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.

Thursday, 22 May 2008

Count Sebastian, The Roman Pirate.

Sebastian is a shadowy figure in Fifth Century AD history, who operated in the chaotic 430's and 440's. F. M. Clover attempted a chronological outline of Sebastian's career in the paper, 'Count Gainas and Count Sebastian' which appeared in The American Journal of Ancient History, Issue 4, 1979, pp.65-76. I think he more or less got it right, though one might quibble over some of the dates, and I will use his outline to discuss Sebastian's activities.

Sebastian first emerges in the historical record after his father-in-law, Count Boniface, defeated Aetius at the battle of Ravenna (Rimini) in 432 AD. Boniface died soon after from wounds sustained in the battle, leaving Sebastian to succeed him as Comes et Magister Utriusque Militiae (essentially, 'supreme commander') of the Western Empire. Sebastian did not hold this position for long, as very soon after, Aetius returned and, with support from the Huns, seized control of the Western Empire, by 433 AD at the latest.

Fleeing East, Sebastian arrived in Constantinople. What happens next is unclear, but it seems Sebastian wore out his welcome at Court. It has been suggested that Sebastian and his supporters were plotting to overthrow the current regime. Sebastian was forced to flee Constantinople and he and his men began making piratical attacks in the Hellespont and Propontis.

Around this time the seaward defences of Constantinople were improved. Some believe this to be a response to Vandal raids, or at least the threat of raids. However it is wrong to assume that all Mediterranean pirate activity in this period was conducted by the Vandals. We know of at least one other pirate, named Contradis, who was captured and executed in about 438 AD. It seems it was in response to both his threat and that of Sebastian that Constantinople sought to improve its defences. The Vandals did not raid in the East until later.

In Clover's chronology by either 438 or 439, Sebastian and his men had fled West again to the court of Theoderic I, King of the Goths. It is worth noting that Clover's dating here differs from others. The chronicler Hydatius dates Sebastian's arrival in the Gothic court as being 444 AD. However, Clover, to my mind, argues convincingly for the earlier date citing the chronicler Prosper Tiro and linking Sebastian's movements persuasively to contemporary events.

The arrival of Sebastian in Toulouse, along with the fall of Carthage to the Vandals (439) and the subsequent Gothic-Vandal alliance presented Aetius and the Western government with a formidable problem. Aetius marched into Gaul and defeated the Goths in battle, forcing Theoderic to accept a renewal of the treat of 418, which had established the Goths as foederati.

Sebastian and his men were forced to move again, this time to Barcelona which they captured. From here they sailed to Africa, pitching up at the court of Geiseric. This was their last stop as Geiseric eventually had Sebastian executed (the date is uncertain, following Hydatius it was about 450 AD).

The Christian writer Victor of Vita described Sebastian's fall from grace and execution. What is perhaps most remarkable about his account is that he devotes so much time to a man who clearly was not very religious. Every other 'martyr' against the Arian Vandal regime mentioned by Victor has their virtue and piety expressed in detail. Sebastian is referred to as a valiant fighting man, but little is said of his religious belief. It seems Sebastian's death, to Victor at least, was an important event and one worth discussing, even if Sebastian did not conform to the standards of the usual victims of the Vandals.

Victor suggests that Sebastian was extremely popular at court and that Geiseric felt threatened. Whether Sebastian ever stood a realistic chance of seizing control of Carthage and the Vandal state is uncertain. One would suspect not, but if prominent Vandals were beginning to see him as a potential replacement for Geiseric, it would possibly say something about the multi-ethnic nature of the Vandal force. It should be remembered that the Vandal army also contained Alans, Goths and Romans. Even if the Hasdingi and Siling Vandal elite were loyal to Geiseric, there may have been a significant number of commanders from the other minority ethnic-groups who viewed Sebastian as a valid candidate.

Another reason for Geiseric ordering Sebastian's death may be that Aetius demanded it as part of the alliance agreed between the Romans and Vandals. Plausible, but if so why was Sebastian only executed in 450? It is possible that Hydatius' dating is erroneous here and the event took place earlier, or that there may have been another reason altogether for Sebastian's death.

A picture of Sebastian emerges from all of this. He seems to have been a charismatic, daring and dangerous individual who was seen wherever he went as being a potential threat to established regimes. This tells us that even after Aetius deposed him that he still wielded considerable authority and power. Sebastian had a number of troops (bucellarii) with him. The actual numbers may have fluctuated over time but their presence suggests Sebastian had significant resources with which to maintain them.

Once Sebastian was in Constantinople he would have soon found himself in a quandary. To keep his men loyal and attached to him he would require funds, but the Imperial government, one easily imagines, would be reluctant to fund a large, armed fighting force belonging to one so ambitious. Driven out of Constantinople, Sebastian's piracy was probably undertaken not so much as an attack on Constantinople, but as a means to reward his followers and to maintain his household.

The resources of the Eastern Empire were such that Sebastian would soon have realized that continued piracy in the East was very dangerous. Therefore he returned to the West, perhaps with the intention of gaining Gothic support to defeat Aetius and win back his former position. The Gothic defeat put paid to this and so Sebastian moved to Barcelona. This attack was primarily to pillage and reward his soldiers. Sebastian must have realised, however, that his options were running out.

He needed an ally who would support and shelter him or turn a blind eye to any piratical attacks he launched to support himself. Preferably an ally who was opposed to Aetius. There was only one option, Geiseric.

Dr. Clover argues that Sebastian arrived in Carthage around 440 while Geiseric was in Sicily. The Vandals had captured Marsala and were besieging Panormus. No mention is made in the sources of whether Panormus was captured, but their silence hints, to me at least, that the Vandal siege failed. It could be speculated that Geiseric was forced to abandon the siege, or at least curtail it, upon receiving the news that Sebastian and his faction had arrived in Carthage. This forced Geiseric to return to Africa to confront Sebastian.

Clearly an understanding was reached between Geiseric and Sebastian, one which held until Geiseric either decided to remove the threat to his position or was persuaded by Aetius to do him a favour.

Sebastian achieved little during his career and could be described as a mere pirate or brigand. But he was symptomatic of the times. A man such as himself could only operate and, for a time, be successful in an environment where imperial power structures were collapsing. In this power vacuum men like him could wreak havoc, playing competing factions against one-another and preying on those who were left defenceless by Rome's weakness. It is worth remembering that until the defeat of the Goths, Sebastian probably had a real chance of regaining his position and ousting Aetius. Afterwards, however, he was always going to become marginalised and this in turn led to his eventual death.

Reading: Clover, F. M., 'Count Gainas and Count Sebastian', in The American Journal of Ancient History, Issue 4, 1979, pp.65-76. See also Heather, P., The Fall of the Roman Empire, for a good overview of the period. Primary sources are hard to obtain, look for Hydatius, Victor of Vita, Count Marcellinus and Prosper Tiro. All are mentioned in Clover's work.

Friday, 16 May 2008

Polybius (Historian 203-120 BC) on Pyrrhus (King of Epirus 306-301 & 297-272 BC).

In the Eighteenth book of his Histories Polybius wrote,

As for King Pyrrhus of Epirus, he employed not only Italian weapons but also Italian troops and alternated maniples and units of the phalanx in drawing up his battle order against the Romans. But even with the help of these methods he did not succeed in winning a victory, and the outcome of all his battles was somewhat indecisive.” (Polybius XVIII.28).

This extract is part of Polybius' famous comparison of the Macedonian and Roman military systems in which he explains why the Romans triumphed in the wars between the two nations. His argument essentially is that Pyrrhus, a skilled commander, recognised the weakness of the Macedonian system and sought to adopt Italian tactics. But is Polybius right?

The first thing we notice is that Polybius, or possibly his source, was wrong when he says the battles Pyrrhus fought were indecisive. Pyrrhus routed the Romans at Heraclea (280 BC) and was victorious a year later at Asculum (279 BC). So why would Pyrrhus adopt Italian troops and tactics when he was winning and defeating Roman armies?

We can be certain Pyrrhus did not employ Italian troops at Heraclea. He had only recently arrived in Italy and Plutarch tells us he felt great pride at winning that battle using only the forces he had brought with him. He did have some troops from Tarentum (who fought in a traditional phalanx formation) with him but it is unlikely they saw any significant involvement in the battle. At Asculum he fought the Romans with various allies from Southern Italy. Plutarch describes the phalanx fighting as normal, and fighting well. But Plutarch is not our only source for Asculum.

Dionysius of Halicarnassus lists Pyrrhus' order of battle (as it relates to the infantry, cavalry deployment has been omitted to save space),

...the Macedonian phalanx the first place on the right wing and placed next to it the Italiot mercenaries from Tarentum; then the troops from Ambracia and after them the phalanx of Tarentines equipped with white shields, forced by the allied force of Bruttians and Lucanians; in the middle of the battle-line he stationed the Thesprotians and Chaonians; next to them the mercenaries of the Aetolians, Acarnanians and Athamanians, and finally the Samnites, who constituted the left wing. (Dionysius of Halicarnassus XX.1-3)

Here we see the tactical deployment to which Polybius referred. Yet what is interesting is that Pyrrhus has not broken up 'his' Macedonian phalanx, far from it, instead he has placed them as one group in the position of honour on the right. Asculum was a bigger battle than Heraclea and, although we can discount fanciful estimations of 70,000 on each side, Pyrrhus lacked the manpower to present an unbroken front of Macedonian phalangites. He was therefore forced to adapt his tactics and rely on his allies who constituted a considerable section of his army. In the actual fighting the Macedonian phalanx performed admirably, defeating both Roman and Latin Legions opposed to it. Meanwhile it was his Italian troops who performed badly and nearly cost him the battle, fleeing from the field.

Considering how effective the Macedonian Phalanx was at both Heraclea and Asculum we can ignore any suggestion that they were in some way inferior to the Roman troops of the time. Indeed the professional, Macedonian trained infantry Pyrrhus brought with him to Italy were probably the finest quality troops available at the time. The problem Pyrrhus had was that he did not have enough of them.

Further the use of mercenaries, or other infantry, to separate units of the phalanx was not unheard of. This was done to make the line of battle more flexible, not because Pyrrhus saw the Italian maniple as being superior to the Macedonian. Polybius, or his source, clearly failed to understand Pyrrhus' tactics at Asculum and then misrepresented them.

We must always be cautious when dealing with ancient sources. We must recognise that writers, even ones as good as Polybius, made mistakes, omissions and could often openly favour one side. That Polybius favoured the Romans and the Scipio family is beyond dispute. When writing about Pyrrhus' tactics Polybius is probably guilty only of ignorance and misinterpretation. His work in general seems to show that he was unaware of how the Macedonian phalanx had evolved over the years and that it was not always like the Second century BC model of which he was familiar.

Translated versions of Polybius, Plutarch and Dionysius are all available on-line.

Thursday, 15 May 2008

Who was Cratesipolis?

Ancient history is full of obscure characters who are often over-looked in the rush to talk about Alexander, Caesar etc. This is a real shame as some of history's minor characters lead fascinating lives and studying them can often shed new light on well-worn topics.

Take the case of Cratesipolis, a rather remarkable woman who lived at the end of the 4th century BC. We know almost nothing about her, not even her real name (Cratesipolis roughly means 'conqueror of the city', which was probably not a common name for little girls, even in the ancient world). Yet the picture which emerges from the scant few references to her is of a complex and brilliant individual, one capable of capitalising on the chaos and uncertainty of her age and coming out on top.

Cratesipolis was the wife of Alexander, the son of Polyperchon. This is the same Polyperchon who, upon the death of Antipater in 319 BC, was appointed Regent of Alexander the Great's vast empire. This provoked civil war as Cassander, Antipater's son, and Antigonus Monophthalmus, the governor of Greater Phrygia, both felt they should have been given the position. Polyperchon allied himself with Eumenes of Cardia and Olympias, Alexander the Great's mother. The complicated nature of the conflict which ensued is unimportant, suffice to say after the defeats and deaths of Olympias and Eumenes, Polyperchon was rather isolated.

His cause had all but collapsed, yet, he and his son, Alexander, still controlled much of the Peloponnesus, including some important strongholds. Both were courted by the more powerful warlords (the Diadochi) of the time who sought them as allies. Polyperchon and Alexander sided with Antigonus against Cassander at first, but Alexander changed sides having made a deal with Cassander.

Cratesipolis enters the historical record sometime in 314 BC. Plutarch, in his life of Demetrius Poliorcetes, describes Cratesipolis as, 'a famous beauty'. In this year her husband, Alexander, was murdered, as he was preparing to leave Sicyon with his army, by one of those civic patriots Greece once so commonly produced, Alexion of Sicyon. It seems some deceit was involved as Diodorus reports that Alexion pretended to be Alexander's friend.

Sicyon had been garrisoned by Alexander's troops and there can be little doubt he essentially ruled it in the manner of a tyrant. Alexion felt he was liberating his city as he struck down the Macedonian general. However he had reckoned without Cratesipolis. She was, according to Diodorus, skilled in practical matters and an extremely daring woman. Also, she was well regarded by her husband's men for her various acts of kindness and charity. Unfortunately for Sicyon and Alexion there was little kindness or charity in what followed.

While the people of Sicyon perhaps saw Alexander's death as the signal to regain their freedom, Cratesipolis had other ideas. She drew up her husband's troops against the citizens and defeated them with great slaughter. She had about thirty men arrested, doubtless those she considered responsible for the revolt and her husband's death, and had them crucified. After a bloody day's combat Sicyon was now ruled by a woman.

At some point she gained control of Corinth as well. Probably the garrison there was loyal to her husband, indeed it may well have been his headquarters. Cratesipolis controlled these two cities from 314 – 308 BC, all the while still, it would seem, maintaining her husbands alliance with Cassander.

However in 308 BC, Ptolemy showed up and began to meddle in the affairs of the Peloponnesus. He made contact with Cratesipolis and the two of them seem to have struck a deal. Cratesipolis agreed to hand Sicyon and Corinth over to Ptolemy and retire to private life.

The people of Corinth had other ideas and objected to a Ptolmaic garrison so Cratesipolis was forced to resort to deception. She told the Corinthians that she intended to resist Ptolemy and that she had sent to Sicyon for reinforcements. Secretly she informed Ptolemy of this plan and he dispatched a force which appeared before Corinth and pretended to be Cratesipolis's men. They were welcomed into the city and managed to bloodlessly seize power.

This was a major coup for Ptolemy. Corinth occupied a key strategic location in the Peloponnesus and its fortress was one of the mightiest in Greece. We are not told what Cratesipolis got from Ptolemy for this service but it seems likely she was well rewarded. Cratesipolis retired to Patrae (Modern Patras).

She was still there in 307 BC when Demetrius Poliorcetes captured Athens from Cassander and restored its democratic constitution. Such was her reputation for beauty that Demetrius abandoned his army in Megara and and travelled cross country with only a few attendants in the hope of affecting a meeting with her. The way Plutarch tells it, Demetrius pitched his tent a discrete distance from his bodyguards to allow Cratesipolis to come and go without being seen and preserve her modesty. However some of his enemies got wind of this meeting and launched a surprise attack on the camp. Demetrius scarcely had time to snatch up his cloak and run before they were on him. He barely escaped.

So much for that. However a more cynical assessment of situation may be that Cratesipolis was again applying her powers of deception. Had she perhaps arranged the meeting with Demetrius in the hopes of betraying him to Ptolemy? How else would these attackers just happen to know where the meeting place was to be? Perhaps this is just speculation, but it does not seem out of character.

Sadly though, with that, Cratesipolis vanishes from the historical record. We know nothing else of her or what became of her. This is a shame as the woman who is briefly revealed to us is fascinating. Just how did she gain control of her husbands troops and prevent them from merely offering their services to Cassander or Antigonus? How effective was her rule over Sicyon and Corinth? What exactly was her relationship with the great men of the time, with Cassander, Ptolemy and Demetrius?

We can make guesses at the above questions, but frustratingly we will never know for sure. When even simple questions such as who she was and where she came from elude us we cannot hope to draw in-depth conclusions. But her small cameo does help shed some light on the chaotic and often confusing wars of the successors. Her willingness to change sides was not unusual. Many did likewise, offering their services to the general who paid the highest or was thought most likely to win. Further her very success demonstrates what was possible in a world in flux. The old certainties had dissolved and it was now possible for a woman to play a decisive role in events, to hold great wealth and independent means, even to lead soldiers.

It could be argued that if her husband had not died we may not have heard of her, perhaps she would have continued quietly in the background. But he did and she seized her opportunity to, briefly, place herself centre stage in Greek history.

Further Reading: Diodorus Siculus: XIX.67 & XX.37, Polyaenus: VIII.58, Plutarch: Life of Demetrius.

The Image at the top of the page is of a statue of Athena and can be found in the Louvre.