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Category Archives: Military History

The Rise and Fall of the Athenian Empire (part 1)

by March 23, 2015

Those of you who are members of the Classical Wisdom Society know that this month we have been looking at Herodotus’ The Histories and the epic struggle for supremacy that was the Greco-Persian wars. And that certainly is a topic worth discussing. It has been argued that had the Greeks been unable to stay off a Persian invasion, the growth of ancient Hellenic culture would have been severely stunted and, by extension, all of Western Society.
death of caesarHowever, once the fighting is over, the typical thing to do is to fast-forward a few decades to when the next epic struggle for supremacy took place, The Peloponnesian War. After all, who doesn’t love a bit of military history?
Nevertheless, the time between the expulsion of Xerxes’ army from the Greek lands and the inevitable standoff between the combatants of the Peloponnesian War is filled with some very interesting pieces of history.
As our colleague Joel Bowman put it, “History does not necessarily repeat itself, but it does tend to rhyme.” And since we do live in an age of a sometimes volatile geo-political climate, I thought it might be fun to look through the ages and reexamine the rise, fall, and failings of one of history’s first empires.
So where to start?
After the decisive battle of Plataea in 479 BC, the Greeks surely must have been basking in PanHellenic pride. The united city-states, against all odds, had defeated the seemingly invincible Persian Empire and had expelled them from their lands.
Perhaps it was the realization that a Greek alliance could accomplish greatness that prompted the Greek cities to cement their union even with the immediate danger of Persian invasion extinguished. In 478 BC, an alliance of roughly 150 city-states was formed on the island of Delos. The congresses would be held in the temple on the island and the central treasury would be kept there as well.
The purpose of this “Delian League” was to continue the fight against the Persians and ensure that they were never capable of invading the Hellenic lands again. Thucydides tells us that the representatives present at the formation of the league simultaneously dropped pieces of metal into the sea to symbolize the permanence of their commitments to one another.
death of caesar
Sparta was notably absent from this new alliance. Always fearful of a slave revolt at home, the Spartans opted out of what would surely be a costly and dangerous series of campaigns. After all, fighting the Persians on Greek soil was one thing. Picking a fight with them on their home turf was quite another.
In order to be a member of this new alliance, it was required that the affiliate states contribute money, warships, soldiers, raw material, or a combination of the four. While Thucydides tells us that Chios and Lesbos did contribute ships, the majority of the participants were happy enough to contribute funds and allow the leader of the alliance, Athens, to do all the heavy lifting.
This arrangement worked fine for the Athenians who used the dues from member cities to bolster their already impressive navy. Additionally, the Athenians took advantage of their numerous impoverished citizens. Unskilled men could act as rowers on Athenian triremes and be paid handsomely for their efforts. It is estimated that an Athenian rower made about as much in a month as a common farmer made in a year.
Well funded and well equipped, the league waged war against the Persian outpost in Northern Greece and the Aegean islands for the next decade. And, perhaps surprisingly, they were largely successful.
Under the command of Cimon, son of the hero of Marathon, Miltiades, the league captured the Persian fortress of Eion on the Thracian coast (northern Greece) and continued to wage war against the Persians across the Aegean and into Asia Minor. By about 465 BC, much of the Aegean was free from the Persian Empire.
death of caesar
As the league continued to battle the Persians out of the Aegean, they regularly set up allied colonies and transported Athenian citizens to settle the newly democratic societies. The defeated cities were also compelled by Athens to join the Delian League. As Plutarch tells us, joining the alliance was not always a choice.
“…the town of Phaselis, which though inhabited by Greeks, yet would not quit the interests of Persia, but denied his (Cimon) galleys entrance into their port. Upon this he wasted the country, and drew up his army to their very walls” –Plutarch (The Life of Cimon)
The Athenians dealt with the small city of Carystus in Euboea in a similar fashion. Carystus had declined to join the league on a number of occasions. Fearing that the nearby city could prove a valuable foothold for the Persians, the Athenian war vessels visited the small civilization and conquered the city. They were then forced to join the expanding league.
Even with these instances of aggressions, the early decades of the Delian League’s existence were largely productive. The various members acted largely autonomously and had equal voting rights at the Delian councils.
The Athenians certainly benefited from the existence of the league. As the de facto leader, Athens continued to fill their coffers with plundered treasure and captured slaves. The spoils of war that the Athenians took were not only monetary in nature. With continued victory came glory for Athenian aristocracy like Cimon, and glory meant a stronger standing within the Athenian elite.
Additionally, it is estimated that the tributes paid each year to the alliance was equivalent to $200,000,000 in contemporary terms. With a an adult male population of about 40,000, these figures meant unrivaled prosperity.
Athens now had a reason to preserve the league, no matter the cost.
It is difficult to pinpoint when exactly the Delian League transformed into an Athenian Empire. It is probable that the shift began around 465 BC. The Persian presence in the Greek lands had been all but eliminated. With the purpose of the league fulfilled, the city of Thasos attempted to withdraw from the alliance. Athens could not allow this to happen. They had already tasted the spoils brought to them by the Delian league and the power that came with it. The abolishment of the alliance would mark the end of Athenian supremacy.
And so, needing to maintain the alliance, Athens sent warships to Thasos with the intent of conquering the city. The Thasians appealed to the Spartans for help, but the powerhouse of the Peloponnese was preoccupied with the largest slave riot in their history.
After two years of fighting, Thasos could hold out no longer. They surrendered to the Athenian general Cimon. As punishment for their rebellion, Athens tore down the walls surrounding the city, confiscated Thasos’ army and navy, and lay claim to the rich gold mines in the region. Additionally, Thasos was forced to continue to pay tribute to the Athenians.
“…the Thasians in the third year of the siege obtained terms from the Athenians by razing their walls, delivering up their ships, and arranging to pay the moneys demanded at once, and tribute in future; giving up their possessions on the continent together with the mine.” –Thucydides (History of the Peloponnesian War)
No longer an autonomous member of the Delian League, Thasos had effectively become an imperial subject, one of the first in a budding Athenian Empire.
Come back next week to learn what happens next and to read about the largest embezzlement scandal of ancient history.

Spartan Training: Crafting Warriors Of Legend

by August 11, 2014

While the Spartans may not have been running laps around the Flatiron building with a kettlebell slung over their shoulder, they certainly did undergo some of the most intensive and brutal training of any civilization in ancient history.
SpartaThe Spartans, for whatever reason, wrote next to nothing of their culture, or if they did it has been lost. Almost all of what we know of the Spartan society comes from outside observers. And while many ancient authors make mention of the militaristic Lacedaemonians, it is Xenophon, a pupil of the philosopher Socrates, who associated most with the Spartans and, as a consequence, wrote extensively of the Spartan culture in his essay “The Polity of the Lacedaemonians”.
“The Polity of the Lacedaemonians”, sometimes referred to as “The Constitution of Sparta”, is most certainly an examination of Spartan culture at the height of supremacy. However, one might also mistake it as being a slight against other hellenic city states, including his own home-town, Athens.
He never comes right and shakes your shoulders, screaming “this is how it ought to be done!”. However, his admiration for Spartan society is so pronounced that one might find it difficult to keep in mind that Xenophon’s own birthplace, Athens, was undoubtedly Sparta’s bitterest rival.
Then again, it is possible that Xenophon’s bias might come from the fact that the Spartans took him in and granted him land after he had been exiled from Athens for associating with the Persian Empire and his support of the recently executed Socrates.
Whatever the reason for Xenophon’s admiration, there is no denying that “The Polity of the Lacedaemonians” is one of the most detailed descriptions of Spartan life. It lists the treatment of citizens, the education of children, and the duties of a warrior. And, at least according to Xenophon, the results seem to speak for themselves.

“I recall the astonishment with which I first noted the unique position[2] of Sparta amongst the states of Hellas, the relatively sparse population,[3] and at the same time the extraordinary power and prestige of the community. I was puzzled to account for the fact. It was only when I came to consider the peculiar institutions of the Spartans that my wonderment ceased.”-Xenophon (Polity of The Lacedaemonians)

Xenophon begins his examination with the topic of child bearing in the Spartan society. It was the aim of Sparta that all children be born healthy, strong, and grow up to be warriors.

With this in mind, the Spartan women were treated with a level of equality that was unheard of in the days of ancient Greece. Rather than being confined to the household, Spartan women regularly competed in athletic competitions and trained, just as the men would, in a gymnasium. The idea behind such treatment is that in order to produce the best children, both the father and the mother must be healthy, fit, and strong.
When it came to the training of the children, Xenophon makes a point to mention that within most Greek city states it is common for individual children to be educated by a tutor, normally a slave owned by the father. For the Lacedaemonians, such a practice would be unthinkable.
Instead, the Spartan boys are taken en masse and assigned to a group of guardians and mentors known as Paidonomos, or “pastors”. The Paidonomos were selected from the most revered of the magistracies and were assigned by the Legislature of the city. They were given complete authority over the children of Sparta, often punishing them with lashings.
While we might frown on such a practice, the result, in the words of Xenophon, was that…
“…in Sparta modesty and obedience ever go hand in hand, nor is there lack of either.” -Xenophon (Polity of The Lacedaemonians)

XXXThe actual training of the Spartan youth was brutal, focusing on cultivating skills such as fighting, stealth, pain tolerance, as well as dancing, singing, and developing loyalty to the Spartan state. With the exception of the first born sons of the ruling houses, the young boys of Sparta entered into this training curriculum, known as Agoge, starting at the age of seven. They would train in the art of fighting for decades, eventually becoming reserve infantry at the age of eighteen, regular foot soldiers at the age of twenty, and eventually full Spartan citizens, with the rights to vote and hold office, at the age of thirty.
The specifics of the Agoge training are not clear. Xenophon does describe in some detail that young boys were not only allowed to fight, but were regularly encouraged to challenge each other to regular bouts.

“Necessity, moreover, is laid upon them to study a good habit of the body, coming as they do to blows with their fists for very strife’s sake whenever they meet.”-Xenophon (Polity of The Lacedaemonians)
To develop a tolerance for pain, the Spartan youth were deprived of certain luxuries. For instance, during the Agoge, Spartan boys were never given shoes. In time, their feet would grow hardy and strong. It is reported by Xenophon that a barefooted Spartan soldier could outrun and out climb any other Greek citizen clad with shoes.
StatueAdditionally, the boys were given only one garment of clothing. They were regularly subjected to extreme cold, all while only wearing a single cloak. In this way the young soldiers would gain a tolerance to the elements.
They were given minimal food, not so little that they would ever suffer from the sharp pangs of hunger, but never enough that their body would be completely satisfied. This was, again, a way to condition the boys for the pains of hunger and allow them to fight all the more ferociously on an empty stomach.
If the boys wished to find meals outside of their mess halls, it was encouraged that they should steal food. This might seem strange. While the boys were encouraged to steal, they were also severely beaten if they were ever caught in the act. Xenophon rationalizes such a practice by saying that in this way those who lack proper stealth will be punished and learn to acquire their quarry more effectively.

“So they, the Lacedaemonians, visit penalties on the boy who is detected thieving as being but a sorry bungler in the art. So to steal as many cheeses as possible [off the shrine of Orthia[17]] was a feat to be encouraged; but, at the same moment, others were enjoined to scourge the thief, which would point a moral not obscurely, that by pain endured for a brief season a man may earn the joyous reward of lasting glory.” -Xenophon (Polity of The Lacedaemonians)

And so the young Spartans were crafted and honed into some of the greatest warriors of the ancient world. They knew no other life than that of protecting the Spartan homeland and they sought no higher goal than an honorable death in service of Sparta.
It would have been unthinkable for a Spartan warrior to retreat while on the battlefield. As regular infantry, the soldiers would rather die in battle rather than face the shame of retreat in Sparta.
This tradition of bravery and ferocity in battle has recently been dramatized in popular media and has captured the imagination of modern society. For whatever reason, the ancient Spartans remain a topic of intense fascination. They lived according to a code of war. And whenever they entered battle, they knew that they would either return home carrying their shields, or else carried upon it.

The Battle of Mount Gindarus

by July 30, 2014

By Cam Rea
With the Amanus Pass secured, Ventidius, head of the Roman forces, pushed south into Syria. Pacorus, the Parthian prince and co-leader of the Roman-Parthian army, was done fighting… at least for now.
He abandoned the province to the Romans in late 39 BCE. With the Parthians out of the way, Ventidius led his forces to the province of Judea.
Ventidius’ mission in Judea was simple and lucrative; it was to rid the province of any remaining Parthians. He was also there to remove the anti-Roman King, Antigonus, and to restore Herod to the throne.
But Ventidius did neither.
King Herod
Instead, he bypassed Herod’s royal family, who were besieged by the troops of Antigonus on the top of Masada, and went straight for Jerusalem. Ventidius was playing psychological warfare with Antigonus, by making him think that he was going to take Jerusalem.

This, however, was just another ruse.

Ventidius promised not to attack Jerusalem… that is, unless he received vast amounts of wealth from the king. Antigonus had, in his mind, no choice but to capitulate to Ventidius’ demands.

Make no mistake, Ventidius was still going to support Herod and place him on the throne. But while Herod was still far away, and his brother besieged, Ventidius thought he might as well make some money while they wait.
After Ventidius’ coffers were filled, he took the bulk of his forces and headed back for Syria, leaving his second, officer Pompaedius Silo, in charge to deal with the ‘Jewish problem’.

The Ruse

However, King Antigonus would come up with a ploy of his own; he bribed Silo multiple times. Antigonus hoped to buy time so that the Parthians could come to his assistance, while he kept the Romans at bay.

Unfortunately for King Antigonus, this would not happen.
When Ventidius returned to Syria, he sent the bulk of his forces beyond the Taurus Mountains to Cappadocia for winter quarters. It was during this time that the Parthian Prince, Pacorus, planned another invasion of Syria and began to mobilize a substantial number of cavalry from the nearby provinces.
Word of Pacorus’ intentions soon spread, reaching the ears of loyal Roman informants, who then relayed the information to Ventidius. Not only was this information crucial for preparation, it also informed Ventidius that a Syrian noble by the name of Channaeus (also called Pharnaeus), who pretended to be a Roman ally, was, in fact, a spy and Parthian loyalist.
Ventidius likely invited Channaeus over for dinner and during their meeting, Ventidius made it clear that he feared the Parthian would abandon their normal route, “where they customarily crossed the Euphrates near the city of Zeugma.”
Ventidius acted concerned over the issue, making it clear that if Pacorus were to invade Syria much further to the south, he would have the advantage over the Romans for it, “was a plain and convenient for the enemy.”

Like the good spy he was, Channaeus returned to his home after the meeting and quickly sent messengers to inform Pacorus of Ventidius’ fears.

Come early spring 38 BCE, Pacorus, unwilling to let go of Syria, led his forces south along the Euphrates River based on Ventidius’ supposed fears of engaging the enemy on a plain.

Once they came to the point of crossing, Pacorus realized that they needed to construct a bridge, due to the banks being widely separated. It took many men and materials, and the bridge was completed only after forty days.
This is exactly what Ventidius wanted. Ventidius’ disinformation bought him much needed time, allowing his legions to assemble.
Once the Parthian forces were in Syrian territory, Pacorus likely expected an immediate attack during the bridge construction or during the crossing, but neither materialized. With no sign of the enemy, Pacorus became overconfident and began to believe that the Romans were weak and cowardly. Eventually however, Pacorus found Ventidius at the acropolis of the city of Gindarus, in the province of Cyrrhestica.
Ventidius had been at Gindarus for three days preparing his defenses when Pacorus showed up.

Repeated Mistakes

One would have thought that perhaps Pacorus carefully prepared a plan of action in such a situation…. but no. Instead, Pacorus and his officers tossed out the combined arms strategy of utilizing both heavy cavalry and horse archers in unison. This had worked many times, so they thought they could take the high ground with little trouble.

Moreover, the arrogant and overconfident Pacorus, and his nobles, did not want the commoners and horse archers to steal the show, as they did at Carrhae. So they decided to sally up the slope, as they did at the battle of the Cilician Gates.
Once the cataphracts were within five hundred paces of the Romans, Ventidius took advantage of their elitism and rushed his soldiers to the brim and over, until both armies met at close quarters on the slope.
Ventidius’ strategy here was simple, by engaging the elite Parthian cavalry, he had cover from the infamous Parthian horse archers.
You would think the Parthians would have learned from previous experiences what not to do. The result of their knee jerk reaction was devastating. As the Parthian cataphract advanced up the slope, they were quickly repelled back… straight into those still coming up, inflicting great suffering to rider and mount.

This is not to mention those who did make it to the brim were met and repulsed by heavy infantry. And if the heavy infantry did not get them, the slingers would.

These slingers were likely on the left and right side of the Roman infantry, giving them a deadly arc of crossfire. This very well could be the reason as to why we do not hear of the Parthian horse archers partaking in the engagement, since any attempt to rush towards the front would put them in grave danger.

Even though the Parthian cataphracts put up a stiff fight at the foot of the hill, it was not enough.
The Roman infantry likely swarmed the cataphracts forcing them into hand-to-hand combat. With the famous Parthian horse archers neutralized from the fight due to the slingers, there was nothing that could be done to rescue the situation.
In the ensuing chaos, Pacorus likely tried to make one last push. He, along with some of his men, attempted to take Ventidius’ defenseless camp, only to be met by Roman reserves, in which he inevitably lost his life during the melee.
As news spread that Prince Pacorus lay dead, a scramble to recover his body was attempted. While those trying to retrieve his corpse met his same fate, the vast majority of Pacorus’ army quickly retreated. Some attempted to re-cross the bridge that was constructed over the Euphrates, but were caught by the Romans and put to death. Meanwhile, others fled to King Antiochus of Commagene for safety.

Victorious Aftermath

This victory shocked Syria. To make sure the Syrians would never rebel against Rome, Ventidius took Pacorus’ corpse, severed the head and ordered that it be sent throughout all the different cities of Syria.

It was a gruesome sight to behold, but the effect it had on the natives was anything other than negative. Instead, “they felt unusual affection for Pacorus on account of his justice and mildness, an affection as great as they had felt for the best kings that had ever ruled them.”
As for the Parthians who sought refuge in Commagene, Ventidius came after them.
Truth be told, Ventidius could care less about the Parthian refugees. Instead, he was much more concerned with how much money he could confiscate from King Antiochus by besieging Samosata, the capital of Commagene, in the summer of 38 BCE.
Mark Antony
Antiochus offered Ventidius a thousand talents if he would just get up and go, but Ventidius refused the offer and proposed that Antiochus send his offer to Antony.
Once Antony got word of the situation, he quickly made his way to the scene of the action.
Ventidius was just about to make peace and take the lucrative offer when Antony barred him from making such a deal. Instead, Antony removed him from his command and took over the operations from there.

Why? Well, Antony was jealous of Ventidius and wanted in on the glory.

But instead of the desired fame, Antony inherited a protracted siege that went nowhere, and indeed hurt him in the end. When Antiochus offered peace again, Antony had little choice but to accept the now lowered offer of three hundred talents.

After the extortion of Commagene, Antony ventured into Syria to take care of some domestic issues before returning to Athens.
As for Ventidius, he went back to Rome where he received honors and a triumph, for “he was the first of the Romans to celebrate a triumph over the Parthians.”

The Next Generation

As Ventidius celebrated his triumph in Rome, Antony seethed in Athens.

Meanwhile, across the Euphrates in Parthia, King Orodes was in grief over the loss of his son and army. Orodes lost the will to speak and eat, and after several days, began to talk to Pacorus as if he was alive.
It was also during this time that the many wives of Orodes began to make bids as to why Orodes should choose their son for next in line to the throne. Each mother understood that there was this nasty habit in Parthia… once a new king was elected he would go out of his way to murder his brothers to secure the safety of his reign.
King Orodes
Orodes eventually made his choice and settled on his son Phraates to succeed him. Soon after Phraates was chosen heir to the throne, he began plotting against his father Orodes.
Phraates’ first attempt in murdering his father was with a poison called aconite. This failed due to Orodes suffering from a disease called dropsy (edema), which absorbed the poison and had little effect. Therefore, Phraates took a much easier route and strangled his father to death. To make sure his throne was safe, he murdered his thirty brothers and any of the nobility that detested him or questioned his motives for his acts of cruelty. Phraates was here to stay.
But while Phraates went on a vicious campaign to secure his throne, Mark Antony, jealous of the success that Ventidius had against Parthia, was prepping and planning an invasion of his own.
It was now Antony’s turn to avenge Crassus to fulfill Caesar’s dream.

The Forgotten Roman General

by July 24, 2014

By Cam Rea
General Publius Ventidius is probably one of the most overlooked, if not completely forgotten, generals in military history. Maybe it is because Ventidius grew up poor like most Romans… Or perhaps it was due to the reports that he sold mules and wagons before joining the Roman army.
Despite this, Ventidius would go on to have a distinguished military career, accompanying Julius Caesar during his campaign against Gaul and partaking in the Roman Civil War. Then in 45 BCE, Ventidius took up Caesar’s offer and accepted the post of plebeian tribune when the senate was reorganized and expanded.

Finally, on top of everything else, it may have been this forgotten general, with whom we concern ourselves today, that was responsible for reversing the Parthian tide, for changing the course of Roman History.

We will look at the series of battles now, in an effort to amend the marginal position in the history books that has been designated to poor Ventidus.

Mark Antony
It was in 39 BCE that Mark Antony assigned Ventidius Bassus the mission to retake Asia-Minor. Reports had reached Antony while he was in Greece that the Parthians were finished with their campaign in Asia-Minor for the year. These intelligence reports most likely came from the province of Asia, which was, at the time, loyal to Rome. From this news, Antony was able to draw up his plans.
He probably was aware that the majority of the Parthian army would retire for the winter and return home to their respected nobles. This would mean that those who remained were local militias, with questionable loyalty to garrison the cities throughout Asia-Minor. In addition, Antony understood the need to attack now to inhibit any further Parthian progress coming next spring.
Antony saw this as a perfect opportunity to surprise the enemy.
And so, once the coast was clear, Antony took a chance and placed a few legions under the command of our dear Ventidius, who subsequently set sail for the province of Asia. Vantidius’ mission was simple; establish a beachhead at the province of Asia and push inland.

Battle of the Cilician Gates

Ventidius’ landing was unexpected. This only goes to show the lack of intelligence gathering on the part of Labienus, head of the Roman-Parthian army. Once the Roman forces were accounted for, Ventidius quickly began to push eastward in a ‘search and destroy’ mission.

Word spread rapidly that the Romans had arrived. When the message reached Labienus, he was startled and terrified for he “was without his Parthians.” The only troops available to him were the neighborhood militia.
Labienus quickly fled the province of Asia and headed east, seeking military support from his co-ruler, Pacorus, a Parthian prince and son of king Orodes II.
Meanwhile, Mark Antony’s man, Ventidius, took a chance of his own and abandoned his heavy troops. He pursued Labienus with his lightest forces.
Eventually, Ventidius caught up with Labienus and cornered him near the Taurus range. He chose the high ground, so he could look down upon Labienus’ encampment. But there was another, more important, reason why Ventidius took the high ground; he feared the Parthian archers.
It was a standoff as both generals encamped for several days, waiting for the arrival of their main forces. As the bulk of the armies finally arrived, the Romans and the Parthians hunkered down for the night.
At daybreak, the Parthians, over-confident with their numbers and past victories, decided to start the battle before joining forces with Labienus. Unfortunately these were not the famous and deadly Parthian horse archers… but the heavy cavalry, or cataphract. Once they were at the length of the slope, the Romans charged down on top of them and repelled the enemy with ease, for the Romans had the momentum.
While the Romans were able to kill and maim many of the cataphract, the cataphract were, in fact, doing a better job at killing and maiming themselves.
See, the cataphract were at the top of slope, where all the fighting took place, but when they retreated, they ran into their own men coming up the hill. Instead of descending in order to rally around Labienus, they bypassed their general and headed straight for Cilicia. It was absolute chaos.
Ventidius, seeing that the Parthians were scattering all about and fleeing, decided to bring his men down from the hill and march on Labienus’ camp.

Both armies were now face to face… But Ventidius decided to stay put.

Why would Ventidius do this? Well, he was informed from deserters that Labienus was going to flee the camp, come nightfall. Therefore, Ventidius decided that it was better to set up ambushes rather than have an all-out pitch battle, which would result in losing many men and resources during the process.

Once nightfall came, the ambushes set in place worked as planned, killing and capturing many… that is, except for Labienus. Labienus was able to escape by changing clothes… His destination was Cilicia.
However, Labienus was not able to hide for long. Demetrius, a former slave, then “freedman” turned bounty hunter, arrested him. After Demetrius turned Labienus over to the Roman authorities, he was quickly executed.

Battle of Amanus Pass

With Labienus dead, Ventidius was able to secure the province of Cilicia. This did not mean they won; in fact, the mission was far from finished. To complete it, Ventidius devised a plan to trick the Parthians.

Ventidius sent a cavalry, headed by the officer Pompaedius Silo, to scout out the Amanus Pass, a strategic mountain path connecting the province of Cilicia and Syria. Not far behind Silo would be Ventidius, along with a small contingent of troops to aid in the fight.
Meanwhile on the Parthian side, Pacorus understood that if the same Amanus pass were not secured, the Romans would march through and invade Syria. Therefore, he felt, the best method was to station a garrison there to bottle up the small mountain road.
So Pacorus stationed Pharnapates, a Parthian lieutenant considered the most capable general of Orodes, to wait for the Romans to come. Once Silo reached the pass, the two sides engaged in battle immediately.
But don’t forget – this was, in fact, an elaborate trick. Silo’s real mission was to lure the Parthians away from their strongest defensive position. In doing so, Ventidius would either attack at the flank or from the rear.
In a sense, the Romans were giving the Parthians a taste of their own medicine by using the same tactic that worked so well against them at the Battle of Carrhae. With many of Pharnapates’ cataphract lured away, Ventidius fell upon the Parthians unexpectedly. Pharnapates, along with many of his men, perished during the engagement.
With the Amanus Pass now clear, the invasion of Syria was imminent.

Mark Antony: Make Love And War

by October 8, 2013

by Cam Rea
Once the dust cleared at the Battle of Philippi in 42 BCE, the victor Mark Antony went on a tour of his newly acquired eastern provinces. Aside from sightseeing, Antony wanted to collect new found taxes. Essentially, he needed money and lots of it… Unfortunately, Cassius and Brutus, though defeated, had already depleted the wealth of Asia through previous fundraising of their own, leaving Antony with only the scraps.
During his confiscation tour, Antony made it clear to all of Asia that those who aided Cassius and Brutus in their campaign were to be heavily taxed. Political punishment, no doubt.
Bust of Mark AntonyAntony states: “For what you contributed to our enemies in two years (and you gave them the taxes of ten years in that time) will be quite sufficient for us; but it must be paid in one year, because we are pressed by necessity.”
The Greeks after hearing this news “threw themselves upon the ground,” pleading with Antony to understand that they did not contribute willingly but were forced to give much more than just money.
After hearing their plea, Antony conceded – sort of. He presented a new deal in which his subjects should pay only “nine years’ taxes, payable in two years. It was ordered that the kings, princes, and free cities should make additional contributions according to their means, respectively.”
Antony then made sure his provinces throughout Asia “ponied up” the capital by appointing agents (with the kind help of soldiers) to collect the taxes by threat of force.
The purpose of the double tax was not only to pay his men and resupply the ranks, but also to fund his up and coming campaigns.
Therefore, Antony needed a lot of cash – but it seems he might not have been able to get it all.
According to Plutarch, the amount of money that is said to have extracted from Antony’s new subjects was supposedly 200,000 talents. And while we can’t be certain, it seems to us this may be an exaggeration, because if Antony had indeed retrieved that immense sum, or even a portion of it, then why did he go looking for additional funds elsewhere?
CleopatraIt is here that famously beautiful Cleopatra, and her immensely attractive wealth, comes into play.
In 41 BCE, Antony summoned the Egyptian queen to meet with him in Cilicia to answer the charges made against her for funding Cassius during the war. Antony knew full well that Cleopatra had actually stayed out of the war but had the financial means to assist his own future expedition against Parthia. This was a nice move by a broke man.
However, Cleopatra was no ordinary woman and not so easily controlled. She decided to ignore Antony and his messenger’s request. Instead, she made them beg for her.
Eventually she agreed to meet with him, sailing to Antony in extreme opulence. Whatever charges were made against her were quickly forgotten due to her luxurious entrance into Tarsus.
At first, the relationship between Antony and Cleopatra was merely political, but with time Antony fell prey to the radiant royal. He began to spend quite lavishly to win her over, and once won, the Roman general quickly started to forgo his duties.
In a nutshell, Antony was lust struck and consequently decided to go back with Cleopatra to Alexandria. But this Roman hadn’t lost all his wits yet – because even though he was mesmerized by Cleopatra’s supposed beauty and charm, he acquired what he needed badly, capital.
Before Antony departed for Alexandria, however, he had some unfinished business in Syria which he needed to attend to. He had to appoint a new governor (who would be Lucius Decidius Saxa) and relocate two defeated republican legions.
But it was while he was there in Syria that Antony unintentionally rekindled the conflict between Rome and Parthia… and it started with a cavalry raid.
Palmyra, SyriaSee, Antony ordered his cavalry to raid the wealthy city of Palmyra, Syria, as well as to press charges upon the population for not choosing a side. They had been independent and remained neutral when it came to international disputes, wisely due to being primarily a frontier city of merchants that sold foreign goods. Antony didn’t know whether they were with him or Cassius/Brutus and therefore should be punished.
Consequently, word reached the city that a raid was to be expected. The inhabitants of Palmyra smartly gathered their belongings and moved across the Euphrates River and into Parthian territory. Once safely across, they set up a defensive position on the bank.
When the Roman cavalry inevitably entered the city of Palmyra, they found nothing and returned to Antony with as much. Despite, or perhaps because, the cavalry came back empty handed, Antony decided to impose severe taxes on all the Syrians.
This heavy tax burden, along with the failed Palmyra raid, caused a wave of Syrian refugees to seek asylum in Parthia. Once there, the Syrian tribal leaders pleaded their case against the Romans before King Orodes.
Cleopatra paintingMeanwhile, Antony was oblivious to the situation he had created, instead taking further steps to divide his army for the winter. The Roman politician had no time for the Syrian outcry over the tax raises, he was ready to leave to be with his Cleopatra in the winter of 41 BCE.
Enter General Quintus Labienus. A previous supporter of Cassius and Brutus, this Roman republican fled to Parthia after the infamous defeat in the Battle of Philippi.
It was at this time when Labienus, still living among the Parthians, spoke to King Orodes. Word had reached him that Antony had left, and so Labienus informed Orodes that the Roman forces “were either destroyed utterly or impaired.” While the information Labienus received was partially accurate, there was one tidbit that proved correct, that the “remainder of the troops were in a state of mutiny and would again be at war.”
Labienus knew that the two defeated republican legions Antony had placed in Syria would possibly switch to get revenge if the Parthians were to invade and show support.
Furthermore, if Orodes agreed and mobilized his forces, the objective of the campaign would not be a massive raid, but to subjugate Syria and adjoining provinces of interest. Additionally, Labienus persuaded Orodes to allow him to take personal responsibility in leading the Parthian forces.
Finally Labienus requested that he be allowed, if everything went well in Syria, to help free the various provinces in opposition towards Roman rule.
Orodes agreed. The Parthian king entrusted Labienus with his son, Prince Pacorus, along with a large Parthian force.
And so, while Antony played lover to Cleopatra in Alexandria during the winter of 41-40 BCE, the Parthians began to mobilize their forces. Of course it would take time – but they would be ready to set off and ruin Mark Antony by springtime…
To be continued…
“Mark Antony: Make Love and War” was written by Cam Rea

The Rise of Themistocles (Part 3)

by June 25, 2013

Click the links to read “The Rise of Themistocles” part 1 and part 2 

Themistocles quoteBy 480 BCE, the  Athenian general and statesman, Themistocles, had eliminated his political opponents and had been squarely planted as the most influential man in Athens. Rising through the political ranks of a young democratic city, Themistocles had taken great strides to prepare his country for war against the imminent Persian invasion. With coordination from the other prominent city-states of Greece, an alliance had been formed against the Persians, with the Athenian navy constituting the majority of the alliance’s naval power.
Although Themistocles had taken great strides to build the Athenian navy, he was never officially put in charge of commanding the naval forces. It was the Spartan commander Eurybiades who would eventually be confirmed as the leader. The Athenian soldiers were hesitant to submit to a Spartan commander, especially when Sparta contributed so few naval ships. However, Themistocles convinced his countrymen to put aside their doubts and follow the command of Eurybiades. This act of humility and wisdom would allow the naval vessels to unite, which would be necessary if the Greeks were to stand a chance against Xerxes and the numerous Persian ships.

Leonidas at Thermopylae
by. Jacques-Louis David

The original strategy devised by the Greek allies was to block the Persian advance at the vale of Tempe on the border of Thessaly. However it quickly became apparent that the Greeks would be easily outmaneuvered if they took up a position there. It was proposed by Themistocles that the Greeks halt the Persian advance by taking position at the narrow strait of Thermopylae .
Ground soldiers, including Leonidas and the famous 300 Spartans, would block the advance of the Persian army by land, while Themistocles would maneuver the Greek navy into the strait of Artemisium to block the Persian ships by sea. However, in order for this tactic to be successful, Themistocles knew he would need the full power of the Athenian navy. He would have to have every able bodied man on a warship. Athens would be left defenseless.

Themistocles feared that Athens might fall to the invaders

It is not known exactly how Themistocles convinced Athens to deplete the city of its warriors, what stirring words he must have conjured to allow his city-state to hand itself over to his ambitions. All we know is that Athens would narrowly approve Themistocles’ measure. Athens would prepare all of its forces for war, leaving the city unprotected. There was no turning back; the future of Greece was now lay in the hands of Themistocles.
By August of 480 BCE the Persian army was swiftly approaching Thessaly. The allied navy sailed to Artemisium while the  hoplites made their stand at Thermopylae. It is said that once the Spartan naval commander Eurybiades saw the size of the Persian navy he quickly proposed to retreat, assuming that the enemy was unassailable. The locals, fearing that if the Greeks retreated they would be left to suffer the wrath of the Persians, offered a bribe to Themistocles. Themistocles shared the riches with Eurybiades and convinced him to stay and engage the Persian fleet.
The allied fleet fought bravely. However they were greatly outnumbered by the immense Persian Navy. Plutarch writes about the encounter:

“There the sons of Athens set

The stone that freedom stands on yet.”

“With numerous tribes from Asia’s region brought

The sons of Athens on these waters fought;

Erecting, after they had quelled the Mede,

To Artemis this record of the deed.”   -Plutarch, from “Themistocles”


the allies lost many lives at the battle of Artemisium

The bloody encounter took many lives. The allies especially lost numerous ships. It was then that word reach Themistocles that Leonidas and the soldiers of Thermopylae had fallen. The land pass to Greece was now available to the Persians. Themistocles and Eurybiades ordered a retreat. The Persians continued to advance, the Greeks needed a new strategy.

While the battle of Artemisium had been costly for the allies, it had granted Themistocles a new insight on how to wage war. The Persians had a larger navy, yes. However they only took full advantage of this when they were allowed vast, open water in which to wage war. If their ships were forced into close combat with the Athenians, then there might be a chance for Themistocles and the Greeks. However, if this were to work Themistocles would need to act quickly, the Persians were advancing.
With a passage into Greece, Xerxes and the Persian army intended to march to Athens to overrun the city. An evacuation was ordered and all the citizens abandoned their homes to flee from the incoming invaders. Plutarch describes the evacuation of Athens:

“When the whole city of Athens were going on board, it afforded a spectacle worthy alike of pity and admiration, to see them thus send away their fathers and children before them, and, unmoved with their cries and tears, passed over into the island.” -Plutarch, from “Themistocles”

While the Persians army took the city of Athens, the Athenian ships were harbored in the gulf of Corinth near the island of Salamis. It was at this time of peril that Themistocles did something rather remarkable. He called for the return of his political rival Aristides, who had been banished from Athens not long before. With his former enemy now at his side, Themistocles devised a plan to strike a blow to the Persians.
xerxes salamis

Xerxes believes his navy unstoppable, he watches the battle of Salamis

Themistocles sent a messenger to Xerxes. This messenger told the Persian commander that the Greeks were harbored in the isthmus of Corinth and that they intended to flea. The messenger told Xerxes that he could crush the Greek navy if he would only pursue them into the narrow strait. Xerxes was pleased to hear this news and gave immediate orders for a small group of his ships to block all straits and passageways that might allow the Greeks to escape.
battle of salamis

Themistocles was able to lead the Persians into a trap

As soon as day broke Xerxes placed his throne of gold high above the straits so that he might witness a great victory by his warships. The Persian navy sailed into the narrow straits off the coast of the island of Salamis. They expected to find a scattered allied navy intending to flee. Instead they were greeted with the full force of the Greek warships ready to do battle. Themistocles had led Xerxes to believe that the Allies were weak. The overconfidence of Xerxes allowed himself to lead his massive army into a crowded isthmus where the Greeks were waiting to do battle.
The allies had achieve a strategic advantage over the Persians. The enemy fleet was large and cumbersome. Their ships were hard to navigate in the narrow passageway. The allied ships were small and maneuverable, they were able to attack the Persian ships before they even had an opportunity to respond.
The battle was won decisively by the allies and the Persian fleet retreated. Xerxes had been defeated.
The Persians would retreat and Xerxes himself would return to Asia, leaving his generals in charge to finish the conquest. The Athenians returned to Athens and began to rebuild. The immediate threat of the Persians had been squashed. Themistocles had saved his homeland, he had protected Greece in its time of need.