War of the Flowers

William B. Fawcett

Only in the loosest sense, was the pre-conquest Aztec nation a nation in the European meaning of the word. The very concept of nation would have been virtually inconceivable to the average Aztec. He was a Texcocan or a Tlaxcalan. The Aztec nation was, in fact, a patchwork of city states with varying degrees of independence and mutual animosity. An individual’s allegiance was to his clan and tribe. (Most cities were inhabited by one tribe which was determined by customs and deities worshipped more often than common ancestry.)

The Aztec “empire” was in fact a conglomeration of city states that formed rather fluid coalitions which were normally centered on the most powerful cities found in the area of present day Mexico City. In these coalitions there were normally one or two major powers who, by their size and military strength, were able to compel the lesser cities to join in their efforts. When a city was ‘conquered’ the result was the imposition of tribute and economic sanctions rather than social or political absorption, as occurred in Europe or China. This tribute was reluctantly paid to the victorious city only until some way to avoid it was found (such as an alliance to an even more powerful city). Any political or military alliance was then ruled entirely by expedience, and quickly and easily dissolved.

This constant shifting was demonstrated by the actions of Texcoco when Tenochtitlan, then the chief power, was attacked by Cortes. Texcoca joined with several other cities in aiding the Spanish. Just a few years earlier Texcoco had been the reluctant ally of Tenochtitlan in her unsuccessful war with Tlaxcalans. (During which the Tenochtitlans arranged to have the Tlaccalans ambush a part of the Texcocans involved. Such treacheries were not uncommon.) Later the Spanish were able to play these former allies against each other.

The citizen of an Aztec city was imbued from birth with the concept that the city and tribe were important and the individual should act only in ways that benefited the whole. The concept of individualism we value would have been considered anti-social and obscene to the Aztecs. Though they amassed individual wealth and possessions most of the land was considered to either belong to the tribe outright or to be held in trust for the city by the individual. Anyone dying without an heir (male, son) automatically left his land and possessions to the city or clan for redistribution. Material wealth was considered less important than value to the tribe, as reflected by the positions held and honors received. If you do not realize how deeply this selfless spirit was ingrained in every citizen, it will be difficult to accept the attitudes demonstrated by captured warriors.

War itself was viewed by the Aztecs as a part of the natural rhythms. These rhythms were felt to permeate every level of existence and only by keeping in step to them could an individual and (more importantly) a tribe or city survive and prosper. Each day was seen as a battle between the sun and the earth. The sun losing every sunset and gladly sacrificing himself to the earth, so that men could prosper. Many of the workings of nature were viewed as being reflections of the rhythm of the war between the opposing natural and spiritual forces. War then took on a religious and ritual nature that both limited it in extent and made it part of the spiritual life of the community with strong metaphysical overtones. Rituals arose around the conducting of wars and to vary from them would have caused the war to lose its very reason for existing. On the more mundane level wars were fought for Revenge, Defense, or Economic reasons. A common cause for the formal declaration of war was that a city’s merchants were being discriminated against or attacked. (These merchants normally doubled as each city’s intelligence force and so were often harassed in times of high tensions.) Behind all political and economic justifications was always the strong force of the religious nature of war, and a never ending need for captives to sacrifice.

A common proximate cause for war was the failure of a vassal state to pay the tribute demanded. It is surprising to discover, but true, that in a system where tribute was one of the key ingredients, no system (such as hostages) was ever devised to guarantee the payment of tribute from a previously conquered area. If tribute was refused the only alternative was to go to war again.

The process of declaring war was long and elaborate. Followed in most cases, it left no room for the deviousness common in Aztec wars. The procedure to be followed was set in a series of real, but ritually required, actions. The actual declaration of war involved three State visits, often by three allied cities planning to attack. The first delegation called on the chief and nobles of the city. They boasted of their strength and warned that they would demand some of the nobles as sacrifices if the war ensued. The group would then retire outside the city gate and camp for one Aztec month (20 days) awaiting a reply. This was normally given on the last day and if the city or coalition did not accept their terms, token weapons were distributed to the nobles. (This was so that no one could say they defeated an unarmed foe.)

The second delegation would then approach the city’s leading merchants. This second delegation would describe the economic “horrors” of a defeat, comparing them badly to the terms offered, and generally trying to persuade the merchants to get the chiefs to surrender. This delegation then also retired for a month to await a reply. Should this also be negative a third and final delegation would arrive. This group was to talk to the warriors themselves. They would harangue a mass meeting with reasons why they should not fight and tales of the horrors of battle. Once more they would ask for the city to meet their terms (normally a virtual surrender or the loss of some territory) and then retire to a camp for the ritual one month wait. Finally, after all of this, the armies (having had plenty of time to assemble) would meet in a battle. Here any deception was acceptable and a cunning general as valuable as a courageous one.

The leadership of the Aztecs was the same in times of peace and war. Between wars the officers served as the administration, judiciary, and civil service of the city. Heading this organization was the Supreme War chief or Tlacatecuhtli. This was the position held by the unfortunate Montezuma in Tenochtitlan when Cortes arrived. Each clan was assigned to one of four phratries each having its own leader called a Tlaxcola who served as their divisional commander in wartime, and on a council with the other three that ran the actual administration of the city in times of peace. The head of each clan served as a regimental commander and was known as a Tlochcautin. In peace he would serve in a role similar to the English Sheriff. Below the clan level was a unit of approximately 200 to 400 men. This was the equivalent of our company and was really the largest unit over which any tactical control could be held once a battle began. The smallest regular unit was the platoon of 20 men. This organization was rigidly observed by the major cities and was such an integral part of Aztec culture that the symbol for ’20’ was a flag such as each platoon had.

The military techniques of the Aztecs were inferior to those of Europe or China at that time. This is probably due primarily to the fact that while ritually involved and religiously important, war was less developed as a social solution in pre-conquest Mexico. This was caused by several factors, the major one being that the population density of the area was much less than in other parts of the world. In the period immediately preceding the Spanish only one area had really felt the pinch of overpopulation. This was the area around Lake Titicocca occupied today by Mexico city. Here is where the powerful and most warlike cities developed. Even then their tradition of war (as opposed to individual combat) was only a few hundred years old as opposed to thousands in other lands. The result was that while having a warrior attitude and with war deeply ritually ingrained in their culture, the techniques of battle were still quite unsophisticated and basic.

One reflection, of the undeveloped nature of Aztec wars was the absence of any sort of drills. Units acted as a group only during civil duties, or during the several religious ceremonies that they assembled for each year. The tactics of a battle then most often resembled the mass or swarm tactics of biblical times.

Another factor mitigated in favor of only limited military activities. This was the fact that it was extremely difficult for an army to engage in an extended campaign. Since the army was also the work force, a campaign during the planting and harvest seasons was prohibited. This is especially true since the agriculture was not so efficient as to be able to support the massive priests hierarchy and a standing army of any size. Nor could an army live off of the country, since it was likely that the area they would travel through would be inhabited by several city states that were not involved in the war and were independent of those involved. This meant that it was necessary not only to set up supply depots along any proposed route, but also to negotiate permission to trespass on other cities’ lands.

The marginal nature of the agriculture was also such, that sieges that lasted any length of time were virtually impossible. The besieging army would as likely starve as the besiegers. The result of this was that formal walls and other fortifications were rare. In their place canals (useful in trade also) were often used with portable bridges. Many cities were also located in easily defensible terrain such as on a mountainside or on the end of a narrow isthmus. There has also been no evidence that siege weapons of any sort were developed or used to any extent. Despite all of the problems listed the Aztecs were able to wage campaigns over a wide area of Mexico. Most often these were fought with armies made up chiefly of local allies with a contingent of Aztecs to stiffen them. In some cases it is recorded that the Aztecs were forced to engage in the laborious technique of having to subdue each of the towns and cities on their route.

The weapons and tools of the Aztecs were basic and simple in nature. Rather than developing new variations of weapons the efforts of the Aztecs went into elaborate decorations on them. There were four main weapons used by the Aztec warrior. A wooden club with sharp obsidian blades was used. Javelins were common and often used with a throwing stick called an atl-atl. The bow and arrow was also found in most armies as was a heavy javelin or lance for in-fighting. Occasionally a clan would have a tradition that caused some of them to employ the sling or spears. Axes were used as tools, but do not seem to have been a regularly used weapon.

The bulk of the weapons in a city was kept in an arsenal called the Tlacochcalco or roughly the “house of darts.” One of these was found in each quarter of a city and held the weapons for five clans (one phratrie). These arsenals were always located near the chief temples and were designed with sloping walls that enabled them to serve as a fort. The Tlacochcalcos served as the headquarters, assembly points and rallying points for the defenders of a city. Religious ceremonies were also held there by the military leaders and “Knights.”

The shields of the Aztecs were wickerwork covered with hide. Most were circular and elaborately painted and decorated. Skins and feathers were also often attached to augment their beauty. The warriors who used the clubs carried shields, but those using the large javelin or lance were unable to as they needed both hands to employ their weapon. Body armor was made of quilted cotton hardened in brine. This was quite successful against the weapons used by other Aztecs, (and useless against crossbows and steel swords). This cotton armor was in fact quickly adopted by the conquistedores as being effective enough and much cooler than their own metal armor. The quilted armor was often dyed bright colors, brocaded and embroidered with intricate designs and symbols.

Wooden helmets were worn by some warriors and the chiefs, (who rose to chief by being outstanding warriors). These quickly became elaborate and bulky. It was often necessary for them to be supported by shoulder harnesses. Most headdresses or helmets were stylized animals or protecting deities. The more elaborate the helmet the more renown the warrior in battle. There is mention of copper helmets in a few codexs, but none have been found and in any case would have been extremely rare. Metal working for tools and weapons was not advanced and obsidian was the basic (and effective) material.

As during comparable periods on other continents the Aztecs wore no uniforms. Each side would identify itself with a prominently worn badge or insignia. This often would be elaborated to show also the rank of the wearer. With the myriad of colors in the cotton armor and the elaborate helmets an Aztec battle was a kaleidoscope of swirling colors. A young warrior was taught the use of weapons as part of his schooling. (All males were soldiers.) All boys were required to either be tutored or to attend the Telpuchcalli or public school. Later, in lieu of unit training and drills, a new warrior was attached to veteran for his first battles. This program was actually quite similar to the apprenticeship or squire systems developed for the same purpose in medieval Europe.

The tactics and weapons of the Aztecs were greatly influenced by the goal of their wars, captives and whatever tribute or land demanded. It was the ultimate sign of ability in a warrior to bring back from a battle a live enemy suitable for sacrifice. Warriors then often strived not to kill their enemy, but to knock him out or deliver a non-fatal, but disabling wound. A victory was valued then by the number of enemies captured, not killed. To this end warriors were trained rigorously in individual combat, with little emphasis on formations or teamwork. The best warriors were admitted to select societies of “knights.” Only the most skillful

(as judged purely by the number of captives taken) were allowed to enter. These were known as the Knights of the Eagle, the Knights of the Ocelot (Tiger), and a less common group the Knights of the Arrow. Helmets depicting their namesakes were often worn and ceremonial costumes that copied their coloration were worn in ceremonies and into battle. These orders performed dances and participated in rituals at the Tlacochcalco. They also participated in the mock battles of sacrifice. These Knights received large shares of land when conquered territories were divided between the warriors. (This practice gave an occupation force a way to support itself.)

A warrior who was slain in battle or sacrificed after a defeat was guaranteed entry into a special warriors heaven. This was to be found in the East and a special heaven for women who died in childbirth was in the West (they were felt to have sacrificed themselves for a potential new warrior). To die in these ways was the greatest honor a defeated warrior could receive. (Non-warriors and cowards were sold into slavery.) To some it was the culmination rather than the ruin of the lives. There is recorded the story of Tlahuicol who was a Tlaxclan chief. Having been captured in battle he was given the honor of the mockgladitorial sacrificial combat. This meant that he was chained to a large round stone representing the sun and given wooden weapons, (no obsidian points or edges), and attacked one at a time by members of the Knights of the Eagle. In single combat he managed to kill a few and wound several more. The combat was stopped and Tlahuicol was offered the choice of the generalship of the Tlaxclan army or to be the sacrifice in their highest ritual. He choose to be the sacrifice, viewing it probably as the greater honor.

These sacrifices were viewed then not as a punishment (criminals were killed or enslaved, but never sacrificed), but as an opportunity to give their final great contribution to their communities. It was believed that the sacrifices were needed to prevent the wrath of the gods and bring anything needed such as the rain or spring. Perhaps the only close honor was to obtain a prisoner in battle.

A typical Aztec battle consisted of both sides coming upon each other, quickly forming up to charge and then rushing at each other amid fierce cries. Quickly this would break down into many combats between individuals and small groups. Both sides would contend, until one seemed to be gaining an advantage. The other would then break and run, avoiding capture to minimize their enemy’s victory. Often the defeat and capture of a major chief was enough to cause the morale of one side to break.

Many stratagems were used. Feints and deception were common, especially in the battles between the major cities. It was a common maneuver for one side to fake a route and then lead their pursuers past a second force in hiding. This force would then fall on the rear of their pursuers while the routing force rallied. A cunning war chief was considered as valuable as a courageous one. Whoever won, sacrifices were assured and the gods appeased.

If there was no war occurring, then an artificial war was instituted to assure sacrifices and give the warriors an opportunity to prove their skills. This was incongruously named the “War of Flowers.” Though it was an artificial war those participating in it fought a very real battle. Many died and many more were captured for sacrifice before one group would concede defeat.

Invited to participate were the best Knights and warriors of two or more rival states. The best warriors contended to be able to participate. If he won, a warrior would gain in renown throughout the cities. If he was killed, the warrior was given the honor of cremation. Reserved only for warriors, cremation guaranteed entrance to the special warriors’ heaven. Finally, if defeated and captured a warrior was given the supreme honor of being sacrificed. So popular were these Wars of Flowers that some were repeated annually for years.

The institution of war among the Aztecs evolved into something quite different from that which we perceive. It was foremost a means by which an individual could serve the all important tribe or city. It was an inherently ritualized and mystic event of deep-meaning and necessity. It was the only means by which captives needed to appease their bloodthirsty gods (actually it was the hearts they tore out and offered still throbbing). In a truly collective, military society it was the one area where an individual could gain renown and prestige.

Aztec Command Structure

Tlacatecuhtli -War chief, C in C

Tlaxcola – Phratry Commander (4)

Tlochcautin – Clan Commander

Ælfred’s Defence

A reasonable attempt at illustrating the larger sized English ships and therefore their crew’s advantage in battle. Alfred responded to the threat by constructing a fleet of large longboats, each of which could carry a hundred men, to meet and fight off the invaders before they landed. This navy’s first battle was against four Danish ships in the Stour Estuary in 882, but it was his victory over the invading forces in the Thames estuary and off the coast of Essex in 897 that won Alfred the epithet ‘the Great’. King Alfred is now considered to be, in a way, the founder of the Royal Navy.

A storm was brewing in the east. In 889 one of the Scandinavian armies, which had enjoyed rich pickings among the fractured Frankish kingdoms in the previous decade, came out of the Seine and, sailing up the River Vire to St Lô, was heavily defeated the following year by a Breton army. The Host now moved north and east, penetrating the River Scheldt, and encamped at Louvain on the River Dijle, a tributary of the Scheldt, 10 miles (16 km) or so east of what is now Brussels. Here it was met by an army of East Franks, Saxons and Bavarians under King Arnulf, son of the late Carloman. The Host was put to flight, its camp overrun. The gloating annalist of the monastery at Fulda recorded that the river was blocked by the bodies of dead pagans.

That winter a severe famine struck the region, ravaging Christian and pagan communities alike. The Scandinavian armies, perhaps sensing that the fates were against them, now decided that their Frankish game was no longer worth the candle. Odo, de facto king of the West Franks since 888, saw an opportunity to be rid of their menace, and gave them sufficient ships to leave. The annalist of St Vaast wrote that ‘seeing the whole realm worn down by hunger they left Francia in the autumn, and crossed the sea’. En masse, and perhaps in collusion with Northumbrian and East Anglian allies, they determined to mount a decisive assault on the Angelcynn.

A highly detailed series of entries in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle for the next three years, at precisely the time when it was first being compiled, reads like an almost continuous war narrative, fought for the highest stakes. They crossed the Channel as two fleets: warriors, dependents, animals, the lot. Two hundred and fifty ships entered the mouth of the River Lympne on the south coast of Kent. Lympne, once a Roman port, is landlocked now, its ancient hythe lying high and dry at the foot of the chalk scarp that overlooks the flat expanse of Romney marsh; the Royal Military canal, a relic of more recent invasion fears, is its only access to the sea. During the ninth century the river was sufficiently deep to enable the Viking Host to row as far up as Appledore, now some 8 miles (13 km) from the sea and lying at the east end of the Isle of Oxney whence the River Rother once issued.

At or close by Appledore the Host captured ‘a fort of primitive structure, because there was [only] a small band of rustics in it’ and made of it a winter camp. Thirty miles (48 km) to the north, across the Downs of Kent, a smaller but no less menacing fleet of about eighty ships sailed up the Thames to the Isle of Sheppey; from there they rowed along the muddy channel of the River Swale and a mile or so up Milton Creek to make their winter camp uncomfortably close to the fortress at Rochester.

Canterbury offered rich pickings, as did trading settlements at Sarre and Fordwich and minsters on Thanet and Sheppey. Kent east of the Medway had not been fortified under Ælfred’s burghal plans of the 880s and we do not know what, if any, provision the Kentish administration had made for its defences. Ealdorman Sigehelm seems to have been a loyal ally of Wessex: his daughter became the third wife of Eadweard, Ælfred’s son and presumptive heir. Archbishop Plegmund was a member of Ælfred’s ‘renaissance’ court; a close political and military relationship is implied.

Without the defensive and offensive advantages of garrisoned fortifications, Ælfred could not hope to expel such large forces; nor could he concentrate his attack on one for fear of allowing the other to penetrate west into Wessex with impunity. He had not yet, it seems, installed Eadweard, who makes his first stage entrance in the year of the invasion, as sub-king in Kent. That Eadweard was being groomed to succeed him is in no doubt. He was provided with substantial estates in his father’s will, including all Ælfred’s booklands in Kent and, judging by the frequency with which he witnessed royal charters, he spent much time with the king on his itineraries through the shires.

Ælfred’s response to the arrival of the Continental fleets, early in 893, was to bring his own army to a point more or less equidistant between the two, unsure of their ultimate intentions. He had by this time instituted radical changes in the way his forces were able to respond to external threats. His field army, the was now divided into two, so that one force was always in the field, with a contingency for those permanently on standby to garrison the burhs. The system was now to be tested to its limits.

According to the Chronicle, the Host at Appledore disdained to take the field against Ælfred’s army. Instead its scouts, mounted warriors and foraging parties probed the edges of the vast dense woodland of the Weald: Andredesweald, the haunt of wild beasts, charcoal burners and an ancient iron-working industry stretching across the Downs as far as Hampshire. It was a form of guerrilla warfare: testing, teasing. They moved ‘through the woods in gangs and bands, wherever the margin was left unguarded; and almost every day other troops, both from the levies and also from the forts, went to attack them either by day or by night’.

Only after Easter did they abandon their redoubt and their fleet at Appledore and march west; they kept to ‘the thickets of a huge wood called Andred by the common people, spread as far as Wessex [Occidentales Anglos’. and gradually wasted the adjacent provinces, that is Hamtunscire and Bearrucscire’ and After this campaign of plundering with no attempt, it seems, at conquest, during which they were apparently shadowed but not engaged in open battle, they ‘seized much plunder, and wished to carry that north across the Thames into Essex to meet the ships’.

Sometime during the early summer of 893 they were brought to battle at Farnham ( Fearnhamme: ‘River meadow where ferns grow’) on the River Wey in Surrey. The Chronicle is silent regarding the names of the commanders, but Æðelweard, writing a hundred years later and drawing on material from a lost version of the Chronicle, names the West Saxon leader as Eadweard, the king’s son. Eadweard’s forces inflicted a heavy defeat on the Host, injuring its leader and retrieving all the booty that had been taken during the rampage across Sussex. The mycel here was driven north over the Thames somewhere near Staines, apparently in such disarray that they did not even manage to find a ford. One imagines the pell mell chaos of a rout: baggage, weapons, loot and even armour cast aside; panic, slaughter on the river banks and bodies floating downstream.

The survivors followed the course of the River Colne as far upstream as the island called Thorney (on the north-west periphery of the Heathrow Airport complex, now swallowed by a motorway interchange) and, their commander too ill to flee further, found themselves besieged by Eadweard.

At the point of victory the momentum was lost: according to the Chronicle the levies, coming to the end of their deployment, ran out of provisions and left for home. Æðelweard says that the ‘barbarians’ asked for peace and that the West Saxons negotiated their withdrawal with an exchange of hostages; the Host retired not to Kent, but to East Anglia. But these accounts pose more questions than they answer. After Eadweard’s brief appearance at Farnham and Thorney his role in the war of 893-894 is obscure. Was he written out of the official Ælfredan narrative to ensure that the king stood alone as hero? Or was his inability to keep his levies in the field regarded as a failure of leadership or loyalty? Who were these levies: his own retinue, certainly, and also those of the shires which had been ravaged by the Host, perhaps: Hampshire and Berkshire? But it is an intriguing possibility that, in preparation for his installation as sub-king of Kent, which may have happened in about 898, Eadweard was already in command of the Kentish levies; that they regarded themselves as having gone far beyond the traditional call of duty in chasing the Appledore Host across the southern shires and then beyond the Thames. And then, Æðelweard says that while Eadweard was still at Thorney, his brother-in-law Æðelred, ealdorman and sub-king of Mercia, came from London to his aid. If so, why lift the siege? Despite the contemporaneity of the Chronicle and the value of Æðelweard’s insider information at court, it seems that either the complexities of the 893 campaign were such that no coherent account could be constructed; or, if one wants to detect political undercurrents, the West Saxon spin doctors were already at work to contrive an official account that would cover unsightly stains and keep the narrative focused on Ælfred.

Ælfred’s policy had always been to bargain straight and trust the enemy’s sense of decency: it seems extraordinarily naive. Time and again the Scandinavian armies accepted Ælfred’s terms and defaulted, as they had so often in Francia. Given the otherwise sophisticated strategies displayed during the Viking wars, one must surmise that the underlying rationale of the Angelcynn leadership was always to buy time and limit its own casualties. There is a fine line between appeasement and low cunning.

The West Saxon and Mercian leadership now anticipated fighting wars on multiple fronts. Their principal fear was probably not either Host in isolation but that the two forces should combine and that the slumbering giants of East Anglia, Danish East Mercia and Northumbria might join in. While Eadweard had expelled the Appledore Host from Wessex, Ælfred seems to have concentrated diplomatic efforts on persuading the force under Hæsten, in the Thames estuary, to cross the Thames to Essex. If this war band leader is to be identified with the Viking raider whose name appears periodically like a rash in Continental sources spanning half a century, then the Angelcynn had good reason to fear him. He is implicated in a notorious series of raids deep into the Mediterranean in the years 859-862, with campaigns along the Loire at the end of that decade and into the 870s. Later tradition has embellished his feats and cruelties; even so, he seems to have been an unusually successful and energetic warlord over several decades. Whatever the truth, his career took him to the mouth of the Thames in 893.

In the uncertain political aftermath of Guðrum’s death, Ælfred and Æðelred may have hoped that Hæsten would compete for the East Anglian kingship, killing two birds with one stone. We gather, from events later in 893, that while the Host lay at Milton Regis, Hæsten and his family received baptism. At least, the Chronicle records that his two sons were godchildren of, respectively, Ælfred and Æðelred. No such ceremony is likely to have been conducted without a peace deal ensuring that the Deniscan would leave Wessex alone; they had, it seems, been paid off. Given that Æðelred is recorded as co-sponsor, we might reasonably argue that the venue for both negotiation and ceremony was London, the timeshare capital for Mercia and Wessex and symbol of their alliance.

Hæsten’s fleet duly crossed the estuary and built a fortress in Essex, at Benfleet (Beamfleote: ‘Tree creek’) overlooking the edge of the marshes to the north of Canvey Island, even as their comrades were fighting their way out of trouble across the Upper Thames. Here the remnants of the Appledore Host also arrived that summer and the two forces now combined. The Angelcynn had bought time in exchange for future trouble; and they are unlikely to have anticipated the grim news coming from the West Country. A Northumbrian fleet had sailed south from a port somewhere on the Irish Sea†† and landed on the north Devonshire coast, while an East Anglian fleet, sailing along the south coast, now besieged Exeter.

This turn of events in the west looks like a co-ordinated plan to draw West Saxon forces away from the east and open up a second front. Hæsten, it appears, had successfully enrolled both the East Anglians (Guðrum’s veterans of the campaign of 877-878, perhaps) and those of Guðroðr, the nominally Christian king of Scandinavian York, in his plan to finish what the mycel here had begun in the 860s. If the community of St Cuthbert recorded their reaction to their adopted king’s involvement, it has not survived.

Ælfred’s reaction was to march westwards with the bulk of the West Saxon levies, leaving Eadweard and Æðelred‡‡ behind to confront Hæsten and the, by now, combined forces from Milton and Appledore at Benfleet. They marched east through London, picking up extra forces as they went. When they arrived at Benfleet they found a part of the combined Host in residence; but Hæsten was away on a raiding expedition in Mercia. In a stunning coup, the English put the Host to flight, stormed the fort and took possession of everything inside, including Hæsten’s wife and children. The ships of their considerable fleet were burned, sunk or otherwise taken to Rochester or London. For good or ill the Host could not now retire to the Continent whence they had come.

The Chronicle makes much of the victory at Benfleet and of Ælfred’s magnanimous treatment of Hæsten’s family, restoring them to the warlord in a one-sided gesture of good faith; but Æðelweard ignores the Benfleet episode entirely and, given that the Host was able to take to the field again very shortly, and in dangerous numbers, we may judge that the bulk of its fighting force had been absent with their commander, leaving behind only a small garrison and the baggage train in his new fort. The victory at Benfleet had not, perhaps, been all that glorious.

Far to the west, the East Anglian and Northumbrian forces retired to their ships on Ælfred’s arrival, precisely achieving their broader purpose to draw the main West Saxon fyrð from the east. Hæsten’s combined army, dispossessed of its fort at Benfleet, now took up station in a new stronghold at Shoeburyness ( Sceobyrig on Eastseaxum: ‘the fort on the shoe-shaped spit’) nearly 10 miles (16 km) to the east.

In that whirlwind year of punch and counterpunch, a new phase now opened. With the apparent knowledge that the fyrð was otherwise occupied, the Deniscan once again left their fortress and with extraordinary boldness marched along the entire length of the Thames into Gloucestershire, making a rendezvous with forces from Northumbria and East Anglia that seeped (or swept) through the Mercian border.

Their intention must now have been to wage a final war of conquest, staking everything on a swift victory; but the geography of southern Britain had changed since the campaigns of the 870s. The forts of the Burghal Hidage, with their well-provisioned and trained garrisons, severely compromised the Host’s ability to live off the land, to steal or buy horses and force the submission of shire ealdormen. The old river route, which had enabled deep and swift penetration into the heartlands of the Angelcynn, was closed to them.

At Sashes, Wallingford, Oxford and Cricklade, along the full length of the Thames, they faced opposition secure behind new walls; opposition with the benefit of intelligence forewarning them of the advancing Host. The portable wealth of the countryside, its livestock, was corralled behind ramparts. The formerly overflowing cupboard of the Anglo-Saxon landscape was bare; and, for once, the Host was unsupported by its fleet, having lost the bulk of its ships at Benfleet. Moreover, the West Saxon-Mercian alliance was solid: Æðelred’s loyalty, sealed by his marriage to Ælfred’s daughter, Æðelflæd, was unimpeachable. There is no hint that even disaffected ealdormen would throw in their lot with the invaders.

These were epic campaigns: battle-weary veterans on forced route marches through enemy territory, denied the means to live off the land and at all times watched, pursued and hunted by an exhausted but determined fyrð under active, committed commanders. If Francia had, finally, proved too hot to handle, then Wessex and Mercia were now also too well guarded, too deeply defended.

Avoiding the burhs, then, and no longer tied to the river, the most direct route for the Host would have been to take Akemen-nestraete from London, heading north-west through St Albans and Bicester towards the Fosse Way, which would lead them directly towards Gloucester, avoiding the Thames burhs. Here, perhaps, a gathering of warriors and their jarls from the north and east, even from potential allies among the Welsh and Irish, might have been arranged. The combined army, reaching the River Severn, now traced a route north along the ancient marcher lands of Hwicce (surely avoiding Worcester, already fortified with a burh; but how?), Magonsaete and Wrocansaete, beneath the ramparts of ancient hillforts and past the ruins of Roman towns; and then, as the river turned west and south, into Powys.

Even here the Angelcynn now had allies among those Welsh kings who had submitted to Ælfred after 880. All the time the Host was pursued by Æðelred, supported by the shire levies of Wiltshire and Somerset under Ealdormen Æðelhelm and Æðelnoth, who had long ago stood with Ælfred at Athelney and fought with him at Edington. The stores of the burhs, and their knowledge of the movements of the Host, allowed the pursuing levies to maintain pace and strength.

At Worcester, perhaps, the levies paused to regroup and resupply, to gather intelligence and take counsel. At Buttingtune on Sæferne staðe, a ford just north of Welshpool where the Severn meets Offa’s Dyke beneath the naturally imposing ramparts of the Long Mountain, the Host ran out of steam and built a fortress, as they had so often before. On their long march they had been unable to capture a single major settlement although they had, in all probability, wasted many smaller estates and vills. With Ælfred still occupied on his watching brief in Devon, the combined levies laid siege to the Host on the banks of the river and waited: waited until those inside were half-starved and had slaughtered all their horses for meat.

At last, in desperation, they broke out and, after a fierce engagement, with much slaughter on both sides, marched overland all the way back to Essex. This time, at least, they might retreat north-east into friendlier territory, through the lands of the Five Boroughs, tracking across Danish East Mercia and through East Anglia; Æðelred’s forces were probably able to trace their progress but unable to engage them beyond the line of Watling Street.

It is an old axiom of military strategy that a powerful enemy should be afforded the means of escape. The destruction of the Host’s ships at Benfleet closed its back door to the Continent. Another plan seems now to have occurred to Hæsten. For the third time in twelve months, and with winter’s dark days approaching, he led his forces overland again and this time, according to the Chronicle, they marched day and night, right along the Mercian frontier. At this speed, perhaps, they might use the metalled road of Watling Street and outrun the fyrd. They reached a ‘deserted fortress in Wirral [ Wirhealum: ‘the hollows where the bog myrtle grows’], called Chester’ (þæt hie gedydon on anre westre ceastre on Wirhealum, seo is Legaceaster gehaten).

If Hæsten hoped to buy himself time, to refortify and provision Chester, to make contact, perhaps, with friends in Gwynedd and across the Irish Sea in Dublin, he had again underestimated the capabilities of his enemy. Shortly after the Host’s arrival at Chester, Æðelred’s Mercian levies surrounded the old Roman fort and set about implementing an aggressive scorched-earth policy, stripping its hinterland of cattle, grain and horses and sweeping up unsuspecting foraging parties so that the Host should have no provisions for winter. By now, with corn reaped and threshed and trees losing their leaves it must have been difficult to keep any army in the field. It seems that the fyrð now withdrew; Hæsten, his options diminishing, marched his army into Wales, hoping to scavenge sufficient provisions for the winter. Here again he was denied, the land having been emptied of cattle and grain; instead, he plundered booty: bullion, jewellery, coin—anything to make this disastrous campaign seem worthwhile and satisfy his veterans.

The Welsh raid, diminished by a dismissive account in the Chronicle, was serious: the Annales Cambriae record its progress all through Brycheiniog and Gwent. Hæsten led the Host on a final, dispiriting march all the way across Northumbria and East Anglia out of the reach of the levies, to Mersea on the Essex coast, and relative safety, some time in the New Year of 894. Here they were joined by the remnants of the East Anglian fleet which had invested Exeter and which, raiding along the south coast on its way home, had been put to flight by the burh garrison at Chichester.

Now, at least, the Host had ships again, perhaps even sufficient to carry its forces back to the Continent. But its commanders were not done yet. Once more probing the edges of Wessex and Mercia, testing the mettle of the alliance, the Host left its baggage and camp followers, took to its ships and, during the summer of 894, sailed up the Thames estuary to the mouth of the River Lea opposite what is now Greenwich. The fleet rowed north past Stratford and its tidal corn mills, tracing the western edge of the great forest of Epping; past King Offa’s minster at Waltham (one wonders if it had been pillaged by earlier raiders) as far perhaps as Ware, whose name, literally ‘Weirs’, suggests the highest navigable point, close to Hertford. In 895 they built a new fortress at an unidentified spot, this time with access to their fleet: their escape route. In the late summer of that year the fyrð was sent to dislodge them; it was repulsed with serious casualties including, the Chronicle says, the loss of four of the king’s thegns. The Host’s intention was evidently to threaten London’s rich hinterland.

Ælfred, finally released from his long watching brief in the south-west, now brought his army across the Thames and camped somewhere on the south-west side of the Lea, ‘while the corn was being reaped’. This small detail evokes a vision of labourers in the fields, harvesting wheat with their saw-edged sickles; of oxen grazing on the stubble, stooks drying in hot August sun; of weary soldiers watching, leaning on their spears under shady trees; of barns filling with winter’s grain—like a bucolic passage from John Stewart Collis’s wartime reminiscences of the 1940s, perhaps.

Nothing more perfectly captures Ælfred’s own vision of the duties owed by a king to his people: of the idea of economic security guaranteed by the king’s peace in return for duty and render. Content that the harvest was protected, Ælfred set his mind to a military solution. Inspired, it seems, by the example of Charles the Bald in Francia, Ælfred now sought to block the fleet’s escape. He and his engineers found a suitable spot on the Lea, downriver from the enemy’s camp, and set the fyrð to constructing a bridge that would connect forts built on both banks.

The threat was sufficient; even before the bridge and forts were complete the Host abandoned their new fortress and once again marched west, this time as far as æt Cwatbrycge be Sæfern: Bridgnorth, a key crossing of the Severn in what is now Shropshire, some 13 miles (21 km) south of Watling Street, their likely route. Here they constructed a new fort, most likely on the west bank, and overwintered. Ælfred seems to have used the breathing space to bolster diplomatic efforts to isolate the Host. He sent Æðelnoth, his loyal Somerset ealdorman, to York to broker a treaty with Guðroðr. A year earlier the British chronicler of the Annales Cambriae had noted that Anarawd of Gwynedd ‘came with Englishmen to lay waste Ceredigion and Ystrad Tywi’; with Mercia and Gwynedd in collusion against the weaker Welsh kingdoms the Host’s last hope for a northern and Welsh alliance evaporated.

In this year, the Host dispersed, some to East Anglia, some to Northumbria, and those without stock got themselves ships there, and sailed south oversea to the Seine. The Host, by the mercy of God, had not altogether utterly crushed the English people, but they were much more severely crushed during those years by murrain and plague, most of all by the fact that many of the best of the king’s servants in the land passed away during those three years.

It is a salutary lesson for the historian, whose window on the remote past offers mostly the narrow view of great events, to learn that more damage was wreaked by the everyday woes of illness, poor harvests and diseased livestock—by the fates—than by the depredations of the Host. It is little wonder that while the Angelcynn reposed considerable and justifiable faith in their king, they also prayed to their God; and also, perhaps, to those capricious deities who had seemed for so long to favour their enemy: Oðin, Thor, Frey and the rest. Those same gods had run out of patience with the warriors whose apocalyptic thirst for battle, plunder and conquest had not, in the end, brought about Ragnarök, the last battle, and the dawning of a new world order.

The states of Wessex and Mercia, who had entered the lists against their Scandinavian antagonists so seemingly ill-prepared, had paid a heavy price for their education in modern warfare. They had been forced by extreme circumstances to adapt and to learn. Above all, perhaps, their appreciation of economic, military and political geography had undergone a decisive shift: by the end of the conflict they were more than a match for their enemies. They had mastered their own landscape. Ælfred had won his final victory at the age of forty-seven. He had successfully exploited the rules of lordship to embark on a most ambitious programme of military reform, maintaining the support of most of his nobility and attracting the loyalty of Mercians, Welsh and many others including, according to Asser, an assortment of Vikings, Gauls, Franks and Bretons. Now Ælfred was able to enjoy a few last years of peace in which to set the political and cultural seal on his brilliant military legacy.


The origins of ninjutsu, placed approximately between 500 and 300 B.C., are commonly linked (as are most Oriental arts of combat) to Chinese sources. Mention is often made of the interesting section on methods of espionage which is embodied in the ancient treatise The Art of War, written by the legendary Chinese general Sun Tzu. There is no single English term that can be used to define with precision this art or science, nor to accurately describe its practitioners, the notorious ninja. One translation of ninjutsu might be “the art of stealth,” which is a term commonly employed in the doctrine of bujutsu. This definition, however, identifies only one of the many characteristics and functions of ninjutsu—concealment, or the creating and perpetuating of an aura of mystery. The functions of the ninja may be represented in general as having been those of infiltration into hostile environments, performance of various acts of sabotage or assassination, and management of a successful escape once a mission had been accomplished. Infiltration of enemy centers and castles, in fact, gave rise to a particular subspecialization of ninjutsu which was known as toiri-no-jutsu, while slipping through enemy lines in time of open warfare or military alert became a specialty referred to as chikairi-no-jutsu. The various deeds to be performed once infiltration had been successfully accomplished were as varied as the military or strategic circumstances themselves. We can divide these deeds or acts into three main categories: first, the gathering of intelligence by espionage, and all of its correlated activities; second, assassination, subversion, destruction of enemy defenses; and third, action on the battlefield, including combat operations in almost every form, ranging from an open encounter to an ambush (whether against a defenseless victim or a heavily-protected lord).

Ninja, then, were often raiders who hired themselves out as spies, assassins, arsonists, terrorists, to the great and small lords of the Japanese feudal age. When certain “disreputable” tasks had to be undertaken, the honor-bound warrior (who was expected to fight openly against his foe in accordance with the rules of his profession) was not usually the one asked to perform them. Large organizations of ninja families, specializing in such tasks, were generally available to the highest bidder.

As spies, the ninja reportedly made their first notable appearance in the sixth century, with an employer of royal blood, Prince Regent Shotoku (A.D. 574–622). They were frequently hired by the fighting monks of the mountains, the redoubtable yama-bushi, who battled against both the imperial forces at the end of the Heian period and those of the rising military class (buke). Strong ninja guilds became firmly entrenched in Kyoto (which was virtually ruled by them at night), and their schools proliferated until there were at least twenty-five major centers during the Kamakura period. Most of these centers were located in the Iga and Koga provinces, and the concentration of these dangerous fighters had to be smashed time and time again by various leaders seeking to gain control of the central government. Oda Nobunaga is reported to have employed forty-six thousand troops against Sandayu at Ueno, destroying four thousand ninja in the process. The last impressive employment of these fighters on the battlefield seems to have been in the Shimabara war (1637), against forty thousand rebellious Christians on the island of Kyushu.

With the ascendancy of the Tokugawa and their heavily policed state, smaller groups of ninja were employed by practically every class against members of other classes, and even within a class by certain individuals against any clansmen who opposed them. Ninja were also used in the espionage network constructed by the shogun to control the imperial court and the powerful provincial lords. The ninja of Koga province, for example, were notorious throughout Japan as secret agents of the Tokugawa; and roaming bands of ninja are said to have engaged groups of warriors in local battles, either to suppress attempted sedition or to enlarge the ninja’s own territorial control. Individual lords and powerful members of other classes such as the merchants, for example, also employed the ninja, who left behind them an unbroken record of more than five hundred years of intrigues, disruptions, assassinations, and other assorted forms of disorder.

By the beginning of their teenage years, young ninja boys in the ninja villages of Iga and Koga will have internalized the basics of ninjutsu.

  1. Ninja kid learning the principles of balance, supervised by his dad, his primary instructor throughout his life.
  2. Young ninja learning underwater breathing techniques utilizing a bamboo tube. Later in life he might have to hide for hours under the surface of a lake or river to avoid detection by enemies.
  3. Vital swordsmanship training. Ninja kid taking his first lesson in how to deal with a ring of attackers. He has to anticipate how each bamboo rods will swing back and forth in order to avoid contact with them.
  4. Ninja boy in extensive missile practice, learning how to spin the shuriken and hit the target accurately.
  5. Young ninja learning survival skills traveling into the mountains and catering for himself. He is cooking a bag of rice buried under a campfire, with the rice wrapped in a cloth and soaked in water.
  6. Ninja child interviewed by the shonin, or head of the ninja settlement. He is assessing the child’s progress.
  7. 2-, 3- and 4-man techniques for jumping over tall obstacles like walls:
  8. Ninja teamwork with excellent acrobatic skills. On the other side of the wall the vigilant observer might conclude that the ninja has the ability of flying. In this technique one ninja runs forward carrying his mate on his shoulders, who then leaps from this lifted position.
  9. Two ninja assisting a third to maneuver over a wall by giving him a powerful ‘leg up’.
  10. Four men forming a human pyramid.
  11. Ninja utilizing an ashigaru’s yari, or long spear, to pole-vault over a ditch.

Reconnaissance became a primary concern during the Warring States period (Sengoku jidai, 1467– 1568) and centered on the famed spies known as ninja, whose activities were called ninjutsu (ninja arts and training). The widespread internecine warfare of the mid- to late-Muromachi period made infiltration and information-gathering a focus of military operations. Training in ninja techniques like those described below in “Dagger Throwing” and “Needle Spitting” have relatively recent origins in Japan, despite having developed out of espionage tactics that were fairly common in the medieval era. As with legends praising brave and virtuous samurai, modern (and medieval) misconceptions about ninja traditions have enhanced the ninja mystique. Clothed in notorious secrecy and black garments, and endowed with famed accuracy, acrobatic skills, and awe-inspiring weapons, these figures have played prominent roles in film and literature concerning the martial arts. Most ninja missions supplied little such drama, although concealing the identity of successful ninja was considered paramount.

Famed ninja bands, such as the Iga school (originating in present-day Mie Prefecture) and the Koga school (part of Shiga Prefecture today), were identified with the regions in which they began. Villages in these areas were entirely devoted to instruction and mastery of ninja techniques. Ninja who trained in such regional bands served as scouts, penetrating enemy territory to gather information, conduct assassinations, or simply to distract and confuse the enemy at nighttime. Daimyo relied upon legions of these figures beginning in the 15th century as domains competed for dwindling land and other resources.

Ninja techniques, known as shinobu in Japanese, included strategies of artifice, camouflage, and deception, as well as an array of weapons and tools designed especially for espionage and covert use. In the Warring States period, clandestine missions were critical to military tactics, and thus ninja practices were transmitted orally to maintain secrecy. While medieval samurai enjoyed a somewhat undeserved reputation for noble intentions and valor, ninja temperament was compared to that of a trickster who eschewed the forthright bravery of military retainers, preferring the advantages offered by ambush and sleight of hand. Opportunistic ninja offered themselves as assassins for hire and pirates during the nearly continuous unrest of the 15th to 16th centuries. They became a significant threat in the 16th century. For example, Oda Nobunaga sent 46,000 troops to Iga province in 1581, although tales recount that 4,000 were killed by the Iga ninja.

In the Edo period, threatened with extinction under the enforced Tokugawa peace, ninjutsu became a formal martial art which may have attracted followers simply because of the general fascination with these mysterious, elusive, seemingly magical figures. As ninjutsu became one of the most alluring of the standard 18 military arts (bugeijuhappan), samurai enthusiasts organized ninja teachers, classes, skill requirements, tools, weapons, and techniques systematically in manuals designed for instruction. One of the primary ninja manuals, the Mansen shukai, was compiled in 1676 by Fujibayashi Samuji. This important text detailed the traditions and techniques of the Iga and Koga schools of ninjutsu.

The ninja families were tightly-knit microcosms well integrated into larger groups (in accordance with the ancient clan pattern). There were leaders (jonin) who formulated plans, negotiated alliances, stipulated contracts, and so forth, which subleaders (chunin) and agents (genin) then carried out faithfully. These groups formed larger guilds with individual territories and specialized duties—all jealously guarded. A man seldom joined a group in order to become a ninja; he usually had to be born into the profession. The arts, techniques, and weapons of each family, of each group, were kept strictly secret, being transmitted usually only from father to son and even then with the utmost circumspection. Disclosure of ninjutsu secrets to unauthorized persons meant death at the hands of other ninja of the same group. Death usually also followed capture, either at one’s own hand or that of another ninja, who would leave behind only a corpse for the captor to question.

Books and documents (torimaki) related to the heritage, arts, and techniques of ninjutsu, therefore, were considered secret family treasures which it was the responsibility of each generation to preserve and transmit to the next. They contained instructions concerning those techniques of combat with which the ninja had to familiarize himself and which he had to master (including the traditional martial arts of the country: archery, spearmanship, and swordsmanship). In turn, the ninja cleverly adapted the use of these arts to suit his own devious purposes. He used an easily assembled short bow, for example, instead of the warrior’s long bow, and he also devised methods of telescopically reducing a spear—with astonishing results when it suddenly sprang into full extension. Members of the Kyushin ryu, a school of ninjutsu, became noted for their unorthodox methods of using a spear (bisento). Swords and other assorted blades, finally, were also used on the ends of various collapsible poles to which chains were attached for quick retrieval; often blades were projected by hidden springs, or they were simply thrown by hand according to the techniques of shurikenjutsu. The ninja were also masters of the techniques of iaijutsu, which enabled them to draw swords or daggers with blinding speed. The Fudo ryu, another school of ninjutsu in feudal Japan, was considered vastly superior in the development of this particular kind of dexterity with blades.

The ninja, however, also had a full array of specialized weapons for his exclusive use, each with its particular and fully developed method of employment. Blow-guns, roped knives and hooks, garrotes, various spikes (toniki), brass knuckles (shuko), an extensive assortment of small blades (shuriken), including dirks, darts, star-shaped discs, and so forth, were all included in his arsenal. The shuriken or “needles” were usually kept in a band containing up to five deadly missiles, and they could be thrown in rapid succession from any position, in any light, and from varying distances. The ways of throwing the shuriken seem to have been grouped together, attaining the status of a full-fledged art (shurikenjutsu). Even members of the warrior class reportedly studied its techniques in order to be able to use their short swords (wakizashi), daggers (tanto), and knives (such as the ko-gatana and kozuka) with greater accuracy and effectiveness at long distances. Shuriken could also be forged into a star-shaped disc with many sharp points radiating from a solid center. Sometimes called shaken, these sharp stars were usually thrown with a whipping movement of the wrist which sent them spinning toward their target—often unnoticed until it was too late. Especially famous were the chains or cords with a whirling weight on one end and a double-edged blade on the other (kyotetsu-shoge), which the ninja knew how to use with merciless precision; there was also the innocent-looking bamboo staff carried by an apparently unarmed pilgrim—the staff concealing, however, a chain with a weight at one end and a lead block at the other.

The ninja’s skill in penetrating enemy strongholds (houses, castles, military camps, individual rooms, etc.) was based upon his knowledge of practical psychology, as well as upon his mastery of a most impressive array of climbing devices (roped hooks, flexible ladders, special shoes, hand spikes, etc.), which he could also use as weapons. In addition, he usually carried breathing tubes and inflatable skins so that he could stay underwater for long periods of time or cross castle moats, lakes, or swamps with comparative ease. A skilled chemist (yogen) in his own right, the ninja often used poisoned darts, acid-spurting tubes, flash-powder grenades, smoke bombs, and so forth, cleverly adapting ancient Chinese discoveries in chemistry and inventions in explosives to his particular requirements. After the arrival of the Portuguese, he even used firearms. These weapons, in addition to the spiky caltrops which he dropped behind him as he made his escape, all contributed to his skill in evading capture by slowing down, blinding, killing, crippling, or merely surprising his pursuers.

Among the unarmed methods of combat which he mastered, jujutsu, in its most utilitarian and practical form, predominated. Schools of ninjutsu, however, also specialized in particular systems of violence seldom found elsewhere. The ninja of the Gyokku ryu, for example, were expert in the deadly use of the thumb and ringers against vital centers in the human body. This method became known as yubijutsu. The students of the Koto ryu were particularly proficient in breaking bones (koppo).

From the above, it appears obvious that a ninja was a truly dangerous foe, skilled and prepared to cope efficiently and ruthlessly with almost all the possible dimensions of armed and unarmed combat. His overall bodily control and range of muscular possibilities was often astounding. In addition to training in the various arts mentioned above, he is said to have been able to climb sheer walls and cliffs (with the help of certain equipment), control his breathing under water and his heartbeat under enemy scrutiny, leap from great heights (walls, etc.), disengage himself from knots and chains, walk or run for long distances, remain still for hours (even days, some authors claim), blend with shadows, trees, statues, and so forth, as well as impersonate people of every class, thus being able to move about freely even in areas which were under strict surveillance. In this context, his knowledge and command of practical psychology, as indicated earlier, appears to have been highly developed and is said to have included sleight of hand and hypnosis (saiminjutsu)—skills which may have formed the basis for a number of the ninja’s more startling exploits.

The Frankish Way of War

The kingdoms and peoples of Europe and North Africa just before the East Roman Emperor Justinian began his reconquest of the West.

On Foot or Horse?

It is generally accepted that (unlike the eastern Germanic tribes such as the Goths and Vandals), the Franks, Alamanni, Burgundians and other western Germans fought primarily on foot rather than on horseback. Although there is some truth to this, it is an oversimplification.

Many of the eastern Germans who lived for a while on the steppes of modern Ukraine would have had the space and pasture needed to raise and maintain good horse herds. These factors remained when some, such as the Ostrogoths, followed the Huns into the Hungarian Plain in the early fifth century. The open spaces where they lived would also have made horse-mounted mobility very important – almost essential. The western tribes who lived in relatively contained spaces in the forested and hilly lands on the east bank of the Rhine would have had less motivation or ability to develop cavalry armies.

That some Franks, Alamanni and Burgundians fought on horseback when they had suitable opportunities is indisputable. Various Frankish graves contain horse furniture and spurs while in some cases horses were interred nearby. Gregory of Tours’ account of Clovis’ son Theuderic fighting the Thuringians includes the detail that the Thuringians dug pits to disrupt the Frankish horsemen. The Franks of the sixth century – with the wealth of their conquests and the varied terrain of most of France at their disposal – would have had the opportunity to raise and maintain a substantial number of good cavalry mounts.

If an increasing number of Frankish, Alamanni and Burgundian warriors may have had the means to mount up in the first decades of the sixth century, they were still perfectly happy to fight on foot just as their ancestors had done. It may still have been their preferred way of fighting. Against the Thuringians a significant mounted force may have given the Franks an edge. Against the Ostrogoths and Romans in Italy – where every good solider was primarily a cavalryman – this would not have been the case.

In the centuries that followed, the Frankish warriors evolved into the finest cavalry of Western Europe – becoming the chivalry of medieval France. Most evidence suggests that this transition did not really start to take hold until the eighth century – well beyond the scope of this book. The evolution from tribal warriors on the Rhine to the rulers of France did, however, naturally transform the way the Franks fought. As they absorbed the last elements of the Roman army in northern Gaul along with the Alan and Sarmatian laeti, they would have found recruits who were more familiar with mounted warfare than their tribal ancestors. With all of Gaul at their disposal, along with the captured treasures of the Alamanni, Burgundians and Visigoths, the Franks of the sixth century would have had the wealth and land to equip their warriors with good weapons, armour and horses.

Frankish Weapons and Tactics

The Romans had no equivalent to the aggressive infantry tactics of the Franks. Sixth century Roman infantry were second-rate troops, more suitable for garrison duties rather than standing firm in line of battle. When they were deployed in battle, the Roman infantry usually had to be stiffened by dismounted cavalry as they were at Casilinum and in several other battles against the Goths. In such circumstances it would have made sense for the Franks, Alamanni and Burgundians to fight on foot to capitalize on the one advantage they had over the Romans rather than meeting them on terms in which the Romans had come to excel.

The modern historian Bernard Bachrach has postulated that the descriptions of Frankish tactics by Roman historians were distorted by the lenses through which they observed the events of their day. The offensive use of infantry would have been so surprising to them that they ignored everything else and concentrated their descriptions on the Frankish foot warriors. He has a point but probably overstates it. This is what the contemporary writers Procopius and Agathias have to say of the Frankish fighting methods:

Under the leadership of Theudibert [the Franks] marched into Italy. They had a small body of cavalry about their leader, and these were the only ones armed with spears, while all the rest were foot-soldiers having neither bows nor spears. Each man carried a sword, a shield and an axe. Now the iron head of this weapon [the axe] was thick and exceedingly sharp on both sides, while the wooden handle was very short. And they are accustomed always to throw these axes at one signal in the first charge and thus to shatter the shields of the enemy and kill the men. (Procopius)

A great throng of Germans came up and opened an attack by hurling their axes they slew many. (Procopius)

The military equipment of this people [the Franks] is very simple. They do not serve on horseback except in very rare cases. Fighting on foot is both habitual and a national custom and they are proficient in this. At the hip they wear a sword and on the left side their shield is attached. They have neither bows nor slings, no missile weapon except the double-edged axe and the angon which they use most often. The angons are spears which are neither very short nor very long. They can be used, if necessary, for throwing like a javelin and also in hand to hand combat, the greater part of the angon is covered with iron and very little wood is exposed. Above, at the socket of the spear. some points are turned back, bent like hooks and turned toward the handle. (Agathias)

In battle the Frank throws the angon. If it hits an enemy the spear is caught in the man and neither can the wounded man nor anyone else draw it out. The barbs hold inside the flesh causing great pain and in this way a man whose wound may not be in a vital spot dies. If the angon hits a shield it is fixed there, hanging down with the butt on the ground. The angon cannot be pulled out because the barbs have penetrated the shield. Nor can it be cut off by a sword because the wood of the shaft is covered with iron. When the Frank sees this situation he quickly puts his foot on the butt of the spear, pulling down so [his enemy] falls, his head and chest left unprotected. The unprotected warrior is then killed either by a stroke of the axe or a thrust with another spear. (Agathias)

Although Procopius says that the Franks did not carry spears, Agathias says that angons (javelins with long iron heads) were their primary weapons. The accounts are not entirely inconsistent. A charge by men on foot was proceeded with a volley of heavy throwing weapons – axes and/or javelins. This disrupted the enemy formation and the ability of the individual enemy warrior to defend himself. Then the Franks closed in for the kill. Such weapons and tactics would have been familiar to the ancient Romans if not their sixth century descendants.

These descriptions are perfectly consistent with the weapons and equipment found by archaeologists in Frankish graves. Many examples of relatively small, curved axe heads have been found, as have a number of long javelin shafts with conical armour-piercing heads which have small barbs at the base. The prominent iron shield bosses found in many Frankish graves would have been perfect for the warrior to punch into his opponent as he followed up the missile volley to finish his enemy off with a handheld weapon such as a short sword or a conventional spear.

A number of relatively conventional spearheads have also been found in Frankish graves which support Agathias’ statement that the Frank might finish off his opponent with a spear, contradicting Procopius who said that the Franks did not carry them. Archaeological evidence shows that a throwing axe (francisca) along with a short sword with a single edge (scramasax), were almost universal amongst Frankish warriors. Graves containing angon heads and long double-edged swords are almost always high-status warriors. A reasonable conclusion is that the best warriors, fighting in the front ranks, carried angons, franciscae and good swords, while lesser men may only have been armed with franciscae and short swords. This assumption helps to reconcile the apparently contradictory descriptions of Procopius and Agathias.

The sixth century descriptions of Frankish fighting methods are consistent with what Sidonius Apollinaris’ had to say of them in the previous century. Volleys of axes and spears preceded a charge into close combat with fast-running young men whirling their shields, anxious to be the first to reach the enemy.

Both Procopius and Agathias say that the Franks did not use bows, slings, or other longer-range missile weapons. When seen through the eyes of sixth century Romans whose mounted troopers were bow-armed and a substantial proportion of their infantry were too, this may well have seemed the case. Arrowheads and light javelin heads have been found in Frankish graves and an analysis of Alamannic graves shows that poorer men may have been archers while richer men tended to fight hand-tohand. It may be that such men would have fought to defend their home territory but were left behind on a major external expedition. In previous times the Franks and Alamanni were not averse to using missile weapons when it suited the terrain or their situation. At any time a number of men may have used bows in battle. Against the masses of bow-armed Romans in sixth century Italy it would have been even more pointless to bother with light missile weapons than attempting to meet the well-trained Roman cavalry on horseback.

So, what can we conclude from this?

The likelihood is that, after their conquest of Gaul, the Franks had a high proportion of good warriors who owned horses and could fight on horseback if the situation demanded it. Most, or all of them, could also fight effectively on foot in hand-to-hand combat and may even have preferred to do so – especially against enemies who had better cavalry. The Goths and Romans often dismounted to form a defensive line but the Franks also took the offensive when on foot. Indeed they seemed to prefer offensive tactics. Their throwing weapons and shields with prominent bosses seem most suited to a relatively loose attack formation which left enough room for each man to throw his axe or spear and punch forward with his shield as he charged into combat. When needed they could also call on men with bows to support them.

The Battle of Casilinum [Capua], AD 554.

At the Battle of Vouillé Gregory of Tours characterized the Visigoths `fighting at a distance’, while the Franks `tried to come to close combat’. This may be nothing more than a disparaging comment to contrast Visigothic cowardice with Frankish bravery. On the other hand, `fighting at a distance’ could describe hit-and-run tactics appropriate for men on horseback armed with javelins as well as spears. The Franks, armed and equipped with hand-to-hand weapons and very short-range missiles, would naturally have preferred `to come to close combat’ without bothering with preliminaries which would place them at a disadvantage. At Casilinum the Alamanni and Franks decided that their best option was to make a headlong charge on foot. They succeeded in piercing the Roman line but against an enemy with combined arms – foot, horse and archers – they were surrounded and cut to pieces. At Vouillé this tactic worked although we do not know how or why.

The headlong charge of the Franks came to be seen by the Romans as a characteristic of their way of warfare for centuries. A later sixth century Roman military manual (the Strategikon) has this to say of them:

The fair-haired races place great value on freedom. They are bold and undaunted in battle. Daring and impetuous as they are, they consider any timidity and even a short retreat as a disgrace. They calmly despise death as they fight violently in hand to hand combat. They are undisciplined in charging, as if they were the only people in the world who are not cowards.

Describing how Roman troopers were trained to use lances in a charge, learning from the Germans but maintaining better discipline, the Strategikon has this to say:

They (the front ranks) lean forward, cover their heads with their shields, hold their lances high as their shoulders in the manner of the fair-haired races. Protected by their shields they ride in good order, not too fast but at a trot, to avoid having the impetus of the charge breaking up their ranks before coming to blows with the enemy, which is a real risk.

Of course, these are generic descriptions of Germanic tactics and are not specific to the Franks. The Germanic Vandals, for example, fought exclusively on horseback by the sixth century and apparently had no tactic other than to charge into close combat. By the time the Strategikon was written, the Vandals were no more and the Ostrogoths had been defeated. The most important Germanic peoples, with whom the East Romans still had to deal with, were the Lombards and, of course, the Franks. The Lombards certainly had a sizeable force of mounted lancers. Many of them had fought for the Romans against the Ostrogoths and Franks. As the Strategikon was written at about the same time the Lombards were moving into Italy, it is more than possible that the description of the `fairhaired race’s’ tactical methods would have been influenced more by the Lombards than by the Franks.

In the years that followed, the East Romans came to call all Germans `Franks’, regardless of their origin. They were still renowned for their ferocious charge and increasingly it was on horseback. In the later medieval period, French armies were noted for the prowess of their mounted men at arms which often swept all before them.

Agathias wrote that the Franks did not wear armour and went into battle half-naked. This can be nothing more than a Greco-Roman stereotype of savage barbarians. From the time of Childeric in the mid fifth century, the Franks had access to Roman armouries and they also had talented smiths. Even if every man might not have been fully kitted out with helmet and body armour, the majority of a war leader’s comitatus of full-time retainers surely would have been. Graves of many high-status warriors contain helmets and some also have body armour. That lesser men were not buried with them does not necessarily mean they did not have access to armour. For a relatively poorer man such valuable items of equipment would likely have been passed on to his sons rather than being interred with him.

Waging Gentlemanly War

The Battle of Kawanakajima was an annual event fought between Uesugi Kenshin and Takeda Shingen. Both daimyo would ensure the battle ended in a draw.

Depiction of the legendary personal conflict between Kenshin and Shingen at the fourth battle of Kawanakajima.

Two of the early Sengoku Jidai’s most colourful daimyo were Takeda Shingen and Uesugi Kenshin. They represented the last of the gentlemen warriors, who conducted their warfare according to the honourable traditions of old. Every year for five years in a row the armies of Kenshin and Shingen met in the same place on the plain of Kawanakajima to do battle. Sometimes, when one army had gained the upper hand it would withdraw as a sign of respect for the opposition. When Shingen’s salt supply was cut off by Kenshin’s ally, the Hojo clan, Kenshin sent Shingen a supply of salt from his own stock, commenting that he `fought with swords, not salt.’

The first half of the fifteenth century in Japan saw sporadic rebellions taking place, all of which were quelled successfully until 1467, when a quarrel between two samurai houses developed into a military and political disaster. The resulting Onin War was fought largely around the capital and even in the streets of Kyoto itself, which was soon reduced to a smoking wasteland. The shogun at the time was Ashikaga Yoshimasa, Yoshimitsu’s grandson, who was totally unable to prevent a slide into anarchy. Instead Yoshimasa contented himself with artistic pursuits, and was one of the early devotees of the tea ceremony. He also built the Ginkakuji (Silver Pavilion) in an attempt to emulate his illustrious ancestor. His cultural achievements were many, but the power of the shogunate declined as never before.

With such a vacuum at the heart of Japanese politics, many samurai took the opportunity to develop their own local autonomy in a way that had not been seen for centuries. It was as if the powerful landowners of the Nara period had been reborn, and throughout Japan there was a scramble for territory. Some ancient families disappeared altogether to be replaced by men who had once fought for them and achieved local power through war, intrigue, marriage, or murder. Other ancient lines prospered, and found themselves having to share Japan with upstarts who may have started their careers as ashigaru (foot soldiers) but who now owned a considerable amount of territory, which they defended using wooden castles and loyal followers. These lords called themselves daimyo (great names), and led lives that were constantly being challenged by neighbors. Literally scores of battles took place, leading to the century and a half between 1467 and 1600 being dubbed the Sengoku Jidai (the period of Warring States), by analogy with a similar turbulent period in ancient China.

A good example of the trend was to be found in north-central Japan where the territories of the Takeda and Uesugi families were located. They were at war for half a century. Their most famous members, Takeda Shingen and Uesugi Kenshin, were princes in their own provinces, and led thousands of fanatically loyal samurai. Takeda Shingen is customarily credited with being the finest leader of mounted samurai in Sengoku Japan. At Uedahara in 1548 and at Mikata ga Hara in 1572, the Takeda cavalry rode down disorganized infantry missile units. But for cavalry charges to succeed, the old samurai tradition of singling out a worthy opponent for a challenge to single combat had to wait until the enemy line was broken, so group operations became the norm.

The Takeda and Uesugi fought each other five times at a place called Kawanakajima (“the island within the river”), a battlefield that marked the border between their territories. Not only were the armies the same, the same two commanders led them at each battle. In addition to this intriguing notion of five battles on one battlefield, Kawanakajima has also become the epitome of Japanese chivalry and romance: the archetypal clash of samurai arms.

In its more extreme form, this view even denies the possibility that anyone actually got hurt at the Kawanakajima battles, which are seen only as a series of “friendly fixtures” characterized by posturing and pomp. In this scenario the Kawanakajima conflicts may be dismissed as mock warfare. During some of the encounters, admittedly, the two armies disengaged before committing themselves fully to a fight to the death, but the wounds and the dead bodies were real enough, and the fourth battle of Kawanakajima in 1561 produced many casualties on both sides.

The Battle of Kawanakajima

The Age of Light-Armed Greek Warrior I

The Peloponnesian War ended in 404 and closed out the fifth century with a surprise attack. Lysander, the Spartan, tricked the Athenians at Aegospotami, by attacking their vessels at a regular hour and then calling off his fleet. Once this had become an established procedure, the Athenians dropped their guard after the Spartans dispersed. Then, when most of the Athenians had scattered according to their usual pattern, he returned, attacked and slew the rest, and captured all their vessels. The fourth century was thus ushered in with the defeat of the Athenian Empire and a Spartan hegemony that took its place and lasted until the Battle of Leuctra in 371. Sparta found itself engulfed in the so-called Corinthian war from 395 until 387 against a coalition of four allied states: Thebes, Athens, Corinth and Argos, which were initially backed by Persia. Then the Boeotian or Theban war broke out in 378 as the result of a revolt in Thebes against Sparta; the war would last six years.

There was obviously no shortage of warfare in the fourth century, and all sides continued to fight with hoplites, but the conditions of military life were slowly changing. Gone was the era of short military campaigns that took place only during the summer after the harvest. Cities were now attacked by night, fighting took place year-round, and atrocities were committed against civilians. The prolongation of campaigns and a change in tactics set the stage for the professionalisation of Greek armies. Whereas hoplite warfare had not necessarily called for very elaborate training, the use of missiles and the tactics of staging ambushes required training at a higher technical level. When light-armed troops were utilised everything depended upon movement. Rapid changes of position, sudden strikes, speedy retreats and ambushes were all operations that needed to be carefully prepared with accurate intelligence. Because such operations had to be well directed and executed with speed and determination, it could mean training one’s own troops or hiring well-trained mercenaries.

The change from militiamen to paid fighters meant a change from amateurs to professional soldiers. Foreign mercenaries were expensive and could not usually be hired in large numbers, but citizens could be recruited and trained to perform the same specialised functions provided by foreign, light-armed mercenaries. Athens’ overseas expeditions in the fourth century were all carried out by mercenaries.

Light-Armed Troops and Peltasts

An increasingly important role was played by light-armed troops in the fourth century, and they became a significant factor in the conduct and the outcome of battles. Although hoplites mattered most in set battle on a large scale, war on land now had a place for other arms and other methods than those of the hoplite phalanx. Smaller tactical units gave a new manoeuvrability that had been impossible in traditional hoplite lines. These new troops became effective in gaining tactical advantage, usually through a sudden, surprise assault. Small striking forces became especially important in fifth-column operations.

There were several types of light troops, the most common being archers, slingers and peltast-javelin men.8 The peltasts became the most effective of the light-armed troops. Peltasts were a sort of mean between the extremes of heavy and light-armed men. They had all the mobility of light-armed troops, and yet sufficient offensive and defensive armour to cope, with a fair amount of success, with small bodies of hoplite troops (i.e. those not in set-piece battles). Using peltasts would increase the ability of Greek armies to stage surprise attacks and ambushes. The name peltast comes from the fact that they were armed with a pelte (Thracian shield). In place of a dagger, they might also carry a kind of scimitar, a curved sabre known as a machaira, which could be used to deal slashing blows. Peltasts were not much help in stopping a hoplite force head on; their main use was to protect the flanks of an advancing hoplite army against attacks from the light-armed troops of the enemy. The majority of Greek states had an organised body of light-armed troops. Athens was an exception until this was changed by commanders such as Iphicrates and Chabrias.

Although their weapons might seem simple, these light troops were specialist soldiers. Their way of fighting entailed a higher degree of specialisation than the relatively straightforward, spear-and-shield techniques of hoplites fighting in formation. The accurate use of missile weapons was a skill acquired and maintained only by regular and constant practice. For this reason, light-armed troops tended to be professionals. At first, they were foreign mercenaries recruited in Thrace, Crete and Rhodes; later, they were natives recruited locally from city-states. Athens was the first to transform some of the poorer citizens into light troops.

The Athenian general Iphicrates is credited by two ancient sources – Diodorus and Cornelius Nepos – with reforming the equipment of his hoplites. These military reforms have long been the subject of scholarly debate, but what is clear is that they were much better equipped to stage ambushes. Iphicrates did away with the large hoplite shield – the aspis – and replaced it with the smaller pelta. He also lengthened the sword (xiphous) and the spear (doratos). Of course, there were peltasts in use long before this time in other regions of Greece, but now the reform was coming to Athens.

The defeat of the Athenian hoplites by light-armed cavalry and peltasts at Spartolus, the successful defence by Acarnanian slingers of Stratus against Peloponnesian hoplites, or the destruction of Ambraciot hoplites by Amphilochian light-armed, not only reinforced the lessons learned from the experience in Aetolia and Sphacteria but also carried them still further. From the last phases of the Peloponnesian war and, continuing into the fourth century, armies began to contain significantly higher numbers of specialised troops than Classical ones had fielded. This included the growth of a corps of archers, the addition of light-armed troops, the rise of mercenary troops recruited largely from abroad, and the development of cavalry.

Generalisations about mercenary service can be misleading. It is commonly assumed that mercenary soldiers did not become a significant factor of Greek social and political history before the fourth century. In fact, however, Greek mercenary soldiers had been serving in armies of southeast Mediterranean powers since the Archaic Age. The reasons for soldiers becoming mercenaries and their terms of service vary. In Crete, for example, one would cite demographic developments and military traditions as well as socio-economic crisis. Another accusation that dogged military operations was that the systematic use of mercenaries encouraged a selfish inertness at home, a dangerous licentiousness in the free companies abroad, and that it diverted the energies of the ablest citizens from patriotic objects to the baser pursuit of plunder and military fame. The fact is, however, that soldiers did not take up this line of work because it was so lucrative. Service in places such as Persia and Egypt might be lucrative, but service in Greece proper was not. Soldiers in the fourth century accepted military service knowing that there was no money in it for them unless they looted, stole or won booty.

Hoplite Armour and Hamippoi

Another military innovation that occurred in the fourth century was the lightening of the hoplite panoply. Some hoplites were still sporting extensive metal armour in the mid-fourth century, but the overall trend of the Classical period seems to have been a progressive lightening of hoplite armour. This made hoplites more mobile and thus better able to cope with the challenges of difficult terrain, enemy skirmishers and ambushes. Lighter panoplies were also cheaper. Konrad Kinzel suggests that this enabled more citizens to equip themselves as hoplites and enjoy the attendant political status that went with this type of fighting. But were these troops really hoplites any more? Nick Sekunda also describes the shift in the use of armour plate in the late fifth century. He seems to think that armour all but disappeared as the Spartans were depicted wearing only a pilos helmet and tunic, no cuirass, greaves, etc. and Boeotian hoplites were all but naked. Does this indicate a change in battlefield tactics? The availability of materials? And were these soldiers still considered ‘hoplites’, i.e. heavy infantry? It certainly contributed to them being more mobile and able to counter attacks by light-armed soldiers.

Another military innovation of the fourth century was the introduction of hamippoi, a type of light-infantry corps that ran behind cavalrymen. The hamippoi were trained to fight alongside the cavalrymen. They would go into battle holding on to the tails and manes of the cavalry horses. Hamippoi were particularly useful in a straight cavalry fight, where they would hack at the enemy horsemen. One of their signature manoeuvres was to slip underneath the enemy horse and rip its belly open with a dagger. This certainly suggests that service in the hamippoi was not for the faint-hearted. In his pamphlet On the Duties of the Hipparch, Xenophon recommends that the Athenians raise a corps of such men from among the exiles and other foreigners in Athens, who had special reason to be bitter against the enemy. Xenophon saw their value as being able to deliver a surprise as he points out that they could be hidden among and behind taller mounted troops.

Hamippoi were first mentioned serving in the forces of the Syracusan tyrant Gelon, where his 2,000 cavalry were accompanied by an equal number of hippodromoi psiloi or psiloi who run alongside the cavalry. Hamippoi are found in the Boeotian army during the Peloponnesian war. When the Spartan army was reorganised some time after the Battle of Mantinea in 418, the 600 skiritai were not folded into the ranks of the morai but were converted into the hamippoi and fought alongside the 600 cavalry.

In short, as the fifth century progressed into the fourth, the trend was to lighten the armour of the hoplites and add soldiers from the lower classes, who could perform various new duties that required greater speed and manoeuvrability. This made ambushing more difficult and less likely if each side had mobile troops that could improvise.

The Generals in the Fourth Century

The need to develop specialised, light-armed troops encouraged the rise of professional generalship in the fourth century. The proper handling of such troops required something more than amateur leadership. Fourth-century generals had to recruit different types of soldiers, who used different types of weapons and tactics. W. K. Pritchett dedicates a chapter of the second volume of his comprehensive work, The Greek State at War, to this new breed of general. Their careers were made possible by the changing political and military circumstances, and new operating conditions dictated some new fighting techniques. The military commanders in the late fifth and early fourth centuries had to conduct military operations more and more independently, relying on their own skill and talent. They developed increasingly strong ties with their army rather than just their polis. The independence of fourth-century commanders was a function of long-term service abroad and of operating independently of their home authorities. How much freedom they enjoyed in the field can probably never be precisely determined, but those who were elected or appointed to office by the larger city-states seem to have discharged their functions with as much loyalty as similar officials in the fifth century.

Another motivation for the increased use of novel techniques and stratagems was that fourth-century military forces were sent out without being provided with money. The generals were expected to raise funds by plunder, by contributions from allies or even by foreign service. They and their troops seem to have had unlimited permission to plunder the enemy’s country. In the fifth century, mercenaries had been dismissed when the state lacked funds, but conditions had greatly changed in the fourth century. A great number of the stratagems that are collected in Polyaenus and assigned to Athenian generals of the fourth century have to do with the raising of money to pay their troops. Six of the stratagems preserved in Polyaenus on Jason of Pherae, for example, deal with means for securing funds.

Even with these new troops, staging an ambush was no easier to accomplish in the fourth century than it was in the fifth. Naturally, it was best done with soldiers who were trained by their leaders in the skills needed for such operations. This is where the light-armed troops, especially peltasts, excelled. Light-armed troops, unlike hoplites, were trained to be highly responsive and flexible. They had to be able to close with the enemy and kill quickly. Light infantrymen could be used to destroy the enemy on his own ground, make the best of initiative, stealth and surprise, infiltration, ambush and night operations. Iphicrates trained his light-armed troops by staging fake ambushes, fake assaults, fake panics and fake desertions so his men would be ready if the real thing happened. Light infantrymen were not tacticians; they could not respond mechanically to a set of conditions on a battlefield with a pre-determined action like a phalanx. Whoever led the ambush had to know how to use initiative, understand intent, take independent action, analyse the field of operations, collect intelligence and make rapid decisions. Initiative meant bold action and often involved risks. Initiative by the tactical leader may have been independent of what higher commanders wanted done to the enemy. The men such leaders worked with were soldiers trained to fend for themselves through hardship and risk in hostile, uncompromising terrain. Such operations built a greater degree of teamwork and skill than other types of infantry formations as a result of the stress put on adaptability, close-combat skills and independent action.

Fourth-Century Ambush

Greek literature in the fourth century contains much more information on ambush than its fifth-century counterpart. Even didactic works such as Xenophon’s Cyropaedia, while wholly removed from the context of real events, give lessons about commanding a Greek army. The ambush against the forces of Gadatas42 is a classic use of clandestine communications and the laying of an ambush among a cluster of small villages. We can also see a classic deception operation, where soldiers are arrayed along with the baggage train and the women to make their force seem larger than it is. Any enemy attack would have to make a wider circuit around them and thereby thin out their own lines.

We cannot always be sure of the dates or even the historicity of certain stratagems, but they all seem to describe generic situations that crop up again and again. One of the most common ways to stage an ambush, for example, was to attack an army on the march. Polyaenus gives an undated example of the detection of such an ambush. While leading his army, Tissamenus saw many birds flying above a particular place, but not settling on the ground, and he concluded that they shrank from settling because they feared men lying in ambush. After investigating the spot, he attacked and cut down the Ionians who were waiting in ambush. This is a much repeated story, with several Roman commanders using the same tactic.

Another piece of good advice was to be ready for an ambush whether you were expecting one or not. Polyaenus tells a story about Arxilaidas the Laconian who, around 370/69, was about to travel a suspicious road with his army. Pretending he had advance intelligence which he did not, he ordered them to advance prepared for battle because the enemy lay in ambush. But by chance a large ambush was discovered. He attacked first and easily killed all those in ambush, outsmarting them by his advance preparations.

Playing on the known habits of barbarian tribes was another common practice. Polyaenus relates several stratagems used by Clerachus against the Thracians, which presumably date from a time just prior to his entering the service of Cyrus. All illustrate the frequency of Thracian nocturnal attacks. This practice, according to Polyaenus, enabled Clearchus the Spartan to set an ambush for one of the local Thracian tribes, the Thrynians. He withdrew a little distance with a number of soldiers, and ordered them to hit their shields, as was the Thracian habit, putting all the Greeks in camp on alert. When the Thracians attacked, they expected to find everything in camp peaceful and quiet, but the Greeks were ready for them and they were beaten off with severe losses. When the Thracians sent envoys to negotiate a peace, Clearchus had the bodies of a few dead Thracians cut up and strung from trees. When the envoys asked about the meaning of the spectacle, they were told that a meal for Clearchus was being prepared! Such antics as these caused people to question the ethical aspects of Clearchus’ conduct, but his military qualities are beyond dispute. He displayed great military insight in critical situations and this meant using whatever tactics worked.

The instances of surprise attacks, night marches and ambushes gathered in this chapter show how common ambushes had become in Greek warfare. This included not only light-armed troops but also hoplites being used for manoeuvres off the regular battlefield. Against hoplites, the function of peltasts was so often harassment, and the night was the most advantageous time. Isocrates equated peltasts with pirates.

Pursuing a fleeing army was a tactic that also became more common because of the mobility of light-armed troops. Plutarch tells us that the Spartans thought it ignoble for the Greeks to kill men who were fleeing, and adds that this policy made enemies more inclined to run away than fight. The practical reason for doing this, however, was not a lack of morality but rather a tactic to avoid the kind of thing that happened after the Battle of Haliartus in 395. The Thebans pursued the Spartans into the hills, where the Spartans immediately turned on them and attacked back with javelins and stones. They killed more than 200 Thebans. Practicality played a bigger part in Greek military policy than moralising.

The shock over the effectiveness of these new soldiers and their new tactics became apparent when a detachment of peltasts won a brilliant victory over Spartan soldiers at Lechaeum in 394. The commanders Callias and Iphicrates, looking down from the walls of Corinth, could see an approaching mora of Spartan soldiers. The Spartans were not numerous and were not accompanied by any light-armed or cavalry. The Athenans commanders determined that it would be safe to stage an ambush with their own peltasts. They could aim their javelins at the Spartans’ unshielded side when they passed. Callias stationed his hoplites in the ambush not far from the city walls, while Iphicrates led the peltasts in an attack, knowing if they lost they could retreat more quickly. The Spartan commander ordered a group of the youngest soldiers to pursue the assailants, but when they did so they caught no one, since they were hoplites pursuing peltasts at a distance of a javelin’s cast. Besides, Iphicrates had given orders to the peltasts to retire before the hoplites got near them. Then, when the Spartans were returning from their pursuit, out of formation because each man had pursued as swiftly as he could, Iphicrates’ troops turned around and not only did those in front again hurl javelins at the Spartans but others on the flank also ran and attacked them on their unprotected side.

Having lost many of their best men, with their returning cavalry’s support, the Spartans again attempted to pursue the peltasts. Yet when the peltasts gave way, the cavalry bungled the attack by not pursuing the enemy at full speed but, rather, kept an even pace with the hoplites in both their attack and their retreat. Finally, not knowing what to do, the Spartans gathered together on a small hill about two stades distant from the sea and about sixteen or seventeen stades from Lechaeum. When the Spartans in Lechaeum realised what was happening, they got into boats and sailed alongside the shore until they were opposite the hill. The men on the hill were now at a loss as to what to do; they were suffering dreadfully, and dying, while unable to harm the enemy in any way, and in addition they now saw the Athenian hoplites coming at them. At this point they gave way and fled, some throwing themselves into the sea, while a few made it to safety to Lechaeum with the cavalry. The total dead from all the skirmishes and the flight was enormous; the Spartans had lost half their number in a skirmish with Iphicrates’ peltasts.

Iphicrates, the ambusher, had to beware of ambushes himself. Polyaenus reports that the Spartan harmost (military governor) set an ambush that caught Iphicrates off-guard while he was marching towards the city of Sicyon in 391. Iphicrates immediately retreated by a different, short, trackless route. He selected his strongest troops, fell on the ambushers suddenly and killed them all. He admitted that he made a mistake by not reconnoitring the area, but he exploited his prompt suspicion of an ambush well by quickly attacking the ambushers.

Iphicrates won several successes in the Corinthian war, such as the recapture of Sidous, Krommyon and Oinoe from the Spartans. Several scholars have seen the similarities in the tactics used by Iphicrates’ peltasts and those that the Aetolians had used against Demosthenes, or that Demosthenes in turn used against the Spartans on Sphacteria. The success of Iphicrates was a suggestive sign of the future which might be in store for the professional peltast. The fact that they could defeat the Spartans boosted their ego and was a blow against Spartan prestige. As Parke describes it:

This success of the peltasts … was sufficient to make Iphicrates’ name forever as a general. Moreover it conferred on this type of light-armed troops a reputation for deadliness in battle which they had never before enjoyed in popular estimation. To this new esteem may be attributed the frequent appearance of peltasts in all armies, especially in the Athenian, during the next half-century. Henceforth, they become the typical form of light-armed troops and superseded the less-clearly specified, earlier varieties.

Ambushing, at what some commentators consider ‘inappropriate times’, now became a habit. Of course, what other time than ‘inappropriate’ could an ambush be? Several surprise attacks are attributed to Iphicrates by Frontinus. In one, Iphicrates attacked a Spartan camp at an hour when both armies were accustomed to forage for food and wood.

Another ambush on which Xenophon provides fairly detailed information took place in 388 in the Hellespontine region. The Spartans sent Anaxibius to Abydos as harmost (military governor) to relieve Dercylidas. He immediately took the offensive against the Athenians and their allies. The Athenians feared Anaxibius would find a way to weaken their position, and sent Iphicrates with eight ships and 1,200 peltasts to the Hellespont. First the two commanders just sent raiding parties against each other, using irregulars. Then Iphicrates crossed over by night to the most deserted portion of the territory of Abydos, and set an ambush in the mountains. He ordered his fleet to sail northwards along the Chersonese in order to deceive Anaxibius into believing they had left the area. Anaxibius suspected nothing and marched back to Abydos, but made his march in a rather careless fashion. Iphicrates’ men in the ambush waited until the vanguard of hoplites from Abydos had reached the plain, and at the moment when the rearguard consisting of Anaxibius’ Spartans started coming down from the mountains they sprang the ambush and rushed to attack the rearguard. Anaxibius’ army formed a very long and narrow column and it was practically impossible for his other troops to hasten uphill to the aid of the rearguard. He stayed where he was and fought to the death with twelve other Spartans. The rest of the Spartans fell in flight. Only 150 hoplites from the vanguard still managed to get away but only because they had been in the front of the column and were nearer to Abydos. This makes the probable percentage of losses in the middle of the column somewhere between that of the totally destroyed rearguard and the twenty-five per cent of the vanguard. Iphicrates went back to the Chersonese with a successful operation behind him. This carefully planned ambush, and indeed Iphicrates’ victory, have been compared to a successful guerrilla operation. With the defeat and death of Anaxibius, the danger for Athens of Sparta getting supremacy in the Hellespont was over. Iphicrates continued to operate against the Spartans in these parts until the Peace of Antalcidas, after which he entered the service of the Thracian kings. When Iphicrates left for the Hellespont in 388, Chabrias succeeded him as commander of the peltasts in Corinth. Because he had served under Thrasyboulus in the Hellespontine region, he was probably trained in the use of peltasts.

The Age of Light-Armed Greek Warrior II

Route of Cyrus the Younger, Xenophon and the Ten Thousand.

Xenophon and the Anabasis

The Greeks also came to realise that hoplite warfare, although well adapted to the peculiar circumstances of fighting within their own country, was not capable by itself of facing circumstances of warfare outside Greece, or even in the lesser-known parts of Greece itself. One of the few mercenary armies about whose composition we have exact information is Xenophon’s Ten Thousand. Xenophon’s Anabasis provides an unparalleled wealth of information on Greek mercenary service overseas in the fourth century, and how mixed continents of Greek hoplites and peltasts worked together. The tactics and fighting methods of the peltasts in the service of Athens and Sparta differed in no way from those of the peltasts on the march of the Ten Thousand.

The Peloponnesian war had produced large numbers of exiles who were forced to hire out as mercenaries, and ten thousand such soldiers found themselves recruited by Cyrus in his bid for the throne of his brother Artaxerxes. Many of Cyrus’ troops had a background in non-traditional combat. Non-hoplites including peltasts, archers, slingers and cavalry made up almost a fifth of Xenophon’s army. Xenophon’s men developed a great proficiency at night marching, and the light-armed enabled them to set up ambushes and pursue a fleeing enemy. On the defensive side, the use of light-armed and peltasts allowed Xenophon’s army to safeguard its routes and protect against ambushes set for them.

Because Xenophon and his men were travelling through unknown territory, one use of ambush was to capture intelligence assets: ‘When the enemy was giving us trouble, we set an ambush. It allowed us for one thing to catch our breath, but besides, we killed a number of them, and we took special pains to get some prisoners for this very purpose – of being able to employ them as guides, men who knew the country.’

We see the intelligence gathering structure of the Ten Thousand very clearly in Xenophon’s Anabasis. After having quartered their troops in local villages, Democrates of Temnus was sent with a body of troops during the night to the mountains. The Greeks had heard that late-arriving stragglers had seen fires, suggesting a Persian presence. Democrates was sent because he had the reputation of having made accurate reports in many similar situations. Intelligence gatherers need to be brave, able to act alone without panicking and be accurate in their assessments. Indeed, Democrates is described as being able to discern what ‘facts were facts’ and what ‘fictions were fictions’.

When Democrates returned, he reported that he had not seen fires, but rather he had captured an intelligence asset – a man with a Persian bow and quiver, and a battle axe of the sort that Amazons carry. When this man was interrogated about where he came from, he replied that he was a Persian and was on his way to the camp of Tiribazus to get provisions. They asked him for information about the size of Tiribazus’ force and for what purpose it had been gathered. The prisoner replied that Tiribazus had his own forces plus Chalybian and Taochian mercenaries, and that he himself had made his preparations with the idea of taking a position at the next mountain pass, which had the only road through which the Greeks could be attacked. Once the generals heard this information, they decided to bring their troops together in one camp. They left a garrison behind under the command of Sophaenetus the Stymphalian and set out at once using the captured asset as a guide. As soon as they crossed the mountains, the peltasts pushed ahead of the hoplites and charged the enemy camp. The Persians were taken by surprise and simply fled. Some were killed, and twenty horsemen were captured as was Tiribazus’ tent with its silver-footed couches, drinking cups and his staff. Once the hoplites heard what had happened, they thought it better to go back to their own camp before it could be set upon by the Persians. They sounded the recall trumpet and went home.

We also see this type of operation when light troops set an ambush and captured ‘some of the stealing rascals who are following us’. From these fellows they learned about passages through the mountains. Knowing the geography was of crucial importance since attacking the Greeks in ravines or when crossing over bridges was a common Persian tactic.

Xenophon planned an operation that depended on taking the enemy by surprise. The mercenaries were faced with an enemy holding a mountain pass. Since the bulk of the mountain was apparently undefended, Xenophon suggested a night attack on an unoccupied section of it as a diversionary tactic. He goes on to say that in his opinion such a tactic would be perfectly feasible, since they would be neither overseen nor overheard.

When faced again with the difficulty that a pass was occupied, this time by the Chalybians, the Greeks mounted a night operation. Xenophon proposed that the mountain tops dominating the pass should be occupied by a separate detachment, which they did at night using hoplites and light-armed. The following day when the Chalybians marched up the road to the pass, the Greeks on the mountain top attacked them by surprise. Most of the Chalybians were blocking the road, but part of them turned to fight the Greeks higher up. The Greek hoplites and light-armed defeated their adversaries and gave chase. Meanwhile, the peltasts, who acted as shock troops, rushed towards the Chalybians in the pass. Normally in this type of ambush, hand-to-hand fighting would ensue, but when the Chalybians saw that their men in the mountains had been defeated they fled, leaving the pass free for the Greeks.

Not only was setting ambushes useful, but the mere faking of an ambush could be effective. As the Greek army descended to Trapezus, a Greek city in Colchian territory on the Black Sea, they were afraid of being pursued by the tribe of the Drilai. They pretended to set an ambush. Ten Cretan archers, commanded by a Mysian, attracted the attention of the enemy by flashing bronze peltai in the sun. The Drilai, thinking this was an ambush, kept at a safe distance. When the Greek army had gotten far enough away, the Mysian received the signal to run with his men at full speed to join them. Although the Mysian himself was wounded running down the road, his companions, who had sought cover in the wood bordering the road, carried him with them. The Cretan archers kept shooting at the enemy from a safe distance and thus reached the safety of the Greek camp.

After a voyage along the coast, the Greeks arrived at Heraclea, a Greek city on the border with Bithynia. Here the army split up. The Arcadians sailed straight to the Greek port of Calpe, disembarked at night and advanced against some Bithynian villages about thirty stadia inland. The Thracian Bithynians were completely taken by surprise and a large number of people were captured along with their cattle. It should be noted that these raids were done by hoplites with Thracian peltasts on the defensive.

While the Greeks were crossing to Europe, they enlisted with Seuthes, king of the Odrysian Thracians. Seuthes had been operating in the territory of the Thynians with a comparatively small army consisting of peltasts and horsemen. He feared a night attack from them, but with the Greek mercenaries he felt he could launch a surprise attack on them instead. At Xenophon’s request, the hoplites marched at the head during the night, followed by the peltasts. Seuthes brought up the rear with his horsemen, instead of riding in front. At daybreak, Seuthes and his horsemen rode out ahead to reconnoitre; he wanted to stop any wayfarers from warning the villagers. The rest of the Greeks waited, and followed the tracks of his horses. Since they found no footsteps in the snow on the mountains, they assumed they were not being tracked. Seuthes launched his surprise attack on the villages over the mountains. The initial surprise attack was successful. The Thynians, however, after being driven from their village, returned at night and attacked the Greeks. They threw javelins inside the houses, tried to break off the points of the Greeks’ spears with clubs, and set the wooden houses on fire. At dawn, the reassembled troops of Seuthes and Xenophon advanced back to the mountains. As the Thynians begged for mercy, it was left to Xenophon to decide whether or not he wished to take revenge on the Thynians for their night attack.

On a number of occasions the decision was made to capture a position by craft rather than by a pitched battle. Xenophon records a jocular exchange where the Spartans are accused of being trained as thieves from childhood, and they in turn accused the Athenians of being thieves of public funds. If the comparison of military trickery to stealing reveals any moral qualms on the part of officers of the Ten Thousand about using such tactics, it never prevented them from using them.

Most of the rules of ambush and surprise remained the same in the fourth century. Weather could still thwart even the best night operation. Such was the case in a night operation planned by Thrasyboulus in 403. He set out with seventy followers from Thebes and occupied the fort at Phyle, a fortress with a commanding position. The Thirty Tyrants set out from Athens to retake the fort, bringing with them 3,000 hoplites and the cavalry. The weather was fine when they set out, but heavy snow fall fell during the night. Thrasyboulos saw it as a direct intervention of the gods on his behalf. The subsequent Athenian retreat was impeded by the snow, and descending from their rocky fortress the exiles inflicted further losses on their opponents, and they captured a large part of the baggage.

Night Marches and Assaults

Night marches and surprise attacks continued to be common in the fourth century. Indeed, it was said that once the Arcadians decided to march somewhere, nothing could prevent them – not nightfall nor storms, nor distance nor even mountains. In 390, an important military event occurred when Iphicrates invaded the territory of Phlius. He set an ambush while plundering the territory with a few followers. The men from the city came out against him in an unguarded way, but he killed so many of them that the Phliasians, who had previously rejected having Spartans within their walls, sent for the Spartans and put the city and the citadel under their protection. Thus a previously democratic Phlius that had displayed both political and military dissidence towards Sparta in the late 390s now remained loyal to Sparta for the rest of the Corinthian war.

In 378, the Thebans, afraid that they would be the only ones at war with Sparta, hatched a plot. Pelopidas set up an ambush as a deception in order to deceive the Spartans into attacking the Athenians. He and Gorgias chose Sphodrias, a Spartan, who was a good soldier but had weak judgement and was full of senseless ambition. They sent to him one of their friends who was a merchant with money, and planted the idea that he should seize Piraeus, attacking it unexpectedly when the Athenians were off their guard. It was set up as a night attack. Sphodrias was persuaded, took his soldiers and invaded Attica by night. Sphodrias underestimated the distance and by dawn found he was only at Eleusis. There, the hearts of his soldiers failed them and his design was exposed. Plutarch says they saw light streaming from certain sanctuaries at Eleusis and were filled with ‘shuddering fear’. Having lost the advantage of surprise, they turned back and abandoning the attack ravaged the countryside a little, then retired ingloriously to Thespiae. This once again illustrates the necessity of using brave men for night missions.

Surprise can be deadly even when it is not planned. In 378, both the Athenians and the Spartans were operating with a contingent of peltasts in their service. The Spartan Cleombrotus marched with his troops to Plataea, taking a different route from the one through Eleutherae, which the Athenian Chabrias was guarding with his peltasts. In the Cithaeron mountains, Cleombrotus’ vanguard, made up of peltasts, came upon a contingent of 150 of Chabrias’ peltasts. The latter were taken completely by surprise and nearly all of them were killed.

Using peltasts is not a silver bullet, nor does it give one a monopoly over the use of surprise. Once a surprise attack is used, your enemies copy your tactics. In the spring of 376, Cleombrotus marched again with an army to Boeotia. Once again his peltasts went ahead to occupy the tops of the Cithaeron mountains overlooking the road. This time, however, the area had already been occupied by the Thebans and the Athenians, who were more alert than Chabrias’ peltasts had been two years before. When Cleombrotus’ peltasts reached the top of the mountains and were at close quarters with the enemy, the latter emerged from the ambush and killed about forty fleeing peltasts. Because of this disaster, Cleombrotus believed it was impossible to enter Boeotia, and therefore turned back without having effected his purpose.

Aeneas Tacticus reports a particularly deadly ambush in 376, in which failure to learn from one set of ambushes caused another set. The Triballi, a tribe from the area of mid-Danubian Thrace, made an inroad into the country of the Abderites and set ambushes, then started raiding the country around the city. The Abderites held them in contempt because of previous successful operations against them and made a hasty attack from the city with great force and eagerness. But the Triballi drew them into the ambushes. On that particular occasion, it is said that more men perished in a shorter time than had ever been the case, at least from a single city of similar size. The others, not having learned of the destruction of their compatriots who went out first, rushed to the rescue, cheering each other on, but fell into the same ambushes until the city was bereft of men.

Xenophon reports a night march with a double layer of secrecy in 371, during the truce brokered by Jason of Pherae after the Battle of Leuctra. When news had been brought of the truce between Sparta and Thebes, the polemarchs announced to their men that they should all be packed up after dinner because they intended to set out during the night in order to ascend Mt Cithaeron at dawn. Right after the men finished dinner, however, and before they could take any rest, the polemarch ordered them to set out, and as soon as it was dusk they led them away, taking the road through Creusis, because they were relying more on secrecy than on the truce. They proceeded with very great difficulty because they were withdrawing at night, in fear, and by a hard road, but arrived at Aegosthena in the territory of Megara.

In 370, relations between Orchomenus and Mantineia were strained. Sparta supported Orchomenus and dispatched Polytropus as general to Arcadia with 1,000 citizen hoplites and 500 Argive and Boeotian refugees. Agesilaus waited for Polytropus to join him with his mercenaries. The Arcadians marched against them and Polytropus fought off the attackers but perished in the fight. Diodorus estimated the number dead at 200. If horsemen from Phlius had not arrived just in time to stop the Mantineans from pursuing them, many of the mercenaries would also have been killed. Agesilaus thought the mercenaries would not join him now that they had been defeated, so he marched on Mantinea without them. Armies were sometimes easily surprised even by their own allies. A few days later, after a night movement, the horsemen from Phlius and the mercenaries who had slipped past Mantinea appeared in the Spartan camp early in the morning, causing great confusion at first because the Spartans thought they were the enemy.

In 370, the Thebans invaded Laconia. They crossed the Eurotas river by Amyclae and after four days the Thebans and Eleians advanced in full force along with the cavalry from the Phocians, Thessalians and Locrians who were serving in this expedition. Although the Spartan cavalry formed against them, they were very few in number. To help counter this imbalance, however, the Spartans had set an ambush with about 300 of the younger hoplites, which they hid in the Temple of the Sons of Tyndareus (The Dioscuri). When the Spartan cavalry charged, these men too sprang their attack and forced the enemy back. Eventually, the Thebans decided not to make another assault on the city, so departed on the road to Helos and then Gytheium, where the Spartans had their dockyards. The ambush gave the Spartans enough of an edge to achieve their objective of saving the city.

Night operations became a necessity in 366 during the Theban invasion of Phlius. The Phliasians survived by buying supplies from the Corinthians. But they had to provide a military escort for those who had to pass through enemy lines to get the supplies. While Chares was in Phlius, they asked him to convey their non-combatants (proxenoi) into Pellene. Having left the men at Pellene, they then went to the market, made their purchases and loaded up as many of the animals as they could, and departed by night trying in this way to avoid ambush by the enemy. Xenophon praises their endurance and patience, and admires them for pulling off this dangerous night operation to bring supplies to their hard-pressed city.

Another night attack in 362 is related by several ancient historians. Two groups of Arcadians came to blows, each side sent for outside help. The Tegeans called in the Thebans under Epaminondas, and the Mantineans sought help from both Athens and Sparta. Epaminondas was advancing with his army not far from Mantinea when he learned from local inhabitants that the entire Spartan force was plundering the territory of Tegea. Supposing that Sparta was stripped of soldiers, Epaminondas planned a night attack and set out towards the city. He ordered his troops to take their supper at an early hour, and a little after nightfall led them out straight to Sparta.

The Spartan king Agesilaus, however, anticipating the cunning of Epaminondas (Diodorus) or being informed by a deserter (Polybius), made preparations for a defence. He sent out some Cretan runners and got word to the men he had left behind that the Boeotians would shortly appear in Sparta to sack the city. They should not fear because he himself would come as quickly as possible with his army to bring aid to them. According to Diodorus, Epaminondas set out at night and took the city (Sparta) at daybreak. Polybius says he took the city by surprise. Epaminondas was disappointed in his hope, but after breakfasting on the banks of the Eurotas and refreshing his troops after their hard march he continued on to Mantinea, which would be left without defenders because the Spartans had run home to defend their city. He once again organised a night march and reached Mantinea about midday and found it undefended.

This is an interesting story because Diodorus and Polybius have Epaminondas shown attacking at night. This is in contrast to Polyaenus, where Epaminondas is portrayed as cultivating a reputation for never attacking before sunrise. It is thus difficult to appraise the historical value of the stratagem, because the only attested example in the historians of Epaminondas’ activity by night in the Peloponnesus is his march to Sparta.

Assaults and Escapes from Walled Cities

Assaults and escapes from walled cities were already an important part of warfare at the end of the Peloponnesian war. There are numerous examples of deceptions and tricks, in particular in the assaults on cities, where peltasts were used to great advantage. Much activity, therefore, was expended in the fourth century assaulting cities, or gaining access by stealth.

Storming towns at night was often a successful tactic. In 408, King Agis of Sparta was in Decelea with his army when he learned that the best Athenian troops were engaged in an expedition with Alcibiades. He led his army on a moonless night to Athens with 28,000 infantry, one-half of whom were picked hoplites and the rest were light-armed troops. There were also attached to his army some 1,200 cavalry, of whom the Boeotians furnished 900 and the rest had been sent with him by the Peloponnesians. As he drew near the city, he came upon the outposts before they were aware of him and easily dispersed them because they were taken by surprise. He slew a few and pursued the rest within the walls.

In 405, Diodorus claims Dionysius of Syracuse covered a distance of 400 stades and arrived at the gates of Achradine in the middle of the night with 100 cavalry and 600 infantry. Finding the gate closed, he piled upon it reeds brought from the marshes and burned the gates. His troops entered the town and captured the cavalry trying to defend the city. They were gathered in the marketplace, surrounded and cut down. Then Dionysius rode through the city slaughtering anyone who resisted.

Later in 404, Dionysius of Syracuse treated with humanity the exiles who returned, wishing to encourage the rest to return to their native land too. To the Campanians, he awarded the gifts that were due and then dispatched them from the city, having regard to their fickleness. These made their way to Entella and persuaded the men of the city to receive them as fellow inhabitants, then they fell upon them at night, slew the men of military age, married the wives of the men with whom they had broken faith and possessed themselves of the city.

From the same book of Diodorus we have an example of gates being opened by treachery in 395 at Heraclea. Medius, the lord of Larissa in Thessaly, was at war with Lycophron, tyrant of Pherae. After getting reinforcements of Boeotians and Argives, Medius seized Pharsalus where there was a garrison of Spartans; he sold the inhabitants as booty. After this, the Boeotians and Argives parted company with Medius. They seized Heraclea in Trachis, and on being let in at night within the walls by sympathisers they put to the sword the Spartans whom they seized, but they allowed the other Peloponnesian allies to leave with their possessions, no doubt in an attempt to weaken the Spartan alliance.

Plutarch, in his Life of Pelopidas, reports a plot from 379 when Thebes was garrisoned by the Spartans, to open city gates and stage a surprise attack. The Theban exiles took twelve men disguised as hunters, in short cloaks and leading hunting dogs. They entered the city at different points during the day. The weather changed to wind and snow. They made their way to the house of Charon, where they were changing into their armour when a messenger came from the polemarchs summoning Charon. At first, they thought they had been discovered. While the storm continued, a messenger from the Athenians brought a letter with details of the plot to Archias (the polemarch?). Instead of reading it, Archias, who was drunk, put it under his pillow and went to sleep. When the time came for the attack, the exiles went out in two bands, one under Pelopidas and one under Charon. They broke into various houses and killed leaders, raided shops for arms and at the break of day had control of the city without ever having engaged the 1,500-man garrison. Even Plutarch says that it was not easy to name a case where such a small number of men, so destitute, have overcome enemies so numerous and powerful. The subsequent political change was momentous. This is a clear of example of ambush as a force multiplier.

Mercenary service in Sicily found its high point under tyrants such as Dionysius of Syracuse. We see him using them during the siege of the Siceli at Tauromenium. Dionysius took advantage of the winter storms when the area about the acropolis was filled with snow. He discovered that the Siceli were careless in their guard of the acropolis because of its strength and the unusual height of the wall, so he advanced on a moonless and stormy night against the highest sectors. After many difficulties, both because of the obstacles offered by the crags and because of the great depth of the snow, he occupied one peak, although his face was frosted and his vision impaired by the cold. Still he was able to break through to the other side and lead his army into the city. The attempt, however, still did not work. The Siceli stormed out against him and pushed out the troops of Dionysius. Dionysius himself was struck on the corselet in the flight, sent scrambling and barely escaped being taken alive. Since the Siceli pressed upon them from superior ground, more than 600 of Dionysius’ troops were slain and most of them lost their complete armour, while Dionysius himself saved only his corselet. After this disorder, the Acragantini and Messenians banished the partisans of Dionysius, asserted their freedom and renounced their alliance with the tyrant.

Diodorus reports that in 397, when Dionysius was besieging the Motyans, he made it a practice to sound the trumpet towards evening for the recall of his troops and break off the siege. So once he had accustomed the Motyans to this practice, the combatants on both sides retired as usual. He dispatched Archylus of Thurii with the élite troops, who waited until nightfall then placed ladders against the fallen houses. Using these to mount the walls, they seized an advantageous spot, where they admitted Dionysius’ troops. When the Motyans realised what was taking place, they rushed with all eagerness to the rescue, but they were too late. They fought fiercely but, in the end, the Sicilian Greeks wore down their opponents by the weight of their numbers.

In Rhegium in 393, the Carthaginians fled into the city after a loss of more than 800 men, while Dionysius withdrew for the time being to Syracuse; but after a few days he manned 100 triremes and set out against the Rhegians. Arriving unexpectedly by night before the city, he put fire to the gates and set ladders against the walls.

At Corinth in 392, Praxitas, the commander of a Spartan mora garrisoned at Sicyon, entered the long walls that connected Corinth to its port at Lechaeum, through a gate opened by the two Corinthian defectors, and he established a palisaded camp as they waited for reinforcements. On the second day, the Argives arrived in full strength along with the mercenaries under Iphicrates. Although outnumbered, the Spartans fought bravely, and then followed their victory with the taking of Lechaeum.

From Egypt in 362/1 we have the story of a night escape from a city. Having lost many men in their attack on the walls, the Egyptians then began to surround the city with a wall and a ditch, shutting in Agesilaus and his men. As the work was rapidly nearing completion by reason of the large number of workers, and the provisions in the city were exhausted, Tachos despaired of his safety, but Agesilaus, encouraging the men and attacking the enemy at night, unexpectedly succeeded in bringing all the men out safely.

Similarly, Diodorus reports an attack on the walls of Syracuse in 356/5. Nypsius, the commander of the mercenaries, wishing to renew the battle and retrieve the defeat with his army, which had been marshalled, during the night unexpectedly attacked the wall that had been constructed. And, finding that the guards had fallen asleep in a drunken stupor, he placed the ladders that had been constructed in case they were needed against the wall. The bravest of the mercenaries climbed on the wall with these, slaughtered the guards and opened the gates.

Another unsuccessful assault on a siege wall occurred in 357/6. Dionysius plied his mercenaries with strong wine and sent them on a dash against the siege wall around the acropolis. The attack was unexpected, and the barbarians, with great boldness and loud tumult, began to tear down the cross-wall and attack the Syracusans, so that no one dared to stand on the defensive, except the mercenaries of Dion, who first noticed the disturbance and came to the rescue.

Warfare in the Fourth Century

Despite the anecdotal form of many of our sources, we can see that warfare had changed in the fourth century. As G. T. Griffith pointed out many decades ago, it is not easy to imagine a time when soldiers were not a special class of men who made fighting their profession. The Greeks of the fifth century had no need for professional soldiers. The payment of a wage to fighting men ran contrary to the ideology of the citizen-soldier, i.e. hoplites. They were recruited from a class of men who could arm themselves and fight at their own expense. When Greek cities went to war, every man did what he could. As wars increased in number and intensity, however, the professionalisation of warfare followed. Thucydides writes that before the Peloponnesian war the Athenians devoted their bodies to their country. Later, patriotic enthusiasm would decrease and fighting was left to professional soldiers who received wages.

The use of public finance to pay soldiers transformed warfare by making it possible to mobilise more manpower for longer periods of time and so wage war on land and at sea with an intensity and persistence that had not been feasible in earlier generations. Military service became less and less remunerative especially because of the steep increase in the cost of living in the fourth century. From then on, wages had to be complemented with booty.

Athens had used mercenaries during the greater part of the fourth century and used them more freely than any other Greek city-state. Yet the Greeks were conscious of the incompatibility of their autonomy and the presence of foreign troops in a polis.

The rise of Hellenistic monarchies, combined with a large supply of mercenary soldiers available, meant that professionals and the techniques of war that they could bring with them would be many and varied. Battle became much more costly as the spirit of competition gave way to the desire for complete destruction. Wars were now made up of raids, commando attacks and guerrilla warfare whose heroes were peltasts and these techniques came to rival open combat.

There were always those who waxed poetic about the ‘fair and open battle’ of the past. Xenophon, in the Cyropaedia, has a character urge an attack upon a small and vulnerable group of enemy soldiers. Cyrus overruled him and said it would be better to wait for them all to assemble. If less than half of them are defeated, they will say the Greeks attacked because they feared to face the great mass of the enemy. If they do not feel defeated, there will be another battle. But is this really the Greek attitude towards fair play in war or a just nostalgic remembrance of times past when hoplite armies gathered their full forces on a plain, almost as if by appointment? Or, one might ask, what happened when the Greeks were faced with opponents who did not recognise the ‘rules of the game’? As the Athenians expanded their empire overseas, they found themselves fighting more frequently, in unfamiliar terrain as longer conflicts replaced seasonal and occasional clashes. Professionalism spurred on by the increase in scale, occurrence and duration of conflicts rendered operations more technical. Diversity of terrain favoured a new emphasis on cavalry and light infantry. It became necessary to co-ordinate different types of armed contingents and this made battles more complex than the head-on collisions of phalanxes. Mercenaries with professional skills, often recruited from non-Greeks, supplemented or replaced citizen levies. Generals did not just lead a charge; they had to out-think as well as out-fight the enemy.

Using light-armed troops and mercenaries for ambush was one of the strategies the Greeks adopted. As Griffith points out: ‘The mercenaries of the fourth century became standardised to a type, the type evolved by Iphicrates, i.e. the Iphicratean peltast.’ He believed they became so widespread that actual Thracians were driven from the market. There appears to be no mention by ancient authors of Thracian peltasts in the seventy years before Alexander. Griffith suggests that their disappearance was due to the improved Greek peltast.

Thus, when new circumstances arose, they demanded new experiments from the inventiveness of the Greeks. The Greeks had learned to make an efficient army suitable for service in other lands. Hoplites had to be supported by good light-armed troops and, if possible, by cavalry. The first half of the fourth century developed the military art along these lines, and the Greek hoplite force, in conjunction with these new groups using the tactics of surprise, speed and ambush, became one of the most effective military forces.

Fourth-century authors speak of deception, surprise and ambush constantly. It is clear from the works of Aeneas Tacticus that ambush was always considered a dangerous possibility. Aeneas assumes that ambushes will be a danger, and he recommends that defenders set their own ambushes. He tells a cautionary tale about how some officials used the citizens’ desire to ambush the enemy to bring in mercenaries and take over the city. He even recommends that defenders attack the invaders when they are drunk or when they are preparing dinner. He gives examples of disinformation leaked successfully to the enemy and anecdotes about tricks used to capture cities. He gives detailed instructions on how an army should sally from a town when enemy troops were in the surrounding area. He instructs that hoplites should leave town in separate formations in marching order since, if unordered groups leave in succession, there was a danger that each group would fall into an enemy ambush. Aeneas recommends that to avoid ambushes the available horsemen and light-armed precede the hoplites in order to reconnoitre and occupy the dominating positions in the area, so that the hoplites can be informed of the enemy’s movements in good time and hence avoid unexpected disasters.

Xenophon gives exactly the same advice about troop order. Both Aeneas and Xenophon were generals with extensive field experience. They were basing their advice on practice. It is not difficult to find examples. We see this when Agesilaus’ horsemen, during his campaign in Asia Minor, were riding to a hill in order to survey the terrain and they unexpectedly came upon Persian horsemen. With the order by which the horsemen and peltasts marched ahead followed by the hoplites, it is obvious that the peltasts and horsemen were always the first to engage with the enemy. Another example of this marching order can be seen in Xenophon’s Anabasis. His troops are in the territory of the Thracian enemies; in front of them are the Bithynians. He sends horsemen ahead and orders the peltasts to the hill tops and ridges. The practice at the end of the fifth century seems to have been the same as the fourth century, when Aeneas Tacticus was writing (c.360–350). Xenophon and Aeneas Tacticus have so much in common that classicist David Whitehead plausibly suggests that the two men knew each other and spoke together. The Greeks in Xenophon’s day considered deceiving enemies normal behaviour. Certainly, surprise attacks and ambush came under this heading. The Greeks were still using animal metaphors for ambush as they had in the Iliad. When Xenophon talks about men who deceive the enemy, he compares it to using decoy birds to lure birds into an ambush.

Fourth-century commanders such as Agesilaus became admired by later writers. Most of Frontinus’ examples are Roman, but among the Greeks he mentions one Spartan figure prominently. Of the twenty-one stratagems he cites, nine are attributed to Agesilaus. Polyaenus goes even further. For him Agesilaus was the central character and his thirty-three exempla extend over his entire career as a general.

Scholars like to point out that light-armed troops did not play a decisive part in any battle on Greek soil, except in two cases during the Peloponnesian war where hoplites were caught on ground unsuited to their formation and their tactics. This misses the point, however, that having light-armed troops made it easier to set up ambushes, spring surprise attacks at night or dawn and fall upon hoplites when they least expected it and were ill-prepared. The fact that hoplites themselves were lightening their armour suggests that they saw the changing conditions of warfare as the fifth century progressed.

Whatever sneering may have been done against light-armed troops before or during the Peloponnesian war, it soon became clear to commanders of Greek armies serving abroad in the fourth century that they could not reply solely upon heavily armed hoplite troops. Hoplites need the support of effective bodies of men whose armour rendered them more mobile. The demand for various types of light-armed soldiers had become greater as the Peloponnesian war progressed, and in the fourth century this need got greater as Greeks fought overseas against native troops skilled in these ways of fighting. Archers, javelin men, slingers and, above all, peltasts were found to be necessary. The predominance of a solely hoplite army was gone. The fourth-century Greek army had been remade as a co-operative effort by trained hoplites, peltasts and cavalry, many of them mercenaries and all obedient to a general.

G. B. Grundy was correct when he warned against reading into the fourth century a wholescale racial decay, physical and intellectual, and perhaps we might add moral because of the types of warfare used. Many writers believe the fourth century saw a ‘change in the ethos of warfare’, i.e. a moral decay. What we are seeing rather are military changes that reflect the reality of warfare in an age of overseas warfare, increased professionalism in the armies, the development of new fighting techniques, the development of a new leadership and the ability of the Greeks to divorce themselves from the hoplite paradigm. These were all brought changes to Greek warfare, but we can discuss them without suggesting that their world had become degenerate.

The idea that cleverness in warfare is ‘a luxury’ may be an opinion held by armchair historians, but not by generals in the field. Such attitudes are often attributed to great commanders such as Agesilaus and Alexander, but the fact remains that these commanders were expert military tricksters. Moralisers could continue to claim that victory by guile was no victory at all, but when an ambush killed all its targets the dead were very much defeated. A pass taken, information gained, an enemy surprised and defeated were all good things for both the general and the men in the field.

The War in the Forest I

Military historian Douglas Edward Leach has called 1689 the “year of the great divide, marking as it does the beginning of a series of four major wars whose outcome would shape the whole future of North America.” That year saw the start of the titanic struggle between predominantly Protestant Britain and Catholic France that lasted for seven bitter decades. In America, the long series of skirmishes, pitched battles, and anxious truces would be popularly remembered as the French and Indian Wars, a name implying that the Indians were pawns of their European allies.

They were not. Caught between two warring nations whose customs were equally incomprehensible to them, the North American natives were again and again forced to pick sides. Some tribes chose to fight with the French, and some with the English, but all the tribes fought for their own best interests as they saw them. And although the war was a clash between European rivals, Indians were in it from the first; in fact, the war actually began in America in 1688, while Europe was at peace and England still had a Catholic king.

Although it had at first been sluggish in colonizing the New World, by the 1680s France had established strong bases in Montreal, Port Royal, and Quebec. The British had forestalled French expansion north of Quebec by opening a trading post at Hudson Bay in 1670, but the St. Lawrence and Ottawa rivers gave France access to the immense reaches of land in the interior of the continent. The English had a long Atlantic coastline, but the French meant to see that their ancient rivals stayed behind the Appalachian mountain barrier.

The English, in turn, were ever on guard against French encirclement, and none was more vigilant than the autocratic Sir Edmund Andros, who as New York’s governor had persuaded the Mohawks to side with his English settlers during King Philip’s War. James II of England had appointed Andros governor of all the northern colonies from New Jersey to Maine, with orders to prevent any French encroachments. This Andros did with hawkish efficiency.

In April 1688, he moved north with a company of soldiers to Penobscot Bay, where Frenchman Jean-Vincent d’Abbadie, baron de Saint-Castin kept a trading post at what is now Castine, Maine. Saint-Castin had established his post on land Andros felt had been granted to the duke of York and had gotten rich from the fur trade. He had married the daughter of a chief and was well loved by members of the Abnaki confederacy of eastern Indians. As an observer wrote in 1684, they were the “most powerfull, politick, warlike and numerous nation of Indians since the Narragansetts are broken, and influence and steer all others that inhabit the English Plantations or Colonies.”

The Abnakis were furious when Andros and his men descended on their friend Saint-Castin’s trading post, plundered his home, and demanded his submission to James II. When, a little later, English settlers at Saco, Maine, seized sixteen Indians in retaliation for the killing of some cattle at nearby North Yarmouth, the natives responded by capturing as many settlers as they could lay hands on.

In September, the nervous English began erecting fortified stockades at North Yarmouth. Having received a report that a large number of natives were approaching, the soldiers fled, only to stumble onto the party of Indians, who had brought a number of English captives along, evidently for the purpose of negotiating a settlement of their grievances. Although nobody wanted a fight, the English tried to free the captives, and in the scuffling “one Sturdy and Surly Indian,” as the indefatigable Puritan chronicler Cotton Mather described him, “held his prey so fast, that one Benedict Pulcifer gave the Mastiff a Blow with the Edge of his Broad Ax upon the Shoulder, upon which they fell to’t with a Vengeance, and Fired their Guns on both sides, till some on both sides were Slain.” In this manner, Mather said, “the Vein of New-England first opened, that afterwards Bled for Ten years together!” Blood had been spilled, however blindly and unnecessarily; by the values of both Indians and settlers, blood spilled had to be avenged.

The Indians attacked the outlying settlements, burned, killed, captured, and plundered. With the onset of winter, they withdrew into the woods. Governor Andros arrived on the scene with 1,000 men in November and built forts at Pemaquid and what is now Brunswick. But, as Mather noted in disgust, Andros’s men killed no Indians until the spring, when Andros returned to Boston, where he was promptly deposed in the backwash of a Protestant revolt in England that dethroned the Catholic king James II. Andros went home to Britain, and the war whose opening moves he had managed continued without him under the name of King William’s War, after the new English monarch.

Meanwhile, France sought to bolster its situation in America by appointing a vigorous governor for New France. The choice was Louis de Buade, comte de Frontenac, a tough old soldier and a good one (he had been made a brigadier general at the age of twenty-seven). Frontenac had been governor once before, in 1672 – court gossip said he had gotten the job because he became too intimate with the king’s favorite mistress. He had handled his duties with energy and skill, but he was quarrelsome and overbearing and in ten years made himself so thoroughly unpopular that he had been recalled. Now, however, the situation demanded Frontenac’s knowledgeable toughness, and the French king reappointed the seventy-year-old autocrat.

Frontenac set sail from France armed with an ambitious battle plan: to invade the English colonies through Lake Champlain and Lake George to Albany, where, after concluding an alliance with the Iroquois, he was to move down the Hudson and with the help of a French fleet capture New York. But the old commander never got the chance to put this grand design into operation.

When he arrived at Quebec, Frontenac found the colony stunned by a savage Iroquois attack that had devastated the settlement of Lachine, six miles upriver from Montreal, during the night of July 25-26. The settlers, taken in their beds, had had no time to resist; the Indians killed 200 of them immediately and took another 120 prisoner. The ferocity of the attack was typical of the Iroquois. When Jacques Bruyas, the French missionary to the Iroquois, told his charges that all their desires would be satisfied in heaven, they badgered him with “impertinent questions as that they would not believe that there were no wars in heaven; if one would meet human beings there and if there one would be looking for scalp locks.” Bruyas deplored their “passion to kill,” so that “they are willing to travel 300 leagues to have the opportunity of taking a scalp lock.”

Demoralized by so ruthless an enemy, the French had abandoned their fort at Cataraqui on Lake Ontario. Frontenac, far from being able to send a campaign roaring down the Hudson Valley, had to content himself with small-scale sallies against English settlements on the frontier, a strategy he called la petite guerre – which we would call guerrilla warfare. To fight his “little war,” Frontenac began to forge such Indian allies as he had into efficient units that attacked under the direction of French officers.

In the meantime, the English continued to have their share of Indian trouble. After Andros’s departure from Maine, the Indians continued their assaults on outlying settlements and then mounted a major expedition against Dover, New Hampshire. There they killed thirty English, among them the trader Major Richard Waldron, an old enemy from King Philip’s War. Local Indians of the Pennacook, Ossipee, and Pigwacket tribes attacked the seventy-five-year-old patriarch. While he lay dying, they cut off his fingers, one by one, asking him mockingly whether his fist, which he had often put onto the scales as a makeweight against their furs, would weigh a pound now. Then they took turns slashing his chest, saying, “See! I cross out my account.”

The Indians maintained the pressure on the frontier throughout the summer until finally the English abandoned all their posts east of Falmouth (present-day Portland). The general court at Boston sent 600 soldiers north to help secure the frontier, but the expedition accomplished little more than Andros had the year before.

Then, as winter came on, Frontenac, with characteristic energy, decided to add to the English miseries with a three-pronged attack on Albany and the borders of New Hampshire and Maine. The Albany party, composed of 160 Canadians and 100 Indians, set off from Montreal early in 1690. In arctic weather, they struggled down Lake Champlain to the frozen southern tip of Lake George, then took to the woods. By the time, the French and Indians reached the Hudson, they decided that Albany was too difficult a prize and instead chose to attack the closer settlement of Schenectady. Even so, they had a dreadful march through half-frozen swampland before they got within striking distance on the afternoon of February 8. They waited until dark and then approached the village, where, to their astonishment, they found the open gates guarded only by two snowmen.

The party swept into the sleeping town and for two hours hacked men, women, and children to pieces. When the carnage ended, sixty villagers were dead. “No pen can write, and no tongue express,” said one contemporary, “the cruelties that were committed.”

Frontenac’s other two blows fell with equal strength, at Salmon Falls, New Hampshire, where thirty-four died, and in mid-May at Falmouth, where hundreds of Abnaki Indians joined the French in an attack on Fort Loyal. After a stiff defense, the commander of the fort surrendered on the promise that the garrison would not be harmed, then marched out to see 100 English murdered by the Indians.

By the time Fort Loyal fell, the English colonies had managed to mount a counterattack in the form of a naval assault on Port Royal in Acadia under the command of Sir William Phips. A curious figure, Phips was the twenty-first child of a Massachusetts farming family and had made his fortune by recovering a huge treasure from a Spanish ship sunk in the Bahamas. His flotilla of fourteen vessels easily took Port Royal, and Phips went home a hero, whereupon he was immediately given command of a far larger expedition against Quebec. He got the fleet there, but then the operation fell apart. The English could not dislodge the French defenders – who commented in journals that they were watching the bumblings of a bunch of amateurs – and in November, with smallpox spreading among his men, Phips went home. Fortunately for him, the authorities chose to blame the debacle on the “awful frown of God” rather than on any possible mismanagement by Phips.

The English did better the next year with a land campaign against the Maine frontier, in which Massachusetts enlisted the indestructible Benjamin Church. This old warrior had grown quite fat in the fifteen years since he brought down King Philip, but like Frontenac, he retained his vigor and his military judgment. Arriving in Saco with 300 soldiers in September 1691, Church harried the Indians so effectively that most of them retired inland. Although his men fought no decisive battles, they shook their opponents badly. In October, several Abnaki sachems sued for a truce, and on November 29, they signed a document by which they agreed to bring in all English captives, warn the English about French plots, and do them no harm until May 1, 1692.

Whatever relief the treaty gave the weary, frightened settlers did not last long. On February 5, 1692, Indians and Canadians fell upon the town of York in Maine, killed forty-eight inhabitants, and took about seventy prisoners. From this fresh beginning, the savage dialogue of raid and counterraid, deception, and bad faith continued for years. New Hampshire, Maine, and Massachusetts all suffered as the Indians burned towns and butchered settlers with a sort of ghastly monotony, which the great nineteenth-century historian Francis Parkman described as “a weary detail of the murder of one, two, three or more men, women or children, waylaid in fields, woods and lonely roads, or surprised in solitary cabins.”

On March 15, 1697, a party of Abnakis struck the town of Haverhill, Massachusetts, in a raid different from a score of others only because it marked the beginning of the extraordinary saga of a farm woman named Hannah Dustin. Mrs. Dustin’s eighth child had been born the week before, and she was resting in her house when the attack came. Her husband, who was working in the fields nearby, told his children to run to a fortified house and then tried to fight his way through to his wife. He failed, and the natives carried off Mrs. Dustin, her baby, and the nurse who was caring for them.

As the Indians escaped with their captives silently through the forest, the infant began to cry, and in a cruel but characteristic response, a warrior grabbed the child and smashed its head against a tree. A little later, the Indians killed some of the captives and divided up the rest amongst themselves, Mrs. Dustin and the nurse were handed over to a group of two warriors, three women, and seven children. This party led them north through the woods for more than a month. The Indians, who were Catholic, paused twice a day to say their rosaries.

At last, on the night of March 29, Mrs. Dustin and the nurse rose silently from the campfire, got hold of hatchets, and set about murdering their sleeping captors. They killed all but two, an old woman and a boy who fled into the forest. Mrs. Dustin must have been an extremely practical woman: Massachusetts was offering a bounty on dead Indians, and so, despite her six-week ordeal and the horror of the recent butchery, she carefully scalped all her victims. Then she and the nurse made their way home to Haverhill, where Mrs. Dustin found that her husband and children had also survived the raid. Massachusetts gave her £25 for her night’s work.

Though the European end of the war between France and England wound down with the signing of the Treaty of Ryswick in September 1697, in the colonies, spasms of frontier violence continued. Part of the reason for the continuing hostilities was the English colonists’ very real horror of their opponents. In the Puritan cosmology, civilized Europeans and barbarous Indians represented opposite and antagonistic poles. Thus, to see Frenchmen not only living the life of the native warrior, but united with him in some sort of spiritual brotherhood, appalled and bewildered the English. Cotton Mather, in Decennium Luctuosum (Woeful Decade), his account of the war, speaks grimly of the “Half Indianized French, and Half Frenchified Indians.” The terror and awe that these mixed parties inspired is clearly shown in the way individual accounts of English captives dominate Mather’s narrative. Writing of the ordeal of one woman taken by the Indians, Mather intoned: “Read these passages without Relenting Bowels, thou thyself art as really Petrified as the man at Villa Ludovisia (an Italian statue). . . . I know not, reader, whether you will be moved to tears by this narrative; I know I could not write it without weeping.”

In 1702, Europe began to fight anew, and the deadly raids in the colonies turned back into a full-scale war, named this time after Queen Anne, who had just taken the throne upon William’s death. As before, New England bore the brunt in America. (New York escaped the worst horrors because of the protection provided by its Iroquois subjects – as New Yorkers referred to the Indians when they were out of earshot – or allies, a nicety of phrasing employed during negotiations.)

The worldly, power-loving Joseph Dudley, Massachusetts’s new governor, had been made responsible for keeping peace with the Abnakis, which he did in schizophrenic fashion, alternately wooing and scorning them. At a conference in Casco, Maine, he claimed to have 1,250 men under arms and compared the Indians to wolves, able to disturb men but not capable of doing any real harm. “I value them not,” he said, “no more than the paring of my nails,” Then, changing his tune, he announced that several chiefs among the Indian delegations “are fit to be made Officers to bear commission from the Queen of England, to bear Rule among you, who shall be my Officers, and shall be Rewarded from time to time. . . .” Several of the Indian leaders declared that they would resist the overtures of the French, but the meeting broke up with the peace still fragile.

Then in August 1703, a party of Englishmen plundered the house of Saint-Castin’s son, an Abnaki chief. Enraged by this affront, the Indians responded. Less than six weeks after Dudley’s peace conference, 200 miles of New England frontier were in flames.

Despite his boasts, the best Dudley could do was to field an army of 360 men, which advanced as far as Saco, with the Indian forces melting away before it unharmed while the raids continued unabated. To the staggered colonists, it all seemed a repetition of King William’s War. Indeed, many of the same towns suffered, among them Deerfield, Massachusetts, the northernmost settlement of the string of villages along the Connecticut River.

Deerfield had already had its share of grief. Almost wiped out during King Philip’s War and badly mauled during King William’s, by the winter of 1704, the community had recovered and become a prosperous village of forty-one houses and some 270 people.

Remembering the past, the townspeople had posted a sentry, but he was either asleep or absent on the last night of February 1704, when a party of fifty French and 200 Abnakis and Caughnawagas trudged toward the village through deep snow. They attacked two hours before dawn and killed many settlers in their beds. But some villagers, awakened by the screams and shouting, fought back. The militia sergeant, Benoni Stebbins, had time to order his seven men to barricade the windows of his house, which had been otherwise bulletproofed by means of brick walls. The militiamen drove off an attack of about fifty Indians, and though Stebbins died at the window where he had posted himself, his house withstood the onslaught. Most of the villagers, however, thrown into panic by the whooping death that had come on them out of the night, died or were captured. By dawn, the fighting had ended, leaving some fifty settlers dead and more than 100 prisoners.

The French and Indians bullied their captives north along the forest trails toward Canada. Among the survivors of the brutal trek was John Williams, a Deerfield clergyman whose immensely popular account of his sufferings, Redeemed Captive Returning to Zion, kept alive the memory of the Deerfield raid long after similar atrocities had been forgotten. His wife, who had just borne a child, was too weak to keep up with the rest of the party. When Williams tried to help her, the Indians drove him away, and they killed her a little later when she flagged trying to cross an icy river. But another Indian carried Williams’s daughter Eunice nearly every step of the 300-mile journey. Eventually, the French ransomed most of the prisoners, but Eunice Williams never came home. Adopted by the Caughnawagas, she married the warrior who had saved her life. Years later, she visited her one-time neighbors in Deerfield, but the gulf had grown too wide, and she returned to the forest.

The news of the Deerfield raid brought Benjamin Church stamping into Boston, furiously demanding that Dudley give him a force to lead against Acadia. By this time, Church was so old that he had to have a soldier walking beside him to help him over fallen logs along the line of march. But he got 550 men up into French territory, where he terrorized some settlements, telling the inhabitants that if any more English villages suffered Deerfield’s fate he would return with 1,000 Indians to repay the compliment to the French. Church wanted to attack Port Royal, but his officers restrained him, and he sailed back to Boston after throwing some bombastic threats at the well-defended French stronghold.

The English colonists took another ill-fated stab at Port Royal in 1706 and then appealed to the mother country for help. Committed as she was to a costly European land war, Queen Anne had few troops to spare. Finally, in hopes of generating some sympathy and publicity, the colonists sent several Mohawk chieftains to the English court in 1710. Outfitted by a London theatrical costumer in what he thought barbarian warlords should wear, the four Indians made a magnificent spectacle. The queen was delighted with them, the archbishop of Canterbury gave them Bibles, fashionable artists of the day painted their portraits, crowds followed them through the streets, and the nobility vied for the privilege of entertaining them. The next summer, the long-awaited troops arrived from England, and in September, Port Royal fell and with it Acadia.

Emboldened by their success, the British moved against Quebec the next year, but they had to retire at the end of a timid and badly mismanaged campaign. Despite this British fiasco, old King Louis XIV of France, tired and debt-ridden, ended the war by accepting the Treaty of Utrecht in 1713. The treaty ceded Hudson Bay and Acadia to the English, but left the bounds of France’s Canadian empire in doubt. By a treaty of July 13, 1713, the Eastern tribes sued for a separate peace with the New Englanders, acknowledging their “past rebellions, hostilities, and violations of promises” and promising to become loyal subjects to Queen Anne. The Abnakis, however, had little idea of what being a British subject meant, and their oath of loyalty was too tenuous a thing to withstand the English incursions on their land that began nearly as soon as the treaty was signed.

While the Northern colonies enjoyed the brief respite from frontier raids that came with the Treaty of Utrecht, warfare was ripping through the Carolinas. The white traders there had done much to bring the fighting on themselves. Like Indian traders everywhere, they tended to be rough, unprincipled men who duped the Indians and debauched them with liquor. Adding to these abuses, the traders also sold Indians as slaves. The Tuscaroras, who had settled inland along the coastal rivers of North Carolina, suffered most, and though they did not at first retaliate, their discontent was obvious enough to make the settlers uneasy. By 1710, relations had become so tense that the Tuscaroras sent messengers to Pennsylvania asking permission to migrate there. The Pennsylvania authorities said that they could settle provided they had a note from the North Carolina government attesting to their previous good conduct. The Carolinians refused outright.

Less than a year later, a group of Swiss colonists organized by a promoter named Baron Christoph von Graffenried went to occupy a tract of land at New Bern, at the confluence of the Neuse and Trent rivers in North Carolina, only to find an Indian town on the site. Von Graffenried complained to the surveyor-general, who told him that the colonists held clear title to the land and suggested they drive off the Indians without payment. That was poor advice; on September 22, 1711, the Tuscaroras responded with a dawn attack on settlements between the Neuse and Pamlico Sound. During the bloody morning, they killed nearly 200 settlers, among them, eighty children. The survivors fled to the coastal towns, and the usual sequence of raids and counterraids began. Von Graffenried had earlier been captured, and in order to spare New Bern from attack – and as a condition of his release – he promised not to make war on the Indians. But one of his settlers, a foolish man named William Brice, decided that the baron’s pledge showed contemptible softheartedness and took matters into his own hands by capturing the chief of one of the smaller tribes allied with the Tuscaroras and roasting him alive. The Indian attacks increased in fury.

North Carolina sent to South Carolina for help, which arrived in the form of Colonel John Barnwell, a tough Irish-born soldier, who came leading a force of thirty settlers and 500 Indians. Barnwell handily neutralized the resistance of tribes allied with the Tuscaroras and devastated their communities. In March 1712, with his forces strengthened by a contingent of North Carolinians, Barnwell launched an assault on the fort of the Tuscarora king Hancock, which failed when the North Carolina men panicked and broke. Then the Indians exposed some of their white prisoners in view of Barnwell’s lines and tortured others in hopes of forcing the Carolina troops to negotiate. Barnwell agreed to call off his men if the prisoners were released. He took fifty of them safely back to New Bern, where he discovered that the North Carolina assembly was vexed because he had not destroyed the Tuscarora fort. Whereupon Barnwell went back, forced the Tuscaroras into a treaty and then, on his way home, immediately violated it by seizing a group of Indians as slaves. So the war broke out afresh in the summer of 1712.

Again North Carolina begged its southern neighbor for help, and in November, a seasoned Indian fighter named Colonel James Moore arrived with thirty-three whites and 1,000 friendly natives. Joining with North Carolina troops, he struck the main Tuscarora force late in March of 1713 and smashed it. Moore’s men killed several hundred Indians and captured 400 more, whom he sold into slavery at £10 each to help pay for the campaign. Most of the surviving Tuscaroras began a long, slow retreat to the north, where they eventually joined the Iroquois confederacy.

The last feeble Indian resistance in the Carolinas ended when Tom Blount, the chief of the Tuscarora faction loyal to the English, signed a peace treaty on February 11, 1715. But no sooner had peace come to North Carolina than war began in South Carolina. Like the Tuscaroras, the Yamassees, a Muskhogean tribe that had moved into South Carolina, had suffered the exploitation of traders. On Good Friday, April 15, they avenged themselves in a well-coordinated attack similar in every respect to the great Virginia massacre of 1622. The assault left the outlying settlements north of present-day Savannah, Georgia, in flames and took the lives of 100 settlers, South Carolina’s governor Charles Craven, commanding his colony’s militia, moved quickly and by June had driven the Yamassees from their villages. That autumn, on a follow-up expedition, he hit them so hard that they fled to Spanish Florida. The English appropriated the Yamassee lands for the new colony of Georgia.

Although he had gotten the Yamassees out of the way, Craven still feared the powerful Creeks and tried to counterbalance them by inducing the equally strong Cherokee nation to join the English. Although divided into two factions, the proud Cherokees, under the prodding of the English, broke with their southern neighbors and joined the Carolinians in curbing the Creeks. Thus, a measure of peace returned to the Carolinas.