Tag: Ancient warfare

155.  The Conquest of Gaul, by Julius Caesar (58-50 BC)

155. The Conquest of Gaul, by Julius Caesar (58-50 BC)

Plot:  Caesar’s reports on his battles to subdue the Gaulish tribes, push back Germanic invaders  and reconnoitre the southeast coast of Britain.

My version is the Penguin Black Classic translated by S. A. Handford and revised by Jane Gardiner (ISBN 9780140444339)

My thoughts:

What could have been propaganda reads fairly honestly, even if written in the third person. Caesar’ success as a field General is largely based on his speedy decisions and quick marches to get into position before his enemies are aware, and yet in cases where his underlings make bad decisions, he writes it off as fortunes of war.

What is mindboggling is the sheer numbers of combatants involved. At one point, Caesar has the 53,000 survivors of a siege sold off as slaves to one bidder. On another occasion, the Gaulish supreme commander Vercingetorix raises 269,000 reinforcements from across all the Gaulish tribes. (Perhaps not too surprising as Caesar describes the Gaulish custom of torturing the last man to arrive at a muster)

Favourite lines/passages:

My favourite story is the two rival centurions Titus Pullo and Lucius Vorenus, who had a history of acrimonious competition for promotion against each other. In battle with the Gauls, Pullo baits Vorenus into following him over the rampart into the heaviest part of the fighting with the enemy, which results in them each rescuing the other from overwhelming numbers and returning unhurt to their lines after killing many enemies (page 125)

Diversions and digressions:

Some siege terms which might come in handy later :

Fascines : bundles of sticks or brush used to fill in trenches, allow crossing of boggy ground, or make temporary barricades

Mantlets : light portable wicker shields large enough to cover 2-3 soldiers, light enough to be easily lifted and manoeuvred.

Redoubts : walled enclosures or earthworks surrounding a more permanent fort

Personal rating: Not as riveting throughout as I had hoped, but some impressive and historically valuable descriptions of battles and tactics. 5/10.

Also in that year:  And for a few pages at least, the known world briefly turns it’s attention to a soggy island in north west Europe.

The read in between:  Needful Things by Stephen King.  A curio shop opens in the small town of Castle Rock, Maine, stocking various items, each of which is the very heart’s desire of someone in that town. And the price of these treasures is surprisingly affordable. But along with the ticketed price, the proprietor just wants each customer to play a small practical joke on a neighbour. What can be the harm in that? Like the villain, this one is a little long in the tooth but still compelling.

Next :  The poetry of Catullus.


150. The Rise of the Roman Empire by Polybius (c. 146 BC)

150. The Rise of the Roman Empire by Polybius (c. 146 BC)

Contents: Greek historian Polybius records the rise of the Roman superpower from one hill besieged by Gauls in 390 BC to an empire spanning the known world, concentrating on the First and Second Punic Wars between Carthage and Rome, but also describing contemporaneous events in Macedonia, Egypt, and Syria, providing a ‘world history’, notably for the years from 264 to 201 BC.

Originally in 39 books, Polybius starts in earnest with the events leading to the First Punic War. Having conquered the Italian peninsula, the Romans came into conflict with the Carthaginians (also known as the Punics) from north Africa (modern Tunisia) over adjoining Sicily. The Carthaginians were the greatest sea power of their time, and their land forces also had the added advantage of war elephants trained to advance and crush enemy infantry. Yet the Romans quickly developed a navy, the ability to navigate across seas rather than hug the coast, and a revolutionary grappling tool known as ‘the Raven’, which dropped onto opposing ships and allowed the Romans to pull enemy ships close and board them.  Despite several disastrous naval losses by both storms and superior Carthaginian strategy, the Romans eventually became the victors and took control of Sicily.

Despite a truce that Carthaginian armies in Spain would not cross the River Ebro, Hannibal amassed an army and invaded Saguntum, a city allied with Rome but still on the Carthaginian side of Ebro. Hannibal’s hatred of Rome inherited from his father and the settlement terms of the First War urged him to continue onto Italy, with his famous crossing of the Alps with an army including 37 elephants. The crossing took its toll, both from ambushing tribesmen and the narrow and snow covered path, which combined to rob Hannibal of large numbers of soldiers and pack animals, and half his elephants. Once he reached northern Italy, he allied with some of the local Gauls and won several battles against the Romans. He stayed in the field in Italy for seventeen years skirmishing with the Roman forces, and at one point reached within 5 miles of the walls of Rome.

Carthage and Rome were vying for the whole world in this Second Punic War, and the brilliance of the young Roman general Scipio who took the fight to Spain and then Carthage itself eventually settled the toss.

My copy was the Penguin classic edition translated by Ian Scott-Kilvert (ISBN 9780140443622), which contains most of books I through IV, with sections of books V-XII, XIV, XV, XVIII, XVIX, XXXI, XXXVI and XXXIX. 😉

My thoughts:  Polybius seems even handed in his portrayals of both Roman and Carthaginian forces, and gives credit or blame wherever they are due, with high praise for both Hannibal and Scipio. However he is not as enamored with the other races, and is quite scathing in describing some of their treacherous acts.

Polybius wanted to show his readers how Rome became an empire, but he also offers a whole world view of history – showing how other wars at the same time in Greece, Illyria and Egypt provided opportunities or impacted on the strategies of the Romans.

He does interrupt his history at certain points to also discuss Roman government and military arrangements, which was useful background information, including pointing out a government model with an early version of the separation of powers : part monarchy (two consuls appointed on an annual basis), part oligarchy (a Senate controlling finances) and part democracy. But Polybius also spends my reading time attacking other historians, notably Timaeus. However, some of his own descriptions of the use and behavior of the elephants is a little suspect as well – the difficulties in getting them to cross a river (after all, elephants can swim) and their disastrous panic in the final battle (unlikely for trained war animals) just don’t ring true.

Favourite lines/passages:  One of the best stories (and quite unexpected) was the role Archimedes the famous mathematician played in saving his home city of Syracuse from simultaneous attack by both the Roman army and navy, designing catapults to fling stones and iron darts at the enemy, and grappling machines to lift and capsize warships from the safety of the city walls (pages 366-368). Formulas to work out the area and volume of geometric shapes, or even the accurate calculation of pi,  just don’t seem so impressive in comparison.

Diversions and digressions: The fascination of Hannibal’s use of elephants in his early and last campaign captures the imagination throughout the book. Where did he get them from : sub-Saharan Africa, in which case they would be the large and tempermental African elephant, or from Asia, perhaps trading with Persian merchants? How did the Carthaginians transport these elephants across the seas to Sicily to fight in the First Punic War if they  had such  difficulty getting them on rafts to cross the Rhone in the Second?

Personal rating:  5/10.

Kimmy’s rating:  Kimmy was not as keen on the elephants as I was, and as for the Romans killing dogs in the captured cities!! No stars awarded there.

Next : In my excitement to start reading the Latin classics, I overlooked some Asian works. So back a century or so to discover the Buddhist verses outlining the path to Nirvana, in The Dhammapada.

103. Hellenica (A History of my Times) by Xenophon (c.359 BC)

103. Hellenica (A History of my Times) by Xenophon (c.359 BC)

Plot:  Consciously written to begin precisely where Thucylides’ History of the Peloponnesian War leaves off in 411 BC, and covering the last seven years of that conflict, and the subsequent ongoing squabbles between Sparta, Athens, Persia, Thebes and their various allies and subjects up to 362 BC.

My version was Rex Warner’s translation from 1966 published by Penguin (9780140441758).

My thoughts:  This was a slow and difficult read for two reasons. Firstly the editor makes no secret of the fact that Xenophon left much of the story out of his record to make Sparta and his friend King Agesilius appear in the best possible light. I am a sucker for footnotes despite their breaking my reading flow, but I found myself avoiding most of them after a couple of hundred pages as they constantly berated the author at every step. Perhaps a more enthusiastic critic might have still made the journey enjoyable.

Gross omissions and slanted reporting may be, but I also did not find Hellenica as engaging as Xenophon’s other more personal works. It details the war until its end but more in the style of Thucylides and does not offer the warmth and closeness of individuals (except for a few pages on Teleutias, a typically virtuous Xenophon leader). Of course he is writing now on a much vaster canvas, but perhaps this is also partly my subconscious preference for a personalised approach to history. Other critics have explained that Xenophon has written this book for people very familiar with the leaders, places and events; and I certainly found myself floundering to keep track of it all.

The first couple of ‘books’ do fill in the political events in Athens that have been background to much of Plato : the defeat of Athens by Sparta, the removal of their democratic government and the establishment of an oligarchy : The Thirty, led by Critias, and their gang of killers, The Eleven, putting to death all their personal enemies, competitors or those whose possessions they coveted, and the later restoration of democracy. The remaining five ‘books’ details the tug-of-wars between the major parties for control of the various neighbouring states rather than directly attacking each other.

Politics was just as much the cult of personality and popularity as it is today. Loved generals such as Lysander and Agesilius are requested by cities to lead the forces coming to their aid.

Sparta and Athens eventually come to a longer lasting peace around 371 BC, only for Thebes, Thessaly and Arcadia to start stirring up trouble. Xenophon also raises the first mention of Celts and Iberians as present in the Athenian navy commanded by Dionysius but whether they are mercenaries or slaves is not clear.

Diversions and digressions:  King Agesipolis dies of fever while on campaign, and his body is returned to Sparta embalmed in honey, as centuries later Nelson will return to Portsmouth in a barrel of brandy.

One interesting figure was Jason of Pherae, the ambitious King of Thessaly who rose from seemingly nowhere and threatened to have the ability to take over the whole of Greece (foreshadowing the deeds of Philip II of Macedon and his son Alexander the Great) before his unexpected assassination. I had never heard mention of Jason yet Xenophon suggests he might have rightly been described as “the greatest man of his times”.

Personal rating:  A disappointment following my enjoyment of previous Xenophon works. I gave Thucylides a 5 but this can only get a 2.

Kimmy’s rating:  I read this title while on holiday in Melbourne for the Australian Open tennis. Kimmy is also on holiday at Kiweli Kennels and Kattery so there is no rating from her this time. The other dogs probably don’t read a lot of Greek classics.

Next :  Here’s the crunch – do I really want to read the entirety of Plato? Next on my list is his Phaedrus but I am tempted to skip the rest of his Socratic dialogues at least and only read the landmark remaining work (The Laws) and move straight on to Aristotle. I will probably start each of the remaining Platos, and skip if they seem to be more of the same.

101. The Cyropaedia by Xenophon (c.365 BC)

101. The Cyropaedia by Xenophon (c.365 BC)

Plot:   A romantic account of the life of Cyrus II of Persia (Cyrus the Great) mostly concerned with his campaign against the Assyrians.

My version is the 2-volume set from Loeb Classical Library published by Heinemann and translated by Walter Miller. ISBNs 0674990579 (v.1) and 0674990587 (v.2).

My thoughts:  Another enjoyable “Boys’ own adventure” from Xenophon with an idealised ruler-general winning over friends and enemies alike with his valour and magnanimity.

Cyrus was a Persian prince who was begged by the neighbouring King of the Medes to bring an army to help defend against an expected attack by the Assyrians and their allies. Believing attack is the best form  of defence, Cyrus takes the fight to the Assyrians, and wins over allies by his combination of strategy and generous treatment of the defeated tribes, thereby adding to the size and nature of his army. He builds up a cavalry by insisting his Persian soldiers ride everywhere, and sets up games to keep all his soldiers fit and determined.  Cyrus befriends local princes who have been wronged by the Assyrian King, and takes on their causes as well.

He succeeds in the battle to take the city of Sardis by superior tactics, despite facing a much larger army on the field, yet he spares the life of the opposing general Croesus and keeps him by his side  thereafter. He then marches on to the walled city of Babylon. Unable to breach this city, his army digs a trench to divert the Euphrates river which runs through the city, leaving a dry riverbed for his army to march through.

Other  notable tactics employed include the use of camels to scare the cavalry horses of the enemy (did that really work?) and attaching scythes to the wheels of chariots and using them as tanks rather than for skirmishing.

Cyrus now rules over a huge empire including the various alliances he has made along the way. Later he will marry the daughter of the Median King, and inherit the throne of Persia, and extend his rule from the Indian Ocean to Cyprus and Egypt, from the Black Sea in the north to Ethiopia in the south ; “the extremes of his empire are uninhabitable, on the one side because of the heat and another because of the cold, on another because of too much water, and on the fourth because of too little.”  (page 421)

The last book details his last days, and the almost immediate downfall of his empire after his death until the Persians are the weakest and least respected race in the Ancient World (at least according to Xenophon)

An interesting point was Cyrus’ preference for eunuchs to be appointed to his personal guard, as they could not put their own families’ needs before his own.  A eunuch as adviser to the king has become a cliche in many stories, but I hadn’t thought about this aspect before. LIkewise, the seat of most honour was on the left of Cyrus (not  the right) as it was the side most vulnerable to attack and hence the place given to the most trusted friend.

One last point – the first book describes the isolated education of boys and youths at court n Persia, but has largely been interpreted as more like a description of the Spartan society as it does not match other accounts of the Persian lifestyle.

The Cyropaedia was seen as a mirror for the ideal conduct of young princes in medieval and Renaissance Europe, and is said to have influenced Machiavelli’s The Prince. I’ve also read that it provides a real-world example of some of the ideas in Plato’s Republic with regard to the virtue of rulers. Like The Anabasis, It was also a favourite of later classical generals such as Scipio, Julius Caesar and Alexander the Great.

Favourite lines/passages:

Although I enjoyed pretty much the whole read, I found the best parts were the camaraderie between Cyrus and his troops. At one feast he has his officers sit in a large circle for a three course dinner. The servers start with Cyrus and pass the food around the circle. By the time the platters reach the last men, there is only a few small pieces of meat remaining, so Cyrus commands that the next course be served in the opposite direction. He overhears one solider in the middle of the circle (opposite Cyrus) complaining that it is just his bad luck that he sits where he will never get the biggest pieces, so Cyrus calls him over to sit beside him for the third course. When the final platters appear, the grumbling soldier grabs a large piece of meat but then seeing an even larger piece, puts his first piece back. The server interprets that as meaning he has had enough to eat, and moves on before the solider can grab any meat at all. I laughed aloud along with the rest of the diners.

Personal rating:  Another entertaining read even if the historical detail might be a little suspect.  Probably a 7.

Next : Plato’s Symposium

99. Agesilaus by Xenophon (c.365 BC)

99. Agesilaus by Xenophon (c.365 BC)

Plot:   Xenophon delivers a written eulogy on King Agesilaus II of Sparta.

My version is taken from Xenophon’s Minor works, translated by the Reverend J S Watson and published in 1888 by George Bell and Sons, London.

My thoughts:  Fulsome praise is heaped on the memory of Agesilaus, a warrior king whose word was iron-clad, his needs simple and his successes as general and king apparently limitless. Able to trace his  lineage back to Heracles (!), yet modest and ever helpful to his friends, but a clever strategist in the field who nevertheless kept treaties and respected enemies seeking protection in sanctuaries.

Xenophon was apparently banished from Athens for his support of this Spartan ruler, although one of Agesilaus’  virtues was his loyalty to the broader Greek cause even when fighting other Greek cities.

“But when the Corinthian exiles said that the city would be surrendered to them, and showed him the machines with which they all expected to take the walls, he refused to make an attack upon it, saying that it was proper to reduce the cities of Greece, not to slavery, but to their senses.”    (page 33)

Apparently Plutarch wrote of Agesilaus II as well in his Lives, so we will see him again.

Favourite lines/passages:    An affecting piece of war description ; a strongly written piece which depicts the horrors of the battlefield at day’s end:

“But when the fight was over, a spectator might have seen, where they engaged with one another, the ground crimsoned with blood, the dead bodies of friends and enemies lying close to one another, shields broken to pieces, spears snapped asunder, daggers without their sheaths, some on the ground, others sticking in bodies, and others still in the hands of the dead.”   (page 19)

Personal rating: The heaped praise becomes a little excessive although it would be nice to think at least some of it was deserved as ardently as Xenophon imagined.  4.
Next : One of the biggies : Plato’s Republic.

98. On Horsemanship ; On the duties of a Commander of Cavalry ; On Hunting with Dogs ; and On  Ways and Means of Improving the Revenues of Athens, all by Xenophon (c.369 BC)

98. On Horsemanship ; On the duties of a Commander of Cavalry ; On Hunting with Dogs ; and On Ways and Means of Improving the Revenues of Athens, all by Xenophon (c.369 BC)

This post covers four of Xenophon’s shorter treatises which display his experience and opinions on practical matters as a gentleman solider of 4th century BC Greece.

My version is taken from Xenophon’s Minor works, translated by the Reverend J S Watson and published in 1888 by George Bell and Sons, London.

On Horsemanship:   

A guide to the purchase, care, exercise and training of a horse for the purposes of riding and manoeuvring in battle. I must admit a complete lack of personal knowledge regarding horses in general beyond a real concern never to walk behind one if I can possibly avoid doing so, but the guidelines given seem sensible to me. I will leave it to more knowledgeable readers to judge if anything is wrong here.

Of interest was the description of the correct way to mount a horse using a spear with a hook along the shaft (stirrups and saddles not being used by the Greeks), and the description of the armour most suitable for both rider and horse, and weapons best suited to use on horseback, which would be valuable first hand source material to scholars of ancient warfare.

On the duties of a Commander of Cavalry:

Also known as the Hipparchicus (a Hipparch being one of the two commanders in chief of the Athenian cavalry), this treatise details the duties of this officer, including the psychological motivations and personal actions most likely to win the respect and trust of the men, the political considerations to secure senate approval, and the planning and presentation of cavalry charges and spectacles at public exhibitions to excite and win the admiration of the public and the Gods. Also discussed is the correct order of marching and resting, scouting unfamiliar routes, and other arts of war, including the use of spies, and knowledge of the countryside of the enemy’s and your own land. Subterfuge in confusing and misleading the enemy is also encouraged, much in the vein of Sun Tzu’s writings, but with practical examples. I would imagine this treatise just as useful, if not more so, than the Anabasis, in Alexander the Great’s saddlebag.

On Hunting with Dogs:

It seems that Xenophon rated hunting as an essential sport worthy of the greatest heroes and the primary pastime for all young men, making them better prepared for military exercises. The greater part of the treatise is to do with the hunting of hares, chasing them into nets using dogs to track and drive them. After describing the necessary physical and behavioural characteristics of successful hunting dogs, we also read of the hare itself, and how the dogs will have different success at different times of the day and season. I did enjoy the image of the hares in springtime confounding the dogs

“the tracks … in spring they are perplexed, for the animals, which are indeed perpetually coupling, couple most at this season, and hence by straying about with one another hither and thither, they necessarily produce this inconvenience” (page 342)

The stakes are raised in the last third of the book as the hunt for larger animals proceeds to deer, boars, lions and leopards, and Sophists (although admittedly this last chapter is not believed to belong to the treatise or even be penned by Xenophon)

On Ways and Means of Improving the Revenues of Athens

This treatise suggests a variety of methods for greater economic independence for Athens so that cities subject to her power did not have to suffer the brunt of its financial demands and grow more resentful. Xenophon relies heavily on his belief of an inexhaustible supply of silver in their mines, and the use of public slaves which can be hired out to anyone for mining or construction work.

As an ex-soldier it is refreshing to see he advocates peace rather than war as an economic boon, and the encouragement of foreigners to take up residence in Athens (where they will be both welcomed and taxed accordingly)

Personal rating:  Despite my 21st century-sensibility detest for hunting, I found I enjoyed most of these works. Overall a 5.

Kimmy’s rating:  Kimmy was too relaxed after her bath to stay awake while I read.  The treatise on dogs did list 47 appropriate names for young pups to be trained for hunting, of which only two : Polys (meaning bright-eyed) and Thalion (meaning cheerful) seemed to suit her – I’ll try them out on her tomorrow and see if she likes them.

Next : Xenophon’s short biography of Agesilaus, King of Sparta. His friendship with this king, including fighting with his forces against Athens led to his exile from Athens.

91. The Anabasis (The Persian expedition) by Xenophon (c.370 BC)

91. The Anabasis (The Persian expedition) by Xenophon (c.370 BC)

Plot:  Cyrus, the younger brother of Persian King Aratxerxes, recruits a large army of Greek hoplites (heavy infantry) and peltasts (light infantry) to help him take the crown. When battle is eventually joined, Cyrus’ forces are hugely outnumbered, yet they manage to win the battle. This means little as Cyrus is killed in the fighting. The bulk of the Greek generals are then captured and killed due to the treachery of the Persian Tissaphernes, and the remaining 10,000 Greek soldiers must make their way home through hostile territory, led in large part by a young Athenian called Xenophon. They cross deserts, mountains and rivers, face snowstorms and suffer hunger and frostbite, and must fight against the natives of each area they march through for supplies.

Written in seven ‘books’, each consisting of very short chapters, this was an easy and quick read. I could imagine how this would lend itself to readers beginning to learn Ancient Greek. My version was an old edition of a Penguin Classic translated by Rex Warner and printed in 1952 (pre-ISBN)

My thoughts:   Told in third person, this “Boy’s Own adventure” is a far cry from Plato’s Socratic dialogues, and its immediacy dealing with one historic event from the report of a significant player in the drama distinguishes it from previous histories by Herodotus and Thucydides. The author even makes use of flashback and flash forward to fill out more of his personal story.

Although the narrative is admittedly told from the Greek perspective, the unwillingness of the Persians to stay on the battlefield when they had vastly superior numbers is still surprising.

There is a  lot of strategy described in the tale,  which reputedly was taken by Alexander the Great as required reading when he was in the field. It ends before Xenophon gets home as the army is given to two Spartan generals who intend to attack Tissaphernes.

Some points of note:

  • No actions involving the army are taken without consulting sacrificial entrails – it must help with morale to have the promise of success fulfilled. Xenophon also claims to have put many decisions to the vote and acted on the result – not typical of ancient generals surely? If we believe Xenophon, he makes some early strategic mistakes but learns from them and takes immediate action to remedy and improve their position. He does not glorify himself but presents himself as an honest and honourable man.
  • The Persians archers and slingshot firers were being whipped by their commanders as they fired on the Greeks – surely a different and ultimately less successful way of motivating soldiers.
  • The Mossynoici (a tribe most unlike the Greeks in many ways) had jars of pickled dolphin slices amongst their supplies – urk!!

Favourite lines/passages:  Not a lot of standout literary quality but the following lines did ring

“Whoever says or does something brave and gallant now is making himself remembered among the people whom he would want to remember him.”      Xenophon, Book VI, Ch.5, page 237.

Personal rating:  Lost its way a little in the last chapter, almost as if there was more to tell which is now missing, or Xenophon simply ran out of interest after starting a new thread. Still a refreshing change from philosophy. A 5 from me.

Next :  Much against my inclination, I will push on with Plato and tackle yet another Socratic dialogue, Meno.