1609159 (1).jpgDeadliest Blogger’s historical articles organized in a chronological order, to help my readers place them in some sort of historical timeline.

A girlfriend once pointed out that it would be uber-useful to have a reference guide to all of the various pieces Deadliest Blogger has written over the years; placing each in it historical order. Well, for your convenience, here it is!

Here is a list of all of my historical pieces, placed within a chronological timeline:


The Artwork of War – Heroes of Troy and Mycenae:

15th-12th century BC. Bronze Age Greek world, in the Age of Heroes.



05 Pyrrhus 2The 25 Greatest Commanders of the Ancient World:

1475 BC- 476 AD, Deadliest Blogger’s list of the greatest generals of the Ancient World.




Spartans: Elite Warriors of Ancient Greece:

6th-4th century BC. First in a series detailing the history of the Spartans.



1417290-aGreat Warships of History: The Greek Trireme:

5th century BC. Our series on the great warships that influenced history focuses here on the trireme.


The Lion at the Hot Gates: Thermopylae 480 BC

480 BC. The Battle of Thermopylae



Greece is Save By Its Wooden Walls:

480 BC Battle of Salamis



1551560Spartan Invincibility is Destroyed at Leuctra:

371 BC the Spartans meet the Thebans under the military genius Epaminondas




Great Captains: Alexander the Great:

4th century BC, part of Deadliest Blogger’s series on the great generals of history.



Granicus: Alexander Takes the First Step Toward Greatness:

334 BC, Alexander the Great at the Battle of Granicus




Diadochi: Macedonian Game of Thrones:

321 BC-281 BC: the “Successors” of Alexander fight over the carcass of his empire; and establish kingdoms of their own. First of a series, each new installment linked at the bottom.


Armies of the Successors: The Antigonids:

4th-2nd century BC, an overview of the army of Macedonia after Alexander till the coming of the Romans. First in a series.



Armies of the Successors: The Seleucids:

4th-2nd century BC, overview of the army of the largest of the Diodachi kingdoms. Second in the series.



Armies of the Successors: The Ptolemies:

4th-1st century BC, overview of the army of the Ptolemaic Macedonian kingdom of Egypt. Third in the series.




Great  Captains: Hannibal Barca:

3th century BC, Deadliest Blogger’s look at the man who shook Rome to its roots. Part of our series on the greatest generals in history.


Breaching the Alps: Hannibal’s Icy Ordeal:

218 BC, an examination of how and why Hannibal chose to bring an army across the snowy Alps to attack his Roman enemy.



Cannae: Hannibal’s Masterpiece:

216 BC, and Rome suffers one of its greatest defeats.



Phalanx vs Legion: Closing the Debate:

3rd-1st Century BC: the Roman legion eventually replaced the phalanx as the dominant force on the battlefields of the Classical World. Which system was superior, and why?



Mad Kings and Maccabees: the First Hanukkah:

2nd century BC, Antiochus IV’s harsh policy of forced Hellenization ignites a revolution among his Judean subjects; leading to the first Hanukkah celebration.



Disaster In the Desert: Crassus at Carrhae:

54 BC, a Roman invasion of Mesopotamia leads to the death of Crassus.



caesar-bustGreat Captains: Julius Caesar:

1st century BC,  Deadliest Blogger’s look at the “noblest Roman of them all”. Part of our series on the greatest generals in history.



Terror in the Teutoburg Forest!

9 AD, and the Roman occupation army of Germany is ambushed in the depths of the Black Forest. The results were to have long-ranging effects on the future of the Roman Empire and Germany.



Adrianople: Twilight of the Legions:

378, the Goths deal the Romans a historic defeat. But why was it such a catastrophe for the empire?


The Age of Arthur:

5th-6th century AD Britain. Were the legends of “King Arthur” and his Knights of the Round Table based on historical events and characters? First in a series.


Attila is Stopped at the Catalaunian Fields:

451, the “Scourge of God” invades the Western Roman Empire; and is stopped at Chalons!



belisarius-2Belisarius at Darus:

530 and the Eastern Roman general Belisarius wins his first great battle against a far larger Persian army. His use of interior lines and field works is a text book case study in generalship.



1432785aDark Ages Elite: The Bucellarii of Belisarius:

6th-early 7th century, the Eastern Roman army is transformed by the methods of Belisarius, which experiment began with his own household regiment. Part of our series on “Elite Warriors of the Dark Ages”.


Great Warships of History: Byzantine Fire Dromon:

7th cent, the Eastern Romans create a revolution in naval warfare with a flame-throwing weapon mounted on their nimble galleys. Part of our series on the great warships.


Dark Ages Elite: Caballarii of Charlemagne:

8th-9th century, the armored cavalry elite of Charlemagne and the Frankish Empire become the genesis of the Medieval paladins. Part of our series on “Elite Warriors of the Dark Ages”.


The Vikings: An Enduring Fascination:

793-1066: “From the fury of the Northmen deliver us!” A brief look at the Vikings, and why they continue to fascinate us to this day.


England is Born at Bloody Brunanburh:

937, the grandson of Alfred the Great becomes the first king of a united England.


Dark Ages Elite: The Jomsvikings:

10th-11th century elite Viking brotherhood. Part of our series on “Elite Warriors of the Dark Ages”.



Carnage at Clontarf: Ireland’s Darkest Day:

1014 and Brian Boru, faces a coalition of enemies. The Battle of Clontarf was a Pyrrhic Victory, which ended Ireland’s one chance to unit into a single, powerful kingdom.



Dark Ages Elite: Anglo-Saxon Huscarls:

11th century, following England’s conquest by the Danes under Canute the Great, the English thrown was guarded by an elite body of Anglo-Danish warriors: the Huscarls! Part of our series on “Elite Warriors of the Dark Ages”.


1408160Elite Warriors of the Dark Ages: Norman Knight:

11th-12th century, the Norman knights were the most feared heavy cavalry in Europe. Part of our series on “Elite Warriors of the Dark Ages”.



1066: A Bloody and Momentous Year

The year 1066 could be called the Year of the Three Kings. The events culminated in the battles of Stamford Bridge and Hastings.


Elite Warriors of the Dark Ages: Varangian Guard:

11th-14th cent, the Byzantine emperors are guarded by an elite body of Northmen, Rus, and Englishmen. Part of our series on “Elite Warriors of the Dark Ages”.



Manzikert.jpgThe Terrible Day: Disaster at Manzikert:

1071 and imperial Byzantium suffers a terrible defeat at the hands of the Seljuk Turks; and Anatolia begins the transformation into “Turkey”.





22853_Otto-IThe 25 Greatest Commanders of the Middle Ages:

475-1453, Deadliest Blogger’s list of the greatest generals of the Middle Ages.



The Crusades: A Politically Incorrect View:

    1095 – 1204 and tens of thousands of Christians marched east to liberate the “Holy Land” from its Muslim conquerors. A multi-part series on the history of the Crusades.


Myriocephalon: the Byzantine Resurgence Comes to a Disastrous End

1176, the Emperor Manuel Komnenos leads the last great army of the Byzantine Empire into Turkish territory to recover the lost lands of Anatolia. In the ravines and passes of Myriocephalon he is ambushed.


The Knights of France Defeat the Power of the Empire at Bouvines, 1214

Philip II “Augustus” establishes France as the premiere power in Western Europe and the chivalry of France as the greatest fighting men in Christendom.



Great Captains: Chingis Khan:

13th century AD, Chingis (Genghis) Khan unites the peoples of Mongolia and creates the world’s largest land empire. Part of our series on the greatest generals in history.


Legnica: The Mongol Terror Reaches Poland:

1241 and the northern thrust of the Mongol invasion invades Poland. There they meet the armies of Poland and Bohemia.



End of the Caliphate: The Mongol Sack of Baghdad:

1258 and the greatest city in the Islamic World is captured and pillaged by the advancing Mongol horde. In its ashes the last Abbasid Caliph is put to death.


Clash of Titans: Tamerlane at Angora, 1402

The Ottoman Turkish Sultan Bayezid the “Thunderbolt” engaged the invading army of Timur the Lame, the last great Mongol conqueror.


Slaughter in the Mud:Henry V at Agincourt:

1415, young king Henry V of England renews the 100 Years War by invading France. In the muddy fields of Agincourt a tired and hungry English army is brought to bay by a pursuing force five times its size. On St. Crispin’s Day Henry’s wins a miraculous victory.


A Most Sanguinary Affair: Bloody Towton: 

1461, the greatest battle of the War of the Roses, and the largest ever fought on English soil.


Richard III’s Short Reign Ends at Bloody Bosworth:

1485, and the War of the Roses ends with the defeat of Richard III.



The 25 Greatest Commanders of the Renaissance: 1453-1650, Deadliest Blogger’s list of the greatest generals of the Renaissance.



Marignano, Battle of Giants, Ends the Myth of Swiss Invincibility:

1515, King Francois I of France defeats the hitherto invincible Swiss to contest the rule of Northern Italy.


  Clash of Titans: Tamerlane and “Thunderbolt” meet at Angora!

In 1402 the last great Mongol conqueror, Timur, crossed swords with the emerging Muslim super-power of the day, the Ottomans; under their triumphant Sultan, Bayazid the “Thunderbolt”.


panipat_main-bMughal: “The Tiger” Founds an Empire at Panipat:

1525, a descendant of Genghis Khan and Tamerlane defeats the Sultan of Delhi and founds the Mughal Empire.


Battle of Nagashino, 1575

The ambitious and capable Oda Nobunaga defeats the hitherto invincible Takeda samurai with a force of trained matchlock-armed peasants and the clever use of field fortifications. 


Great Warships of History: Korean Turtle Ship:

1590s, the Japanese invasion of Korea is thwarted by revolutionary iron-clad “Turtle Ships”. Part of our series on the great warships.


Gustave_Adolphe_at_Breitenfeld-Johann_Walter-f3706497The Lion of the North Roars at Breitenfield:

1631, Gustavus Adolphus of Sweden leads the Protestant forces to victory over Tilly and the Imperial Catholic tercios.


revenge-2Great Warships of History: Revenge, Race-Built Galleon:

16th cent, the English lay the foundations for naval supremacy with a revolutionary ship design. Part of our series on the great warships.


The Last Hurrah of the Winged Hussars:

1683, the legendary Polish cavalry broke the Siege of Vienna and saved Europe from the yoke of Islam.


18th – 19th CENTURY

Great Warships of History: The Ship of the Line:

17th-19th cent, the battleships of the Age of Sail. Part of our series on the great warships.



fritzGreat Captains: Frederick the Great:

18th century AD, the career of “Old Fritz” is examined in another installment of our series on the greatest generals in history.



article-0-183b67b900000578-145_640x816Great Captains: Napoleon Bonaparte:

Late 18th-early 19th century, another in our series on history’s greatest general.



Sabres in the Snow: Murat at Eylau, 1807!

Marshal Murat saves the day with one of history’s greatest cavalry charges.



Napoleon’s Last Campaign: 1815

Deadliest Warrior takes a deep dive into the Waterloo Campaign in this multi-part series.



A Pride of Peacocks: Uniforms of the Napoleonic Era

A visual tour of history’s most splendidly uniformed armies.


80da27526558cac0321c1ee30fece812_f803“Old Hickory” Breaks the Thin Red Line at New Orleans:

1814, the British gambit aimed at seizing the mouth of the Mississippi River is thwarted by Andrew Jackson’s rag-tag force at New Orleans.



alamo-213 Days of Glory: the Alamo, 1836

The Battle of the Alamo is examined in detail.


gandamuck-2Massacre in the Passes: Elphinstone’s Disaster: 1842

The First Anglo-Afghan War leads to one of Britain’s most humiliating defeats.


220px-sir_harry_smithA Perfect Battle: Harry Smith Smashes the Savage Sikhs at Aliwal

1846, First Angl0-Sikh War.  Sir Harry Smith fights the perfect battle and defeats a larger Sikh army.



Great Captains: Nathan Bedford Forrest

1861-1865, the career of America’s “Wizard of the Saddle” is examined in this installment of our series on history’s greatest generals.


Zulu: Death and Redemption in the African Sun

1879, Britain’s Zulu War opens with disaster and a desperate victory as Deadliest Blogger examines the battles of Isandlwana and Rorke’s Drift.



A “Most Savage Battle”: Abu Klea, 1885

The British battled the Dervishes in the Sudan.




Juramentado: Moro Suicidal Assassins:

Early 20th century, Muslim assassins terrorize the Philippines and give the English language the term “run amok”.



Germany’s Schlieffen Plan: A Study in Economy of Force

1914, the outbreak of WW-I and the Germans develop a brilliant plan to defeat France in months and end the war in the west. What went wrong?



Great Captains: George S. Patton, Jr

 1940-1945, the life of America’s greatest WW-II battle commander is examined.


Great Warships of History: The Bismarck

1941, Germany’s greatest warship threatens Britain’s supply line and leads the Royal Navy on a merry chase! Part of our series on the great warships.


The Devil’s Guard: Hitler’s Waffen SS

 1935-1945, and examination in multiple parts of Hitler’s elite combat force, the Waffen SS.


Great Warships of History: The Yamato

 World War Two, part of our series on the great warships.



God Sides With the Big Battalions

An examination of some of the principals of war, force multipliers, and the danger of relying upon small elite forces.


Top Ten Generals in American 

Deadliest Warrior’s list of America’s greatest wartime leaders.


Deadliest Bloggers’ Greatest Quotes on War: Part One


Deadliest Blogger’s Greatest Quotes on War: Part Two 


Deadliest Blogger’s Greatest Quotes on War: Part Three


Deadliest Blogger’s Greatest Quotes on War: Part Four


Deadliest Blogger’s Greatest Quotes on War: Part Five



“History Bites”: The Fork, “a Hateful Vanity”

A “bite-sized” look at history.



“History Bites”: Son of a Gun

A “bite-sized” look at history.


If World War One Were a Bar Fight!



If World War Two Were a Bar Fight!




1381768 British Military Kit Through the Ages



1609159 (1).jpg

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George Armstrong Custer rode to immortality (or infamy, depending on one’s view point) when he led the 7th Cavalry down into the valley of the Little Bighorn River, on June 25, 1876. By the next day he was one of 268 men of the 7th lying dead among the grassy hills above the river. But George wasn’t the only Custer who died that day. With him were two of his brothers and a nephew, as well as a brother-in-law. One of those brothers was the first man to ever win the Medal of Honor not once, but twice. He is the “Other Custer” few Americans know about.

Thomas Ward Custer was the younger brother of George Armstrong Custer. Born March 15, 1845, in Rumley, Ohio, he was the third son of Emanuel and Marie Custer, born six years after his more celebrated sibling. Boston Custer, the youngest of the brothers and the other to die on the slopes of the Greasy Grass battlefield, was born 3 years later.

The Custer boys were a tight-knit group, fond of playing practical jokes on each other. When the Civil broke out, 16 year old Thomas enlisted in the 21 Ohio Volunteer Infantry as a private. His older brother George (whom the family called “Autie”) had been accepted into West Point in 1857. When the war broke out, his class was prematurely graduated and commissioned in June of 1861. Custer graduated at the bottom of his class: he had the dubious distinction of having one of the worst conduct records in the history of the academy, amassing a record total of 726 demerits. Custer showed a complete disdain for his lessons, and always tested the rules and boundaries. Commissioned as a second lieutenant upon graduation, George was assigned to the cavalry.

While George quickly proved himself a far better combat soldier than a student, and rose rapidly in rank in the cavalry, serving in the eastern theater; Thomas Custer saw action over the next few years in the western theater. He fought at Second Battle of Murfreesboro,  Missionary Ridge, and Sherman’s Atlanta Campaign. He left the army in 1864, mustering out with the rank of corporal.

However, the war was not yet over, and Tom Custer returned to spend the last year of the Civil War serving under his brother, George; now a Major General and Phil Sheridan’s strong right arm. Thomas Custer had made the jump from enlisted man to officer, now commissioned a Second Lieutenant of Cavalry. It was in the cavalry that the younger Custer came into his own. In this capacity he won not one, but two Congressional Medals of Honor.

Major General George Armstrong Custer

On April 3,1865, at Namozine Church, now Captain Tom Custer led an attack on the 2d North Carolina Volunteer Cavalry Regiment. Custer spurred his horse over a makeshift barricade and among the defending Confederates. Mindful that his brother George had won acclaim during the Peninsula Campaign by being the first to capture a Confederate Battle Flag, Tom seized the flag of the 2nd North Carolina from the bearer, commanding those around him to surrender. He took three officers and eleven enlisted men as prisoner. For this piece of gallantry, Thomas Custer was awarded his first Medal of Honor.

Not satisfied with merely matching his brother (and commander), three days later, at Sailor’s Creek, Tom Custer charged through a blizzard of enemy fire, again leaping a barricade to land amidst the Confederate defenders. Firing his pistol to either side, he broke the enemies will to fight and sent them scattering in rout.  However, the Confederates fell back upon a second line, rallying around a battle standard. Tom Custer spurred for that color-bearer. As he reached the standard, Tom was shot in the face, a graze along the jawline that sent him reeling back in the saddle. In a moment Custer was again upright, and shooting the standard bearer through the heart he snatched the banner from his dying grasp.

The standard held triumphantly aloft, a bloodied Captain Custer rode back toward his own lines. A fellow officer rode up to him, warning him against riding toward Union lines bearing a Confederate standard. “For God’s sake, Tom, furl that flag or they’ll fire on you!” Custer refused, and successfully reached his brother George, amidst his staff observing the fight. No doubt proud to have outdone his renown brother, capturing two enemy flags to George’s one, Thomas handed the banner to one of General Custer’s aides, saying to George, “Armstrong, the damned rebels shot me, but I’ve got my flag!”

When Tom attempted to return to the fight, his brother, seeing the gaping wound in his brother’s face, instead ordered him to the rear and the surgeons tent. When Tom attempted to shrug off the wound, George ordered a squad to “escort” Captain Custer to the rear, against Tom’s best efforts to disobey that particular order.

This is the “other Custer”. One heroic son of a bitch.

For his actions at Sailor’s Creek, Tom Custer was awarded his second Medal of Honor.

Like his brother, Tom Custer was sent out west after the war ended, appointed a First Lieutenant in brother George’s 7th US Cavalry Regiment. He was wounded in Custer’s famous Washita Campaign of 1868, in action against the Cheyenne; and fought in a skirmish against the Lakota in August of 1873 at Honsinger Bluff. It was in the aftermath of the latter engagement that Tom Custer became involved with his nemesis.

The three Custer brothers (George, Tom, and Boston) at the Little Big Horn 1876

The leader of the Sioux war party that had ambushed Custer’s men at Honsinger Bluff was a warchief named Rain-in-the-Face. The following year it was learned that he was staying at the Standing Rock Reservation, bragging of having killed the 7th Cavalry’s senior veterinarian surgeon, Dr. John Honsinger; and showing off Honsinger’s gold watch, lifted from his corpse. Lt. Tom Custer was sent to arrest the chief. Rain-in-the-Face vowed to cut out Tom Custer’s heart and eat it!

Two years later, Tom Custer was serving as his brother’s aide-de-camp when the 7th Cavalry attacked the combined Sioux, Northern Cheyenne, and Arapaho village at the Little Bighorn. Much ink has been spent on what became the United States’ worst defeat in the Plains Indian Wars, and need not be recounted here.

Tom warding his mortally wounded brother, George Armstrong Custer, after putting him beyond capture with a shot to the head.

All three Custer brothers were killed. Lt Col George Armstrong Custer was found with a mortal wound to the left side of the chest, and another fatal shot to the temple. One theory is that Tom Custer put his brother out of his misery and beyond capture (and torture) by the Lakota with a shot to the head. It is also said (though he later denied it) that Rain-in-the-Face may have unhorsed George Armstrong Custer during the battle and afterward, fulfilling his vow, cut the heart out of the fallen Tom Custer’s corpse; which was found so badly mutilated that the remains were identifiable only by his initials, tattooed on his arm.

The view from “Last Stand Hill”

Though George Armstrong Custer is rightfully the more famous of the Custer brothers, Tom Custer too deserves to be remembered. He was one tough, brave man.

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Long before George R.R. Martin penned his tale of war, intrigue and treachery the ancient world was scene to its own version of Game of Thrones.

(This is the eleventh in a series concerning the Wars of the Diadochi. Part 1 can be read here, and includes comprehensive biographies of the players in this drama. It is strongly advised that you start there before reading on. The previous installment, Part 10, can be found here. Stay tuned to this blog for future installments. Special thanks to Michael Park for his indispensable help in filling in the gaps in the sources and putting-up with my incessant questions!)

It is the summer of 319 BC. Antipater the Regent has taken the two kings and the court back to Pella in Macedon; leaving the war against Eumenes and  Alcetas, the last supporters of the late regent Perdiccas, to his General (strategos) in Asia, Antigonus Monophthalmus (“One-Eyed”). As discussed in the previous installment, Antigonus defeated Eumenes at the Battle of the  Orcynian Fields, and after incorporating most of the survivors of the defeated army into his own invested Eumenes and his few remaining followers in the fortress of Nola, in Cappadocia.

Then, just months after returning home, “The Old Rope”[1] died, and the playing board was reset.


Antipater died at 80 years old. He had served four kings[2], and was the only leading Diodachi seemingly devoid of royal ambitions. His loyalty to the Argead dynasty was unquestioned, and though his battles with Olympias strained his relationship with her son, even in death he carried out Alexander’s wishes: he left the regency and guardianship of the two kings to another old general, Polyperchon son of Simmias. He was a scion of the old royal house of Tymphaia in what was called Upper (highland) Macedon[3], and had commanded that region’s taxis (brigade) of the phalanx for nine years after the  Battle of Issus. He had been on the return march to Macedon with Craterus when news of Alexander’s death reached them in Cilicia. It had been the dead monarch’s wishes that Craterus replace Antipater as regent in Macedonia, and as his deputy Polyperchon would have replaced Craterus had that general died in office. As it were, Craterus and Antipater had come to an accord and the old regent retained his position.

Screenshot (180)

From Oliver Stone’s film, Alexander (2004)

When Craterus and Antipater departed for Asia and their campaign against Perdiccas [4], the Regent had entrusted Polysperchon with the defense of Macedon and Hellas. Faced with a revolt (again) by the Aetolians and Thessalians, the old phalanx commander had decisively defeated the Thessalians in battle in which their veteran leader Menon of Pharsalus was killed[5].

Now, on his death bed, Antipater honored Alexander’s wishes as best he could by naming Polyperchon as his replacement. An elevation approved by the Macedonian troops in the homeland at that time.

But with Antipater’s passing went all legitimately constituted authority. “The kings – an infant and an idiot – were powerless of themselves; the Macedonian army could never again be united  for the elections of a legitimate regent… The moment he (Antipater) was dead the forces of disruption burst their barriers.”[6]

His first and ultimately greatest opponent was none other than Antipater’s own son, Cassander. It is at this point in history that this villain takes the main-stage in the drama unfolding. Long his father’s right-hand, Cassander refused to be passed over and spent weeks intriguing against Polyperchon. Unlike his father, he had scant respect for dead Alexander’s wishes. The man who had hated the conqueror since their childhood together, who was left behind when Alexander marched east, and who may have had a hand in Alexander’s death[; undertook now to overturn both Alexander’s and his father’s plans for the regency and the first steps toward overthrowing the royal family entire. To this end he fled to Asia in the autumn of 319, where he made amends with Antigonus and denounced the new regent’s appointment as illegitimate. For his part Antigonus welcomed this opportunity and used it as excuse to throw out of their offices the satraps in Asia Minor Antipater had appointed as a check on his ambitions.

After shutting Eumenes up in Nola (see Part 10), Antigonus had taken the bulk of his forces (40,000 foot, 7,000 horse, and 65 elephants) against the remnants of the Perdiccan forces under Alcetas and Attalus in Pisidia. In a brilliant feat of generalship, Antigonus’ forced marched 300 miles in seven days through the rugged terrain, to surprise Alcetas’ force of 16,000 foot and 1,000 horse (and perhaps as many as 4,000 Pisidian light infantry skirmishers) encamped at a pass near Cretopolis. His arrival achieved near complete surprise: the first hint the Perdiccan forces had of his coming was when they heard the trumpeting of his elephants:

Antigonus … hoped to surprise their camp in the straights of Pisidia: but the elephants cried out, and informed the Macedonians of his approach; for he was the only general who used those beasts. Alcetas with the heavy-armed troops immediately attempted to gain the summit of the steep and craggy mountains. Instead of following him, Antigonus wheeled round the mountain. He marched with all possible speed to the place where the army was encamped. He surprised and surrounded them, before they had time to form up. The enemy were forced to surrender themselves as prisoners of war, and thus he obtained a victory without slaughter.[7]

This bloodless victory was won by stratagem and maneuver, and in mountainous terrain. Antigonus, who was 58 when Alexander dies in 323, was a man of 61-62. Yet he showed the energy of a man half that age, in a campaign that bears comparison to Caesar’s masterpiece of maneuver following Ilerda. In so doing Antigonus served notice to his rivals that a lion had now strode forth, center stage. 


Antigonus had some 65 Indian elephants in his army in 319 B.C.

Antigonus joined Alcetas’ forces to his own, giving him by far the strongest army in the empire. As for Alcetas, he tried to find refuge in the strongly fortified town of Termessus. But the city elders refused him sanctuary, and were prepared to turn him over to Antigonus. The proud brother of Perdiccas, who had scorned alliance with Eumenes and who was alone to blame for his own demise, now took his own life rather than be at the scant mercy of his enemy. Antigonus refused his body burial, leaving his corpse to feed the crows. But the Termessians, once the army had withdrawn, buried him with honors.

Thus ended the war against Perdiccas, the final conflict of the First War of the Diadochi. The second was to follow very quickly on its heels.


That war would break out again so close on the heels of the first can be attributed to the ambition of one man, and the manipulations of another.

Antigonus had the bit firmly in his teeth. After years of sitting on the sidelines, watching younger players gain glory, riches, and power in the wars of Alexander and the more recent struggles since the conqueror’s death, he was now at last center-stage and in the leading-man’s role. He had the most powerful army in the empire, and his recent successes had assured their loyalty. He was growing used to absolute authority, and while he might have taken orders from Antipater, an officer even more senior than himself; he was not about to subordinate himself to a second-rate player like Polysperchon. The kings who the regent represented were a boy (and only half Macedonian at that) and an idiot. Why should he take orders from either?

His burgeoning ambition rendered him receptive to  the son of Antipater’s sly blandishments.

Cassander now takes his place in the game in a major way, and this is a good place to stop and take a hard look at the new player.

He is the seducer and master manipulator. A man devoid of scruples, Cassander played his hand well throughout, besting stronger forces and beating players holding better cards at every turn. It bears remembering that Cassander was ever the outsider, welcome only in his father’s company and had risen only because of their kinship. Alexander had neither trusted nor liked him. As mentioned above, their mutual enmity likely dated back to their childhood, where boys of high station joined the royal heir (Alexander) in the classroom at the temple of the Nymphs at Mieza, with  Aristotle their tutor. Throughout his reign as king Alexander favored those men who had shared this classroom with him. They accompanied him into Asia on his long anabasis to India and back; and most attained high rank in the process.

All but Cassander.

As a son of Antipater, who Alexander left behind as regent of Macedon in his absence, it would be expected that Cassander would accompany his contemporaries on the grand adventure. If for no other reason than as surety for his father’s loyalty, one would have expected Alexander to have found a place for Cassander. That he conspicuously did not is testament to the deepest dislike the young king had for his company. (Cassander had also been “sickly”, both as a boy and as a young man. It was an old custom among the Macedonians that a young man couldn’t take his place among the men, reclining at supper, till he had killed a wild boar at hunt, without the help of nets. Throughout his life Cassander attended his father and others sitting upright, while they reclined; a sign he was never able to fulfill this symbolic right of passage.)

At the end of his journey Alexander returned to Babylon, where Cassander attended him as his father’s representative. His audience with the king went spectacularly wrong. His boorish arrogance towards the Persians and those Macedonians who wore Persian robes at court so enraged Alexander that the king leapt from the throne in the midst of the audience, and threw Cassander to the ground.

After this humiliation, Cassander had slunk back to Pella, and was thus absent for Alexander’s last days. But his brother, Iollas, remained behind in Babylon as Alexander’s cup-bearer. A theory developed afterwards, during the early struggles of the Diadochi, likely originating from the orbit of the dead king’s mother, Olympias; that following Cassander’s departure from Babylon his brother had poisoned the king.

This theory has been, for the most part, rejected by modern scholars. But it was widely believed by many at the time and since. It speaks, if nothing else, to the known enmity Cassander bore the dead king. He feared and hated Alexander, and it was said that in later years when he passed a bust of the king, he shuddered.

But now the discarded and long detested Cassander was taking his place in the sun. He had a weak hand, the only card he had to play being the loyalty to his father’s memory borne by the various oligarchs placed in their positions of power in the cities of Greece during Antipater’s regency. This would prove a powerful trump.

Antigonus received Cassander as refugee in the autumn of 319 BC, and after some correspondence and exchange of envoys, a coalition was cobbled together to oppose the regency of Polyperchon. This alliance of convenience included Lysimachus, satrap of Thrace, and Ptolemy of Egypt.

Little has been heard of Lysimachus up till this point. By nature a cautious man, he had avoided the earlier turmoil that had devoured a host of more prominent actors who’d (however briefly) taken center stage. Busy with the affairs of his backwoods satrapy, he watched and waited, and will in the future play a much more prominent role in this “game of thrones”. For now he was tacitly allied against Polyperchon; but he would do little to aid his partners in coming struggles, betting little and losing nothing.

Ptolemy had been the chief agent of Perdiccas’ downfall, for practical purposes his nemesis. His reward had been confirmation of his control of Egypt. His contribution to this new war would also be meager, as his chief concern was in reinforcing his power base rather than expansion.

It would be Cassander and Antigonus who would prosecute the  struggle against the regent Polysperchon. The two had little trust in each other, and both likely knew this marriage of convenience made them uneasy bedfellows. So it was agreed to separate and divide their efforts: Cassander would prosecute the war against Polysperchon in Europe, while Antigonus would remain in Asia Minor, consolidating his control of the the satrapies loyal to the regent and containing Eumenes in Nora.

Their open declaration of war against Polysperchon came in the form of Antigonus, who had seized the city of Ephesus, taking possession of a shipment of six hundred talents of silver bullion  (worth six-and-a-half million dollars today) from the royal treasury at Cyinda in Cilicia, which Aeschylus of Rhodes had been escorting to Polysperchon in Pella. Such defiance of the regent’s authority (and legitimacy) was a gauntlet thrown in his face.

In the process of  taking Ephesus and other cities in Lydia and Ionia, Antigonus had expelled the satrap, Cleitus the White, victor in the naval battles of the Lamian War against the Athenians[8]. Cleitus departed with his fleet intact, sailing to Macedon where he alerted the regent of Antigonus’ moves against him and enlisted himself to Polysperchon’s cause.

Antigonus next sent an army against Arrhidaeus, the satrap of Hellespontine Phrygia. This was the same general who had diverted Alexander’s funeral carriage to Egypt in defiance of Perdiccas’ orders; and by doing so precipitated the First War of the Diadochi. Now, on the eve of the Second War, he had at the death of Antipater attempted to enlarge his power by seizing the free city of Cyzicus; strongly located on a peninsula jutting into the Sea of Marmara.

Arrhidaeus had been, briefly, co-regent for the kings and one of their custodians; this after the death of Perdiccas, as the army marched to Triparadeisos[9]. He seems to have harbored ambitions to challenge Antigonus in Asia, for he had amassed a large force: aside from the 1,000 “Macedonians” likely assigned to him as his satrapal garrison/guard, he had hired 10,000 mercenary infantry (likely Greek hoplites and/or peltasts), 500 “Persian” archers and slingers, and 800 cavalry, and “all kinds of missiles, catapults both for bolts and for stones, and all the other equipment proper for storming a city”.[10]

Screenshot (179)

Arriving unexpectedly with his forces before Cyzicus, he demanded the city accept a garrison with their walls. But the citizens resisted, even arming slaves to help man their walls, and appealled to nearby Byzantium for aid. Rebuffed, Arrhidaeus withdrew to Cius, while garrisoning those towns and cities under his control, and sent a force to give aid to Eumenes.

His activities and hostility drew the attention of Antigonus, who used this action against a free city, taken without his sanction as the strategos (General) in charge of Asia, as excuse to attack and remove him. Antigonus marched north, and Arrhidaeus was bottled up in Cius, under blockade if not siege.

Meanwhile, for his part Cassander began to lay the ground work for a return to Europe. Antigonus lent him the forces to help in his endeavor, some 4,000 troops and 35 ships.  The first step was to suborn the support of the oligarchic rulers his father Antipater had installed in nearly every city in Greece. He wrote letters to all, declaring his intent to return as his father’s true successor. In Athens the Macedonian garrison in the harbor of Piraeus, placed their following the Lamian War, declared for Cassander and placed his friend Nicanor [11] in command.

To counter the expected defection of the  oligarch leaders to the son of their late patron, Polysperchon now took a bold diplomatic stroke. In the name of King Philip, he declared the Greek cities “free” of their oligarchs, and urged them to throw off their shackles. To further this, he granted amnesty to all Greeks exiled after their defeat in the Lamian War. He warned the oligarchs to step aside, and the cities to implement the King’s decree or face his wrath. To sweeten the deal for Athens, the jewel in the crown of Greek cities and now threatened directly by Cassander’s men in the Piraeus, he granted the return of the island of Samos; once a colony of Athens but freed by Alexander’s famous “Exiles Decree” in 324 B.C.

The situation in Greece was now one in which the poorer elements in every polis, by-and-large, were with Polysperchon and “democracy”. The richer citizens, who benefited under the oligarchical regimes established by Antipater, sided (for the most part) with Cassander.

In an effort to cut off Antigonas and Cassander from recruiting Greek mercenaries (who, other than native Macedonians, were the only reliable heavy infantry to be had, and the lifeblood of every Diadochi army[12]) the regent also issued an edict aimed at the Greek cities under his rival’s control, in the name of the kings, that “no one must serve as a soldier or in any other capacity against us on penalty of exile, for himself and his family, and the forfeiture of their property”. However, with control of Hellas shifting back-and-forth over the coming months between Polysperchon and his enemies, this decree had negligible effect on the flow of manpower to his opponents. The demand was unlimited, and mercenary captains would continue to recruit men in Taenarum, and fill their companies with a ready supply of men. 

Meanwhile, Antigonus made one last attempt to conciliate Eumenes and bring him over to his service. He sent Eumenes’ kinsman, Hieronymus of Cardia, to Nora where the Cardian was blockaded. The Macedonians besieging the place allowed Hieronymus to enter with their master’s message in hand. Eumenes read the terms, which bound him personally by oath to serve Antigonus in return for his freedom. The ever-wily Greek cleverly amended the oath, to one where his allegiance was given Antigonus only as general in service to the kings. Meaning, only so long as Antigonus was loyal to the kings, which practically meant loyal to the regent. Consulting with Antigonus’ captains commanding the besieging forces, these saw no harm in the current form of the oath, and allowed it. After all, loyalty “to the kings” was what they were all about, right?

Thus Eumenes gained his freedom from confinement in Nora. Antigonus was furious when he learned of the amended oath. But Eumenes was again at large, and it was too late to put the bird back into the cage. Leaving the fortress with a mere 500 followers, Eumenes quickly gathered to his banner several thousand survivors from his former army, who had since been roaming the countryside as little better than bandits. He soon received a welcome overture from Polysperchon the regent.

Polysperchon’s letter, in the name of the royal family, asked Eumenes to aid them against the ambitions of Antigonus. It offered him either a share in the regency if he returned to Macedon; or to remain in Asia as strategos for the kings in Asia, charged with prosecuting the war against Antigonus. To this purpose the letter authorized him to take charge of the royal treasury in Cyinda in Cilicia, along with the elite troops guarding it: the celebrated Silver Shields.

Eumenes chose the later course, and the history of the Second War of the Diadochi is that of the duel between Eumenes and Antigonus, arguably the two greatest commanders to emerge in the aftermath of Alexander’s death.

Before going further, though, it should be noted that at this juncture Polysperchon made two fatal mistakes. The first was, while elevating Eumenes to commander of the “royal” forces in Asia he had overlooked and failed to reverse the death sentence passed against Eumenes by the Macedonians in the aftermath of Perdiccas’ fall. This would leave Eumenes ever laboring under this cloud, which could in theory be executed at any time by even the Macedonian lieutenants within his own army.

The second great error, one which would undermine his own authority as regent, was to reach out to Olympias, mother of Alexander, whose grandson  Alexander IV was in his care (along with her mother, Roxana). Polysperchon invited her to return from exile in Epiros and take over the guardianship of the toddler king. The spider-queen, on advice from Eumenes, demurred for now. But she began laying plans for a return to Pella and to a power long denied her. When she made her move, Polysperchon would no-doubt regret his invitation.



  1. “The Old Rope” was Olympias’ disparaging nickname for Antipater.
  2. Antipater is first recorded in the service of Philip II in 342 BC, when the king appointed him as regent while Philip himself was campaigning for the next 3 years in Thrace. He obviously had been in royal service much longer, serving in more junior capacities. He served Alexander in this same capacity, then both Alexander IV and Philip III till his death.
  3. Upper Macedonia is the highland regions to the west and north west of the Axios Valley, the heart of ancient Macedonia. These various highland kingdoms were loosely affiliated with Macedon till the reign of Philip II; when he united the kingdom under a strong central government. Tymphaia, nestled in the foot hills and valleys between the Pindos Mountains and Mount Olympus, was first part of Epirus. But around 350 BC it was annexed to Macedon by Philip.
  4. See Part 8
  5. For Menon’s role in the Lamian War, see Part 3 and Part 4
  6. Tarn, W. W., The Cambridge Ancient History; Vol. Six, Ch. XV, p. 471.
  7. Polyainos, Strategemata; IV 6,7
  8. See Part 4
  9. See Part 7 and Part 9
  10. Diodorus Siculus, Book XVIII, 51, 1
  11. The identity of this Nicanor is debated. Heckel identifies as many as five possible candidates. He may have been the same who commanded Alexander’s short-lived Aegean squadron, which took part in the siege of Miletus. This is an attractive suggestion, in that it would explain Cassander’s lieutenant’s experience in naval command, which he would be entrusted with again in 318 BC. Alternately, he may have been Nicanor son of Balacrus the Bodyguard of Alexander. If so, his mother may have been Phila, daughter of Antipater and thus he would be Cassander’s nephew. Another Nicanor, from Stageira and the nephew of Aristotle, is still another candidate; and could in fact also be one-in-the-same as the son of Balacrus. See Heckel, Waldemar, Who is Who in the Age of Alexander; p. 176-178.
  12. The question of whether or not the ancient Macedonians were “Greek” is one hotly debated today. Though certainly a people on the edge of Hellas, and with a veneer of Hellenization, all ancient sources make a clear distinction between the Macedonians and “the Greeks”. The royal family, the Argeadae, were transplants from Argos and possessed of Heracleidae blood; and thus an exception, true “Hellenes”. But the southern Greeks looked upon the Macedonians as semi-barbarians, and the Macedonians saw their southern neighbors as effete dandies.  
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Unique among the territories of the Western Roman Empire in the 5th century, Britain succeeded in holding back and even reversing the tide of Germanic conquest for nearly two centuries. This was an age of heroes… It was the Age of Arthur!

This is the twentieth-part of our discussion of Britain in the 5th though the mid-6th Century A.D. It is a fascinating period, with the Classical civilization of Greece and Rome giving way to the Germanic “Dark Ages”; the sunset of Celtic-Roman culture in Britain.

(Read Part Nineteen here. Or start from the beginning, with Part One!)


The Battle of Mons Badonicus (Badon Hill) was over. The greatest army the Anglo-Saxon powers had ever gathered together, with the intent of once-and-for-all putting paid to their Romano-Celtic enemies in the west; which had marched under the standards of at least three Saxon kings (the Bretwalda, Ælle of the South Saxons or Sussex, Oisc of Kent, and Cerdic of the West Saxons) and numerous chieftains and warlords across the south of Britain to Bath, and laid siege to that city; had been broken on the slopes of nearby Badon Hill by one fearsome charge of Arthur and his Combrogi. The ninth century chronicler, Nennius, tells us of Arthur’s charge:

“… in it nine hundred and sixty (Saxon) men fell in one day, from a single charge of Arthur’s, and no-one lay them low save he alone.”

We have no idea how many of the Saxon host survived the pursuit and slaughter that followed. But it is unlikely that many lived to return to their homes in the eastern part of the island or beyond the sea. An entire generation of Anglo-Saxon warriors was that day decimated, and 50 plus years of conquests reversed.


Arthur had won a great victory at Badon. At a time when everywhere Germanic warriors were carving-up the carcass of the Roman Empire and founding kingdoms within its former boundaries, in Britain the native resistance had succeeded in throwing back the invaders. Under first Ambrosius Aurelianus and then Arthur, the last glimmer of Roman civilization was kept alive, and the barbarian tide held at bay.

Yet the price had been high: the loss of nearly everything the victors had taken-up arms to defend. “Ambrosius and Arthur had fought to restore the Roman civilization into which they had been born. But in most of Britain, the society of their fathers was ruined beyond repair.”[1]  

The rich lowlands of the south and east, always the most Romanized areas of the former province, were devasted. The Roman cities and country villas that had dotted the landscape were long sacked and lay in ruins. The Romano-Celtic residents that, since the organization of Britannia following the Claudian invasion of the island in the 1st century, had farmed, traded, or otherwise conducted business here were long dead, immigrated west or beyond the sea, or enslaved by the Anglo-Saxon conquerors. 

Restoring the Roman province of Britain as a single entity was now the task left to Arthur and his victorious Combrogi [2]

How successful was Arthur in this endeavor? 

We don’t know. The details of this period have been lost to history. But that Arthur left the island in a far better state than it was prior to his birth, and likely better than it had been since at least the late 3rd century under Roman rule; is attested to indirectly by the chronicler, Gildas. Who, growing-up during that age and writing some decades after, and who is our lone near-contemporary source, looked back upon the age of Arthur’s reign with nostalgia. As a time of stable government, when “rulers, public persons and private, bishops and clergy, each kept their proper station“; when the “restraints of truth and justice” were still observed. It was a time of well-ordered government and society, a renaissance perhaps of Roman civilization made possible under the strong leadership of Arthur. 

It lasted as long as Arthur and those who fought in the Saxon wars still lived, about a generation. It was followed by a slow disintegration of national unity and fragmentation back into petty kingdoms. The lands of “Logres“,  the low lands of central and southern Britain long occupied or threatened by the Anglo-Saxon invaders, freed by Arthur’s victories and rebuilt as the center of his realm, once again reverted to the rule of the Anglo-Saxons in the decades after his death. 

But for some twenty years following Badon, Britain enjoyed a kind of golden age, which in time  spawned the many legends of Arthur and “Camelot”. 


How Arthur took possession of and ordered his realm following his final great victory over the invaders is of course unknown. But we can speculate intelligently, and as throughout this series, attempt to build a narrative that both follows the facts (few as those may be) and explains as best we can the unknowable. In essence, to create a working, sensible hypothesis. 

Let us start by looking at the island in the early years of the sixth century, immediately following the destruction of the Saxon forces at Badon.[3] 

Britainnia 516

Before Badon the island had been roughly divided into three parts: the western portion, divided into Celtic tribal kingdoms; the eastern region, ruled by Anglo-Saxon warlords and kings; and the debatable lands between the two. This latter region stretched from the midlands in the north (likely through the Pennines) down to the marshes of Hampshire in the south. Mostly depopulated by the previous generation of desultory warfare between the two races, it was dotted with encroaching Anglo-Saxon settlements and the occassional British hillfort, still holding out as islands of resistance.

As leader of the Romano-Celtic resistance, Arthur had spent years beating-back the ever-creeping Germanic settlement of the debatable lands, and engaged in the occassional raid into Saxon lands. The unexpected, almost miraculous victory at Badon left the Saxon kingdoms of southern Britain bereft of defenders. The scale of the defeat stripped the Germanic settlements of every able-bodies male of military age, as well as the Saxon leadership. Kings, thegns, and humble carls had all marched off to what was supposed to be the final despoiling of the west. Their deaths (or capture, which is tantamount to the same thing in this circumstance) left a temporary vacuum; an opportunity that would never come again to role back the invasion and restore Logres. 

In the hours and days immediately after the battle, Arthur’s horsemen would have pursued the fugitives relentlessly. Most would have found no shelter within which to reorder, and been harried and cut down relentlessly. Exhausted men on foot, fleeing a battle, are especially vulnerable to pursuit and slaughter by horsemen. Likely most of the Saxon army perished or were captured in these sanguine hours. Only Cerdic, whose stronghold was relatively near at hand within the southern Hampshire marshes, could have gotten clear with the survivors of his warband intact.[4] The men of Sussex and Kent had no such easy refuge, and most would have perished.

Returning to Bath, Arthur would have needed some time after Badon to rest his forces and organize the next step. It would take careful planning, followed by bold, audacious action.

Dividing his forces into several columns for ease of supply and rapidity of movement, Arthur would have advanced eastward, north and south of the Thames. His main thrust, aimed at distant Londinium, the former Roman capital of the province, would under other circumstances have followed the same road likely used by Ælle’s army in their march west: the so-called Devil’s Highway. This unnamed Roman road, an extension of the Port Way from Bath to Silchester, was the main east-west route south of the Thames for centuries before and centuries after Arthur.

But the passage of Ælle’s forces in the previous weeks would have stripped the area bare of what little supplies may have been available. (As much of the region between Bath and Silchester was “debatable lands” disputed by both parties for a generation, human habitation was already scarce before Aelle’s invasion.) We can only speculate, again; but a military leader of Arthur’s abilities would have eschewed this route in favor of one both less obvious and which a flying column of horsemen could find fodder and forage. Since it was important to keep a sword in the Saxon’s back and prevent them reorganizing, Arthur likely sent a detachment of horsemen that way to scatter any pockets of gathering resistance. 

Arthur may also have tasked one of his officers, perhaps Cei or Bedwyr, or even Cador of Dumnonia, to gather supplies and follow-on with a larger force of horse and foot, with attendant supply wagons; to advance methodically down this road, “policing up” prisoners, destroying Saxon settlements (abandoned or still occupied), and to meet him at Londinium. Such a force was a logical precaution, both to secure the area south of the Thames and to make sure that Cerdic had indeed skulked off to return to his marshes, and would be no immediate threat.

Screenshot (171)

Arthur, with the bulk of the Combrogi and extra supplies on baggage horses, would lead the flying column north of the Thames. His route would take him first back north, up the Fosse Way and through the Costwolds to Corinium Dobunnorum (Cirencester). From there, his band would transfer to Akeman Street, the east-west road north of the Thamesm, which connected the Fosse Way to Watling Street at  Verulamium (St. Albans). At Verulamium Arthur would turn again, galloping for Londinium. 

Once the capital of the Roman province of Britannia, boasting some 60,000 residents, Londinium was a city in decay if not ruin. Spared the initial sack and slaughter that had befell many smaller towns in the days following the great Saxon mutiny against Vortigern in the 450s (the “Saxon Terror“, see Part Five), if Londinium was indeed still a functioning city (and it is uncertain that it was still inhabited by 500 AD) it was likely maintained as a tributary city of the surrounding Saxon kings. Perhaps for purposes of trade an open city, where traders from across the Channel and North Sea were free to bring their highly prized goods. But the economy of the island and its trade with the mainland had been badly impacted by the chaos and wars of the last half-century. Trade required peace and order, both long absent in Britain as well as the rest of the former Western Empire. Once thriving Londinium was now an island precariously surrounded by Anglo-Saxon settlement. 

Did it open its gates to Arthur’s victorious horsemen? Again, if still inhabited and functioning, almost certainly. Word of the disaster inflicted upon the Saxon forces in the west would have undoubtedly preceded Arthur’s sudden arrival. On the other hand, he may have found a largely abandoned ruin, with few if any inhabitants still living within its crumbling walls. Whatever the case, when the rest of the British forces arrived in the weeks following, they would have likely been put to work strengthening the fortifications and making the place once again habitable. 

At some time following Badon, Arthur likely sent out emissaries to his beaten foes. Riders bearing signs of peace (perhaps birch branches) rode into the now weakly-held strongholds of Jutes of Kent, the South Saxons of Sussex, and the Anglish of Norfolk. Inviting them to a great peace conference, the first between the British and the Germanic invaders in a generation. 

The last such peace conference has ended in blood and murder.[5]  The “night of the long knives”, where the leadership of Roman Britain was murdered. Vortigern and Hengist had agreed to make peace. At the celebratory feast each Saxon thegn was seated beside a Briton officer and official. As the evening drew on, with many toasts to renewed friendship and peace, the Saxons were careful to imbibe but sparingly.


At some point, Hengist raised his drinking cup in a final toast. This was the signal: as the British officers drank deep to peace, the Saxons pulled out their daggers and fell upon the Britons beside them, slaughtering all. Only Vortigern himself was spared. The leadership of the Romano-British state was decapitated, and the southeast of Britain subsequently ceded to the Saxons by Vortigern in return for his release. 

These events, 50 some years before, must have been in the back of the minds of all who attended Arthur’s conference. But the atmosphere now was very different. Arthur was no fool like Vortigern, and the now beaten Saxons had no wily Hengist to lead them. 

Where the great peace conference following Badon occurred; who attended; and for how long it lasted is unknown. Londinium, after he took possession, is as good a place as any in Britain: close to the enemy’s enclaves, and symbolically the heart of the island. Attendees likely included the Celtic kings of the west and north as far as Strathclyde (or their representatives); and the new leaders of the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms. Among these was Arthur’s friend, Cado of Dumnonia; and the grandson of Hengist,  Octa of Kent. The Anglian kingdom of East Anglia had not yet coalesced under the Wuffingas, but whatever warlord ruled the North Folk likely came to Arthur’s conference as well.

In the end, Arthur imposed upon them all his authority, and redrew the borders of Britain.


Arthur receives the homage of Briton, Pict, and Saxon leader, hailed as Emperor

The island was to be partitioned. This would not have set well with some, but it was a practical solution that would end a generational war to the knives between Celt and German, and reestablish a working state throughout Britain, as hadn’t been seen since Vortigern. There is no direct evidence for this. But Gildas indirectly refers to the resulting division of the island, writing a generation later of the lamentable lugubri divortio barbarorumthe “melancholy partition with the barbarians”; which prevented the British from visiting some of the shrines of Christian martyrs, now in Anglo-Saxon territories. In Gildas words can be detected the first hint of disaffection among the Christian Britons with Arthur’s policies; which would grow in the western highlands as Arthur’s reign drew on and he was less-and-less seen as their champion against the heathen, and more the distant lowland overlord, his hand heavy on their affairs.

It is likely that the defeated Germans were allowed to remain in Kent, Sussex, and Norfolk. Archeological evidence points to their continued presence in the far eastern portion of the island during this period, even as it retreated in the former “debatable lands”. These Anglo-Saxon petty kingdoms were roughly analogous to the old Roman military district known as the Saxon Shore.  This was the district facing the North Sea and eastern Channel coast, where “Saxon” raiders in Roman times were most  likely to make landfall. In early chapters we have postulated that the chain of Roman forts along the coast here were themselves garrisoned by Anglo-Saxon foederati. It was common late Roman practice to set “barbarians” on the boarders of the empire to check the advances of other barbarians. But Arthur’s settlement didn’t return the Anglo-Saxons to foederati. They would be allowed to stay in Britain (the only home most of them had ever known) as Laeti; communities of barbari granted land in imperial territory on condition they live peacefully with their Roman neighbors, and provide recruits for the Roman army. 


Thus, the Anglo-Saxon kings would be vassals of the British ameraudur [6]. As would the Celtic petty-kings of the west and north, whom Arthur had led in war for a decade. For as Arthur and his companions established peace on the island, and set about restoring the order they remembered from the past, the only model they would have had was the Roman imperial system. With imperial rectors appointed by Arthur running the civil administration of the provinces, supported by prefects and procurators. With military districts run by duces (Cado for one, petty-king of Dumnonia, becomes one of Arthur’s duces under the new imperial structure), and mobile forces commanded by comites. And over them all, an emperor, in Welsh “ameraudur”.  The obvious title for Arthur, former dux bellorum of the British resistance, now victorious conqueror at the head of a loyal army, was emperor

How well this new arrangement and return to civil authority, however imposed by military force, sat with the quarrelsome Celtic lords of the west country and highlands of Cumbria and the north can only be guessed at. But we can imagine that many took umbrage at becoming the vassal of their erstwhile general. Particularly as their usurped powers, taken on in the absence of Roman civil government, were during Arthur’s reign curtailed and returned to civil authority. 

Most of the Welsh poems and ecclesiastical traditions, and later Medieval legends of Arthur, come out of this period, the 20 some years of his reign. Many of these highland sources portray him not as their beloved war leader in the national effort to throw back the barbarian. Instead, he is often portrayed as lowland tyrant, cruel and even lascivious and at odds with church authorities and saints. When not hated or feared he is seen as a remote overlord, the all-powerful lowland overlord surrounded by soldiers, sometimes helpful and other times at odds with the local highland princes and heroes. His authority extends across the island, into Cornwall and Wales and even beyond the Clyde and Forth. 

It is from this period, when Arthur was overlord of Britain that the legends penned in later centuries drew from and referred to. Including his supposed seat of power, where he held court: Camelot

A realm like Arthur’s, cobbled together out of the debris and destruction of long war, could perforce have no one place where the ruler sat in judgement. Arthur no doubt spent much of his reign in the saddle, visiting the various petty realms that comprised his “empire”; and where he sat he held court. The Norman romances, drawing on earlier native sources, name some of these: London, Luguvalium (Carlisle in Cumbria), Caerleon in south Wales (in Roman times Isca Augusta or Isca Silurum).

But one, Camelot (sometimes in Medieval sources spelled Camalot) was his most frequent residence. As noted above, an incipient realm such as Arthur’s, rising as it did out of conquered lands and from the ashes of the former Roman province, was not one that could be ruled from one place. But Camelot was as close to a capital as he could enjoy. 

There is no such place, spelled that way, anywhere in Britain. But a likely location whose name closely resembles this is Camulodunum (Colchester). The “Stronghold of Camulos” (a Celtic war god the Romans identified with Mars), was well-located as an advance base to keep an eye on the Anglo-Saxon settlements and (now) subject kingdoms of the Saxon Shore. From here he could maintain the new borders between Logres and the barbarian lands along the coast. 

But a restored Romano-British kingdom of Britain was one that would not last. As Ireland would find throughout its long history; as Gaul had found in the time of Caesar; the Celts are more happy divided than united, fighting each other as readily as any invader. Celtic Britain was no exception, and like Brian Boru 500 years later, the unity Arthur imposed would not long outlive him. 




  1. Morris, John (1973), The Age of Arthur, Ch 6, p 114. 
  2. Welsh: meaning companions, countrymen, or comrades-in-arms. In this context it refers to Arthur’s household cavalry, similar to the bucellarii of late Roman generals. 
  3. Like so much else regarding Arthur, the date of Badon is disputed. I have chosen to follow the Annales Cambriae date of 516 AD, although 493 and 501 are equally plausible. 
  4. For Cerdic’s role in the Badon campaign, see Part Nineteen
  5. See Part Five.
  6. Emperor
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The British soldier has come to be nicknamed “Tommy Atkins”. It is therefore only fitting that a photographer named Thom Atkinson took these series of photos, demonstrating the evolution of the British soldier’s kit throughout the ages. From the Battle of Hastings to patrolling in Helmand Province, this is what Tommy Atkins carried and wore as he marched off to war!




























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There are very few periods of history which surpass the Napoleonic Era for the variety and splendor of the uniform of its combatants. This is particularly striking, counterpoised against the brutal and sanguine nature of battles in this period.

For fans of this period (and of my ongoing series, Napoleon’s Last Campaign), here is a visual presentation of the uniforms of this splendid period.


French infantry of the line

Chasseurs of the Guard


French Artillery A



dragoons 3Carbineers



Chasseurs a chavalEmpreses Dragoons 2




Gaurd artillery

French Marshals

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Unique among the territories of the Western Roman Empire in the 5th century, Britain succeeded in holding back and even reversing the tide of Germanic conquest for nearly two centuries. This was an age of heroes… It was the Age of Arthur!

This is the Nineteenth-part of our discussion of Britain in the 5th though the mid-6th Century A.D. It is a fascinating period, with the Classical civilization of Greece and Rome giving way to the Germanic “Dark Ages”; the sunset of Celtic-Roman culture in Britain.

(Read Part Eighteen here. Or start from the beginning, with Part One!)


Geoffrey of Monmouth states that Arthur was in the north, at Alclud, subduing the “Scots and Picts”. Alclud is obviously Alt Clut, the original name for Dumbarton Rock,  the chief stronghold of Strathclyde. This meshes well with the scenario described here previously, in which Arthur is in the north fighting outlaws (the “Dog-Heads”) and Angle pirates near Din Eidyn (Edinburgh) at the battles of Tribruit/ Tryfrwyd and Agned Hill (Nennius’ 10th and 11th battles). News of Ælle’s invasion would have reached him there, likely before the Saxons crossed the Thames at Londinium; a trading town, and traders are always willing to sell information in time of war to both sides. Word of the gathering of longships and warriors in Kent would not have gone unnoticed in any case, and the Britons in the south would have been laying in supplies and preparing for the worst.

Whether Arthur was still at Din Eidyn following the victory at Agned Hill (identified earlier as the volcanic rock known as Arthur’s Seat at Edinburgh; see Part Seventeen), or had moved to Alt Clut in Strathclyde as Geoffrey suggests; he was in the north and had to cover some 450-500 miles (depending on location and route) as quickly as possible. Speed was essential!

1584870.jpgThis was an existential crisis of the first order. If Badon/Bath fell to the Saxons, Romano-Britain would be cut in two. Arthur’s own native kingdom of Dumnonia would be isolated, and a fatal blow struck to British unity.

Losing no time, Arthur and his Combrogi (and perhaps some picked mounted men from among the northern petty-kings who owed him favors and allegiance) rode southward post-haste! At a controlled canter, a cavalry force can safely travel 60 miles in a day; and somewhat more if able to change mounts. Arthur’s mailed Combrogi likely rode the largest horses available to a Roman heavy cavalryman (15 – 16 hands); and such horses were in limited supply. This said, if we assume that Arthur’s men were able to change mounts, traveling the excellent paved Roman roads, a week’s hard riding  would bring him to Bath.

There were roughly two routes by which Arthur could ride south, on either side of the the Pennines, the spine of hills that run through the center of Britain. The likely route he took was the eastern one, which would take him south of the Wall into the British kingdom of Elmet and through Eboracum/York. Following mainly Dere Street as far south as Yorkshire, where it joined the Roman Ridge Road near Eburacum. At modern Templeborough in South Yorkshire, Arthur would have switched to Icknield Street; which finally joined the Fosse Way near modern Bourton-on-the-Water, in Gloustershire.

Now a picturesque Cotswolds town on the River Windrush (“the Venice of the Cotswolds”), in Roman times this was the site of a Roman posting station, and the small village that had grown up around it. From here, Arthur was but 51 miles from his destination. It was here, perhaps, that he received the ominous confirming news:  Badon was invested and under siege!


Ælle and the Anglo-Saxon forces arrived before Badon/Bath in late August. He would have found the countryside deserted, the local Britons having fled the area or taken refuge in the town. As his army moved into position around the place, cutting it off from outside contact, the Bretwalda would have called a war council of his chieftains. Together, they would consider the best way to take the town.

1584859.jpgAll Roman cities had defensive walls. The normal pattern was a rectangle, all the streets laid out in a regular grid of right-angle streets. The defenses consisted of a masonry circuit wall supported by towers at regular intervals. In many (but not all) cases, small bolt-throwing machines, scorpions, were mounted upon the towers or walls.

Bath/Badon was no exception.

1584860.jpgExample of a fortified Roman gateway.



Roman Bath (Badon)

While the Saxons were unsophisticated in the arts of siegecraft (what the Greeks called poliorketica) they had three relatively effective ways of capturing such strong places when necessary.

The first method was merely to surround the town or fort, and prevent the defenders from being resupplied from the outside. Given time, most places could eventually be starved into submission. This tactic, though, was a double-edged sword. The Saxons (like most “barbarian” armies of the Dark Ages) had at best a rudimentary grasp of logistics. A “barbarian” army on campaign lived off  pillaging the surrounding countryside. When an area was picked-clean, the army perforce needed to move on or starve (along with the surviving locals). Sitting down to a lengthy siege risked running out of food supplies even sooner than the defenders within the town/fort; who, unless  taken completely by surprise or at the end of a long winter, likely had emergency supplies stockpiled for just such occasion. (At Aquae Sulis/Badon the town fathers would have had ample time to lay in supplies in anticipation of Ælle’s coming.) Finally, given the poor hygiene and sanitation of Germanic barbarian armies in general and the Saxons in particular, camp pestilence was an even greater threat than enemy weapons! (It should be remembered that up till the 20th century more soldiers perished on campaign from disease and sickness than from wounds.)

The second way of eliminating a fortified British town or hillfort was simply to occupy the neighborhood near a British town, establishing burhs. From these, the Saxons could harry the countryside, killing  or taking-off the peasants who worked the fields that fed the town. The Saxon ceorls would set up their own farms around their burhs, putting British peasants to work as thralls. Meanwhile, these bad neighbors would periodically raid the nearby town and its environs, making normal life so untenable that the town’s citizens would in time move away to more hospitable places (usually to the west).  By this tactic many of the towns of Roman Britain had been forced into abandonment or surrender.

1584866.jpgSaxon burh (fortified village)

The last resort was simple battery and escalade. Ladders would be set against the circuit wall, and battering ram put to the town’s gate(s). Fierce Saxon warriors would swarm up their ladders, belt-axes or the deadly knives from which their name derived in hand. Man-for-man, these fierce warriors were more than a match for any town burgher or part-time militiaman. And if the gate was battered down, the Saxons would raise their shields overhead and swarm through the gatehouse as arrows, stones, and boiling liquids were hurled down upon them.

1584864.jpgStorming a Roman fortified town in this crude, straight-forward fashion could result in terrible casualties to the attacker. Such a tactic would be used only when no other was available, or time was an issue.

Now, at Badon, time was the issue.

Ælle and his chiefs would know that the “Welsh” must soon react, particularly the nearby petty kings of Dumnonia. We have no idea from the scant accounts of Badon who were defending the place. We can assume the townsmen and perhaps the local militia. But even that much is pure conjecture. It is not unlikely, though, that at least some of these local Dumnonian lords may have rushed trained men of their own “Teulu” (household warriors) into the town at news of the Saxon approach.

But the full levy of Dumnonia would have been called up, and perhaps mustering at Cadbury Castle hillfort, some 30-plus miles to the south.  This ancient Iron Age hillfort had been refortified during this age and was likely the stronghold of a Dumnonian warlord. It would have been a natural place where the semi-professional warbands of the local lords and the militia levy of Dumnonia would gather to prepare for the relief of Badon. Its name comes from its possible founder as a stronghold in the late 5th/early 6th century: Cado. The name Cadbury means “Cado’s Fort”.

1584867.jpgSouth Cadbury Castle hill fort, Somerset

Geoffrey of Monmouth gives an important role in his account of events to “Duke Cador of Cornwall”. This character may well have been based upon the very real Dumnonian leader, Cado ap Erbin (or ap Geraint or Gerren), petty-king of a region of north Devon and perhaps “High King” of Dumnonia. As with his brother (or possible father) Geraint, he is closely associated with Arthur in the Welsh sources [1]. Both are named in the 6th century elegy on the Battle of Llongborth (describing the battle where Geraint may have been slain) and in the 6th century Life of St. Carantoc. Of all the petty-kings who were contemporaneous of Arthur, these two are the only ones we know for certain by name.

It was Cado/Cato who now likely called up the men of Dumnonia to the relief of Badon. However, the entire levy of Dumnonia would take weeks to fully muster. Time which the defenders of Badon didn’t have.

Ælle was preparing to storm the town, using his massive numerical advantage before succor could arrive from the south or west. The first two days his warriors sat before the town would  have been spent in cutting timber for ladders and for a ram. On the third day, these assembled, the Saxons moved into position.

1584868.jpgWe can recreate a likely scenario: the Saxons attacked in the early morning, at first light rushing the walls. Some no doubt were cut down by fire from the defenders on high. Once at the base of the fortifications, their ladders were raised, while crude rams hammered at the northern and western portals (the eastern wall was warded by the River Avon). The fighting would have been savage and desperate. Though in such assaults the attacker always took disproportionate casualties until gaining a lodgement atop the walls or breaking in a gate, the shear size of Ælle’s army made the end a foregone conclusion.

Badon seemed doomed.

However, before the Saxons could sweep over the battlements or batter-in the gates, help arrived from a wholly unexpected direction, from the north.

Arthur had arrived at Badon, and the dragon standard waved in the Saxon’s rear, atop Solsbury Hill! Or, as it was known locally, Badon Hill (Mons Badonicus).

Approaching Badon (Bath), Arthur would have come along the Fosse Way as it descended down the ramp-like spur of the Banner Down towards the Avon valley. Turning west off the road, he and his band would have ascended the steep slopes of Badon Hill, known today as Solsbury Hill.

Here were the remnants of an old Iron Age hillfort. From here, Arthur’s few hundred Combrogi could survey the Saxon host below, safe from sudden and overwhelming assault; while in a perfect position to threaten Ælle’s line of communications to the east.


The stage was now set for the Battle of Badon Hill, the last of Nennius 12 Battles of Arthur. But before laying out a plausible description of the battle, let us reexamine the forces and leaders involved.


According to the Anglo Saxon Chronicle,  Ælle was the first king to be called Bretwalda (“Britain Ruler”). While more a “first among equals” than a true king of all the Anglo-Saxons, he likely had the auctoritas to call a great number of the disparate Saxon kings and warlords to his standard when required. The army he brought to Bathon was undoubtedly one which included warbands from all of the Saxon (and possibly Angle) “kingdoms” in Britain.  It must have included a great number of the Anglo-Saxon warriors of Britain; in that its defeat proved decisive, stopping (and in fact pushing back) the Saxon advance in Britain for sixty years. Clearly, no small affair.

The core of Ælle’s host was composed of the elite warriors of his own household, his gesith (what the Roman writer Tacitus called a “comitatus”). Every Germanic warlord maintained a retinue of young “hearth warriors” who ate, slept, and fought beside him. In peace time he drew from their ranks his trusted officials, who helped him govern his lands. In battle they served as his elite professional frontline troops; the tip of the spear when formed in wedge, or the front ranks of any shieldwall. These pledged men would die before deserting their lord. Ælle’s three sons, Cissa, Cymen and Wlencing likely fought beside their father as well; though the eldest and heir, the Ætheling Cissa, may have had a smaller gesith of his own.

The “gesith” of a great chieftain such as Ælle may have numbered as many as 300 proven warriors. Later Scandinavian kings and jarls maintained such bodyguards, called hirðmenn/hirthmen; their numbers ranging from just thirty to sixty men for a jarl to as many as several thousand for a wealthy and powerful king such as Cnut the Great.[2] Most Anglo-Saxon chieftains in this earlier, poorer period would have had much smaller retinues; perhaps based upon the “keel”, or ship’s crew of between 30 and 60 men.


Anglo-Saxon chieftain or member of gesith; and Saxon ceorl. (Art by Jason Pope)

Along with the professional warriors of his household, Ælle would have brought the levy of free-born Saxon farmers (ceorls) of his own realm, Sussex (Kingdom of the South Saxons). In later Anglo-Saxon society, this would be called the fyrd. In these early days of constant raid-and-counter-raid between Saxon and Briton, virtually every able-bodied Saxon male was a warrior. Land and what could be grown or raised upon it was the principal coin of the realm; and would only be given to warriors capable of defending it and supporting their king in time of war. Sussex under Ælle was a dynamic and aggressive newcomer in Britain, born in blood with the sacking of Romano-British Anderitum (Pevensey Castle), traditionally dated 491 [3]. At least some of older warriors in his host may have been veterans of Ælle’s earlier victories over the hated “Welsh”.

Along with his own South Saxons, the horde Ælle brought west to Badon included the men of Kent (Cantaware), led by their own king, Oisc “Big Knife” , son or grandson of the famed Hengist .[4] Geoffrey of Monmouth (hardly a reliable source) names the Saxon leaders as Cheldric, Colgren and Balduph; but these names should be considered mere placeholders for unknown (to him) Anglo-Saxon warlords . From up-and-down the eastern coast of Britain, every Anglo-Saxon pirate, warlord, and petty-king joined Ælle in this great campaign against the Britons.

As described earlier, such an expedition against the “Welsh” would have attracted land-hungry warriors from not only Anglo-Saxon Britain, but from across the North Sea, from the homelands of the Anglo-Saxons as well. Geoffrey of Monmouth speaks of Germans being brought from across the sea to reinforce the Saxon leaders for this campaign. This no doubt reflected the actual arrival of many such “Vikings”, flocking to take part in the despoiling of Britain. As noted earlier, small numbers of Franks, Frisians, Danes, Norse and Gotar (from southern Sweden, remembered in “Beowulf” as the Geats) may have sailed to Britain as well; to take service under the Bretwalda, in anticipation of rich plunder. Dark Age warriors gathered about a successful chieftain’s standard if he showed himself a generous “gift giver”; and land was the most prized reward a chieftain could give to a follower. Much of Ælle’s motivation for making war against the Britons in the west was in fact the need for land to grant the land-hungry new-comers from across the sea that followed his standard.

One question must be asked: was Cerdic, wily leader of the West Saxons present?

As outlined earlier, Cerdic is described in these early days of the West Saxon people as an Ealdorman, “Elder Man”[5]. Ealdormen were not independent rulers; but officials answerable to an Anglo-Saxon ruler. As speculated earlier, Cerdic’s master at this stage was likely Ælle of the South Saxons.

As an officer (or vassal) of the Bretwalda, Cerdic would have been expected to answer the summons to war against the Britons. His holdings, within the marshy coastal region of Hampshire, bordered Dumnonia in the west. His warband could either march north to join Ælle’s host as it marched on Badon. Or he could move directly west, by land or sea; harrying the Dumnonian coast, distracting the Dumonians and perhaps delaying their succor of Badon. It is likely that Cerdic did one or the other: merely sitting out the war would have been to defy his master’s summons. Such an act of defiance against the most powerful ruler in Britain on the eve of what promised to be his triumphal final campaign risked not only being left out of the rich booty to be gained, but being branded a rebel against the overlord he served.

So, though we have no way of knowing if Cerdic was present at Badon, his participation in the campaign in some fashion is highly likely. But as part of Ælle’s great host besieging Badon, or as a diversionary force raiding the Dumnonian coast?  That Cerdic’s death is recorded as being in 534, nearly two decades after the battle, lends weight to the latter possibility. He clearly survived the battle; unlike so many other Anglo-Saxon’s present.

That Cerdic and the West Saxons warband might have harried the Dumnonian coast as Ælle laid siege to Badon might also explain Geoffrey of Monmouth’s contention that the Saxons came by sea; landing at Totness, near Devon:

“…[the Saxons] went on shore at Totness. No sooner were they landed, than they made an utter devastation of the country…”

Geoffrey (perhaps working from now-lost Welsh or Cornish sources) has the Saxons marching north from Totness to Badon, murdering and pillaging as they went. Could his account come from sources that confused Cerdic’s costal raid with the movement of Ælle’s main host (by land) against Badon? Or, attempting to reconcile the two separate operations, conflates them into one?

In any case, with-or-without Cerdic’s West Saxons, the savage host Ælle brought to Badon was likely the largest ever marshaled by any Anglo-Saxon leader to that date: numbering not less than 3,000 warriors, nor more than 10,000.

The “Saxon” warriors that followed Ælle would have been equipped with a round shield made of planks of linden wood, covered with tough cowhide; gripped behind a heavy projecting iron boss.  His chief weapon would have been either a light spear, useful for throwing or retaining for melee, not dissimilar to the late Roman spiculum. However, both angons (heavy throwing spears) and francisca (throwing axes) have been found in Saxon graves of this period. These were the defining weapons of the Franks; arguing both for Frankish elements in early Saxon warbands, and a cross-pollination of weapons (and techniques) in such a heterogeneous force.

As previously discussed, the hallmark weapon of a Saxon warrior was his seax. This large, single-edged utility knife was ideal for use in the close-quarters battle that resulted when shield-wall met shield-wall, or when men wrested on the ground in a death-grapple. It was also perfect for finishing-off enemy wounded littering a battlefield!


Chieftains and better-armed warriors would also carry a broadsword, the favorite weapon of the noble Germanic warrior. By the 4th century, the common sword of all Roman soldiers had become the “spatha”; the proto-broadsword formerly used only by cavalrymen. Such weapons would be re-hilted and highly decorated when captured or acquired by Anglo-Saxon warriors (as would other pieces of Roman armor, such as helms).  Such weapons transferred high status to a warrior in Germanic/Scandinavian society; and were imbued with mythic/magical properties. Famous heroes carried famous swords, which bore names of their own: Sigurd the Dragonslayer bore Gram (“wrath”), and Beowulf the sword Hrunting (“roarer”). Later Viking-Age Scandinavian swords bore names like “Leg-biter”, “Skull-splitter”, and “Peace-Breaker”.

Replica based upon Sutton Hoo sword, now in British Museum 


Poorer warriors might carry a scramsax, a longer version of the seax.

Mail shirts, called byrnies, were also items of high status, and confined to chieftains or the wealthiest of warriors.  After victorious battles against the Romans or Romano-British, mail shirts might be scavenged. But these were in short supply even amongst the British, likely only found in officers and elite cavalry units.

Battles between Germanic/Scandinavian armies started with both sides taunting each other from afar. Champions would sometimes step-out between the two sides, and challenge the enemy to meet them in single combat. Warriors would recite their noble pedigree, the deeds of their ancestors as well as their own. Far from being considered boorish, bragging was encouraged in Germanic society. A warrior won status (“word fame”) by victory in such duels, in full sight of his leader and his peers, particularly against notable enemy champions.

In battle the Saxon host would form up in one-of-two formations: either the shield-wall, a linear formation in which the warriors of the first rank overlapped their shields, forming a wall. Or, when on the attack, the “swine array” (called the “cuneus” by the Romans the) could be adopted. In this formation, the chieftain and his household warriors formed a wedge, and would attempt to penetrate and shatter an opposing enemy line. 


Once the battle began in earnest, the Saxon shieldburg or swine array advanced rapidly toward the enemy. As the distance closed to a dozen yards, those armed with throwing spears or axes would hurl these at their opponents. Then, before the enemy could recover from this barrage, the Saxons would charge forward, smashing bodily into the enemy.

A clash between opposing shieldwalls was a brutal slugfest, fought at close range, striking at the enemy from over the top (or underneath of) the warrior’s shields. It continued till one side began to give way, and eventually broke into panicked flight. In swine array, the warband would try to shatter the enemy shieldwall, penetrating and breaking the enemy line.




The British warriors who fought at Badon had come to call themselves Combrogi (or Cymry), meaning “fellow-countrymen” or “comrades”. The term “Welsh” (meaning “ foreigner”) would have been insulting to these native British warriors.

The memory of Rome was distant, though reflected in their military organization and equipment. The bulk of the army was comprised of spear-armed infantry pedyt (from the Latin pedites, or “foot”). These were militia, part-time soldiers; drawn from the farms, towns and fortress garrisons. They were likely organized in “legions” of 1,000-1,200 men each, approximately the same size and structure of legions of the late Roman army. Supporting this assumption is one version of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, which describes the 4,000 British casualties at the Battle of Creacanford as compose of “four troops”. A smaller unit, called a “cant” (likely a derivation of the Roman centuriae), consisted of 100 men; suggesting a “legion” of spearmen divided into ten cants, as with the late Roman legio.


Sub-Roman British warriors

As was the practice with the late Romans, a small number of every legio might have been armed with bows, instead of the usual lancea (light spear) or spiculum (heavy throwing spear/javelin). Auxilia cohorts of archers (sagittarii) also existed; and Britons may have continued both of these traditions into the 6th century.

The elite “professionals” of a British army were the cavalry retinues of the nobles, called teulu, or “family”. Despite their name, these were picked men from both the noble’s own tribe and, in the case of great warlords, adventurers from other lands. In this respect they were very similar to the late Roman Bucellarii. These wore mail shirts and helmets of late Roman pattern; and fought with spear/javelin and sword. However, the Romans had settled large numbers of Sarmatian heavy lancers in northern Britain. Their “horse culture” had permeated throughout the native Celtic aristocracy. As discussed previously, it is possible these and Alani cavalry settled in Armorica (Brittany) by the great Roman commander, Flavius Aetius[6], provided Arthur (and Ambrosius Aurelianus before him) with a Teulu of Sarmatian-type heavy cavalry lancers.

A sub-Roman Celtic lord dines in his hall, the soldiers of his teulu standing guard in the background

The cavalry force that Arthur brought from the north to Badon likely numbered not less than 300, nor more than 1,000.  As suggested earlier, the Combrogi of Arthur’s own teulu likely numbered around 300 at full strength. This was a standard establishment for late Roman cavalry units, called vexillatio. Contemporary Byzantine/Eastern Roman practice at the time was unchanged, though the late Roman 300-man vexillations were now called bandon.

We have postulated here earlier that Arthur’s own teulu was of the heavy lance-armed Sarmatian/Alani type; known in the late Roman army as cataphractarii.  Their role in the Roman army was both to protect the flank of the main infantry line in battle; and to provide a powerful shock weapon capable of breaking enemy formations. Such regiments of Roman cavalry were often armored in bronze and iron, sometimes including the horse as well as the man. Arthur’s Combrogi were likely more lightly armored: Britain in the late 5th century/early 6th century lacked the financial resources available to the Romans. A typical Arthurian teulu horseman was likely equipped with iron mail or scale shirt, augmented perhaps by banded (or splint) armor on all or part of their arms and legs. An iron helmet of the late Roman type, likely sporting a crest or horse-tail, protected their heads.


Their chief weapon was a lance or spear. This could have been either the two-handed, 12’-long kontos normally carried by Sarmatian-style lancers; or, alternatively, the combination of shield and a shorter, lighter single-handed spear. Arthur is many times mentioned as carrying a shield in battle, which would suggest the latter.  A military cloak would add a jaunty completeness to his panoply.

Along with the Combrogi of his own teulu, Arthur may have collected along the way south the teulu’s of other British leaders. These would have been lighter than his own, but still very useful in battle against the Saxons, who had no cavalry. These could make good the losses and attrition among his own Combrogi in the previous years of campaigning.


For Ælle, Arthur’s sudden arrival must have come as an unpleasant shock. The Bretwalda would have heard that Arthur and his vaunted horsemen were in the north, supposedly too far away to interfere with his move against Badon (Bath); the keystone to his strategy aimed at driving a wedge between the northern and southern British kingdoms. Now Arthur was on the high ground behind the Saxon army, dominating Ælle’s line of communications. Strategically, it was an unacceptable situation for the Saxon warlord.

Ælle’s reaction was likely to have pulled back from the bloody, all-out assault on Badon’s walls, and to regroup his warriors to face the new threat. Arthur’s arrival had given the defenders of Aquae Sulis a much needed respite. 

Likely leaving a portion of his forces to maintain the blockade of Badon town (perhaps King Oisc “Big Knife”, and his Kentish warriors), Ælle now moved his main force northeast, against Arthur on Badon Hill.

Bath (Badon) viewed from Solsbury Hill: from this vantage Arthur would have surveyed the siege of Badon/Aquae Sulis

Attacking uphill against a force of heavy cavalry capable of charging down at any moment was a dangerous proposition. The only way infantry can resist a charge of heavy horsemen is to maintain close-ranks, and hold steady against the horsemen’s terrible impact. This is made doubly hard by the added impetus a downward slope gives to a charging horseman and the already considerable weight of his mount (a 15 hand horse weighs in around 1,100 lbs); and for a large infantry force, keeping good order while advancing in line uphill is problematic under the best circumstances.


Slope of Solsbury/Badon Hill

Cognizant of all this, Ælle may well have halted his forces at the foot of the hill, and mulled over the best way to dislodge Arthur from atop the hill.

The Annales Cambriae say that Arthur fought at Badon carrying “the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ on his shoulders for three days and three nights…” This entry suggests a battle (or, as Gildas describes it, an “obsessio“: a siege) lasting three days; and that Arthur bore  the symbol of a cross painted on his shield. But if Badon was indeed a three days long battle, that time period might well have begun with Ælle arriving and laying siege to the town of Badon; which would also explain why Gildas refers to Badon as a siege.

Alternatively, Arthur might have camped atop Badon Hill for three days, surrounded, while Ælle considered the best way to attack him.

We know the end, but we can only guess at the details of the battle. Elaborating on the scenario we have presented, a plausible narrative of this decisive battle of the Saxon wars unfolds:

Thirty miles to the south Cado/Cato, the Dumnonian warlord whom Geoffrey of Monmouth calls “Cador, Duke of Cornwall”, is mustering the levy of Dumnonia at the refortified Iron Age hillfort, known today as Cadbury Castle. From Cadbury he can both keep an eye on Cerdic’s threatening activities, and be in place to support Badon. Now word reaches his headquarters of Arthur’s coming. It is time to move! The threat from the West Saxon’s is imminent; but events at Badon have moved quickly, and Cerdic can be dealt with another day. Cado breaks camp and marches north with whatever forces he has had time to gather to relieve Badon.

Cadbury Castle hillfort is but a day’s hard march from Badon. Ælle’s hand is forced: as to wait another day will find his forces caught between Cado’s army coming from the south and Arthur’s small but deadly band atop Badon Hill to the north. He must seize the initiative, and clear Arthur away from his line of supply (and, in the worst case, his retreat). With his rear thus secured, the Bretwalda can reunite his forces at Badon and face Cado’s Dumnonians in battle. The Bretwalda orders his warriors to assault the heights.

We can picture the Saxons forming a long and fairly thick line, many ranks deep; advancing slowly up steep sides of Mons Badonicus. Their leather-covered shields are brightly painted, and a variety of standards wave above the contingent warbands. The hill is much wider at its base, and as the Saxons climb higher up the slopes their ranks must contract; causing disorder as men jostle each other for space. The grass is bright with morning dew, or perhaps dampened by a pre-dawn downpour, common in the West Country summers. This makes the grass slippery under their feet, and the maintenance of well-ordered ranks nearly impossible.

Above, poised like an eagles ready to strike, are Arthur and his armored Combrogi. His men have tightened their saddle girths, mounted their horses, loosened their swords in scabbards, adjusted shields on arms and grip lances in hand. Their steed’s snorting breath is perhaps the only sound atop Badon Hill; or, alternately, they break into a battle song: these are the forefathers of the Welsh, after all, the sonorous singers of the Celtic race.

As the Saxons draw ever nearer, Arthur watches keenly, waiting for the moment. Like all great captains of war, he possesses the coup d’oeil, the ability to take in at a glance the situation and find the fatal weakness in the enemy’s movements. He sees that the closer the Saxons come up the slope, the more ragged grows their formation, the more winded their rank-and-file. 

The moment comes: Turning to his signaler, Arthur nods. The trooper raises horn to lips, and its high keening trill sounds atop Badon Hill. Shouting their battle cry, the Combrogi spur forward, over the lip of the hill, and down the steep slope in a glittering, thunderous charge!

They form a mighty wedge, with Arthur and his chief champions, Cei the Tall and Bedwyr “of the Perfect Sinews”, at its point. Deep into the faltering Saxon ranks they plunge, stabbing and skewering, spears and lances piercing the mail byrnies of Saxon chieftains and champions like tissue paper!  The Saxon shieldwall shatters, and in moments Ælle’s host is broken and fleeing back down the hill in panic.

What followed was bloody pursuit, and for Arthur’s victorious Britons a lifetime of vendetta and blood debt was paid back with interest!

         Heavy was he in his vengeance;

        Terrible was his fighting…

         They fell by the hundred!


Nennius tells us of Arthur’s final victory at Badon:

 “… in it nine hundred and sixty (Saxon) men fell in one day, from a single charge of Arthur’s, and no-one lay them low save he alone.”

We should not take this to imply that Arthur personally slew 960 Saxons; but that the charge of his Combrogi did such slaughter, and that no other warlord or king could claim the credit but he.

Likely the aged Ælle was among those who fell in this initial charge: Arthur would have aimed his attack, like a thrown javelin, straight at the heart of the Saxon horde; where the Bretwalda’s standard stood high. Their king dead, his sons and best men slain around him, the bonds of oath and allegiance that held this savage horde together were sundered.  What moments before had been a conquering army was now a rabble fleeing in blind terror! Close on their heels were Arthur and his ravaging Combrogi, their spitting spears and reddened swords rising and falling, cutting men down like ripe corn.

Nennius tells us of Arthur’s final victory at Badon:

 “… in it nine hundred and sixty (Saxon) men fell in one day, from a single charge of Arthur’s, and no-one lay them low save he alone.”

We should not take this to imply that Arthur personally slew 960 Saxons; but that the charge of his Combrogi did such slaughter; and that no other warlord or king could claim the credit but he.

Likely the aged Ælle was among those who fell in this initial charge: Arthur would have aimed his attack, like a thrown javelin, straight at the heart of the Saxon horde; where the Bretwalda’s standard stood high. Their king dead, his sons and best men slain around him, the bonds of oath and allegiance that held this savage horde together were sundered.  What moments before had been a conquering army was now a rabble fleeing in blind terror! Close on their heels were Arthur and his ravaging Combrogi, their spitting spears and reddened swords rising and falling, cutting men down like ripe corn.

Two miles to the southwest, Oisc “Big Knife” and his Kentish men were camped about beleaguered Badon town. Perhaps Oisc attempted to wheel his men north to rally their fleeing comrades. If so, in this they failed. Or perhaps, as Geoffrey of Monmouth implies, Cado arrived from the southwest and took a significant part in the battle by falling upon the flank of Oisc’s men. These, too, now fled the scene of slaughter!

But fleeing to safety was no easy matter. The Saxons were far from home, penned-in between Cado and Badon to the south and west; the river Avon to the east and south; and Arthur’s horsemen now hunting men down on the flat ground at the base of Badon Hill. In the narrow choke-point between the bend of the Avon and Badon Hill, clogged with fleeing Saxons, the slaughter and carnage must have been terrible indeed. It was here that a generation of Anglo-Saxon leaders and warriors perished.

That Oisc son of Hengist too was slain (likely in the pursuit that followed) is conjecture. But his death at around the same time as Badon makes it likely. Alternately, he may have lived to return to his stronghold at Cantwareburh (Canterbury), only to die soon after of his wounds; or perhaps of a broken heart.

Two miles to the southwest, Oisc “Big Knife” and his Kentish men were camped about beleaguered Badon town. Perhaps Oisc attempted to wheel his men north to rally their fleeing comrades. If so, in this they failed. Or perhaps, as Geoffrey of Monmouth implies, Cado arrived from the southwest and took a significant part in the battle by falling upon the flank of Oisc’s men. These, too, now fled the scene of slaughter.

But fleeing to safety was no easy matter. The Saxons were far from home, penned-in between Cado and Badon to the south and west; the river Avon to the east and south; and Arthur’s horsemen now hunting men down on the flat ground at the base of Badon Hill. In the narrow choke-point between the bend of the Avon and Badon Hill, clogged with fleeing Saxons, the slaughter and carnage must have been terrible indeed. It was here that a generation of Anglo-Saxon leaders and warriors perished.

That Oisc son of Hengist too was slain (likely in the pursuit that followed) is conjecture. But his death at around the same time as Badon makes it likely. Alternately, he may have lived to return to his stronghold at Cantwareburh (Canterbury), only to die soon after of his wounds; or perhaps of a broken heart.

1589211.jpgÆlle, first Bretwalda of Anglo-Saxon England, almost certainly died at Badon. His sons likely perished there as well: his house went extinct after this period, leaving no trace (though later Medieval writers attempted to fill in the gap in the Sussex royal line by assuming Cissa survived and ruled another 90 years!).

Gildas writes that Badon resulted in ‘the last great slaughter’ of the Saxon invaders by the Britons. It ended the long period of violent warfare that had begun when Hengist and Horsa led their Saxon feoderatii against their employer, Vortigern, in the 450s. According to Gildas, the consequences of Badon were that the Anglo-Saxon expansion was stopped and thrown back; and up to the time of his writing, some 30 years later, the Saxons were still dwelling quietly along the eastern fringes of Britain. Modern archeology confirms this: Anglo-Saxon grave sites retreat after Badon; and much of the “lost lands of Lloegyr” were recovered for a time.

Another side-effect of Badon was to elevate the wiley Cerdic from Ealdorman to king. Following the defeat and death of his overlord at Badon, Cerdic returnsf to the marshy coastal fastness of Hampshire. In 519, with his erstwhile master Ælle now out of the picture, Cerdic declared himself King of the West Saxons. His was a dynasty that would last through the centuries, leading to Alfred the Great and his son and grandson, Edward and Athelstan; who together succeeded in uniting England as one kingdom in the 10th century.

Had he been at Badon, Cerdic would likely have faced the same fate as his master, Ælle. The future of Anglo-Saxon England might have been very different, indeed.

For Arthur, Badon was the ultimate triumph. It represented the high-water point of his military career. His days as Dux Bellorum, the war leader of the Britons, had come to an end. A golden age of peace lay before him and Britain, and a new title: amerawder, “imperator”: the Emperor Arthur!



  1. Castleden, Rodney, “King Arthur: the Truth Behind the Legend”, Routledge 2000, P. 114
  2. See Elite Warriors of the Dark Ages: Anglo-Saxon Huscarl. The origin of the this body of elite household troops was in the reign of Cnut the Great. In all but name, these huscarls were the same institution as the earlier Germanic gesith.  
  3.  The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle states that Ælle and his sons landed in Britain in 477; and that he sacked the British settlement/fortress of Anderitum/Pevensey in 491. This is also the date given for the founding of Sussex. But recent scholars debate these dates, some suggesting that due to a dating error by Gildas the traditional Anglo-Saxon Chronicle date may be off by 20 years. This theory would place the sack of Anderitum by Ælle and the founding of the Kingdom of Sussex not in 491, but in 471. Lyne, Malcolm: Excavations at Pevensey Castle, 1936 to 1964, (2009); Archaeopress.
  4. Alternate sources call him “Octha of the Bloody Knife“.
  5. Myres, J.N.L. (1989) The English Settlements. Oxford University Press, pp. 146–147
  6. Bernard S. Bachrach, “The Origin of Armorican Chivalry”: Technology and Culture 10.2 (April 1969), pp. 166–171

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Unique among the territories of the Western Roman Empire in the 5th century, Britain succeeded in holding back and even reversing the tide of Germanic conquest for nearly two centuries. This was an age of heroes… It was the Age of Arthur!

This is the eighteenth-part of our discussion of Britain in the 5th though the mid-6th Century A.D. It is a fascinating period, with the Classical civilization of Greece and Rome giving way to the Germanic “Dark Ages”; the sunset of Celtic-Roman culture in Britain.

(Read Part Seventeen here. Or start from the beginning with Part One!)


Winston Churchill, in his splendid “The Birth of Britain[1], wrote: “Of all the tribes of the Germanic race none was more cruel than the Saxons”. In their first devastating wave of invasion in the 450-60’s they created such a record of slaughter that this episode in British history became known as the “Saxon Terror[2]. Though slave-taking and trading was a lucrative business throughout the world in this (as in most) period of human history, for whatever reason the early Saxon attacks on Britain were distinguished by rapine and wholesale slaughter on a scale seldom seen in early “barbarian” invasions of the Roman Empire and its former territories. Only the Huns built up a greater reputation for bloody-minded ferocity.

Mid-summer 516 A.D. saw Anglo-Saxon warbands arriving daily in the Thames estuary. A gathering of wolves, come to serve under Ælle, the Anglo-Saxon Bretwalda (“Briton Ruler”).  These were harsh men in a notably harsh age, come to partake in the rapine of western Britain: the Celtic realms Arthur (and before him Ambrosius Aurelianus) had long warded. This was to be a final reckoning, as Ælle aimed at laying the Celtic kingdoms of the west under the Saxon sword, once and forever.

Rowing up the Medway, these daily-arriving sea wolves landed at Durobrivis (“Stronghold-By-The-Bridge”), the former Roman fortress-town that once warded the Medway crossing. In the heart of the Kingdom of Kent, its “Saxon” (Jute) rulers had shortened its name to “Robrivis”. The Saxon chronicler Bede would mistakenly claim that this version of the town’s name came from the fortified camp of an otherwise-unknown Saxon warlord named Hrofi’s, calling it “Hrofes-cæster. In the fullness of time this would morph into the name it bears today, Rochester.

A view of the Medway meadows and marshes near Rochester

It was here the “Great Army” of Ælle gathered in camps pitched in the sunlit meadows that lined the Medway River. Warbands from throughout the north arrived daily: Saxons, Angles, Jutes, Danes, Gotar, Norsemen, and perhaps even a ship’s crew-or-two of Svear (Swedes). Each in their own camp, each led by their own eorls and ship’s captains. A great number (perhaps the majority) were men native to Britain, whose fathers (and in some cases grand or even great-grandfathers) had settled in the eastern portion of the island in the days of the last Romans, or when Vortigern led the Britons; as “foederati”, mercenary military settlers. For these this was a “war to the knives”, a final accounting for generations of blood-feuds with the hated “Welsh”. But their ranks were stiffened by the newcomers, landless adventurers in search of farmland to settle, or merely crews of Viking freebooters lured from across the cold North Sea by rumors of war and of rich plunder to be had under the standard of the renown Bretwalda Ælle. Merciless reivers, a pack of hungry wolves, come to feast upon the carcass of Roman Britain.

As long days of summer dragged on, idle warriors ate, drank (beer and mead were favorites of Germanic/Scandinavian warriors), diced, wrestled, boasted, fought duels, and abused the Briton slave girls who served them. All the while new shiploads (“keels”) of warriors arrived to join in the despoiling of Britain. It is likely that no such force had ever gathered in Britain before under a single Germanic leader.

King Ælle and his South Saxons likely camped at the center of this bivouac, beneath his horse-skull standard. These were Ælle’s own red-handed thegns and ceorls; veterans of many a battle and bloody slaughter. Adjacent to theirs was the camp of the men of Kent, the white horse banner of the House of Hengist waving in the summer breeze. These were the heirs of the men who had followed Hengist and Horsa, first of the “Saxon” warlords to carve a kingdom off the back of Roman Britain. Now they followed Hengist’s son (or grandson), Æsc/Oisc Big Knife. He was second only to the Bretwalda himself among the chiefs of this savage host.

By August this “Great Army” was ready to move. No account of these events gives us numbers for the combatants on either side. But it is likely that this gathering of warriors from throughout the north numbered not less than 3,000 (and would not have exceeded 10,000). Ælle ordered the camp struck, and the Saxon host set out along the decaying Roman roads westward, towards the heart of the hated “Welsh” kingdom of Dumnonia.

Dumnonia was the southernmost of the Celtic British kingdoms. It was a wealthy realm, maintaining trade ties with the continent through Brittany and with the Mediterranean via Cornwall through the Bay of Biscay. Attacking Dumnonia made good strategic sense. It was the closest British kingdom to the Saxon’s area of settlement in south Britain. Geographically, it could be isolated from the other Celtic kingdoms to the north by a drive to the Severn River estuary (today the Bristol Channel). This is in fact the strategy employed by the Saxon kingdom of Wessex nearly a century later, in the campaign that led to the victory at Deorham in 577. For the Saxons settled in the southeast of Britain, and particularly those in their westernmost holdings around Hampshire (which would later become the Kingdom of Wessex), Dumnonia was their hereditary enemy.

With Arthur campaigning in the north, the moment was ripe for Ælle to “put-paid” to this enemy on his doorstep.

We have postulated earlier in this series that Arthur held lands in the western portion of the kingdom, in Triggshire, Cornwall. These were his personal estates, named in the Welsh tale Culhwch and Olwen as Kelliwic or Celliwig.  The Welsh Triads locate one of his courts also at Celliwig: “Arthur as Chief Prince in Celliwig in Cernyw”. This does not mean Arthur was king of Dumnonia or even of Cernyw (Cornwall). He was neither. But as a major warlord, Dux Bellorum of the Celtic kingdoms, he had to draw revenue from some estates and have a place to call home between campaigns. Cornwall was likely one of these places.

The operational target of Ælle’s host was the former Roman resort city of Aquae Sulis, nestled in valley of the Avon River. Its name meant the “Waters of Sulis”, referring to an Celtic goddess once worshiped in the British West Country. Under the Romans, the natural hot springs had developed into a Roman bath complex. But in post-Roman Britain it was known simply as Bath.

Two artist’s conceptions of Roman Aquae Sulis (Bath)

Nennius, the 9th century Welsh chronicler, states that Bath was known to the post-Romans as Badon. The syllable th in early British was indicated by a dd, which because of a lack of standardization in spelling was often rendered as a single d (or ð). Thus Bath was spelled Baððon or Baðon; pronounced “Bathon”.

It was toward Badon, this quite former Roman resort town slumbering beside the Avon, that Ælle and his rapacious horde now marched. It was here that his “final solution” to the Welsh problem would be decided, and the future of Britain determined.


Many locations have been suggested by Arthur scholars and enthusiasts as the correct location for this, the 12th and climactic of NenniusTwelve Battles. Though I believe Bath, Somerset to be the correct location, here are some of the candidates suggested by others:

Some scholars (including Susan Hirst, Geoffrey Ashe, Michael Wood, and even Winston Churchill) have suggested Liddington Hillfort near Swindon, in Wiltshire.  This site is well situated astride the junction of the Roman road connecting Calleva (Silchester) to Corinium (Cirenchester) and the ancient Ridgeway, in use continuously since the Iron Age. However, Liddington was well within the zone of Saxon settlement by the early 6th century, and with Saxon settlements on either side was unlikely to have been occupied by a British garrison in this period. As the battle is described as a siege, or blockade, of the British by the Saxons, this must be ruled out as a possible candidate.


Liddington Castle hillfort

Bardon Hill in Leicestershire is another candidate. Local legend claims the honor, having Arthur and his Cymbrogi perched upon the heights, charging down upon the advancing Saxon army. A nearby field is called Battle Flat, where local stories say Arthur’s horsemen broke the Saxon forces. The same legends claim that the dead were buried at nearby Billabarrow Hill.  Placing Badon Hill at Bardon is attractive in that it places the battle right in the middle of the island; within the “debatable lands” between the two races. However, it makes little sense for a Saxon army from south of Britain to march northwest, toward Gwynedd (presumably), with British Dumnonia right on their western doorstep!

Bardon Hill

Bowden Hill, a conspicuous summit in West Lothian, has been proposed by those proponents of a “northern Arthur”.  This location falls apart for the same reason the “northern Arthur” theory does: how, reasonably, can a battle fought clearly against and to stop Saxon aggression in the south of Britain (where the Saxon, as opposed to Angle kingdoms and holdings were all located) be placed in the Scottish lowlands? Are we to believe that Ælle and Oisc marched or sailed their forces into Lothian to attack Gododdin; when their hereditary and closest enemy, British Dumnonia, was so close at hand?


Bowden, West Lothian

Badbury Rings in Dorset is a more plausible candidate. It is in the south of Britain, warding the southern route into Dumnonia. It was an Iron Age hillfort, and would likely have been occupied by a garrison; keeping an eye on Cerdic and his nearby West Saxons. Of all the candidates other than Bath, it has the strongest claim.

Brent Knoll, a high hill in Somerset, also has a claim. It sports an Iron Age hillfort, and
at first glance appears an attractive candidate. However, it lies southwest of Bath, near the Bristol Channel/Severn Sea. To reach it, a Saxon army would have to by-pass British-held Bath, leaving it defended in their rear. Not only would this make no tactical sense (a British force in Bath would be able to harass their rearguard, not to mention cut off their supply and communications with their homes in the east) it would make no strategic sense: Aquae Sulis/Bath was a strategic target of value; the remote Brent Knoll hillfort was not.


Brent Knoll

Proponents of Brent Knoll have proposed a scenario in which a Saxon seaborne force, sailing up the Bristol Channel and landing on the nearby coast, could have marched inland to besiege the hillfort. While the Anglo-Saxons were a seafaring people, and such a campaign by a modest seaborne raiding force would at first glance make some sense; all accounts agree that the resulting battle was decisive (and fatal) for the Saxons, the effects being felt for generations. It therefore could not have been a struggle involving only a relatively small raiding force.

Launching a seaborne invasion by a large army in this manner would have been a logistical and strategic nightmare. The whole of southwestern Britain was held by the British; every port and anchorage denied to the Saxons by British strongholds. Along the way, British fleets were active, most particularly that of the Visigoth-turned-Briton, Theodosius/Tewdric; petty-king of southwest Cornwall. Why attempt such a risky naval strategy, when the simpler and more logical alternative of simply marching west along the Roman roads was both available and safer?

Interestingly, though, Geoffrey of Monmouth has the Saxons using a modest version of this strategy: landing from the sea at Totnes, in Devon; a shorter and more “doable” voyage. From there he has them devastating the country as far as the Severn Sea; ultimately laying siege to Bath.

Bath, seen from Solsbury Hill; likely in Arthur’s time known as Badon Hill

Which brings us back to Bath as the most likely candidate for the battle.

First, Bath lies in a strategic position south of the Cotswold Hills, astride the Fosse Way. Its capture would sever the land route north from Dumnonia to the British kingdoms of Cumbria/Wales and the Hen Ogledd (“Old North”): the British kingdoms of Elmet, Rheged, Strathclyde, and Gododdin. Secondly, Bath was a place of some significance. Though its size at this date is unknown, it was likely a large and prosperous town, the well-known “baths of Badon” bringing “tourists” and visitors from throughout Celtic Britain. These factors would make it such an attractive strategic target that the Saxons would attack it again in 577, some sixty years later. Interestingly, of this later attack on Bath, the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle calls the town “Baðanceaster: obviously the Saxons thought of it as Bathon/Badon. Finally, as noted above, Geoffrey of Monmouth cites it as the location of the battle, perhaps drawing on older Welsh sources, now lost.


It has been long established that Saxon (and later Danish Viking) forces used the Roman roads whenever possible; calling these “heerpaths” (“heer” being the Germanic word for ‘army’). From Kent to Deva ran the first of these, Watling Street. It was along this well paved road that Ælle’s fearsome host now set out.

There were three ways to approach the West Country from Sussex or Kent:

  • From the northeast, via the Fosse Way. This road runs from Lindum/Lincoln in east-central Britain, to Isca/Exeter in the southwest. In Arthur’s day, it transversed the “debatable lands” of what would later be the Anglo-Saxon Kingdom of Mercia (whose name derives from the English word for “Border Folk”; meaning the border lands between the British and the Anglo-Saxons). Utilizing this route would entail following Watling Street northwest, passing by or through Londinium and crossing the Thames; then marching west along, Akeman Street, the connecting road to the Fosse Way. While not the direct (or obvious) route, this could be turned to advantage, gaining strategic surprise. It also would allow Ælle to gather the Anglo-Saxon settlers north of the Thames; particularly from those small settlements (“burhs”) within the “debatable lands”, and late-comers from the Angle settlements to the north.
  • From Londinium, a road ran southwest to Calleva (Silchester). This otherwise-unnamed extension of the Port Way was known in the later Dark Ages as the “Devil’s Highway”. From Calleva, connecting roads ran due west directly to Aquae Sulis/Badon. This route had the advantage of being the most direct. We don’t know if the towns and forts of Wiltshire at Liddington Hillfort, Cunetio, etc were in British hands or abandoned; but the presence of Anglo-Saxon pottery and gravesites during this period hint that this area was (at the least) within the “debatable lands”, dotted with Saxon burhs.  Advancing along this route would allow Ælle to collect these warriors as he advanced. The direct approach would also simplify his logistics, shortening his line of communications back to Sussex and Kent.
  • The sea route was also an option: sailing past the Isle of Wight and landing  on the Dumnonian coast between Dorchester and Exeter. As noted above, this is how Geoffrey of Monmouth had the Saxons come, landing at Totnes and marching north to Bath, devastating the countryside as they went:

“ [the Saxons] went on shore at Totness. No sooner were they landed, than they made an utter devastation of the country as far as the Severn sea, and put all the peasants to the sword. From thence they pursued their furious march to the town of Bath, and laid siege to it.” History of the Kings of Britain

However, it is doubtful that there would have been sufficient naval transport for so large a horde. Though some of Ælle’s warriors may have come from across the North Sea, the bulk were second generation settlers,  farmers and landlords; unlikely to have possessed ships of their own.

All factors considered, the second, direct route is the most likely.

Londinium, much shrunken since its days as capital of the Roman province, was likely an “open city”; a merchant port used by northern, Germanic traders (the presence of large amounts of Mediterranean pottery in Cornwall indicates that more “civilized” traders from the former Roman lands chose to trade with their civilized British counterparts in the west of the Island rather than with the untrustworthy Saxons in the east, through Londinium). Surrounded by Saxon settlements, it was unlikely to contain a hostile British garrison, and yet we have no record of it falling to the Saxons earlier. Therefore an accommodation made earlier (perhaps after the deaths of Vortigern and his son in the 460s) with the newcomers is likely.

Ælle’s forces passed Londinium, crossing the Thames there or nearby; then pushed west. At Staines, the horde would re-cross the Thames along the “Devil’s Highway”/Port Way. Moving southwest, the Saxons would reach Calleva, some 36 miles away, in a matter of days (an army of this size likely traveled at a relatively slow pace, lucky to make 10 miles a day).

Calleva Atrebatum had once been a prosperous Roman town; civitas-capital of the Atrebates tribe. Calleva is not unusual of the various Roman cities of Southern Britain in being abandoned shortly after the end of the Roman era. While no one knows exactly when the city was abandoned or why, the most likely time and reason was as a result of the “Saxon Terror” in the mid-5th century.

Calleva/Silchester before and after the “Saxon Terror”. 

Gildas, the 6th century monkish chronicler, records the fate of Romano-British towns in the face of the “Saxon Terror”:

 “(the Saxon “fire”) devastated all the neighboring cities and lands, and did not cease after it had been kindled, until it burnt nearly the whole surface of the island, and licked the western ocean.”

Of the towns, such as Calleva:

“…all the columns were leveled with the ground by the frequent strokes of the battering-ram, all the husbandmen routed, together with their bishops, priests, and people, whilst the sword gleamed, and the flames crackled around them on every side. Lamentable to behold, in the midst of the streets lay the tops of lofty towers, tumbled to the ground, stones of high walls, holy altars, fragments of human bodies, covered with livid clots of coagulated blood, looking as if they had been squeezed together in a press; and with no chance of being buried, save in the ruins of the houses…”

This is a vivid description of the aftermath of pillage and despoliation. This was the likely fate of Calleva Atrebatum. When Ælle’s savage horde marched past in the late summer heat, it was but a ghost-haunted ruin, the still unburied skeletons of its citizens entombed under the scorched and fallen masonry.

From here the Saxons took the connecting road west to Badon/Bath, 65 miles to the west; moving on to Cunetio, on the Kennet River by modern Mildenhall. This former Roman fort-turned-market was also abandoned, likely at the same time as Calleva. Crossing the river, the Saxons were now only 35 miles from their target.

Three kilometers northeast of Badon/Bath, the connecting road Ælle’s force was traveling (the modern “High Road”) reaches the Avon River. Here, at Bathford, the road bends northwest and crosses the Bybrook River, a tributary of the Avon, before joining the Fosse Way as it descends a ramp-like spur of the Bannerdown plateau.  From here, the Fosse Way travels on to Bath. But as it does it passes through a mile-wide choke point between the Avon and another high mound: Solsbury Hill.

Little Solsbury Hill viewed from the south. Bath would be to the left of this picture. Mons Badonicus?

Made somewhat famous by the Peter Gabriel song by the same name, Solsbury Hill (or “Little Solsbury Hill) rises 625 feet above the Avon. Atop its heights is the remnants of an Iron Age hill fort. However, there is no evidence that it was refortified during the post-Roman period.

Bath in the laid out in the distance, seen from the upper slopes of Solsbury Hill

As Ælle’s forces passed by its shoulder, the old warlord may have ridden to the top. From its heights, the view of the surrounding countryside is spectacular. Less than two miles to the southwest his prize lay before him: Bath, known then as Badon.



  1. Churchill, W, A History of the English Speaking People: The Birth of Britain, Ch IV, p 50
  2. See Part Five of this series.
  3. Part Seven
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Unique among the territories of the Western Roman Empire in the 5th century, Britain succeeded in holding back and even reversing the tide of Germanic conquest for nearly two centuries. This was an age of heroes… It was the Age of Arthur!

This is the Seventeenth-part of our discussion of Britain in the 5th though the mid-6th Century A.D. It is a fascinating period, with the Classical civilization of Greece and Rome giving way to the Germanic “Dark Ages”; the sunset of Celtic-Roman culture in Britain.

(Read Part Sixteen here. Or start from the beginning, with Part One!)

In the previous chapter we examined Nennius’ tenth of Arthur’s battles, that at the River Tribruit, wherein we built a case for that battle to have been fought on the River Forth, eight miles above Stirling.  This has long been known as the “Gateway to the Highlands” and the site of William Wallace’s famous victory over the English. Arthur is  called north by his brother-in-law, King Lot, who is threatened by a strong band of outlaws called the cinbin. “Cinbin” (or Cynbin) translates as “dog-heads”. These brigands are led by a savage character named Garwlwyd, who is possibly synonymous with the figure known in the Welsh Triads as Gwrgi Garwlwyd.


From their lair along the marches between the British Kingdom of Gododdin and the Pictish highlands the Dog Heads raid into Gododdin, carrying off plunder and prisoners; two of which (a boy and girl) they supposedly eat daily!

Making common cause with an Angle pirate chief named Edlfled, the Dog Heads plan to converge  upon and capture the hillfort of Dùn Èideann from land and sea.

As recounted in the previous chapter, Arthur and his 300 mounted Cymbrogi rush north from Cornwall, a distance of approximately 515 miles, to arrive in 10 days at Dùn Èideann.  Joining with Lot’s forces they move against Garwlwyd, who is camped at the crossing of the Forth at Tribruit (the Fords of Frew). In the resulting Battle of Tribruit/Tryfrwyd the Dog Heads are destroyed, though Garwlwyd may have escaped (to be later assassinated).

Meanwhile, unaware of Garwlwyd’s defeat his ally, the Angle chieftain Edlfled, has landed in Arthur’s rear near Din Eidyn.


Nennius states that the 11th of Arthur’s battles was at a place called “the hill of Agned”. Many scholars agree with the often-fanciful Geoffrey of Monmouth that this was at or near Edinburgh.

Like Rome, Edinburgh is built on seven rocky, volcanic hills. Three of these, Castle Rock (upon which the Gododdin fortress of Din Eidyn is thought to have sat), Calton Hill and Arthur’s Seat are in or near the center of the modern city. The four other hills, Corstorphine Hill, Blackford Hill, Braid Hill and Wester Craiglockhart are a bit further out. Any of these, admittedly, could have been named “Agned” in the early Dark Ages.


Two views of Arthur’s Seat, Edinburgh, above. Below, two images taken from Edinburgh Castle by author in 2019. One looks at Arthur’s Seat from the castle, the other looks toward the nearby waterway. It is easy to imagine Angle long boats landing on the shore, and raiders occupying Arthur’s seat to use as a temporary base and a stronghold from which to besiege the castle. 

However, Arthur’s Seat must have had another name before the life of Arthur. Could it have been called “Agned“?

It is a logical place for an attacking force of Angles, landing on the nearby coast as part of a concerted strategy to take Lot’s fortress of Din Eidyn, to make camp. This rocky, defensible hill so close to their target (Castle Rock/Din Eidyn) would have made an ideal place to hold up while they awaited their allies arrival, and at the same time begin to raid the surrounding area and place Din Eidyn under loose blockade.

With the Hill of Agned tentatively identified as Arthur’s Seat, and Arthur’s opponent being an Angle raiding party, we must consider next the question of who could this “Edlfled” have been?

As stated in the previous chapter, some scholars have attempted to identify the Edlfled of the Triads with Æthelfrith of Bernicia. This Angle ruler was the first to unite both of the northern Angle kingdoms, Bernicia and Deira under one crown; and in doing so founded the embryonic Kingdom of  Northumbria. However, these Angle kingdoms in the north were established in the later 6th century and Æthelfrith ruled from the end of the 6th century through the first half of the 7th century. As such, he is too late to have faced Arthur (first decade of the 6th century), and cannot be synonymous with the Edlfled we are discussing.

It must be born in mind that the Triads and other Welsh sources are suspect in many cases, as they sometimes conflate events separated by as much as a century. It is entirely possible that even if the events described by Nennius, as well as in the Triads and the Pa Gur, relate to the same historical event (the Battle of Tribruit/Tryfrwyd); the accounts may have become confused with later events.  They may have brought Æthelfrith of Bernicia/Northumbria into the events that took place during the Age of Arthur. Similarly, there is no certainty that the Garwlwyd referred to in the Pa Gur is the same man as the Gwrgi Garwlwyd of the Triads.

These doubts put aside for the moment, if there was a Bernician-Angle leader named Edlfled/Æthelfrith who fought Arthur at the Hill of Agned, he cannot have been the founder of Northumbria. What is more likely is that this character was an otherwise unknown “Viking”[1] leader then raiding the Lothian coast, and that this Edlfled made common cause with fellow outlaws (the Dog Heads) to prey upon Gododdin.

It should not be ignored, either, that the form of the name, Edlfled, if spelled as Æthelflæd (a more faithful rendering), is the feminine form of this name. Anglo-Saxon nobility bore family names, which were applicable to both the male and female members. To designate gender, a masculine or feminine suffix was applied: such as “fled/flæd” or “wynn”, in cases of females; while “frith”, “red” or “wulf” were added to denote males. Thus Æthelfrith, Æthelred,  Æthelwulf for a male; and Æthelflæd  or Æthelwynn for a female (to cite a few examples from the royal family of Dark Ages Wessex). Clearly, the Cumbric-Welsh rendering of this Angle leader’s name is the feminine form.

Could Edlfled have been a woman?

Scandinavian/Germanic culture allowed for women who took up arms to fight beside men as warriors. “Shieldmaidens” (skjaldmær in Old Norse; Schildmaid in German) are referenced in later Scandinavian Sagas. But many of these chronicle events of about or near this period (the events described in both Beowulf and Hrolf Kraki are roughly contemporaneous to the age of Arthur; more on that in later installments). Two of the most famous of these legendary/archetypal warrior maidens include Brynhild in the Volsunga saga, and Hervor in Hervarar saga ok Heiðreks (“The Saga of Hervar and Heidrek”).

1553829.jpgThree hundred shieldmaidens are said to have fought in the semi-legendary Battle of Bråvalla in East Götaland about 750AD, one of whom bore the Danish banner. The Byzantine historian Skylitzes records armed women among the defeated Varangian-Rus warriors at the Battle of Dorostolon in 971.

True warrior maidens are exceedingly rare in history, but not impossible or unheard of. It is therefore not beyond the realm of possibility for such a force of Angle “Vikings” to have been led by a “skjaldmær”.

Whoever the mysterious Edlfled was, it was at his/her hall (Germanic chieftains did not maintain palaces, but instead had their centers of power in Long Halls, where they entertained visitors and feasted their household warriors) that Gwrgi Garwlwyd, leader of the outlaw “Dog Heads”, acquired his alleged taste for human meat:

 “…who after tasting human flesh in the court of Edlfled the Saxon[2] king, became so fond of it that he would eat no other but human flesh ever after.”

Cannibalism was never an accepted practice in either Scandinavia or the British Isles. However, it is of course possible that such a fringe group of renegades and outlaws may have practiced ritual cannibalism; perhaps to create a savage reputation and as a way of intimidating their enemies. Cannibalism is also a way of bonding a group together in such a way as to forever set them outside of the bounds of normal society. Any or all of these reasons may account for both the Dog Heads and Edlfled’s band of Vikings taking up this abominable practice.

Two days following the Battle of Tribruit/Tryfrwyd, Edlfled and her band are camped atop Agned Hill, unaware that their ally has been defeated and his warband is no more. Expecting Garwlwyd’s imminent arrival, it is must have been with astonishment that Edlfled and her Angle pirates see Arthur and Lot’s victorious forces arrive below them,  the famed dragon standard waiving in the northern breeze!

1553830.jpgThe Britons assault the hill, numbers and high morale making up for the disadvantage of terrain. The Angles put up a fierce and desperate resistance. But in warfare the impact of morale is decisive (Napoleon observing that “in war the morale is to the physical as two-to-one”; i.e., morale factors are twice as important as all mere “physical” factors ). This unexpected turn of events likely drained the pirates of their courage. In the battle of shieldwalls, the rot begins with the back ranks slipping away. A trickle of the cowardly soon becomes a flood, as the Angle line breaks in panic. Men (and women?) run for the safety of their  ships, moored in the estuary, with the blood-hungry Britons close on their heels!

With the battle won and the north once again secure, Arthur and his Cymbrogi feast with Lot and his Gododdin warriors that night. The following day, atop Agned’s heights, Arthur gives judgment to the captured, both “Dog Heads” and Angles. Perhaps among them was the fearsome “shieldmaiden” leader, Edlfled.

Here where Arthur sat in judgment the hill will forever after be remembered as “Arthur’s Seat”.

The fate of captured outlaws and pirates then, as now, was bleak. The usual and sundry atrocities aside, their crimes included cannibalism and the daily, ritual killing of a British boy and girl. They neither expect nor receive any mercy. Arthur condemns them all to death beneath a headsman’s ax.

The crisis in Gododdin is ended. But a far greater threat to the British kingdoms is looming in the south.


Winston Churchill, in his splendid “The Birth of Britain[3], wrote: “Of all the tribes of the Germanic race none was more cruel than the Saxons”. In their first devastating wave of invasion in the 450’s, they created such a record of slaughter that this episode in British History became known as the “Saxon Terror[4]. Though slave-taking and trading was a lucrative business throughout the world in this (as in most) periods of human history, for whatever reason the early Saxon attacks on Britain were distinguished by rapine and wholesale slaughter on a scale not seen in early “barbarian” invasions of the Roman Empire and its former territories. Only the Huns built up a greater reputation for bloody-minded ferocity.

We have seen that in 477 a new Saxon warlord named Ælle landed in southeastern Britain. That after taking the British fortress of Anderida (Pevensey) and putting the inhabitants to the sword, he founded the kingdom of the South Saxons (Sussex). He soon became the paramount ruler of the Anglo-Saxon peoples in Britain, taking the title “Bretwalda”. He was, in fact, the first Saxon king to be so acclaimed. Even Æsc/Oisc”Big Knife, King of Kent and the son of the famous Hengist, as well as Cerdic of the West Saxons, acknowledged his over-lordship.[5]

Now it was the summer of 516, and among the Anglo-Saxon peoples of the eastern lands the war arrow had been passed. Ælle was calling for all to join him in a final reckoning with the hated Welsh, a call to rapine and conquest.


  1. In this context, the term “Viking” is used in the sense that it was in ancient Scandinavia: a pirate/outlaw crew; not subject to any recognized king or authority. In the early Dark Ages Scandinavia, such outlaws preyed upon settlements and shipping there as elsewhere; and were eventually put down by the emerging authority of jarls and kings.
  2. Though referred to here as a “Saxon”, it should be remembered that the Romans and their Romano-British and later Welsh successor collectively referred to all the various Scandinavian and Germanic raiders of Britain as “Saxons” (Saxones and Sassenach, respectively).
  3. Churchill, W, A History of the English Speaking People: The Birth of Britain, Ch IV, p 50
  4. See Part Five of this series.
  5. Part Seven
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A millennium-and-a-half before Frederick the Great, Epaminondas of Thebes changes the face of warfare with the oblique attack and forever destroyed the myth of Spartan invincibility !

The Peloponnesian War indisputably established Sparta as the paramount power in the Greek World. Though that long conflict had been waged, ostensibly, by Sparta to free the Greek city-states of the Delian League from Athenian dominance; the Spartan victory merely replaced Athenian hegemony with Spartan.

Though superb soldiers, the Spartans were educationally and temperamentally ill-equipped to deal with the subtleties of statecraft and diplomacy necessary for managing an empire. Over the next 33 years following the end of the Peloponnesian War, Sparta faced sporadic challenges from the other leading Greek states; with coalitions forming against her and her interests. Of these, the Thebans were both the most implacable and the most dangerous.

Thebes had been an ally of Sparta against Athens; and had even pushed for the total destruction of that city after its surrender in 404 BC. However, the following year Thebes aided in the restoration of the Athenian democracy; rightfully perceiving a revived Athens as a counter-balance to Spartan power. Over the next two decades, she often found herself at odds with Sparta; culminating in defeat in the Corinthian War, after which her Boeotian League (through which Thebes exercised leadership over the other Boeotian cities) was dissolved. The crowning agony came in 382 BC, when a Spartan force treacherously seized and occupied the city; establishing once again a oligarchical government.

1551580.jpg Theban hoplites (drawing by James Carrozza*)

Three years later, the pro-Spartan government was overthrown by a coup, led by the dashing young Theban firebrand, Pelopidas and his friend, the philosopher-soldier, Epaminondas. A virulently anti-Spartan democracy was installed; and for the next eight years a desultory war was waged to drive the Spartan garrisons out of Boeotia and reestablish the Theban-dominated Boeotian League.

During this period Epaminondas and Pelopidas alternated command; training and improving the Theban forces. Pelopidas was particularly successful at leading small-unit operations; and in his hands the 300 strong Theban corps-de-elite, the Sacred Band became a formidable and professional body of soldiers, fully capable of facing the vaunted Spartan hoplites in battle. Skirmishing with the Spartans year-after-year, the Thebans both learned the Spartan’s method of making war; and lost their awe of Spartan military prowess.

This small cadre had started its existence as the citadel guard of the city; all chosen for their valor. Uniquely in Greek history, the entire corps was composed of homosexual couples; each man paired side-by-side with his lover. It was felt that lovers would fight like lions to protect their beloved; and under Pelopidas’ leadership the Sacred Band were indeed a corps of lions.

1551562.jpg Boeotian hoplites. Boeotians fetishized the naked male form to a higher degree than perhaps any other Greeks; and partial nudity may not  have been uncommon, even in battle. Note the boots worn by the central figure: while most Greek warriors fought barefoot, the Boeotians often wore boots. The back figure (in red) is a Theban. Note the “club of Heracles” device, the symbol of Thebes on his shield. This might have been the shield device used by Theban hoplites; while the lion head might have been used, alternatively, by the members of the 300-strong elite corps, the Sacred Band.

In 371 B.C. the hitherto invincible Spartan army once again invaded Boeotia, this time with the purpose of finishing Thebes for good.

The Boeotians had little time to muster their full soldier levy. In consequence, they were outnumbered by the Spartan invaders when the two sides met on the plain of LEUCTRA, in southern Boeotia. The Spartan army numbered some 10,000 hoplites, at the core of which were 700 elite Spartiates, the true Spartan citizen-soldiers; and 1,000 cavalry. The Boeotians numbered approximately 6,000-7,000 hoplites, perhaps 1500 cavalry, and a similar number of skirmishers. Of these number, no more than 4,000 were Thebans.

Neither side was initially eager for battle. The Spartan King, Cleombrotus, was convinced by his senior officers that he must fight or be indicted by the ephors when he returned to Sparta. The Boeotians were even more nervous about facing the Spartans. But the Thebans knew that if this army didn’t fight now, their Boeotian allies would return home to defend their own cities; and the Spartans would isolate and besiege Thebes. For several days the Boeotarchs [1] debated offering battle to the superior Spartan forces. But Epaminondas, who argued for giving battle, won the day.

The intellectual Epaminondas, a military innovator of the first-order, had devised a plan to defeat the vaunted Spartans (who had not lost a pitched-battle in three centuries). Though most of his Thebans were not as well trained as the Spartans, they were mainly comprised of “big country boys”; farmers who were both strong and large. Boeotia means “cow land”; comprised of broad pasture land, where cattle grazed. Likely the Thebans had a larger amount of beef in their diet; which would also account for a larger, heavier man. By contrast, the Spartans tended to be smaller and wirier of build, due to the spare, near-starvation diet they were raised on in the Spartan Agoge [2]. Epaminondas knew from experience that in a pure shoving contest his larger and stronger Thebans were a match for the Spartans.

One of the hallmarks of Greek hoplite warfare was a tactic called othismos, the push of shields. Though the precise explanation of this tactic is debated by scholars, I believe it involved each hoplite in the phalanx pressing his shield into the back of the man in the rank in front of him; and using the weight of the entire phalanx to press the enemy phalanx backward. Once falling backward, a phalanx quickly lost cohesion as men tripped over each other, and rout soon followed. The Spartans were masters of othismos, advancing in ordered ranks with measured tread, every man keeping time to the trill of the flutes; steadily and silently bearing down upon the enemy.

Few Greeks would stand up to the feared Spartans. At Mantinea of 418 BC the Arcadian and Athenian phalanx broke and fled from the Spartans before making contact:

(they) “did not even stand to fight, but they fled as the Spartans approached; some were even trampled in their hurry to get away before the enemy (Spartans) reached them.” [3]

However, Epaminondas knew that his Thebans would meet the Spartans, and in the push of shields his larger, stronger Thebans would have an inherent advantage. And with the fiery Pelopidas leading the Sacred Band, spearheading the Theban attack, he was confident he had men equal to the Spartans in valor and skill at arms.

Unlike the Spartans, who advanced at a measured walk, the Thebans had trained and practiced advancing rapidly, and as they neared the enemy to break into a dead run, aiming to shatter the enemy formation rather than merely pushing them back.

Epaminondas had one more trick to play, and this one would be revolutionary.

First, knowing that in Greek hoplite battles each side always placed their best troops on the far right of their battle line; he deviated from the norm and placed his best troops, the Thebans, on his left flank, opposite the Spartans themselves. The rest of his forces, comprised of the allied non-Theban Boeotians, were to be  back to the right. By this he was gambling that his Thebans would defeat the unbeatable Spartans; and keep his less reliable Boeotian allies out of the battle till a decision could be reached.


Never before had a phalanx deployed in echelon formation; nor had the best troops been placed on the left end of the line.

To give even great pushing power of his Theban hoplites, he arrayed his Thebans in an uncommonly deep formation.

Greek phalanxes deployed in an average depth of 8-12 ranks. In fact, as few as four ranks were not unusual. The Spartans, masters of phalanx warfare, deployed their own phalanx that day 12 ranks deep, as Epaminondas expected. The Thebans, at least since the Peloponnesian War, had experimented with phalanxes twice as deep as the norm; making up with mass what they tended to lack in training.

At Leuctra, Epaminondas arrayed his Thebans in an unprecedented, massive column almost as deep as it was broad: a human battering ram 50-men deep (or, as the Greeks would term it, “shields” deep); with Pelopidas and the Sacred Band at its head. Their orders were to charge foremost, leading the rest of the Theban phalanx; and to aim directly for the Spartan king, Cleombrotus, where he would have taken his station: on the rightmost of the Spartan line, surrounded by his bodyguard of Spartan knights, the “hippeis”.

Thus, Epaminondas’ plan was to strike the strongest point of the Spartan army, where their king, his bodyguard, and the Spartiates would be stationed. If these were defeated, and quickly, he reasoned the rest of the Spartan army, comprised of allies who looked to Sparta to lead the way, would lose heart. In essence he planned to cut off the head of the snake, and let the rest of the body die on its own.

The battle began with the skirmishers and cavalry dueling between the two hosts. In this initial phase, the Theban cavalry got the better of the fight. Then, as the two opposing phalanxes approached each other, these got out-of-the-way for the main event: the push of shields.


As the Theban column bore down on them across the shallow valley, the Spartans were unconcerned. They had fought the Thebans many times before, and knew their proclivity to charge in column. The counter to which, as with any column attack, was to extend ones own line and envelop the column once it had become bogged down in the shoving contest. Cleombrotus gave the order for his Spartans to extend their line, the rear 6 ranks of the phalanx attempted to spread out to their right, sacrificing depth for frontage.

What the Spartan king didn’t foresee was the dash and élan with which Pelopidas and the Sacred Band would close the distance between them.

Coming on at breakneck pace, the Theban spearhead struck the Spartans while still in the midst of this change of formation. The Spartans were caught unprepared, moving; rather than braced for the collision of two phalanxes.

Pelopidas and the Sacred Band smashed into the Spartan hippeis at the very point where Cleombrotus and his command staff were standing, directing the realignment. Disaster for the Spartans quickly followed, as the king and the hippeis were at first born backwards like flotsam on the tide; then overthrown and trampled into the dust. Cleombrotus was mortally wounded and ushered off the field, his men desperately covering his retreat.
Lending their weight to the Sacred Band’s assault was the massive Theban column; a shimmering tide of brazen shields and helmets, and glittering iron spearheads. They pushed into the chaos created by the Sacred Band’s assault, further ripping apart and trampling the thin red Spartan line. The Spartans held for a short time, fighting stubbornly as they were born backward.

In minutes, the history of Greece was forever changed, and the myth of Spartan invincibility overturned. As their king and his officers fell, the Spartan ranks shattered and then broke.

As Epaminondas had hoped, his Boeotian allies never had to strike a blow: When they saw the Spartans break, the Peloponnesian allies withdrew back to the Spartan camp, without striking a blow.


The Thebans made no effort to pursue them. As was customary in Greek warfare, they instead erected a trophy of stacked enemy shields and spears taken from the fallen; and sent a herald to the Spartan camp, granting permission to come and collect their dead and wounded. This customary permission by the victor to the vanquished was formal recognition by both parties of who held the field. For the Spartans, long accustomed to granting and not receiving such permission, this must have been a bitter pill to swallow, indeed!

The Spartans lost 1,000 men. Of these, 400 hundred were elite Spartiates, who died where they stood. At that time in its history, the manpower of Sparta had been in sharp decline for over a century. The total manpower of Sparta at this time was only some 1,200 true Spartiates. Thus, at Leuctra a third of the military manpower of Sparta died along with their king.

Though the Spartan would attempt once again to best Epaminondas and his Thebans at Mantinea in 362, it would prove a repetition of Leuctra; with Epaminondas gaining a second victory, though losing his life in the process.

In its day, Leuctra was the “shot heard round the world”; a signal moment in which the balance of power shifted forever from Sparta and the Peloponnese. First to Thebes, which would establish in the decade after a brief hegemony; then, a generation later, to Macedon. Young Philip of Macedon was a hostage in Thebes in the years immediately after Leuctra; and was able to study the methods of Epaminondas and Pelopidas first-hand.

Greek warfare would never be the same. No longer would a two phalanxes of citizen hoplites dominate the battlefield; with a simple push of shields deciding the issue. Commanders were finding new ways to utilize their heavy troops, new methods of piercing an enemy line. Combined-arms forces of cavalry and light infantry, augmenting the heavy infantry of the Greek battle line, would replace the hoplite armies of old.

Epaminondas had not just revolutionized Greek warfare, he had given future tacticians a new trick to add to their playbook: the echeloned (sometimes called an “oblique”) advance. This tactic would allow armies to gain a local superiority at one, decisive point on the battlefield; while withholding their most unreliable troops from combat till a decision was reached. It would be used by the great Macedonians, Philip and Alexander to effect; Frederick the Great of Prussia would win immortal fame at the Battle of Leuthen in 1757 using just such an approach.

1551577.jpg The Leuctra monument at the battle site. Note the representations of Spartan shields along the top.

Here is a very well done documentary by History Channel:


[1] The chief officers of the Boeotian Confederacy

[2] The “Rearing”, the training program all Spartan boys underwent from age 8 till manhood. The boys were given little to eat; and were encouraged to “forage” from the countryside.

[3] Thucydides, The History of the Peloponnesian War 5:63

* Visit James Carrozza’s website here!


Masters of the Battlefield: Great Commanders From the Classical Age to the Napoleonic Era

And this one:

Carnage and Culture: Landmark Battles in the Rise to Western Power

Some of the artwork in this article has been reproduced with the permission of Osprey Publishing, and is © Osprey Publishing, part of Bloomsbury Publishing Plc.
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