Ancient Warfare III.5

1 December 2009

Cover of Ancient Warfare

“The Imperial Nemesis” is a stock phrase and you’d be forgiven if you decided to ignore the latest issue of Ancient Warfare, but that would be a mistake. The articles on the conflict between Rome and Parthia are actually more interesting than the title suggests.

Pawel Grysztar’s historical introduction consists of three parts: a slightly predictable overview of the major campaigns, and extremely illuminating sections on the theaters of operation and the asymmetrical nature of the conflict. After all, the Parthians retained many nomadic traits, while the Romans were essentially sedentary agriculturalists. This aspect is also stressed by Glenn Barnett and Arnold Blumberg, in an article on asymmetrical warfare that I found excellent. Duncan Campbell focuses on the relation between warfare and diplomacy – a theme that Ancient Warfare ought to explore more often.

Joaquín Montero describes the historiographical tradition of Trajan’s campaigns: the notes by the emperor himself, Arrian’s Parthica, Cassius Dio’s rendering of these notes (all quoted), and the survival of this part of Dio’s Roman History. The Parthian bow is the subject of a contribution by Paul McDonnell-Staff, while legionary equipment is dealt with by Raffaele D’Amato. Ross Cowan, finally, describes the Battle of Nisibis in 217, and gives more credit to Macrinus than is common.

As always, Ancient Warfare has some articles that are not directly related to the main theme. In this case, Fred Eugene Ray deals with the Athenian general Myronides and the land empire that Athens created in the mid-fifth century; Murray Dahm continues his entertaining series of articles on ancient military handbooks with an article on Festus’ Breviarium.

My summary would be incomplete if I didn’t mention the fine cover by Johnny Shumate, the maps by Andrew Brozyna and Carlos de la Rocha, the reconstructions of two Iranian warriors by Giorgio Albertini and two Romans by Graham Sumner, and the drawing of Tiridates’ surrender of his diadem to a statue of Nero by Angel Garcia Pinto. The highlight is Igor Dzis’ painting of the battle of Nisibis, which is a work of art, not just an illustration in a journal.

All in all, I liked this issue, and bought five copies for friends in Iran. I you want your own copy, go here.

Ancient Warfare Magazine III.3

20 June 2009

I may not be the most objective reviewer of this month’s issue of Ancient Warfare: I know the editor-in-chief well and sometimes contribute to this magazine. (This issue contains a notice I wrote on the museum of Tongeren.) Yet, I like to introduce Ancient Warfare to a general audience, because it always contains interesting articles and attractive artwork. On this issue’s cover is a splendid cavalry standard bearer by Johnny Shumate, and inside we can find a reconstruction of a scene in a Mycenaean palace by Igor Dzis: a work of art. Other illustrations are by Angel García Pin and Andrew Brozyna, and the maps are by Carlos de la Rocha.

This issue’s theme is “classical heroes” and deals with the influence of ancient (Homeric) exempla on later warfare, a theme made popular by J.E. Lendon in his Soldiers and Ghosts (2005). This theme, of course, needs an explanation about the values and the type of warfare we encounter in Homer‘s Iliad and Odyssey, an explanation that is offered in two articles by Josho Brouwers and Michael J. Taylor. Christian Koepfer is the author of an essay on the Shield of Achilles and Arnold Blumberg describes how Philip and Alexander picked up clues from the bard when they reformed the Macedonian army. The way soldiers can go berserk and experience divine battle frenzy, like Homer’s Ajax and numerous other warriors, is the subject of a contribution by Sidney Dean.

An article by Andrea Salimbeti and Raffaele D’Amato on warfare in the Mycenaean age, centered on the Seven against Thebes, tries to reconstruct the Late Bronze world that Homer is evoking. I have always neglected this age, so I learned a lot from this article.

Rome is represented by an article by Ross Cowan, who describes legionaries and auxiliaries who received military decorations. Unrelated to the theme of heroism is Duncan Campbell’s article on Hyginus’ essay on constructing camp fortifications: Campbell tries to find out which campaign may have been the subject of Hyginus’ account. Flavian, Trajanic, and Antonine are possible, but Campbell does not rule out the possibility that the text is a product of fourth-century antiquarianism. Murray Dahm’s article on Athenaeus Mechanicus’ On Machines and the usual reviews conclude this issue.

In sum, it was an interesting read that I like to recommend. You can subscribe here.

Ancient Warfare: Teutoburg Forest Special

10 June 2009
Ancient Warfare III.3

Ancient Warfare III.3

I am probably not the most neutral reviewer of the latest issue of Ancient Warfare, a special on the massacre in the Teutoburg Forest. In the first place, because I have always been fascinated by the clash in the blogs of the Northgerman Lowlands. In the second place, because I am one of the contributors to this issue. Still, I am not completely uncritical, and I like to point out that there’s something missing: an article on the Claudian Army Reforms.

The battle’s significance, we are always told, was that it meant the liberation of Germany. That was, in any case, the vision of Tacitus and Florus, who wrote in the second century AD. Contemporaries had a different vision. Velleius Paterculus believed that, as a disaster, it was less important than Carrhae, and did not notice any change in Roman policy. To agree with Paterculus and to say that nothing changed, would be exaggerating, but it is certainly possible to overestimate the significance of the battle. The Romans had always combined diplomacy and the use of arms, the first one being Tiberius’ preference and the second one being Drusus’ preference vis-à-vis the Germanic tribes. The only thing that changed was that when Tiberius became emperor, direct military occupation was abandoned, and diplomatic means were preferred to control the land east of the Rhine. But there were still campaigns, the tribes were essentially vassals of the empire, and the river was not yet considered a boundary.

The real change took place almost half a century later, when  – during the reign of Claudius – the limes was created and Rome decided that the Rhine would be the limit to the empire. The river was now becoming a real frontier zone. Florus and Tacitus attributed this to the Teutoburg Forest massacre, and they were not completely wrong, but they were not completely right either. A perfect issue on the epic battle would have treated the significance of the battle, showing that the Europe indeed became divided between a Latin and a Germanic zone, and that this division can only partly be explained by the fight in the marshes.

(The traditional, more exaggerated interpretation is an example of the “positivist fallacy”: we happen to have sources on this battle, so we think it is important, but in reality, there are more important events about which we have no sources.)

All this being said, this issue is easily the best publication on the subject of this anniversary year. Many traditional errors have been avoided – no, there is no evidence that the Romans wanted to proceed to the Elbe – and the look- how-relevant-ancient-history-really is-section on the battle’s afterlife in modern German nationalism is mercifully absent. I will not sum up the individual contributions because that would self-laudatory, but I honestly believe that this is one of the best things to read on the subject. You can subscribe here.

Caesar’s Gallic War

2 June 2009
A young (and unshaven) Julius Caesar (Museum of Corinth)

A young (and unshaven) Julius Caesar (Museum of Corinth)

I’ve made several small additions to the Livius website during the Pentecost weekend. In the first place, I put online an article I wrote about a year ago on Caesar‘s literary aims in his Gallic Wars. It was originally published in Ancient Warfare. As you already guessed, the Roman general tried to cover up what went wrong and to broadcast what went right. Still, there may be some interesting notes about lesser known topics, like the way he presents the topography of Gaul. The article is here, but of course it is also possible to subscribe to Ancient Warfarehere.

Other additions are a brief article on ostraca and the photos of Taucheira, which have moved to another location, which is here.

Ancient Warfare Magazine III.2

20 April 2009
Ancient Warfare III.2

Ancient Warfare III.2

“Alexander’s Funeral Games” is the (not very original) title of the last issue of Ancient Warfare. Its theme is warfare among the Successors. It is introduced by Bob Bennett and Mike Roberts, who give an overview of the endless campaigning that is remarkable for its clarity. Duncan Campbell tells essentially the same story, although he focuses on Demetrius Poliorcetes; it is a fine piece, as I have come to expect from this author.

Konstantin Nossov and Joseph Pietrykowski describe how the Successors fought. The first describes Hellenistic fortifications in an article about Philo of Byzantium, who dedicated a manual on poliorcetics to Ptolemy III Euergetes; the second deals with armies and tactics. Michael Park focuses on the battle of Gabiene, while, concentrating on an even smaller subject, Christian Koepfer describes the sarissa, the heavy lance of the Macedonian phalanx.

Demetrius Poliorcetes (Antikensammlung, Berlin)

Demetrius Poliorcetes (Antikensammlung, Berlin)

There are some splendid illustrations in this issue: Vladimir Golubev made several beautiful drawings of Hellenistic fortifications, and Hellenistic soldiers were painted by Igor Dzis and Johnny Shumate. I was unable to discover who made the frontispiece – it is not even mentioned in the “On the cover” series. (It’s Shumate, BTW.)

Was there something I missed? Yes: the economy. Scholars like Košelenko, Galataÿ, and Golenko (below) have proved that the amount of precious metal that Alexander had captured in Susa and Persepolis was exactly sufficient to pay for the armies of the Successors until 301. In other words, Ipsus was the final battle not because it was decisive, but because all money had been spent. In the next years, Seleucus Nicator declined to go to war to Ptolemy Soter and things appear to have become a bit more quiet, the only dynamic element being the adventurer Demetrius.

Seleucus Nicator

Seleucus Nicator

Personally, I would like to know more about the economic base of ancient warfare and social attitudes towards violence. Some of the articles in Ancient Warfare have in the past addressed this subject (e.g., an article on the portrayal of mercenaries in Greek comedies), but in my opinion, this may be a bit more. But that’s just a minor point of criticism; this issue was, as always, nice to read.

As always, Ancient Warfare has some articles unrelated to the main theme. This time, Svenja Grosser has a fine article on amphitheaters for gladiatoral shows near military bases, while Raffaele D’Amato describes a navy carpenter, whose dead body was found near Herculaneum (beautiful drawing by Graham Sumner). Murray Dahm continues his series “Be a General” with his second article on Vegetius, and this issue ends with five pages of reviews.

All in all, I greatly enjoyed this issue; and if you haven’t got a subscription yet, you can go here.


  • François de Callataÿ, “Les trésors achéménides et les monnayages d’Alexandre” in Revue des Études Anciennes 91 (1989) 259-276
  • V.K. Golenko, “Notes on the coinage and currency of the early Seleucid state,” in: Mesopotamia 28 (1993) 71-167


5 August 2008
Monument of the Lacus Curtius

Monument of the Lacus Curtius

Devotio was an ancient Italian ritual, in which a soldier -usually the general- voluntarily accepted his own death, devoted himself to the gods of the Underworld, and allowed his enemies to kill him. The wrath of the gods was, by this ritual, placed on the enemy. There are several parallels from Greece and Carthage, and several stories (like that of Marcus Curtius) may be understood as rationalizations of devotio legends. I’ve summed it up here.

Battle of the Trasimene Lake (217)

4 August 2008
The battlefield

The battlefield

The Battle of the Trasimene Lake was one of Hannibal‘s most splendid victories. The Romans were well aware that the Carthaginian general was a dangerous, capable opponent, and sent out several armies, making sure that he could always be attacked from two sides at the same time. Hannibal, however, managed to elude his opponents, and attacked the army of the Roman consul Flaminius on the northern bank of Lake Trasimene. Roman losses were high; in the following year, only an army of recruits could be sent out, which met its doom at Cannae.