Tag: Ancient warfare

167. Ab Urbe Condita (History of Rome), Books I-V, by Livy

167. Ab Urbe Condita (History of Rome), Books I-V, by Livy

Plot:   The first five books of Livy’s History of Rome, stretching from its establishment (dated around 757 BC) up to the Gaulish invasion of 390 BC.

My copy is the Penguin Black classic translated by Aubrey De Selincourt (ISBN 9780140448092)

My thoughts:  Livy is writing here on events 400-700 years before his time, so much is based on previous historians and legends. As he himself admits several times:

“one cannot hope for accuracy when dealing with a past so remote and with authorities so antiquated”  (Book II.21, page 132)

Or more poetically

“the mists of antiquity cannot always be pierced”  (Book IV.24 page 315)

The history of Rome traditionally starts with the arrival of Aeneas and his followers escaping the fall of Troy, and depending on the version, being either welcomed or victorious in securing a foothold in Laurentum in Italy. A string of kings from Aeneas’ lineage followed, until twin boys were conceived upon a Vestal Virgin by the god Mars. Cast adrift on the Tiber to drown, the twins Romulus and Remus were succoured by a she-wolf until found by the king’s herdsman. They grow to manhood, quarrel over who is rightfully King, and Romulus strikes Remus down.

Finding themselves short of enough women to ensure the survival of their settlement, the Romans approach their neighbouring cities, but no one is willing to allow their daughters to intermarry.  The Romans instead host a festival and then abduct the young women. After some years the Sabine tribe believe themselves strong enough to rescue the women, and the fierce battle is interrupted by the women forcing themselves between the warring armies to insist on peace.

Eventually the succession of kings is replaced with a Senate of aristocrats (patricians) and two elected consuls to act as magistrates and generals.

Books II, III and IV are a constant series of battles over a hundred years between the Romans and the various surrounding tribes. The clockwork predictability of these conflicts is only interrupted by equally regular internal political squabbles between the aristocratic class and the commoners (plebians) and their elected representatives the Tribunes;  who use their ability to muster and form armies from the common people to try and score political changes to do with agricultural land reform and party representation. This internal bickering is seen as weakness by their neighbouring cities, leading them to attack again, and so on and so on. This repetitive pattern soon becomes tedious to the non-scholar, and I started to wish for the excitement of the years of the end of the Republic.

Book V is remarkably more interesting, as it breaks the pattern – firstly by the Romans laying siege to the current enemy Falerii, and the episode where a Faleriian schoolteacher abducts the children of the city’s noble families and delivers them to the Romans as hostages, and the Roman general Camillus returns them to Falerii,  with the schoolteacher stripped, bound and being thwacked by the kids with sticks Camillus provides.

“Neither my people nor I, who command their army, happen to share your tastes. You are a scoundrel and your offer is worthy of you. As political entities, there is no bond of union between Rome and Falerii, but we are bound together nonetheless and always shall be, by the bonds of a common humanity. War has its laws as peace has, and we have learned to wage war with decency no less than with courage. We have drawn the sword not against children … but against men armed like ourselves …. These men, your countrymen, you have done your best to humble by this vile and unprecedented act … I shall bring them low … by the Roman arts of courage, persistence and arms.”

(Book V.27 , page 401)

The Faleriians were so impressed by Camillus that they immediately sued for peace and willingly put themselves under the dominion of Rome.

Of course, politics later interferes and Camillus is banished from Rome.

But then the local squabbles are superceded by the invasion of Italy by Gaulish tribes from beyond the Alps. For once, the Roman generals are overwhelmed and respond very ineffectively, and the Gauls literally walk into Rome through undefended open gates. The civilians and Senate are trapped inside the Captiol and are close to bribing the Gauls to leave them alone, when Camillus returns from exile and scares the Gauls away.

When a victorious Roman general returns to Rome, he may be granted a Triumph by the Senate (in which he enters the streets of the city with his troops) or the lesser honour of an Ovation (entering without his troops) – damned by faint praise!

Personal rating: The repetitive content of books II-IV made for monotonous reading, but book V saved the day and lifts it to a 5/10.

The reads in between: 

Sleeping Beauties by Stephen King and Owen King.

Stephen King’s latest horror/fantasy is a father-and-son joint work : an apocolyptic saga similar to The Stand and Desperation, but the characters are not as clear-cut good and evil.

“All around the world, something is happening to women when they fall asleep; they become shrouded in a cocoon-like gauze. if awakened, if the gauze wrapping their bodies is disturbed, the women become feral and spectacularly violent….”

Only one woman seems immune to the sleeping sickness and some men will do anything to get control of her. A huge cast leads to a three-way battle and civilization-changing decisions. Not his best work but still eminently readable.

Next :  Chaereas and Callirhoe, by Chariton

162. The Conspiracy of Catiline by Sallust c.40 BC

162. The Conspiracy of Catiline by Sallust c.40 BC

Plot:   Catiline, frustrated over his failure to be elected consul, and driven by his hatred of Cicero, plans a rebellion to overthrow the Roman Senate, raising an army of the disaffected, and simultaneously planning a series of assassinations, massacres and arson attacks to sweep Rome. Forewarned by Gaulish conspirators, Cicero announces the plot in the Senate and the ringleaders remaining in Rome are captured and executed. Catiline and his remaining men are forced to turn and fight to the death against the pursuing Roman army.

Published by Penguin in a single volume with The Jugurthine War, edited by S.A. Handford (ISBN 0140441328)

My thoughts:  A lot of moralising about the rise and fall of the Roman character leads us to believe Catiline is the worst sort of debaucher and killer imaginable, so it is a surprise when Sallust’s depiction of the battle which marked the end of the Catiline conspiracy shows the valour of the rebels in facing their defeat. It ends with very visual evidence of the horrors of civil war.

Also interesting was the Senate’s difficulty in deciding on the punishment of the captured conspirators, with Caesar suggesting the then-novel idea of long term imprisonment rather than exile or death; and the moral question of exacting punishment before the criminal deed could be committed.

Favourite lines/passages:

Before even starting the text, this sentence in the introduction by the editor caught my eye

“Up to the year 64, Catiline seems to have been merely an ambitious careerist who in spite of a taste for dissipation and homicide had something likable about him”   (page 163)

And Catiline’s supposed parting shot at the Senate after Cicero’s denouncement:

“Since I am encompassed by foes, and hounded to desperation, I will check the fire that threatens to consume me by pulling everything down about your ears!”   (page 199)

Personal rating:  5

Next : The Eclogues of Virgil

161. The Jugurthine War, by Sallust.  c .40 BC

161. The Jugurthine War, by Sallust. c .40 BC

Plot:   Historical account of the North African Jugurthine War (112-105 BC), where the adopted Prince Jugurtha slew his step brothers and attempted to make himself King of the Roman Province of ‘Africa’ (modern day Tunisia), opposed by the Roman forces led unsuccessfully by a series of Roman generals until the leadership of Marius.

Published by Penguin in a single volume with Sallust’s other surviving work, The Conspiracy of Catiline. Translated by S. A. Handford (ISBN 0140441328)

My thoughts:  Unlike Caesar’s reports of honourable battles and pardons, Sallust paints a picture of treachery, bribery, slaughter, incompetence and cowardice, both on the battlefront and in the halls of power on both sides of the conflict, which is probably closer to the truth. Seven years of to-ing and fro-ing is only resolved by the Romans bribing a neighbouring King enough to lure Jugurtha into a trap.

I hadn’t heard of this period of Roman history at all before picking up Sallust, but it does introduce important players Marius and Sulla early in their careers before they orchestrated massacres of Roman citizens in the First Civil War that so horrified Cicero 40 years later, and demonstrates that the North African province was still valuable to the Roman Republic even after the fall of Carthage.

Favourite lines/passages:

Jugurtha travels to Rome to petition (ie bribe) his way to the throne of the Kingdom of Africa, but is only partly successful. As he leaves, he reputedly turns back to look again at the city, and exclaims

“Yonder is a city put up for sale, and its days are numbered if it finds a buyer”   (page 73)

Marius, deputy to Metellus on the African campaign, grows increasingly frustrated with the lack of progress in both the war and this political career, returns to Rome and is elected Consul by the support of the common people. Included in one of his speeches are the lines

“I cannot, to justify your confidence in me, point to the portraits, triumphs, or consulships of my ancestors. But if need be I can show spears, a banner, medals, and other military honours, to say nothing of the scars on my body – all of them in front. These are my family portraits, these my title of nobility, one not bequeathed to me, as theirs were to them, but won at the cost of countless toils and perils.”                        (pages 119-120)

Personal rating:  4

The reads in between: 

Assassin’s Apprentice by Robin Hobb : yet another first in a fantasy trilogy by an author that I really should have read before now (I was reading the 20th anniversary edition!!) A young bastard responsible for the scandal leading to his father’s abdication is raised first as a stable boy and later an assassin in the royal court. Kept me interested throughout and keen enough to seek out more.

James Herriot’s Favourite Dog Stories. Heart warming short stories lifted from the All Creatures Great and Small books, capturing not only the spirit and loyalty of the working and family dogs Herriot encounters as a vet in 1930s Yorkshire, but also the beautiful land and earthy people, faithfully captured on the page.

Peril at End House by Agatha Christie. An easy introduction to books set in Cornwall before my walk there in April. A young woman blithely ignores her multiple brushes with death until Poirot becomes involved.  Had the murderer pegged around the 2/3 mark. Ah Agatha, I have your measure now.

Next : The Conspiracy of Catiline.

160. The Civil War, by Gaius Julius Caesar (c.47-45 BC)

160. The Civil War, by Gaius Julius Caesar (c.47-45 BC)

Plot:   Pompey and Caesar duke it out for control of Rome.  Penguin edition translated by Jane Gardner (0140441875)

My thoughts: 

Like his Commentaries on the Gallic War, Caesar’s version of events goes down in history, painting himself as the peace-seeking general forced for his own life and honour to protect himself from his enemies and their control of the Senate by taking his armies to Rome. Unlike the treacherous subordinates of Pompey, Caesar releases defeated forces and prisoners unharmed, even discharging and paying the beaten soldiers as if they were his own forces. If true, it shows his sensitivity to the particular nature of the horrors of civil war

Eventually Caesar’s and Pompey’s forces meet – fortunes of war swing each way until Pompey relies too heavily on his cavalry, who are routed by Caesar’s infantry. Pompey escapes to Egypt where he is quickly put to death by the henchmen of King Ptomley XIII the boy king, who is fighting his own battle for the Egyptian throne against his sister Cleopatra. As consul of Rome, Caesar offers to mediate between the two sides, but is besieged by Ptomley’s forces in one quarter of the city, starting off the Alexandrian War.

Also in this volume are descriptions of the subsequent Alexandrian War, and the mopping up of the remaining Pompeian forces (the African War and the Spanish War), continuing the thread of events; at first believed to be also written by Caesar but soon attributed to other, anonymous authors.  No mention of Caesar dallying with Cleopatra though.

Six months after defeating the Pompeians in Spain, Caesar is assassinated on the Ides of March 44BC.

Favourite lines/passages:

Caesar’s speech to his armies

“I have been your commander for nine years; under my leadership, your efforts on Rome’s behalf have been crowned with good fortune; you have won countless battles and pacified the whole of Gaul and Germany. Now, I ask you to defend my reputation and standing against the assaults of my enemies”     (page 39)

And to the Senate

“Therefore I earnestly ask you to join with me now in taking over the government of Rome; if timidity makes you shrink from the task I shall not trouble you – I shall govern by myself.

Envoys must be sent to Pompey to discuss terms. I am not frightened by his recent statement in this assembly that the sending of deputations merely enhances the prestige of those to whom they are sent and reveals the fears of the senders. These are the reflections of a weak and petty spirit. My aim is to outdo others in justice and equity, as I have previously striven to outdo them in achievement”    (pages 52-53)

Digressions and diversions

Triremes, Quadriremes and Quinqueremes ; the difference

Various types of warships employed by the Romans and others. A trireme has three banks of oars on each side, each oar rowed by a single man. Used by the Phonecians, Greeks and Romans, they were superceded by the heavier quadriremes and quinqueremes.

A quadrireme had, as the name suggests, four rows of oars, possibly with two men per oar; while the quinquereme had  three banks of oars with the top two manned by two oarsmen per oar, and the lower bank with one man per oar, a total of 300 oarsmen and also capable of carrying up to 120 marines.


Just so you don’t hop on the wrong one to take you across Sydney Harbour or the Firth of Forth.

Personal rating:  Not as exciting as the Gallic Wars, until the final confrontation and the subsequent events in Egypt. It was also difficult to keep track of who was on who’s side. Lets call it a 4.

The reads in between: 

Black cats and Butlers, by Janine Beacham: Plucky young heroine Rose and her overly dramatic proto-Goth friend Emily discover a world of graverobbers, magicians, duelling butlers, secret societies and mystical cats in an alternate version of York. First in a series for readers 10-12, this was a cracking good read but how I wish it had been written for an older audience, fleshed out with more detail – it was all over far too quickly.

Next :  Sallust’s two surviving works, The Jugurthine War and The Conspiracy of Catiline. Will he support Cicero’s versions of events regarding Catiline?

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.