No man in his day evinced more terror than did Temūr-i Lang, known to western history as Tamerlane. His conquests left nothing but destruction in their wake, and pyramids of skulls to mark his path. But in the second year of the 15th century, a rival warlord with a military reputation almost as fearful marched against him. He was the Ottoman Sultan Bayezid I, called by contemporaries “The Thunderbolt”. Their meeting in battle would be a veritable clash of titans!

 Some 30 miles from the heart of modern Ankara lies the farming plain of Çubuk. Well-watered by the local reservoir, it is known for its cherries and pickled cucumbers. But at the dawn of the 15th century this once arid plain played host to a mighty battle, fought between two of the most powerful rulers of the age. Here one of history’s great conquerors, Tamerlane, the red-handed heir to the legacy of Genghis Khan led his Turco-Mongol horde against a new and rising empire that would, in its time, be nearly as powerful as that of the Great Khans: the Ottoman Turks.


The vast Mongol Empire built by Genghis Khan and his successors began to fragment in the last decades of the 13th century, and from it emerged four independent and rival khanates: the Golden Horde to the northwest of the Caspian Sea; the Chagatai Khanate in central Asia; the Il-khanate ruling Persia and much of the Near East; and the Yuan Dynasty of China and the Mongol homeland, whose khan continued to bear the now empty title of Khagan, or “Khan of Khans”.

It was in the second of these Mongol successor states that Timur was born. His clan, the Barlas, traced its lineage to one of Chagatai Khan’s regimental commanders. It dwelt in the region around Kesh (modern Shahrisabz, Uzbekistan). By the time Timur was born, in 1336, the Mongolian Barlas had become heavily turkified, and were a powerful force in the declining Chagatai state. His father, a clan noble, gave him the name Timur, meaning “iron”.

This was a time of shifting power as the descendants of Chagatai faded into insignificance. Timur learned the arts of skirmish warfare while still but a boy, leading a small band of followers against rivals and enemies. During a raid he was wounded by an arrow in the leg that left him with a permanent limp. From this he came to be called Timūr(-i) Lang (Timur the lame), from which comes the name by which he is best known, Tamerlane.

By the age of 25 he had become a leading warlord in the region, leading an army of Mongol-Turkic freebooters drawn to his success and charisma. When his father died, he became head of the Barlas as well, adding to his power. In 1370 he married a descendant of Genghis Khan and solidified his position as de facto master of the Chagatai horde; though since he was not of the blood of Genghis he continued to rule through a puppet ruler from the House of Chagatai. Timur ever presented himself as the protector of the legacy of Genghis Khan, styling himself as “Amir” or general of the House of Chagatai. As both he and his army were largely Muslims, he also claimed to act as the sword of Islam and defender of the faithful.

In these capacities Timur conducted campaigns far beyond his Central Asian power base, to reunite the empire of Genghis Khan or to punish those who refused to recognize his role. Over the next 35 years he campaigned ceaselessly, his expeditions taking him from the plains of Russia (where he destroyed the Golden Horde in all but name) to the Ganges River, where he defeated the Sultan of Delhi and left that city a smoking ruin. A 100,000 prisoners were executed there, and their heads were stacked into vast pyramids to decorate the ruins!

Enemies of Timur gaze upon a column of skull left in the conqueror’s wake 

Timur conquered all of Persia and Mesopotamia, Armenia and Azerbaijan; and in 1400 invaded Syria where he sacked Damascus. 20,000 inhabitants were slaughtered, the women of the city given to his warriors or sold into slavery, while the skilled artisans and artists were deported to his capital, Samarkand. He also destroyed the  Umayyad Mosque, giving out that he did this to avenge the killing of Hasan ibn Ali by Umayyad caliph Muawiyah I and the murder of Husayn ibn Ali by Yazid I, events in Islam’s early years.

His raids against the Turcoman tribes of eastern Anatolia brought him into conflict with the rising power of the Ottoman Turks. Here he faced a warlord as ruthless as himself: Bayezid “the Thunderbolt”!


According to their own traditions the Ottoman Turks originated in Central Asia, a Turcoman tribe called the Kayi. In the 13th century they fled their homeland to escape the coming of the Mongols under Genghis Khan. There they were granted lands by the Seljuk Sultans of Anatolia, bordering the crumbling Byzantine Empire in the west, in the region known in ancient times as Bithynia.[1]

They tribe took its name, Ottoman, from the dynasty founded by its second ruler, Osman (sometimes transliterated as Othman). From the beginning, the Ottomans were a ghazi state, existing on the border between Christian Byzantium and the Muslim Turkish realms of Anatolia. Its purpose was always to engage in raid and harassment of the “infidel”, waging perpetual holy war.   In 1302 Osman Bey led the Ottoman Turks to their first great victory, over the Byzantines at the Battle of Bapheus, leading to the loss of their final hold on western Anatolia. For the next century-and-a-half, the Ottomans would continue expanding north and westward at Byzantine expense; eventually devouring and replacing that once great empire.

Ottoman troops,  first-half of 14th century

In 1354 the Ottomans captured the fortress of Gallipoli after an earthquake damaged the walls; giving the Turks a foothold for the first time in Europe. From here they expanded gradually throughout the southern Balkans. During this time the Byzantines were engaged in civil war, and beset by Turk and by the predatory Italian maritime states of Venice and Genoa as well. Throughout the period the Byzantines, their Italian rivals, and other Balkans powers negotiated temporary alliances with the Turks against their Christian enemies; allowing the Ottomans to play one-off against the other, and expanding their holding all the while.

The Ottoman dynasty was blessed with having a succession of capable and warlike leaders. By the accession of the fourth Ottoman ruler, now styled Sultan, their empire straddled Europe and Asia, and surrounded the Byzantine capital, Constantinople; now an isolated Christian island in a Muslim sea. Bulgaria had been conquered, Serbia reduced to vassalage, and the long conquest of Greece to the south and Bosnia to the north underway.

This fourth Sultan, Bayezid I came to the Ottoman throne following the death of his capable father, Murad I at the bloody Battle of Kossovo in 1389. There, as the battle was coming to a close and both armies had fought each other to exhaustion and virtual annihilation, a Serbian knight, brought before the Sultan, pulled a hidden dagger and killed Murad before being cut to pieces by his bodyguards. Bayezid, already a proven captain and having earned the nickname “the Thunderbolt”, quickly consolidated his hold on his slain father’s throne by having his brother strangled. The following year he consoled the defeated Serbs by marrying their princess, Olivera Despina, and recognizing her brother, Stefan Lazarević, as his vassal-ruler of Serbia.

That same year he used his Serbian vassals and other troops from his Balkan domains to campaign in Anatolia; where he expanded Ottoman dominion over several minor Muslim beyliks. By the end of 1390 the Thunderbolt had crushed a coalition of Anatolian amirs that had gathered against him; and spent the following year consolidating Ottoman rule along the Black Sea coast. Never restful, he now turned his attention back to the Balkans, where over the next four years he campaigned in northern Greece and along the Danube. His attempt to cross the river and invade Wallachia was repulsed, however, at the Battle of Rovine; the first defeat of his career.

In 1394 Bayezid set his sights upon Constantinople, capital of the fading Byzantine state and long the greatest city in “Christendom”. The Emperors of the city had become vassals of the Ottomans during the reign of his father. But Bayezid was not content to have their submission. He wanted their fabled city, for the crescent of Islam to wave over the holy city of Eastern Orthodox Christianity. He began the siege by repudiating the Byzantine’s vassalage, and put the city under a loose blockade. The year before he had begun construction of a castle across the Bosporus from the city, the Anadoluhisarı, at the narrowest point between Europe and Asia. This castle, completed in 1394, constricted (though did not fully impede) seaborne supplies to the city.

Anadoluhisari (Anatolian Castle) sits beside the Bosporus, a reminder of Bayezid’s blockade of Constantinople in 1394-1402

With the great city under siege, Bayezid announced that he would be marching into Hungary to lay waste that kingdom by the following May (1396). Were Hungary to fall, central Europe would be open to Ottoman devastation.

The steady Ottoman advance in the Balkans had not gone unnoticed in the west. Though the militant religious spirit that had inspired the Crusades had largely dissipated, the growing Ottoman threat and pleas from the beleaguered Emperor Manuel II Palaeologus led Pope Boniface IX to call a new Crusade against the Turks.

The call to arms was accepted enthusiastically in France, where the 100 Years War had come to a (temporary) halt.  John, Count of Nevers (later Duke John the Fearless) the 24-year-old eldest son of the Duke of Burgundy, was the nominal commander of a powerful body of French knights and foot soldiers, who marched east to join King Sigismund of Hungary[2] at Buda. The Crusader army that gathered there numbered between 15-20,000 men, and included contingents Hungary, Croatia, Wallachia, Germany, a number of the Knights Hospitaller of Rhodes, as well as the French/Burgundian forces.

However, there was division in the Crusader command, with the arrogant French maintaining an independence from the other contingents, and only grudgingly accepting the authority Sigismund, if at all. Besieging Turkish held Nicopolis in September, they were surprised when Bayezid’s army arrived suddenly, having marched rapidly from Adrianople.  At a hasty council of war the French demanded “pride-of-place” and to be assigned as the vanguard, first to strike a blow against the enemy; instead of allowing the Wallachian infantry archers to clear the Turkish skirmishers out of their way.

On the morning of September 25 the two armies met on the field of Nicopolis. For the Crusaders it was a crushing disaster. Any chance of victory was thrown away when the foolishly brave French knights charged the Sultan’s forces without waiting for support from the rest of their army. Though they managed to cut their way through two lines of Turkish troops, by the time they reached Bayezid’s reserves they were exhausted. A counter-attack by the Sultan’s heavy cavalry sipahis, and his personal horse guards surrounded the French and forced their surrender.

The rest of the Crusader army, coming up and seeing the elite French vanguard defeated, lost heart and withdrew from the field, hardly striking a blow. Sigismund along with the German contingent and the Knights of St. John attempted to fight a rearguard action, but were routed by the Sultan’s Serbian allies (commanded by his brother-in-law Stefan Lazarević).

After the battle, Bayezid spared only the highest ranking captives, who could pay a hefty ransom for their freedom; and those under 20 years old, who were sold into captivity[3]. Thousands of others were marched naked before the Sultan’s throne, erected in front of his pavilion, and beheaded or dismembered.

The defeat of the Crusade seemed to spell the end for Constantinople and the last vestiges of the Byzantine Empire. It also ended any chance of expelling the Turks from the Balkans and from Europe. Tightening the blockade of the city, he waited for it to eventually surrender while he consolidated his hold over the southern Balkans. Nothing seemed to stand in Bayezid’s way.

Then, relief came to Constantinople from an unexpected source: in the summer of 1402 Timur came out of the east, with his veteran army of 140,000 hardened Turco-Mongol freebooters, and invaded Anatolia.

Breaking off the blockade of the city, “the Thunderbolt” marched rapidly east to meet this challenge.


With Timur pushing west and the Ottomans extending their authority into central and eastern Anatolia, it was only a matter of time till the interests of the two empires clashed. Perhaps it is inevitable that the two bullies on the block will eventually have to fight it out to see who is the toughest. On 20 July, 1402 arguably the two most feared powers in the world met to decide which leader would be paramount in the Middle East and the Islamic World. There was no room for two “commanders of the faithful”.

Bayezid marched east with some 85,000 troops.[4] These were a mixed lot of irregular Muslim Ghazis;  feudal Ottoman sipahi cavalry; the professional soldiers of the Kapikulu, the Sultan’s household troops, both   infantry Janissaries and cavalry Sipahis; the  mixed infantry and horse provided by his Anatolian Muslim vassals; and a strong contingent of Serbian knights led by his brother-in-law,  Stefan Lazarević. A quarter of Bayezid’s army were Tatars, vassals of the Turks from the Crimean region. Though once enemies of Timur, they had more in common with him than their new Ottoman masters.  (For detailed organization of the Ottoman army, go here.)

Artist’s rendering of various Ottoman troop types. Top: Feudal sipahis (l), Akinji light horse (r). Center: Ottoman infantry. Balkans infantry (l), Janissary (c), and N. African pirate (15th century). Bottom:  Anatolian troops. (l) Christian “Yaya” soldier, (c) elite sipahi, (r) Kapikulu (Janissary?) armored infantry

His advisers recommended he let Timur come to him, and meet him in the hills of northwestern Anatolia, where terrain was less favorable to a cavalry army such as the Timurids. But “the Thunderbolt”, in characteristic fashion, disregarded this counsel and marched into the hot Anatolian central plateau to find his enemy.

At Ankara Bayezid set up a well watered and provisioned camp to the northwest, on the Çubuk plain.  But on hearing that Timur’s army was pulling back to the east, Bayezid again disregarded his officer’s advice to stay there where water could be found. Instead he set off after his foe, a foolish endeavor as much of his forces were infantry while the Timurids were all cavalry. This led to an  8-day wild goose-chase, with Timur’s rapidly maneuvering horsemen eventually slipping around the Turkish flank far to the south. Coming back north,  Timur managed to cut Bayezid off from Ankara, which Timur placed under siege. Worse, he captured the Sultan’s well-laden camp, where he waited for the Turks to return.

As Bayezid thirsty troops backtracked towards Ankara, losing some 5,000 men along the way to heat, they found Timur’s army waiting for then on the plain of Çubuk. With his own army well-situated where water was easily had, Timur dammed-off the stream that ran though the plain, and  had sent out riders to poison the other water sources on the Turkish side of the field. It would be a hot, thirsty day for the tired Ottoman army.


Artist’s images of Timurid warriors

Timur’s army was mostly composed of Turco-Mongolian light cavalry, armed with the same powerful composite bow as their Turkish enemies. This could send a light arrow flying up to 400 meters in the right conditions. The Timurids also had a large number of heavy cavalry, with both man-and-horse fully armored in the Central Asian fashion (though even the Timurid light cavalry wore some armor). From his Indian campaign Timur had also brought back some 32 war elephants, a fearsome weapon the Ottoman troops had never faced.

Timur’s forces were arrayed in a four divisions, each with its own van and reserve: a vanguard commanded by his grandsons; the right and left commanded by his sons Miran and Rukh, respectively; and a reserve behind the center, where he commanded in person, composed of his elite guards. A larger reserve of light horsemen was further back still, screening the way to Ankara and both preventing a force from breaking through to the city or the garrison sallying out to aid the Sultan. The elephants were arrayed across the center.

Bayezid drew up his army with high ground protecting his rear. Across his center he placed the Janissary and Azab infantry, mostly archers though with some heavier-equipped troops. These were backed up by the Kapikulu Sipahis (the household cavalry, literally “Sipahis of the Porte”). Here Bazezid took personal command. On his left he placed the Rumeli (European troops from the southern Balkans), the best of which were 5,000 heavily armored Serbian cavalry, wearing “black armor” (almost certainly blackened plate) commanded by the reliable  Stefan Lazarević.

Bayezid’s Serbian contingent proved both the most effective and loyal of all his forces

The Turkish right was commanded by Bayezid’s son, Suleiman, and was composed of the army of Anatolia.  Much of this force was the contingents of recently subjugated Anatolian beyliks. These were backed, in turn, by a force of Tartars from the Crimea. In reserve behind the center were more sipahi heavy cavalry.

The battle began at 10 a.m. with the Ottomans advancing both their wings, supported by a cacophony of kettle drums and cymbals, as was their custom. Timur’s forces awaited their advance in silence. On the Turkish right Suleiman’s attack was met with a concentrated barrage of arrow and naphtha fire, the Timurid horsemen slinging balls of this combustible material into the Turkish ranks. Thrown into disorder, the Turks were then counter attacked by Timur’s horsemen. At this moment, the Tartars and many of the Anatolian Beys switched sides, joining Timur against their former master.

On the opposite flank, Timur concentrated his reserves, including the elite Samarkand division and his guards, and broke the Rumeli (Balkans) division as well, except for the Serbs; who repeatedly charged through the Turco-Mongol ranks and back again, “fighting like lions” and gaining Timur’s respect. Three times they cut their way through the tightening noose of Turco-Mongol cavalry. Stefan begged the Sultan to allow him to escort him from the field, but Bayezid refused to withdraw. Finally the Serbs were cut off from the Sultan and were forced to withdraw or be destroyed.

With both of the Turkish cavalry wings routed, Timur now advanced his center of 80 regiments (or minghan)[5] led by the armored war elephants, trumpeting loudly as they thundered forward, against the Janissaries and other Turkish infantry.  Exhausted by heat and thirst, the usually steady Janissaries were overwhelmed by this assault, most perishing or being captured.

The fate of Bayezid is given differently in the accounts. According to Schiltberger, a German who began the battle in Turkish service, was captured and subsequently rode under Timur, the Sultan made a stand with 1,000 horsemen of his guard. Doukas, a Greek chronicler, says that it was among the Janissaries that Bayezid fought on. Finally, the Sultan fled with a few remaining guards, only to be hunted down and captured when his horse stumbled and collapsed.

The Turkish army left 40,000 men dead on the field, the Timurids another 10,000. Proportionately, the Ottomans may have lost as much as half their force, and this from those most loyal to the dynasty.


After the battle Timur moved west, with the captive Bayezid in tow,  ravaging Western Anatolia. As a sign of his commitment to fighting the enemies of the faith, he stormed Smyrna, a stronghold of the Knights of St. John. Then, word reached him that an old enemy had taken Baghdad behind his back, and his army turned east again, leaving Anatolia for good.

Timur would recapture Baghdad and, after settling affairs in Northern Iran, return to Samarkand in triumph. He died in 1405 on the way to the conquest of Ming China.

“The Thunderbolt” died in captivity, predeceasing  Timur by two years. A legend grew up that Timur kept him in an iron cage, but this has been dismissed as mythology. But he did remain a prisoner of his enemy till his death, a sad end to the career of this world-shaker.

Timur visiting Bayezid in captivity

Ankara (or Angora as it was known by contemporaries in the west) was a nearly fatal disaster for the fledgling Ottoman Empire. The sons of Bayezid turned upon each other, fighting for the throne for the next 11 years. Only divisions and distractions among the Christian powers in the west prevented them taking advantage of this great opportunity to throw the Turks out of Europe forever. (The short-sighted Genoese and Venetians even helped Turkish survivors of Angora escape across the Bosporus into Europe, using their ships to ferry these forces.)

One Christian prince who did take advantage of the Ottoman’s subsequent weakness was Stefan Lazarević of Serbia. Retreating through Byzantine territory after the battle, where he was well received. Throwing off his allegience to the Turks, he formed a relationship with the Byzantine Empire, the Emperor John VII Palaiologos awarding him the very high title of Despot. Thereafter, till his death in 1427 he ruled an independent Serbia, fought the Turks to a standstill, and ultimately became a close ally of Hungary in defending Christendom’s southeastern borders from the Turks.

Despite losing the Battle of Ankara, the Ottoman state survived and ultimately prospered, becoming one of the great “Gunpowder Empires” of the 16th century. The empire Timur forged with blood faded after his death, leaving nothing but a legacy of destruction and skulls.

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.


  1. During the Byzantine Empire, Bithynia was part of the Opsikion Theme.
  2. Later Holy Roman Emperor, most famous for inciting and prosecuting (unsuccessfully) the Hussite Wars.
  3. One such captive, 15 year old Johan “Hans” Schiltberger spent the next 30 years as a slave-soldier of first the Turks, then of Timur, and later in Tatar Russia before escaping to freedom and return to Germany.
  4. Numbers of combatants for both sides differ wildly according to the source. In some accounts Bayezid out numbered Timur by as much as half-again; in others the reverse is true. Numbers do not seem to have played a great part in the outcome, so are somewhat irrelevant.
  5. In the Timurid army the binlik or minghan was a 1,000 man regiment. That Timur had 80,000 men in his center at this point in the battle seems high. But it is here that our lack of certainty of the exact numbers involved betrays us.
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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.

(To read Part 6, go here; or to start at the beginning, go here.)

The Battle of Mantinea in 418 BC was the largest hoplite battle of the Peloponnesian War. The one-sided victory over her rivals secured Sparta’s hegemony in the Peloponnese and confirmed the reputation of the Spartan hoplite as the foremost soldier in Hellas.

The prime agent behind the anti-Spartan alliance that collapsed at Mantinea was the Athenian Alcibiades son of Cleinias. A kinsman of the late renown Athenian leader Pericles, Alcibiades was perhaps the most charismatic politician of his generation. He had wealth, wit, good looks and boundless ambition. While not a great public speaker, he was charming and persuasive in private conversation. Unfortunately for Athens and his own fortunes he was also completely lacking in scruples, and his primary loyalty was to no one other than himself.


Herm portrait of the young Alcibiades

Following the failure of his efforts to sabotage Sparta’s position in the Peloponnese, he began to champion another project; one that would thrust him into a position of great influence and responsibility in the Empire. In 415 BC delegates from the Ionian/Elymian city of Segesta in Sicily requested Athenian support in their war against neighboring Selinus. They requested a force of 60 triremes, the cost of which they offered to pay for a year. Alcibiades very quickly became the champion for this proposed intervention in Sicily. But Alcibiades argued for an even greater military effort, to not only aid Segesta but with the purpose of subduing the entire island!

This opening of a new war, when conflict with the Spartans and their allies yet smoldered and was likely to erupt anew was foolish in the extreme. But Alcibiades argued persuasively before the citizen assembly (Ecclesia) that the Athenian Empire needed to expand to survive. That if they didn’t conquer Sicily, and particularly Dorian Syracuse (the largest and most powerful Greek city on the island), they risked having these cities join Sparta against her:

Men do not rest content with parrying the attacks of a superior, but often strike the first blow to prevent the attack being made. And we cannot fix the exact point at which our empire shall stop; we have reached a position in which we must not be content with retaining but must scheme to extend it, for, if we cease to rule others, we are in danger of being ruled ourselves. Nor can you look at inaction from the same point of view as others, unless you are prepared to change your habits and make them like theirs.“[1]

This was a stark repudiation of Pericles’ warning to the Athenians at the dawn of the war, not to succumb to the temptation to undertake new foreign ventures while the war against Sparta yet raged.


In Athens debate raged over the wisdom and practicality of the proposed expedition.

While Alcibiades was its chief proponent, the respected conservative leader Nicias argued against. Alcibiades reasoned that the conquest of Sicily would make Athens and all Athenians fabulously wealthy, and their empire supreme. Nicias argued for caution, and warned of the dangers and the immense cost of such an expedition.

The debate in the Assembly turned in his favor when Alcibiades asked Nicias to explain, in his considered opinion, what it would take to conquer Sicily. To discourage them, Nicias laid out a plan of immense proportions and cost: That such an expedition would require nearly twice the proposed number of ships, and an army to operate on land as well. Far from being daunted, Nicias’ warning was taken for a suggestion and accepted eagerly. The Athenians decided to send a fleet not of 60 triremes, but nearly 140; with an army of 5,100 hoplites and another 1,300 light infantry archers, slingers, and javelineers.[2] The crews and soldiers were the best and most accomplished the city had to offer, and the captains (trierarchs) of each ship vied to make his more splendidly decorated and adorned than any others. Alcibiades was appointed one of three commanders of the expedition. To temper his youthful boldness, Nicias (who had no confidence in the enterprise) was sent as well, along with an experienced old soldier named Lamachus.

At this point, on the eve of leading a great and glorious campaign of conquest, Alcibiades’ previous life of wild and dissolute behavior came back to bite him.

One morning the city awoke to sacrilegious horror. On every doorstep of every home, the sacred statues of Hermes (called “Hermae“) which were thought to bring good luck to the household, had been defaced and mutilated. No one knew who had done this outrage. But wild rumors quickly spread, of planned revolution to overthrow the democracy. Alternately, that this impiety was the work of drunken revelers, wandering through the streets at night. His past behavior remembered, Alcibiades was named by many as the likely culprit.


Vase painting showing man putting a Herm in place


Examples of Herms

We know not who was actually responsible for this outrage. But Alcibiades must be considered low on the list of suspects. A man at last entrusted with great responsibility and on the verge of seeing his life’s ambition fulfilled is unlikely to have acted so foolishly. Most scholars (including Thucydides) are skeptical. What is more likely is that the desecration of the Hermes was done by one or more of Alcibiades’ many enemies, in order to discredit him. Or by desperate opponents of the Sicilian venture, as many now said no good could come to any enterprise launched while the city was under the cloud of sacrilege.

Alcibiades demanded immediate trial, in order to clear his name before the Sicilian expedition, expressing the desire “to be punished if found guilty, but if acquitted, to be allowed to take command”. But his political enemies had no desire to face Alcibiades in open hearing before the Assembly, with so many of the voting body soldiers and sailors preparing for the expedition and loyal to their presumptive commander. Instead, they pushed to delay trial till after the expedition:

“….(They proposed) he ought at present to sail and not delay the departure of the army, and be tried on his return within a fixed number of days; their plan being to have him sent for and brought home for trial upon some graver charge, which they would the more easily get up in his absence. Accordingly it was decreed that he should sail.” [3]


The harbor of Piraeus, with Athens in the background. It was from here in 415 BC that the great Athenian armada sailed forth on the Sicilian Expedition.

The Athenian armada prepared to launch amidst great fanfare in midsummer, 415. The city turned out as though on a festival day, to give family members, friends, and fellow countrymen a tumultuous send-off. It was a spectacle not to be forgotten, and is vividly recorded by Thucydides:

…the Athenians themselves, and such of their allies (Argives and Messenians) as were there with them went down to Piraeus upon a day appointed at daybreak, and began to man the ships for putting out to sea. With them also went down the whole population, one may say, of the city, both citizens and foreigners; the inhabitants of the country each escorting those that belonged to them, their friends, their relatives, or their sons… at this moment, when they were now upon the point of parting from one another, th danger came more home to them… although the strength of the armament, and the profuse provision which they remarked in every department, was a sight that could not but comfort them. As for the foreigners and the rest of the crowd, they simply went to see a sight worth looking at and passing all belief… Indeed this armament that first sailed out was by far the most costly and splendid Hellenic force that had ever been sent out by a single city up to that time.

To the singing of hymns and the pouring of libations, the fleet launched. Majestically, their great oars sweeping, the galleys left the harbor of Piraeus one behind the other; forming into column and sailing southeast out of the Saronic Gulf.

1505566.jpgThe Spartans were surprisingly unconcerned as the Athenian armada cruised around the Peloponnese, and then sailed northwestward toward Italy and Sicily. War-weary in the extreme and still trying to honor the terms of the Peace of Nicias, they took no action, diplomatic or otherwise. All of their energies were concentrated on pacifying the Argives, defeated at Mantinea but still defiant.

The Athenians put in at Corcyra (modern Corfu), where the fleet divided into three tactical squadrons. Sending ahead three triremes to approach the cities along the Italian and Sicilian coast and gauge their welcome, the armada crossed to Italy; arriving first at Taras/Tarentum (modern Taranto), then sailing southeast along the southern Italian coast. They found the cities closed against them, allowing them only water and anchorage (and Tarentum, a Spartan colony, and Locri not even that). At Rhegium, at the toe of Italy, the fleet landed and was greeted with a market. The Athenians asked the Rhegians to join them, but the Rhegians replied they would wait to see which way the other Italiot Greek cities went.


The fleet sailed on to Catania, which was seized by a coup de main. The pro-Syracusan party fled without a fight, and the citizens voted to ally with Athens and allow their city to be used as a base of operations.

It was at Catana that Alcibiades’ enemies back home caught up with him. The state trireme, the Salaminia, arrived with orders for him to return with them to Athens to stand trial for the desecration of the Herms, and for another charge: that years before he had profaned the Eleusinian Mysteries. Alcibiades agreed to return, and leaving Nicias and Lamachus in charge of the expedition, boarded the Salaminia and departed. But when the ship stopped at Thurii in southern Italy, he jumped ship and fled. Under no illusions, Alcibiades realized that his enemies would have carefully prepared (fabricated?) a case against him and justice would not be forthcoming.

Asked by a local if he didn’t trust his own people (the Athenians) to do justice by him, he replied: “In all else; but in the matter of life I wouldn’t trust even my own mother.”

His suspicions were perhaps confirmed when he was convicted in absentia and condemned to death.  When learning of his sentence, he reputedly said, “I will give them reason to know I am alive”.

Now an outlaw, Alcibiades caught a small boat from Thurii to the Peloponnese. He went first to Argos, where he had many friends. But as in informal ally of Athens, he knew Argos could not long shelter him. So he sent overtures to the very people he had done the most in his life to injure: the Spartans!


It must have been with surprise and wry amusement that the Spartans received overtures from Alcibiades, the Athenian mischief-maker who’d caused them nothing but trouble since the Peace of Nicias was negotiated. But he now promised “to render them aid and service greater than all the harm he had previously done them as an enemy”[4] if they would but grant him immunity from prosecution and take him into their confidence. The Spartans agreed, and Alcibiades was made welcome in Sparta.

Here he showed his chameleon-like talent for appearing to be whatever his hosts wished to see. In Sparta, he adopted the habits of the Spartans: he bathed in cold water, he devoted himself to exercise and lived sparingly and maintained a serious demeanor. He exchanged his fine linens for a simple woolen cloak,and the man who once employed a personal chef now dined heartily of black Spartan broth. He became, in essence, the most Spartan of the Spartans.


Sparta, where Alcibiades found refuge in 414 BC. The ruins of an ancient temple are in the foreground, while the modern city can be seen beyond. The majestic Taygetos Mountains loom in the distance.


The Eurotas River, winding its way through the valley of Laconia. In ancient times, Spartan boys slept along its stoney banks, in summer and winter; only a single threadbare cloak for garment or blanket.


“Hollow Lacedaemon”: Looking at Sparta from the north

From this his popularity grew rapidly, and the Spartans quickly forgot that he was once their greatest enemy. He repaid them with good advice; much to the detriment of his home city.

First, he advised them to send aid to Syracuse; to bring about the defeat of the very expedition he had himself conceived. He did this by convincing them, through his prodigious power of persuasion, that Syracuse would be just a jumping-off place from which the Athenians would soon dominate not only Sicily; but Carthage and Italy as well. These conquered and their resources marshaled, what chance would the Peloponnesians have against them? The Spartans agreed (414 BC) to send to Syracuse a general, Gylippus son of Cleandridas; to organize the defense of the city.

He also urged them to a renewal of hostilities, and proposed a strategy to further vex his native city: he advised that a Spartan army march into Attica; and seize and  fortify the village of Decelea in northern Attica, midway between Athens and Boeotia.  This the Spartans did in 413;  King Agis II establishing a permanent garrison on Athen’s doorstep. From here the Spartan garrison could cut-off Athens from its farmland; forcing the farmers to move permanently behind the Long Walls. For the next 9 years, till the end of the war, this was a thorn in Athen’s side; and a refuge for runaway slaves from the city.


By this spiteful counsel, Alcibiades reignited the Peloponnesian War. As it was his actions in Athens that led the Athenians to undermine the Peace of Nicias by first allying with Argos, Sparta’s bitterest foe; and then in attacking Syracuse it can be fairly said that no one man is more responsible for the disasters that befell Athens than Alcibiades.

While Agis was away at Decelea, Alcibiades seduced his wife, Timaea. The two engaged in a love affair, and when she gave birth to a son, Leotychides, she reputedly told her friends that the baby was in truth Alcibiades’ son. When Agis learned that his wife had given birth, he knew that it was not his. From this time forward he became Alcibiades’ enemy.

With Alcibiades’ advice and aid the Spartans gathered a naval squadron from contributions by their allies. He then sailed with this fleet to Ionia, where he convinced certain Ionian cities to revolt against Athens. However, despite his numerous services to Sparta, the enmity of Agis forced him to flee to the court of the Persian  Satrap of Lydia, Tissaphernes (grandson of Hydarnes, the commander of the Immortals at Thermopylae).

Meanwhile, in Sicily, the seeds of trouble sowed by Alcibiades bore golden fruit for Sparta. At Syracuse, Gylippus took charge of the defenses; and changed the course of history.


(If you enjoyed this, than you might like Deadliest Blogger’s piece on the ancient trireme here!)


[1] Thucydides, History of the Peloponnesian War (VI, 89)

[2] Thucydides (VI, 26-27); and Plutarch, Lives of the Noble Greeks and Romans: Alcibiades (20). Thucydides gives the most complete breakdown of the force, as it marshalled at Corcyra (Corfu):

One hundred and thirty-four galleys in all (besides two Rhodian fifty-oars), of which one hundred were Athenian vessels- sixty men-of-war (triremes), and forty troopships- and the remainder from Chios and the other (Delian League) allies; five thousand and one hundred heavy infantry in all, that is to say,  fifteen hundred Athenian citizens (hoplites) from the rolls at Athens and seven hundred Thetes (lower-class citizens, usually serving as rowers) shipped as marines, and the rest allied troops, some of them Athenian subjects, and besides these five hundred Argives, and two hundred and fifty Mantineans serving for hire; four hundred and eighty archers in all, eighty of whom were Cretans, seven hundred slingers from Rhodes, one hundred and twenty light-armed exiles from Megara, and one horse-transport carrying thirty horses.

An impressive force; though the paucity of cavalry would prove problematic for the Athenians throughout the campaign, in the face of large number of Syracusan horsemen.

 [3] Thucydides (VI, 29)

[4] Plutarch, Alcibiades (23)


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

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


Returning in 511 AD from his sojourn in the north, Arthur and his mounted combrogi [1] rode down the Roman Roads from Din Eidyn (Edinburgh),  back south to his likely power-center. [2]  Word had come north that Cerdic, the leader of the West Saxons, had emerged from his refuge among the swamps around the Avon mouth; and was raiding deeply into the lands of the Belgae.

1495104.jpgCerdic had established himself in southern Hampshire, according to the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle landing with three ships in 495 at Cerdics-ore (Cerdics-mouth), near modern Portsmouth. As previously discussed at this early stage Cerdic is described as an “ealdorman”, an appointed official within the Saxon kingdoms. But just who he served as ealdorman  is unknown. The paramount Saxon king in Britain during this period was Ælle, King of the nearby South Saxe (Sussex). This formidable figure is the most likely ruler whom Cerdic, at this stage of his life, followed. But that is mere conjecture.

Cerdic’s very name raises questions, as it is not an Anglo-Saxon name at all, but a Celtic one. Some have suggested previously that he was a turn-coat, a British traitor who had joined the Saxons. Or that he may have been a British minor lord of the land-owning aristocracy, or even a “petty-king” whose holding was along the western extreme of the Saxon Shore, in the lands of the Belgae tribe. That, as time went on, he built up a band of Saxon warriors (mercenaries or renegades) and asserted his independence; aligning himself with what seemed to be the winning side, that of the Anglo-Saxon invaders.

This theory has one major flaw, however: a British chieftain could never command the loyalty of these very chauvinistic Germanic invaders. As Vortigern two generations earlier had learned, the Saxon wolves would eat from the hand of their British master, only to devour both hand and the arm behind it. The Saxons contemptuously called the British natives “Wealas” (Welsh): “Foreigners”. Foreigners in their own land, fit only to be thralls (slaves) of the Saxons!

Saxon chieftains traced their lineage carefully, back many generations. Kings, ultimately, traced theirs to Odin or one of the other gods of the north. Men followed these “Odinborn” chieftains precisely because of their family connection to the gods, and the good fortune which that brought them and to their people. To hail a lowly “weala” as king would have been unthinkable for a Saxon warrior.

A more likely scenario is the one previously suggested, that Cerdic was the by-product of the union of a highborn South Saxon father and a British (captive?) mother. (Alternatively, in her novel “The Sword at Sunset”, Rosemary Sutcliff makes Cerdic the grandson of Hengist and the son of Vortigern from his ill-fated marriage to Hengist’s daughter, Rowena (See Part Two for Vortigern and Rowena).

Rising in the service of Ælle, he was trusted with the mission of expanding the South Saxe territories westward, along the coast. This theory reconciles the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle’s (ASC) entry of 495, “Cerdic landed in Hampshire with his son, Cynic, in three ships”; with the later founding date of the Kingdom of Wessex (519).”

1494939.jpgSince landing near modern Portsmouth, Cerdic had been a thorn in the flank of the southern British, harrying into the lands of the Belgae and perhaps raiding westward along the Dumnonian coast. In 501, the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle tells us that there was a battle at Portsmouth Harbor, and that “a very noble (British) manwas slain.  This closely matches a Welsh poem, which describe a battle at a place called Llongborth, the “port of the warships” (possibly Portsmouth, or nearby). In this battle, a Dumnonian prince named Geraint/Gereint ap Erbin (son of Erbin, 5th century king of Dumnonia) was involved and may have been slain.

The sources for this are Welsh heroic poetry; and depending upon the translation, there is cause to doubt if Geraint was indeed slain in this battle. Morris, using the translation below, and accepting that Geriant was indeed killed here, assumed Geriant to be synonymous with the  “very noble” Briton who was slain, according to  the ASC entry for 501. Morris concludes that this was a rare example of both Saxon and Welsh sources confirming a  common historical incident: the battles of Portsmouth and Llongborth being one-in-the-same.[3] 



In Llongborth I saw the clash of swords, men in terror, bloody heads, before Geraint

 the Great, his father’s son 

 In Llongborth I saw Arthur’s heroes cut with steel. The Emperor, ruler of our labor.

In Llongborth Geraint was slain. Heroes of  the land of Dyfneint.  Before they were slain, they slew.

This poem was likely translated from an early British (Brythonic) version, composed close to the event, into Welsh centuries later. Its feel is much closer to the Gododdin (late 6th century) than it is to that of the later Medieval Welsh poems. It has an immediacy and a visceral sadness, a lament for a much-loved fallen hero.

We know from recorded genealogies that the poem’s subject, the hero Geraint , was a prince of Dumnonia (called by the later Welsh Dyfneint). He is an attested historical figure (as much as any can be in this period notably poor in original sources). Both he and his brother, Dywel[4], were warriors who served “the court” of Arthur in the poem. Could Geraint and his brother been members (combrogi) of Arthur’s comitatus?  The poem also names Arthur as Geriant’s (and the bard’s) overlord: “Emperor, ruler of our labor”. The poem suggests that Geriant and his sword-brothers are “Arthur’s Heroes” (at least in this translation).

But one should not conclude from this that Arthur was present. All scholars agree that he was not. Nor, considering the early date of this battle, is it likely that Arthur yet bore the title of Emperor (in Welsh, Ameraudur). All mention of Arthur may be in any case anachronistic in that Arthur was at this date (perhaps) only a subordinate of the elderly Ambrosius Aurelianus. It has also been reasonably suggested that Arthur’s name was inserted into the poem by later translators.

While the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle names the Saxon leader at the battle of Portsmouth as an otherwise unknown Saxon leader named “Port”, this seems an attempt to equate the name of the town with some eponymous Saxon figure. Considering that the area was home to Cerdic’s recently arrived West Saxons, Cerdic is the most likely antagonist in this battle.

In 508, seven years after Llongborth, another battle was fought between Saxon and Briton at Netley Marsh; in which the ASC  says Cerdic and his warriors “killed a certain British king named Natanleod, and five thousand men”. This battle is another of the mysteries surrounding Cerdic, and triggers several questions.

First, who was Natanleod?

Likely he was a local petty-king, ruling the plains and rolling hills north of Cerdic’s swampy refuge. It has also been suggested that he may have been ruler of the local Belgae, whose stronghold may have been at Venta Belgarum, the future Winchester, capital of the West Saxon kingdom. In the 18th and 19th century, many scholars (though not Gibbon) attempted to identify this British king with none-other than Ambrosius Aurelianus. As Ambrosius may have died around this time, this theory certainly makes for an interesting story: Cerdic, British traitor/half-breed serving the Saxon enemy, defeats and kills the great British leader, Ambrosius Aurelianus! If the battle did in fact cost the British  5,000 men, a considerable force in that day-and-age, than this Natanleod must have been a very great leader indeed, perhaps Ambrosius himself.

The location of the battle is the next question. A good choice is near Totton, where a Roman road through the swamps around Southampton northwards toward the Salisbury Plain passes close by an old hillfort. This mound, Tatchbury Hillfort, rising over Tetley Marsh, might have been garrisoned by a Briton force charged with warding the region from Saxon incursion. This may have been where Cerdic’s warband engaged the mysterious Natanleod and destroyed his forces.


It is highly unlikely that Cerdic possessed the strength in 508 to defeat in open battle a force of 5,000 men; assuming for a moment that this number is not greatly exaggerated, which it most assuredly is. His original 3 “keels” could not have held more than 200 warriors, and likely less. Even allowing for additional reinforcements over the years, the swamp lands could not provide a home for a warband of any great size. Either the Anglo-Saxon account has greatly inflated the number of British (engaged and dead), or the battle was not a set-piece battle at all.

There are more than one way to skin the proverbial cat. Not all victories are achieved through a stand-up fight.

Instead, a hypothetical scenario suggests itself:  Old Ambrosius, at the end of his life, decides to finally put-paid to Cerdic’s vexatious presence in the southern marshes. As noted above, an army of the size claimed by the Anglo Saxon Chronicle could only have been mustered by a very powerful lord, and Ambrosius Aurelianus certainly had such authority. But by 508  Ambrosius was a very old man, whose health may have been failing. Arthur was his chief subordinate at this time, perhaps (as previously discussed) his Master of Horse (Magister Equitum); or perhaps filling the Roman office of  Count of Britain (Comes Britanniarum), leader of the mobile field force (comitatenses)  that defended late Roman Britain. But Arthur is far away, and this force was dispatched under another trusted (if less competent) lieutenant to reinforce the local petty-king (perhaps the Belgae tribal king), Natanleod. Joining  him and his forces at Tachbury Hillfort, the overconfident Britons perhaps spend the night feasting and celebrating the coming campaign; a normal send-off for Dark Ages armies preparing for war.

Cerdic, no one’s fool, has spies throughout the bordering British strongholds. He knows of the coming campaign to destroy him, and of the levies gathered at Tatchbury, preparing to march against him. That night Cerdic’s warriors creep through the marsh, to the foot of the hill. They crouch silently in the darkness, waiting till the sound of celebration slowly dies down. Then, in the predawn gloom, the Saxons creep silently toward the gate.

1495105.jpgThese are opened to Cerdic’s assault party by spies within the fortress. The Saxon wolves rush into the sleeping camp. They fall upon the stuporous Britons, and the sounds of slaughter soon fills the night.

While purely hypothetical, such a scenario reconciles the picture painted by the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle. Again, the British force was almost certainly much less than 5,000. But it is not impossible that upward of a thousand Britons were slain in this massacre.

After the battle, Cerdic’s power spread further north, creeping toward the Salisbury plain and the heart of the Belgae tribal lands. He has secured himself in along the southwestern British coast, and the seeds of a future Kingdom of Wessex have been well sowed.

Now, in 511, Arthur returned to the south upon hearing news of this disaster; and perhaps with it news that Ambrosius Aurelianus, the High King  (his uncle?) is dying.


Nennius claims that Arthur’s “ 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 great slaughter upon them, through the power of Jesus Christ and the power of the holy Virgin Mary, his mother.”

The location for this battle (as with the rest) is unknown, and much debated. Guinnion has been identified at various locations. But two very good possibilities both point to a battle against Cerdic in the south.

W. G. Collingwood and David Nash Ford (among others) have identified Guinnion Fort (Caer Guinnion/Cair Guinntguic: “White Fort”) as Venta Belgarum/Winchester.[5]

Taking advantage of his victory at Netley Marsh and Arthur’s absence in the north, Cerdic may have based himself out of the captured hillfort at Tatchbury; which provided a stronghold with ready access to the Roman road through the swamps which have become his stronghold, onto the Salisbury Plain. In such terrain a solidly made Roman road was vital to the movement of troops. From this base he could menace Avebury (the late Ambrosius’ stronghold) and Venta Belgarum. Now, in 511, Cerdic moved against the Belgae tribal capital, laying siege.

Under this scenario, Arthur rides south to relieve the town. According to Nennius, Arthur carried the image of the Virgin Mary blazoned on his shield. This may or may not be significant: if the first time he did so, it may signal Arthur’s attempt to identify himself with and unite behind his leadership the Orthodox/Catholic Christian faithful in Britain. (At this time, there was no schism between the Orthodox and Catholic branches of the Church; but instead, in Britain, between Catholic and Pelagian.)

1494954.jpgIn the resulting battle, Arthur’s horsemen shatter the Saxons, inflicting great casualties. Cerdic and his men flee back into the swamps to the south to lick their wounds.

But this is not the only possibility for this, Nennius’ eighth battle.

Another likely location is Land’s End, at the tip of Cornwall: Caer Guidn in the British tongue.

At Lands End, in westernmost Cornwall, there is a local legend that Arthur defeated a raiding force of “Danes”, near the ancient mill, Vellan-Druchar (Vellan=mill, druchar=wheel).

The legend says that the “Danes” landed at Genvor Cove and proceeded to pillage and spoil the many of villages of Western Cornwall; which they believed were unprotected (Arthur being in the north?). Nighttime beacon-fires blazed across the land, summoning Arthur and his “knights” to the land’s rescue.

1495089.jpgThe legend has Arthur and nine native (Dumnonian) princes at Tintagel, feasting. Gathering their men, they rushed across the West Country to Lands End. Arthur caught the raiders returning to their ships, and gave them battle near Vellan-Druchar. So terrible was the slaughter, it was said, that the mill was worked with blood that day, and not a single Dane escaped!


Two views of Tintagel

Arthur and the nine princes gave thanks for their victory in St Sennen’s Chapel, and dined that day on the Table-men, a rock table nearby. A poem to the victory, supposedly composed on the occasion by no less than Arthur’s court Druid (?) and adviser, Merlin, reads:

“The northmen wild once more shall land, And leave their bones on Escol’s sand. The soil of Vellan-Druchar’s plain Again shall take a sanguine stain; and o‘er the mill-wheel roll a flood Of Danish mix’d with Cornish blood. When thus the vanquish’d find no tomb, Expect the dreadful day of doom.”

Could this local Cornish legend give insight into the otherwise unknown details of Nennius eighth battle, at Caer Guinnion?

Taking the tale as told above at face value, it is entirely possible that a raiding force of “Danes” was destroyed by local Dumnonian warlords near Caer Guidn, Land’s End. The leader of the Cornish may have been Arthur, whose personal power-base might have been in northern Cornwall (Triggshire), in an incident unrelated to any of Nennius’ battles. But it is much more likely that if such a battle occurred, it was against Saxon raiders, not Danes. The Danes at this time in their history were divided and busy raiding each other and their local neighbors, seeking to establish their rule over the Danish islands and on the Jutland peninsula, recently all-but abandoned by the Jutes who had migrated to Kent in Britain. The Danes had no need or energy to raid as far across the sea as Cornwall.  But the Saxons, in this era known as “seawolves”, were much closer and thus a more likely culprit.

In such a scenario, with his northern border secure after his victory at Netley Marsh, Cerdic and his warband take to the sea, raiding along the south Dumnonian coast to Cornwall. Perhaps this was a campaign Cerdic had planned all along, and gathered Anglo-Saxon freebooters to temporarily swell his warband. Perhaps Natanleod’s ill-fated campaign was in response to such a build-up in the southern marshlands. In any case, Cerdic now takes to the sea, sailing along the southern Dumnonian coast.  Thinking Arthur far away to the north, he lands and begins to pillage the Cornish countryside.

Arthur and his veteran Combrogi, on the road and returning from the north, get word of the Saxon raid. The horsemen spur down the Fosse Way, the main Roman road to the old Roman fortress town of Exeter (Roman Isca Dumnoniorum). From there riders are sent, summoning the petty-kings of western Dumnonia (Cornwall) to muster at Tintagel.

As the Saxons approach the White Fort (Caer Guidn) at Lands End, Arthur and the petty-kings of western Dumnonia (nine, if local traditions are to be relied upon) fall upon Cerdic’s raiders. Busy pillaging, Cerdic’s men are caught unprepared for battle, scattered about the countryside in small bands foraging for plunder. They are easy prey for Arthur’s swift-riding horsemen. The slaughter is great, though unlikely as great as local tradition indicates.  Penwith, between Lands End and St. Ives, is said to mean the “Headland of Blood”; a name that may echo back to this sanguinary battle!

Related image

Penwith, Cornwall, possible site of  Battle at Vellan-Druchar

The wily Cerdic survives, and with the remnants of his force flees back to his ships, taking to the sea. This is a terrible setback on his road to establishing a Kingdom of the West Saxons, but just a setback.

Arthur and the lords that followed him in battle feast, perhaps as local legend would have it, upon Lanyon Quoit (known also as Table-Men Rock), perhaps surrounded by wooden tables set up on the surrounding field for their victorious  warriors.

1495100.jpg Two views of Lanyon Quoit/Table-Men Rock, Cornwall



  1. Brittonic word meaning “fellow countryman”,  or “comrade-in-arms”. It is the source of the place name Cumbria, land of the combrogi.
  2. While there are competing theories as to the both the origin of a “historical Arthur”, as well as his base of operations in Celtic Britain; I believe the case for a “southern Arthur” to be persuasive, as we have discussed in previous installments of this series.There is a strong tradition of Arthur-related places in Cornwall, particularly in the northern part of the peninsula. In previous installments we have explored the possibility that he held land in Dumnonia. While it is certain he was not the king of Dumnonia, he may have held lands in Triggshire as a vassal of that king.  I believe it very possible that a historical Arthur may have had been a sub-king in Dumnonia; perhaps by marriage or even by inheritance. It was not impossible that Arthur could have been both the premiere warlord of Britain, acting as “Count of Britain”, a late Roman military officer who commanded the mobile field force that defended the province during its late Roman days; and at the same time be a prince of one or more tribal areas. While it may seem strange that the war-leader (Dux Bellorum) of the Celtic British kingdoms might have been at the same time a vassal of one of these kings, such complicated and often contradictory allegiances and subordination are not without example in history. The Plantagenet kings of England were equals and rivals to the kings of France even while owing fealty and homage to the French crown for those lands they held in France.
  3. Morris, John, The Age of Arthur, A History of the British Isles from 350 to 650. P. 104-105. Barnes and Noble Books, 1996
  4. Dywel became king of Dumnonia after Erbin.
  5. Ford, David Nash. “The 28 Cities of Britain” at Britannia. 2000.

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

(This is the tenth in a series concerning the Wars of the Diadochi. Part 1 can be read here, and includes comprehensive biographies of the players in this drama. It is strongly advised that you start there before reading on. The previous installment, Part 9, can be found here. Stay tuned to this blog for future installments. Special thanks to Michael Park for his indispensable help in filling in the gaps in the sources and putting-up with my incessant questions!)


We are now at the late summer of 320 B.C. Alexander the Great has been dead for three years, and his corpse is now housed in a splendid sarcophagus in Memphis, Egypt. The two kings who are heir to his legacy, his toddler son Alexander IV and the late conqueror’s half-brother Philip-Arrhidaeus, are but figure-heads under the control of the army leadership.

The First War of the Diodachi is over. With the death of the Regent, Perdiccas, the kings are now in the hands of yesterday’s “rebels”; namely Antipater and his deputy, Antigonas Monophthalmus (“One Eyed”). Antipater is allied with Ptolemy, the nearly independent satrap of Egypt. Antipater and Antigonas now control the “Royal Army” that followed their erstwhile enemy Perdiccas on his ill-fated Egyptian venture, as well as the 10,000 men Antipater brought with him when he and the late Craterus (see Part 8) had crossed the Hellespont.

The now successful rebels have become the new government, and meeting at Triparadeisos in modern Lebanon reshuffled the administration of the empire. The “game of thrones” continues with new players taking center stage.

The Triparadeisos settlement began the dissolution of the Alexandrian Empire. While the process would take decades of struggle to decide, the empire would be ultimately divided into separate kingdoms. Antigonus had come out of the conference as the “big winner”. He had arrived at Triparadeisos  a refugee satrap dependent upon Antipater’s patronage. He had spent Alexander’s wars left behind in Phrygia, guarding the supply lines between Europe and Asia. Always a fringe player, Antigonas has now been given a starring role.

The settlement has elevated “One Eyed”  to the supreme rank of Royal General (strategos) of the army in Asia, and with that custodian of the kings and court. Antipater, however, retained the title of “Regent”, in theory inheriting the powers the late Perdiccas had wielded in the name of “the Kings” over the affairs of empire.  But the old man has never entertained ambitions in Asia, and is content to leave Antigonas to supervise the greater portion of the empire while he, Antipater, returns to his beloved Macedon. More importantly, the Regent leaves Antigonus to carry on the war against the last remaining lieutenants of Perdiccas:  Eumenes of Cardia in north-central Asia Minor, and Perdiccas’ own brother Alcetas ensconced in Pisidia. These and others of Perdiccas’ circle were condemned to death by a conclave of the army, enraged upon hearing of the death of Craterus.

Antigonus One Eyed, as depicted by Sean Connery, in youth and as he would appear age 62

Antipater appointed his son Cassander as Antigonus’ second-in-command in Asia (Chiliarch), likely with the intent of having someone he trusted close by to keep an eye on this now powerful deputy. Antipater might need Antigonus, but he recognized the fire of frustrated ambition that lay beneath the surface. Antigonus was useful, but not entirely trusted. Between Cassander close at hand and the appointments in western Asia of satraps loyal to himself, Antipater felt he could Antigonus in check.

Antipater had no idea what ambitions Antigonus harbored. At an age when most men are considering retirement, the sixty-two year old Antigonus entertained visions of ruling the empire.


After his surprising victory over Craterus, Eumenes of Cardia found himself in a peculiar position. On the one hand he had won a great battle and defeated the most renown of Macedonian captains. But this very victory, and particularly the death of Craterus, brought with it a death sentence by the Macedonian people, as represented by the army (the “Macedonian people in arms”) voting in their bivouac Egypt. Despite this Eumenes managed to keep his army together, despite no longer representing royal authority.

Eumenes marched in summer 320 BC to the borders of Lydia. There he planned to intercept Antipater upon his return march to Macedon. While waiting, he reached out to his friend, the princess Cleopatra, sister of Alexander the Great. Cleopatra was in Sardis, where she had gone the previous year to offer herself to Perdiccas. Eumenes came to gain her alliance, but the princess, mindful of the precariousness of his position now as the rebel against “lawful” authority, sent him away with entreaties not to involve her in a civil war between the Macedonians.

With this rebuke (however diplomatically and gently couched), Eumenes retreated east into Phrygia. There he resorted to the time-tested method of paying his army, by allowing them to loot the territories and estates of the local Persian lords and of his enemies, particularly Antigonus’; who had long ruled Phrygia from Celaenae.

He had promised to pay his army within three days, and as he had not money to do it, he sold them all the farms and castles in the country, together with the people and cattle that were upon them. 10 Every captain of a Macedonian company, or officer who had a command in the foreign troops, received battering engines from Eumenes; and when he had taken the castle, he divided his spoils among his company, according to the arrears due to each particular man.[1]

This proved popular with his troops, who were happy enough in the rebel camp if able to enrich themselves at the expense of the locals. Eumenes seems, by this and other means, to have gained the loyalty (at least for now) of his Macedonian troops. When papers were found among the looted estates of his enemies, showing that a bounty had been placed upon his head, promising “100 talents and great honors to the man who should kill Eumenes”, his army even decided to increase his security by nominating 1,000 of their number to make up a bodyguard, an agema, to guard his person day-and-night.

Eumenes attempted to unite the disparate remaining Perdiccan forces. Attalus son of Andromenes, brother-in-law of the late Perdiccas[2], was sitting in Tyre with 10,000 foot and 800 horse; and a portion of the royal treasury, some 800 talents, deposited there by Perdiccas on his way to Egypt. Like Eumenes and the rest, he had a sentence of death hovering over him, and every reason to join with what allies he could find. Eumenes reached out to Attalus, as well to Alcetas, the brother of Perdiccas, begging both to join forces with him against the coming storm.

Earlier that spring (320 BC) Alcetas had spurned a similar entreaty, when backed by Perdiccas command. Now he dismissed it out of hand. No doubt he considered himself the natural heir to Perdiccas’ authority, and was not going to take orders from a trumped-up Greek!

Alcetas’ forces in Psidia were soon reinforced by those of Attalus, who was forced to evacuate Tyre by the approach of Ptolemy, now busy adding southern Syria and Phoenicia to his domains without consulting with either Antipater or Antigonus. Attalus, who had the remnants of the Perdiccan fleet at his disposal, first landed in Caria; where he was quickly embroiled in a short and unsuccessful naval campaign with the Rhodians. Defeated by these redoubtable seamen, who in a century would be the premiere naval power in the eastern Mediterranean, he retreated into Psidia and united his forces with those of Alcetas’, placing himself under the latter’s command. Together they had a considerable army of 17,000. This, combined with the goodwill of the fierce local hill tribesmen, made their position formidable.

Had they joined with Eumenes, as a single “Perdiccan” force, they might have been more than a match for Antipater or Antigonus. Eumenes had some 20,000 foot and 5,000 horse, while Alcetas’ forces number 16,000 foot and nearly a thousand horse[3]. However, their cause was undermined by Alcetas’ stubborn refusal to work together.

In late autumn Antipater and Antigonus crossed the Taurus mountains and chased Eumenes from Phyrgia. Not without difficulty, for Antipater (who was still in over-all command) was criticized by some for failing to protect the lands of supporters from the depredations of Eumenes’ forces, nor to force the Greek to battle at a disadvantage, despite having a larger force. The Royal Army wintered in Phrygia (or perhaps Lydia).

The Regent payed a visit to Sardis, where he met with Cleopatra. A stormy interview followed, in which “the Old Rope”[4] upbraided the princess for her correspondence (and possibly meeting personally with) Eumenes, a condemned enemy of the Macedonian state. The daughter of Philip was cut from the same cloth as her famed, late brother; and as her mother’s daughter she gave Antipater as good as she got. After their fiery exchange, the Regent seems to have come away with a grudging respect for the princess, and they parted amicably.

In the spring of 319 BC Antipater and Antigonus parted ways. The old Regent was done with campaigning. It was now officially Antigonus’ job to bring the last of the Perdiccans’ to heel. Antipater gave Antigonas a considerable force with which to accomplish his military tasks. He would have 8,500 Macedonians and 70 elephants, most of Perdiccas’ former Royal Army, as well as many of the younger Macedonians who had accompanied Antipater and Craterus across the Hellespont. This would act as the core of his forces, which could be increased by local recruiting of native light troops and cavalry.

It should be remembered that the Royal Army which Antigonus now inherited from Antipater and Perdiccas did not include the unruly veteran Argyraspides (Silver Shields). These grognards had nearly lynched Antipater at Triparadeisos. Perhaps as punishment the Regent had sent them off to distant Susa, beyond the Tigris, under their commander Antigenes. This officer, one of the killers of Perdiccas, was as dangerous as the men he commanded. He was given the task of seizing the bullion contained in the royal treasury at Susa and bringing it to Cilicia, where it would be closer to the center of affairs and thus available to pay the costs of governance. At the same time this satisfied the demands of the Silver Shields for pay in arrears, as the old veterans could (it was assumed) fill their pockets from the treasury once they reached Susa. In any case, it got them away from the rest of the army, where they had become a source of disaffection and mutiny.

The Argyraspides (“Silver Shields”) on the march. These old “grumblers” were the elite Macedonian veterans who stirred-up discontent within the army. They were sent to Susa to collect the royal treasury there, and escort it back to Cilicia. This removed them from the game for the time being.

Much more would be seen of these dangerous rascals in the years to come. But for now, they were off of the playing board.

As he departed Antigonus for his return to Europe, Antipater made the decision to retain custody of the kings and royal court, and take these back to Macedon with him; instead of leaving them in Asia to lend official legitimacy to Antigonus’ campaign against “the rebels”. For only the presence of the kings in one’s camp  determined who was “rebel” and who was “royal”. This decision to keep the kings with himself and not leave them in Asia with Antigonus has been interpreted as a sign that Antipater was growing more suspicious of Antigonus’ ambition. That it was his son Cassander, who at this point resigned as Antigonus lieutenant in order to accompany his aging father back to Macedon, who warned him that Antigonus could not be trusted. Perhaps this is so, but another interpretation is possible.

Cassander,  portrayed by Jonathan Rhys Myers in “Alexander” (2004)

The Regent had to show his own legitimacy to rule, in the name of the joint kings, back home in Macedonia. Antipater had enemies, not the least of which was Alexander’s mother Olympias, lurking in Epiros and there ruling in all but name. With control of the court back in Pella, he could issue edicts as necessary directly in the king’s names. It is in fact surprising that Antipater ever entertained leaving these all important playing-pieces in Asia, in the hands of a potential rival as formidable as Antigonus.

Or perhaps Antipater, as reactionary as any old-timer could be, felt the place for a Macedonian king (or kings) was in Pella, ruling the Macedonians. He’d never had much use for Alexander’s grandiose vision of a world empire, and appears to have disliked being outside of Hellas for any length of time. Let Antigonus and younger men deal with the problems of ruling Asia. A proper Macedonian king needed to be in Macedon.

The 319 campaign against Eumenes began with Antigonus intriguing in the enemy camp, in an effort to detach from Eumenes some or all of his Macedonians. These efforts ultimately bore fruit, as will be seen. Then, after detaching a force to keep an eye on Alcetas and Attalus in Psidia, Antigonus followed Eumenes into Cappadocia with 10,000 infantry[5] and 2,000 horse, and 30 of his elephants. This was seemingly a bold move. Eumenes, even without Alcetas’ aid, had a larger force than that which Antigonus brought: some 20,000 foot (of which around 3,000 were Macedonians) and 5,000 horse. But Antigonus must have been confident that his efforts to undermine the loyalty of Eumenes officers had ripened. The events were to prove him right.

The first to succumb to Antigonus’ blandishments was an officer named Perdiccas, who commanded a detachment of 3,000 foot and 500 horse. These deserted and camped some three days from Eumenes’ main force; perhaps awaiting the coming of Antigonus’ forces. But Eumenes dispatched an intrepid (and loyal) officer, Phoenix of Tenedos, with four thousand picked foot-soldiers and a thousand horsemen. By forced march these fell upon the mutineers in the middle of the night, taking them unawares. Perdiccas and the other officers responsible for the mutiny were put to death. “But by distributing the common soldiers among the other troops and treating them with kindness, he (Eumenes) secured them as loyal supporters”.[6]

The armies met for a decisive battle at a place called the Orcynian fields. As stated earlier, Antigonus brought more than 10,000 foot soldiers, half of which are described as Macedonians “admirable for their hardihood”, 2,000 cavalry 30 elephants. In both arms he was outnumbered by Eumenes, who had 20,000 foot (3,000 of which were Macedonians) and 5,000 excellent cavalry. It was with his armored Cappadocian nobles that he won the fight against Craterus, and he likely expected the same outcome. The ground was well suited for a cavalry engagement, a broad and well-watered plain. But as the battle was joined, Antigonas’ intrigues paid dividends: Apollonides, commander of Eumenes’ cavalry, deserted to the other side. How many of Eumenes’ cavaliers followed him is unstated in the sources, but it was enough to turn the battle into a rout. Eumenes was forced to flee with but his closest supporters (including his cousin, the future historian Hieronymus of Cardia), leaving 8,000 dead on the field. Most of his army (including all the Macedonians) went over to Antigonus.

Eumenes is one of those heroic if tragic figures who occasionally grace the pages of history. In better times, dealt a better hand, he might well have proven one of history’s greatest generals. Here, faced with utter disaster, he still managed to find a way by his actions to win acclaim.

Circling back and around the tide of battle, he returned to the now deserted battlefield after the victors had moved on. There he gave the dead honorable burial, something that in ancient Greek warfare was the role of the victor. In this he robbed Antigonus of this satisfaction.

Afterwards, he fled to the fortress of Nola in the Cappadocian hills, dismissing all but a small and loyal force of his guards and friends.

This fortress was very small with a circuit of not more than two stades, but of wonderful strength, for its buildings had been constructed close together on the top of a lofty crag, and it had been marvelously fortified, partly by nature, partly by the work of men’s hands. Furthermore, it contained a stock of grain, firewood, and salt, ample to supply for many years all the needs of those who took refuge there. Eumenes was accompanied in his flight by those of his friends who were exceptionally loyal and had determined to die along with him if it came to the worst straits. In all, counting both cavalry and infantry, there were about six hundred souls.[7]

Antigonus soon followed. Before the siege lines were established he called for Eumenes to come into his camp and parlay with him. Dio suggests that Antigonus was even then, at this early date, contemplating independence from Antipater’s authority and was desirous of enlisting Eumenes as an ally. But his actions in the conference that followed make this doubtful.

Eumenes was mindful that he was under a sentence of death, and that Antigonus could execute him without further trial if he so desired, Eumenes insisted that a hostage be given first. After some negotiation, Antigonus sent his nephew Ptolemaeus into the fort as hostage.

Arriving in the Antigonid camp, Eumenes and “One Eyed” embraced. They had been well acquainted in the past and on friendly terms. “In the conference, which lasted a considerable time, Eumenes made no mention of security for his own life, or of an amnesty for what was passed. Instead of that, he insisted on having the government of his satrapies confirmed to him, and considerable rewards for his services besides; insomuch that all who attended on this occasion admired his firmness, and were astonished at his greatness of mind.”[8] In other words, even in defeat Eumenes would only accept peace with Antigonus (and Antipater) if on his own terms, restoring him to the rank of satrap of Cappadocia and the sentence of death against him and his friends lifted.

Antigonus demurred, saying Eumenes’ terms must be referred Antipater. (Had he been primarily interested in coming to terms and enlisting Eumenes’ services, he would no doubt have come to an accord without reference to Antipater.) The conference broke up and Antigonus was escorting Eumenes and his party to their horses when a crowd of soldiers, gathered outside, began to press inwards. This was the famed Eumenes, whose name was at that time on every lip. Fearing that some might want to do him harm for the killing of Craterus, Antigonus wrapped his arm around Eumenes’ shoulders and “called to them to keep at a distance; and when they still kept crowding in, ordered them to be driven off with stones. At last he took him (Eumenes) in his arms, and keeping off the multitude with his guards, with some difficulty got him safe again into the castle.”[9]

After this Antigonus laid formal siege to Nora. He drew lines of circumvallation round the place, “with double walls, ditches, and amazing palisades”[10]. Leaving sufficient troops to carry on the siege, Antigonas then departed west to deal with Alcetas.



  1. Plutarch, Eumenes; 8.9-10
  2. Attalus was married to Perdiccas’ sister, Atalantê. She was murdered in Perdiccan camp in Egypt following the assassination of her brother.
  3. Bosworth, A.B., The Legacy of Alexander: Politics, Warfare, and Propaganda under the Successors; Oxford University Press, p. 104.
  4. The term Olympias used for Antipater.
  5. As Antipater had given him 8,500 Macedonians, or approximately half of the phalanx available in Asia after the detachment of the Silver Shields to Susa; the additional 1,500 infantry likely comprised light-infantry skirmishers recruited along the way from local tribesmen, or mercenaries. For total numbers of Macedonians available to the Successors in 320 BC, see Bosworth, A.B., The Legacy of Alexander…; chapter 3.
  6. Dio, XVIII, 40.4
  7. Likely during the late days of Philip’s reign and early in Alexander’s, before Antigonas was left in Phrygia and the army moved on.
  8. Plutarch, Eumenes, 10.6
  9. Ibid, 10.7
  10. Dio, XVIII, 41, 6
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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In May 334 B.C. the 21 year old king of Macedon, Alexander son of Philip, led the army his father had bequeathed to him into Asia. While young, Alexander was already a proven and successful commander, prepared to begin his storied career as one of history’s greatest master of war and conqueror. But he would have to survive his first trial of arms against the forces of the Persian Empire, in what would prove his more perilous battle!

Philip II of Macedon made Macedon the leading power in the Hellas and a Balkan empire. Before being struck down by an assassin’s blade Philip forged a Hellenic alliance against Persia, revenge for the previous century of Persian aggression towards Greece. Philip raised his eldest son, Alexander, to lead in his footsteps. From his father Alexander had learned the arts (and sciences) of war and kingship, and so confident was Philip in his preternaturally gifted son-and-heir, he had entrusted Alexander with command of an army and the regency of his kingdom when Alexander was only 16 years old.

The boy had won his first victory in battle that same year, 340 B.C., leading the troops Philip had left him with against Thracian hill tribesmen of the southern Balkans. The prince also founded there a Macedonian colony, Alexandropolis; the first of the many eponymous cities he would leave in the wake of his conquests. Soon after his Balkan victories, Alexander rejoined his father and commanded the Macedonian elite heavy cavalry at the Battle of Chaeronea, where the southern Greek states were finally brought to heel and forced to accept Macedonian leadership.

Upon Philip’s death in 336 B.C. Alexander was proclaimed king by the Macedonian army. His first two years was spent securing his father’s gains. Campaigning successfully against the ever-restive Illyrians to the northwest of Macedon,  he then had to respond to a revolt by the allied Greek states to the south. Alexander responded by storming the most dangerous of the rebel cities, Thebesthe brutal destruction of which shocked the other Greek states into submission.

When Thracian tribesmen attempted to break his phalanx by rolling carts down hill into their ranks, Alexander had his men lay down and form a road of their shields over which these carts passed harmlessly. The phalangites then stood and, reforming, successfully continued the attack.

His base secured, Alexander marshaled his forces for the great enterprise his father had envisioned: a war of retribution against Greece’s ancient enemy, the Persians.


Alexander bid farewell to Macedon in 334, leaving Amphipolis in April at the head of an army of just under 37,000 men. Marching east along the northern Aegean coast Alexander arrived at the narrow Hellespont (Dardanelles), the narrow straits that separate Europe from Asia, in May. While the main body of the army was ferried across, Alexander and a picked guard sailed down the straits to Troy. As he came ashore he cast a spear, symbolically claiming Asia to be “won by the spear”. It was an ancient challenge, and it was now for the Great King, Darius III ,  to refute his claim.

After holding athletic games at Troy and sacrificing at the tomb of his ancestor and role-model, Achilles, Alexander rejoined his army and prepared to move against the Persians. South of the plain of Illium the rich Greek cities of the Ionian coast were barred to him by Mount Ida; whose passes were guarded by Persian troops. Learning that a Persian army awaited him to the east on the plains of Zeleia, Alexander decided instead to march northeastward; both turning the Ida position and seeking battle with this Persian field force.

This Persian army represented the forces of the local satraps (governors). They were commanded by an experienced Greek mercenary general, Memnon of Rhodes, appointed by Darius (who was still in distant Susa, one of the three Persian royal residences). Memnon knew well how formidable the Macedonians were in battle, and had urged the satraps to avoid battle and instead adopt a scorched earth policy. But jealous of Memnon’s promotion over them, these proud nobles disdained his advice as “cowardly”; and called upon him to stand and fight the invader.

Memnon’s army awaited the Macedonian’s advance at the River Granicus. Here the river was stony and its banks steep. Alexander would have to attack the Persians in a prepared and very difficult position. Arriving at the opposite bank, the Macedonian king and a small group of trusted officers surveyed the position of the Persian forces waiting beyond the river. Parmenio, the most senior of his generals, warned him of the difficulty of traversing a fast-moving stream, then fighting their way up a slippery river bank to gain the top, and of having then to defeat the superb Persian cavalry; for centuries acknowledged as the best horsemen in the world. All this while being showered with javelins by the defenders!

Despite these warnings, the headstrong young king ordered his soldiers to the attack. They would do so without hesitation, trusting Alexander and to their own skill in battle.


This army which followed Alexander to Asia had a special bond of trust with their young but immensely capable king. Alexander had grown up among these hard, proud men, who under Philip had seen victory over every foe from the Danube to the Gulf of Corinth. As a child Alexander had played in their barracks, mimicked their drills, and knew many of them by their names. He was their mascot, their touchstone, their “Golden Boy”. Cleitus the Black, who commanded the bodyguard squadron (ile basilikoi) of his elite Companion heavy cavalry, was brother to Alexander’s nursemaid, and had known him all of his life. There was a special familial bond between Alexander and his soldiers; and never in history has an army enjoyed a closer relationship with their general (and king), or he with them.

The iron core of this force was the superbly trained and experienced 12,000 strong phalanx, a force the like of which the world had never yet seen. Armed with the 15′ long sarissa, a heavy two-handed pike, these could advance rapidly in a variety for formations, presenting their foe with a bristling hedge of pikes[1]. This was the anvil upon which any foe would be broken.

Supporting the phalanx’s right flank, and forming a link between this and the cavalry, were the hypaspists. These were an elite force raised by Philip, in three battalions of a thousand men each (one of which was the Agema, the royal foot guards). A highly trained and versatile force, these could fight as fast-moving heavy infantry in open battle, or as elite light infantry in mountain terrain. The armament of the hypaspists has long been disputed by scholars; but this author believes they fought as pseudo-hoplites in open battle, armed with spear and aspis; and as an armored peltast in their light infantry role, utilizing spear and javelin[2].


Member of the Agema of the Hypaspists, the Macedonian Foot Guards

If the phalanx was the anvil upon which an enemy was broken then the hammer was provided by the 1,800 man “Companion” (Hetairoi) heavy cavalry. Comprised of the sons of the Macedonian nobility (as well as “new men”, adventurers who had come to Macedon in Philip’s time to find their fortune), these were among the best horsemen in the Greek world. Only the Thessalians could challenge their claim to be the finest cavalry in Alexander’s army. Armed with a 12′ lance (xyston), these were a hard-charging shock force,  despite riding with neither stirrup nor saddle (a notable feat of horsemanship,  seen also in the Comanche and Lakota of the North American plains).  Aside from the Companions, Alexander’s Macedonian cavalry included 600  prodromoi (scouts), armed like the Companions with a lance but lacking the full armor[3].


Companion cavalryman, member of the elite “ile basilikoi”, the Royal Squadron that acted  as the mounted bodyguard of the king in battle; distinguished by his purple-bordered yellow cloak

These Macedonian troops were augmented by allies and mercenaries from Greece and the surrounding Balkan tribes. Alexander had some  7,000 Greek allied heavy infantry hoplites, provided by the city-states of the allied league; as well as another 5,000 professional Greek mercenaries (hoplites and lighter “peltasts”).  For light infantry skirmishers he had 7,000 Thracian and Illyrian light infantry, mostly armed with light javelins; and 1,000 elite Agrianian javelineers and a matching number of Cretan archers, the best in Greece. The Macedonian cavalry were augmented by 1,800 superb Thessalian heavy cavalry, 600 allied Greek horse, and 300 Paionian and Thracian light horse.

This army, created by Philip and which followed Alexander to Asia, was a well-integrated combined arms force of cavalry and infantry, light troops and heavy. It also included engineers, surveyors, and surgeons, muleteers and grooms, saddlers and blacksmiths, armorers and weapon-smiths. Dismantled in the baggage train, ready to be assembled on site, was a superb siege train of bolt and stone throwing machines, as well as the parts hardware necessary for the rapid construction of siege towers and battering rams.

It was perhaps the first “modern” army in European history.


While surveying  Memnon’s forces drawn up along the opposite bank of the river, Alexander’s keen eye noted that in their deployment the Persians had made a fundamental mistake.

Image result for Alexander the Great at Battle of Granicus

The Persian army included in its numbers some 20,000 Greek mercenary hoplites. These had been recruited by Memnon from men who, like himself, were blood enemies of the Macedonians or their policies [4]. Drawn up in a deep-ranked phalanx and armed with long thrusting spears, these would have been the ideal troops to defend the river bank. But possessed of an excess of bravado and despising their Greek infantry as mere “hirelings”, the proud Persian nobles refused to wait in reserve and give “pride of place” to the Greeks. So again rejecting Memnon’s wise counsel, it was the Persian cavalry (numbering another 20,000) that waited upon the lip of the river’s eastern bank.

At charging and breaking an enemy cavalry has no peer. But horsemen are wholly unsuited to standing and holding ground. The power of the horseman lies in his mobility and the impact of the charge, and is hamstrung when asked to stand and receive one. Memnon would have used his Greek mercenary hoplites to stop Alexander’s assault, and once thrown back into the river and in disarray, to than counter charge and break them with his Persian cuirassiers. This likely would have been disastrous for Alexander, and perhaps fatal for both him and his future ambitions.

Fortunately for the Macedonians, Memnon was overruled by his arrogant subordinates.

Alexander leading the Royal Squadron across the river; artwork by Pablo Outeiral

Deciding immediately to take advantage of his enemy’s faulty deployment, Alexander ordered his forces to prepare for immediate battle, rather than make camp and attack on the morrow. Placing his heavy phalanx in the center, with light troops and cavalry on both wings, Alexander began the battle with a diversionary attack on his left. This was followed by a special assault force, commanded by an officer of the Companion’s named Socrates, composed of cavalry and light infantry, assaulting the Persian line on his right-wing; attempting to gain purchase atop the steep river bank.

With the Persian left-wing thus tied down, Alexander then crossed with the bulk of his Companion cavalry on the flank of Socrates’ force. The phalanx and his hypaspists also began to cross; but the nature of the terrain slowed their advance, and the battle was to be decided by cavalry alone.

The Persian horse was determined to throw the Macedonians back into the river; the Macedonians equally determined to gain purchase atop the bank. The Persian cavalry were armed with javelin and sword; while the Macedonian Companions were lancers. In the fierce fighting along the river bank, the longer reach of the Macedonian lance aided them in pushing back their Persian opponents. Fighting their way up the muddy embankment, the Companions gained the top, using their lances with both hands, like a pike, aiming at the faces of the their Persian opponents and driving them back. Once atop the far bank, the Macedonian squadrons began to expand their hold, spreading to the right.

4th century B.C. Persian “cuirassier”. Though well armored and superb horsemen, they only carried a javelin; and suffered in melee against the Macedonian cavalry with their 12’ long lances.  

Fresh Persian formations now charged Alexander’s force, where the young king was conspicuous in his silvered-helmet, adorned with three white plumes; fighting in true Homeric fashion in the front ranks. The young king and his immediate entourage suddenly found themselves assailed from all sides.

This Persian counter-attack was commanded by Mithridates, son-in-law of the Great King. Alexander speared him through, unhorsing and killing him. But while the king was so occupied, he was attacked from his blind side by a high-born Persian noble named Rhoesaces; who cut down at Alexander’s head (with sword or perhaps with a saddle axe), shearing away one of Alexander’s plumes, renting his helmet and delivering a wound to the king’s head. Though partially stunned, the King nevertheless turned and speared him through as well. At that moment a third noble, Spithridates, satrap of Lydia and Ionia and brother of Rhoesaces,  came up behind the stunned Alexander. It seems likely that these high-ranking Persians, much like the Duke of Alençon at Agincourt, had sworn an oath to slay the young king.  As he raised his sword to deliver what would certainly have been the death-blow, Cleitus the Black saved Alexander’s life (and changed history) by hacking off Spithridates’ upraised arm with a stroke from his razor-sharp kopis!

Stunned by a head-blow, Alexander is only saved from death by Cleitus the Black

Alexander’s heroic example no doubt fired his troops, who pushed the Persian cavalry back and soon routed them altogether. Memnon’s Greek mercenaries, bitter enemies of Macedonia to a man, were treated by Alexander as traitors to the Hellenic cause, and offered no quarter. Drawn-up on a hill, they were surrounded and killed.

This was Alexander’s first battle victory over the Persians. It would take two more, along with several hard-fought sieges, before Alexander would complete the conquest of the Persian Empire.  But Granicus was perhaps his most dangerous battle, one in which he took the greatest risks both tactically and personally. Though he was nearly killed on several other occasions, in none of his great battles was he so close to death as at the moment when Spithradates raised his sword.  Only Cleitus the Black’s timely intervention prevented Alexander III of Macedon from becoming a footnote in history: not “the Great”, but merely the vainglorious son of a great father!

For more, see Great Captains: Alexander the Great

And 25 Greatest Commanders of the Ancient World

And Diadochi, Macedonian Game of Thrones

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.


  1. For a more detailed examination of the Macedonian phalanx, and the Greek hoplite phalanx that opposed them as mercenaries at Granicus, read my article,  “Phalanx vs Legion: Closing the Debate“.
  2.  As stated, the armament of the hypaspists is hotly debated. Some have claimed that they were armed just as the pezhetairoi of the phalanx, with the sarissa; and that the distinction between the two was more one of role than armament. Certainly the fact that after the death of Alexander the veterans of the hypaspists, renamed Argyraspides (“Silver Shields”) at the time of the Indian campaign, fought in the Wars of the Diadochi as a phalanx, gives weight to this theory. But during Alexander’s battles, where in open battle their role was to provide the mobile link between the fast-moving Companion cavalry strike force and the phalanx, it seems highly unlikely that they were armed with the cumbersome sarissa. I would suggest that they likely fought as rapid-moving, spear-armed “shield-bearers” in the earlier battles, but were fully trained and capable of fighting as a phalanx. As these veterans aged, they were no longer fit to run about the battlefield as they did when young men; and instead took to fighting as more conventional phalangites (this by the wars of the Diadochi). This is a debate that will go on until the unlikely event that some more conclusive evidence, heretofore undiscovered, is revealed.
  3.  The prodromoi’s role as scouts and flankers would eventually be made redundant by the inclusion of Iranian and Dahae light horse into Alexander’s army following the conquest of Persia. By his Indian campaign, the prodromoi were merged into the Companion heavy horse; presumably being issued additional body armor.
  4. Both Philip and Alexander controlled the Greek city-states by supporting one political faction within the city against its rival. Philip patronized the oligarchical factions; while Alexander tended to support the democratic faction (at least in the Greek cities he liberated from Persian rule in Ionia). In all Greek cities under Macedonian domination (which were all of those north of Sparta, who obdurately refused to kowtow to Macedonian hegemony) anti-Macedonians were exiled. As nearly all Greek males of the property-owning classes were trained  to serve in the ranks of the city’s hoplite forces, these exiles tended to take up the profession of arms. Much prized in the Mediterranean world for their steadiness in battle and superior fighting quality, Greek hoplite mercenaries had become the infantry backbone of all later Achaemenid  Persian armies. During Alexander’s campaigns against the Darius, these Greek mercenaries were the most dangerous and committed foes he faced.


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On Good Friday, April 23, 1014 just north of Dublin a momentous and bloody battle was fought. At stake was the nascent unification of the island under its first true king, Brian Boru; and the future influence of the Vikings, who had settled and meddled in Ireland for nearly two centuries. The battle that resulted changed the course of Irish history forever!

The Vikings first began raiding Ireland in the late 8th century.  As throughout western Europe, longships crammed with veteran warriors bent on rapine and plunder descended on the coastal settlements and raided deep into the countryside, bringing death and destruction to the unwary inhabitants.

These Vikings were perhaps the first iron-clad, mailed warriors the Irish had ever encountered: the defending Gaelic warriors “had nothing to defend their bodies… save only elegant tunics, shields, and finely wrought collars”; who fought as light infantry in loose-formation.  By contrast, the Vikings were often veteran warriors, who fought in close order, “a solid, skillful, and firm rampart of strong coats of mail like a thick, dark stronghold of black iron with a battle-wall of gleaming shields around their chiefs.” [1]

1520416 (1).jpgIreland was a divided land, made up of warring clans and kingdoms, ruled by some 150 different petty kings. Though there was a High King who, in theory, exercised a position as primus inter pares (first among equals) over the other petty kings; his authority depended solely on the strength of his personality and the number of swords whose loyalty he could command. In a land so divided a relatively small numbers of aggressive Vikings were able to work great mischief, taking advantage of the lack of central authority and playing one Irish ruler against another. Norse settlements and fortified bases (longphorts) soon dotted the coasts and major river-ways. Limerick, Cork, Waterford, Wexford, and Dublin all began as Norse (or Danish) settlements. 

1520424.jpgThe Scandinavians came to Ireland not only as merciless Viking raiders, but as settlers; founding towns and trade centers along the coast and inland waterways. The greatest of these settlements, Dublin, is today Ireland’s national capital and greatest city.

Most of those who first raided Ireland were Norsemen (from Norway), who the Irish called the fionngaill (“fair strangers”), to distinguish them from the other nation of Vikings, the Danes or dubhgaill (“dark strangers”)*. The first great Viking lord in Ireland was Turgeis (Thorgis?). He arrived in 839, leading “a great sea-cast flood of foreigners into Eire, so that there was not a point (along the coast) thereof without a (Viking) fleet”. Turgeis raided deep into Ireland, attacking the chief religious center of the land, Armagh; where he drove out the Bishop, who fled with relics of St. Patrick. Turgeis established himself as lord of Dublin (the “Dark Pool”), previously a Christian ecclesiastical settlement but which now became a Norse military settlement. Dublin was perfectly situated at a ford of the River Liffey, and possessed of a fine harbor for trade and the anchorage of Viking longships.

Raging through the heart of Ireland, Turgeis took the monastery of Clonmacnoise; and placed his wife, Ota, in control. There she sat as a pagan priestess (völva or spækona), holding court and giving oracles from the high alter. Turgeis’ colorful career as Viking conquistador was short-lived, however. According to the Annals of Ulster he was captured in 845 by the Irish, and executed by drowning in Lough Owel.

However, his place as leader of the fionngaill in Ireland and king of Dublin was taken eight years later, in 853, by Olaf the White. Olaf shared the rule of Dublin and leadership of the Hiberno-Norse community with another Viking leader who arrived in Ireland around 870, Ímar (also rendered as Imhar in Irish sources).

This latter’s identity is a source of controversy, but some think him identical with the famed Ivar the Boneless, son of the legendary Viking leader Ragnar Lothbrok and sometime commander (along with his brothers) of the Great Heathen Army that invaded and overran much of England between 865 and 878. Mention of Ivar in England disappears from the record in 870, so it is theorized that he came to Ireland to take over leadership of Dublin.[2]

The connection between the Irish-Viking Ímar and Ivar the Boneless is not certain, but whoever he was Ímar/Ivar founded a royal line in Ireland: the Uí Ímair, or House of Ivar. This house ruled (at various times) much of the Irish Sea region, the Kingdom of Dublin, Munster, the western coast of Scotland, the Hebrides and some part of northern England (including York) from the mid 9th century till the 11th. 


In the shifting landscape of Irish politics these Hiberno-Norse soon became part of the regular fabric of intrigues and alliances; siding with one or another of the native petty kings in the island’s ceaseless internecine conflicts. So long as the Irish were divided, the presence of the “Lochlannach” would have to be tolerated till the arrival of a king strong enough to drive them out.

In the latter half of the 10th century, just such a warlord arose.


In 868 an obscure western Irish tribe, the Dál Cais, rose up under two brothers, Mahon and Brian mac Cennétig (sons of Kennedy) to oppose the Lochlannach in the western Irish kingdom of Munster. Fighting guerrilla war, the brothers defeated the powerful Viking lord of Limerick, Ivar (a descendant of the founder of the Uí Ímair) at the Battle of Selcoit. The brothers followed up their victory by sacking Limerick, wealthy stronghold of the Vikings on the River Shannon.

1520430.jpgIrish warriors traditionally wore little armor, in contrast to the Viking invaders.

Following this victory these two Dalcassian brothers spent the next eight years fighting rivals for the lordship of Munster. In 976 Mahon was captured and executed by a Gaelic rival.  Brian, who had been his brother’s commander, now took over the lordship of the Dal Cais. In two years, he avenged his brother’s murder at the Battle of Belach Lechta, in which his rival was slain and he assumed the title of King of Munster.


Thus began the career of Brian Boru (Bóruma), and his march along the path to greatness. For the next few years he extended his influence into the neighboring kingdoms of Leinster to the east and Connacht to the north. This brought him into conflict with Ireland’s most powerful lord,  Máel Sechnaill mac Domnaill (anglicized and referred to henceforth as Malachi), Ard Rí (High King) of Ireland and ruler of Meath.

From 982 to 997 these two powerful kings engaged in a war for primacy. During these campaigns, Brian proved a highly able strategist; utilizing both land and naval forces to achieve his ends. By 996 he had all-but conquered Leinster. The following year in 997, at a royal meeting near Clonfert, Malachi and  Brian made a truce.  The terms granted Brian rule over the southern half of Ireland, while Malachi retained the northern half and the title of High King.

The Leinstermen chaffed at being under the dominance of Munster, and within two years were in open revolt. Máel Mórda, king of the Uí Fáeláin of northern Leinster, joined forces with his  maternal uncle, Sitric Silkbeard, king of Dublin. First they turned upon and defeated Brian’s vassal,  Donnchad mac Domhnaill, the King of Leinster,  and imprisoned him in Dublin. Máel Mórda claimed his title. Dublin and Leinster now defied both Brian and Malachi of Meath. Brian and Malachi marched against the rebels, defeating them decisively at the bloody Battle of Glenmama on December 30, 999. As the rebel army fled the field many were slaughtered as Brian’s forces closely pursued. Máel Mórda allegedly survived the rout by hiding in a yew tree. To his enduring shame, he was dragged from its branches by Brian’s eldest son, the redoubtable Prince Murrogh (often rendered as Murchad), and taken captive. Sitric survived the battle and temporarily fled from Ireland. His brother, Harald Olafsson, was not so lucky, being one of some 7,000 to fall in the battle or the pursuit.

The following day, New Years Eve, 999, Brian’s army reached Dublin. They entered the undefended town, and on New Year’s Day, 1000 AD, Viking Dublin was sacked by Brian’s army. A great trading port, the plunder was rich indeed.

Brian stayed in Dublin for several months, settling affairs. Donnchad mac Domhnaill was freed and returned to the throne of Leinster (though he would be found an unsatisfactory client and would be deposed a few years later; and the ambitious Máel Mórda, swearing loyalty, was placed on the Leinster throne in his place). Sitric returned, after raiding in Wales, and was reinstated as king of Dublin. To seal the peace between he and his new overlord, Sitric was given Brian’s daughter Sláine to wife. King Brian, in turn, was wed to Sitric’s still-lovely and passionate mother, Gormlaith (called Kormlada in Icelandic sources). Sister to Máel Mórda, she had been married twice before: as a girl to Sitric’s father, the powerful Viking king of Dublin and YorkOlaf Cuaran; and, more recently, Brian’s erstwhile rival-turned-ally, Malachi of Meath. Divorced from the latter, she was now the bride of the most powerful warlord in Ireland.

The victory of Glenmama and capture of Dublin put Brian in an unprecedented seat. Never before had an Irish king been in the position of direct overlord of that city’s Viking king. In bestowing it upon Sitric (scion of the Uí Ímair, oft times rulers of Dublin since Ivar the Boneless) Brian had now set a precedent: that “the city’s Hiberno-Scandinavian ruler would hold his kingship from his Munster overlord” [3], a vassal and no longer independent. As for Brian Boru he was indisputably the strongest warlord in Ireland, eclipsing the power of his ally, Malachi of Meath, the High King.


In the following year, the arrangement between these two paramount kings and rivals broke down. His ambitions perhaps now goaded on by his new bride (Malachi’s ex-wife) Gormlaith, Brian marched against Malachi in the north. Despite setbacks, Brian was eventually successful. In 1002, Malachi surrendered his title of “Ard Rí“, High King,  to Brian. Unlike those who had held this title before him, Brian was unwilling to be merely “first among equals”; but instead to rule in fact as well as name. Continuing his military activities in the far north of the island, over the next nine years Brian systematically brought the proud  Uí Néill of Ulster to heal. By 1011, he was acknowledged by all the rulers of Ireland as their overlord.

Brian Boru was Ireland’s first true “king”. More, he was acknowledged by the highest religious authority in Ireland, the monastery of Armagh, as not just king, but Imperator Scottorum: “Emperor of the Irish”.[4]

But his position, so unique in Irish history, did not long go unchallenged.


Though he owed his throne to Brian, Máel Mórda of Leinster resented his brother-in-law’s dominance. His loyalty, tissue-thin to begin with, must have been further strained when Brian put off his sister Gormlaith as his wife. When his divorce from Gormlaith occurred is unknown; nor is the reason. But by 1011 she was back with her brother in Dublin, bitter towards her (ex?) husband. Her spite would play a key role in the events that led to the Battle of Clontarf.

While visiting Brian’s court at Kincora, Máel Mórda was observing a chess game between  Brian’s eldest son, Murrogh, and his cousin Conaing. The Leinster King advised the latter on a move. Prince Murrogh, tactlessly, reminded Máel Mórda that his advice before Glenmama had not been so sound; and further teased him about having been pulled from a tree after the battle. This insult was a goad no warrior would bear.

1520438.jpgA furious Máel Mórda stormed off, leaving the palace and riding for home without a word of leave to King Brian. Hearing of this, Brian sent a messenger to follow and bring Máel Mórda back. The Leinster king killed Brian’s messenger and rode on.

Retribution was now inevitable.

Back in own palace at Cill Chuilinn (modern Kilcullen) in Leinster, Máel Mórda might have reconsidered, given time to cool off, were it not for Gormlaith. Handing his sister the tunic he had worn at Kincora, he asked her to sew on a button that had fallen off.

Gormlaith took the tunic, and threw it into the fire. She then scornfully upbraided him, that he should take his kingship in vassalage of another (Brian); something their father and ancestors had never done! She reminded him that one day, perhaps soon, he would have to bend the knee to Brian’s son-and-heir, Murrogh: the very man who had so insulted him.

Máel Mórda now resolved to rebel. He went with Gormlaith to Dublin, where they incited her son Sitric Silkybeard to join them. The two joined forces for a second time, and spent 1013 raiding into Brian and Malachi’s territory. Brian responded by marching on Leinster and Dublin; Brian and Murrogh approaching by two different routes, ravaging their enemies territory as they advanced. In September, 1013, Brian’s army encamped at Kilmainham (now a suburb of Dublin), a mile from city; intending to blockade the land approaches to Dublin and starve the town into submission. But the attempt was unsuccessful, for the town could re-provision by sea. Brian’s army ran short of supplies first, and the High King was forced to withdraw before Christmas.

The rebels knew Brian would return again in the spring, and so undertook measures to strengthen their position. They sent to other disaffected princes, several of whom promised aid. But Dublin had been badly weakened by the defeat of Glenmama. To strengthen their numbers and aid their cause, they needed help from outside Ireland. Gormlaith convinced her son to take ship, and travel to the north of Scotland, where such help could be found.

1520451.jpgIn Orkney, Sitric met with the mightiest Viking warlord in the Western Islands, Sigurd the Stout, Jarl of the Orkneys. It was Yule, and Sitric joined the Orkney Jarl in feasting and celebration (recounted in Njals Saga). After which,  the two made a pact: For his aid, Sitric promised Sigurd lordship of Ireland, once they defeated Brian. More: his mother Gormlaith (despite her age, still a great beauty) would be given Sigurd for wife.

1521588 (2).jpgIt was in a Viking mead hall like this that Jarl Sigurd feasted king Sitric over Yule, 1013-1014

It should be remembered that events in Ireland did not exist in a vacuum. In neighboring England, Sveinn Forkbeard, King of Denmark,  had invaded with a large army and driven King Æthelred the Unready, descendant of Alfred the Great, from his throne. On Christmas Day 1013, while Sitric and Sigurd feasted in Orkney, Sveinn Forkbeard was crowned King of England as well as Denmark.

Across the north, Viking leaders like Sigurd took note: What such great Viking chieftains as Turgeis, Ivar the Boneless, and Olaf Cuaran had dreamed of seemed now, at last, within reach to any strong and bold enough to grasp it. Their star was in the ascendant: the day of the Northmen had come. What Sveinn Forkbeard had achieved in mighty England, could not Sigurd the Stout do in Ireland? Brian was an old man (chroniclers put his age at between 72 and 88 at Clontarf). Perhaps it was time to topple the “Emperor of the Irish” from this throne, and a Northman take his place.

Sigurd promised to be at Dublin with all his strength by Palm Sunday, 1014.

1520456.jpg Standing Stones at Orkney, stronghold of Jarl Sigurd the Stout.

With the Orkney Jarl’s pledge in hand, Sitric returned to Dublin. But when he conferred with his mother, Gormlaith, she was still not satisfied that he had sufficient allies to challenge Brian in battle. She told him that a fleet of 30 longships lay off the Island of Man. There he should seek the alliance of the two fierce Viking warlords who commanded this force, and offer them whatever it took to gain their aid.



* The Scandinavian element within Ireland in this period is sometimes referred to as Hiberno-Norse; or Hiberno-Scandinavian. Those of Dublin are referred to, alternately as Dublin-Norse, or Dublin-Danes. All of these are, to an extent, correct. There were both Danish and Norse settlers in Ireland; and the population of Dublin was very mixed. Though kingship changed hands from time-to-time in Dublin between various Viking leaders, the House of Ivar (Uí Ímair), which ruled Dublin for most of the Viking Age, may have descended from Ivar the Boneless; who was certainly a Dane. So Dublin-Dane is perhaps the most correct for the Vikings of Dublin. When referring to the  Scandinavian element in Ireland as a whole, whether Hiberno-Scandinavian settlers or “foreign” contingents, I shall herein use the catch-term “Viking”. Though not strictly correct (“Viking” means pirate or raider; and not all Scandinavian’s in Ireland at this time engaged in such activities), it will serve, for clarity’s sake.

  1.   Cogadh Gaedhel Re Gallaibh: The War of the Gaedhil with The Gaill
  2. Ivar perhaps took a portion of the Great Heathen Army to Ireland, strengthening the Scandinavian presence on that Ireland but weakening the Viking forces left to finish the conquest of England. That Wessex was able to withstand the GHA when Ivar’s brother Halfdan led it into that “last kingdom” of free English left in Britain may be a result of Ivar’s departure.
  3. Ailbhe Mac Shamhráin,  The Battle of Glenn Mama, Dublin and the High Kingship of Ireland: a Millennial Commemoration;  (Medieval Dublin, edited by Sean Duffy, 2001 pp53-64).
  4. “Scottorum” was the Latin term for the Irish.  Ireland was usually referred to in Latin as “Scotia Major”; while Scotland was referred to as “Scotia Minor”.


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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Palm Sunday, 1461: On a bleak, windswept Yorkshire plateau two Medieval armies clashed amidst a snowstorm; brutally hacking and slashing with sword, halberd and bill in what was to be the largest and bloodiest battle ever fought on English soil. It would prove to be a decisive battle in the dynastic struggle known to history as the War of the Roses.

The War of the Roses was a 30 year-long conflict between adherents of two branches of the ruling Plantagenet dynasty: the House of York, whose symbol was a white rose; and the House of Lancaster, whose device was a red one.

The roots of the conflict lay partially in the competing claims of these royal cousins and can be traced back to the overthrow of King Richard II by his Lancastrian cousin, Henry of Bolingbroke, Earl of Derby and Duke of Hereford; who took the throne as King Henry IV. While Henry was able to hold onto his usurped crown and pass it to his son, the heroic warrior king Henry V, the legitimacy of Lancastrian rule came into question in the reign of his grandson, Henry VI.

 The white rose of the Yorkists, the red of the Lancastrians.

Henry VI suffered from bouts of “madness” during which he was largely unaware of circumstances around him. He likely inherited this malady from his maternal grandfather, the French king Charles VI; whose reign (1380-1422) was marred by frequent periods of just such madness. Control of the kingdom during King Henry’s periods of mental infirmity was granted by Parliament to his cousin Richard, the powerful Duke of York.

Under English succession laws, York’s claim to the throne was superior to that of his Lancastrian cousin’s. As Protector of the Realm, Richard of York was too close to the throne for the liking of the adherents of the House of Lancaster, particularly the king’s wife, Queen Margaret of Anjou. When Henry temporarily regained his senses in 1454, the Lancastrians used the opportunity to call a new Parliament to which the Duke of York and his supporters were not invited. (In Medieval England, Parliament was called and dissolved by the King; and its members there at his invitation.) Not surprisingly, this Lancastrian Parliament stripped the Yorkists of their privileges. Armed conflict soon broke out, and in 1455 the War of the Roses began with the First Battle of St. Albans.

The battlefields of the War of the Roses

The fortunes of war shifted back and forth, the Yorkists gaining the advantage; until at Wakefield, in December of 1460, the Lancastrians ambushed Richard of York’s forces and killed both the Duke and his second son, Edmund of Rutland, who was only 17 year old.

The Duke’s eldest son, Edward of March, succeeded Richard as both Duke and leader of the Yorkist cause. Just over a month after his father and brother’s defeat and death, he routed a Welsh force led by Owen Tudor at Mortimer’s Cross. It was before this battle that Edward’s army beheld a meteorological phenomenon known as parhelion; in which the rising sun appeared to be flanked by two lesser suns and a bright halo. Taking this as a good omen, he adopted this symbol as his personal standard, the Sunne in Splendour.

Edward IV’s “Sunne in Splendour” banner

Despite the defeat of Richard Neville, the Earl of Warwick, by Lancastrian forces at the Second Battle of St. Albans , Edward was able to join up with Warwick in London. There, on March 4, 1461, Warwick proclaimed Edward king. (Warwick would ten years later break with Edward and once again proclaim Henry VI king. From these acts he came to be known as “The Kingmaker“.)

Yorkist soldiers, the “Sunne in Splendour” banner behind

The Lancastrian army, under Queen Margaret and her favorite, the Duke of Somerset, retreated to York, where their cause was strong. Curiously, despite so many Lancastrian lords holding titles in the south, they were detested south of the Midlands. Lancastrian loyalty was strongest in the north. Edward, then, led the Yorkist army north bringing the battle to the Lancastrians.

The Yorkists moved along three parallel routes: with Edward marching directly north; Warwick leading a group several miles west, covering the left flank of the main force; while John Mowbray, Duke of Norfolk marched to the east with orders to raise forces and rejoin Edward before the battle. Warwick’s group moved to the west of the main body, through the English Midlands, gathering men as they went. Warwick’s uncle, the very capable Lord Fauconberg, led Edward’s vanguard; clearing the direct route to York for the main body, led by Edward himself.

Bloody skirmishes occurred at Ferrybridge and at Dinting Dale in which the Lancastrians led by Lord Clifford attempted to harass the Yorkist’s advance. Clifford was a bitter enemy of the House of York. He was thought to have personally killed Edward’s 17 year old younger brother Edmund of Rutland after Wakefield; and was called “the Butcher”.  Clifford killed during the skirmish at Dinting Dale by an arrow; a blow to the Lancastrians, who lost a dedicated adherent and ferocious enemy of York.

The fight at Ferrybridge was a bloody prelude to what was to come at Towton

On March 29, Palm Sunday, under a glowering sky and amidst a snowfall, the armies of York and Lancaster met between the villages of Towton and Saxton, about 12 miles southwest of York and 2 miles south of Tadcaster.

The stage was set for what would become the largest and bloodiest battle in English history.

The numbers involved were impressive for any Medieval battle: the Yorkists alone numbered 48,660 according to muster rolls; though the number that actually deployed upon the field that morning was somewhat less, with as much as a third of the Yorkists under Norfolk not yet arrived. Thus the Yorkists began the battle outnumbered; their 25,000 to 30,000 facing Somerset’s estimated between 40,000 and 60,000 Lancastrians (the latter figure almost certainly an exaggeration). Total number of combatants likely numbered 80,000. Approximately three-quarters of the Peerage of England fought in the battle, with twenty eight Lords of the Realm present (the majority on the Lancastrian side, only eight fighting for the Yorkist cause). Skeletal remains found in a mass grave in 1996 near the battlefield showed evidence that the soldiers came from all walks of life, were on average 30 years old, and averaged 5’7″ tall, and very strongly built. Bone scaring shows that many were veterans of previous engagements.

Exactly what one would expect in a Medieval army!

Equipment and armor of a Man-at-Arms of the period.

Both armies were deployed largely on foot, even the knights (men-at-arms) sending their horses to the rear. The primary tactics of the War of the Roses had armies deploy in three “battles” (divisions), each composed of archers and melee-troops. Most men wore some armor, the knights being encased in fine plate armor from head to foot. Because of the ubiquity of good armor, the primary weapon tended to be the pole axe (halberd) or heavy bill. War hammers were also popular with the chivalry. The long sword was common to all soldiers, high-born and low.

Battles were usually preceeded by exchanges of arrows, followed by a fierce melee at close quarters. Sometimes a reserve of cavalry would attempt flanking maneuvers; though how seldom even such elementary tactics were employed throughout the war is striking.

The snowy battle ground, as it might have looked on the day of battle

The Lancastrians were the first to deploy. Somerset started the day in a strong position, on rising ground with his flanks protected where the plateau dropped off; most steeply on the western flank, where Cock Beck creek flowed in an S-shaped course around the west side of the plateau. This flank also had thick stands of woods growing up to the edge of the battlefield. Somerset took advantage of this feature to conceal a body of troops, ready to fall upon the Yorkist left once they were engaged.

The Lancastrian position was sound, and blocked the road to York. The only drawback was that the narrowness of the plateau didn’t allow the larger Lancastrian forces the opportunity to bring their numbers to bear against their enemy’s flanks. Nevertheless, Somerset (or his chief adviser, the turn-coat former Yorkist mercenary captain, Sir Andrew Trollope) was content to stand on the defensive, and force Edward to attack them in a brutal, frontal engagement.

View from Yorkist starting position. Across the low ground in the center is the high ground upon which Somerset’s  Lancastrian forces were deployed.

Edward’s forces took the field after noon; deploying as the snowstorm grew in bitterness. They took up position opposite the Lancastrians, just out of bow range; low ground separating the opposing forces. Their deployment took several hours, as stragglers continued to arrive. Norfolk was nowhere in sight, and would in fact arrive many hours after the battle began. Despite his troop’s fatigue after their long march to the battlefield, and his inferiority in numbers, Edward ordered his vanguard to begin the battle.

The Yorkist cause was well served in Edward’s vanguard commander, William Neville, Lord Fauconberg. With a change of wind now blowing the snow heavily into the faces of the Lancastrians, he ordered his archers (armed with the famed English longbow) to advance to range and loose a single volley. He then ordered them to retire.

Finding themselves under fire, the Lancastrian archers returned fire. However, as the wily Fauconberg foresaw, with the snow in their eyes and the wind in their face they blindly fired volley after volley; all falling 40 yards short of the Yorkist line! They loosed until their quivers were exhausted, leaving the ground in front of the Yorkist line a porcupine quilt of spent arrows.

Fauconberg now once again ordered his archers forward.

Drawing their heavy yew bows, they now loosed volley after volley of clothyard shafts. The wind in their favor, these fell in a deadly hail amongst the packed ranks of the Lancastrian forces. When their quivers were emptied, the archers gleaned the spent Lancastrian arrows littering the slope, and returned them to their sender!

As casualties mounted from this one-sided exchange, Somerset was goaded into leaving his strong position and advancing to the attack.

Fauconberg then recalled his archers, and though there is no clear record, it is safe to assume they continued firing over the heads of their comrades, into the melee that would soon develop.

Now came the main event, as the opposing lines clashed together in fierce and bloody close quarter combat. Edward and Warwick were everywhere, encouraging their outnumbered soldiers. The eighteen year old Edward was particularly conspicuous, 6’3″ tall and imposing in his splendid armor; the quartered leopards-and-lilies of the Plantagenet kings on his surcoat, the Sunne-in-Splendour banner waving above him. This striking young warrior-prince stood in stark contrast to his Lancastrian rival, King Henry, who was too sickly to even be on the battlefield!

As the two lines came together, a crises developed on the Yorkist left. There, the Lancastrian forces hiding in the woods above Cock Beck now sprang out and fell upon the Yorkist flank. That flank gave ground, and some began to flee in panic. Edward rushed to the threatened sector, rallying his soldiers and setting a personal example of valor in stopping the enemy’s progress.

The battle raged at close quarters for an exhausting three hours. Bodies piled so high that breaks had to be taken in order to remove the dead separating the combatants. The Lancastrians continuously threw fresh men into the fray and gradually the Yorkists were forced to give ground and retreat up the southern ridge. On their left they gave the most ground, so that the western end of the line was pushed furthest back, and the Lancastrian position now had its back to the steep slopes above the Cocks Beck creek.

At last, Norfolk arrived from the southeast, marching up the Old London Road, with the remaining Yorkist forces. These now joined the battle, pushing back the Lancastrian left. The Lancastrians fought on for a time, but momentum had clearly shifted to their opponents. Then, as happened in ancient and Medieval battles, the line suddenly gave way as men began to flee in panic.

Now the bloodbath began in earnest.

Fleeing Lancastrians were closely pursued closely by their vengeful Yorkists foes. Today, a low meadow on the western edge of the battlefield is known as Bloody Meadow in remembrance of the slaughter there. The fleeing Lancastrians tumbled down the steep slope of the Cock Beck, into the icy creek. Here and further north at the River Wharfe at Tadcaster, panicked and exhausted men still wearing their armor, plunged forward, and falling into the water, drowned. This continued until there were enough dead to form a bridge of human corpses, across which their comrades could cross. At Tadcaster a wooden bridge broke under the weight of the armed men, plunging many into the freezing water. At these crossing points, choked with refugees, the slaughter was greatest, as the congestion allowed the pursuers to catch those attempting to cross. At Tadcaster, 2 miles to the south, other Lancastrians, trying to hide in buildings and cellars, were hunted down and killed.

Cock Beck creek, where many Lancastrians drowned or were cut down attempting to cross.

Many apparently had thrown off their helmets as they ran, and the ghastly damage seen on the skulls recovered in mass graves show just what happens when poleaxe, war hammer or longsword strike naked heads. The number of wounds (one victim’s skull displays eight separate wounds) speak to the frenzy of killing that overcame the pursuing Yorkists.


From Bloody Meadow to Tadcaster the snow-covered fields were littered with bodies. The total dead were estimated by heralds to be 28,000; of which all but 8,000 were Lancastrian. The disparity in number of dead can be explained easily: in all pre-modern battles the worst casualties were inflicted during the pursuit of a defeated enemy.

Many of the great lords of the realm were either slain here or executed shortly thereafter. These included the Earls of Northumberland and Devon, Lord Dacre, and Sir Anthony Trollope. Another prominent Lancastrian, Lord Clifford, had been killed just prior to the battle, at the skirmish at Dinting Dale. The Lancastrian cause was decimated, and would never recover. Margaret, Henry and Somerset fled north to Scotland, while those Lancastrian lords who were not killed or dispossessed of their titles were forced to make peace and acknowledge their enemy’s leader as King Edward IV.

Edward’s reign (“the Sun of York”) would last 21 years. He would prove an able if not always wise king; his crown assured by Bloody Towton: a most sanguinary affair.


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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