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.