Monday, 7 July 2008

Roman ruins in Thessaloniki

I've just returned from Thessaloniki where there are a number of excellent Roman ruins associated with the Emperor Galerius. All are within a few minutes walk of one another in the city centre. Moving from North to South, the first building is Galerius tomb. It was never used for this purpose and has been variously a Pagan temple, a Mosque and a Church. Its now commonly known as the Rotunda of St. George and is the best preserved of the three monuments.

Next is Galerius Gate, a triumphal victory arch built by the Emperor in 298 AD to commemorate his defeat of the Persians and the capture of Ctesiphon. Although much of the arch has been destroyed, as you can see, some of the marble detail still remains and the images depicted are fascinating. It tells the story of Galerius great victory over Narses, the Persian King of Kings. It is not a literal interpretation, however, and includes such fictions as Galerius engaging Narses in single combat. In all its a stunning bit of work.

Finally, further South, are the ruins of Galerius' palace. Little more than the foundations remain and these are now the home to dozens of stray cats.

Because of his role in the persecution of christians at the end of the third century Galerius has often recieved something of a bad reputation (when mentioned at all, he has the misfortune of falling between Diocletian and Constantine who both tend to command more attention from Historians). Seeing these ruins, however, one can not help but imagine how they must have looked when they were built. And it helps us understand that Galerius was a significant figure in his time. He was an important military leader and the last Roman to meet with any signifcant success against the Sassanid Empire.

Saturday, 21 June 2008

The Persian Expedition of 363 AD.

Julian's invasion of Mesopotamia in 363 AD was the last great expedition mounted by a Roman army beyond its own borders. It was also a disaster, resulting in Julian's death, the surrender of the army and the loss of Roman territory. Much has been written on this subject, but it seems to me that many historians have failed to analyse the expedition in great depth. Too many seem to get caught up in trying to understand what flaw of Julian's character led him to invade. But to understand what actually went wrong, the question is not why Julian invaded Persia. Whether he did it for glory, to win the loyalty of the Eastern army, to avenge the loss of Amida, or for one of a number of other reasons matters not. What we must ask ourselves is what was Julian's objective? To understand the failure of the expedition this is, in my opinion, the critical question. It is a difficult one to answer.

Our main source, Ammianus Marcellinus, provides us with a detailed account of the invasion (one he participated in), but it is an account lacking in certain areas. Ammianus was not a member of the high command. Also Ammianus wrote years later when the outcome of the expedition, and its consequences, were well known. An air of defeatism seems to hang over the narrative. Ammianus spends a great deal of time listing various omens and portents which signalled Julian's doom rather than discussing the mission's objectives.

Unfortunately there are lacuna in the text at critical moments. Perhaps the most important being at the end of Ammianus 24.7.2 where, it would seem, we lose an account of Procopius' failure to link up with Julian, Sapor's attempts to negotiate and some discussion on whether to burn the ships or not. This all occurs as Julian and his army are encamped before Ctesiphon, perhaps the most decisive moment of the entire expedition.

Due to the failings of Ammianus' work we are left with several questions which are either extremely difficult or impossible to answer. Why exactly were Procopius and Sebastianus sent with 30,000 men into Armenia? Why did Julian march down the Euphrates as oppose the Tigris? Why, having reached Ctesiphon, did he not try to take the city? Why were the ships burned? Where was Sapor throughout the invasion? And perhaps most important of all, what did Julian hope to achieve?

Ammianus' history does not allow us to answer these questions satisfactorily. Some historians have attempted to make guesses, but these, no matter how well argued, cannot be confirmed. The last question in particular is critical. Did Julian hope to conquer Mesopotamia? Did he hope to bring Sapor to battle and defeat him, as he had with the Alamanni at Strasbourg? Did he hope to establish a friendly regime under a ruler of his choosing? Or did he merely hope to catch the Persians off-guard and sack Ctesiphon, winning the loyalty of the Eastern legions by allowing them to plunder that great city?

Despite having given this subject great thought, I do not claim to know the answers to these questions. I suspect that Julian turned from Ctesiphon because he hope to find and defeat the Persian army in battle. Whether he would have been successful in this is uncertain, but, as it was, his death intervened. This is just a guess, however, and I remain to be convinced. Unfortunately going by the information we have guessing would appear to be all we can do. But this should not discourage us from trying to analyse the invasion in depth, nor should we resort to lazy conclusions, merely writing the episode off as a disaster or a mistake. Without knowing Julian's objectives we cannot say if the invasion was a mistake because we cannot know what he was attempting. The final outcome might be called a disaster, but much of this occurred after Julian's death. I plan to examine the events of the retreat in more detail at a latter date and so shall say no more on that subject here.

Further reading: Austin, N. J. E., Julian at Ctesiphon: A Fresh Look at Ammianus Account, in Athenaeum 50, 1972. Kaegi, W. E., Constantine's and Julian's Strategies of Strategic Surprise Against the Persians, Athenaeum 59, 1981. See also Ammianus Marcellinus' Res Gestae.

Tuesday, 17 June 2008

When did Vandal Sea-power Develop?

It is generally accepted that after the Vandals, led by Geiseric (reigned 428 AD – 477 AD), captured Carthage in 439 AD they gained possession of a fleet based there and began making piratical raids throughout the Mediterranean. These were spectacularly successful and climaxed in the sack of Rome (455 AD), the conquest of Sicily, Sardinia and a fair proportion of North Africa. While these is no question that controlling Carthage and the naval yards there were vital to Vandal success, did the Vandals begin to develop these tactics before 439 AD?

Before looking at the evidence it is worth considering the sources available to us. The Vandals have not been treated well by the progress of ages. No source remains written from their point of view, and what little is said about them comes from the Roman perspective. Often the sources can be outright hostile to the Vandals and many are fragmentary, providing little in the way of detail.

The chronicler Hydatius (c.400 – c.469 AD, Bishop of Aquae Flaviae in Hispania) is of central importance to this discussion. It is generally accepted that his work is reasonably trustworthy regarding Spanish affairs. He listed events, from the Fifth century and mostly relating to Spain, in chronological order, one after the other. His entry for 425 AD is fascinating. He wrote, “The Vandals pillaged the Balearic Islands and when they had sacked Cartagena and Seville, and pillaged Spain, they invaded Mauritania.” This makes for an action packed year and the final part of the statement has been taken by some Historians to imply that the Vandals began raiding Mauritania (Western North Africa) in 425 AD.

But first we should consider, to attack the Balearic Islands and Mauritania would require ships. So it seems a reasonable assumption that the Vandals began to become acquainted with the sea back in 425 AD. However an alternative interpretation of Hydatius presents a slightly different picture and makes dating these events more difficult. In a later entry, dated to 428 AD, Hydatius tells us that Gunderic (reigned 407 – 428 AD), Geiseric's predecessor, died after his men violated the sanctity of a church in Seville. The looting of a church would doubtless only occur after the city fell so it is reasonable to assume that Seville was captured in 428 AD, not 425 AD. If we accept this then we can assume that Hydatius' statement of 425 AD related not to events in that year but was a list of everything which happened from 425 AD till the Vandals crossed to Africa and left Spain.

So does Hydatius statement concerning the invasion of Mauritania refer to Vandal raids on North Africa before 429 AD or merely to the crossing of that year? Its difficult to answer. A reasonable reconstruction of events would be that, the Vandals, having reached the Spanish coast besieged and captured Cartagena and, having obtained ships there, then pillaged the Balearic Islands. Seville may have fallen next (although Hydatius is not clear, maybe Seville fell first) and then, after the accession of Geiseric, the Vandals would have invaded Mauritania. This sequence, although tentative, seems plausible. The Vandals, as they proved at Hippo Regis, were pretty ineffective at besieging cities (it took them thirteen months to take Hippo in 431) and so it seems reasonable to assume they would be unable to capture both Cartagena and Seville in one year.

Whenever it occurred, the raid on the Balearic Islands proves that the Vandals possessed ships, at least in limited numbers, from as early as c.425 AD onwards. It is impossible to tell if these were ships they captured in Cartagena or merely ships they took possession of once they reached the Spanish coast.

It is unlikely, though, that it was the Vandals themselves who suddenly developed an affinity for sailing. The Vandal 'supergroup' was a tribe of many nationalities and peoples. Vandals (two different tribes), Alans, Goths and even Romans were all members. It is probable that locals with specialised sailing skills were recruited into the tribe. Whether this was voluntary or compulsory is unknown.

When the Vandals crossed from Spain to Africa it is likely they had their own ships. Some Historians have speculated that the local Hispanic population wanted them gone and so offered their services in this matter. This is possible and the Vandals having their own ships would not negate this theory. Once across the Vandals marched along the North African coast. A small fleet of ships would prove useful here to carry water, food and sundry supplies and injured or unfit tribesmen.

By 430 the Vandals were besieging Hippo Regis. Possidius, in his life of St. Augustine, tells us that the city was cut of by land and sea, indicating that the Vandals definitely possessed ships at this point. It seems reasonable to presume that these were the same ships they had taken from Spain.

The next reference to Vandal piratical activity comes from another chronicler named Prosper Tiro. In 437-8 AD a series of attacks were launched on various Mediterranean islands, including Sicily. Prosper describes these raiders as, 'barbarians, runaways of the foederati'. In the treaty of 435 AD the Vandals had been declared allies of Rome, or foederati, suggesting that these pirates were possibly a rogue faction who had left Vandal service and taken some ships with them. They may well, however, have been operating with the blessing of Geiseric. By 437 AD he had begun to take a more aggressive stance against the Romans and had exiled a number of prominent Romans from his territories, including Possidius. Clearly he planned already to violate the treaty he had signed in 435 AD. Unfortunately we can't know for certain. I suspect Geiseric sanctioned the attacks, although may have publicly called the raiders runaways. But this is just guesswork.

Geiseric was soon to reopen hostilities for real. In 439 AD Carthage was stormed and, as mentioned above, by 440 AD the Vandals had begun serious and large scale naval operations against the Western Roman empire. These were wide ranging and would eventually include attacks on the Atlantic seaboard and in the East against Greece and the Islands. The fall of Rome, in 455 AD, was merely the most notorious incident.

But it seems certain that the Vandals did not become salty sea-dogs overnight. Prior to 440 AD there is enough evidence in our fragmentary sources to indicate that Vandals began to become familiar with the sea and the possibilities of piracy as early as 425-8 AD and that they were developing (or recruiting) skills that would serve them well in the years to come. We should not presume that the Vandals actually possessed a major fleet or conceived of its effectiveness before the capture of Carthage. But it is probable that the fall of Cartagena and the raid on the Balearic Islands opened Geiseric's eyes to the advantages of sea power and that the later Vandal kingdom's naval strength had its roots in these events.

Reading: Primary sources on the Vandals are fragmentary and often hard to come by. For this piece I used works by Victor of Vita, Possidius, Hydatius and Prosper Tiro. Procopius also writes about the Vandals in this period and is probably easier to obtain, although I did not use him directly. Secondary sources, in English, have been notoriously bad for dealing with the Vandals for years. Many over look them or get facts wrong. Peter Heather's recent 'The Fall of the Roman Empire' gives a good account of the period.

Sunday, 15 June 2008

Book Reviews

I thought I would take this opportunity to highlight two of the best history books I have read recently.

Iron Kingdom: The Rise and Downfall of Prussia 1600 - 1947 (Christopher Clark).

An excellent book whose imperious narrative on Prussian history is never less than fascinating. Cultural movements, religion, economics and politics all have their place, but the book comes alive when discussing the giants of the period, Frederick the Great and Bismark, and when describing the great wars of the Eighteenth and Nineteenth century which shaped Germany. Highly recommended.

The Civil War: The War of the Three Kingdoms 1638-1660 (Trevor Royle).

Royle's masterwork begins on the bloody field of Lutzen before back-tracking to outline the background to the conflicts which rocked Britain and Ireland during the mid-Seventeenth century. From the outset he attempts to place the conflict in its wider European context and, crucially, to show how the war raged the length and breadth of the British Isles. Throughout he paints some memorable scenes, from Marston Moor to the Putney debates, from Montrose's miracles to Charles' execution.

Absurdly the title 'The War of the Three Kingdoms' discourages some people. It is seen as a 'PC' alternative to 'The English Civil War'. Utter madness. There were three kingdoms involved in the conflict. Get over it. But do get Royle's book which succeeds in being both entertaining and highly informative. An awesome read.

Saturday, 7 June 2008

Beowulf a Viking Age Classic?

For the last two centuries, most historians have considered Beowulf either a work of Germanic prehistory or the early Anglo-Saxon period. Most critics of the poem would not even recognize the possibility that the poem post-dated the Viking invasions of the ninth century AD. As the eminent Dorothy Whitelock put it, why would an English poet praise the very Danes who were ravaging his homeland? This has all changed in the last thirty or so years, as will be seen.

The story Beowulf survives in only a single manuscript which was almost destroyed before being copied! This manuscript is now stored in the British Library and bears the name Cotton Vitellius A.XV. Unfortunately, the fire did damage one of the edges of the manuscript, which began to flake away. At some point after the fire, but before the manuscript reached its maximum extent of deterioration, the Icelandic scholar Thorkelin had two copies made by hand. These proved invaluable in trying to reconstruct the missing text after the manuscript was finally stabilized in the mid-nineteenth century. Paleographers have almost universally assigned the copying of Beowulf to this manuscript to approximately 975 - 1025 AD.

Thorkelin was the first to attempt to date the poem - he argued that it emerged during the fourth or fifth century AD! His contemporaries quickly provided evidence to overturn this conclusion - the key piece of evidence emerging from N.F.S. Grundtvig, who noted that the death of King Hygelac in Beowulf, while raiding Frisia, was essentially the same as that of King Choloilaichus described by Gregory of Tours. This entry in Gregory's history dated to the early 500s, establishing a good terminus ante quem of the mid 500s for the creation of the poem. Another critic, P.F. Muller established what was to be the long-standing terminus post quem with his argument that it could not date to the Viking Age - why would the Anglo-Saxons of that period create a poem that, like Beowulf, praises the Danes who were ravaging their land? This was the last major development to the dating for some time; while some scholars argued in the mid-nineteenth century that the words 'mere wio ingas' in the poem referred to the Merovingians (thus giving a date for the poem predating the fall of that dynasty), the manuscript at that point is unclear and the words could actually be 'mere wic ingas', which means sea raiders, an equally apt term taking into account the context.

While some strides were made in the study of Beowulf in the twentieth century, particularly by the likes of Klaeber, Tolkien and Whitelock, the overall assessment of the date remained the same. The only scholar who suggested otherwise, Schucking, was quickly drowned out. This all changed in the 1970s and early 1980s when a group of scholars brought up very good arguments for the creation of Beowulf in that forbidden age, the Viking Age.

[Problems with editing, will finish soon]

Thursday, 5 June 2008

Naval Conflict During the Wars of the Diadochi 323 – 318 BC.

With the exception of the battle of Salamis (306 BC.), the naval conflicts during the wars of the Diadochi are often overlooked. In an attempt to correct this, here is an overview of the main naval events of the early years of the conflict from 323 to 318 BC. This period saw a number of major naval engagements and these played a decisive role in shaping the course of the wars.

The first major naval clashes took place during the Lamian War. At the outset of this conflict Athens raised a fleet of about 240 ships, although only about 40 were larger than Triremes. This vast investment in a navy tells us how important the Athenians viewed control of the sea. They understood that if they could prevent reinforcements being brought over from Asia, that they stood a real chance of defeating Antipater. As it was, they could not and the successive reverses suffered by the Athenians at sea condemned them to defeat.

Because of the deficiencies of our sources we cannot say for certain if the Lamian War saw two or three naval battles. The following is what I believe was the most likely course of events. In the Spring of 322, the Macedonian admiral Cleitus (the White) engaged the Athenians, commanded by Euetion, off Abydos and won a resounding victory. This handed the Macedonians control of the sea and meant they could bring Antipater reinforcements unhindered.

Cleitus might have fought another Athenian squadron in the Malian Gulf not long afterwards. If so, it would suggest that the force he defeated at Abydos was not the entire Athenian fleet of 240 (yet it is accepted that the fleet at Abydos consisted of the bulk of Athenian naval power). Athens immediately outfitted a new fleet, an incredible effort, and prepared for another confrontation. They probably managed to re-equip and build a force of around 170 ships. In the summer of 322, probably July, Cleitus met Euetion again in a decisive battle off the Amorgos Islands. The Athenian fleet was destroyed and signaled the end of Athenian naval power. It also marked the end of Greek hopes and handed the Macedonians victory in the war. The Greek allies did hazard another pitched battle on land, at Crannon, in September 322. However the situation at sea meant that nothing less than a knock-out victory would save them. They fought the Macedonians to a standstill, but it was not enough.

What undid the Greeks was their reliance on the Black Sea trade routes for food to feed their people. Cleitus' victories allowed the Macedonians to blockade Greece and slowly begin to strangle the Greek war effort. For this reason the Amorgos Islands spelt the effective end for the Athenians. The question does have to be asked, why was Euetion allowed a second command after his first defeat off Abydos? This is not to suggest another admiral would have done better, but considering how in the past Athenian admirals were often blamed for the loss of citizen lives, even when they won, it is surprising that Euetion was not replaced. Perhaps the Athenians realised that in Cleitus they faced a skilled commander and that only an experienced man stood any chance?

We know little enough about the ships used in this period. Diodorus tells us the Athenians built 200 triremes and 40 quadriremes (Justin says only 200 ships in total). No figures are given for the Macedonian fleet. Cleitus, one of Alexander's men, probably commanded a mixed force of Macedonian, Cypriot and Phoenician ships. We know that within about ten years of this period Antigonus had begun commissioning much larger ships to be built in Syria and Phoenicia, so it is not unreasonable to suppose that the Macedonian fleet not only outnumbered the Athenian fleet, but that it had significantly more big ships. Athens had a proud record at sea, but surely nothing demonstrated more clearly that the age of the city state was done than the mismatch in naval power and technology now displayed.

Cleitus, and his fleet, seem to have stayed attached to Antipater at this point and sided with him against Perdiccas as the next phase of the conflict began. However his was not the only fleet and so when invading Egypt, Perdiccas took a fleet of unknown size with him, commanded by his brother-in-law, Attalus. After Perdiccas' murder, Attalus fled with his fleet to Tyre where he collected men and money. Joining with Alcetas, Perdiccas' brother, they launched an attack on Rhodes (probably in 320). This was defeated by the Rhodian admiral, Demaratus. W. W. Tarn speculates that Attalus may also have attacked Cyprus, but that this invasion was defeated by Cleitus and the Athenian admiral, Thymochares (notice the Athenian navy had now been reduced to a support role). If so this would confirm that Cleitus was allied with Antipater, or at least that he recognised him as the legitimate Regent of the Empire.

This is an important distinction. Because after Antipater's death Cleitus sided with Polyperchon against Cassander, Antipater's son. Cleitus' control of the sea was vital to Polyperchon's hopes of defeating Cassander, as the latter was depending upon Antigonus sending him help from Asia. If Cleitus could prevent Antigonus crossing to Europe, Cassander's war effort would be severely hit.

Cleitus engaged Nicanor, who was allied to Cassander and Antigonus, in a naval battle off Byzantium in the summer of 318. If we accept all of the above this would be Cleitus fifth naval engagement and, not surprisingly, his knowledge of naval combat proved too much for Nicanor, winning him the battle. From 130 ships, Cleitus succeeded in capturing or sinking 60. This should have been decisive, but Antigonus arrived and, with the connivance of the Byzantines, launched a surprise attack by land and sea the following day. Caught in their camp, just as the Athenians had been at Aegospotami almost a century ago, Cleitus' forces were swiftly captured or destroyed. Cleitus himself escaped, only to fall into the hands of Lysimachus who had him killed.

This battle off Byzantium effectively brought the first period of naval combat in the wars of the Diadochi to an end. In the succeeding years the main trend, in a naval sense, was Ptolemy's growing power. Finally to counter this, Antigonus ordered a massive shipbuilding program which would eventually result in the decisive battle of Salamis (306) handing Demetrius control of the Eastern Mediterranean for a generation.

Saturday, 31 May 2008

Alexander's Strategy After Issus.

The battle of Issus (333 B.C.) witnessed the destruction of Darius III's western army. Alexander now, realistically, was faced with two choices. Should he pursue Darius into Mesopotamia, or continue his policy of conquering the Asiatic coast to deny the Persians access to the sea? Obviously he chose the later, but here we shall try to understand why.

As he fled East, Darius doubtless expected to look back at any moment to find Alexander pursuing him. But Alexander had decided that following Darius into the depths of Asia was, for the moment, not a good idea. He cannot have known in the aftermath of Issus where Darius was going or what he planned. What he will have known is that the Persian Empire still possessed great reserves of manpower in the East. And this was a real threat to Alexander, particularly as the situation in the West was still in flux. The last thing Alexander needed was to move inland while potentially dangerous forces remained to his rear, particularly as Darius might retreat to the mountains and wage a guerilla campaign which might take years to subdue.

The Persians had suffered a shattering defeat, but they still possessed significant forces in the west. Of chief importance, and the greatest threat to Alexander's fledgling empire, was the fleet which was operating in the Aegean. The commanders Pharnabazus and Autophradates had been charged with provoking and supporting rebellion on the Greek mainland, under the leadership of Sparta, and reconquering the Aegean islands and Anatolian coast. Prior to Issus they had made progress, capturing a number of the Greek islands and forcing Alexander to rebuild his navy.

When the news of Issus reached the Persian Admirals they sailed to the coast of Asia Minor to head off the inevitable revolts which news of the battle would provoke. By Spring 332 the fleet had essentially collapsed, the Phoenician and Cypriot ships leaving for home. If Alexander had not moved south along the coast would these troops have abandoned the Persian cause? The fleet had caused Alexander a great deal of trouble, but no longer. After the capture of Tyre, the Macedonians, with their new Phoenician and Cypriot allies were the masters of the Eastern Mediterranean.

A large body of troops had fled from Issus to the north and linked up with Persian forces in Anatolia. These represented a real threat to Macedonian control of the region, which at this point was by no means assured. Alexander kept faith in Antigonus to deal with the situation. He did so, but it took three pitched battles and over a year of fighting to defeat these Persian loyalists. While our sources, obsessed as they are with Alexander, have paid scant attention to these events, the situation in Anatolia seems to have been fairly serious. Alexander, not blessed with hindsight, would have been well aware that this region must be pacified in order to assure the success of his future campaigns. The news that Antigonus had finally crushed the resistance must have been welcome indeed.

Another group of mercenaries fled from Issus to Cyprus. From here, Amyntas, a Macedonian fugitive, led some of them to Egypt with the aim of annexing the country. This was a canny bit of opportunism on Amyntas part. As Ptolemy was to prove later, Egypt, when properly defended, was a daunting natural fortress. If Amyntas had been successful, it would have proven hard to dislodge him. Some historians have questioned the wisdom of Alexander pushing into Egypt, after subduing Phoenicia. What they seem to have misunderstood is that, if Alexander had not taken the province when he did, if he had let Amyntas, or some other commander, dig himself in and use the provinces wealth to hire a mercenary army, he might never have captured it. Indeed, as Ptolemy again proves, a capable ruler in Egypt was well placed to attack Phoenicia and dominate the Eastern Mediterranean. Fortunately for Alexander, Amyntas was defeated and killed by the Persian troops stationed in Egypt. Amyntas' defeat seems to have rested more on the indiscipline of his troops rather than the skill of the Persian garrison who, later, surrendered to Alexander. But a year or two down the line, and with effective leadership, the situation may have been very different. Moreover, Alexander was already thinking in terms of establishing himself as master of Asia. For this reason also he was unwilling to leave Egypt's future in the hands of fate.

While it may seem that Alexander had a choice of strategy after Issus, I would contest that this was illusionary and that circumstance dictated precisely which course he had to follow. The need to deal with the various Persian forces still active in the West and to bring the coastal provinces securely under his control, in order to advance his claim to legitimate kingship, out weighed by far any desire to pursue Darius.