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Category Archives: Wars

The Battle of Nisibis: Parthia VS Rome

by August 23, 2019

By Edward Whelan, Contributing Writer, Classical Wisdom
The Battle of Nisibis (217 AD) was the last battle between the Roman and the Parthian Empire. They had battled each other regularly for almost three centuries. This two-day battle was a particularly brutal and bloody one.
Parthian horse archer

Parthian horse archer

The Background to the Battle of Nisibis
Caracalla was one of the bloodiest tyrants ever to rule Rome. He murdered his own brother and massacred the inhabitants of Alexandria. He was possibly mad and believed himself to be a second Alexander the Great. In 216 AD Parthia was convulsed by a civil war between King Atrabanus V and his brother. Caracalla decided to take advantage of this, to seize more territories. He first cunningly offered to marry the daughter of Artabanus V, but the Parthian monarch rejected his proposal.
Caracalla used this refusal as a pretext to invade Parthian lands, in the process he broke a peace treaty between the two states. He invaded what is now Northern Iraq and devastated it and committed many atrocities before he retreated back into Roman territory, for winter. Caracalla had become increasingly unpredictable and his inner circle feared him greatly. The Prefect of the Praetorian Guard Macrinus killed the crazed tyrant and seized the throne in April 217.
Caracalla

A bust of the Emperor Caracalla

The Battle of Nisibis
Artabanus and the Parthians were enraged by Caracalla’s outrageous behavior. The Parthians invaded Roman territory. As the new emperor Macrinus had no military experience, he sought a diplomatic solution. The Parthian monarch and his men, however, wanted revenge. It should be noted that they did not know that Caracalla was already dead and that there was a new Emperor.
The two armies met in the Armenian Highlands, near the city of Nisibis, in what is now Eastern Turkey. Macrinus’ army was mainly infantry based while the Parthians were overwhelmingly cavalry. The Romans had legionnaires, archers and skirmishers, largely javelin throwers. The Parthians had heavily armored horsemen, known as cataphracts, precursors to medieval knights, and javelin throwers riding camels.
The Romans were positioned on sloping ground. The heavily armored troops were lined up in a defensive line, while the cavalry and light troops guarded their flanks.
Bust of Macrinus

Bust of Macrinus

On the first day, Artabanus reminded them of the recent atrocities committed by the Romans and then ordered them to attack. The camels, cavalry and light troops of the Parthians advanced and made some gains, inflicting heavy casualties on the Romans light troops, mainly Auxiliaries.
Macrinus’ forward units retreated but as they did, they left crow’s feet behind them. These were pointed steel devices which the Parthians camels and horses stood on. This led to terrible injuries and many riders were killed after being thrown from their saddles. The Parthians were not deterred. Their famous mounted archers fired volley upon volley of arrows on the Roman lines. This continued until dark; the death toll was very high and the moans of the dying could be heard throughout the night.
The morning of the second day, the battle opened up with the Parthians camel-back javelin throwers inflicting heavy casualties on the Romans. By the late morning, the heavy cavalry of the Parthians attacked the mainline of the Romans. However, at close quarters the heavy Roman infantry was able to beat back the attackers. Macrinus’ army had no relief as the Parthians, furious at the crimes committed by Caracalla, were in a frenzy. They wanted Roman blood.
A modern re-enactor dressed as a   Cataphract

A modern re-enactor dressed as a Cataphract

Seeing that a frontal assault was getting him nowhere, Artabanus ordered an attack on the flanks. This heavy cavalry almost succeeded in pushing back the flanks of the Romans. However, Macrinus’ men extended their line and Moorish javelin throwers helped to inflict heavy casualties on the Parthian cataphracts and camel-riders. This saved the Romans from being encircled and potentially annihilated.
By the end of the second day, there were dead men, horses, and camels all over the battlefield. They were piled so high that in places the Parthian cavalrymen could not move.
The Roman Emperor was desperate, his men had sustained heavy casualties and he believed that his army might not be able to withstand a third day of near-suicidal enemy attacks.
A diplomatic compromise to The Battle of Nisibis
Macrinus was a shrewd political operator and he came up with an ingenious plan to save his forces. He sent a delegation to Artabus and explained that Caracalla was now dead and that he was fighting the man who had killed him. Therefore, Macrinus stated that Artabus had no more reason to fight and that he had already been avenged. Artabus had lost many men and many of his cavalry had become restless, as they were far from home.
Coin of Artabus IV

Coin of Artabus IV

He demanded that Macrinus cede a province to the Parthians. However, the Roman Emperor was a better diplomat than soldier and was able to secure an end to the war simply by paying a huge sum of gold. The Parthians soon withdrew to their own lands, and they are widely seen as the victors in the battle.
Aftermath of The Battle of Nisibis
Macrinus was defeated in battle and executed by a distant relative of Caracalla in 218 AD. His young son was also murdered by the new Emperor, Elagabalus.
Artabus V is often regarded as the victor of Nisibis. However, he soon faced a major revolt by the Sassanians in what is now Iran. The Sassanians, under Ardashir, defeated Artabus V. Ardashir went on to take over the Parthian Empire and is considered to be the founder of the Sassanian Empire.
The Battle of Nisibis was to prove the last battle between Rome and Parthia. However, the Romans were to fight a new and more formidable enemy: the Sassanians.

The Machine Gun of Ancient Greece

by August 16, 2019

By DHWTY, Contributing Writer, Classical Wisdom
The polybolos (which may be translated literally as ‘multiple thrower’) was a type of weapon used in the ancient world. The polybolos has been described as a sort of ballista / catapult that was capable of firing several projectiles before needing to be reloaded. That’s why it’s sometimes referred to as an ancient machine gun.
Polybolos: Improving on the Catapult
Whilst the catapult was likely to have been used since the 9th century BC (based on a relief from Nimrud), it was during the 4th century BC that the catapult began gaining popularity throughout the Mediterranean. In the Greek world, early catapults were large bows that relied on winches to draw the weapon back for firing. It may have been during the time of Philip II of Macedon (the father of Alexander the Great) that tight bundles of sinew / rope that functioned as ‘springs’ were used to replace the bow arms of the catapult. These catapults relied on torsion to fire their projectiles, and could either be used to fire arrows, like their predecessors, or be modified so that heavier projectiles, such as stones, could be hurled at enemy defenses.
Catapult

Engraving of thirteenth-century catapult for throwing Greek fire. (Public Domain)

The polybolos was a further improvement on the catapult technology that existed at that point of time. The polybolos is commonly believed to have been invented during the 3rd century BC by Dionysius of Alexandria, a Greek engineer who was working at the arsenal of Rhodes. During that time, the Rhodians had a particular interest in artillery, and were keeping abreast with the latest developments in this aspect of warfare. This was aided by their close relation with Ptolemaic Alexandria. It was at Rhodes that Philo of Byzantium, a Greek engineer and writer on mechanics, encountered and inspected a catapult made by Dionysius of Alexandria. This is recorded in Philo’s Belopoeica (a treatise on artillery), and our knowledge of the polybolos is derived from this piece of writing.
Polybolos

An automatic catapult, perhaps what a polybolos could have looked like

Features of the Polybolos Catapult
Unlike the standard catapults / ballistae of the day, the polybolos could fire multiple projectiles before it needed to be reloaded. There were flat-linked chains on each side of the polybolos, which ran over pentagonal prisms at each end of the chain’s loop. It has been speculated that these prisms worked as inverted gears. By having a soldier turn the windlass attached to the rear prism, bolts could be locked, loaded and fired automatically. These projectiles were fed into the polybolos via a magazine that was attached to a rotating tray. This gave the polybolos a higher rate of fire than other ancient artillery pieces. For instance, a modern reconstruction of this weapon was found to have a firing rate of at least three times that of a standard scorpion (another artillery piece used by the Roman army).
Parts of a polybolos.

Parts of a polybolos.

Using the Polybolos Catapult to Attack
The polybolos was used mainly against enemy personnel, rather than against defensive structures such as walls or towers. One of the reasons contributing to this is the fact that the polybolos was able to lock on to a target. This, however, may also be a disadvantage of the weapon. An ancient writer is recorded to have complained that the polybolos was too accurate. The lack of dispersion in the shot pattern meant that using this piece of equipment to kill human units was an overkill.
A 19th century reconstruction of a polybolos by a German engineer by the name of Erwin Schramm, for example, was reported to have been so accurate that the second bolt fired from the weapon was able to hit its target, and in the process, split the first bolt.
Schramm’s reconstruction of a polybolos, in the Saalburg, Germany

Schramm’s reconstruction of a polybolos, in the Saalburg, Germany

The Battle of Adrianople

by August 14, 2019

By Edward Whelan, Contributing Writer, Classical Wisdom
The Battle of Adrianople (378 AD) was one of the most important battles in ancient history. It was one of Rome’s greatest defeats and left an Emperor missing, presumed dead… it was the beginning of the end of an empire.
Roman Infantryman

Re-enactor dressed as a 4th-century Roman infantryman.

Background to the Battle of Adrianople
The Roman Empire was already greatly weakened by the death of the Emperor Julius, the Apostate in Persia. When Valentinian became Emperor, he was able to stabilize the situation. He then appointed his brother, Valens (328-378), to be the ruler of the Roman East, despite the fact that was not an able soldier. Indeed, he once nearly resigned in a panic during a revolt! Valentinian died of a stroke in 375 AD and left the Western Empire to his son Gratian. It was at this moment that a crisis developed on the Danuban frontier.
The Coming of the Huns
The Goths had established kingdoms from the Black Sea to the Baltic. One day they were attacked by strange warriors on horseback, reputedly born of witches. These were the fearsome Huns. The Goths, in terror, fled before the fierce nomads and such was their fear that they were forced to seek refuge with their sometimes enemy, the Romans. The Goths and allied tribes at the Danube frontier, begged the Romans for refuge. Valens could not exactly refuse because he was fighting the Persians in the east and so had only a few troops in the Balkans.
Huns in battle

Huns in battle with the Alans. An 1870s engraving after a drawing by Johann Nepomuk Geiger (1805–1880).

Reluctantly, he agreed, and the Goths were permitted entry into Imperial territory.
It was expected that they would become farmers and serve in the military. However, things soon went very wrong. The Goths began to starve, and they became so desperate that they rose in a rebellion led by their leader Fritigern. They defeated a small Roman force and began to plunder the Balkan provinces of the Roman Empire.

Prelude to the Battle of Adrianople
Valens was campaigning against the Persian king Shapur and he could not deal with the crisis for two years. After reaching an agreement with the Persians, he finally turned his attentions to the Goths. He was offered assistance by his young nephew and Western Emperor, Gratian, who had recently won a minor victory over the Alemanni. Valens collected a large army and marched to confront the Goths without his nephew. Gratian urged his uncle to wait until he could join his army, but Valens was reluctant to do this. He had probably grown jealous of Gratian and wanted to win some glory on the battlefield for himself. So Valens forced his men to march to the Goths, where they were currently raiding in Thrace (modern Bulgaria).
Gold coin of Valens

Gold coin of Valens

The Battle of Adrianople
By the time the Romans encountered the Goths they were exhausted, but Valens was determined to fight them nonetheless. For two years they had plundered and killed Romans citizens and he wanted them to pay.
The Battle took place on the 9 August 378. While the two armies were approximately of equal size, about 15,000 to 20,000 each, the Goths had slightly more cavalry, who were very experienced. Valens, whose army was made up of archers, infantry and light and heavy cavalry, decided to attack even though he did not have numerical superiority. This was in part because he did not have good intelligence. His scouts told him that he had more men than Fritigern. This was incorrect as the Roman scouts had failed to find the bulk of the Gothic cavalry who were a short distance away, probably foraging for supplies. This was a catastrophic intelligence failure and was to prove very costly.
Valens

A marble bust of Roman emperor Valens, r. 364-378 CE. (Capitoline Museums, Rome)

The Goths circled their wagons and created a defensive position, a tactic that was often used by German tribes. The Roman Emperor, confident of victory, rashly ordered his weary men to attack the circled wagons of the Goths and called his shield-archers to advance, but they were easily repulsed.
Then Valens ordered his heavy infantry to attack the circled wagons of the Goths. They were making some headway when the tide of the battle changed. The Gothic cavalry suddenly reappeared and they attacked the Roman heavy infantry in the rear. This caused panic among the Roman troops and the heavy infantry was nearly annihilated.
Gothic Soldiers

Gothic Soldiers

This was a grave setback for Valens but it should not have been fatal. Unfortunately, he was not an experienced commander and it appears that he failed to respond properly to the deteriorating situation. The Roman infantry began to panic and started to run, even though the Goths were not near them. Soon the entire Roman army was in a panic running from the battlefield. The Germans followed, easily caught up with the heavily armored infantry and then massacred them. Up to two-thirds of the Roman army was annihilated.
It was at this moment that Valens fled the field of battle and was apparently killed. His body was never found. When the young Emperor Gratian heard the news, he broke down and wept.
The aftermath of the battle of Adrianople
The Goths had won a total victory and they now controlled the Balkans. However, they could not take any major towns and cities because they did not have siege works. Gratian appointed Theodosius as Emperor and he was able to neutralize the Goths by turning them into allies.
Coin of Emperor Theodosius I

Coin of Emperor Theodosius I

However, the Romans were greatly weakened and the Germans were, in reality, not allies but an independent force in the Empire. The Goths undermined the Romans significantly and destabilized the Empire. In 410, under the leadership of Alaric, they even sacked Rome itself.
It’s clear that the Battle of Adrianople was, in many ways, the beginning of the end of the Western Roman Empire.

Give Me My Eagles Back, Give Me My Regiments Back Again!

by July 12, 2019

By Benjamin Welton, Contributing Writer, Classical Wisdom
Painting of the battle of Teutoburg

Varusschlacht by Otto Albert Koch

The great British novelist, poet, and World War I veteran Robert Graves created one of the most agonizing scenes in fiction when, in his 1934 novel I, Claudius, he portrays a grieving Emperor Augustus crying to the ghost of his general Publius Quinctilius Varus:
“Varus, Varus / Give me my three Eagles back! / Lord Augustus tore his bedclothes, / Blankets , sheet and counterpane. / “Varus, Varus, General Varus, / Give my Regiments back again!”
In the ballad that Emperor Claudius recalls so well, Augustus mourns the loss of the Nineteenth, Twenty-Fifth, and Twenty-Sixth Regiments and their battle standards. These fine soldiers, who were some of the best representatives of Rome’s martial spirit and ironclad discipline, were the victims of an incredibly successful German ambush that occurred in A.D. 9. The leader of the German tribesmen, Arminius, became a hero, while the Roman war machine became suddenly vulnerable.
Finally, after years of unchecked conquest, the mighty Roman Empire met an enemy (the ancient Germanic tribesman) and a field of battle (the Teutoburg Forest) that it could not vanquish without great loss.
Over a thousand years later, the German victory at Teutoburg Forest was resurrected as a rallying cry for German nationalists during the age when the fragmented German states were under threat from a new foreign emperor. Instead of Augustus and his legions, the new Pan-German warriors invoked Teutoburg Forest in order to battle Napoleon and his Grande Armée.
Teutoburg Forest, Germany

The Hermann Monument in the Teutoburg Forest

The seeds of the battle began well before the creation of the Roman Empire. During his conquest of nearby Gaul, which was inhabited by warlike Celts, Julius Caesar undertook an ethnographic study that doubled as a political justification of his personal military adventures entitled The Gallic War (Commentarii de Bello Gallico, or Commentaries on the Gallic War). In that chronicle, Caesar takes time to study the Germanic tribes, such as the Suebi, who lived across the Rhine River in what Caesar’s Latin troops knew as Germania.
It is said that they have a hundred cantons, from each of which they draw one thousand armed men yearly for the purpose of war outside their borders. The remainder, who have stayed at home, support themselves and the absent warriors; and again, in turn, are under arms the following year, while the others remain at home. By this means neither husbandry nor the theory and practice of war is interrupted.
The Germans, according to Caesar, were efficient in war and were far braver than their Celtic neighbors. They were also nomadic hunters who lived in independent tribes headed by chieftains. They loved freedom and cherished strength. They were also wild, uncouth, and utterly barbaric. Reading The Gallic War, one gets the idea that Caesar believed that he could conquer Germania, but was in no hurry to do so. After all, Caesar’s conquest of Gaul and incursion into Britannia (which was undertaken in order to suppress a pan-Celtic revolt led by politically powerful druids) got him what he wanted–land, a thoroughly loyal army, and a chance to claim Rome as his own.
By A.D. 9, the Roman Republic was no more. Thanks to Caesar’s popular dictatorship, the Roman Empire replaced the oligarchic power of the Senate after Caesar’s murder near the Theatre of Pompey. Under Augustus, the first emperor, Roman power was consolidated in Gaul, Spain, and Pannonia, while Egypt was brought under the Roman yoke. First century Romans also believed that Germania was all but conquered. The Rhine was relatively peaceful and some Germanic tribes were trading with Rome and even sending their sons to the Emperor Augustus as soldiers and mercenaries.
There was, however, one major problem. The Romans knew very little about the interior of Germania. Germanic rebels, like the Cherusci prince Arminius, who had spent many years in the Roman military, knew they could exploit this ignorance given the right circumstances.

Battlefield of Arminius and Varus, 9 AD

Near the end of the summer fighting season in September A.D. 9, Varus, whom history has remembered as a better civil servant than a general, led approximately 15,000 veteran legionnaires from their summer camps along the Weser River back to their permanent barracks on the Rhine in order to be closer to a reported tribal uprising. For Varus, a veteran administrator who formerly oversaw the Roman province of Syria (which included modern day Lebanon), Germania probably did not seem as difficult to master as the frequently rebellious Middle East.
On the first day, Varus’s legions were being guided through the German wilderness by several Germanic tribal fighters loyal to Arminius. A mercenary who spoke Latin and who had previously been awarded by the Roman military for his valor on the battlefield, Arminius was a member of Rome’s knight class and was even a Roman citizen. In short, he did not look like a potential traitor to Roman eyes.
Unbeknownst to Varus and his men, Arminius sought to become the chief of his tribe. To do so, Arminius designed a way to defeat the Romans and gain the respect of his fellow Cherusci warriors. Using a false rebellion as his cover, Arminius talked Varus into leading his army into unfamiliar territory, where an ambush would be waiting. Despite warnings from a rival Germanic chief, Varus pressed on under the belief that he and his men were indestructible.
As the march progressed, Arminius intentionally extended the Roman line by leading them through treacherous country that required bridge and road building. At some point, the Roman-German group had to fight Mother Nature as heavy storms created oceans of mud that slowed the meandering train down even further. Making matters worse was the fact that German warriors were sporadically attacking the legionnaires with spears and arrows. Whether or not these skirmishes caused heavy casualties is unknown, but it’s certain that they caused anxiety among the already exhausted Romans.
Photo of Forest

A road in the Teutoburg Forest

On the second day, Varus made the decision to head for the Roman base at Haltern. The very next day, Varus’s men entered into an area known as the Great Bog, a wide, deep marsh that was buttressed by Kalkriese Hill to the south. In such a position, the weary and frightened Romans were unable to successfully move to the open ground that they favored. With the Romans pinned down, somewhere around 18,000 Germanic warriors began attacking from all sides, leaving the Romans with no room to escape.
Realizing just how dire the situation really was, Varus decided to fall upon his sword. His fellow officers followed suit. The now leaderless Romans were slaughtered. Only a few survivors managed to flee into the woods and later to the Roman camps along the Rhine. What they told their brethren was so shocking, that, according to Smithsonian magazine writer Fergus M. Bordewich, many believed that the defeat was due to “supernatural causes” brought about by a statute of the goddess Victory who “had ominously reversed direction.”
In the aftermath, Arminius was given power over a Germanic coalition that continued to harass the Roman camps in Germania until the general Germanicus Julius Caesar, after several punitive expeditions, managed to defeat Arminius’s army in several battles near the Weser River. Under Germanicus, the Romans recaptured two of the eagles lost at the Battle of Teutoburg Forest.
Germanicus

The Roman commander Germanicus was the opponent of Arminius in 14–16 CE

Later, during the reign Emperor Claudius, the third eagle standard was recovered from the Chauci tribe by Publius Gabinius in A.D. 42. As for Arminius, after containing the Roman threat and defeating a rival chief named Maroboduus, he became the most powerful chieftain in all of Germania. Many believed that he was too powerful, and his death in A.D. 21 was possibly the result of a poisoning.
The Roman defeat at the Battle of Teutoburg Forest essentially established the Rhine as Rome’s furthest boundary in the West. Later politicians and generals would claim that Germania was not worth Rome’s time. It was too sparsely populated and too wild, they claimed. They were right, but unlike Rome, the Germanic tribes never promised to stop assaulting the empire.
Eventually, in the fifth century A.D., the Western Roman Empire fell due to a relentless wave of Germanic invasions. By that point, the Battle of Teutoburg Forest had become legendary among the Germanic soldiers.
A much later generation of German nationalists would call upon the battle again during the Napoleonic Wars and the various struggles to unify Germany during the 19th century, and as a result statutes dedicated to Arminius (also known as Hermann) were erected, while Arminius/Hermann fraternities sprang up in Germany and among German immigrants living in the U.S.
For Romans like the historian Suetonius, the battle “nearly wrecked the empire” and caused a crisis of confidence. Doubt seeped into every part of the imperial government. None felt the pain of anxiety quite like Emperor Augustus, who, according to Suetonius’s Lives of the Twelve Caesars (which would be later echoed by Graves’s I, Claudius), would bang his head against the palace walls and cry Quintili Vare, legions redde! (“Quintilius Varus, give me back my legions!”).

Athens First

by July 1, 2019

By Van Bryan, Contributing Writer, Classical Wisdom
Reconstruction of Athens

Athens in its Golden Age

Recently, your editor asked a question…
Is nationalism “good”?
How interesting, we thought to ourselves. Immediately, hand went to chin. We furrowed our eyebrows in earnest ponderance.
Some questions stay with you, dear reader. Like a sore on the roof of your mouth that would go away if only you could stop tonguing it, but you can’t.
Today, we pursue the topic…
Classical Nationalism
The ancients had plenty to say on the topic of nationalism. After the Greco-Persian wars of the early fifth century, the unlikely expulsion of the Achaemenid Persian empire must have seemed like a miracle. Here, a plucky band of Hellenic tribes had expelled what was the reigning superpower of the ancient world.
Thermopylae… Leonidas… This is Sparta! All that.
Painting of Leonidas

“Leonidas at Thermopylae” by Jacques Louis David. All 300 Spartans along with the Helot slave warriors fought to their deaths. Persia won the battle, but lost the war.

A little chest-pumping was in order. And the idea of Greek superiority was established in the mind of the allies. After all, what could account for such a startling upset? Dumb luck? Superior planning? Arrogance and stupidity on the part of the Persians?
Negative…
As Aeschylus shows in his The Persians, the Greeks believed it was their piety that won the day. Their superior faith in the gods smote the Persians and drove them back across the Aegean.
Warriors on a shield

Greek and Persian warriors depicted fighting on an ancient kylix. 5th century BC. (Public Domain)

There misery waits to crush them with the load
Of heaviest ills, in vengeance for their proud
And impious daring; for where’er they held
Through Greece their march, they fear’d not to profane
The statues of the gods; their hallow’d shrines
Emblazed, o’erturn’d their altars, and in ruins,
Rent from their firm foundations, to the ground
Levell’d their temples; such their frantic deeds,
Nor less their suff’rings; greater still await them;

Need more evidence?

The term “barbarian” comes from the Greek word “barbaroi.” It literally meant a non-Greek.
Edith Hall writes in Inventing The Barbarian:

Greek writing about barbarians is usually an exercise in self-definition, for the barbarian is often portrayed as the opposite of the ideal Greek. It suggests that the polarization of Hellene and barbarian was invented during the early years of the fifth century BC, partly as a result of the combined Greek military efforts against the Persians.
In other words, the classical Greeks didn’t just believe themselves great. They believed themselves SUPERIOR to the “barbarian” tribes.
The 'Immortals'

Depiction of Persian warriors, most likely the Immortals.

Ah, but now the stage is set. Let’s return to your editor’s question. Is nationalism GOOD?
Athens First
Flash forward a few decades. It’s the late fifth century and the Athenians are engaged in bloody struggle, The Peloponnesian War. The opponent this time is the ignoble Spartans. After years of fighting, the Athenians are weary. Heavy losses have mounted.
Pericles, the foremost statesman of the era, prepares to give his famous funeral oration. The purpose of the oration is to honor the war dead. But it could be considered a eulogy for Athens herself.
Pericles, rather than praise the individual dead outright, heaps glory upon the city for which they died.
Writes Themistocles, quoting Pericles:
For we have compelled every land and every sea to open a path for our valor and have everywhere planted eternal memorials of our friendship and of our enmity. Such is the city for whose sake these men nobly fought and died; they could not bear the thought that she might be taken from them; and every one of us who survive should gladly toil on her behalf.
Translation: sorry about your sons and husbands. But it was all for a good reason. Look at all our stuff! Now get back out there, champ.
Scene from the History of the Peloponnesian War

Pericles’ Funeral Oration was a famous part in “The History of the Peloponnesian War”.
Pericles’ Funeral Oration by Philipp Foltz (1852)

What patriotic hearts must Pericles have stirred to action? How many sons and husbands would take up the just and noble cause of polis. We don’t know precisely. But certainly the goddess Athena smiles up on the city that bears her name. She would see patriotic Athenians to victory. Right?
Not so much…
The Athenians would fall to the Spartans in 404 BC. Their walls would be torn asunder. Democracy, which the Athenians are credited as being the first to give it a go—would be suspended. The Spartans, had they wished, could have razed the city, killed the men, enslaved the women, and nicked all the imperial booty for themselves.
Fortunately, that did not come to pass. Athens would suffer under the tyrannical rule of the “Thirty Tyrants” for a time. But democracy was eventually restored. Life went on.

Vase depicting tyrannicide

But had the city been burned, the Athenians would have had only their vain nationalistic pride to blame…
Lies and Myths
To your editor’s question. Nationalism. Good? Bad?
Neither.

The nationalism of the ancient world was a convenient myth. Like the Olympians themselves, it could be neither proven nor disproven. The inherent greatness of Athens was neither true nor untrue. But it was useful. It was useful to Athenian generals and politicians who had a vested interest in expanding their fledgling empire into the Aegean immediately following the conclusion of the Greco-Persian war.
The imperial swag flooded the city from conquered nations. The status of well-placed Athenian elite was elevated with each conquest. And why not? The gods are with us!

Poseidon and Athena

Poseidon and Athena battle for control of Athens – Benvenuto Tisi da Garofalo (1512). ( Public Domain )

It’s not a new idea to say that a society tells itself myths. Plato was well aware of it.
Writes Plato in The Republic:
Thus it is that the stories we tell our children must be morally uplifting, and some of the myths are not. Therefore we must winnow the myths, editing them, and, in some cases, censoring aspects of them.
This idea is not even an ancient one.
Writes Yuval Noah Harari, author of Sapiens:
Large numbers of strangers can cooperate successfully by believing in common myths. Any large-scale human cooperation – whether a modern state, a medieval church, an ancient city or an archaic tribe – is rooted in common myths that exist only in people’s collective imagination.
The inherent greatness of the classical Greeks was a myth. It was an apparition that existed collectively in the minds of a people. Once you understand cultural mythmaking, you can’t not see it.
“Making the world safe for democracy” was a myth. So is “Workers of the world, unite!” So is MAGA.

The nationalistic myths of the Greeks allowed them to rally behind a cause and expel a foreign empire. But it also drug the Athenians and Spartans into an intractable war. A society’s ability for nationalistic mythmaking inspired the erection of the Parthenon. It also gave rise to Auschwitz.
Let us then return to your editor’s question.

Is nationalism “good”? No.
But it’s not “bad” either. It’s useful.
To whom? That’s for you to answer…

Pompey Needs a Buddy

by March 20, 2019

by Cam Rea, Contributing Writer, Classical Wisdom
Rome was expecting the Parthian invasion, but it never came. Instead, in the west, the Great Roman Civil War exploded, in the years 49 – 45 BC. It was a politico-military conflict which pitted Pompey against Caesar, each vying for leadership of the Roman state. It was during this time, that Pompey may have sought Parthian assistance, though one would think that Pompey would have wanted to avoid any type of assistance from Rome’s nemesis in the east, which recently had decimated Crassus’ army.
However, Pompey had no choice in the matter for he didn’t have the armies he once possessed. Instead, Pompey had the “senatorial and the equestrian order and from the regularly enrolled troops, and had gathered vast numbers from the subject and allied peoples and kings.” Essentially, Pompey had a quagmire of experienced and inexperienced forces all of which swayed in loyalty. Caesar, on the other hand, had the legions of the state, a battle harden and well armed professional fighting force of uniformity.
The odds were very much against Pompey.
Pompey face

ca. 1st century B.C. Bust of Pompey

Pompey’s military handicap and lack of wealth forced him to look for financial aid elsewhere in order to acquire additional forces. In the words of Plutarch, “Pompey had now to plan and act on the basis of existing circumstances. He sent messengers to the various cities, and sailed to some of them himself, asking for money and for men to serve in his ships” (Plutarch, Pompey, 76).
Of the many messengers Pompey sent, one of them visited Parthia. Pompey’s interest in seeking Parthian help was due to the fact that they were the, “most capable of both receiving and protecting [Pompey] them in their present weakness and later of helping them to build up their strength and sending them out to fight again with a large force.”
Map of Parthia

The region of Parthia within the empire of Medes, c. 600 BC; from a historical atlas illustrated by William Robert Shepherd

Pompey’s advisor Theophanes, however, suggested that Egypt was a safer bet, because the Ptolemies were indebted to Pompey for his kindness. If Pompey chose Parthia over Egypt, he would be playing second fiddle and at their mercy. Pompey likely had already made up his mind that Egypt was a safer bet, but decided to send an envoy to Parthia just to see. This visit to the court of Arsaces caused Julius Caesar to become suspicious, so much so that he mentions that, “it was hotly argued in their discussions whether Lucilius Hirrus, who had been sent by Pompeius to the Parthians”
(Caesar, Civil Wars, 3.82).

Caesar knew that Pompey sent an envoy, but speculated as to who Pompey sent. Cassius Dio provides more detail into the matter:
“I have heard, indeed, that Pompey even thought of fleeing to the Parthians, but I cannot credit the report. For that race so hated the Romans as a people ever since Crassus had made his expedition against them, and Pompey especially, because he was related to Crassus, that they had even imprisoned his envoy who came with a request for aid, though he was a senator.” (Dio, 42,2)
Julius Caesar

Bust of Caesar

What Cassius Dio did not credit is whether or not Pompey considered political asylum if the situation turned bleak. However, even though that can’t be verified, it still does not negate the possibility. Moreover, Cassius was wrong about the Parthians hating the Romans. It is mentioned that King Orodes made it quite clear to Crassus that if this army was sent by the Roman people, it shall be a war to the bitter end. However, the ambassadors were smarter than that. They understood the difference between a nation declaring war and one man’s ambition.
As quoted above, Cassius Dio did mention that Pompey’s envoy, who happened to be a senator, was imprisoned. The unknown envoy may have been Lucilius Hirrus, something that was speculated by Caesar himself. According to Cicero, Hirrus was a lousy politician who spoke with a lisp and was the butt of Cicero’s jokes. He was described by the great man as a “would-be-noble.” Clearly, Cicero didn’t think highly of Hirrus.
Pompey's flight

The Flight of Pompey after Pharsalus, by Jean Fouquet

Additionally, Cassius Dio reports that the Parthians hated Pompey because he was related to Crassus. The fact that Hirrus happened to be a cousin of Pompey, may have been the reason for his imprisonment, but this seems unlikely.
What may have gotten Hirrus imprisoned (and into trouble with Orodes) was his “fatuous conceit.” In other words, once Hirrus arrived at the court of King Orodes, he quickly fell into disfavour. First, he laid out Pompey’s terms. Orodes evidently agreed with the terms and was willing to forgive and “promised to be his ally”… but on one condition. Pompey must hand over Syria.
This did not go over well with Hirrus, who spoke on Pompey’s behalf. Knowing full well that Pompey was not about to let go of his prosperous and strategic province, Hirrus likely insulted Orodes, which, in turn, led to his imprisonment.
Coin depicting king

King Orodes on a coin

However, this is mere speculation as there is no concrete proof Hirrus ever visited the court of Orodes. But one thing is certain; an envoy was imprisoned, not for his relation to Pompey, but likely for his demeanor during negotiations.
The news of the imprisoned envoy probably caused a stir among Pompey’s advisors and it may have prompted Pompey to unanimously choose Egypt as his place of operation. It is also understandable that he would choose Egypt over Parthia due to cultural similarities. Whatever the case may be, Pompey’s refusal was a potential game changer that could have saved his life and secured his place of power in Rome… for once Pompey stepped foot in Egypt, his life ended.
On the other hand, it is possible that had Pompey went to Parthia seeking financial and military assistance, he may very well have gotten what he needed to battle Caesar… or ended up being displayed as a trophy in the court of Orodes. However, Pompey went to Egypt where he was assassinated and Caesar rose to a higher, previously unseen level of power in the Roman Empire. Pompey’s alternative course in history, perhaps with the Parthians, was never realised.
Death of Pompey

Septimius (in armour) strikes Pompey from behind. 1880 illustration