger colleague Decius the spirit of the offensive. Fabius was determined to hold back on the left, confident that the enthusiasm of the barbarian warriors opposite would erode more quickly in a long wait than that of the stolid citizen-peasants of Latium. But Decius was determined to attack on the right as soon as the battle opened.

The Roman army that fought at Sentinum was very different from the hoplite phalanx of the 5th century BC. A century of wars against lightly equipped enemies who fought in more open, fast-moving formations, wars often fought in difficult terrain favourable to the guerrilla and the skirmisher, had transformed Roman equipment, organization and tactics. The Second Samnite War may have completed the transition. The dense blocks of men with spears and overlapping shields who had formed the phalanx had become looser formations of men armed mainly with javelin (pilum) and a lighter oval or rectangular shield (scutum). Large units – the legion (legio) of approximately 4,200 men – were divided into small subunits of 120 called ‘maniples’ (manipuli means ‘handfuls’), and these were deployed in an open chequerboard formation and trained to manoeuvre independently. The new legions were designed for mobile, offensive warfare. Unlike the relatively slow, cumbersome and defensive phalanx, they were expected to deploy, advance, wheel and, if necessary, alter front rapidly; and when the time came to close, they would hurl javelins to disorganize the enemy ranks, and then charge in with sword and shield.

Even so, Sentinum was hard-fought. Decius’ attack on the right was soon bogged down in a head-on clash with the Gallic line, and when he unleashed his cavalry on the far right in an effort to turn the enemy flank, they were met by the Gallic cavalry and, once embroiled, counter-charged and routed by the Gallic chariot force. The panic quickly began to infect the legionaries, and, as it did so and their line faltered, the Gallic infantry pushed forwards. Decius, unable to shore up the collapsing Roman right, was soon lost to a bizarre religious frenzy. Calling on Mother Earth and the Gods of the Underworld to accept the legions of the enemy along with himself as a sacrifice, he galloped his horse into the Gallic line and perished. Fabius offered more practical help. Detaching units from the rear line of his legions on the left, he was able to stem the rout and launch a counter-attack on the right – a complex sequence of manoeuvres made possible only by the greater flexibility of the new legions. The Gallic advance was halted, and, as the Romans reformed and renewed their attack, the Gallic warriors formed a defensive shield-wall. Meantime, probing on the left, Fabius found the spirit of the Samnites in front of him flagging – as anticipated. Launching his infantry frontally and his cavalry on the left flank, he broke the Samnite line after brief resistance, leaving the Gallic shield-wall isolated on the battlefield. Mentally and physically exhausted by hours of fighting and now surrounded, the Gallic units disintegrated and fled. The carnage of battle and pursuit claimed, it is said, 25,000 Samnites and Gauls, with another 8,000 taken prisoner; but Roman losses, at 9,000, were also heavy, especially in the wake of yet heavier losses at Camerinum earlier that year. Nonetheless, Sentinum had secured Roman hegemony in Italy.

Events between 293 and 264 BC are obscure, since the relevant parts of Livy’s History of Rome, our principal source, are lost. But if we do not know a precise chronology, the overall thrust and outcome are clear. Sentinum left the anti-Roman coalition broken backed, and relentless year-on-year Roman offensives thereafter precluded any possibility of its restoration. Samnium, Etruria, Umbria, and the land of the Gallic Senones were conquered and made subject to Rome, mainly as ‘allies’ bound by treaty, though some land was annexed to the Roman state or settled with Latin colonists. Victory at Sentinum made the Roman Republic the only Italian superpower, and within a generation it had absorbed most of the minor states. Some still clung to independence – such as the Greek cities of the far south, foremost among which was Tarentum. Others, unwilling allies of Rome, still aspired to break free – the democrats ruled by pro-Roman oligarchs in the cities of Campania, and many among the Oscan-speaking peoples of the central and southern Apennines. But, too weak to take on Rome alone, rebels against the Pax Romana were forced to look abroad for a more powerful ally. The Greeks, at least, soon found one – a latter-day Alexander, a military adventurer and would-be champion of Greek ‘freedom’: King Pyrrhus of Epirus.


In 296 BC Appius’ legions bore the numerals I and IV, but when Rullianus assumed command they were renumbered. At Sentinum, Rullianus’ legions had the numerals I and III but we cannot be certain that both were the regiments originally enrolled by Appius, as one may be the legion with extra cavalry that Rullianus recruited from volunteers in Rome. Scipio Barbatus’ imperium allowed him to assume command of one of Rullianus’ three legions and take it over the Apennines to defend Camerinum, Rome’s key Umbrian ally. This legion had the numeral II.

The circumstances that took Barbatus and the Second Legion to Camerinum are uncertain. Egnatius certainly moved his army into Umbria, maybe with the intention of forcing Camerinum to join him, or simply to let his plunder-hungry troops sack it, but Barbatus got there before him. A possible scenario is that the consuls received intelligence of Egnatius’ intention, but for some reason their armies were unable to march, so Rullianus made Barbatus propraetor and invested him with imperium. Barbatus then made a rapid march over the Apennines with legio II and established a camp in the vicinity of Camerinum. The consuls followed up when they able to do so.

The propraetor was probably the first of his branch of the Cornelii clan to bear the famous cognomen Scipio. It is conceivable that he took the name when elected consul; a scipio was a staff that signified magisterial rank. His other cognomen tells us that he was bearded (barbatus). The elogium inscribed on his sarcophagus declares that the bearded propraetor was as handsome as he was brave, but caution was the better part of valour when Egnatius’ host loomed into sight. We do not know if Barbatus’ small army included allies, but it was clearly no match for the great forces arrayed against it. Fearing his camp would be overrun, Barbatus abandoned the position and made for a hill sited between it and Camerinum. The hill would be easier to defend, but the wily Egnatius anticipated the Roman general and had already sent troops to occupy the summit of the hill. Barbatus failed to send scouts (exploratores) ahead to reconnoitre the position. His troops ascended the hill and found themselves face-to-face with Samnite and Gallic warriors. The rest of the confederate army swarmed up behind the Romans. Barbatus, the Second Legion, and any allied cohorts he had, were trapped.

Meanwhile, Rullianus and Mus were following up with their consular forces. As they neared Camerinum, Gallic horsemen rode up to taunt and harass the Roman marching column. The Senonian troopers had freshly severed heads impaled on their spears or hanging from their horses’ tack. It is uncertain how long Barbatus and his small army were trapped on the hill, but when the consuls appeared the legion was almost destroyed and the propraetor was surely anticipating death or ignominious capture. Luckily for Barbatus, Egnatius withdrew his troops before they were in turn trapped by the new Roman army. The Samnite general then marched to Sentinum, some 50 miles to the north and made ready to give battle. The Four Nations were again divided between two camps, the Samnites and Senones in one, and the Etruscans and Umbrans in the other. Egnatius planned to engage one consular army with his Samnites, and the Senones would fight the second. While the Romans were fully occupied, the Etruscans and Umbrians would emerge from their entrenchments, skirt around the embattled armies and capture the lightly defended Roman camp located 4 miles away, thus leaving the legions and allied cohorts with nowhere safe to retreat to and vulnerable to attack from the rear. Egnatius may have hoped that this would be enough to cause the Roman army to surrender or flee. Livy informs us that deserters from Egnatius’ army brought news of this plan to Rullianus and the consul therefore sent orders to Megellus and Centumalus to leave their positions above Rome and invade the territory of Clusium in Etruria. This diversionary attack has the effect of persuading the Etruscans to hurry back home. They do not feature in Livy’s account of the Battle of Sentinum (the principle account), nor do the Umbrians, some of whom may have opted to aid the Etruscans (more natural allies than Samnites or predatory Gauls), while other Umbrian contingents, seeing the coalition weakened, chose to depart to their home towns.


Third Samnite War – Battle of Sentinum 295 BC II

The availability of allied manpower was crucial for Rome’s success. at the battle of Sentinum in 295 bc the allied contingents already outnumbered the Roman citizen legions (Livy: 10.26.4), and on the eve of the Hannibalic war (218 bc) they outnumbered the Romans by three to two (Brunt, 1971: 44-60; Cornell, 1989). When Scipio was organizing his African expedition in 205 bc, which secured Rome’s victory in the war, he obtained the money and materials from Etruscan cities, and the manpower from allies in Umbria and the central Apennines (Livy: 28.45.14-21)

Livy makes it very clear that the consuls were concerned about the great size of Egnatius’ army. Unfortunately its actual strength is not reported by Livy or any other source, but it was probably the largest army yet assembled in Italy. One wonders, therefore, if Rullianus’ (and perhaps also his colleague’s) plan to draw off the Etruscans was actually underway before deserters apparently brought news of Egnatius’ dastardly plan. Fulvius Centumalus was especially well placed to march up the valley of the Tiber, or through the Ciminus, to threaten Clusium, once the stronghold of Lars Porsenna. Centumalus’ time in the Faliscan country had not been without incident. Even with the propraetor’s army on their territory, Rome’s perceived weakness encouraged some Faliscans to take up arms and they made an incursion into neighbouring ager Romanus, but Centumalus caused the enemy force to disperse by a simple ruse:

When a force of Faliscans far superior to ours [an exaggeration] had encamped in our territory, Gnaeus Fulvius [Centumalus] had his soldiers set fire to certain buildings at a distance from the camp in order that the Faliscans, thinking that their own men had done this, might scatter in hope of plunder.45

Centumalus must have reached the territory of Clusium before Megellus and began the work of devastation. It seems that Megellus arrived to take over this task, allowing Centumalus to march on Perusia and intercept the Perusine and Clusian forces that had returned from Sentinum. The Etruscans were defeated, losing 3,000 men and 20 of their sacred military standards.

The consuls were keen to bring the Samnites and Senones to battle. It was not certain that the propraetors would defeat the Etruscans or that the Umbrians, or even more Gauls, would rejoin Egnatius. Even in its reduced state, the consuls wondered if they had enough men to defeat the army of the Samnite general. For two days the consuls sent troops to harass the enemy. The troops involved would have been cavalry and light infantry, that is, soldiers suited to skirmishing and hit and run tactics. The Samnites and Senones responded in kind, neither side winning any real advantage but, as the consuls intended, Gellius Egnatius was suitably provoked and on the third day he led all of his troops from his camp and offered battle. The Battle of the Nations, as it became known, was at hand; Romans, Latins and Campanians facing Samnites and Gauls.

The actual location of the battle in the territory of Sentinum is uncertain. There is a suitable plain immediately to the north of the town. A small river, now called the Sanguerone, cuts through the centre of the plain. Egnatius’ army fought in two divisions. If the battle was fought on this plain, the river might have separated the divisions and the opposing consular armies.46

Gellius Egnatius drew up his Samnites on the left wing of the confederate army. Samnite cavalry, although not mentioned by Livy, presumably covered the left flank of their infantry. The Senones formed up on the right, with a very substantial cavalry force protecting their right flank; the infantry on the right flank of any army were vulnerable because this was their unshielded side. Assuming that the Sanguerone separated the Gauls and Samnites, the watercourse protected the unshielded side of the Samnite infantry.

On the Roman side, Rullianus took up position on the right opposite the Samnites with his First and Third Legions. Decius drew up the Fifth and Sixth Legions on the left against the Senones. The Campanian cavalry are reported only on the right flank with Rullianus, but it may be that the 1,000 troopers were shared by the consuls and divided into two alae (wings). Unless the legion annihilated at Camerinum was the regiment raised in Rome with the double complement of cavalry, Rullianus should have had 300 more equites than his colleague. However, mountainous Samnium was not cavalry country and it is probable that more Gallic cavalry confronted Mus, and Rullianus could have transferred some of his horsemen to Mus.

The positions of The positions of the Latin and allied forces at Sentinum is unclear. In Livy’s account all of the fighting is carried out by the legionaries and Roman and Campanian equites. Livy does refer to subsidia, that is, reserves, being brought into action at a critical stage of the battle. These reserves may be the allied cohorts, drawn up behind the legionary battle lines, but the allied cohorts were organized into maniples and interchangeable lines of hastati, principes and triarii, and so could have formed up on the flanks of the legions. Livy’s reserves would then be legionary and allied triarii, and the allied cavalry turmae would have reinforced the Roman and Campanian troopers on the wings.

If the four legions at Sentinum were up to strength, Rullianus and Mus had 16,800 legionary infantry and 1,200 or 1,500 equites (18,000 – 18,300 in total). The force of Latins and allies, perhaps including the 1,000 Campanians, is said to have been greater than the number of Roman troops. We should recall that Appius Claudius and Volumnius Flamma had a total of 27,000 allied soldiers with them in Etruria. It would not be unreasonable to assume that a similar number joined Rullianus and Mus and this would bring the size of the Roman army up to c. 45,000, but the situation was different to that of 296 BC. There were three other Roman armies in the field, all requiring allied contingents, and it may be that the number of allies at Sentinum was only slightly greater than the number of Roman troops, and a total figure of less than 40,000 may be appropriate.

As noted above, Livy does not report or estimate the size of Egnatius’ army at Sentinum. He does relate, with considerable disdain, that some of the sources he consulted put forward a grossly exaggerated total for the enemy army:

Great as the glory of the day on which the Battle of Sentinum was fought must appear to any writer who adheres to the truth, it has by some writers been exaggerated beyond all belief. They assert that the enemy’s army amounted to 330,000 infantry and 46,000 cavalry, together with 1,000 war chariots. That, of course, includes the Umbrians and Tuscans who are represented as taking part in the battle. And by way of increasing the Roman strength they tell us that Lucius Volumnius commanded in the action as well as the consuls, and that their legions were supplemented by his army.

An army of this size would be impossible to provision or manoeuvre. However, if the number of enemy casualties, prisoners and fugitives that Livy records is accepted as reasonably accurate, the combined total suggests that Egnatius had at least 38,000 soldiers and the consuls’ concerns about the size of his army, even without Etruscans and Umbrians, probably indicates that he had considerably more warriors at his disposal. The total number of troops at Sentinum was probably in excess of 80,000 and may have been as great as 100,000. According to Diodorus, Duris of Samos put the number of enemy casualties at 100,000, perhaps another gross exaggeration but possibly a reflection of the total size of the forces engaged.

The pivotal engagement in Rome’s conquest of Italy was probably fought in April 295 BC. It was usual for generals to lead their armies out of their camps at dawn and, considering the vast numbers present, it must have taken some time to arrange the soldiers into battle lines. Something extraordinary happened as the Italian armies faced off:

As they stood arrayed for battle, a deer, pursued by a wolf that had chased it down from the mountains, fled across the plain and between the two battle lines. The animals then turned in opposite directions, the deer towards the Gauls and the wolf towards the Romans. For the wolf a space was opened between the ordines, but the Gauls killed the deer. Then one of the Roman front rankers (antesignanus) called out, ‘Where you see the animal sacred to Diana lying slain, that way flight and slaughter have shaped their course. On this side the wolf of Mars, unhurt and sound, has reminded us of the race of Mars and of our founder Romulus.’

This was clearly a sign from Mars, progenitor of the Roman race, and Mus’ legionaries were elated by the portent of the Gauls’ demise. It is, of course, extremely doubtful that a wolf chased a deer between the armies, but it is likely that the Romans saw a wolf that day and it was taken as a good omen. It is also possible that the Gauls, immediately prior to engaging the Romans, sacrificed a deer. Such battlefield sacrifices, carried out before the front rank, were not unusual in the Ancient World. If something went wrong with the ceremony, the opponent observing it would take heart knowing that the gods did not favour their enemy.

Rullianus’ strategy was to stand firm and absorb the charges of the enemy. When the Samnites inevitably tired he would launch a decisive counter-charge. He believed that the same tactic would defeat the Gauls: ‘They are more than men at the start of a fight, but by the end they are less than women!’ He had presumably attempted to convince Mus to adhere to this strategy, yet the other consul was desirous of accomplishing victory more quickly and gloriously and, inspired by the omen of the wolf and the deer, led his maniples forward in an impetuous attack.

The maniples of hastati would have closed with the Gauls at the run (impetus), pausing only momentarily to hurl their pila, roar their war cry (clamor), and draw their swords. The centurions and soldiers in the front would have surged ahead, aiming to batter down Gallic warriors with the bosses of their shields, force their way into the ranks and set to work with their cut-and-thrust swords. The soldiers in the rearmost ranks of the maniples would follow up more steadily in good order, drumming weapons against their shields, shouting encouragement to their comrades and perhaps lobbing pila over their heads and into the ranks of the enemy.

But the Senones resisted fiercely. They too were armed with pila-like missiles, which must have thinned the ranks of the attacking Romans, and their long swords could hack through shields and armour. The two sides were evenly matched in fury and prowess and the infantry action gradually waned. We may presume that Mus called up the principes to relieve or reinforce the hastati, but when they too failed to break the Senones, the consul looked to his cavalry to hasten victory. Riding from turma to turma he exhorted the mostly rich and aristocratic troopers: ‘Yours will be a double share of glory if victory comes first to the left wing and to the cavalry!’

The cavalry on the left wing would have moved forward to protect the flank of the advancing infantry, but until now, there was no all-out cavalry assault. Mus attached himself to the bravest turma (perhaps actually his mounted bodyguard) and led two charges against the Gallic horse. The first charge drove the Gauls back and the second scattered them, exposing the unshielded right flank and rear of their infantry, but the Romans were unable to exploit the opportunity. The war chariots of the Senones had been held in reserve behind the battle line. The sudden and unexpected counter-charge panicked both horses and riders, and the Roman cavalry fled in disorder as the clattering chariots pursued them. Mus was unable to halt their flight, and the fugitives appear to have swept past the flank of their own infantry. The charioteers broke off their pursuit and turned instead on the vulnerable infantry, driving into the intervals between maniples and ordines. Many of the antesignani, that is the hastati or principes in the leading battle line, were trampled down. The Gallic infantry took advantage of the chaos and attacked.

With the cavalry in flight and the leading battle line of infantry almost overrun, it seemed that the Roman left might collapse. If the left fell, Rullianus’ wing would surely also succumb and with it Rome’s hard won conquests in Italy. Decius Mus decided that the time had come for him to follow the example of his illustrious father: he would ride to his death as a devotus and through his own sacrifice bring about the destruction of the enemy. Livy has him utter: ‘Now I will offer up the legions of the enemy, to be slaughtered along with me, as victims to Tellus [Mother Earth] and the divine Manes [gods of the Underworld].’

Livy informs us that throughout the battle Mus kept the pontifex, Marcus Livius Denter, close. Such a senior state priest was necessary to lead a devotus through the correct ritual. That Mus had Denter by his side at all times suggests that his decision to perform devotio was not spontaneous. The consul’s heritage must have led to expectations that he too would perform devotio if the situation facing Rome became desperate and Sentinum was such an occasion. It is likely that he informed Rullianus of his intention to devote himself if his initial tactics failed. The legionaries and allies would have been told as well. If they were not prepared, they would most likely panic at the sight of the consul being cut down.

A spear sacred to Mars was laid upon the ground and Mus stood upon it. Denter helped the consul recite the terrible prayer of devotio, the same with which the original Decius Mus had devoted himself at Battle of the Veseris. It is possible that Livy or his sources invented this, but it seems likely that it derives from pontifical or other priestly records of religious formulae:

Janus, Jupiter, Father Mars, Quirinus, Bellona, Lares, divine Novensiles, divine Indigites, you gods in whose power are both we and the enemy, and you, divine Manes, I invoke and worship you, I beg and crave your favour, that you prosper the might and victory of the Roman people and visit on their enemies fear, shuddering and death. As I have pronounced these words on behalf of the Republic of the Roman people, and of the army and the legions and auxiliaries . . . I devote the legions and auxiliaries of the enemy, along with myself, to the divine Manes and Tellus.

The younger Mus added some grim imprecations to this vow of death:

I will drive before me fear and panic, blood and carnage. The wrath of the heavenly gods and the infernal gods will curse the standards, weapons and armour of the enemy, and in the same place as I die witness the destruction of the Gauls and Samnites!

Denter helped Mus don the ritualistic garb of the devotus. This was the cinctus Gabinius, a toga hitched in such a way that a man could ride a horse and wield a weapon. The consul was ready to meet his destiny, but first proclaimed Denter propraetor (he had been consul in 302 BC). Thus invested with imperium, Denter assumed command of the consular army.

Brandishing the spear of Mars, Mus spurred his way through the broken antesignani, charged into the ranks of the advancing Senones and impaled himself on their weapons. The death of a general, the focus of command and authority and leadership, usually triggered the collapse of an army, but the news of Mus’ glorious demise, transmitted by Denter, rallied the hard-pressed Roman infantry and they turned on their opponents with renewed vigour. According to Livy, Mus’ heroic death had the effect of instantly paralyzing the seemingly victorious Gauls:

From that moment the battle seemed scarce to depend on human efforts. The Romans, after losing a general – an occurrence that is wont to inspire terror – fled no longer, but sought to redeem the field. The Gauls, especially those in the press around the body of the consul, as though deprived of reason, were darting their javelins at random and without effect, while some were in a daze, and could neither fight nor run away.

The Senones’ reaction seems entirely fantastic but is it entirely fictitious? Is it merely the over-egged reconstruction of a patriotic Roman historian or does it have some basis in reality? Livy was keen to describe how the self-sacrifice of Mus brought on the aid of Tellus and Manes and the form that aid took, but were the Senones aware they had killed a devotus? It is possible that they did, and their reaction, although exaggerated, was one of shock and caused their advance to halt.

Colonization and Rome’s Early Navy

In this period of political fragmentation amongst the Latins, marked by the rise of more powerful and cohesive polities, we also have some very intriguing developments in the area of colonization. As noted previously, early Roman colonization probably resembled the Greek practice in many ways. This was not because the Italian practice was in any way based on the Hellenistic model. In fact, the Italians had most likely been founding colonies before the Greeks arrived in the early Iron Age. There is a long tradition of Italic tribes, when their population reached a critical amount, splintering off to form new groups and settlements. This was sometimes accomplished with the splinter group sighting and following a particular animal, often a boar or a wolf, until the animal settled down, and then founding the new settlement at that location. This practice was naturally laden with ritual and religious connotations, but was also incredibly practical as the locations where these animals settled down were usually well away from existing populations and contained the basics needed for a small settlement, including food and water. This practice naturally became more formal and sophisticated as time went on, but the basic system of forming new colonies in order to keep a population within the carrying capacity of the land was one with which the Romans and Latins were very familiar. As with Greek colonies, these new settlements usually became entirely independent after they were founded, although they often maintained sentimental links with their mother community, in addition to the very real bonds of kinship and blood. Despite the anachronistic assertions of Rome’s late Republican historians, who viewed all colonization through the lens of ‘empire’, this more independent type of colonization probably typified the Roman practice during the Regal and early Republican periods. As a result, the concept of Roman or Latin colonies during this period is arguably inapplicable. Although possibly founded by Roman or Latin populations, or indeed jointly, the colonies would have effectively become new Latin settlements (based solely on culture and language) once they were founded, and would not have owed any real allegiance to their mother communities. Although there seems to have been a rough sense of Latin identity, there was no such thing as Latin ‘citizenship’ (and even Roman citizenship is problematic), even in the middle of the fifth century BC – ‘Latin Rights’ being likely based on cultural identity and not political affiliation. As a result, early colonization seems to have had the same fluid character as much of the rest of Latin society during this time.

With the advent of the fourth century BC and the rise of more cohesive urban polities, it seems that the community of Rome recognized that the old way of colonizing was no longer in the city’s best interests. The needs which drove colonization in the Archaic period were naturally still there. Rome had to be very careful that her population did not exceed the carrying capacity of the land around the community and indeed it is likely that she was pulling more and more resources from further and further afield in order to feed her growing citizen body. Additionally, the literary sources and archaeology are unanimous in suggesting a growing desire for and exploitation of land by the Romans in the fourth century BC. As already argued, this is one of the reasons behind Rome’s increasing bellicosity during the period, but it is likely that it would also have led to an increased desire to found new colonies – as this represented the traditional, and by far the easiest, mechanism for acquiring new land for poorer citizens. However, colonization would have also served to weaken Rome, taking citizens away from the community and spreading them across new lands, right when she was desperately attempting to increase her manpower reserves. As a result, although Rome founded four new colonies (Satricum, Sutrium, Nepete and Setia) in the 380s BC, she did not create any further colonies for an entire generation. Instead, Rome attempted a number of new ways to deal with this situation, including the creation of municipia, like that at Tusculum, and the increased use of ager publicus. It was only in the final decades of the fourth century BC that Rome returned to colonization as a viable option, when the city founded a series of new colonies along the coast. It is clear from the nature of these new colonies, however, that things had definitely changed during the intervening years. While Rome’s earlier colonies seem to have been independent, and indeed even the late foundation at Satricum (founded in the 380s BC) evidently had to be recaptured in 346 BC, these new colonies were ‘full citizen colonies’ and extensions of Roman military might. The colonists at these new foundations, dubbed coloniae maritimae (maritime colonies), all explicitly retained their Roman citizenship and association. Although limited in size, with only 300 initial colonists, these new foundations were also planned as part of a new, larger military strategy. This can be seen through their grant of sacrosancta vacatio militia, a military exemption supposedly held by all members of the coloniae maritimae which required them to stay on site at the colony but, evidently in recognition of their importance in guarding the coastline, exempted them from normal military obligations and duties. Between 340 and 240 BC, Rome founded ten of these colonies down the west coast of Italy (Ostia, Antium, Tarracina, Minturnae, Sinuessa, Sena Gallica, Castrum Novum, Pyrgi, Alsium and Fregenae) as part of a concerted pattern of expansion aimed at controlling the sea.

Rome’s apparent interest in naval affairs during this period might strike the casual observer as a bit odd. After all, Rome was supposedly a novice in naval combat in the First Punic War (264 to 241 BC), without a ship of her own and entirely reliant on her allies’ navies until stolen Carthaginian naval technology (the fortuitous wreck of a Carthaginian trireme which gave the Romans the plans for their construction) allowed the creation of her own fleet. Or at least that is the traditional narrative. There are some slight discrepancies to this story, however. The creation of the coloniae maritimae clearly signals an increased interest in at least controlling the coast from the late fourth century BC, although this was done from the land in what might be considered a more traditional Roman approach. Linked to this interest, however, was the creation in 311 BC of the duovir navalis, a team of two magistrates tasked with buying or building ships and conducting naval operations. This indicates that, contrary to the generally accepted narrative, Rome did in fact have at least a nascent navy active in the late fourth century BC, almost fifty years before the First Punic War. In fact the sources record that one of these new naval magistrates was active the year after the office’s creation, raiding near the Bay of Naples in 310 BC. So the Romans seem to have had a navy of their own from at least 310 BC, although how this is reconciled with Polybius’ claim that the Romans did not build their own ships until the 260s BC is uncertain. It is possible that the Romans actually purchased their ships in this early period, thus making Polybius technically correct in that they did not build them, or perhaps they utilized the more common, multipurpose ships during this time and did not have custom-built warships until the 260s BC.

The advent of Rome’s navy and the coloniae maritimae not only suggests that Rome’s interests were expanding beyond the confines of Central Italy and towards the Mediterranean more generally, but also an increasing strategic awareness and both the foresight and ability to invest in military infrastructure. The creation of both the coloniae maritimae and a fleet required a form of delayed gratification on the part of the Romans. With regards to the coloniae, despite the Romans’ evident desire to increase their military manpower during the fourth century BC, they granted the colonists sent to these new foundations an official exemption from service – provided that they maintained Rome’s naval security at these new coastal locations. This hints that the Romans recognized that the long-term control of the coast was a benefit which outweighed the short-term boost in manpower which these colonists would have provided. The creation of a fleet represents an even more extreme example of this. Roman warfare was generally a rather inexpensive enterprise; it was primarily about acquiring portable wealth as opposed to spending it. In the fifth and fourth centuries BC, Roman soldiers would supply their own equipment and often their own supplies, with some of this cost being offset by the stipendium collected from the populace. The army would then venture out, acquire wealth via either raiding or conquest in the fourth century BC, and then return home at the end of the campaigning season. The only costs for the community as a whole was therefore the stipendium, which was both limited and irregular. Instead, it was generally assumed that any costs of warfare incurred by the army would be taken out of the spoils of war, and the stipendium was supposed to have been refunded out of these – although how often this actually happened is debated. Indeed, the reason Roman soldiers fought during this period was unlikely to have been from either a sense of protonationalism or duty, or because of the limited stipendium, but rather from the desire for booty and spoils – this was the main motivator. Warfare was therefore something which occurred largely out of the civic sphere. The generals were elected by the community and the soldiers were associated with Rome, either as citizens or allies, and of course there was a stipendium available in case the war was unsuccessful or did not recoup its expenses. But once the army was in the field, it existed as a discrete and separate entity from the urban city of Rome and was generally supposed to earn its own keep. Navies, however, were very different creatures – particularly by the fourth century BC.

The earliest ancient navies, both in Italy and elsewhere in the Mediterranean, seem to have followed roughly the same model as Rome’s early armies. In a time of need, wealthy individuals would lend their ships (and likely their crews) to the community for use in war. Many of these ships, although primarily used for trade, were eminently serviceable as warships as well – as noted before, the difference between an ancient merchant and an ancient pirate was often simply a question of opportunity. So although they were not custom-built for war, they could easily handle a complement of soldiers and were reasonably manoeuvrable and effective fighting platforms. From the seventh and sixth centuries BC, there was an incremental move in the eastern Mediterranean toward more purpose-built warships, most notably triremes (named because of their three banks of oars), although the cost and single function limited their popularity. Although triremes were incredibly effective in military situations, being far faster and more manoeuvrable than the multipurpose ships utilized before, it was hard to convince the wealthy citizens to invest in them. To build, equip, and staff one trireme seems to have cost between 10,000 and 12,000 drachmas, which was a significant outlay. While a multipurpose ship could be used for trade and other activities when the community was not at war, a trireme was suited for no other purpose and had to be carefully maintained (kept out of water in a ship shed) in order to maintain its seaworthiness. These ships were the high-end sports cars of their day – expensive luxury items which were not suited for everyday use. During the fifth century BC, however, the rise of the powerful Greek navies (like that of the Athenians) and the wars against the Persians changed the equation. In conflicts with these types of enemies, the old-fashioned, multipurpose ships were simply outclassed, although they did continue to play a role, and triremes were a ‘must-have’ item if one wanted to compete. As a result, communities like Athens and others around Greece poured immense amounts of state money into their navies – investing heavily in this technology. Moving away from privately-funded initiatives, Greek states built hundreds of triremes and their associated ship sheds, in addition to spending huge amounts on the salaries of rowers – in the case of Athens, effectively creating an entirely new class of citizen. This development turned warfare, or at least naval warfare, into an almost entirely state-based, state-centred activity. This would, eventually, have a knock-on effect on land warfare, which became increasingly mercenary in nature and which ultimately, by the fourth century BC, had also become effectively a state expenditure with the rise of professional and mercenary armies like those of Philip II and Alexander the Great of Macedon. This was the world of naval warfare into which Rome was venturing in the late fourth century BC – a world of highly professional and specialized fleets which required an enormous ‘buy in’ from the state in order to simply participate. Given this situation, it is no surprise that Rome took so long to get involved and, even once the city did, was not completely sold on the idea. The requirements of naval warfare went against many of the basic premises which underpinned Roman warfare to that point.

But in the late fourth century BC, Rome did slowly invest in naval infrastructure. Although the details are hazy to say the least, Rome’s duoviri navalis evidently acquired ships and were active in raids up and down the coast of Italy. So, although it represents an arguably minor and often ignored aspect of Roman warfare, it actually represents a significant turning point in Rome’s approach to war. It suggests that Rome was willing to invest a significant amount of state money, something which was limited given the absence of taxation at this time, in order to buy and maintain ships as part of a larger strategic plan. When this is combined with the contemporary construction of the Via Appia (Appian Way), a military road designed to move Rome’s armies south faster and more effectively, an entirely new phase in Roman warfare seems to have dawned. Gone were the days when warfare was expected to pay for itself, an activity which occurred largely outside of the state’s concern, and instead there existed a mindset where Rome was willing and able to invest state resources in military infrastructure to encourage and allow long-term success. Rome seems to have finally entered an era of truly state-based warfare.

The Siege of Jotapata [Yodfat]

Jotapata was certainly the safest place in Galilee, hidden away in the mountains and practically invisible until you reached it. Perched around a precipice, guarded on three sides by ravines so deep that the bottom was out of sight, it could be attacked only from the north, where the lower part of the city sloped down the mountain and then up to a slight ridge. At this strategic point, another wall had recently been built, on Josephus’s instructions, to defend the ridge. The approach road through the hills was scarcely better than a goat track, just about adequate for men on foot but not for horses or even for mules, and the little mountain city must have seemed impregnable to those who had never encountered Roman sappers. Its one grave weakness was the lack of a spring inside its walls so that it depended for water on rain stored in its cisterns.

Our sole source for the siege of Jotapata is what Josephus cares to tell us in The Jewish War, since he does not make any mention of it in the Vita, and no other history of the period contains any reference to Jotapata. It has to be remembered, too, that as always he was writing some years later, with two very different audiences in mind: the Romans whom he had joined during the war and the Jews whom he had abandoned. In addition, he was trying to portray his behavior in the best light possible, as that of a heroic commander fighting against impossible odds.

Whether he liked it or not, he was in command and had to fight the Romans. If he attempted to escape, the Jotapatans would try to kill him, and even if he succeeded he stood a fair chance of being caught by enemy patrols who would give him short shrift. In The Jewish War he portrays himself as the gallant and determined leader, the strategos (general) who was always resourceful, always undismayed. In reality, during the forthcoming siege he became increasingly desperate to negotiate but was never given the opportunity.

Yet even if some of his account in The Jewish War is obviously distorted, most of it is plausible enough and carries conviction, in particular when he is not describing his own actions. There is another reason to believe that the broad outline of the siege is correct: when Josephus was writing his history, he knew that it was going to be closely read by the man who had been the commander of the Roman army in the siege. This was the eagle-eyed Vespasian, who lent him his notebooks of the Palestinian campaign. A substantial number of details, especially those concerning the Roman army—such as troop numbers and the names of the enemy commanders—can only have come from Vespasian’s notebooks.

Jotapata’s strength made it a priority for Vespasian. If he succeeded in taking the place, no other Galilean stronghold could think itself impregnable. Moreover, he knew that large numbers of fanatical Jews were in the city. When a deserter told him the governor of Galilee was there as well, he was delighted and thought it divine providence. “The man whom he considered his cleverest opponent had shut himself up in a self-appointed prison,” Josephus modestly records. The Roman general’s first move was to send Placidus and the decurion Ebutius, “an exceptionally brave and resourceful officer,” with a thousand men to surround the city and ensure that the governor did not escape. “He thought he would be able to capture all Judea if only he could get hold of Josephus,” says The Jewish War. This sounds like boasting, yet it may be true since he knew that Vespasian was going to read the account.

On 21 May, a few hours before Josephus reached Jotapata, Vespasian had arrived there with his entire army. He chose a small hill about three-quarters of a mile north as the site of his camp so that it was within full view of the defenders, whom, he hoped, would be terrified by the sheer number of besiegers. His first action was to fence the city off with a double line of infantry and another of cavalry, preventing anyone from getting in or out.

Next day, the Romans launched a full-scale assault. Some of the Jews tried to stop the attackers before they reached the walls, but Vespasian engaged them at long range with archers and slingers while he led his infantry up a slope to where the walls were easiest to climb. Realizing the danger, Josephus rushed out with his entire garrison and drove the legionaries back from the walls. The fighting went on all day, the defenders losing seventeen dead and six hundred wounded, while thirteen Romans were killed and many more wounded. The Jews were so encouraged that the next morning they again sallied out and attacked the enemy. Sorties and savage hand-to-hand fighting continued for five days, with many losses on both sides. When a lull at last ensued, the Romans had inflicted such heavy casualties that the Jews began to lose heart.

Even so, the Jews had fought effectively enough for Vespasian to realize that their city’s walls were a much more serious obstacle than he had appreciated. After consulting his senior officers, he ordered the construction of a siege platform next to the section of the wall that looked the weakest. His troops set about cutting down every tree on the neighboring mountains and gathering big stones and sacks of earth. Layers of wooden hurdles protected them from the javelins and rocks that rained down as they built the platform.

At the same time, the Roman siege artillery, a hundred and sixty “scorpions,” fired nonstop at the walls, together with the catapultae and the stone projectors. There seem to have been two types of scorpion—a big, repeating crossbow, and a smaller, portable version of the catapulta. Mounted on carts, catapultae had multiple strings of twisted catgut and shot armor-piercing bolts or stone balls at very high velocity. Stone projectors (onagers) were huge mechanical slings that hurled boulders, barrels of stones, or firebrands in bundles. This artillery was so effective that some defenders were too frightened to go up on to the ramparts. Nevertheless, some particularly gallant Jews made sorties again and again, pulling off the hides, killing the sappers beneath them, and knocking down the platform.

In response, Josephus built up the wall opposite the platform until it was thirty feet higher, using shelters covered in the hides of newly slaughtered oxen to protect his workmen against missiles. The moist skins gave but did not split when hit and were more or less fireproof. He also added wooden towers along the wall together with a new parapet. The Romans were taken aback by these measures, while the Jews took fresh heart and stepped up their sorties at night, raiding and burning the siege-works.

Irritated at the siege’s slow progress and impressed by the defenders’ pugnacity, Vespasian decided to starve Jotapata into submission, so he pulled back his troops while continuing the blockade. The city had all the food it needed, but not enough rain fell to replenish the cisterns, and water had to be rationed. However, when Josephus saw that the Romans suspected the inhabitants were suffering from thirst, he made them hang heavy garments from the walls, dripping with water. Vespasian was so discouraged that he resumed his daily assaults on the walls.

Despite a close blockade, for a time Josephus was able to communicate with the outside world and obtain at least some of the supplies that he needed. There was a narrow gully, so nearly impassable that the Romans did not bother to guard it, down which he sent couriers disguised by sheepskins on their backs. But eventually this stratagem was discovered, and the city became completely cut off.

What is fascinating about Josephus is how he sometimes lets us see into his mind, in a way that is almost akin to honesty. As he admits, he had gone to Jotapata for his own safety, but now he began to lose his nerve. “Realizing the city could not hold out much longer and that his life might be in danger were he to stay, Josephus made plans to escape with the local notables,” he blandly informs us. He had no qualms about leaving its people to be butchered. Hearing rumors of his plans, a large mob gathered and begged him not to abandon them. “It was wrong for him to run away and desert his friends, to jump from a ship sinking in a storm, in which he had embarked when everything was calm,” they cried. “By leaving, he would destroy the city—nobody would dare go on fighting the enemy if they lost their one reason for confidence.”

Without mentioning that he was worried about his own safety, Josephus replied that he was leaving the city for their sake. If he stayed, he could not do them any good even if they survived, while should the place be stormed he would be killed pointlessly. If he got away from the siege, however, he would be able to do a lot to help, since he could raise a new Galilean army, a huge one, and draw off the Romans by attacking elsewhere. But he really did not see how he could aid the people of Jotapata simply by staying put. It would only make the Romans intensify the siege because what they wanted more than anything else was to capture him.

This eloquent appeal had no effect. The citizens of Jotapata were determined that he should stay; children, old men, and women with babies fell down in front of him and clung to his feet, wailing. They all felt they would be saved if he remained in the city. Realizing that if he stayed they would think he was answering their prayers, but that if he tried to leave he would be lynched, he graciously agreed to remain. He even claims that what made up his mind was pity for them. “Now is the time to begin the struggle when hope of safety is there none!” he declaimed nobly. “What is really honorable is to prefer glory to life by doing heroic deeds that will be remembered from generation to generation.” Then, so he informs us, he immediately led a sally against the Romans, killing several of their sentries and demolishing some of the siege works. For the next few days and nights, “he never left off fighting.”

The legionaries had withdrawn from the front line, waiting for the moment they could mount a full-scale assault. The scorpions and stone throwers kept up their fire, as did the Arab archers and Syrian slingers, inflicting many casualties. The only way the Jews could respond was by repeated sallies, exhausting their strength. By now, the assault platforms had almost reached the top of the walls, so Vespasian decided it was time to use a battering ram. This was a huge baulk of timber like the mast of a ship, its end fitted with a massive piece of iron in the shape of a ram’s head, which was slung by ropes from scaffolding on wheels. Repeatedly pulled back by a team of men, then hurled forward, the iron head could demolish most sorts of masonry. While the Roman artillery stepped up its bombardment, the enemy hauled the ram into position, protected by hides and hurdles. Its first blow made the whole wall shake. “As though it had already fallen down, an awful shriek rang out from those inside,” recalls Josephus.

He tried to lessen the ram’s impact by letting down sacks filled with chaff, but the Romans pushed them aside with hooks on long poles. Recently built, the wall began to crumble. However, the Jews rushed out from three different sally ports and, taking the enemy by surprise, set fire to the ram’s protective superstructure with a mixture of bitumen, pitch, and brimstone, which destroyed it. “A Jew stepped forward whose name deserves to be remembered,” says The Jewish War. He was Eleazar ben Sameas, born at Saab in Galilee. Lifting an enormous stone, he threw it from the wall on to the ram, knocking off the head. Then, leaping down among the Romans, he seized the head, which he carried back to the wall, where he stood waving it until he collapsed, mortally wounded by five javelins, writhing in agony but still clutching his prize.

The besiegers rebuilt the ram and toward evening started to batter the same section of wall. Panic broke out among the Romans when Vespasian was wounded in the foot by a spent javelin (which shows he must have been standing dangerously close to the wall). As soon as they realized he had not been seriously hurt, they attacked with real fury. Josephus and his men fought throughout the night, sometimes sallying out to attack the team working the ram, although the fires they lit made them an easy mark for enemy artillery that was invisible in the dark. Clouds of the scorpions’ monster arrows cut swathes through their ranks, while rocks hurled by the ballistae demolished part of the ramparts and knocked corners off the towers. The lethal power of this weaponry is gruesomely described by Josephus; for example, he wrote that a man standing near him had his head torn off by a stone and flung over 600 yards and that when a pregnant woman was hit in the belly, the child in her womb was thrown 300 feet.

The siege machines made a terrifying clatter, and the endless whizzing of the arrows and stones fired by the Romans was no less frightening. The sinister thud of dead bodies hitting the ground as they fell down off the battlements was equally dispiriting. Women inside the city were shrieking incessantly, while many of the wounded were screaming with pain. The area in front of the wall flowed with blood, while the corpses were heaped as high as the ramparts. To cap everything, the noise was made even more dreadful by the echoes from the mountains that surrounded the city.

Toward morning the wall finally collapsed under the ram’s ceaseless battering. After letting his men have a brief rest, Vespasian got ready to launch his assault at daybreak. Dismounting the pick of his heavily armored cavalrymen, he stationed them three deep near the breaches, ready to go in as soon as the gangways were in position. Behind them, he placed his best foot soldiers. The rest of the horse remained mounted, in extended order farther back, to cut down anyone trying to escape from the city once it had fallen. Still farther back, he ranged the archers in a curved formation with bows at the ready, together with the slingers and the artillery. Other troops were ordered to take ladders and attack undamaged sectors of the wall, to draw off defenders from the breaches.

Realizing what was coming, Josephus placed the older men and walking wounded on the part of the wall that was still standing, where they were more protected and could deal with any attempts at escalade. The fitter men he positioned behind the breach, while groups of six—drawn by lot and including himself—stood at the front, ready to bear the brunt of the assault. He ordered them to plug their ears to avoid being frightened by the legionaries’ war cry and to fall back during the preliminary rain of missiles, kneeling under their shields until the archers had used up their arrows, and then to run forward as soon as the Romans pushed their gangways over the rubble.

“Don’t forget for one moment all the old men and all the children here, who are about to be horribly butchered, or how bestially your wives are going to be put to death by the enemy,” he exhorted them. “Then remember the fury that you feel at the idea of such atrocities and use it in killing the men who want to commit them.”

When daylight came and the women and children saw the three ranks of Roman troops menacing the city, the great breaches in the walls, and all the hills around covered by enemy soldiers, they raised a last, dreadful, despairing scream. Josephus gave orders for them to be locked in their houses to stop them from unnerving their menfolk. Then he took up his post in the breach. Strangely, he had prophesied to some of those around him that the city would fall and that he would be taken prisoner—predictions that were plausible but scarcely good for morale.

Suddenly, the serpentine Roman trumpets sounded their booming summons to battle, the legionaries bellowed their war cry, and the sun was blotted out by missiles—javelins, arrows, scorpion bolts, slingshot, and a hail of stones from the onagers. Josephus’s men, remembering his instructions, had plugged their ears, and they sheltered under their shields. As soon as the gangways went down, they charged forward to meet the attackers. They had no reserves, however, while the enemy, who had a seemingly inexhaustible supply of fresh troops, formed a tortoise with their big, oblong shields and began to push forward over the main breach.

Josephus had expected this, however, and was prepared. He ordered boiling oil to be poured down from the sections of wall that flanked the breach onto the tortoise. Leaping and writhing in agony, the legionaries fell off the gangways, their close-fitting armor making it impossible to save them from an excruciating death. When the Jews ran out of oil, they threw a slippery substance—boiled fenugreek—on to the gangways, which made it hard for new waves of attackers to keep their balance, some falling over and being trodden to death. Early that evening Vespasian called off the assault.

He then ordered that the three assault platforms further along the wall should be raised much higher, equipping each one with a fireproof, iron-plated siege tower that was fifty feet tall. His archers, slingshot men, and javelin throwers were able to shoot down at the defenders in comparative safety, and at close range, from the tops of these towers, which also mounted the big repeating crossbows.

In the meantime, Vespasian did not confine himself to besieging Jotapata. He sent 3,000 troops under Ulpius Traianus, commander of the Tenth Legion—and father of the future Emperor Trajan—to sack the town of Japha seventeen kilometers away, whose people had joined the revolt, and he sent his son Titus to help him with additional troops. Together, Trajan and Titus killed over 15,000 Jews, taking another 2,000 prisoner. At the same time, Sextus Cerealis, prefect of the Fifth Legion, marched into Samaria, which despite its traditional hostility to Jews looked as if it was on the verge of rebellion, and slaughtered more than 11,000 Samaritans who had gathered on Mount Gerizim

On the forty-seventh day of the siege of Jotapata, the assault platforms overtopped the walls. A deserter informed Vespasian that the defenders had become too exhausted to put up much of a fight and that sentries often dropped off to sleep in the early hours of the morning. Just before dawn the Romans crept to the platforms, Titus being one of the first to climb over the walls, accompanied by a tribune, Domitius Sabinus, with some men from the Fifteenth Legion. They cut the throats of the watch and then entered the city very quietly, followed by the tribune Sextus Calvarius, Placidus, and other troops. (Josephus must have obtained these details from Vespasian’s campaign notebooks.)

Within a short time the Romans had captured the citadel on the edge of the precipice and were sweeping down into the heart of Jotapata, yet even at daybreak the defenders had not realized that their city had fallen. Most were still fast asleep, having collapsed from fatigue, while a dense mist enveloped everything. The few who were awake were too tired to be alert. Only when the Jotapatans saw the whole Roman army running through the streets and killing everybody it met did they understand that it was all over.

The city quickly turned into a slaughterhouse. The legionaries had not forgotten what they had suffered during the siege, especially the boiling oil. The weapon they used was their principal sidearm, the “gladius” or short, doubled-edged Roman thrusting sword (more like a big knife than a sword), which was ideally suited for massacre. They drove the terrified crowds down from the citadel to the bottom of the hill through the narrow streets, so tightly jammed together that those who wanted to fight could not raise their arms. When they were able, some of Josephus’s best men cut their own throats in despair.

A few held out in one of the northern towers but were overwhelmed, seeming to welcome death. The legionaries suffered only a single casualty. A Jotapatan who had hidden in a cave shouted up to a centurion called Antonius that he wanted to surrender, asking him to reach down and help him out, but when Antonius did so he was stabbed in the groin from below with a spear. Having killed everybody they found in the streets or houses, the Romans spent the next few days hunting down defenders hiding underground. During the siege and the storm they killed at least 40,000 Jews. (This is the figure given by Josephus, who for once may not be exaggerating.) The only prisoners they took were about 1,200 women and children.

Even so, the little city of Jotapata had put up an astonishing resistance. It was a heroic achievement to hold out for nearly eight weeks against the most efficient and best-equipped army in the world. Once again, the Jews had shown that they knew how to fight as if by instinct and that despite their lack of any sort of military training and their pitifully inadequate weaponry, they could be formidable opponents.

Although Josephus may have been a disaster as governor of Galilee in peace time, during the siege of Jotapata he had shown himself to be a gallant and resourceful commander—even if at one point he had thought of running away and deserting his men. His leadership of the city’s defense was one of the great triumphs of his life.

Phalanx vs Legion: Battle of Cynoscephalae

The earliest Roman ventures across the Adriatic had occurred before the Second Punic War. The First and Second Illyrian Wars (229–228 and 221–219 BC) had been fought ostensibly to suppress piracy, but the interference with a minor state in Macedonia’s backyard had alarmed King Philip V sufficiently for him to form an alliance with Hannibal in 215 BC. The First Macedonian War (215–205 BC) proved a damp squib, however: Philip never sent support to Hannibal in Italy, and the Romans left their Aetolian allies to fight alone in Greece. But this reflected not pusillanimity on Philip’s part so much as his preoccupation with the Aegean – where his war with Pergamum and Rhodes provided a pretext for Roman intervention against him in 200 BC. The alliance with Hannibal, and his wars against fellow Greeks, including Roman allies, made it easy enough to portray Philip’s Macedonia as a dangerous ‘rogue state’.

In fact, Philip was no threat to Roman interests. The very fact that he did not send troops to Italy in the wake of Cannae is proof enough of that; Philip’s fighting front was to the south and the south-east, not towards the Adriatic. The Roman decision to back Pergamum and Rhodes and intervene in an eastern war was an act of aggression. Significantly, when the consul to whom responsibility for Macedonia had been given proposed a declaration of war, the Assembly of the Centuries turned it down. When he next summoned the assembly, he deployed a new concept: that of pre-emptive aggression against a would-be (and in fact imaginary) enemy. The decision was not ‘whether you will choose war or peace; for Philip will not leave the choice open to you, seeing that he is actively preparing for unlimited hostilities on land and sea. What you are asked to decide is whether you will transport legions to Macedonia or allow the enemy into Italy; and the difference this makes is a matter of your own experience in the recent Punic Wars … It took Hannibal four months to reach Italy from Saguntum; but Philip, if we let him, will arrive four days after he sets sail from Corinth.’ The Assembly now voted for war. A real hatred of the draft had been overcome by an invented fear of invasion. For invented it was, the speciousness of the consul’s argument apparent from the most superficial review of the events of the Second Macedonian War (200–196 BC). The largest Roman army sent to Greece was only 30,000 strong – a mere 2.5 per cent of Rome’s total military manpower, or 7 per cent of her maximum mobilized strength in the Second Punic War. Yet this small army was sufficient to bring Macedonia to defeat – a defeat Philip anticipated judging by his interim peace offers and initial avoidance of battle. Hannibal, by contrast, had destroyed a Roman army of 80,000 – and still lost the war. These simple calculations demonstrate how suicidal a Macedonian invasion of Italy would in reality have been: doubly so, since not only would the invaders have been crushed, but Philip’s kingdom would meantime have been overrun by his enemies in Greece.

The first two years of the war were inconclusive, but in the spring of 197 BC Titus Quinctius Flamininus invaded Thessaly, and Philip, finally resolved to risk battle rather than prolong a war of attrition he knew he could not win, marched towards him with 25,000 men. The ground was unsuitable for battle where the armies first met, and both withdrew along parallel routes separated by low hills, each soon unaware of the other’s progress. A messy encounter battle then developed unexpectedly at Cynoscephalae when Macedonian and Roman detachments clashed in the mist on the heights overlooking a pass between the main armies. As more units were drawn into the fight for the high ground, a general engagement began. The Macedonian right reached the top of the pass before the Romans. When Philip saw this, he ordered the right phalanx to close up into a deep formation, increasing its shock power, and then to charge. Flamininus, seeing the desperate struggle that had begun on the Roman left, ordered in turn an attack by his right, which struck the left phalanx before it was properly deployed and routed it. The battle divided into separate halves, with the Macedonian right pushing down one slope, the Roman right down the other, such that a wide gap opened. At this point, a Roman military tribune seized the initiative. Taking the 20 maniples of triarii forming the rear line of the legions on the right, he reformed them and charged into the rear of the phalanx attacking the Roman left. The effect was devastating. The right phalanx was also routed. The battle had been hard-fought but decisive. About 8,000 Macedonians had been killed and 5,000 captured for a loss of 700 Romans. Philip V’s only army had been destroyed and he was compelled to make peace.

The battle of Cynoscephalae in 197BC was also fought up and over high ground which Plutarch describes as ‘the sharp tops of hills lying close beside each other’. Polybius calls the ridge ‘rough, precipitous and of considerable height’. Pietrykowski calls the ridge upon which the battle was fought ‘a true liability’ to the ‘ponderous phalanx’. Morgan, on the other hand, points out that the terrain does not seem to have been a deciding factor in the outcome of the battle.⁶⁰ Both of these claims seem to be only partially correct as, depending upon the exact nature of the ground on certain parts of the ridge, the phalanx was either hindered (which ultimately led to its defeat) or not.

The Macedonian army of Philip V, and the Roman army of Titus Flaminius, were both encamped on either side of the ridge at Cynoscephalae. Philip is said to have considered the ground unsuitable and unfavourable for a major engagement but, following initial contact and skirmishing between advance units from both sides, and the receipt of favourable reports from the ridge above which stated that the Romans were in retreat, Philip began to commit more troops to the action including elements of his pike-phalanx. Units of Philip’s right-wing phalanx surmounted the ridge at a run: a manoeuvre which must have necessitated their pikes being held vertically. Livy says that, once in position and arranged in double depth, the phalangites were ordered to drop their pikes and fight with swords because the length of the weapons was a hindrance. Both Polybius and Plutarch, on the other hand, state that the phalanx engaged with its pikes lowered. Indeed, there are several reasons why Livy’s account should be considered incorrect in this matter. Firstly, Livy later states that the phalanx was unable to turn about to face an attack from the rear. While this is true of a phalanx with its pikes lowered, it can be easily accomplished by one just fighting with swords. This suggests that the Macedonians were using the sarissa. Secondly, Livy also states that, at the end of the battle, parts of the phalanx signalled their surrender by raising their pikes. It is unlikely that the members of the phalanx had put away their swords, picked up their pikes – which would have been somewhere uphill behind them as the sources all state that the Macedonian right wing pushed the Romans down the slope – and then used them to signal their surrender. It is more likely that the phalanx had been using their pikes all along.

The phalanx units on the Macedonian right wing effectively engaged the Romans using the advantages of the high ground to their fullest. Plutarch states that the Romans facing these units could not withstand their attack. It was a different story on the Macedonian left, however, and it was in this quarter that the nature of the terrain may have hampered (and eventually defeated) the pike-phalanx. Livy says that additional pike units were brought up in column – a formation he says is better suited to a march than a battle – rather than in extended line. The ground here may have been more broken than on the right and this caused large gaps to open in the phalanx as it deployed: gaps which the more mobile Roman maniples were able to exploit to defeat the Macedonian left and then swing around to attack the remaining units on the Macedonian right. Polybius states that this fracture of the phalanx on the left was due to some units already being engaged, others only just making the top of the ridge, while others were in position but were not advancing down the hill. Interestingly, none of these factors have much to do with the nature of the terrain itself and, as such, the extent to which the ground caused the fragmentation of the Macedonian line at Cynoscephalae cannot be conclusively determined. However, it seems clear that it is not the incline of the battlefield which is a hindrance to the operation of the pike-phalanx, but whether or not the line can be maintained on the terrain that the battle is fought upon. This again goes against Polybius’ claim that the phalanx could only operate on ‘flat’ ground.

Polybius was fascinated by the clash between phalanx and legion. The whole fate of the Hellenistic world – his world – had seemed to hinge on it. The outcome appeared paradoxical, for the compact formation and projecting pikes of the phalanx meant that in close-quarters combat each Roman legionary, fighting in a much more open formation, faced no less than ten spear-points. ‘What is the factor which enables the Romans to win the battle and causes those who use the phalanx to fail? The answer is that in war the times and places for action are unlimited, whereas the phalanx requires one time and one type of ground only in order to produce its peculiar effect.’ Broken ground disordered the phalanx, creating fatal gaps in the hedge of pikes. To be effective, it had to operate in a large block, making it slow, cumbersome and unresponsive to a changing battlefield situation. The Roman formation, by contrast, was flexible and mobile. While part could pin a phalanx frontally, other parts could manoeuvre to attack flank and rear. ‘Every Roman soldier, once he is armed and goes into action, can adapt himself equally well to any place or time and meet an attack from any quarter. He is likewise equally well-prepared and needs to make no change whether he has to fight with the main body or with a detachment, in maniples or singly.’ Cynoscephalae illustrated these dictums. It showed that the legions were coming of age, that a complex evolution of the Roman military tradition under Etruscan, Greek, Samnite, Gaulish, Punic and Spanish influence was now producing the finest fighting formations in the ancient world.