In the 2nd century BC a “mad king” threatened to extinguish the Jewish religion and obliterate the Jew’s unique identity. A champion arose, David-like to challenge the Seleucid Goliath and defend his people: Judah Maccabee, “The Hammer”! His struggle freed the Jewish people and gave us a lasting legacy, celebrated by the Festival of Light: Hanukkah.

Hanukkah, the Jewish Festival of Lights (also known as the Feast of Dedication) is celebrated  over eight days with the lighting of the ceremonial menorah: a unique nine-branched candelabrum. The origins of this festival, and the first Hanukkah, are found in the 2nd century BC, when the Jewish people were faced with one of the greatest threats to their religion, their cultural, and their very existence.


In 331 BC Alexander the Great marched through Palestine on his way to Egypt after defeating the Persians at Issus and capturing Phoenician Tyre in the two years previous. He likely visited Jerusalem while passing through Judea, and would there have met with the Jewish temple authorities.[1]

Judea now became part of the growing Macedonian Empire, which at Alexander’s death eight years later stretched from the Danube to the Indus. As with most of the indigenous people within his empire, Alexander granted the Jews a measure of local autonomy; allowing them the right to practice their religion without interference.

However, following Alexander’s untimely death in 323 BC his empire was convulsed in a series of wars between his friends and generals, fighting to carve out a piece of the realm for themselves (See Diadochi: Macedonian Game of Thrones). When at last the Successor Wars ended a generation later, Judea became a province (“Coele-Syria“) of first the Kingdom of the Ptolemies; and then, after their victory at the Battle of Paneion in 200 BC, of the Empire of the Seleucids.

Throughout this period of Hellenistic control the Jews were left alone to conduct their religious affairs as they wished. However, in 175 BC a new king came to the Seleucid throne; one that would change the relationship between the King and his Jewish subjects, and of that between the Jews and Hellenism forever. It would lead to a seminal moment in Jewish history, when as a people they stood tall and defended their ancient religion. It would also give the Jews one of their greatest champions: Judah Maccabee, “the Hammer”.


Though often capable and even brilliant rulers and military commanders, a streak of eccentricity ran throughout the Seleucid royal family. But none of that illustrious line showed both faces, brilliant and eccentric, more clearly than the fourth Antiochus to sit the throne of Seleucus Nicator.

Second son of King Antiochus III (“The Great”), as a boy Antiochus IV was a political hostage in Rome. Following his father’s defeat at Magnesia and the subsequent Peace of Apamea in 188 BC, which limited Seleucid power in Anatolia and put strictures on their foreign policy, the Seleucid prince was handed over to the Romans as surety of his father’s good faith. In Rome Antiochus gained an appreciation for Roman Republican institutions and their incomparable fighting methods; the latter reflected in his reorganization of the Seleucid Army once he ascended to the throne (see Armies of the Successors: The Seleucids). After his release by the Romans following his father’s death, Antiochus spent time in Athens, imbibing the heady wine of Hellenism in this cultural center of Greek learning. Among the energetic and lively-minded Athenians he found himself perfectly at home, and was granted Athenian citizenship. Perhaps bemused at having a Seleucid prince in their midst, one eager to appear as simply one of the dêmos, the Athenians even elected him as one of their Archons for that year.

But when his older brother, the frugal and circumspect Seleucus IV Philopater, was assassinated by a powerful minister the prince decided to quit playing at being the heir to Demosthenes and instead to pick up the mantle of his ancestor Seleucus Nicator. Returning to Syria, the Graeco-Macedonian soldier-settlers that were the core of the royal army rallied to this scion of the House of Seleucus; and in 175 BC Antiochus was able to wrest the throne from the grasp of the usurper. Despite the fact that his nephew, Seleucus IV’s nine-year-old son Demetrius, who had taken his place as a hostage in Rome, was the most direct heir; Antiochus was proclaimed king. He adopted as his throne-name Epiphanes (“God Manifest”)[2].


Antiochus was unlike any king ever to sit the Seleucid throne before or after. His rule, like his personality, can best be described as erratic. Friendly and approachable one moment, brooding and sullen the next, he was alternately a whirlwind of cheerful action or a silent recluse. Today he might have been diagnosed as suffering from bipolar disorder. He was likely also a clinical narcissist (though a mundane narcissism is not unusual in rulers or politicians). His sojourn in Republican Rome and democratic Athens had left him with an odd taste for populous politics and a love for mingling with the hoi polloi. Occasionally he would don Roman toga and walk the teeming streets of his very-Greek capital, Antioch; “canvassing for votes” to republican Roman offices that did not exist in Syria: Curule Aedile, Praetor, Consul or Censor.[3] Or by day he might join the citizens in the great public baths, exchanging jokes with the common people as though merely one of the demos of Antioch instead of the emperor of a vast empire. At nights he would carouse through the streets of the great city[4] with a few chosen companions. A party of young men drinking late in some tavern or mansion might hear the approach of a new group of revelers, to be startled by the sudden appearance of the king and his cronies; who would join their party, drinking deep into the night. During festivals he would at times take to the stage, and like Nero perform for the populace; or join the dancers during festivals, leaping and whirling naked through the streets.

His eccentricities, his boyish enthusiasm and his good looks earned him a measure of popularity among the gregarious and volatile Antiochenes; so different from the sober, eastern  pomposity of his predecessors. However, his sudden mood swings and vindictiveness when crossed made men uneasy; and like a panther he could switch from languid relaxation to fierce and violent action in the beat of a heart.

Soon his enemies, foreign and domestic, began to refer to him not as Antiochus “Epiphanes“, but as Epimanes (“The Mad One”).


The kingdom this “mad” king inherited was a skeleton of its former, muscular self. Defeated by Rome, surrounded by foes and rivals, it was an empire ever threatened with dissolution. Once stretching from the Aegean Sea to the borders of India, the Seleucid Empire was now withering around the edges, drawing back upon its center in Syria. On all sides its enemies awaited, eager for the empire’s dismemberment.

In the west loomed the towering shadow of Rome. Suspicious of any resurgence of the once-great Seleucid power, the Roman Senate kept a watchful eye on Antiochus and his dealings with his fellow Hellenistic rulers. It was Roman policy that no Hellenistic king should grow stronger than his fellows, and so to one day pose a challenge to Rome. A weak and divided Hellenistic east was exactly to Rome’s liking; most especially the Seleucid Empire. To this end, the Roman Senate was ever meddling in Seleucid affairs, and Roman diplomacy was backed by the implied threat of the terrifyingly effective Roman legions.[5]

To the east, Seleucid control of Media (northern Iran) and the “Upper Satrapies” (those eastern Iranian provinces abutting Central Asia) was threatened by the emerging power of the Parthians, nomadic horsemen from Central Asia. There was also the question of Bactria (roughly modern Afghanistan), a Seleucid province which was ever ready to break away from the empire, and which had at times been a strong independent Greek kingdom. Epiphanes’ father, Antiochus the Great, had campaigned in the east to bring all of the lost provinces back into the fold. But in the troubled years since his defeat at Magnesia these territories had once again fallen away from the control of the Seleucid court.


But the most immediate threat to the empire was to the south, where the age-old rivalry with the Ptolemies threatened to burst once again into war over the question of Coele-Syria: Philistia, Judea, and southern Lebanon. The temper of the Alexandrian court was decidedly bellicose, and had never reconciled itself to the loss of this cross-roads border province between the two empires. This new Seleucid king, in their estimation, was untested and, if reports were to be believed, mentally unstable.

Upon taking the throne, Antiochus began implementing a plan that would ultimately unite and strengthen the Seleucid realm, and make it a power capable of standing against any of these threats.

The king was convinced that the problem with so sprawling an empire was its diversity of cultures and religions. What was needed was a single unifying culture, one that would make all the disparate people of his empire: Syrians, Babylonians, Assyrians, Medes and Persians; one people loyal to their king. This culture must be Hellenism, the culture of the ruling Graeo-Macedonian class. This had been the dream of Alexander the Great, a unity of peoples under Hellenic civilization. It was a dream Antiochus now made his own. One people, one culture, one ruler: Antiochus.

To this end, the king’s focus was soon drawn south to Judea.

Though a relatively small community within the Empire, the Jews were an important one. First, their land sat upon the strategic crossroads between Syria and Egypt, the respective centers of gravity of the two greatest Hellenistic monarchies.[6] Secondly, Jews provided quality mercenaries to both empires. Fighting in the style known by Hellenistic military writers as thureophoroi, the Jews fought in loose-order with spear and javelin, and had earned a reputation for tenacity.

Previous Ptolemaic and Seleucid rulers had left the Jews to run their own affairs. The High Priest of the Temple in Jerusalem was their de facto ruler. It was to the High Priest that the first the Ptolemaic and later the Seleucid kings addressed their concerns. He was both the religious and secular head of the Jewish community.


However there was disunity within Judea, conflict between those who clung to “the old ways”, and those who embraced aspects of Hellenism, the culture of the Greeks. At the ascension of Antiochus IV, the High Priest in Jerusalem was Onias III. A member of the traditionalist (“faithful to the law”) faction, he was no friend of the Hellenists[7] or of Seleucid rule. He was opposed by his own brother, Jason, who was ironically the leader of the Hellenist-faction. At the death of the previous king, Seleucus IV, there had been rioting in Jerusalem between the two factions. Blood ran in the streets.

Upon taking the throne, Antiochus summoned Onias and Jason to Antioch for an accounting. Jason described the desire of himself and others to fully embrace and promote the mainstream culture of the Seleucid Empire, Hellenism. He offered to build in Jerusalem public symbols of Greek culture, such as a gymnasium and public baths; and to remake Jerusalem as a Greek polis, a self-governing city-state within the empire. He also offered the king’ advisers a considerable bribe to convince Antiochus to make him High Priest in his brother’s place, in order for him to enact these changes. Antiochus came away impressed that in Jason he had found a useful agent. Onias was deposed and Jason put in his place.

Plans were laid to implement this policy of Hellenizing the peoples of the empire, starting with the Jews. If this stiff-necked, “backward” people could be Hellenized, so could any in the empire.

But first, he had to secure his hold on Coele-Syria, the rule of which was once again being challenged by his rivals in Egypt.


In 171 war  broke out between Rome and Perseus, king of Macedon; who along with his father, Philip V, had for years been carefully preparing to throw off the shackles of Roman domination. With Rome so distracted, Antiochus decided the time was ripe to secure his southern border, and to settle with Egypt the issue of Coele-Syria once-and-for-all.

The Sixth Syrian War began in 170 BC with the “Mad King” marching south at the head of a large and well-supplied army. Crossing the northern Sinai desert, he met an equally large Ptolemaic force near Pelusium led by the chief ministers of the Ptolemaic kingdom, Eulaeus and Lenaeus; who were at that same moment on their way to invading Coele-Syria! Battle was joined, and the result was complete victory for Antiochus and the Seleucid army. As the routed Ptolemaic soldiers fled the battlefield, Antiochus rode at the head of his pursuing troops, sparing the enemy soldiers from slaughter. Most of the Ptolemaic troops were Graeco-Macedonians. Like their Seleucid opponents they were either descendants of Graeco-Macedonian soldiers settled in Egypt after Alexander’s death, or Greek mercenaries[8]. In either case, the ties of racial kindred and military professionalism combined with reasons of diplomacy to stay Antiochus’ hand. Encouraged by his mercy, many of the mercenaries went over to him, joining and bolstering his army.

The defeat at Pelusium threw the Ptolemaic court into a panic. Foolishly, the child-king, Ptolemy VI Philometer was put on-board a ship, to be spirited away to safety in Ptolemaic Cyprus. His ship, however, was overtaken by a Seleucid squadron and Ptolemy captured.

This was a good start for Antiochus. But mindful that to attempt to annex Egypt might trigger Roman intervention, Antiochus now decided to install the boy-king Ptolemy Philometor (who, due to a diplomatic marriage years before, was in any case his own sister’s son and thus his nephew) back upon his throne as a Seleucid puppet. First, however, Antiochus had to capture the fortress of Pelusium, the key to Egypt. Alexandria sent a naval squadron to supply the garrison, but this relief force was defeated at sea by the Seleucid fleet. Upon news of this reverse, the demoralized fortress surrendered to Antiochus. The way now open, the Seleucid army marched into Egypt with young Ptolemy in tow.

Meanwhile in Alexandria the citizens rose up and proclaimed the child-king’s even-younger brother as their king, under the name Ptolemy Euergetes II. Antiochus turned this event to his advantage, presenting himself as the champion of the “legitimate” king, Philometer. Throwing a bridge across the Pelusiac branch of the Nile, the Seleucid army soon overran lower Egypt, except Alexandria, which held for Euergetes.

Antiochus proceeded up-river to Memphis, the ancient pharaonic capital. There he established an alternate government in the name of the “legitimate” king, Philometer. From Memphis he was able to cut off food supplies downriver to Alexandria. Discomfited, the “war faction” in Alexandria was overthrown and emissaries were sent to Memphis to negotiate peace, offering to confirm Seleucid rule in Coele-Syria. But that issue was no longer Antiochus’ war-goal. Now the prospect loomed of an Egyptian vassal kingdom, something every Seleucid king since the first had at least dreamed of (if not outright conquest of Egypt).

Refusing the offer, Antiochus marched north and laid siege to Alexandria.

However, his small fleet was not sufficient to the task of cutting the city off from the sea, and thus starving Alexandria into submission was not possible. Storming so great a city was a ghastly prospect, as the ever-prickly Alexandrians would assuredly resist his soldiers from every rooftop and alley-way. So, at the end of 169, he withdrew with his army. He had the satisfaction of leaving Egypt divided between two warring brothers, his baggage train filled with looted treasure, and with Pelusium in his control. With this fortress in his grasp the gateway to Egypt remained unbolted against his later return.

However, the rival brothers soon quickly patched-up a peace between them. Agreeing to a joint monarchy, Philometer entered Alexandria and put an end to his role as a Seleucid puppet.

Antiochus reversed his progress home, and in 168 once again marched on Egypt. At the same time he sent his fleet with a force to occupy Ptolemaic Cyprus. As his army approached the Delta, envoys from the court at Alexandria arrived in his camp. They politely thanked him for returning Philometer to his throne, and inquired why he had returned. Antiochus replied that guarantees for the future security of his realm were needed: he demanded Cyprus and the formal hand-over of Pelusium (still occupied by his garrison).

When the Alexandrian court delayed giving him an answer, Antiochus continued his advance. Returning first to Memphis, he repeated his march down river of the previous year. But as he approached Alexandria this second time, envoys from Rome awaited him. At a place called Eleusis, they arrived in his camp; the embassy led by Popillius Laenas, a Roman Senator and friendly acquaintance from his days in Rome.

1452778.jpgSeleucid soldiers, circa 160 BC

Till now Rome had watched Antiochus’ successes in Egypt with unease. But the Republic had been too distracted by its war with Macedon to interfere. However, as Antiochus marched on Egypt the final chapter in the story of the last Antigonid king of Macedon had played out. Brought to battle at Pydna, Perseus had been utterly defeated by the Roman Proconsul, Aemilius Paullus. Macedon would be reduced to the status of Roman province, and its last king, Perseus, taken to Rome in chains.

Rome was now free to deal with the ambitions of the “Mad King”.




  1. The story of Alexander sacrificing to “God” on the Temple Mount are likely apocryphal.
  2. Hellenistic monarchies did not denote the difference between kings of the same name by numbering; but instead by adding an additional “throne-name”.
  3. Whether this bizarre mime was but a bit of eccentric play-acting or evidence of delusional behavior is, from the distance of two millennia, impossible to say.
  4. During the late Hellenistic period Antioch’s population reached its peak of of between 400,000 to 600,000 people, and was one of the largest cities in the world at that time. The city was composed of four quarters, and was for this reason known as a tetrapolis. Lying along the Orontes River, the whole was about 4 miles quarter was added by Antiochus IV Epiphanes (175–164 BC); thenceforth Antioch was known as Tetrapolis. From west to east the whole was about 4 miles wide from east to west, and a bit less from north to south.
  5. See Phalanx vs Legion: Closing the Debate
  6. The Seleucid Empire and the Kingdom of the Ptolemies.
  7. Those who had adopted the culture of the ruling Graeco-Macedonian and sought to spread and enforce it among their fellow Jews.
  8. See Armies of the Successor Kingdoms: The Ptolemies

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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1445956.jpg“For the Spartans, it wasn’t walls or magnificent public buildings that made a city; it was their own ideals. In essence, Sparta was a city of the head and the heart. And it existed in its purest form in the disciplined march of a hoplite phalanx on their way to war!”

– Bettany Hughes, writer/historian.


(It is highly recommended you first read Part Four; or, to start from the beginning, go here)


The Spartan commander Brasidas arrived in Macedonia at the head of a small Army of allies and freed (and trained) helot-hoplites, called neodamodes. His purpose was to break the Athenian’s hold on the northern Aegean coast; and, ultimately, to capture Byzantium, thus severing Athens’ vital grain supply from the Black Sea region.

1445959.jpgImmediately, tensions developed between the Spartan general and his ally, the Macedonian king Perdiccas II.

Macedonia in the 5th century BC was not the united realm it would be under Philip II and Alexander. All of the western Macedonian highlands, so-called “Upper Macedonia“, were divided into semi-independent petty-kingdoms: Orestis, Pelagonia, Lyncestis, Eordea, and Elimeia . Macedonia proper, where the king’s writ was law, was confined to the great plain of the Axios River and the western foothills. Its coastal regions and the Chalcidice Peninsula were contested by the presence of independent Greek colonies who were subject-allies of the Athenian Empire.

A Macedonian national “army”, as such, did not yet exist. The sophisticated, combined-arms force Alexander led against Persia was the creation of his father Philip, and still some 70 years in the future. Perdiccas had nothing but his household cavalry and foot-guards, those nobles and their mounted retainers who chose to respond to a royal summons, and a poor-quality infantry militia of farmers and townsmen. The sarissaarmed phalanx was also a thing of the future. The Macedonian infantry of the day carried javelin. The nobility and the king’s retainers, collectively known as the “Companions” (hetairoi), were some of the best cavalry in Greece. But they were a relatively small force, numbering in the hundreds, not the thousands. While not yet the trained and well equipped cavalry regiments of Philip and Alexander, they had a reputation for excellence second only to the horsemen of Thessalia.

Perdiccas had allied with Sparta against their Athenian enemies in order to break Athenian power in the north; creating the opportunity for Macedonian expansion and control of the Macedonian coast. But upon the arrival of Brasidas and a Peloponnesian army he first demanded that his Spartan ally help him assert his authority over the highland kingdom of Lyncestis as a prelude to any campaign against the Athenians.

Brasidas had no interest in wasting time and manpower fighting Perdiccas’ private wars against his local rivals. Instead, he opened negotiations with the Lyncestians, offering himself as arbiter in their conflict with Perdiccas. Meanwhile, he marched his force into the Chalkidice to campaign against Athenian interests there.

Here his skill as a politician and (unusual for a Spartan) orator showed themselves. Proclaiming himself their liberator from Athenian domination Brasidas was able to exploit simmering resentment against Athenian high-handedness. First Acanthus, then Stagira submitted. By December he was welcomed at the Andrian colony of Argilus, and was threatening neighboring Amphipolis, the Athenian colony at the mouth of the Strymon River.

Amphipolis sent for help to the nearest Athenian force on the island of Thasos, commanded by the general Thucydides (the later historian). Thucydides rushed to the scene, landing at Eion, port of Amphipolis. Though able to garrison the port, he found learned that Amphipolis had surrendered on generous terms to Brasidas, whose army  occupied the city.

The news of the loss of Amphipolis shook Athens, evoking an immediate reaction. Thucydides was (unjustly) blamed for not “saving” the city, and was dismissed and exiled. (Unable to serve his city in this, its greatest struggle, he resigned himself to faithfully chronicling the events; providing us with one of the best histories from the ancient world.) Meanwhile, one Chalcidician town after another now followed the example of Amphipolis and went over to the Spartans.


Panicked, the Athenians requested an armistice to discuss peace; something they had rejected after their humiliating victory at Pylos and Sphacteria (see Part Four). The Spartans, eager to see the return of the prisoners taken at Sphacteria, granted the Athenian’s request.

Meanwhile, the Chalcidice cities had thrown off their Athenian allegiance and requested Brasidas’ protection. Loath to give up the fruits of his victory at Amphipolis, or to leave these towns to the “mercy” of the Athenians, he granted their pleas, sending to Sparta for reinforcement to defend his gains.

The armistice broke down, and Athens dispatched the generals Nicias and Nicostratus with an army to restore their authority in the north. Mende was recaptured, and Scione besieged (though it held out). Brasidas, for his part, found himself isolated, as the Athenians closed off the land route through Thessaly to Spartan reinforcements had any been planned.

King Perdiccas, disappointed with Brasidas for liberating the Greek cities of the Chalcidice and not turning them over to him, demanded that his ally now assist him against the Lyncestians. This time Brasidas acquiesced, and joining forces with the Macedonian king marched into the highlands to the west.

Here, they found themselves outnumbered and hard pressed by the hillmen. Perdiccas, perhaps planning all along to get rid of his too-independent Spartan ally, now betrayed Brasidas and in the middle of the night withdrew his forces. Returning to lowland Macedon, he perfidiously changed sides, making peace with the Athenians.

Brasidas found himself in dire straits, outnumbered and surrounded by hostile tribesmen. Keeping his head, the Spartan commander calmed his panicking troops, who were themselves only freed helots and Spartan allies, not born-and-bred to war Spartiates like himself. He ordered them to form-up into a large hollow square. Placing his non-combatants into the interior of the square, he now marched them through the light-armed tribesmen surrounding them. Faced by heavy infantry in good order, these were loath to close with the redoubtable Peloponnesian hoplites.

1445964.jpgTheir armor and large shields protecting them from hostile missiles, Brasidas’ force succeeded in extricating themselves with little loss. This use of the tactical square in hostile country presaged the march of Xenophon’s 10,000 twenty-three some years later, and may have inspired Xenophon (guest-friend of the Spartans) and his tactics.


Heavy infantry hoplite from this era

In April of 422 the Athenian general (and political demagogue leader) Cleon the Tanner sailed for the north with a new army and the mandate to restore Athenian control. In particular, his goal was to recapture Amphipolis, with its nearby mines and wealth of ship-building timber.

Cleon enjoyed initial success, recapturing Torone and perhaps other towns. Moving on to Eion, Cleon established a base. Then, marching his army north to Amphipolis, he reconnoitered the city.


Brasidas watched the Athenians outside the walls. Though outnumbered, he hastily formulated a plan of attack. As Cleon’s forces began to withdraw back toward Eion, the southern gates opened and Brasidas, at the head of his forces, charged out!

Cleon’s hoplites wheeled left to engage the Peloponnesians, and a fierce fight developed. Meanwhile, a second Spartan force, dispatched by Brasidas from the city’s northern gate, now came at a run around the eastern walls, to attack the Athenian’s right flank. Here stood Cleon, on the extreme right, the place where all phalanx commanders took their station.


The right flank of a phalanx is its most vulnerable place; its shieldless side. Charged here by the Peloponnesians, the Athenians gave ground, and were soon in complete rout. Cleon himself was slain in the fighting.

Unfortunately for Sparta, Brasidas too was killed in the fighting, leading the initial frontal charge into the Athenian phalanx. He was buried at Amphipolis, and honored in the city as a second founder. In Sparta, he was remembered with great honor as a hero of the city. His neodamodeis veterans were allowed to remain together as a regiment upon their return to Sparta, and to call themselves the “Brasidans”.

Brasidas was perhaps the most intrepid, bold, and forward-thinking Spartan general of the war; with Lysander (who appears later in the war) his only rival for the title as the best general Sparta ever produced. His ability as a politician and diplomat, unusual in any military man (much less a Spartan), were exceptional and allowed him to win over the Chalcidice with little bloodshed. In battle he thought beyond the simple clash of phalanx, using ruses and flank attacks to good effect. As was the case with the WWII German general Erwin Rommel, he had that rare ability of inspiring admiration in the very enemies he was fighting. It has been argued that Thucydides’ (an Athenian general who opposed him) presentation of Brasidas is nothing less than a Homeric celebration of the epic hero’s valor. Like Achilles, he died too young.

Thucydides points out that both Brasidas and Cleon represented the most bellicose elements in their respective cities. With both these leaders removed, peace could be negotiated.

Exhausted, the Spartans and Athenians soon concluded the Peace of Nicias; bringing the first half of the Peloponnesian War to a close. At the signing ceremony, one of the seventeen “most esteemed” Spartans taking part was Tellis, father Brasidas; so-honored in memory of his son’s heroic services to his country.



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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 Eleventh-part of our discussion of Britain in the so-called Age of Arthur: 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”. It was the sunset of Celtic-Roman culture in Britain; it was the Age of Arthur!

But who was Arthur?

Before we answer that question, it is necessary we understand the world in which he lived.

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


In the last decade of the 5th century two peoples were locked in a death-struggle for possession of the island of Britain. On the one hand was the Celtic kingdoms and the last vestiges of Roman civilization on the island. Pitted against them were the Germanic Anglo-Saxon invaders. From the mouth of the Humber to the Channel, all of eastern Britain was lost to these fearsome newcomers. These lands came to be known in later Welsh chronicles and poems as the “Lost Lands of Lloegyr”.

All along an imaginary line that divided the island roughly east from west, Anglo-Saxon warbands probed and raided, and new settlements pushed ever westward. The “debatable lands” between Anglo-Saxon and Briton were in constant flux, but the archaeology supports that before 500 AD the Britons were losing ground.

In 495, a momentous event occurred in the history of Britain: according to the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle (ASC) entry for that year, “Cerdic landed in Hampshire with his son, Cynic, in three ships.” He arrives along the swampy coastal region near modern Portsmouth, establishing an enclave.


This was a time when the Saxon’s Angle cousins were establishing enclaves in the northeast, from the mouth of the Thames north to the Highlands. Over the next century these incursions would solidify into the early Angle[1] kingdoms of East Anglia, Deira and Bernicia. South of the Thames Estuary the Jutes under first Hengist and then his son, Oisc (or Æsc) had already created the Kingdom of Ceint (Kent) during their wars against the Britons under Vortigern and Ambrosius Aurelianus in the past generation (see earlier installments of this series). An even more recent and dynamic kingdom, Sussex (South-Saxe) had been created between 477 and 491 by the preeminent Anglo-Saxon warleader on the island, Ælle (see Part Seven).

Thus in 495 there were far greater threats to the British hold on the island than Cerdic and his few hundred Saxons establishing an outpost in the swamps at the mouth of the Avon.

However, Cerdic is a significant player in the history of England. His outpost would grow into a bleeding sore in the side of the British kingdom of Dumnonia and become, in time, its nemesis: the Saxon Kingdom of Wessex. In the next century Wessex would steadily increase in size and power, devouring Dumnonia and ultimately the earlier Anglo-Saxon kingdoms of Sussex and Kent as well. In the 9th century Wessex under its heroic king, Alfred the Great, would become Anglo-Saxon England’s last bastion against the Danish conquest of the island.

But that was in the distant future, beyond the vision of any in Arthur’s (or Cerdic’s) own day. Few at the time would have ventured a bet that this “swamp pirate” represented a mortal threat to what was (perhaps) Briton’s strongest kingdom. In the first 20 years of his time in Hampshire Cerdic was but a nuisance; expanding in the forests and fens along the southern coast and battling occasionally with the local British authorities.

As with most of the key personalities that moved events in this period little is known of the origins of Cerdic “the Saxon”. He is described initially as an ealdorman (literally, “Elder Man”); the title held by Anglo-Saxon officials in charge of shires. Ealdormen were not independent rulers, but officers serving the various monarchs of the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms.

So who was Cerdic’s master?

The likely possibility is Ælle, King of the nearby South Saxe.

Just four years after the fall of the British coastal fortress of Anderitum gave Ælle control of the Sussex coast and a port on the Channel coast, Cerdic appears. Could Cerdic be his lieutenant, sent with an advance party to establish a westward base in British territory?


Scholars are puzzled by Cerdic’s name, which is in fact Celtic, not Germanic. Some have suggested he was a British turncoat; a British petty-king who, with the use of Saxon mercenaries asserted his independence from higher British authorities. Others that he was a “half-breed”, the offspring of a Saxon nobleman and a British mother. If so, he might have been born in the earliest days of the Saxon Advent (Adventus Saxonum), in the late 440’s or early 450’s; thus old enough by 495 to have earned a high place among the Saxons, and to have a grown (or nearly grown) son.

In 508 Cerdic fought and killed a local British petty king called Natanleod, at a place called Netley Marsh. In 519 he declared his independence from whatever overlord (if any) who held his fealty, and declared himself the independent king of Saxon Wessex (the “West Saxons”). The date of this declaration may be significant, as will soon be shown. During all of this he doesn’t seem to have drawn the full attention of Arthur (or whoever may have been the supreme leader of the Britons at the time) nor triggered a major effort to eradicate the presence of this Saxon outpost so close to the heart of Dumnonia. This might well have been a deliberate policy of Cerdic’s, to “lay low”, biding his time and waiting till bigger players vacated the stage. Ultimately Cerdic’s patience would bear fruit.


At about the same time (give-or-take a few years) as the Battle of Netley Marsh Ambrosius Aurelianusat last, died. I believe that with his death authority as supreme leader of the British passed to his successor, Arthur (See Part Ten). If we accept that along with being High King (or Riothamus, “Supreme King”) Ambrosius may have been sub-king of an area centered on Avebury as well, then Arthur may have assumed this dignity upon his uncle’s death. In later years, it was common that the Celtic “High King” was chosen from the most powerful of the British (and later Welsh) petty kingdoms. However, we know from surviving genealogies that neither Ambrosius nor Arthur were kings of the greater of these kingdoms (Dumnonia, Powys, Gwynedd, Elmet, Strathclyde, etc); nor founded lasting dynasties of their own. Both were warlords, military leaders who led the coalition forces of British kings. However, tradition (Geoffrey of Monmouth and Thomas Mallory) has both men ruling Britain as “High King”. Perhaps drawing on an earlier list of British kings, both place an intermediate figure, Uther Pendragon, between them (see below).

There is reason to believe that the transition of power from Ambrosius to Arthur was not uncontested. In both Geoffrey of Monmouth and Mallory Arthur is forced to fight his rivals in order to claim and hold his newly acquired crown. This tradition of British reluctance to accept his authority may echo historical reality, the chronicles of which are now lost. It is not unlikely that some of the British petty kings were hesitant to give Arthur the same authority and respect they accorded Ambrosius. As previously discussed, the princes of Celtic Britain were jealous of each other and reluctant to cede any authority to another. Arthur had to prove he was worthy to lead them.

As Dux Bellorum (“Leader of Battles”, or “War Leader”) riding at the head of a band of armored horsemen, Arthur now undertook an ambitious plan: to stop the seemingly inexorable westward drive of the Germanic invaders and to recover the “Lost Lands of Lloegyr”. Such a project may have been one he and his young comrades had entertained in long discussions while deep in their cups, around the midnight camp fire or beside the blazing hearth in winter garrisons. It was the one project that could unite all the rival Celtic rulers. Perhaps more importantly it was one sure to fire the imaginations of the younger generation of warriors coming of age throughout Britain, hungry for a cause to fight for and for a hero to lead them.

It is likely at this time that Arthur comes to be known as the “Pendragon”. The term means “Head Dragon”, and though we can in no way be sure how this name came to be associated with the warlord of Celtic Britain in the 6th century, it is one that came to be applied to powerful British/Welsh leaders in this era who obtained a position of primacy over the other regional kings of Celtic Britain. Could Arthur have been the first, with his fame and success lending the title a dignity other leaders in later generations wished to attach to themselves?

There is an early medieval list of the kings (Overkings) of Britain, starting in the pre-Roman days and continuing to the age of Arthur. For the 5th and 6th century, it lists the kings in chronological order:

GORTHEYRN (Vortigern). GWETHUYR VENDIGEIT (Vortimer/Vortigern the Younger). EMYRS WLEDIC (Ambrosius the Overking). UTHERPENDRIC (Uther Pendragon). ARTHUR. CONSTANTINUS (Constantine of Dumnonia). AURELIUS (Aurelius Caninus/Cynan). IUOR (?). MAELGON GOYNED (Maelgwn of Gwynedd).

None of these before Uther are called Great Dragon (“Pendragon”). After Arthur, Maelgwn of Gwynedd is called by Gildas “Great Dragon of the Island”, perhaps in imitation of the hero.

Uther Pendragon is a mystery. He is mentioned in the early Welsh chronicles/poems and is fleshed-out by Geoffrey of Monmouth as Arthur’s father. But Rodney Castleden argues persuasively in “King Arthur: the Truth Behind the Legend” against the existence of Uther Pendragon. Castleden argues that the confusion stems from a misreading of the original source.

Uter means wonderful or terrible. If one takes the early list of Overkings above and spells “Uther” as Uter (an easy transcription error), then the list changes meaning. Instead, it may have originally read, UTHERPENDRIC ARTHUR: “The Wonderful/Terrible Great Dragon Arthur”!

During his life, Arthur became known as “The Great Dragon”, or Pendragon. He was remembered by later Welsh chroniclers as “uter-pendragon”, the wonderful great dragon. Thus a transcriber’s error may have invented a character known as Uther Pendragon; which, in a effort to explain, later poets and story-tellers fleshed out a mythical biography.

A question arises: why was Arthur called “Pendragon”, while previous British leaders (such as Vortigern, Vortimer, or Ambrosius Aurelianus) were not?

Some of Arthur’s cavalry troopers, and perhaps Arthur himself, may have had Sarmatian or Alan ethnic roots, as explained in previous installments of this series. Both these peoples used the draco windsock-standard; as, for that matter, did many Roman cavalry units in the later days of the empire. In his campaigns it is likely that Arthur used such a standard. Perhaps this became very closely associated with him in a personal way. He became the living embodiment of the dragon standard that followed him, bringing terror and death to the enemies of Britain.



Writing centuries later (but perhaps drawing on now-lost contemporary sources), Nennius states that Arthur fought no less than twelve battles, culminating in the final confrontation at Mount Badon.

“At that time the English increased their numbers and grew in Britain … Then it was that the magnanimous Arthur, with all the kings and military force of Britain, fought against the Saxons…

Then Arthur fought against them in those days, together with the kings of the British; but he was their warleader (or ‘dux bellorum’).

The first battle was at the mouth of the river called Glein.

His second, third, fourth, and fifth battles were above another river which is called Dubglas and is in the region of Linnuis

The sixth battle was on the river called Bassas.

The seventh battle was in Celyddon Forest, that is, the Battle of Celyddon Coed.

The eighth battle was in Guinnion fort, and in it Arthur carried the image of the holy Mary, the everlasting Virgin, on his [shield,] and the heathen were put to flight on that day, and there was a great slaughter upon them, through the power of Our Lord Jesus Christ.

The ninth battle was in the City of the Legion.

The tenth battle was on the bank of the river called Tribruit.

The eleventh battle was on the hill called Agned.

The final battle was on Badon Hill, in which 960 men fell in one day from a single charge of Arthur’s, and no one laid them low save he alone; and he was victorious in all his campaigns”

This may all be complete invention on the part of Nennius; and if so can be dismissed without further comment. However, if for no other reason than as a thought exercise we entertain the possibility that Nennius’ list comes from some lost historical source; then we can attempt to place these battles (which give us a road-map of Arthur’s career as warleader) geographically and in some likely historical context. Using Nennius twelve battles above in just this fashion we will build a hypothetical narrative for Arthur’s struggles against his enemies.

The likely location (in my opinion) of these twelve battles gives some indication of the priority and immediacy of threats as seen by Arthur and his advisers, and perhaps reflects a concerted effort to establish his popularity and authority over all of the Celtic kingdoms, from the borders of the Pictish Highlands to Armorica (Brittany) in northwestern Gaul.

I want to stress that the following are speculative; but based (I believe) on the best conjecture possible given the strategic situation in Britain at the time as we know it.

Arthur’s twelve battles begin in the east Midlands, in the district of the old Roman city of Lindum (Lincoln). Here Angle settlement threatens the eastern flank of British Elmet.

Both Bede and Nennius attest that the Angle homeland in Jutland was largely depopulated in this era, as the Angle people migrated in mass to Britain. Archaeology on both sides of the North Sea supports this assertion. The widespread presence of Angle grave sites dating to the late 5th century, stretching from south of the Trent to East Anglia demonstrate the dire threat the Angles presented to this strategically vital region.

We don’t know who (if anyone) led the Angles in this era. Unlike the Saxons in the south, no chronicle gives name to an Angle leader in the 5th or early 6th century. Geoffrey of Monmouth provides the name Colgren. However, this name is merely a placeholder for the Angle leader (there must have been one), lacking a historically attested figure, and not to be relied upon.

Geoffrey has “Colgren” lay siege to Lincoln and this may indeed have roots in a now lost history. The attack on Lindum triggers the series of events that, in the hypothetical scenario I am about to lay out, lead to the earliest of Arthur’s twelve battles on Nennius’ list.

Nennius states that the first of these twelve battle took place “in the mouth of the river which is called Glein”. The word Glein stems from the Celtic for “pure”, and likely in Nennius’ time many rivers carried this name. But a good candidate for this battle’s location is the River Glen in Lincolnshire near modern Spalding.

This river empties into the Wash, and the area here borders Britain’s Fenlands. Historically a place of refuge for outlaws and rebels, the Fens were a natural place in which small bands of Anglo-Saxon pirates and raiders could hide. Perhaps this first battle was against a force of Anglo-Saxons newly landed at the river’s mouth. These may have been associated with a local Angle leader, reinforcements on the way join Colgren besieging Lindum, or an independent newly-arrived band of raiders.

1453358.jpg The River Glen near in Lincolnshire

We can imagine a camp of these Anglo-Saxon warriors, their shallow-draught, clinker-built longboats pulled up on the river’s muddy bank. The raiders are perhaps squatting around small, smoky fires, making breakfast. Others are going about the mundane business of camp chores: gathering firewood, mending sails, or cleaning weapons and polishing armor. Suddenly the ground rumbles, and out of the morning mist appear Arthur and his mounted “Combrogi”.

Horns blowing, the armored lancers charge in amongst the startled and unsuspecting German warriors, swords rising and falling, lances stabbing. Carnage and slaughter follows, and few of the pirates survive to flee into the fens.

Riding rapidly north, Arthur’s horsemen outstrip news of their coming, and of the slaughter at the Glein. A day later, they appear at Lindum, where Colgren’s army is investing the British stronghold.




  1. There is reason to suspect that not all these early Germanic settlements were Angle, or remained so. A plausible theory exists for a Swedish royal connection in East Anglia. It is curious that Beowulf, a poem about a 5th or 6th century south Swedish hero should have been written in East Anglia.
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The Battle of Brunanburh in 937 is mostly forgotten today, but it is a battle that deserves to be remembered. For it was the largest and bloodiest battle fought in Anglo-Saxon England prior to Hastings (and likely surpassing that later battle in the numbers of combatants involved). It left its victor, King Athelstan of Wessex the first Anglo-Saxon ruler to be called “King of England”.

Athelstan was the son and heir of Edward the Elder, and grandson of Alfred the Great. Upon his father’s death in 924, Athelstan was acclaimed first King of Mercia (central England), and then on the following year King of Wessex (the dominant Anglo-Saxon kingdom, encompassing all the area south of the Thames). In 927, continuing the ambitious anti-Danish policies of his father and grandfather, Athelstan conquered York; which had been in Danish hands for 60 years, since captured by Ivar the Boneless and the “Great Heathen Army” in 867.

After this  Constantine II of Alba (Scotland) and Owen I, ruler of British Strathclyde (Cumberland), submitted to Athelstan’s over-lordship. This effectively placed all of “England”  under Saxon rule for the first time in history. (Prior to the Danish invasion of 866, England had been composed of four rival kingdoms: Northumbria, Mercia, East Anglia, and Wessex. The first three of these were Anglish; with Wessex the only Saxon kingdom.)

After seven years of peace Athelstan invaded Scottish territory. It has been suggested this was on account of Constantine’s attempt to renounce his submission to Athelstan’s over-lordship. A coalition was formed to oppose Wessex/English domination, which included the Hiberno-Scandinavian[1]  ruler of Dublin, Olaf Guthfrithsson (called Anlaf in the Old-English poem “The Battle of Brunanburh“, possibly a great-grandson of Ivar the Boneless); as well as Owen of Strathclyde and several “petty kings” and jarls joining Constantine of Alba in opposition to Athelstan.

1393024.jpgOlaf crossed the Irish Sea with a Hiberno-Scandinavian army and marched through Cumberland, joined along the way by a force of Strathclyde British. In Northumberland they united their forces with that of Constantine’s Scots, along with various Danish jarls of northern England eagerly taking the opportunity to rise against their new Saxon overlord. This allied army met the Northumbrian Fyrd (freeman-levy) in battle, commanded by Athelstan’s ealdorman, Gudrek and Alfgeir. The English were routed, with Gudrek slain. Alfgeir fled south to Athelstan, leaving Olaf and the allies in possession of Northumbria.

Athelstan realized the enormity of the danger he faced, which threatened to undo all he had thus far achieved. He acted quickly, raising an equally large army from his lands in the south and hired Scandinavian mercenaries to strengthen his forces.

Athelstan’s army was comprised of the united fyrds of Wessex, East Anglia, and Mercia. These farmers and townsmen came armed with spear or axe and shield. They had little armor, but two generations of wars against the Danes had infused the English with a wealth of battle experience, and many were older veterans of earlier campaigns. Strengthening the fyrdmen were the professional warriors of Athelstan’s hearth-weru (“Hearth-troops”, or household guards) and the armed retainers of the leading ealdormen of the shires. Since the days of Alfred, such Saxon armies had stood toe-to-toe and bested one Viking army-after-another; and would have come to Brunanburh filled with confidence.

The numbers involved at Brunanburh are unknown, only that the armies were approximately the same size. Considering that this battle involved major forces from throughout the British Isles, with levies on either side drawn from as far afield as Ireland and Scotland, and all of England from the Cheviot Hills to the Channel (and even a strong force of Viking mercenaries, primarily from Norway and Iceland) a figure of 15,000 per side seems reasonable.

The only complete account of this campaign and the climatic battle is found in the Icelandic Egils Saga.  The Icelandic sagas, penned centuries after the fact in most cases have to be taken with a grain of salt. But where we are capable of cross-checking the details with other independent sources they hold-up fairly well. For instance, the account in Clontarf found in Njals Saga matches fairly closely with the Irish account of the battle; and Stamford Bridge in King Haralds Saga, while confusing the use of cavalry by the English Huscarls with the Normans at Hastings a few months later, is otherwise a credible account of that battle.

According to Egils Saga a force of 300 veteran Norse/Icelander Vikings joined Athelstan’s guardsmen. These were led by two recently arrived Icelander brothers, the sons of Skallagrim (also referred to in the Saga as Skalla-Grímr, or “bald Grim”): Thorolf and Egil. It has been suggested that Athelstan hired several thousand such mercenaries, putting them all under the command of the experienced Skallagrimsson brothers.

1393079.jpgThe opposing forces met at a place called Brunanburh; or, according to Egils Saga, on a moor called Vin-heath. The location of the battle is not known for certain. But there are three leading contenders.

The first, popular today, is Bromborough in western England district known as the Wirral, southwest of modern Liverpool. Apparently the name of Bromborough may be derived from Old English Brunanburh (meaning ‘Brun’s fort’). There are also locations nearby that some have attempted to identify with the Dingesmere, a place mentioned in both the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle and the Old English poem, The Battle of Brunanburh, in connection with the battle. But this location in the Wirral seems too far southwest for a Scot and Strathclyde army to be operating, so far from their respective home bases (particularly as there were no good north-south roads connecting this area through Cumberland to Strathclyde and Scotland in the north). It also seems too far in the west to be the location for the decisive battle of a war fought over the control of Northumbria and Yorkshire, on the other (eastern) side of the Pennines.

1609955.jpgThe second contender is Burnley, a market town in Lancashire; where local folklore tells of a great battle on the moors. Local tradition holds that five kings were buried under tumuli on these same moors. Perhaps after the defeat of the Northumbrian ealdormen Olaf and the allies regrouped nearer their power centers in the north. But this makes little strategic sense. Having driven Athelstan’s forces out of Northumbria, why would the coalition army then pull out, marching back north? For the same reason, I dismiss another contender, Burnswark, situated near Lockerbie in Scotland.

A final, strong, choice for the battle site is in Lincolnshire, east of the Pennines, along the Great North Road between Derby and Rotherham. Historian Michael Wood suggests Tinsley Wood near Brinsworth as a plausible location. Wood notes that there is a hill nearby, White Hill, observing that the surrounding landscape fits the description of the battlefield contained in Egil’s Saga. Geographically this location makes the most sense. It is in the southern part of Northumbria, where one would expect the allies (who had recently overrun Northumbria) to contest with the English for control of that region.

Wherever the battle may have been fought, it seems that the opposing armies agreed to meet at Brunanburh, the winner to take all “England”. Egils Saga portrays this arrangement of a fixed battle as the result of a ruse posed by Athelstan’s Norse captain, Egil Skallagrimsson, to stop the allies from looting English territory while the King gathered his forces.

A challenge was issued to meet on a field “enhazelled”.

This was a version (writ large) of the Scandinavian dueling custom called a holmgang; in which combatants met to fight on an appointed field, the boundaries of which were marked out with hazel rods or branches. There is no other example I know of where this custom was expanded to encompass a battle between armies.

According to Egils Saga, a messenger was sent to Olaf challenging him to bring his army to meet Athelstan in battle:

(they sent) messengers to King Olaf, giving out this as their errand, that king Athelstan would fain enhazel him a field and offer battle on Vin-heath by Vin-wood; meanwhile he would have them forbear to harry his land; but of the twain he should rule England who should conquer in the battle. He appointed a week hence for the conflict, and whichever first came on the ground should wait a week for the other. Now this was then the custom, that so soon as a king had enhazelled a field, it was a shameful act to harry before the battle was ended. Accordingly king Olaf halted and harried not, but waited till the appointed day, when he moved his army to Vin-heath.

King Olaf, commanding the allies, accepted the challenge. Accordingly, he halted his army at Brunanburh (which Egils Saga say was at Vin-heath by Vin-woods) and ceased ravaging the countryside about,  waiting for Athelstan to arrive by the appointed day.

To the north of the heath, there was a village where Olaf made his headquarters. He sent a force of Scots and Strathclyde British commanded by two brothers, jarls Hring and Athils, up to the heath to camp on the prospective battleground and stake out the allied position. They found the hazel rods already in place along the edges of the field; and an English force camped in place to the south, commanded by the Skallagrimsson brothers.

As the appointed day for the battle approached King Athelstan was still gathering his forces and needed more time. He had sent Egil and his brother Thorolf, commanding the English vanguard composed of their own 300 Norse Vikings along with the remnants of the Northumbrian forces defeated earlier, under ealdorman Alfgeir, to Brunanburh. This was the force Hring and Athils found camped on the south end of the heath.

To make their numbers appear larger, the English disguised their small numbers by pitching more tents than they had need of, and arranged for a large portion of their men to occupy themselves outside the camp in view of the enemy as though the camp were over-flowing. When these were approached by Olaf’s men (there being a truce in place till the battle day), Athelstan’s men claimed that these tents were all full, so full that their people had to sleep out on the open heath!

When the appointed day of battle came Olaf marshaled his army and prepared to march onto the heath. Athelstan had yet to appear. Thorolf and Egil found yet another clever way of delaying the enemy and of buying the English more time: they sent an envoy to Olaf, feigning a message from King Athelstan; offering to avoid battle and pay “Danegeld” to Olaf and his allies.

Instead of attacking that day, Olaf called a conference of his allies to discuss the offer. Athelstan’s (supposed) offer was rejected as insufficient, and the allies countered with a demand for more. The English envoys begged for time to bring this offer to King Athelstan, who they claimed was a day’s journey to the south with a “mighty host”, and for their king to consider and respond. Olaf agreed to a further three days truce.

1393078.jpgAt the end of this period, the Skallagrimsson’s sent another envoy across the heath to Olaf’s camp, again claiming to be from King Athelstan. They offered the original amount; plus an additional “shilling to every freeborn man, a silver mark to every officer of a company of twelve men or more, a gold mark to every captain of a king’s guard, and five gold marks to every jarl[2]. Again Olaf took this offer to a council of his allies, who after deliberation agreed that if Athelstan would also cede to Olaf the overlordship of Northumbria, the allies would withdraw to their homes. Another three days were granted for Olaf’s emissaries to accompany the English envoys back to Athelstan and await his answer.

Thus the clever Skallagrimsson brothers, wily Viking freebooters, stretched out negotiations and gained the English monarch an additional week to marshal his forces. Athelstan arrived with his army south of the heath at the end of the period of truce. They took Olaf’s offer to the King, explaining their ruse and their offers on his behalf as well.

Athelstan took no time in rejecting Olaf’s terms, instead demanding that the coalition withdraw from Northumbria and return to their own lands, after returning the booty they had thus far taken on the campaign. Adding insult to injury, Athelstan further demanded that the cost of peace would be that Olaf (and perhaps the other coalition rulers) become his vassals, ruling their lands as “under-kings”.

“Go now back”, he told Olaf’s emissaries, “and tell him this.”

According to Egils Saga:

At once that same evening the messengers turned back on their way, and came to king Olaf about midnight; they then waked the king, and told him straightway the words of king Athelstan. The king instantly summoned his earls and other captains; he then caused the messengers to come and declare the issue of their errand and the words of Athelstan. But when this was made known before the soldiers, all with one mouth said that this was now before them, to prepare for battle.

Realizing he had been hoodwinked all along and now enraged, Olaf sent his jarls, Hring and Athils, back to their troops encamped on the heath with orders to attack the English advance guard under the wily Skallagrim brothers at first light. He promised to marshal the army and move to support them as soon as his forces were ready.

1393081.jpgThe battlefield at Brunanburh was set on a broad heath, or moor. It was bounded on the north and south by villages, which were the headquarters for each army. Which of these, if either, was called Brunanburh is unknown. The heath itself was level ground, bounded by a river on the west and the Vin-Wood to the east.

At first light, Hring and Athils led their men against the English vanguard of Norse and Northumbrians under the Skallagrimssons and Ealdorman Alfgeir, respectively. Egils Saga tells the tale thus:

As day dawned, Thorolf’s sentries saw the (enemy) army approaching. Then was a war-blast blown, and men donned their arms…they began to draw up the force, and they had two divisions. Earl Alfgeir commanded one division, and the standard was borne before him. In that division were his own followers, and also what force had been gathered from the countryside. It was a much larger force than that which followed Thorolf and Egil…. All their (the Skallagrimssons) men had Norwegian shields and Norwegian armor in every point; and in their division were all the Norsemen who were present.

The larger force of Northumbrians under Alfgeir took up a position on the left, their flank resting on the river. The Norsemen were on the higher ground beside the woods; and though the Saga is unclear on this, it seems likely that their was a gap between their two forces. The jarls Athils and Hring also drew up their force of Scots and Strathclyde Britons in two divisions, with Athils opposed to ealdorman Alfgeir on the lower ground, by the river, with Hring arrayed against the Norse Vikings on the high ground by the forest.

The opening act of the Battle of Brunanburh now began.

Both sides charged forward with spirit. Jarl Athils pressed the Northumbrians hard, forcing Alfgeir and his men to give ground. Before long the Northumbrians broke and Alfgeir fled, abandoning the Norse Vikings fighting beside them.

1393150.jpg(This was the second time Alfgeir had abandoned a field in defeat. So sure he was of censure and punishment by Athelstan that he and his surviving followers avoided the king’s army and fled in disgrace south, into Wessex. From here, Alfgeir took ship to Frankia, where he had kin, never to return to England again.)

On the high-ground on the English right flank the Norse were holding their own against jarl Hring’s Strathclyde Britons. After pursuing Alfgeir’s Northumbrians for a distance, jarl Athils returned with his men to the field, coming up behind the Norse. Thorolf Skallagrimsson detached his brother Egil with half their troops and the standard, to turn about and fall upon Athils. Meanwhile he, Thorolf, pulled his remaining men back to the wood’s edge, forming a half circle with their wings resting on the woodline, where his men stood firm with their backs so protected.

Meanwhile Egil’s force charged against Adils’, and “they had a hard fight of it”, says the saga. “The odds of numbers were great (against them), yet more of Adils’ men fell than of Egil’s”. Still, the situation looked dire for the Athelstan’s Norse vanguard.

Egils Saga says that at this point Thorolf “became furious”. What is meant by this is unclear, but judging by what followed it seems to mean that Thorolf was overcome by what the Scandinavian sagas call “Berserkergang”: a furious battle-madness that lent the “berserk” a terrible strength and rendered him insensate to pain or fatigue. According to the sagas, berserks were “strong as bears or wild oxen, and killed people at a blow, but neither fire nor iron told upon them”. Its seems that Thorolf Skallagrimsson went “berserker”.

Throwing his shield onto his back, his “halberd” grasped with both hands, he raged forward against Hring’s troops, dealing cut and thrust on either side.

Thorolf’s weapon, as described in Egils Saga, is something of a mystery; matching no weapon described elsewhere in the sagas or in any account of Viking warfare: “(its) blade was two ells long (25”), ending in a four-edged spike; the blade was broad above, the socket both long and thick. The shaft stood just high enough for the hand to grasp the socket, and was remarkably thick. The socket fitted with iron prong on the shaft, which was also wound round with iron. Such weapons were called mail-piercers”. This could be simply describing a 5’-6’ great axe with a long spike at the end; but much of the description is open to interpretation.

Men sprang away from him both ways, but he slew many. Thus he cleared the way forward to earl Hring’s standard, and then nothing could stop him. He slew the man who bore the earl’s standard, and cut down the standard-pole. After that he lunged with his halberd at the earl’s breast, driving it right through mail-coat and body, so that it came out at the shoulders; and he lifted him up on the halberd over his head, and planted the butt-end in the ground. There on the weapon the earl breathed out his life in sight of all, both friends and foes. Then Thorolf drew his sword and dealt blows on either side, his men also charging. Many Britons and Scots fell, but some turned and fled.

1609956.jpgWith his brother Hring dead and his forces routed, the tide now turned against Athils. With his men falling around him or beginning to run away, he fled with those still fighting into the woods, where they were pursued for a short time by the Norse, who killed many before the rest escaped deep into the forest.

Now both of the main armies came up onto the heath. But the day being late, they camped on the site where their mutual vanguards had been for the last week. Thorolf and Egil returned to camp, where Athelstan praised the Skallagrimsson’s for their victory in this first round of the conflict. They stayed the night together, pledging friendship.

King Olaf was apprised of the events on the heath that day, and that his jarls Hring and Athils were defeated, their men dead or scattered, and the former dead on the field. He must have spent the night with some trepidation, but prepared for battle the next day.

At dawn both armies deployed, their forces arrayed as on the first day in two wings.

Athelstan placed the bulk of his army around himself and his banner in the low ground beside the river, where rested his left flank; in the same place Alfgeir had occupied the day before.  The saga says he placed the “smartest” companies in the van. This likely means that the better armed and armored household troops of the various ealdormen were in the front ranks; and the less experienced and poorly equipped fyrdmen behind them. There is no mention of where his own elite “Hearthmen” were stationed, but the Saga claims he asked Egil Skallagrimsson to command this mainbody, and the author of the Saga likely means that Egil was commanding the king’s Hearthmen. It is probable they formed the center of this division of the army, around the royal banner bearing the dragon of Wessex.

Athelstan placed the Norsemen, supported by other unspecified troops, again on the higher ground on the right, by the woods. These were commanded by Thorolf Skallagrimsson. They were to face the Scots, who fought as spearmen supported by a swarm of javelin-armed light skirmishers. Athelstan appreciated that the light-armed Scots were only dangerous to a foe that allowed his formation to break-up; and the king told Thorolf that he trusted the veteran Norse Vikings to maintain their tightly ordered shield wall.

When the king commanded these dispositions, Egil objected to being separated from his brother. But Thorolf quieted him, saying it should be as the king ordered. Filled with foreboding, Egil said, “Brother, you will have your way; but this separation I shall often rue.”

Olaf’s dispositions matched those of the English, with his own standard opposite that of Athelstan’s, his right flank on the river. His Hiberno-Scandinavian warriors, as well as the household troops of the various Northumbrian Danish Jarls would face Athelstan’s Saxon and English troops. As mentioned, Olaf’s Scottish allies faced Thorolf’s Vikings on the higher ground beside the Vin-wood.

Both armies (with the exception of the Scots) fought in much the same way: a dense line, many ranks deep, fighting close together with shields overlapping. This formation was called the “shieldburg”, or “shieldwall”. Warriors would strike at each other from over (or under) the rim of their shields, with spear, sword, and long-axe. Men in the second rank would support the first, holding their shields over their comrade’s heads; or, if armed with the long-hafted Danish battle-ax, strike from above at unprotected heads. Such a battle between two evenly matched and well-ordered shieldwalls was a bloody slug-fest; as men battled over or stepped upon a carpet of their own or enemy dead. One way of breaking such a formation quickly was the “swine-array”, a wedge-shaped formation meant to penetrate and shatter a shieldwall.

Drawing up armies of this size was an affair of hours, and it is unlikely the battle commenced before noon. The opposing armies closed with each other, hurling throwing axes and spears at their foes as they did. Then the walls of brightly-painted shields clashed together, and as the Saga says “the battle waxed fierce”.

On the right, Thorolf pressed eagerly forward along the edge of the woods, attempting to rapidly bend back and turn the flank of the Scots. Holding their linden wood shields before them, they brushed aside the barrage of light javelins the Scots hurled as they came on. Apparently, in his eagerness to get around the enemy’s flank, Thorolf ran far ahead of his followers. This was to prove his undoing.

At just this moment, out from the woods to Thorolf’s right, suddenly leapt jarl Athils and his surviving followers. It is not stated if they merely returned from deep in the wood, where they had taken refuge the day before, at an opportune time for the allies; or if this was an ambuscade planned in advance. But their sudden appearance caught Thorolf and his Norsemen by complete surprise.

1393120Out ahead of his men, Thorolf found himself momentarily isolated, swarmed about and struck at from all sides. He was slain, and his men drew back. “The Scots shouted a shout of victory, as having slain the enemy’s chieftain.” With Athils’ followers they fell upon the leaderless Norse, and the struggle here grew desperate for Athelstan’s Vikings.

From his position by the King’s banner Egil Skallagrimsson saw his brother’s banner pushed backward; and hearing the Scots triumphant shouting surmised his brother’s plight. He left his place and rushed to the right-wing, where he took command of his flagging Norse comrades.

With Egil in the van ferociously laying about him, the Norse (likely now formed in “swine-array”) hacked their way to Athils’ standard. The Saga says “few blows did they exchange” before Egil cut the northern jarl down, avenging his brother. Their leader slain, Athils’ men now broke and ran, the Norse close on their heals hacking at their backs. Nor did the Scots long stand, but seeing their Strathclyde allies flee likewise took to their heals.

To the west, the battle raged on the lower ground by the river, both shieldwalls locked in fierce struggle. Neither had the advantage, and many fell on both sides. Then, returning from pursuing the Scots, Egil and the Norse fell upon the rear of King Olaf’s division. The carnage was terrible, as Olaf’s warriors were struck down from behind. Seeing his enemy beginning to crumble, Athelstan ordered his standard forward, and the English line advanced with renewed fury.

1393083.jpgThe Hiberno-Scandinavian line disintegrated, and the Saga claims there was “great slaughter”. The casualty figures for either combatants are unknown, but many thousands died on both sides, and the coalition army was utterly routed. Here the Saga’s account of the battle ends, stating:

King Olaf fell there, and the greater part of the force which he had had, for of those who turned to fly all who were overtaken were slain. Thus king Athelstan gained a signal victory.

But on the fate of Olaf Guthfrithsson Egils Saga is mistaken: Olaf escaped with at least a portion of his men, returning in defeat to Dublin.

However, the Saga is correct that Athelstan’s victory was indeed decisive. He had destroyed the coalition against him, and reasserted English control over Northumbria. The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle records the deaths of five kings and seven jarls among his enemies. Among the slain was the Scottish king’s own son, cut down by Egil’s vengeful Norse. The Annals of Ulster agree:

Many thousands of Norsemen beyond number died although King Anlaf (Olaf) escaped with a few men. While a great number of the Saxons also fell on the other side, Æthelstan, king of the Saxons, was enriched by the great victory.



Athelstan had completed the work begun by his grandfather, Alfred: he had united all the former Anglo-Saxon kingdoms under the Dragon of Wessex; forced the Strathclyde British and the Scots into vassalage; and in the process turned back yet another attempt by Scandinavian forces to assert control of Northumbria.

After Athelstan’s death two years later, Olaf would return in 939 and force Athelstan’s successor, his brother Edmund, to cede Northumbria and part of Mercia. Thereafter, Hiberno-Scandinavian kings ruled Northumbria from York for decades (with the exiled Norwegian King, Eric Bloodaxe seizing and holding Northumbria twice during this period). Control of Northumbria would pass back-and-forth between English and Scandinavian rulers till after 1066, when England’s new Norman masters would finally bring the region under their control.

But in the years following his crowning victory at bloody Brunanburh Athelstan son of Edward had earned the right to style himself “Æthelstan, King over all Britain and Scotland” (totius rex Brittanniae et Albionis): the first “King of England”.

Tomb of Athelstan at Malmesbury 



1. Many authors refer to Olaf’s forces as Hiberno-Norse; or simple Norsemen. But as many, including Olaf himself, were of Danish extraction it is inaccurate to call them such. To avoid confusion with the Norsemen who followed Thorolf and Egil Skallagrimsson and fought with Athelstan, I refer to Olaf’s warriors as Hiberno-Scandinavian.

2. Egils Saga, Ch 52



David Pilling is an excellent historical author, whose books I enjoy immensely. His series on the Arthurian Age in Britain is quite good, and I share most of his historical conclusions. Here is the first in that series:

Leader of Battles (I): Ambrosius (Historical Action Adventure)

Continue reading

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1416526.jpgHenry V leads the original “Band of Brothers” to a bloody triumph against all odds on Saint Crispin’s Day, 1415

We few, we happy few, we band of brothers; For he to-day that sheds his blood with me Shall be my brother; be he ne’er so vile, This day shall gentle his condition;
And gentlemen in England now-a-bed Shall think themselves accurs’d they were not  here, And hold their manhoods cheap whiles any speaks That fought with us upon Saint Crispin’s day.”

The St. Crispin’s Day speech, which the Immortal Bard places in the mouth of his hero, King Henry V of England, is one of the great battle speeches in literature. Though likely Shakespeare’s own invention, it brilliantly portrays a young, inspiring commander attempting to hearten his starving and dispirited soldiers in desperate straits, as they face battle against (seemingly) hopeless odds. Whatever Henry may have actually said that fateful morning in October is lost to history. But what is not lost is how he and his tiny force of desperate men stood firmly on the muddy field of Agincourt and defeated five-times their number, which included the flower of French chivalry.


Henry V (center) and as portrayed by Lawrence Olivier (L) and Kenneth Branaugh

Soon after coming to the throne in 1413 the 26-year-old Henry proclaimed his intention to renew the century-old Plantagenet claim to the crown of France. This claim was the original casus belli for the Hundred Years War, which had lain dormant for a generation. It was a particularly audacious move on Henry’s part, in that France had defeated the English and largely driven them from France in the previous century, and were widely considered a much stronger kingdom. However, the King of France at this time, Charles VI, suffered from bouts of madness (a trait he would perhaps pass on to his grandson, Henry VI of England). As often when the monarch is weak or infirm powerful nobles had maneuvered to fill the power vacuum the king’s incapacity created. Factions had come to blows, and France was a nation whose nobility were divided against each other.

Henry, whose own claim to the English throne was questionable (his father had usurped the crown from his weak cousin, King Richard II) understood that nothing so unites a nation like a foreign war and a common enemy. The glorious victories of Edward III and the Black Prince sixty-and-more years earlier were hardly forgotten. Many an Englishman of all classes in society had benefited from the pillage brought home from frequent campaigns across the Channel during their campaigns in France. What Henry needed to cement the loyalty of his subjects was success in battle against the hated French, and to gain a reputation as a warrior king.

1416562.jpg Map depicting area of Henry’s 1415 campaign; from the estimable Bernard Cornwell’s “Agincourt”

On 11 August, 1415 Henry crossed the Channel into Normandy to begin a grand raid across northern France, following the same strategy Edward III and others had used before. However, a short and successful raid was not in the cards. Henry’s first target, the port town of Harfleur, at the mouth of the River Seine, held out for much longer than expected. By the time the town was successfully stormed on September 22 it was too late in the campaigning season to exploit this minimal gain. The delay had also allowed the outraged nobles of France to assemble a large army near Rouen, under the command of the greatest magnates in the realm. These were marching north to punish Henry for his effrontery.

1416568.jpg Henry’s army lost precious time besieging Harfleur. (Image by Graham Turner, thanks to Osprey Publishing.)

Merely embarking his army and returning to England would do little to improve his reputation, and might well be seen as cowardly; potentially fatal to a young king seated insecurely on an ill-gotten throne. So, instead, Henry decided to extend the campaign with a raid through Picardy, perhaps consciously following in the footsteps of Edward III and his Crecy campaign of 1346. Defiantly marching through northern France he could end this chevauchée at the sanctuary of English-held Calais; the only lasting fruit of Edward III’s great victory of Crecy.

As with any Medieval armies which sat down in one place too long, Henry’s army at Harfleur was racked by dysentery. So it was a sick and slow English force that set out, marching through a largely bare and (with winter approaching) an increasingly wet countryside. The English soon discovered that a dauntingly-large army, led by the greatest lords of France followed close on their heels, looking to bring them to battle. Worse, arriving at the River Somme, Henry found his way across blocked by a second French force of several thousand on the opposite bank attempting to block his crossing and trap him on the western bank.

This was exactly the same situation his great-grandfather had faced almost 70 years earlier. At risk of being hammered against the river by the pursuing French main army, Henry marched upriver, seeking an unopposed crossing point. All the while the French blocking force across the river shadowed his march, prepared to stop any attempt to cross. However, at a bend in the river, one that bulged northeast for many miles, Henry was able to cut across the base while the French on the opposite bank had to travel around the outside circumference. This allowed the English to find a crossing place unopposed.

However, the delay in getting across the Somme allowed Henry’s pursuers to cross down river and join the blocking force. The French, now north of Henry, moved to cut him off from Calais and force him to battle. The English halted near the castle of Agincourt, not far from where the French sat across their line of march. Here the terrain narrowed between two woods, offering Henry a place where his smaller army could fight with both their flanks secure. The English camped and prepared for battle.

The size of the English and French forces has traditionally been stated as being 6,000 and 36,000 respectively. Recent revisionist historians have attempted to place the French number at a mere 12,000, and the English (conversely) as high as 9,000 strong; and thus diminishing the wonder of Henry’s victory in the battle that followed. However, this is contrary to all contemporary sources, including French, which put the French forces as not less than 20,000; and most agree to the higher number of 36,000. It has been accepted by most historians since the battle that the French outnumbered the English by as many as five-to-one.[1]

1588024.jpgThe French at Agincourt were commanded by Count Charles d’Albret, the Constable of France, the highest ranking military officer under the King. He was assisted by the renowned old knight Jean II Le Maingre, called Boucicaut, the Marshal of France. Boucicaut was a veteran of the ill-fated Nicopolis Crusade, being one of the very few to have been ransomed back by the Turks. Though both d’Albret and Boucicaut were experienced and capable medieval commanders they lacked the necessary social rank to rein-in the headstrong nobility of France. These included 5 Dukes (Orleans, Bourbon, Alençon, Brabant, and Bar) and at least 8 Counts; as well as dozens of lesser nobles and knights. The presence of these high-ranking lords worked to the detriment of the army’s command-and-control: quarrelsome and proud, even the Constable could not order about these princes of the realm; and throughout the battle no one man truly commanded the French forces.[2]

The English knew the odds against them, and had little illusions regarding the likely outcome of the battle before them. In the case of defeat, mutilation or death awaited the archers [3], and death or capture the men-at-arms. But with the desperate courage of men with no other option the English prepared to stand and triumph, or to die in place.


From “Henry V” (1944), directed by and starring Sir Lawrence Olivier. The film did and excellent job of recreating the armor of the day. Here Henry treats with a French emissary. His uncle, the Duke of York, stands behind and to the right of Henry, bearing the Plantagenet arms, cadet branch

Terrain was the key factor in the coming battle. By placing themselves across Henry’s line of march at Agincourt, the French had gifted the English with a narrow field; perfect for an army so badly outnumbered. This narrowness allowed Henry’s much smaller army to anchor its flanks upon the woods to either side,  preventing them being outflanked.

A second (and even more critical) factor was the state of the ground itself: steady rain the previous days had turned the newly plowed field into a muddy morass. Worse, deep furrows had been plowed into the clay soil for the planting of winter wheat. With the previous night’s rain, these had become flooded man traps, with the clay beneath turned to sucking mud.

Terrain aside, Henry had another great advantage: the five thousand English archers were all armed with the longbow, a highly effective weapon capable of delivering 15 arrows a minute in the hands of the expert English archers. With an astonishing draw rate of 120 – 150 pounds, it could reach out to 350 yards, penetrating mail at 100 yards and light plate armor at 25 yards. At a rate of fire of 12 arrows a minute Henry’s five thousand archers could loose 60,000 arrows each minute; or 1,000 arrows every second! When the archers launched their attack the white goose-feather fletching’s on the falling arrows gave the appearance of a snow storm.

The Longbow had proven a battle-winner during the battles of the previous century. But the French knights in 1415 were heavily armored in the newest plate armor over their mail, much improved since the days of Crecy and Poitiers. For this reason (as well as class chauvinism) they disrespected and dismissed the potential effectiveness of the English archers in the coming battle.


By 1415 the noble warriors of Europe were very well protected in suits of plate armor with mail beneath. However, the weight of such armor proved detrimental in the muddy field of Agincourt.

The French cheerfully prepared for the coming battle, confident in their numbers and prowess. So sure were they of victory the French lords diced the night before, wagering for the ransoms they could expect to gain in the capture of the English nobility in Henry’s army!

In the morning, the French deployed in three “battles” (divisions), on in front of the other. The vanguard, or first division, consisted of 5-8,000 dismounted men-at-arms[4]; and was commanded by Constable D’Albret and Marshal Boucicault. This first division was crowded with nobles eager to be the first to fall upon and come to blows with the English “Goddames”, and included the Dukes of Orléans and Bourbon. Their horses were sent to the rear, it being understood that the English arrows were particularly dangerous to the only partially armored horses. However, the vanguard would be supported in the initial attack by two wings of mounted cavalry under the Count of Vendôme and Sir Clignet de Brebant (a famous knight, one of seven French champions in a renown deed-of-arms against a like-number of English champions in 1402). Their role would be to charge and break through the archers on the English wings, and then to swing inwards and attack the English men-at-arms from behind, this while the first French “battle” pinned the English in place. This tactic had worked well at the Battle of Roosebeke in 1382, where Boucicaut had earned his spurs; and it is likely that at the old soldier’s suggestion that this plan of attack was adopted.

The French second line was commanded by the Dukes of Bar and Alençon, and the Count of Nevers. Alençon had bragged the night before that he would personally kill or capture King Henry, so that he could be displayed in Paris (“in an iron cage”). This division contained 3,000 men-at-arms (also dismounted), and perhaps several thousand crossbows. The third line, or “rear”, was commanded by the Counts of Dammartin and Marle, and may have numbered as many as 10,000 and included most of the foot.

1416705.jpgKing Henry deployed his much smaller army across a 750 yard section of the field in the typical English fashion of the 100 Years War. His approximately 1,000 dismounted men-at-arms were also divided into three “battles”, side by side instead of one in front of the other (as with the French): the right-wing, led by the King’s uncle the Duke of York, a grandson of Edward III; the center (or “main”) led by King Henry himself, assisted by his younger brother, Humphrey Duke of Gloucester; and the left-wing, commanded by Thomas Lord Camoys.

1588025.jpgBetween each of the divisions were supporting wedges of archers, called “harrows”; with more archers thrown forward on both wings. The front of the archer’s position was protected from cavalry charge by sharpened wooden stakes, slanting forward to impale a charging horse.

The night’s rain had stopped by dawn. In the early hours after dawn both armies moved into position, though neither made a move against the other. The English planned to stand on the defensive, while the French were awaiting the arrival of even more troops. Henry pushed the issue by ordering his line to advance to within 300 yards (bow range) of the enemy. This entailed having the archers pull up their stakes and replanting them in front of their new position. During this maneuver, the complacent French made no move to interfere. Here we have another sign that no one was truly in over-all command of the French army. Certainly the veteran Boucicaut must have seen that this was their best opportunity to fall upon the English before they could rearrange their line; and, most critically, before the archers could replant their hedge of stakes. But no such order came for an attack.

1416707.jpgThe battle began in earnest with the English, now in bow range of the French first division, unleashing a hail of arrows into the ranks of their Gallic opponents. Some 60,000 bodkin-tipped shafts fell in that first minute; the smacking of iron arrow heads into steel plate armor sounding like hail clattering on a sheet metal roof. This deadly hail stung the French into action, and the first two divisions began to plod forward towards the English line. As planned, the mounted cavalry on the flanks charged forward, attempting to scatter the English archers on Henry’s wings. However, the plunging fire from the English archery took a toll of their horses as they charged: though armored in front, the rear-quarters of the knight’s destriers were unprotected. Falling horses caused those behind to trip or swerve out-of-the-way, disordering the massed French cavalry. Wounded or riderless horses swerved away from the stakes protecting the English archers, some plunging through the dismounted French van as it advanced in the center, disrupting its ranks in the process.

1416812.jpgSome of the French cavalry reached the archers, despite the arrow storm. However, they seem to have taken no thought as to how to penetrate the hedge of stakes. Brought to a halt before this chevaux de frise, they were decimated by point-blank fire. Man and horse could only take so much, and the remaining cavalry broke and fled, some at least disordering the oncoming French lines as they did and further churning up the muddy ground.

1416793.jpgAs the dismounted French vanguard drew closer to the English position they found themselves brought under ever more intense and effective archery fire from the flanking wings and wedges of longbowmen positioned between the English men-at-arms. Arrows found creases in armor, or at closer ranges pierced mail and the lighter armor on arm or leg. Lowering their heads so to protect their vulnerable eye-slots from the chance arrow, the French chivalry edged away from the archers; bunching ever tighter till their line instead began to resemble three deep columns approaching the English men-at-arms like the forks of a trident.

Now the very heavy armor that the French counted upon to provide some measure of protection against the galling English archery undermined their attack. In the soft clay-based mud, the heavily armored knights sank up to their calves; advancing only at a slow and exhausting pace. When they finally reached the English line, the French men-at-arms were already winded from this exertion. The deep mud and the plodding pace it forced upon them also served to deprive the French columns the “weight” their numbers should have lent their impact upon the thinner English line.

1584914.jpgEven so, coming at last to close-quarters the French mass pushed into Henry’s line, their sheer mass pushing the English back several yards. But the furious melee quickly bogged down into a close-quarter slogging match. The English archers, running out of arrows, took up the heavy sledge hammers they had used to pound in their stakes, or pole axes they carried as a secondary weapon; and swarmed forward into the already-engaged French men-at-arms. Such heavy mallets and pole arms crushed armor or concussed the man beneath.[5] Unencumbered by armor, the lightly-armed archers were much less effected by the mud, and now swarmed over and slaughtered the flower of French chivalry.

1416825.jpgAs the second French line under d’Alençon and Bar came up, it threw its weight behind those already embattled. This worked further to the detriment of the embattled French  van, already heavily engaged. Unable to budge Henry’s men-at-arms from their position, they now found themselves pressed closely from behind by comrades eager to join the battle, hampering their movement. The dead piled up in front of the English position in heaps, further encumbering the stalled French advance. By this point the field was churned into a bloody red morass, the deep-plowed furrows filling with blood.

At some point during this furious melee d’Alençon wounded the King’s brother, Humphrey Duke of Gloucester. Seeing his brother fall, Henry rushed forward, warding the lad while Humphrey was pulled to safety. Nearly making good his boast to kill or capture the English king, d’Alençon struck Henry in the helm with his battle-axe; shearing off part of the golden crown on the English king’s helmet. Stunned by the blow, Henry staggered back; but was saved when d’Alençon was cut down by the King’s bodyguards.

1588020.jpgMany on both sides died in the close press, though the casualties were overwhelmingly French. Packed in too tightly to fight effectively, the French were cut down in droves. On the English right the King’s uncle, the Duke of York, died still on his feet (likely of heart failure), unable to fall for the press of dead all around him!

After the first two divisions were slaughtered in turn, a lull in the battle allowed the English to take French prisoners to the rear. The ransom of noble prisoners could make a poor knight rich overnight; and the capture of such high-ranking nobles as were falling into the English hands promised great wealth indeed. However, as the French third division (itself larger than the English army) prepared itself to renew the attack, Henry could not spare a single man to guard the several hundred prisoners. The king ordered the prisoners killed, rather than have so many unguarded Frenchmen in his rear. Only those of the highest rank were spared.

This was not the only atrocity that day: during the battle a small force of French cavalry  rode around the woods and into the English rear. Here they had raided the English baggage, and in the process killed the young boys who acted as grooms and pages that had been left there.

As it turned out, the attack by the French reserve division never materialized. Perhaps seeing the wholesale destruction of the flower of the French army before them, the largely lower-status foot soldiers of the final division were loath to continue the obviously lost struggle. In any case, this reserve withdrew without striking a blow. (Lack of leadership may have played a part: the Count of Marle, who was one of the commanders of the French third line, was among the dead; apparently having deserted his place of command to join the melee.)



Agincourt was an utter and unexpected disaster for France. The casualties were staggering, numbering perhaps as many as 10,000 (according to French sources!), and was particularly high amongst the elite of French society. Three Dukes (Alençon, Brabant, and Bar), at least eight Counts (including the Constable, d’Albret), a Viscount and an Archbishop were slain in the battle, along with numerous other nobles. Along with the Constable, France lost her Marshal, Boucicault (captured); and Lord Dampierre, the Admiral of France. Estimates of the number of prisoners vary between 700 and 2,200, including the Duke of Orléans. As the less valuable prisoners had been slaughtered during the crises of the battle, these were all ranking nobles.

For the English the battle was an astonishing change of fortune. A sick, tired, badly outnumbered army had triumphed against all odds. Though losing some 1,500 (or as little as 100 in some contemporary English sources) in the bloody fighting, they had gained a legendary victory, perhaps the greatest in English history. In the long-span of conflict between Englishmen and their Gallic neighbors, only Hastings, Crecy, Blenheim, and Waterloo compare in significance.

1416827.jpgAt a stroke, England had regained the upper hand in her long war with France. Henry would use the victory at Agincourt to conquer all of northern France; and through subsequent negotiation and a royal marriage to the French King’s daughter place himself in line as heir to the throne of Charlemagne. Only Henry’s untimely death seven years later perhaps prevented a union of England and France under a Plantagenet dynasty.

In the days and years that followed, men back in England, hearing the tales of Agincourt told in tavern, church, and in hall by the veterans who fought there, would indeed “hold their manhoods cheap” that they were not there, on Saint Crispin’s Day!

(Above) An episode from the excellent series, “The Weapons that Made Britain”; starring the estimable Mike Loades

(above) From Sir Kenneth Branagh’s masterpiece version of “Henry V”


  1. For a detailed debate on the disputed numbers, go here.
  2. One of the fundamental principals of war is unity of command, distinctly lacking in the French forces at the battle; much to their ultimate detriment.
  3. The French promised to cut the thumb and two forefingers from every archer they captured; making the drawing of a bow in the future impossible.
  4. The terms knight and man-at-arms are often used interchangeably, but while all knights equipped for war certainly were men-at-arms, not all men-at-arms were knights. A man-at-arms could be a knight or nobleman, or a member of his retinue. What was required was the proper armor of a “gentleman” and a war horse.
  5. The lesson here learned was not lost on the English. For the rest of the century, English footmen increasingly adopted the bill or glaive as their primary weapon, eventually superseding the longbow as the ubiquitous infantry weapon of English infantry in the late 15th and early 16th century.

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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Roman expansion into Germany is halted forever by Varus’ defeat in  one of history’s most decisive battles. 

At the beginning of the first century of the Common Era Germany seemed on the verge of conquest by the Roman Empire. As with every independent power and people on the periphery of the Mediterranean and its hinterlands, Germany seemed the next nation to fall before the unstoppable power of Rome; and to become the newest jewel in the crown of the Caesars. It was the concerted policy of  Augustus Caesar, the first of Rome’s emperors, to expand the empire’s borders beyond the Rhine to the Elbe; both to protect Rome’s Gallic provinces from Germanic raiders and to establish her frontier along a shorter and more defensible border. Following 22 years of steady campaigning, Roman generals had planted the eagles on the western banks of the Elbe, and by AD 6 the western German tribes between the Rhine and the Elbe were considered largely pacified, if not yet completely conquered.

This land the Romans called Germania is described by the historian Tacitus as  “covered either by bristling forests or by foul swamps”, inhabited by independent tribes whose men were marked by “fierce-looking blue eyes, reddish hair, and big frames”[1]. The Romans had suffered the worst military defeat in their history at the hands of a Celto-Germanic coalition, the Cimbri and the Teutons, at Arausio (Orange) in 105 BCE. Caesar had fought German hosts on several occasions during his Gallic Wars, and had famously bridged the Rhine and conducted a show-of-force on the German side to cow the tribesmen. Eventually Caesar had recruited German cavalry to support his legions.

Under his successor Augustus (and later rulers of the Julio-Claudian dynasty) a cohort of Germans, the Numerus Batavorum, was recruited to serve as a personal bodyguard. The Caesars valued the fighting quality of the Germans, and as a bodyguard had the advantage of not being Roman, and thus largely immune from local politics and intrigues (unlike the Praetorians). A conquered Germania would over time become, like Gaul, a place to recruit these ferocious warriors.

Image result for Germanic warrior

Early German warriors

Augustus Caesar resolved to bring Germania into the Roman fold. This would end the threat of German raids into the empire, and place the northeastern border on the Elbe, a shorter and more defensible line than the Rhine.


The Roman conquest of northwestern Germany began in 12 BC with the campaigns of Drusus, stepson of Augustus, who as governor of Roman Gaul responded to German incursions into his province by crossing the Rhine and devastating the territories of the tribes involved. The following year he again crossed into Germania (as the Romans called the lands of the German tribes). Marching east towards the Weser River, he passed through the lands of the Cherusci tribe, whose territory stretched from the Ems to the Elbe.

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Among the Cherusci who saw Drusus’ passing through their territory was a boy of 5 or 6 years old, the son of the chieftain[2] Segimer. His name is unknown, though history remembers him as Arminius[3]. As surety for his father’s loyalty, young Arminius and his younger brother Flavus[4] were taken as hostages to Rome.

There the two German princes were raised to be loyal Romans. When they grew to manhood, both Arminius and Flavus became officers in the army,  commanding auxilia cavalry for six years (between 1-6 AD). Both were granted the honor of Roman citizenship, and Arminius at least (and perhaps Flavus as well) obtained the dignity of equestrian rank.

Sometime after 6 AD Arminius returned to his native land and tribe; whether as Praefectus of a Cherusci cavalry ala or as a civilian is unclear. By this time the Roman occupied territories in northwestern Germany were designated as the province of Germania Magna. That he was released from his status of hostage demonstrates Rome’s confidence in his and his father’s loyalty. While Arminius and his brother were away, all had not been well. Between 2 BC and 6 AD many of the tribes, including a faction of the Cherusci, rose up in what was called a “vast war”. No detailed record of this war remains, but the tribes were pacified by first Vinicius and then (from 4 AD) Tiberius, stepson of Augustus and brother of Drusus (who’d died in 9 BC).

Roman auxilia cavalrymen. Young Arminius was an officer of such horsemen in Roman service. 

Returning at the end of this conflict, the 23-year-old Arminius found he and his clan granted special favor my Tiberius, who in his efforts to pacify the Cherusci granted the ruling clan (of which Arminius belonged) the status of “free people” among the Germans. But the Cherusci, like all Germans under Roman occupation, were rife with undercurrents of resentment. For reasons unknown, Arminius began intriguing within his own tribe and those neighboring against his Roman patrons.

Arminius’ return to Germany and subsequent turn against the Romans coincided with and may have been caused by a change in circumstances and the arrival of a new governor of Germania Magna.

In 6 AD, Tiberius was about to launch a second campaign against the Marcomanni in southern Germany. A massive force of 11 legions in Germania Magna were preparing to attack from the north, while from the south legions stationed in Illyricum/Pannonia were to march north; destroying Marcomanni opposition in a pincer movement. But before the Romans could launch this campaign a dangerous revolt broke out in Illyricum that threatened both Italy and Roman Macedonia. A hasty peace was concluded with the Marcomanni, and Tiberius was given command of the Roman troops sent to crush this revolt. Eight of the eleven legions in Germania Magna left with Tiberius for Pannonia. In his place, a new governor was appointed: Publius Quinctilius Varus.

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Coin bearing the likeness of Q. Varus

Varus was lawyer and experienced administrator known for the harshness of his methods. As governor of Syria from 7/6 BC until 4 BC he caused widespread resentment by his high-handed rule and the crushing taxes he exacted from the provincials. In 4 BC civil disorder in Judea following the death of Herod the Great caused him to march on Jerusalem, where he crucified some 2,000 Jews.

He brought to the new Roman Germania province the same arrogance and high taxation. The long-conquered Syrians, a highly civilized people who were accustomed to despotic governance dating back at least as far as Ashurbanipal and Darius, may have meekly accepted this treatment. But the Germans, a fiercely free people who labored for none but themselves and acknowledged no lord but their tribal chieftains, hotly resented Varus’ treating them like conquered minions.

It may well have been an antipathy to Varus, personally, and of his methods and policies that led Arminius to consider himself once again, first-and-foremost, a prince of the Cherusci rather than an Equestrian and loyal client of Rome. This, combined with Rome’s distraction with the revolt in Pannonia may have convinced Arminius that the time was ripe for action.

All the while gaining Varus’ trust and insinuating himself into the governor’s councils as a trusted adviser, Arminius secretly forged an alliance of the neighboring tribes. These included the Marsi, the Chatti, BructeriChauciSicambri, and elements of the Suebi. Over the next couple of years Arminius laid his plans, and waited for the opportunity to throw-off the Roman yoke.


Arminius’ opportunity came in 9 AD.

In September Varus marched the three legions he had in Germany (Legio XVIILegio XVIII, and Legio XIX), accompanied by six auxilia infantry cohorts and three squadrons  (alae) of cavalry; toward Moguntiacum (modern-day Mainz), where he planned to winter. His total forces was somewhere between 20,000 – 36,000 men.

On the march Arminius brought Varus word that a revolt had broken out to his north, perhaps among the Chauci. The Cheruscian prince advised that by prompt action Varus could quash this rebellion before it got out of hand. Another Cherusci chief,  Segestes, who was an enemy of Arminius and friend of Rome, warned Varus not to trust Arminius; and instead advised him to arrest both Arminius and several other tribal leaders. But Varus disbelieved Segestes, and disregarded the warning as motivated by the men’s mutual animosity. With Arminius directing his route, Varus and his legions began marching toward their doom.

Varus’ army followed a narrow path through the forest, hardly a road at all; which Arminius promised was the quickest way to the trouble spot. The terrain grew increasingly difficult: heavily forested hills cut by overgrown, swampy ravines and gullies. According to the historian Cassius Dio, the “mountains had an uneven surface broken by ravines, and the trees grew close together and very high. Hence the Romans, even before the enemy assailed them, were having a hard time of it felling trees, building roads, and bridging places that required it.”[5] The army’s progress was further slowed by the large baggage train attending the soldiers, who had been marching to winter quarters:

They had with them many wagons and many beasts of burden as in time of peace; moreover, not a few women and children and a large retinue of servants were following them – one more reason for their advancing in scattered groups.[6]

Even the elements turned against Varus, as a violent rainstorm assailed the marching legions. A “violent rain and wind came up that separated them still further, while the ground, that had become slippery around the roots and logs, made walking very treacherous for them, and the tops of the trees kept breaking off and falling down, causing much confusion”.[7]


As they approached modern Osnabrück, Arminius and other German officers begged Varus’ permission to leave the column, telling Varus they were off to assemble tribal auxiliaries to aid the Romans against the rebels. However, they instead joined their tribal forces, assembled in the forests all around in prepared ambush.

By this point the column had become perilously spread out along the narrow path, some 9 to 12 miles from van to rear; the towering trees dark and foreboding, the driving rain reducing visibility even further. Suddenly, echoing from the dark forest though the mists and rain, came the eerie chanting battle cry of the German tribes, the “barritus“; which Tacitus describes as a “harsh, intermittent roar”, “amplified into a deeper crescendo by the reverberation” of the warriors holding their shields to their mouths.

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Then the air was alive with a shower of javelins thrown from all quarters. These rained down on the Romans, inflicting death and disorder on an already chaotic scene. These missiles were the framaeubiquitous light spears of the German warrior. Each carried a brace behind his shield, used as javelin at range or spear in close quarters. Confusion reigned, and as the Germans saw the Romans were in no good position to offer concerted resistance, they came down from the high ground or from within the bogs to assail the soldiers at close quarters.

…the barbarians suddenly surrounded them on all sides at once, coming through the densest thickets, as they were acquainted with the paths. At first they hurled their volleys from a distance; then, as no one defended himself and many were wounded, they approached closer to them.

For the Romans were not proceeding in any regular order, but were mixed in helter-skelter with the wagons and the unarmed, and so, being unable to form readily anywhere in a body, and being fewer at every point than their assailants, they suffered greatly and could offer no resistance at all.[8]

It was a command-and-control nightmare for any leader, even a modern one with all the advantages of radio, maps, and GPS. For Varus it was an impossible situation. Troops could not form a battle line or fight in any depth, along the narrow path or in the dense surrounding woods. It is a testament to their discipline and training that they were able to close up and, defending themselves all the while from every side, and to build a fortified camp “so far as that was possible on a wooded mountain”[9] in which to spend the night.

No record exists of a command meeting held that night in Varus’ tent (assuming a tent could be erected in the chaos). But whatever plan for the following day was formulated, it involved breaking camp at dawn and marching as best they could out of the confined space of the forest and onto more open terrain. This was available to them north of the Wiehen Hills, near the modern town of Ostercappeln. Dispensing with the baggage wagons, the Romans marched forward that second day under a constant harassment by the tribesmen, towards the open area where they were here able to form up in some sort of order. The attack did not abate, though here they took fewer casualties and could better defend themselves. In the open ground Varus made his second camp.

On the third day the Romans marched on, once again entering the forest (no other path of escape being open to them). If anything the enemy’s ranks were growing thicker, as tribesmen, hearing of the Romans plight, joined Arminius’ forces to take part in the victory (and plundering) that appeared imminent. The rain now beat down ever more ferociously, perhaps as great an enemy as the Germans who darted in-and-out of the trees to attack the Roman column. Dio paints a picture of chaos, with cavalry and infantry blundering into each other and into trees in the blinding rain. The muddy, boggy terrain The Romans suffered their greatest casualties here, on the third day.

Modern reconstruction of the palisade prepared by Arminius near Kalkriese

During the night the column attempted to break out, but in the morning found themselves on a sandy strip of ground between the foot of Kalkriese Hill and swampland at the edge of a bog. Arminius had here neatly blocked the road with a trench, and a wooden palisade had been erected on the higher, wooded slope to its flank; from which the defending tribesmen pelted the column with missiles. His years with the Roman army had taught Arminius well the advantages of field fortifications.

There was no alternative but to storm the palisade. The legions closed ranks and climbed the hill. The alternating mud and rain-slicked rock and gravel made the footing treacherous. Four days of driving rain had left their scutums waterlogged, their clothing sodden. They faced a driving wind blowing the rain into their faces. After several attempts, the Romans gave up the assault and retreated. The Germans followed them closely, storming down the hill into the Roman ranks.

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Like wolves sniffing blood, the emboldened Germans now closed for the kill from all sides on the greatly thinned-out Roman ranks.

Seeing that all was lost, and fearing capture, Varus and some of his senior officers committed suicide. Varus’ senior Legatus, Numonius Vala, attempted to escape with some of the remaining cavalry. The Germans pursued and slaughtered them before they could reach the Rhine. Most of what remained of Varus’ army was cut down, many too weak to lift their weapons and shields, but nevertheless fighting to the last. The historian Paterculus wrote: “Hemmed in by forests and marshes and ambuscades, it was exterminated almost to a man by the very enemy whom it had always slaughtered like cattle, whose life or death had depended solely upon the wrath or the pity of the Romans.”[10]

Some small detachments, led by their centurions, attempted to escape. Many of these lost their way and were trapped in the low ground around the Great Bog, where they were killed. Only a relative handful of survivors managed to make their way to Roman forts along the Rhine. Some 20,000 Romans perished.

Some of the senior prisoners taken were tortured to death, or sacrificed in hideous ways to the Germanic gods. Others, lower-ranking soldiers, were enslaved. Arminius found Varus’ corpse, and after beheading the dead Roman commander, sent this grizzly trophy south to the king of the Marcomanni in effort to win him, too, to the anti-Roman coalition. This effort failed, but that day in September, 9 AD, Arminius stood victorious on a muddy, bloody field; having achieved what would prove not just a decisive victory, but one that would change the very course of history.


In the immediate aftermath of the battle Arminius’s tribesmen attempted to exploit their victory by attacking along the Rhine frontier; but the garrisons of the various forts held them at bay. Still, there was widespread panic in Rome and in the Gallic province, as only two legions remained to hold the river.

But the tribal alliance could not hold together, and Arminius was soon dealing with rivals at home instead of the Romans abroad. Six years later Germanicus, son of the late German conqueror Drusus and nephew of Tiberius, would lead punitive expeditions into Germany to punish Arminius and the tribes responsible for the massacre at Teutoburg Forest. Coming to the site of the massacre, he would find the remains of the disaster littering the area. Tacitus describes well the grim scene Germanicus found:

Varus’ first camp with its wide circumference and the measurements of its central space clearly indicated the handiwork of three legions. Further on, the partially fallen rampart and the shallow fosse suggested the inference that it was a shattered remnant of the army which had there taken up a position. In the center of the field were the whitening bones of men, as they had fled, or stood their ground, strewn everywhere or piled in heaps. Near lay fragments of weapons and limbs of horses, and also human heads, prominently nailed to trunks of trees. In the adjacent groves were the barbarous altars, on which they had immolated tribunes and first-rank centurions.

Some survivors of the disaster who had escaped from the battle or from captivity, described how this was the spot where the officers fell, how yonder the eagles were captured, where Varus was pierced by his first wound, where too by the stroke of his own ill-starred hand he found for himself death. They pointed out too the raised ground from which Arminius had harangued his army, the number of gibbets for the captives, the pits for the living, and how in his exultation he insulted the standards and eagles. 

And so the Roman army now on the spot, six years after the disaster, in grief and anger, began to bury the bones of the three legions, not a soldier knowing whether he was interring the relics of a relative or a stranger, but looking on all as kinsfolk and of their own blood, while their wrath rose higher than ever against the foe. In raising the barrow Caesar laid the first sod, rendering thus a most welcome honor to the dead, and sharing also in the sorrow of those present.[11]

Honors done to the lost army’s remains, Germanicus would continue against the Germans, ultimately recovering two of the three lost eagles. The third legionary eagle  was recovered in 41 AD from the Chauci during the reign of Claudius, brother of Germanicus. Some 40 years after Arminius’ victory Roman forces liberated Roman slaves held by the Chatti, including some survivors of Varus’ army.

But when Germanicus was done, Tiberius, now emperor and successor to Augustus, pulled out of Germany and returned the Roman border to the Rhine. No further attempt was made to add Germany to the empire.

Teutoburg Forest had stopped Roman expansion, and reversed the tide of Roman conquest that had been unchecked for 4 centuries. The borders of the empire would expand and contract over the next few centuries; but never again into Germania.


That Germany remained outside the empire had wide-reaching consequences.

The first was that the empire would not have a shorter, more defensible frontier in the west. It is arguable that a fortified border that ran along the west bank of the Elbe to the Carpathian Mountains would have taken fewer troops to defend, and thus placed a lighter burden upon the Roman treasury. The virile western German tribes that continued to harass the Rhine frontier into the 4th century; and which would eventually, in the early 5th century, overrun Gaul and Spain entirely; would have become defenders of, and not enemies of the empire. Thus the lifespan of at least the Western Roman Empire might have been greatly extended.

That is the negative effect of Arminius’ victory. The positive one is perhaps even greater: that Germany remained independent and outside of Roman law and culture.

The Germans had a unique culture of their own. It was one that embraced individual freedoms and a liberty to a much greater degree than was the case of the Celts (particularly the Gauls) or the various civilized people of the empire. Though the Greeks early in their history and the Romans of the Republic gave the world its first experiences with democracy and republican form of governance; the Roman Empire was increasingly authoritarian and despotic in its later centuries. Whereas Diocletian turned most of Rome’s farmers into little better than surfs, oppressed by an oppressive tax system; in the German lands and kingdoms that replaced the empire in the west there was still a healthy free-man class of yeomen farmers/warriors. This spirit would infuse the west, particularly in England (conquered in the 6th century by Anglo-Saxons) and Germany itself, where free farmers would jealously maintain the freedoms that Arminius, in opposing Rome’s iron hand upon his native land, bequeathed to them.

Arminius’ monument


At end of the civil war which brought him into power, Augustus Caesar had economized by downsizing the Roman army from 78 legions to a mere 25 legions. In Augustan Rome’s downsized, shrunken military structure the loss of Varus’ three legions represented nearly 17% of the entire legionary force of the empire, almost one-in-five of its soldiers. On hearing news of the disaster, Augustus was thunderstruck; so distraught that months later he is said to have banged his head against the wall, crying out:

“Quintili Vare, legiones redde!“ (‘Quintilius Varus, give me back my legions!’)


  1. Tacitus, Germania
  2. The tribal politics of the Cherusci at this time are unclear. Segimer seems to have been at the least the paramount chief of the tribe, if not its king. Just prior to Varus’ disaster, the tribe became divided between the pro-Roman and anti-Roman factions, each with their own leaders. Segimer and his son Arminius came to lead the anti-Roman faction; while another chief (or powerful nobleman), Segestes, led the pro-Roman. According to Tacitus, following Arminius’ war against Roman occupation and Germanicus‘ subsequent punitive campaigns, the devastated Cherusci requested of Rome that Hermann’s nephew, Italicus, raised within the empire and thoroughly Romanized, be allowed to return and take up the kingship; as he was the last living member of their “royal house”. This would seem to indicate that Segestes, Italicus grandfather, was king of the tribe and not just one of its chieftains. But the question is open to speculation.
  3. Though it has been convention since the 18th century to Germanize his name as Hermann we do not actually know what Arminius’ true name was. The Roman histories call him Arminius, and this is likely a Latinisation of his original German name. This could have been Erminameraz or Erminaz. It certainly was not”Hermann”, a German name that did not come into usage before the Middle Ages, and means “man of war”.
  4. Flavus’ real Germanic name is, like his brother’s, unknown. Flavus in Latin means “the blonde”; and was likely given to him by his Roman hosts/captors when he came to Rome, doubtlessly  referring to his hair color.
  5. Dio Cassius, Historia Romana; Book 56.20.1
  6. Ibid, 56.20.2
  7. Ibid, 56.20.3
  8. Ibid, 56.20.4-5
  9. Ibid, 56.21.1
  10. Vellius Paterculus, Historia Romana II 119, 1-2
  11. Tacitus, 1.61-62
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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“For the Spartans, it wasn’t walls or magnificent public buildings that made a city; it was their own ideals. In essence, Sparta was a city of the head and the heart. And it existed in its purest form in the disciplined march of a hoplite phalanx on their way to war!”

– Bettany Hughes, writer/historian

(For Part Three, go here)


The Bay of Pylos (now Navarino Bay) is a well sheltered anchorage on the southwest coast of the Peloponnese; in the region known as Messenia. It is enclosed from the Ionian Sea to the west by a long, narrow island: Sphacteria. The bay can be entered through channels both north and south of Sphacteria. The narrow northern channel is bounded on the northern side by the rocky Pylos promontory. Here, in the Bronze Age, had been the citadel of the Trojan War leader, Nestor. In 1827 it was the site of the Battle of Navarino, where a British, French, and Russian coalition fleet defeated the Ottoman Turks.



It was here in 425 B.C., in the 6th year of the Peloponnesian War that the innovative Athenian general, Demosthenes, with a fleet of 40 triremes bound for Corcyra was forced by bad weather to land.

Ever one to recognize a strategic opportunity, Demosthenes used the crews at his disposal to fortify Pylos; and when the fleet continued on to Corcyra, he remained behind with 5 triremes and their crews (about 1,000 men; less than 100 of which were likely hoplites). He was soon reinforced by another 40 Messenian-exile hoplites from Naupactos, an Athenian base on the Gulf of Corinth. None hated the Spartans more than these Messenians.

Demosthenes planned to use Pylos as a base of operations in Messenia. This land, comprising the southwestern quarter of the Peloponnese, had long been subjugated by the Spartans; and its native population reduced to helotry. From Pylos, the Athenians could raid into Spartan Messenia with impunity; and provide a refuge for runaway helots.

This potential thorn in the Spartan side was intolerable to the Spartan government. Immediately, the Spartan Army ravaging Attica under King Agis was recalled to the Peloponnese. A force of 43 ships and men was dispatched under Sparta’s most promising officer, the intrepid Brasidas son of Tellis, to expel the Athenians.

This is the first we hear of this enigmatic Spartan officer; destined to have such an impact on the direction of the war.


For such an important figure, we know surprisingly little of Brasidas’ early life. Considering his later rank, he was almost certainly a “star” cadet during his days in the Agoge (see Part One). He likely served time in the Kryptea; for no one who had not served in that elite “Special Branch” ever rose to the highest ranks in Sparta, as Brasidas did. He became renown for his personal valor and fighting prowess (Plato, towards the end of theSymposium”, has Alcibiades compare Brasidas to Achilles); as well as for his strategic acumen, his ability to quickly arrive at a tactical solution to any problem, his considerable diplomatic skills, and his very un-Spartan ability to think “outside the box. He was a remarkably capable man.

By the outbreak of hostilities in 431, Brasidas was already of sufficient rank to be entrusted as a commander of forces patrolling and garrisoning helot Messenia. When the Athenians raided Messenia and laid siege to Methone, Brasidas gathered those forces available and rushed to the city’s relief. Thucydides, the Athenian general and chief historian of the Peloponnesian War, notes that “because of this, Brasidas was the first man in this war to receive official honors at Sparta”. He is not specific about these honors, but the historian Xenophon states that in the next year, Brasidas was the eponymous Ephor, meaning he was the senior of the five magistrates that year; and that in Spartan reckoning and annuals the year was called after him. In 429 he was a naval commissioner helping to supervise an early attempt to create a Spartan Navy; and was sent to the Gulf of Corinth to review naval strategy.

He was soon commanding his own trireme, and was part of the Spartan expedition sent to aid the Corinthians against Corcyra. During this period, he proposed dragging the Peloponnesian ships from the Corinthian gulf across the Isthmus of Corinth and launching a surprise attack on Piraeus, the port of Athens. Although this plan was not accepted, it shows the characteristic boldness Brasidas would later display with such success.

Brasidas now led the Spartan squadron to Pylos, to expel Demosthenes and the Athenians.


Realizing the Spartans forces arrived at Pylos, forcing Demosthenes to beach his ships (but not before sending two northward to retrieve the fleet) and to man his stockades. Brasidas now attempted to land at Pylos, storming the rocky shore. The Athenians resisted fiercely, terrain and their makeshift defense-works in their favor. The Spartans were repelled, and Brasidas sustained a nearly mortal wound, as well as having his shield ripped from his prostrate body.


The Spartans withdrew, and decided to blockade the Athenians, cutting them off from supply. To this end, a Spartan force of 420 men (including 120 Spartiates) was landed on Sphacteria, a rocky, scrub-covered island that closed the bay’s western side, from which it could (theoretically) help close the northern channel into Pylos Bay.

However, the Athenian fleet returned from Corcyra and, entering the bay, defeated and drove off the Peloponnesian ships. At a stroke, “the worm had turned”, and the Spartans on Sphacteria were cut off and isolated.


Realizing the untenable position her garrison on Sphacteria were now in, Sparta immediately began negotiations with Athens for a truce that would allow their withdrawal. Their demagogic leader, Cleon the Tanner, convinced the Athenian assembly to make unreasonable demands, and the negotiations broke down.

Cleon and reinforcements were dispatched to Demosthenes, with orders to storm Sphacteria before winter weather made sailing impossible.

At this point, a chance fire on the island broke out, burning away the trees and scrub foliage that had given the tiny Spartan garrison cover and concealment. Now the Athenians off shore could clearly see how few were the Spartan garrison; and exactly where to land their troops unobstructed.

Stripping their ships to skeleton crews in order to field an overwhelming force, Demosthenes landed with several thousand heavy and light-armed troops. Taking the Spartans by surprise, they seized the island’s one well and drove the Spartan defenders to the far north end of the island; where the Spartans had built makeshift fortification on the highest ground.

Now the Athenian light troops, archers and javelin-armed “peltasts”, advanced up the hill to with missile range. They began a relentless harassment of the Spartans; who, formed up in phalanx, sheltered behind their shields. Several times the Spartans attempted to drive off their tormentors with charges. But the more nimble light troops easily eluded the Spartan hoplites; retreating to the shelter of their own hoplite’s phalanx. This was far more numerous than the Spartans, and occupied good defensive terrain that made direct attack suicidal.


Over and over, the Athenian light troops returned to continue the bombardment. In the blazing heat of the day, the sun and lack of water took as much of a toil of the Spartan defenders as enemy darts. Even so, the Spartans closed weary ranks around their dead, and held their ground.

Presaging Alexander the Great at the Sogdian Rock, a century later, Demosthenes now sent a force of Messenian light infantry up the sea cliffs on the northern end of the island, behind the Spartan position. Deemed impassable, the Spartans had placed no look-outs on the heights. Like the American Rangers at Pointe du Hoc in Normandy, the peltasts climbed the cliffs unobserved; then moved up to seize the islands highest ground, behind the embattled Spartans!


Attacked now from all sides the Spartan garrison, reminiscent of their grandfathers at Thermopylae two generations before, seemed doomed to another glorious “last stand”.

But Demosthenes now did something even more cunning: he pulled back. His troops backed off and held their fire, giving the sun and lack of food and water work their malicious magic.

Several hours went by. Then an Athenian herald approached the bloody and weary Spartans.

Would they care to surrender, he politely asked them?

In other circumstances, on another day, the question would have been met with contempt. Every Spartan knew what was expected of him. This was their chance to find that which every Spartan warrior spent his life preparing for: kalos thenatos, a “beautiful death” in battle; a chance to pass the final test of a true Spartan.

But this was not “another day”.

Inexplicably, the Spartans on Sphacteria island surrendered.

292 prisoners were taken in chains back to Athens, 120 of them full Spartiates. Cleon put them on display for the populace to behold, like some strange and exotic wild animals! The sophisticated, effete Athenians viewed them with scorn and ridicule.

“So, did all the real Spartans die on the island”, they sneered?

To celebrate their victory, the Athenians built the Temple of Tempe of Athena Nike, upon a bastion to the right of the entry gate, the Propylaea. Here they hung the Spartan shields captured at Sphacteria, as trophies.



Temple of Athena Nike on the Acropolis, wherein hung the Spartan shields taken at Sphacteria; circled at the top image and on the upper right in the bottom, today

(Though Demosthenes’ strategy had won the victory, Cleon the Tanner stole the credit. Soon after, the comic playwright Aristophanes was lampooning the demagogue for this stolen glory in the comedy, The Knights (Hippeis).)

Morale back in Sparta sunk to the lowest it had ever been. The entire state seemed to have gone into a state of shock. In a fit of despair, Sparta agreed not to invade and devastate Attica; in return for Athens not killing its prisoners. Never had Spartans been known to surrender. The legend of Spartan courage and the myth of Spartan invincibility was shaken to their foundations.

When the prisoners were finally returned, the treatment they received was almost as unheard of as their surrender. They were not stripped of their status as Homoioi,“Equals”; they were not taunted in the streets by the Spartan maidens as cowards. They were quietly accepted back into Spartan society. It was as if all Sparta accepted, with a sense of shame and shared guilt, that Spartans were just not made of the same “stern stuff” as their forefathers.

The other Greeks took notice, and drew much the same conclusion.

The war continued.


Now it was Sparta’s turn to do the unexpected and strike the enemy where they least expected. It was Brasidas, recovered from the wounds sustained at Pylos, who conceived a plan to revenge Sphacteria and strike at the roots of the Athenian Empire.

The northern Aegean shore was a source of wealth for the Athenians; both timber for ship building and mines from which gold and silver were extracted. That it remain in Athenian hands was particularly important as the Athenian grain shipments from the Black Sea passed below it on their way to the Queen City. Amphipolis, an Athenian colony in western Thrace, was the principal Athenian base in the northern Aegean.


Athenian control of the coastal cities of Macedonia and Thrace was resented by the peoples of these regions. Now Perdiccas II, king of Macedonia, requested Spartan aid against these Athenian bases; the expectation being that the Spartans would turn them over to his control.

Brasidas argued to the Spartan authorities that here was an opportunity not to be missed. That once the Athenian subject-cities of Chalcidike and Macedonia were “liberated”, he (Brasidas) could march east along the Thracian coast, expelling the Athenians from all of their outposts. At the end of such a march lay the ultimate prize: Byzantium, at the exit of the Black Sea. With this in Spartan hands, the Athenian corn supply could be throttled!

Here was strategy on a high level.

But, however sound the plans, Sparta could not spare much of its army; already engaged in protecting the Peloponnese from the increasingly aggressive Athenians (who were now raiding from bases like Pylos all around the peninsula). In the end, Brasidas was given this command and allocated an army of 700 liberated and trained helots (called neodamodeis, “new men”); given their freedom in return for service and loyalty.

Brasidas moved to Corinth, where he recruited another 1,000 troops from the area. He also thwarted an attempt by the ever-active Demosthenes to seize the Spartan allied city Megara by coup d’main.

Brasidas marched north, through the plains of allied Boeotia; north, past the burial mound of the 300 at Thermopylae (where, no doubt, he paused to pay homage); on into Athenian-allied Thessaly, where so dreaded was his and the Spartan name that none dared to opposed his passing. Through the narrow gorge known as the Vale of Tempe, and into Macedonia.


The “Vale of Tempe”, the narrow gorge through which the main way from Greece to Macedonia passed. Brasidas came through Tempe enroute to Macedonia

Here Brasidas was joined by Perdiccas, the Macedonian king. Immediately, conflicting interests began to strain this alliance of convenience.



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